BAPTIZED CYNICISM by Matthew Ruszynski
Rev. Matthew Tuszynski
I’ve never read the ‘Left Behind’ series, but I grew up around the time it was most popular. That meant that, even without reading so much as the first page of the first book, I already knew most of the major plot points just by virtue of being around people who were entranced by the books. If you are old enough to remember the 90’s and early 00’s (and I still haven’t fully processed the fact that some of you reading this might not be), you’ll already be familiar with the eschatological hysteria of the period. It’s a hysteria that had been building since World War I, but something about the turning of the millenia, and some nonsense about the Aztec calendar that was all over the History Channel for some reason, got a good portion of the populous to believe that any moment now we’d live through that ‘empty clothes left where my husband/wife/brother/second-cousin twice removed was sitting just a moment ago’ scene from those novels.
That hysteria imbued much of western Christianity with an almost Gnostic nihilism about the physical world and its problems. Somewhere along the way the phrase ‘in the world, but not of the world’ was spawned, and it’s become such a fixture in Christianese that we sometimes forget that no such phrase appears in the scriptures. There are two near analogues; the first is John 17:16–18 (NASB95) 16“They are not of the world, even as I am not of the world. 17Sanctify them in the truth; Your word is truth. 18As You sent Me into the world, I also have sent them into the world.” Which is part of a larger prayer in which Jesus asks the Father for safety and unity for His disciples because He’s sending them into the world. In turn, that prayer is the cap on a larger discourse in which Jesus describes the task He’s sending His disciples to do; namely to Love one another, to continue His work, and to keep His commands. Jesus’ work and commands include healing the sick, feeding the hungry, advocating for the poor and the ostracized. In other words, where the phrase ‘in the world but not of the world’ is typically used to excuse Christians from the need to engage with the world and its problems; the context of the scripture it’s most likely ripped from is a call for the Father’s protection precisely because Christians are called to engage with the world at its problems.
The second possible passage the phrase could be sourced from is 1 John 2:16 (NASB95): “16For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the boastful pride of life, is not from the Father, but is from the world.” And here as well, there is not exactly a one-to-one migration from ‘lust, and pride are not from the Father’ to ‘I’m just living here temporarily, I shouldn’t contaminate my immortal soul by getting involved with the physical problems of this life’.
What’s worse is, after about 2012, the eschatological hysteria temporarily cooled off a bit (that tends to happen when the date the world is definitely going to end on comes and goes without anything out of the ordinary happening), leaving only that escapist, ‘not my problem’ sentiment behind without even an excuse for it. That means that on any given Sunday, walking into any church at random will land you in a room that’s at least partially occupied with people who are eagerly awaiting their own deaths, because if they can’t escape through the end of the world, then death is all that’s left. Is it any wonder that our churches too often feel more like morgues than houses of praise? Then, as Covid-19 rocked the world, the obsession with the end rebounded with renewed energy as it fed on that neglected need for escape, and our pews became filled with such morbidly fatalistic statements as “I trust God to heal me, but even if He doesn’t, it just means I get to go to Heaven sooner.”
The grotesque dismissal of pain and suffering in the lives of those around us framed as being the obvious result of faith in God should be so self-evidently wrong that no one would ever dare utter such a phrase. Yet, here we are. And if you accept the premise that this world is supposed to crumble and die soon, it even makes a (albeit reprehensible) sort of sense to be so blasé about suffering on this scale.
But friends, hear what else John had to say in his first epistle:
14We know that we have passed out of death into life, because we love the brethren. He who does not love abides in death. 15Everyone who hates his brother is a murderer; and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him. 16We know love by this, that He laid down His life for us; and we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren. 17But whoever has the world’s goods, and sees his brother in need and closes his heart against him, how does the love of God abide in him? 18Little children, let us not love with word or with tongue, but in deed and truth. [1 John 3:14–18 (NASB95)]
John leaves no room for doubt that the problems, the suffering, the needs of this physical world are indeed ours to bear. He quotes Jesus when he says ‘Everyone who hates his brother is a murderer’; and if we go back and look to see who Jesus thought we should view as our brother, we come up with the parable of the Good Samaritan (yes, technically about who we should consider our neighbor, but the concepts of ‘neighbor’ and ‘brother’ have a lot of lexical overlap in Jesus’ usage of the phrases). In that parable, Jesus takes a figure that elicits a strong, negative set of emotions from his audience, and rather than just saying ‘that person you normally hate is your brother,’ Jesus goes a step further and casts the Samaritan as the hero of the story; the only person who truly got what it meant to love his neighbor as himself.
Going even further, there’s a reason that one of the first books most heretics want to toss out of the bible is the book of James, and it’s because James doesn’t mince words about the kind of faith demanded of us: James 2:14–17 (NASB95) “14What use is it, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but he has no works? Can that faith save him? 15If a brother or sister is without clothing and in need of daily food, 16and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and be filled,” and yet you do not give them what is necessary for their body, what use is that? 17Even so faith, if it has no works, is dead, being by itself.” Faith in Jesus that doesn’t lead us to address the immediate, physical needs of others is not faith at all.
