Christianity Can’t Save the World (Yet)

But It Might Help You

Todd Brewer / 8.11.21

In an article for the Guardian, Oliver Burkeman noted that “there are two main kinds of suffering”: the kind that derives from “power disparities” that reflect the social inequalities and prejudices, and the kind of suffering that simply comes with “being a finite human.” One suffers because of the actions of others (however distant) and also because suffering is endemic to life. We are born into an imperfect world fraught with oppression and are ourselves imperfect, programmed, it seems, for broken relationships and misguided aims. Burkeman contends that both kinds of suffering are worth our attention, but that “we increasingly talk as if the second kind barely counts, or doesn’t even exist — as if everything that truly matters were ultimately political.”

The technological gift of worldwide communication has densely woven the fabric of social life on a global scale. Whether it be murder hornets in Portland, elections in Hungary, or the latest climate report from the U.N., our news feed puts the “doom” in doom-scrolling. The prolonged pandemic has only further pushed our interaction into digital forms, where the angriest voices speak the loudest to like-minded followers.

There is an increasing belief that all aspects of life can and should exclusively be understood as exercises in larger social power dynamics — as if we are all caught within a live taping of Game of Thrones or House of Cards. Reducing the complexity of our humanity in this way belittles the struggles of daily life, making them seem inconsequential, if not distractions from the real problems. The woman who has lost her job just before taking maternity leave has suffered from the kinds of systemic forces that make the news, but there are further sufferings beyond the immediate financial impact. An unjust loss is still a loss and the loss of a job can make one feel insignificant and adrift. Add to that the stresses of pregnancy, and no number of well-wishing allies can pull her out of the hole she’s been pushed into.

When it comes to the anxieties and fears that more directly affect people’s overall wellbeing, the church has a tendency to miss the trees for the forest. Social forces are real — and worth discussing — but I’ve sat through far too many services where the concerns and prayers offered to God consisted exclusively of the latest headlines an algorithm chose to keep them reading more. Sermons tend to follow the same pattern, reflecting the same media saturation with all the urgency of an old fire and brimstone preacher of yesteryear. If the theologian Karl Barth exhorted pastors to read the newspaper alongside the Bible,[1] there is a tendency today to both read and preach from the newspapers.

It sometimes seems as though the significance of Christianity depends upon its ability to offer comment on social issues. To show that its faith is relevant for modern times, it must tap into the political market and chase the latest headlines with boldness and conviction. If the church isn’t at the vanguard of social action in the world, then it must have fallen behind, forgotten by the world. For all the intended good that is accomplished, there is little room or even desire to address the universal suffering that comes from simply being human.

Against the backdrop of our time, the emphases of the New Testament appear strangely countercultural. Jesus was once brought a newspaper (so to speak) with the shocking headline that Pilate had massacred Galilean insurrectionists. The tragedy gripped the region in fear and outrage. Jesus was asked for comment, and he sidestepped the geopolitical implications entirely, turning the spotlight back on the questioners (“Unless you repent, you too will all perish,” Lk 13:4). When someone in the crowd asked for Jesus to intervene in an inheritance dispute, he warned against the dangers of greed and the frailty of life. When some tried to wrangle him into the thorny issue of Caesar’s taxation, he argued that the emperor deserves his Monopoly money while God deserves one’s whole life. Time and time again, Jesus directs his preaching toward the matters of direct personal import.

The immediate horizons of the New Testament’s preaching and teaching were largely the individual and the immediate community. The broader concentric circles of social location, consisting of family background, local community, or geo-political struggles are either bracketed out entirely or are only addressed by implication. There was no grand plan to reform the unwritten Roman constitution or work within existing political structures toward more noble ends. The practices of the church and its confessional claims could (and should!) be contrasted with the wider world, and here there is ample room for interpreters to note how Christianity differs from its context (both then and now). Christianity’s influence upon culture over millennia is undeniable. And yet, the mechanism by which Christianity sought to change the world was by way of personal conversion: the preaching of a crucified messiah who gives life to the dead. The world was not another sphere of influence, but a mission field. One day every knee will bow, but that day isn’t today (yet).

The communal life of the church and its message of good news undermine notions of deserving and retribution, values those who have no worldly value, and disregards what is otherwise esteemed by the world. Its witness reveals that there is another way to structure human life than the existing systems within which we operate. But the actual content of the gospel is far more local, far more personal. If anything, Christianity is principally attendant to the categories of life and suffering that don’t make headlines. The life, death, and resurrection of Jesus is good news to you — the life you actually live and the cross you daily bear on the road to everlasting life.