VIRUS ALERT! WARNING: INFECTED FILE!
Ever been caught out? Ever opened an interesting looking attachment sent to you (so you believe) by a good friend or family member, only to activate a nasty little self-replicating virus just itching to infect your system?
I'm on the alert for a 'virus' that seems to have attached itself to the gospel. It may seem innocuous, even desirable and integral to our faith. It's often passed on to us by people we love and respect. You may be surprised when I classify it as a virus. What am I talking about? Before I name it, let me describe its infiltration of my own faith's operating system.
Throughout my Sunday School years, one message came across loud and clear. Being a Christian was all about being 'good'. Naturally, God was in the picture too - as the eye in the sky who always knew whether I was being good or not! Megabytes of memory verses drilled home the message: "be sure your sins will find you out". Children's talks inevitably culminated in the charge to be good, helpful and kind.
So I grew up knowing that becoming a genuinely 'born again' Christian entailed an obligation to strive toward exemplary morals. As I wrestled with this in my teenage years I felt ambivalent, like the adolescent Stephen Dedalus in Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man - attracted by the power and mystery of the holy life, yet daunted by its demand: "Not to fall was too hard, too hard . . . ."1
Even after a deeply significant conversion experience, this fusion of Christianity and morality persisted at the core of my faith. In practical terms, to be a good Christian was evidenced by being a good person (morally). The effects linger even now. I catch myself surmising that some squeaky clean person is probably a Christian, while that other person who smokes and uses the odd swear word almost certainly isn't!
My label for this persistent pathogen is 'moralism'. Like most viruses it is programmed for self-replication. Have you noticed that when we seek to have a public voice, a public Christian voice, we mostly use it to speak of moral issues? By ensuring that our usual contribution to social discourse is a moralising one, moralism reproduces itself via the subliminal message that Christianity and morality are, in practice, synonymous.
Unlike computer viruses, moralism has been around a long time. Historian Keith Sinclair records that the early Scottish immigrants to Otago aimed to form a settlement where "piety, rectitude and industry would feel at home, and where the inhabitants as a body would form a vigilant moral police."2 Those who take any notice of the Christian contribution to public debate could be forgiven for concluding that little has changed!
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus calls his followers to embrace the challenge of God's rule in the way they live. Does he do this in terms of morality? Certainly there is a call to righteousness: "unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven."3
But righteousness is not the same thing as morality. Morality has to do with systems of norms and principles, codes of conduct. Biblical righteousness is about living in right relationship (love and justice) with God and others. No moral system is capable of capturing or creating all that is entailed in the biblical call to relational righteousness.
I hear Jesus making that very point in the teaching of the Sermon. Previous legal codes and traditions are an inadequate basis for kingdom living: "You have heard that it was said . . . But I say to you . . . ."4 Moralistic righteousness nurtures judgmentalism and hypocrisy: "Why do you see the speck in your neighbour's eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye?"5
Toward the end of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus uses a number of word pictures to explain how to recognise people who make false claims to speak on God's behalf. "You will know them by their fruits", he declares.6 At first sight his illustrations focus on being 'good', which could be a problem for my argument:
Does this prove that the mark of true discipleship is moral goodness after all? I'm not convinced!
Remember that Jesus is dealing with the problem of how to recognise false prophets, people who misrepresent God and his kingdom. The key, he says, is to look at the fruit of their lives and their teaching. This will point to their true character, just as trees produce fruit which reflects the true character of the tree. Moral goodness in itself is not the test.
Congruence is the focus. Like reflects like. Healthy fruit testifies to a healthy tree. Bunches of grapes indicate a grape vine. A fig tree can be expected to bear figs. So, in weighing up self-appointed spokespersons for God, the question to ask is this: does the fruit of their lives and their teaching truly reflect what we know of the character of God and his kingdom?
What kind of fruit should we look for? The Sermon as a whole gives many clues. The Beatitudes suggest that kingdom qualities include poverty of spirit, sorrow over the world's brokenness, meekness, hunger and thirst for justice, mercy, purity (simplicity) of heart, peacemaking and a willingness to suffer misunderstanding and rejection.
Jesus expands on these in speaking of relationships which eschew hate, alienation, exploitation, revenge and partiality. There is a call to radical love, extending even to enemies, reflecting the Father's love for righteous and unrighteous alike.8
It is these qualities which are indicative of true righteousness. On the other hand, hypocritical piety, the idolatrous pursuit of wealth and judgmental attitudes are all incongruent with the character of God's kingdom.9
Incongruence is misleading and dangerous. What if a tree proclaimed itself to be a fig tree, but actually produced crab apples? Hoping to find out what figs taste like, unwitting visitors to the tree might bite into bitter crab apples and be put off figs for life!
And what happens when those who speak and act in the name of 'Christianity' do so in moralistic, judgmental terms? Hoping to discover what the Christian gospel is all about, seekers are left wondering how anyone can think of guilt-inducing moralising as 'good news'.
The Newsboys get it right in their song, "Take Me to Your Leader". The unconditional friendship of a prison chaplain toward Isabelle (a belly dancing kleptomaniac!), arouses her desire to meet his "Leader":
The kind of presence which awakens in others a positive desire to meet Christ is not the fruit of moral codes, even the best of them. It grows from intimate, organic relationship - as between teachers and their disciples, trees and their fruit, people and their extravagantly gracious and merciful God. It is the fruit of the Spirit.
Moralism, the substitution of morality for living Christian discipleship, offers a colourless, shrunken parody of true Christianity. In addition to fostering judgmentalism and hypocrisy, virulent moralism is idolatrous, insidiously offering itself as a safe and structured alternative to following Jesus in the way of wholehearted love, overflowing mercy, radical trust and creative obedience.
The gospel of God's reconciling love in Christ may be the best kept secret of all time! Unintentionally we disguise it and thoroughly confuse the watching world as to the good news we say we believe in.
Of course we ought to be concerned as to how our faith bears on moral issues. Following Jesus will challenge areas of immorality in our lives. But our call is to be living expressions of his gospel, not the moral police!
Jesus' teaching in the Sermon on the Mount is a call to reflect the character of God and his righteousness moment by moment, situation by situation, as creatively, radically and transparently as possible. Challenges such as, "If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also"10 are not a new, more stringent moral code. They are provocative suggestions as to how creative, radical love might reproduce itself in the face of oppression.
There is no manual or moral system which can teach us how to bear this kind of fruit. Abiding in the love of God revealed in Jesus is the key to fruitfulness. Not only that, it's the best virus killer on the market!11