“I would not insult any one’s intelligence by trying to prove that things are not right in the world in which we live. When we look about us and see conditions as they are in our modern life, society corrupt, standard of home demolished, school in many cases hotbeds of infidelity and immorality, and even the church too many times in a cold, godless, backslidden condition, I need no argument to make me believe that the hearts of men [sic] are wrong today.” This line comes from a sermon written by the influential Disciples of Christ preacher, R.E. Snodgrass. It was written in the late 1800s.
Another great Disciples of Christ preacher, Isaac Errett, who would go on to serve as the editor of the influential Christian Standard magazine, was ordained in 1840 and joined the Church Triumphant in 1888, one year after First Christian Church in Ashland was founded. It was during those closing years of the 19th century that many preachers and writers wondered if the vision of Alexander Campbell and Barton Stone would prove elusive. Camp-bell and Stone dreamed of a church where denominational distinctions and doctrinal wrangling would fall away and a church unified on the Great Confession — that Jesus is the Christ, Lord, and Savior of the world — would prevail as the foundational call of Christ’s people. Errett, in reflecting on this angst, described the problem as centered in the expectation of a Christian Utopia. The designation “Utopia” took hold in human discourse as early as 1516 when Thomas More published his famous work of fiction by the same name. Although More’s story is both satirical and anything by utopian by modern standards, the word became synonymous with a perfect community without any argument or discord.
Every politician and religious leader since have promised utopia if he or she is elected or given absolute authority. Errett concedes that a form of utopia is possible, but it isn’t by the definition of those who were his contemporaries. For him, utopia was when “master and slave gave each other the hand of fellowship, and the humbled rich and the exalted poor stood on a common level; the prince and the beggar clasped hands as partners, and all stood pledged to the high purpose of love — even to the extent of laying down their lives for each other.” How was this possible? Through Jesus Christ. In the midst of a world of division and hatred, it is the follower of Jesus Christ upon whose shoulders the burden of true utopia is pressed.
Snodgrass and Errett were products of their time. Though they were contemporaries and, by all accounts, friendly colleagues, their sermons were grappling with the same problems with which we continue to struggle. No, not issues of morality nor the “war on the family.” The issue is both specific and broad. The problem is simply the human condition. It is easier to point to the sins of others and those sins with which we may not struggle as the source of societal strife. For the young, it may be the greed of corporations. For corporations, it may be the oppressive regulations of government. For the government, it may be the lack of generosity from the tax payer. For the libertine, it is judgmental attitudes of the Stoics. For the Stoics, it is the lack of self-control of the epicurean.
The unimaginable truth is that even when we have been made “one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28), the frailty of the human heart looks to blame everyone and everything but ourselves. It is easier to jump on the bandwagon and criticize the mega church who refuses to open its doors to the victims of Harvey than it is to look into our own hearts and ask ourselves, “What have I done to alleviate the suffering?” It is far easier to sign on to a Nashville Declaration against “them” or a Denver Declaration against those that signed the Nashville Declaration than it is to ask ourselves, “Have I been an agent of reconciliation to my neighbor?” We are so concerned at blaming someone else for our society having fallen short of our utopian dreams that we fail to see that we too are held captive to the human condition of greed, arrogance, spite, and avarice. Yes, Brother Snodgrass, there are problems and I am too often both complicit and complacent. Yes, Brother Errett, Jesus is the answer. Not what I believe about Jesus. Just Jesus. He is my hope.