Is Christianity a Sanitized Fairy Tale?

By John Zmirak Published on February 9, 2017

As the story goes, back in the 19th century, some Irish-American priests wanted to build a new seminary for the growing Catholic church in the U.S. One had studied classical European architecture, so he was tasked with design. He slaved for months on the plans, fasting, working, praying, and then presented it to his superior. It was exquisite — tasteful, elegant, uplifting and well within their budget. The bishop was duly impressed, and sent it to Rome for approval. Some weeks later, a parcel came back from Rome, with the plans but no approval. There weren’t even comments, except for two words, in Latin: “Sunt angeli?” (“Are they angels?”)

The bishop and the architect priest were puzzled and disappointed. They consulted a visitor sent from Rome, a priest born in southern Italy, who read the note and studied the plans. He smiled at the Irishmen, and explained the Vatican’s objection. “You forgot to include any bathrooms!”

That story came to mind when I read Pope Francis’ latest comments on politics, in which he denounced (again) the idea of constructing walls to control illegal immigration. As the Washington Post reported:

“In the social and civil context as well, I appeal not to create walls but to build bridges,” he said, according to the AP. “To not respond to evil with evil. To defeat evil with good, the offense with forgiveness. A Christian would never say ‘you will pay for that.’ Never.

“That is not a Christian gesture,” he continued. “An offense you overcome with forgiveness. To live in peace with everyone.”

The New Jerusalem … Now!

Judging from those remarks alone, one might conclude that Pope Francis thinks that we are angels. Many progressive Christians, both Catholic and Protestant, do think that way: They pretend that we are unfallen, spiritual beings, or at least that Jesus’ coming reversed the Fall of Man entirely. Jesus, on this reading, left the Church as the New Jerusalem on earth (no need to wait for the apocalypse, folks), and it’s our vocation to think, speak and act as if that really were true — screening out contrary evidence.

It is somehow un-Christian to recognize tough choices, tragic limits, irreconcilable conflicts, and the fact that human efforts still mostly amount to “vanity.”

We are meant to transform the world via social activism, and the parts of Christian doctrine, scripture, tradition, that don’t serve that purpose should be sloughed off like the practices of the Pharisees. So should those aspects of Christianity that don’t elicit in us happy, affirming thoughts. Talk of hellfire, heresy, and personal sin have no place in the New Jerusalem. Those statements of Christian belief (and words of Jesus himself) that evoke such grim realities must be whitewashed and forgotten. There’s no need for them, in heaven-on-earth, which we are constructing via our own efforts — with help from Progressive secular friends like George Soros and Ban Ki Moon.

Likewise, it is un-Christian to recognize tough choices, tragic limits, irreconcilable conflicts, and the fact that human efforts still mostly amount to “vanity.” Even acknowledging that some people have evil motives and seek to harm us and our loved ones is unworthy of a Christian. We must be above such considerations, and attain a height of perfect spirituality which — curiously enough — no previous generation of Christians on record ever has. Because, you know, they built walls, made weapons, fought wars, denounced heresies, excommunicated some sinners, and generally acted as if, somehow, the Fall still applied on earth. We must be humble enough to admit that we know Jesus better than all our ancestors.

On this view, to keep our thoughts pure and suppress any nagging doubts as to whether our world view is plausible, we must vigorously condemn those who insist that man is still fallen, that the same rules apply to us as applied to our smelly, racist ancestors. We can even revive the old talk of sin and judgment, when needed, to shame those who say that the emperor is naked. Those saboteurs and wreckers are the real enemies of the Kingdom. Hence Pope Francis’ prophetic firmness in condemning President Trump:

After Trump declared during his presidential campaign that he would deport millions of undocumented immigrants and build a wall along the border between Mexico and the United States, Francis denounced the wall idea, telling reporters on board the papal plane that anyone who wanted to build a wall “is not Christian.”

“A person who thinks only about building walls — wherever they may be — and not building bridges, is not Christian,” he said in February, according to an AP translation. “This is not in the Gospel.”

“I’d just say that this man is not Christian if he said it this way,” he added.

Sometimes, of course, the sheer effort required to fend off evidence and arguments can be exhausting. It can reduce what we say to what a cynic would call “incoherence.” For instance, Pope Francis in June 2015, in the course of a single talk, denounced the Western Allies for not bombing the train tracks that led to concentration camps, then condemned as “un-Christian” anyone who manufactures weapons … including, presumably, military planes and bombs.

Well that can happen to anyone. Nobody said that it would be easy to change the world, to transform it entirely from a sin-wracked, guilt-haunted cesspool of conflict and exploitation into a happy Progressive summer camp where we will sing folksongs while chomping on vegan hot dogs. But isn’t that why Jesus came in the first place?

Still Wounded by Man’s Fall

This posture is hard to maintain, though. If we fail to police our thoughts and silence dissenters, we might just realize that in fact we are not in the New Jerusalem, that we cannot hope to build it ourselves, that the Church and all its people are still wounded by man’s fall, and we’re just trying to build little islands of peace and order amid the chaos, while living Christ’s challenging message as best we can by His grace.

We then realize that we cannot treat the church as a global “safe space” where everyone can be trusted and no one is out for himself. (Illusions like that are what set pedophiles loose again to prey on children in hundreds of churches.) We cannot pretend that the world and all its countries are full of “friends we haven’t met yet,” as Angela Merkel clearly believes.

We might to have recognize that we really do have enemies — people who will persecute our religion because their religion tells them to, for instance, or drug cartels that will seize control of our country’s border, or collaborators with paganism who would water down our religion. Loving enemies is difficult, especially when the stubborn fallenness of the world demands that we resist them — with things like walls, bombs, and airplanes; and doctrines, dogmas, and penalties.

But those are such ugly thoughts, like the idea of stinky toilets in a shiny new seminary. Instead, why not think of … rainbows?

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