Opinion: Christianity comes late to change

April 6, 2014


Eleven years ago, Richard Stearns went to Washington.

Stearns — president of World Vision, the billion-dollar Christian relief organization — joined other faith leaders in lobbying Congress to spend $15 billion combating AIDS in Africa and the Caribbean. He acknowledged he and his fellow evangelicals were late to the fight against this pandemic and explained their tardiness with remarkable candor.

At first, he said, Christians perceived AIDS as a disease of gay people and drug users and so, “had less compassion for the victims.” This, from followers of the itinerant, first-century rabbi who said, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened ...” So Stearns’ words offered stark illustration of one of the more vexing failings of modern Christianity: its inability to get there on time.

“There” meaning any place people are suffering, hungry, exploited or simply denied some essential human right. Yes, there are exceptions; let us not deny the good works of good people of faith.

And yet ...

On issues where it should take the lead, where it should make noise and news, challenging the status quo, marching in the streets, actively advocating for human dignity, the great body of Christendom always seems to bring up the rear, arriving decades late to the place the rest of the nation has already reached.

It’s not just that delegation joining the AIDS fight nearly 25 years after it began. It’s also churches apologizing 30 years after the Civil Rights Act for supporting segregation. And Christian tardiness in standing up for the right of women to be freed from kitchens. All of which provides a certain context for a recent controversy.

On March 24, World Vision announced it would no longer bar Christians in same-sex marriages from working there. In an interview with Christianity Today, Stearns took pains to say this was no endorsement of those marriages — only a decision to opt out of the argument. “We have decided we are not going to get into that debate.”

Two days later, almost 5,000 of his sponsors having abandoned him, Stearns was backpedaling like Michael Jackson singing “Billie Jean.” He reversed the new policy, calling it a “bad decision” made from “the right motivations.”

And you know, don’t you, that 20 years from now, Stearns or whoever has his job by then, will reverse the reversal and struggle to explain — again — why so many people of faith were the last to get there.

Why is Christianity so often so slow?

Maybe it’s because there has grown up among us an unfortunate tendency to equate Christianity with conservatism. The effect has been to shrink the gospel of Christ — a radical compassion that touched prostitutes, lepers, tax collectors, adulterers, women and other third-class citizens of his time — to a narrow and exclusionary faith of narrow and exclusionary concerns: criminalize abortions, demonize gays and that’s pretty much it.

But you know what?

When children are abandoned, hungry or abused, when some of us are mass incarcerated because of the melanin in our skin, when the poor are exploited by corrupt banks and ignored by useless politicians, these should be matters of religious conscience, too.

And yes, when people are denigrated and denied because of whom or how they love, that, also, should trouble people of faith.

Instead, for many of us, faith becomes this comfortable, pharisaical ritual that gazes outward only to condemn. So one watches World Vision’s reversal of course with dull resignation, knowing all too well what is coming, 20 years down the line.

Maybe by then, more of us will realize: faith is not an excuse for getting “there” last. It’s an obligation to get there first.

— Leonard Pitts Jr., winner of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a columnist for the Miami Herald.


Ron Holzwarth 3 years, 9 months ago

The voices and tardy actions of some do not define the feelings and deeds of an entire religion. The tenets of Christianity, along with many other religions, vary a great deal between the various movements, denominations, and sects.

All Christians, Jews, Muslims, Druze, Hindus, and members of almost all other religions do not share the same feelings and actions as many others that also define themselves by that religious affiliation.

All religious groups are composed of individuals, and every individual is different.

And a whole lot of them aren't believers anyway. They just say they are, to belong to a social group. Or, in many unfortunate cases in our world today, to save their lives.

Scott Burkhart 3 years, 9 months ago

Those pesky Christians! They gave us universities, science, art, and hospitals, to name a few things. I can't believe we still tolerate those intolerant Christians.

Mi Grain 3 years, 9 months ago

As the Pope just said, it is the rigid idealogues within the religion who are, and have always been, a desease.

Mi Grain 3 years, 9 months ago

Witch trials, crusades . . As the Pope said, it is the idelogues within the religion who are a desease.

Bob Forer 3 years, 9 months ago

Let;s not forgtet they also gave us the Inquisition and the Crusades, and that the Roman Catholic Church and many Protestant Churches stood silent while WWII and yhe Holocaust raged, killing millions. And of course, more recently, we had the child absue scandal within the Catholic Church.

Dorothy Hoyt-Reed 3 years, 9 months ago

And during the Middle Ages they destroyed many things that did not jive with their believes. They also destroyed a Mayan library. What knowledge could have been in those books?

3 years, 9 months ago

Words like radical and demonize are too easy to use and they really have lost their meaning.

I am stunned that people are so comfortable talking about Christians in this manner with no awareness of the vast diversity of the faith.

Sorry, but I am no longer a Pitts fan.

Dorothy Hoyt-Reed 3 years, 9 months ago

Mr. Pitts is a Christian. He knows not all Christians are like the far right ones. But you cannot deny the fact that they are slow to accept new things going back to Galileo and probably before. Some still do not accept that the description of the creation was an allegory, and they reject the scientific evidence.

Mike Ford 3 years, 9 months ago

I'm a grown preacher's kid and in the since the mid 1970's and mid 1980's I've watched as the GOP reached out to political evangelicals and former racists and corporations ran by anti government ideologues (Why are Kochs hated so much Dolph?) to try and dismantle the existing US Government for the purpose of total deregulation of economic, environmental, and social and racial laws, for the purpose of recreating the 19th century with no protections for women or minorities, workers, the environment, or economic fairness. It's almost 1930's Germany-like.

I know good theological Christians who care about the wellbeing of our society and have concern for the less well off as Jesus did. Unfortunately this religion has been hijacked by judgemental Christians who use their views to twist society to their beliefs. I have nothing against Christians except for that whole being a tool of the US Government in it's destruction of Indigenous people's self government, identity, and culture to this day. There is a battle between old tyme religion and caring religion right now. I witness it in churches in the town where I live. Greed and deregulation and simple thinking have no place in a good theological caring society. Unfortunately at times the Kansas I see reminds me of the repressive Louisiana and Mississippi of the 1970's I grew up in.

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