Recognizing the "Widest Possible Difference"
What I have said respecting and against religion, I mean strictly to apply to the slaveholding religion of this land, and with no possible reference to Christianity proper; for, between the Christianity of this land, and the Christianity of Christ, I recognize the widest possible difference — so wide, that to receive the one as good, pure, and holy, is of necessity to reject the other as bad, corrupt, and wicked. To be the friend of the one, is of necessity to be the enemy of the other. I love the pure, peaceable, and impartial Christianity of Christ: I therefore hate the corrupt, slaveholding, women-whipping, cradle-plundering, partial, and hypocritical Christianity of this land.
As we continue Black History Month, I want to consider again the extent to which the Black church and Black Christians have profoundly shaped my understanding of true faithfulness (See my other article, The Prophetic Voice of the Black Church, for context). While there are far too many examples to name, Frederick Douglass is undoubtedly high on the list of influences.
The above words are a famous passage from the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave. With these words, Douglass––a formerly enslaved man who, in his freedom, became an abolitionist, activist, political advisor, educator, orator, author, and more––sought to clarify an anticipated charge against him: he was not a Christian as a result of his activism and critique of the church.
However, his critique of the Christian religion in the United States was not a critique of Christianity itself but rather a particular perversion of Christianity. Namely, his critique was of a Christianity that, at best, tolerated enslavement but more often advocated for it. His contention was with “Christian” men and women embracing what has proved to be one of the most egregious idolatries of history (and I do not mean that as hyperbole)––race-based, perpetual, chattel enslavement. Without a doubt, such a perversion of Christianity was one with the widest possible difference from Jesus.
There are, of course, many debates about how Christians should view, teach, and lead from this period of American history. There are also contentious debates surrounding our relationship with the unrepentant theologians, pastors, and leaders who engaged in or perpetuated such wickedness. While I have opinions about these topics, that is for another day.
For now, what I find essential about Douglass’ emphasis is his belief in true Christianity which gave him the confidence to confront the pervasive counterfeit of his day. His critique of the church and the Christians of his day was not rooted in animosity toward the church and Christians but rather a love for Christ. This reminds me of James Baldwin’s famous statement, “I love America more than any other country in this world, and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.” In some ways, the words of Douglass could be similarly articulated: “I love the Christianity of Christ more than any other, and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize the church perpetually.” I don’t know if he’d state it that way, but that idea resonates with me. A love for Christ and His church ought to drive us toward a confrontation of idolatry and wickedness amongst us.
That said, I recognize many agree. Most pastors, preachers, and Christian leaders recognize the need to confront idolatry. In many ways, the very calling of pastors, preachers, and Christian leaders is to encourage people to turn from their idolatry and toward Jesus. But as history reveals, and as Douglass points out, we can claim to be against idolatry yet be blind to the pervasiveness of it in our lives. We can be so concerned with defending our theological heroes, church traditions, approaches to ministry, and more that we do not “recognize the widest possible difference” between our brand of Christianity and the Christianity of Christ.
And I say this not as one who believes himself to have transcended such failing. Spirit of God help me, should I ever believe myself free from such failures. However, the question for us all is how are we regularly ensuring we miss not the idolatry that might present in our lives? How are we ensuring that what might start as a blind spot does not lead to complete blindness? How are we ensuring we continue believing and not succumbing to unbelief?
Idolatry as Unbelief
In his book Christ at the Gate, Orlando Costas, another man committed to confronting injustices perpetuated by Christians, argues that sin is disobedience, injustice, and unbelief. As he unpacks sin as unbelief, he makes the case that “faith is an ethical question, not an intellectual one” (24). That is, faith is more than an assent to ideas but is also a lifestyle reflecting those ideas. This, of course, is reflective of James’ words, “You believe that there is one God. You do well. Even the demons believe—and tremble!” but “...faith without works is dead also.” (James 2:19,26).
