Published March 28, 2016
The writer Philip Yancey recently offered up this observation:
I wrote in Vanishing Grace about an important insight I learned from a Muslim scholar who said to me, “I have read the entire Koran and can find in it no guidance on how Muslims should live as a minority in a society. I have read the entire New Testament and can find in it no guidance on how Christians should live as a majority.” He put his finger on a central difference between the two faiths. One, born at Pentecost, thrives cross-culturally and even counter-culturally, often coexisting with oppressive governments. The other, geographically anchored in Mecca, was founded simultaneously as a religion and a state…
While Islam seeks to unify religion and law, culture and politics, Yancey wrote, “Christianity works best as a minority faith, a counter-culture…Historically, when Christians have reached a majority they too fall to the temptations of power in ways that are clearly anti-gospel.”
Add to this the fact that, as sociologist of religion Rodney Stark has pointed out, Christianity’s greatest period of vulnerability and political weakness was the time of its most explosive growth. He estimates that Christianity saw a 40 percent growth rate per decade from 30 AD to 300 AD. As a result a tiny and obscure movement became the dominant faith of Western civilization.
And its enduring symbol is not the shield or the sword but the cross.
Early on in my faith pilgrimage — a journey that did not come particularly easily to me — I was struck and to some degree captivated by how in many respects the Christian faith is a radical inversion of what the world deems worthy and worth celebrating. The last shall be first. Strength is made perfect in weakness. The humble will be exalted. Blessed are the meek, the poor in spirit, and those who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness. Love rather than hate your enemies. Whatever you did for the least of these, you did for God. Whoever loses his life for God’s sake will find it.
Jesus himself came not as a king but as a servant. He was born not to wealth and privilege in Rome but in a manger in Bethlehem. He was a God who wept, was acquainted with grief and was “counted among the outlaws.” He preferred the company of sinners to that of religious authorities, with whom he repeatedly clashed. He was abandoned and betrayed by his disciples. And he endured an agonizing death on a cross.
In a 1980 Firing Line interview between the journalist and author Malcolm Muggeridge and William F. Buckley Jr., on the topic of how one finds faith, Muggeridge — who became one of the 20th centuries most eloquent defenders of the Christian faith — said this:
There’s another parable I’ve often thought of. When St. Paul starts off on his journey, he consults with an eminent public relations man. “I’ve got this campaign and I want to promote this gospel.” And the man would say, “Well, you’ve got to have some sign of your faith.” And then Paul would say, “Well, I have got one. I’ve got this cross.” The public relations man would have laughed his head off. “You can’t popularize a thing like that. It is absolutely mad.” But it wasn’t mad. It worked for centuries and centuries, bringing out all the creativity in people, all the love and disinterestedness in people, this symbol of suffering. And I think that’s the heart of the matter.
It is hardly the script you or I would write, a God whose crown was made of thorns. But for those of us of the Christian faith, Good Friday gives way to Easter Sunday — the days of God’s overpowering acts in history, acts in which God’s judgment and grace were revealed to all the world,” in the words of the pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer.
Years later Bonhoeffer, writing from Tegel Prison in Berlin, would tell his family, “The liberating thing about Good Friday and Easter is that one’s thoughts are swept far beyond one’s own personal fate to the ultimate meaning of all life and suffering, and of whatever occurs, such that one is seized by a great hope.”
Two years later Bonhoeffer, a leading voice of Germany’s Confessing Church who was involved in a plot to assassinate Hitler, was stripped of his clothing and led naked into the execution yard in Flossenburg concentration camp, where he was hanged — a liberated man, a man at peace, a man seized by a great hope.
Peter Wehner is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and a contributing opinion writer for the New York Times.