One of the knock-on effects of this obsession with the end, and need to escape in Christian circles has been an increased readiness to ‘otherize’ those who don’t fit into our ever smaller understanding of who gets to go to heaven when the dust settles. And on a related note, in part thanks to the Left Behind series, many in our churches are forever on the lookout for some government figure, institution, or group of people that might fit the bill of ‘the Antichrist’; the description given by the Tim Le’Haye books, not the one in the actual bible. So that cynicism towards the value of life on Earth has spilled over into cynicism towards the potential that those outside our small circle might actually have good intentions. Every politician, every scientist, every doctor, every journalist, every preacher either says exactly what we want to hear, or they are an automatic candidate for the Antichrist and their faithful.
That sentiment was once fairly easy to brush off as just the impassioned politics of a few on the fringes of Christianity; but over the last year and a half the consequences of not addressing and admonishing that isolationist, exclusionary, cynical outlook have grown too great to be ignored. Two phenomena highlight, but don’t completely encompass, those consequences: the January 6 riots fueled by conspiracy theories (many of which originated in, or were disseminated by churches), and the demonization of doctors, nurses, and other medical professionals in the midst of a global pandemic.
On January 6th of this year one of the worst homegrown terrorist attacks ever committed in U.S. history took place. Few sights have sent more chills down my spine than the image of flags declaring ‘Jesus is King’ being carried by protestors chanting for the execution of the vice president of their own country, who was also a member of their own political party. Watching these people who so desperately wanted the TV cameras around them to know that they were Christians, marching into the capitol building with the intent of harming law makers (or worse) because they had got it in their heads that the Antichrist was pushing ‘God’s man’ out of power; words fail to describe the churning in my chest that was part grief, part disgust, part anger.
And all this happened in the middle of a once-in-a-century pandemic. By the grace of God and the prevenient work of the Holy Spirit, we were in a position where we already had a well researched technology for expediting the process of creating and mass producing a vaccine for a novel virus like Covid-19. As a result of that technology, not one, but three vaccines were tested and approved for use in the U.S. in a matter of months; where had it not existed, the process may have taken years. It’s the sort of mysterious set of coincidences that points us through natural revelation to the reality of a Creator who’s actively working in the midst of the chaos of our world to bring us hope.
And yet, the number of times I personally have heard Christians attribute the development of these vaccines to the devil, or claim that the medical researchers responsible for them are in league with Satan is staggering. Claims have been made that taking vaccines, and wearing masks, things that are meant to protect the health and safety of our neighbor, somehow conflict with Christian values. But I want us to think back to the deep skepticism the Pharisees held towards Jesus and His ministry and methods.
The cynicism of the Pharisees of Jesus’ time is not terribly dissimilar to the cynicism of American Christianity in our time. They were cynical of their Roman occupiers, cynical of their own national leaders, cynical about the moral and mental capacity of their fellow countrymen, and above all, cynical about the motivations of anyone claiming to work for God who didn’t think and act the way they did. And because of their cynicism, they were blinded to what God was actually trying to do around them; and to the repeated opportunities they had to be a part of that work. Being so cynical, expecting to see Satan around every street corner, holding eradicable skepticism towards the motives and capacity for good of everyone we have a disagreement with; we cannot, as good Wesleyans, declare out of one side of our mouths that God is at work in all people through the prevenient grace of the Spirit, and mutter derogations and damnation out the other against all peoples other than those who share our interpretation of scripture, our politics, and our way of doing things.
Ultimately, when we speak of eschatology, and the coming ‘Day of Judgement’, or elsewhere ‘Day of the Lord’, our conversations should be framed around what we know for certain of the last time that day came and went. Because the last time God passed judgement on the Earth, He bore the weight of that judgement on himself in order to bring new life into, that is, to resurrect the physical world which He loves and knows can be good again as it was back on the first page of the Bible. The coming Day of the Lord looks forward to the full and final resurrection, the completion of the work begun in Christ and offered to His church through the baptism and indwelling of the Holy Spirit.
Treating this world, the people on it, the problems in it, as transient and disposable, belie an unbelief at the core of our beings. It reveals that we don’t really believe in the resurrection, or the hope for new life. Eagerly awaiting death denies that death is the final enemy that must be defeated, and instead inducts death into our sanctuaries as an honored guest and friend. Seeing nothing but Satan around every corner blinds us to the work of the Holy Spirit. Cynicism is the enemy of faith, hope and love; and faith, hope and love are the hallmarks of true Christianity. Cynicism cannot be baptized for use in the church, because it is diametrically opposed to everything Christ desired for the church to be, and at its core it denies the reality of prevenient grace working in the world even now towards a day when all things will be made new.