I ask for forgiveness. For what we Christians have done, and not done. Forgetting our origin as the persecuted, we have abandoned Jesus’ call to love and justice and have become oppressors against religious, racial and sexual minorities. Forgetting that Jesus’ acts for the marginalized spoke louder than his words, we hypocritically preach compassion into the microphone. We have become largely irrelevant among the liberal intelligentsia, and are no longer the salt and light of the world.
When I left home for college, I thought I would part with this vestigial baggage of Western Civilization. Before I could speak, I had been baptized at a megachurch in Seoul. Every summer, my evangelical parents sent me to creation science and Jesus camps to be born again. To recover from this indoctrination, I rebelled. I joined a Buddhist ashram in India, worshipped with Jews in Jerusalem and devoured agnostic and atheistic literature. Like the prodigal son, however, I always returned home to church.
On my journey, I met numerous crusaders against religion. With the onset of modernity, the Western mind turned against itself, beginning with the anti-clerical diatribes of the Enlightenment philosophes. Then came the incarnation of the unholy trinity in the form of Marx, Nietzsche and Freud in the 19th century. Today, the so-called “four horsemen of new atheism” — scientist Richard Dawkins, philosopher Daniel Dennett and authors Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris — have become militant apostles of science.
I found their attacks on God more convincing than the medieval philosopher Aquinas or Christian existentialist Kierkegaard’s attempts to salvage him. And when John Lennon sings: “Imagine there’s no heaven … no hell below us … Imagine all the people, living for today,” I cannot agree more. So if I am willing to strip Christianity of God, heaven and even the historic Jesus, what is left for me in churches?
On most Sunday mornings when I am not hung over, I find myself in the pews of St. Mary’s Episcopal Church on Locust Walk, which evokes memories of my childhood Episcopalian church in New Zealand. I love the small, close-knit community of students, faculty, staff and West Philadelphia neighbors. The quiet prayers and rituals, and the magnificent architecture and organ, provide Sabbath and rejuvenation.
In addition to its Sunday services, St. Mary’s has also been a bastion of social justice in West Philly. During the Vietnam War, the church was literally a sanctuary for conscientious objectors. In the 1980s, its bell tower provided a refuge for a homeless transgender. In the ’90s, St. Mary’s hired an openly gay clergy. Today, the church hosts weekly soup kitchens and a nursery school, as well as Neighborhood Bike Works.
I believe that the future of Christianity rests in these embodiments of “love thy neighbor.” During his visit to Penn, philosopher Cornel West claimed that whereas Athens gave us the love of truth, Jerusalem gave us the love of justice. Christianity, at its core, is love. And as Brother West says, justice is what love looks like in public.
Against Nietzsche who critiqued Christianity for its “slave mentality,” I embrace Christianity for its revolutionary call to “turn the other cheek,” which inspired Tolstoy, Gandhi and MLK’s non-violent resistance. Against kings and priests, Jesus championed the outcasts of society. Against the zeitgeist of social Darwinism permeating Wharton and the broader neoliberal economy today, Christianity provides an intellectual foundation and community to build a more equitable society.
In the early Christian community recorded in “Acts of the Apostles” 4:32-4, “no one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had … And God’s grace was so powerfully at work in them all that there were no needy persons among them.”
Although few churches have resurrected the Marxist utopia of the early Christians, I have met countless Christians, including my parents, who exude the aura of Jesus in their endeavor to heal our broken world. Just as Reform Jews have turned their gaze from heaven to earth, so should Christians evolve with the times and focus on its rich tradition of the arts and social justice if we want to persist till the return of our Messiah.
JY Lee is a fifth-year College and Wharton senior from Gangnam, South Korea. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. “Wandering Deliberate Lee” appears every other Monday. Follow him @junyoubius.