On the table, alongside my coffee, sat American Grace. This fantastic book on the American religious experience was being utilized for research purposes. I knew something was awry when a gentleman strolled by, slowing as he passed.
“Is that a good book?” he asked.
“Yes. It is,” I answered quickly. My brief response was not enough to sway him from my table. He continued the conversation, and admittedly I did too. Ah, the price for being nice.
Soon enough we arrived at the fact that Christian churches aren’t as powerful as they once were. They don’t hold cultural power or dominance, at least within the country as a whole. This couldn’t be because of what was argued in American Grace, namely that the era of growth in the 1950s was an outlier, not the norm.
Instead, he argued we were a damned nation, a country corrupted by those that did not bow to Jesus. I asked, knowing the answer, if only Christians were capable of good? Could it be that Christians were also responsible for harm? This, wasn’t the case, he assured me. Quoting the ol’ Gospel of John he said, “…and you will know the truth and the truth will set you free.”
This isn’t the first time that I’ve heard this passage quoted. In fact, for many fundamentalists this is a go-to scripture for anything that ails the secular/sinner/not-agreeing person. Unfortunately, this textually rich passage in the Gospel of John has become the Cliff’s Notes version of Fundamentalist theology.
Fact is, I know the truth.
I know the truth about child hunger.
I know the truth about institutional racism.
I know the truth about the state of education in America.
When Jesus offered liberation through truth it wasn’t a golden ticket absolving people of responsibility. Instead, it’s liberation from participating within the power structures of the world. It’s liberation from propagating policies and ways of life that condemn rather than, truly, set people free.
Christians across the globe have become so concerned with making sure people know the truth about Jesus that they forget what that truth provokes. Love for the neighbor becomes sublimated to a concern about recognizing truth. They remained entombed in the truth of power, rather than the liberation of love.
So, there I was, being told that the truth will set more people free. I was being told that churches aren’t preaching that anymore. In the way he meant it, I couldn’t agree. Too many make professions of faith in Jesus all that’s necessary.
On another level he was absolutely correct: too few churches preach the liberation into love that Jesus offers. Too many fail to offer liberation into a way of life that seeks wholeness and peace, rather than division and hate.
In the moments after his quoting of scripture to me I searched for the best way to express what I thought. Instead of telling him, I asked him, “What does your truth call you to do? Does it love all, serve the poor, and seek peace?” Unfortunately, there was not “Aha!” moment, no immense conversion moment. Rather there was silence. I thanked him for his time, and left before he could respond to my question.
To believe in the truth is one thing. To accept it’s liberation and invitation to live it out in radical hospitality and love in another. Indeed, if only more churches preached it.