Nearly five years ago, I wrote in an essay called “Kingdoms, Afterlives and Political Shenanigans” that one of mainstream Christianity’s fundamental flaws is found in its teaching about personal salvation. I wrote about how self-focused salvation perspectives ultimately influence everything from our political opinions to the way that we interpret God’s plan for the world. The doctrine of personal salvation also colors our perspectives on matters of justice, equality and inclusion.
We in Christianity focus a great deal of our energy on getting people “saved”— mostly because we’ve been taught to view the world’s population as a mission field overrun with souls bound for Hell. We operate from within a dualistic ideology that imagines a God who is preoccupied with sifting people into two categories: the saved and the damned. We see ourselves as an intervening factor in this perceived reality; we believe most of the inhabitants of our world are doomed unless we find some way to convert them to our religion, one by one. Many Christians even overlook the needs of the newly “saved”— they take a headcount of people who responded to their altar call and pat themselves on the back for work well done while neglecting to learn about the very real needs that impact the new convert’s life. I suppose one could say that we are well-trained when it comes to “saving” people, but tend to fail miserably when it comes to rescuing them.
My old essay about Christianity’s salvation distraction came flooding back to me as I read about one of Donald Trump’s latest executive orders— a directive that temporarily halts America’s acceptance of refugees from a number of majority-Muslim countries. As news of Trump’s executive order unfolded, several popular Christian leaders took to social media in support of what many agree is essentially a “Muslim ban.” In their haste to ban the “other,” these Christian leaders callously dismiss scripture’s admonishment to welcome and care for the stranger.
As I read the news, I thought about how Christians have been trained to read the Bible through tainted goggles. Those goggles prevent us from seeing that there are many overarching narratives available in scripture, especially where the concept of “salvation” is concerned. The God of scripture is indeed one who “saves” souls— but this very same God was an incurable rescuer whose greatest dream was that humankind would become rescuers as well. This God heard the cry of the Israelite slaves and responded by leading them to another land— a place where they would be both refugees and religious minorities. After rescuing the Israelites, he instructed them to “welcome the stranger” because they themselves had once been “strangers” in Egypt. He even provided a miracle that would feed not only Jesus’s twelve disciples, but the multitudes— a group that surely included people outside the disciples’ religious persuasion. The scriptural examples of God rescuing people — or sending others to rescue them — are abundant.
Christianity’s preoccupation with “personal salvation” has rendered us unable to perceive our faith’s greater spiritual imperative. The primary goal of Christianity shouldn’t be about increasing the religion’s numbers by getting them saved; the primary goal, instead, should be to participate in God’s efforts to rescue the world. This paradigm shift would place Christianity closer than ever to God’s heart — a heart that unconditionally loves all people, regardless of their religion or nationality. May our religion become one that subordinates the comfort of personal salvation to God’s dream of a rescued and liberated world.
Crystal St. Marie Lewis is a writer and speaker whose interests include religion, liberal and liberation theology, secularization and the world in which we live. An advocate for inter-religious dialogue, Crystal earned her Master of Theological Studies degree (focus: World Religions) at Wesley Theological Seminary and a graduate certificate in Muslim/Christian Dialogue via the Washington Theological Consortium. Her book about finding faith after fundamentalism, “By the Waters of Babylon: A Collection of Doubter’s Devotions,” is available on Amazon. Please be sure to follow Crystal on Twitter and Facebook.