Christians are no stranger to schism, finger pointing, and claims of ultimate correctness. From the days of the Protestant rebellion against Catholicism until now, Christianity has fragmented into a variety of sects, some of which bear little relation to one another, but all declaring themselves the sole bearer of Truth. When I was growing up, my Baptist family members declared Mormonism “a cult” and condemned Catholics to hell. Today, these Southern Baptists fall neatly under the umbrella of Evangelicals; some of them are even Dominionists, an extreme subsect of the Evangelicals who believe in a strictly literal translation of the Bible, in which man is ascendant, woman is a barely human servant and child bearer, and severe oppression of the children is normal.
But what is Evangelicalism if not a cult? A cult is “a system of religious veneration and devotion directed toward a particular figure or object; a misplaced or excessive admiration for a particular person or thing.” Evangelicals say that they worship Jesus, as the son of God. What they actually worship, however, is an idol of their own making: Jesus, the Supreme Punisher, Denier, and Warrior.
There is enough violence and awfulness in the Bible to cherry-pick to support this view, particularly in the Old Testament: God suggesting that his favorite follower sacrifice his own son, “testing” Job’s faith with a series of terrible calamities, smiting the poor slobs carrying the Ark of the Covenant. Jesus as Warrior and Killer, however, began with what could arguably be named the Saxon Cult of Christianity, which began with the epic poem The Heliand, written during the Middle Ages to encourage the Saxons to rescind paganism in favor of a new warrior god they could follow: Jesus. The Heliand portrays Jesus as yet another great leader and fighter, converting people at the point of a sword. (In the translation I used to own, Saxon Warrior Jesus also took his revenge upon the Jews, planting the seeds of cognitive dissonance that allows modern-day white Christians to ignore the fact that the historical Jesus was, in fact, Jewish.)
Warrior Jesus, King Jesus, leading “Christian soldiers” became embedded in the white European consciousness and hasn’t left it since. This Jesus attracts people who love a good hierarchy, a strong leader, and someone who will “fight on their side” against everyone else they disagree with. All good authoritarians love Warrior Jesus, who heartlessly punishes the wicked (defined today by Evangelicals) and condemns millions.
If you define your self-worth by your place in a hierarchy, by how much Warrior Jesus “loves” and approves of you, then you naturally want to place yourself near the top. This requires that there be people below you on the ladder, and Evangelicals are quick to supply a list: LGBTQ people, nonEvangelicals, nonChristians, atheists, “new age” people, maybe nonRepublicans, maybe people of color who, through twisted theology, are believed not to be sons of Adam (begging the question of where they came from in that case).
Evangelicals tend to cluster in areas where they rarely encounter nonEvangelicals, however, and when your self-worth is at stake, it’s not hard to find scapegoats for your beliefs. Judgment of others is the Evangelical’s favorite pastime, and even if you subscribe to that view, one of your neighbors, fellow church members, or even family members will volunteer the number of ways in which you are failing to live a godly life. It’s very difficult to stay ahead in the hierarchy game, and there are many ways in which you can fail, including being poor (Warrior Jesus would bless you with riches if He really loved you), being “different,” not attending church enough, not being chaste enough, listening to rock ‘n roll, etc., ad infinitum, ad nauseum.
The requirements of such strict judgmentalism are exactly why, however, Evangelicals can so easily ignore all of Actual Jesus’ calls to help the poor and meek: they don’t deserve it, and Warrior Jesus is punishing them by making them poor and meek. It’s a very self-serving theology. “I’m good, and if you’re not, it’s your own fault.”
Chances are good that if you query an Evangelical about some of Actual Jesus’ words, they will either be unfamiliar with many of them, or they simply ignore them and assume He didn’t really mean it. When Actual Jesus shows compassion to the low, heals the blind and the lepers, cares for the hated, the data may go into the Evangelical brain, but Punishing Warrior Jesus is still the only thing that comes out the other side. (This process of transmutation is magical and miraculous, and it is best performed by the fanatics with the worst sense of self-worth.)
When Actual Jesus says, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me (Mark 10:21–22),” Evangelicals know Chastising Jesus isn’t talking to them. When Actual Jesus says, “He that is without sin among you, let him cast the first stone (John 8:7),” Evangelicals know that Punishing Jesus really does want them to call out sin, unasked for, everywhere, because they are “loving the sinner” by doing so. And when Actual Jesus says crazy stuff like:
Do to others as you would have them do to you.
If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners love those who love them. If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners do the same. And if you lend to those from whom you expect repayment, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, expecting to be repaid in full.
But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them, expecting nothing in return. Then your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High; for He is kind to the ungrateful and wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful. (Luke 6:31–36)
Evangelicals know that there are millions of unmentioned exceptions that Judging Jesus would have them make before applying these rules, like, “Are they worthy? Are they lazy? Are they on welfare? Are they Muslim? Are they Hispanic?”
Personally, I doubt very much that Jesus the Man ever intended to be regarded as Jesus the God/King/Warrior, because the inevitable result is a personality cult, and that never goes well. It’s a mistake that the Prophet Mohammad took pains to avoid. But here we are, with a readily malleable cult of personality onto which people can project whatever prejudice they have. Jesus thus becomes many things, none of which resemble the actual man or his teachings, which are so studiously avoided. Then, when a white nationalist (not so ironically named “Christian”) attacks people on a train in Portland and rants on social media about killing people who don’t believe in the “love of Jesus,” it’s because Evangelicals and their ilk truly believe that the “love of Jesus the Warrior and Punisher” is not for everyone — it is for their cult and their cult alone.
To be sure, there are and have been Christians who attempted to live according to the principles of the Actual Jesus. Some, like the Cathars who were probably closest to some of the original Christians, were merrily wiped out by the Catholic Church. Little remains of the Gnostic Christians except some scrolls found in the desert. (Gnostic comes from gnosis, or “to know,” which is a radical concept for Evangelicals.) Such Christians attempt to emulate his ethos of love, compassion, understanding, and peace. They see poverty as something to be helped, not something that is deserved. It is a living spirituality, to be considered, understood, and experienced daily, like many other religions of the world.
Alas, the cultists have taken America by the throat and are determined to wield Punishing Jesus in order to cause great suffering. Nonbelievers of Punishing Jesus are heretics and must be destroyed. All fanatical religions are cults, with death and destruction at their core.
I will leave you with this little ditty by the beloved Austin Lounge Lizards, who sum up Evangelical thinking in this very short song: “Jesus Loves Me, But He Can’t Stand You.”