September 2019: (Non-Toxic Christianity) The Doctrine of Depravity

“Preserve me oh God. Let not shame stand in my way, for I have no good apart from you.” 

This was the first line of a song I used to sing at a church where I first learned to be a Christian. It was the kind of church with a four-piece band and a charismatic worship leader. They always turned the reverb up really high so everything we sang felt like it was echoing through a stadium.

And we’d lift our hands and close our eyes, which wasn’t hard to do because we generally sang the same words again and again. And in this song, we sang over and over, “I have no good apart from you.”

It was with equal parts passion and desperation that we sang those words. “I have no good apart from you.”

Meaning, apart from God, there is nothing good in me. Apart from God, there is no capacity to do good. And apart from God, there is nothing good in any of us. Apart from God, none of us have the capacity to do good.

What we sang about so passionately wasn’t uncommon. It was a symptom, a verbal manifestation, of a belief that has deep consequences.

The doctrine of depravity understands the Bible to teach that, as a consequence of original sin, which entered the world when the first humans sinned, every person born into the world is morally corrupt, enslaved to sin and is, apart from the grace of God, utterly unable to choose to follow God or choose to turn to Christ in faith for salvation.

It’s a way of seeing God and seeing the world that says, “None of us are trustworthy because all of us are broken.”

The Doctrine

Today we’re continuing our series on Non-Toxic Christianity. Last week, Pastor Sara preached on the idol of Christian unity.

She said that sometimes the Christian notion that the Church has to stay together through all odds and all conflict actually leads us further from, not closer to, the kin-dom of God, because it asks the marginalized to remain silent in the face of their marginalization for the sake of Christian unity.

This week we’re going to talk about another toxic Christian idea: the notion that humans are inherently evil and that only the spirit of God can do anything good through us.

It’s important to have some standards when we talk about which Christian beliefs and behaviors are toxic or non-toxic. 

“Toxic” Christianity is not just the stuff we don’t like or disagree with. It’s not just stuff we’re “not supposed” to believe because our pastor or someone else at church told us not to believe it. And just because something is really, really hard doesn’t make it toxic.

So here’s the litmus test that Jesus advised us to use: “Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves. By their fruit you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? Likewise, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them. (Matthew 7:15-20)

Meaning: judge the truthfulness – the worthiness – of a belief by the fruit it produces. The fruit that comes from believing in that belief and letting it play out through our actions.

The fruit that comes from believing that we are inherently depraved, incapable of good except through the Spirit of God, may produce some good fruit. Once in a while, we can all use a downsized ego, for example. 

But it also produces some really bad fruit.

The doctrine of depravity is popular in christendom today, and it has deep, far-reaching roots. The thing about living in the United States and being exposed to Christianity is that, with all the good, we also get exposed to the bad, even if it’s second-hand. 

Depravity produces a slew of bad fruit, but the worst may be these two. First, there’s the notion that our choices and feelings can’t be trusted. And, it leads us to believe that we and the people around us are incapable of goodness on their own.

At the moment, we belong to The United Methodist Church here at HopeGateWay, which descends from the example and theologies of John Wesley. For me, HopeGateWay has been a guide out of the toxic doctrine of depravity. 

One thing I learned about here at HopeGateWay is John Wesley’s theological contribution of the Wesleyan quadrilateral. Whereas the tradition I used to belong to said that the Bible was the only way to come up with conclusions about faith, the Wesleyan quadrilateral says that we actually use four sources to come to theological conclusions: scripture, tradition, reason, and experience.

The result of people of faith sowing distrust in one another and encouraging each other to lean away from their own reason, experiences, and interpretation of Scripture is that we are unmoored, like a ship without an anchor or a tree without roots.

In effect, the doctrine of depravity says that we can’t lean on any of these other legs of the Wesleyan quadrilateral. We become dependent upon, and hungry for, spiritual authority that lies outside our own relationship with God and what we are taught in loving community. In effect, it instills a deep abiding doubt in one’s own ability to make decisions to co-author the kin-dom of God. And doubt like that can be immobilizing.

As I said before, the doctrine of depravity gives us permission to deem people as undeserving of love or forgiveness or grace. It has given permission for Christians to say that “those people” need Jesus, or that doing interfaith work obscures the gospel of Jesus, or that you can’t do secular justice work, or that those who don’t believe the right way don’t deserve the same rights or protections or life we enjoy. Because if they are devoid of the spirit of God – or so we think – then what is left over in them has no use or value.

