Is Christianity the culture? Is Christianity tied to what it means to be American? Is it counter cultural? What does that even mean?
Christianity came about because of Jesus, who lived in the first part of the first century CE (or AD if you prefer). He lived in Palestine, which was under Roman jurisdiction – actually it was under the rule of a client kingdom. This may sound like a technicality, but it’s important. It was an independent kingdom that paid tribute to Rome and did what it could to keep itself in Rome’s good graces. This of course would end after Jesus’ death. The Zealots (political extremists who didn’t like any dealings with Rome) were often causing problems for the ruling party and eventually created a rebellion that ended when the Temple in Jerusalem was leveled by Rome.
Christianity rose up in the midst of this. It continued to grow, thanks to people like Paul, who spread the message far and wide throughout the Roman empire. It grew large enough that it caught the attention of the Roman rulers who eventually persecuted Christians – they needed a scapegoat when things got bad and a minority religion was a perfect fit for this. (Yes, I’m simplifying things greatly here.)
Because of this, along with the radical teachings of inclusivity, overturning honor and shame in society, monotheism, and more, Christianity was counter cultural. A huge difference, and cause of great pain, for Christians was loyalty to the reign of God, rather than the reign of Caesar.
It was only later with Constantine that Christianity became a state religion, and then the official religion of the state. He used it for his own purposes and power. And it became a part of the state and what it meant to be Roman. And as a result, criticism of the empire changed. You can’t be criticizing openly the very people who are building you basilicas now, can you?
Yet here we are almost two thousand years later and an ocean and sea apart from the origins of Christianity. A great deal has happened since that time. If we are guilty of anything, it is thinking that we fit into the early story of Christianity – as if anyone around at the time of Jesus knew there would be a USA – let alone a land across the ocean, outside the known world. The world was believed to be flat back then remember?
Is Christianity counter cultural? It has been. It has also been the basis for the culture, or so we like to think this way.
Is Christianity American? Nope. We can’t lay claim to it solely. Besides, which version of Christianity are we talking about anyway? What does it mean to be an American Christian? Where do our loyalties lie?
When we look at the American landscape we see a wide variety of Christians which mean there is no one answer to these questions. And maybe that’s the point and a good thing. Uniformity is a nice idea, but I don’t think that’s what Jesus had in mind when he said “Follow Me.” I don’t think he meant that to mean “do as I tell you to do like a bunch of robots.” I think it means variety and context. And it will change over time and with location and different people.
Christianity might be counter cultural. Or it might be totally consumed by culture. Or, just maybe, it will be both depending where and when we are talking.