Let’s begin by acknowledging that nominal allegiance to Jesus Christ is good for nothing, and that Christian In Name Only is no better than any other kind of -INO. The demands of Jesus Christ are total, and this means that radical discipleship is the only option open to those who want to walk in obedience. “Come, follow me,” He said. He did not ask for us to give Him a polite head nod from time to time.
But once we have turned our backs on lethargic or nominal Christianity, there are still some significant hazards. A Christian walk that is “all in” can be radical in significantly dangerous ways. The biblical call is to be obedient, not to do a bunch of things that zealous but disobedient hearts would like to call obedient.
Parse it out this way. The claims of Christ are total, but what happens when we submit to those claims? There are two basic conceptions of what should follow such a surrender, and both claim the authority of radical discipleship — but only one of them really is. One has no trouble celebrating Memorial Day, and the other has real difficulty with it. Guess which one I think is true.
One views the claims of Christ as a solvent, and the other views them as a glue.
The former sees love in the same context that all unbelieving thought does, which is zero sum thinking. More in this direction necessarily means less in that direction. More love for Christ means less love for my neighbor. And since Christ demands it all, the things of earth grow strangely dim in the light of His glory and grace. This can be made to sound very pious, and sometimes it is pious in spite of itself. But the long term logic of this understanding will out. Zero sum thinking leads inexorably to sentimentalism, socialism and sodomy.
The latter sees love in a strikingly different way. The more I love Jesus Christ the more I am able to rightly love my wife, my parents, my children, my neighborhood, my nation, my people, and my history. And this is why a sold-out Christian can participate in Memorial Day activities, remembering it the way he ought to.
One kind of radical Christian follows the demands of Christ in such a way as to increase contempt or disdain for all earthly allegiances. This is the solvent approach. The other kind causes all such bonds to deepen. This is the glue approach. But because it is a radical approach to the words of Jesus, it insists that everything be glued together in the right order, but it also insists that they be glued together. I have no authority to separate God from my neighbor.
“And to love him with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the soul, and with all the strength, and to love his neighbour as himself, is more than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices” (Mark 12:33).
Notice how this provides a complete contradiction to zero sum thinking. Jesus says that we are to love God with everything we’ve got — all the heart, all the mind, all the soul, and all the strength. Having given it all away, how are we supposed to love our neighbor? In a zero sum world, nothing is left. But in the world God created, the more you give away, the more you have to give away. Further, if your bond to your family and nation are rightly ordered, that is the way we are to show our love to God. How can I love God, whom I have not seen, when I don’t love my brother whom I have seen (1 Jn. 4:20)?
Now I want to put this in a way that I will expect will set off all kinds of spiritual alarm bells. But that’s all right — I’ll explain it afterwards. I am speaking here to my fellow countrymen, and so I will put it to you this way. If you don’t love America, you don’t love Jesus. And this is the point when the red lights start blinking furiously, and the klaxon alarms all go off.
Somehow it sounded better when I said that if you don’t love your neighbor you don’t love Jesus. That is because the idea of “neighbor” has become an ethereal floaty thing, wafted above our heads on the hot air provided by numerous sermons. America is concrete. America has faults. America has great sins. America has a history. America is right here next to me. America . . . is my neighbor.
Now going back to my first paragraph, I grant that there are many who would say amen to my crazy sentiment, and they would do this because they are idolaters, and that is a wicked thing to do. Idolatry is bad, and you never heard anything different from me. The idolatry of American civil religion is particularly atrocious, but it is not aiding and abetting such idolatry to set disordered loves back in their right order.
The misguided radical approach wants to take these disordered loves and throw them all away. But that leaves us loving our imaginary neighbors here in Gnostictown, where everyone up and down my whole street is clean and pure.
It’s all in Niebuhr — bless me, what do they teach them in these schools?