Costas goes on to say,
“[Faith] is commitment substantiated in daily life. To believe in God is to do God's will. Not to believe is to refuse to follow God's precepts. This refusal results from what Paul calls being ‘futile in their thinking’ and having their ‘senseless minds darkened’ (Romans 1:22), which prevents people from being consistent with themselves as they see God's glory reflected in their surroundings but do not honor God.” (24)
We should never take lightly that we can succumb to futile thinking and, while we see God’s glory around us, not honor him. We should never take lightly the reality that we can claim a belief in Christ yet reject him in our actions, perspectives, and attitudes. We should never take lightly that we can even do miracles in the name of Jesus and, in the end, hear him say, “I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!” (Matthew 7:23). How then can we ensure we regularly confront our idolatry so we might not go astray?
First and foremost, such confrontation comes from the Word of God revealed to us by the Spirit of God. And as Costas notes, “Not to believe is to refuse to follow God's precepts.” However, as we have seen time and time again, while the Word of God is “profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:15–17), and “His divine power has given us everything we need for a godly life through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness.” (2 Peter 1:3), we also know the Christians of Douglass’ day believed those passages. Yet, despite their belief that God’s Word is their source of Truth, they still produced “the corrupt, slaveholding, women-whipping, cradle-plundering, partial, and hypocritical Christianity of this land.”
This brings me back to where we started with Douglass. We are in constant need of disentangling the idolatry of our day from faithfulness revealed in God’s Word. This disentanglement is what Douglass was demanding of the Christians in his day, and it is still very much a demand made of us today. We would be egregiously wrong to assume we have moved on from such syncretism––the weaving together a worship of God with the gods of our day. There are always new heresies promoted by false prophets, knowingly or unknowingly, seeking to create the “widest possible difference” between our cultural Christianity and the Christianity of Christ.
Assessing Our Idolatry
How, then, can we rightly assess our own propensity toward syncretism? First, we must resist thinking about the idolatry we see in others before deeply assessing our own (See “A Missionary Encounter with Ourselves,” for a recent reflection). And that includes both the historical and contemporary idolatry of our church traditions. I do not think we take Jesus' command seriously enough to remove the plank from our own eye before addressing the dust in the eye of another.
Second, we can learn much about our idolatrous tendencies by assessing the areas the Bible often addresses: money, sex, and power. In a recent sermon at our church, Redeemer East Harlem, I was preaching out of 2 Peter 2:1-10. In the sermon, I attempted to show how Christians, as people of Truth, will never fully align with worldly categories and perspectives on these topics. The Christian views on money, sex, and power will sometimes make us seem extremely conservative and, at other times, extremely progressive.
That is, for example, a Christian perspective on sex––one that takes seriously God’s good design of sex being between one man and one woman in the context of marriage––will be viewed as oppressively conservative by some. But when Christians are faithful to the Bible's perspective on money and power––one that takes issues with a capitalistic system that rewards an obsessive pursuit of money and places the most power in the hands of the wealthy––they will be viewed as aggressively progressive by others.
For the Christians of Douglass' day, they allowed grievous injustices because of their idolatrous perspectives on money and power. Enslavement was a self-serving pursuit of both. And in addition, viewing sex as a self-serving pursuit of pleasure––one that interwove with idolatrous views of power––also led to grievous sexual perversions and injustice as well. While, on the one hand, we thank God for the dismantling of enslavement in our country, on the other hand, we must recognize the foundations of enslavement remain. We have certainly not progressed beyond seeing money, sex, and power as tools of self-service.
In sum, our perspectives on money, sex, and power can quickly reveal the extent to which we hold to the Christianity of Christ or if we have again allowed “the widest possible difference” between Jesus and our current religion. So, where are the areas we need confrontation? Where have we fallen for the heresies promoted by the false prophets of our day? And do we have courage and faithfulness to bring ourselves under submission to Christ so that we might honor him in our conduct and lives?
I will close with this thought, Douglass’ critique, which undergirds my belief that because I love the Christianity of Christ more than any other, I insist on the right to criticize the church perpetually. This critique and desire to assess our failures is not cynicism or troublemaking, accusations made against Douglass, but instead, they are rooted in a deep love for Jesus and His Church. I am a reformed Presbyterian, so while I might have many perspectives and critiques of other leaders and other church traditions, in the spirit of Matthew 7, I want to ensure that I am most critical of myself and my tradition. And because I love Christ more than any other, out of love for Him and His Church, I pray the Spirit of God keep me from ever allowing the “widest possible difference” because of my inability to see the idolatry pervasive around me in and in me.
May the Spirit of God make it so!