And, belief in depravity makes us susceptible to charismatic Christian leadership. It makes it easy for demagogues, cult leaders, and Christian authoritarians to grab the attention and loyalties of those seeking guidance and use that attention and loyalty for whatever ends they want, like money, power, and influence.

When I first became a Christian, I inherited a slew of toxic theologies. But I don’t think that was unique. I think a lot of us pick up pieces of toxic Christianity. I’m still training my heart otherwise, and it’ll be a lifelong process, as learning and transforming are lifelong for all of us.

In my walk out of this toxic theology, I’ve had guides along the way, and HopeGateWay has been one of them. Another of mine said this to me when I asked her how specific she thought God’s will got for us:

I think God gives each of us a box of watercolors, and it’s our job to decide what we’re going to make with it.

I think God’s love is like that, and it’s the opposite of toxic: it’s life-giving to see what young people come up with when they’re given the freedom to trust their creativity.

When I think about the people in my life who are parents, one of the things I admire about them is their willingness to let their children’s gifts and time and imagination and passions run wild. Another guide along my way is a woman my mother’s age who said she waited a long time to have children; she waited until she and her husband were sure that they could love whomever God sent them.

And so they were gifted with a transgender child who has grown up fully knowing how beloved he is.

And I think God’s love is like that, and it’s the opposite of toxic: it’s life-giving to see people share their whole selves with a world that desperately needs permission to exercise the expansive, uncontainable Spirit within us.

We can’t be co-conspirators with God if we can’t be trusted to do the creative, risky, courageous work of ministry, healing, problem-solving, nurturing, playing, and transforming.

Because the notion of depravity, that people can do and be no good unless Jesus works through us, asks us to call into question whether we are truly guided by God or whether we are acting on our own depraved instincts.

Believing in Good is Hard

So maybe you’re already on Level Two: you already know that the doctrine of depravity is a falsehood.

For me, disbelieving in depravity wasn’t easy; it wasn’t all self-affirmation, blowing kisses in the mirror. It may sound easy to shrug off the figures on your shoulders telling you not to believe in yourself, not to trust others. But it wasn’t easy.

First, it’s risky to start trusting in your own instincts, beliefs, and abilities when your theology taught you that you shouldn’t trust them. Kind of like learning to swim for the first time. It is much harder, I think, to believe the alternative to this notion of depravity, that actually, we are complicated and good. It’s harder than believing that we are all empty, waiting for the Spirit to bring anything worthwhile into us like a shell waiting for a hermit crab.

It’s easier to believe in clearly delineated lines of good and bad, wrong and right, us and them. Because to some degree, all of us have a better grasp on our own complexity. It’s easier to believe in our own good intentions and it’s easier to see our own human failings. 

But here’s what I really want to say: in part it’s hard because the consequence of disbelieving in the fallacy of depravity is that we have to disbelieve that about everyone else, too. 

We have to believe that even those who are most unlike us, or those we call our enemies, or those who oppress, hoard, and dominate… even they have within them inherent goodness, the image of God, as well. 

Sometimes, I think God puts a message on our hearts because we’re the ones who need it most, and saying it out loud makes it harder to turn back. This is a message I need to hear, too, so I’m asking you all to hold me accountable to it.

On the Road to Jericho

Let’s revisit a story that many of us know well. But I want us to imagine ourselves in different shoes from the ones we’re used to. In the gospel according to Luke, the author talks about a story Jesus told to illustrate a point about the bounds to which our love should extend. Luke 10:30-36 reads:

Jesus said: “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he was attacked by robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an inn and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper. ‘Look after him,’ he said, ‘and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.’ Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?”

In the story of the “good Samaritan,” we often ask ourselves which person we should be – the careless travelers who pass by a wounded person, or the Samaritan. But I want us to imagine ourselves not choosing between the healthy travelers wondering whether we’d act charitably. The question Jesus asked was to a man who was beaten and left for dead on the side of the road.

Who would he call his neighbor? Who do we call our neighbor?

Or, let me ask the question a different way.

It’s often said that Jesus broke down walls and challenged the constructs of his time. One way he demonstrated this was that he dined with prostitutes and tax collectors alike.

And in a place like HopeGateWay, it may be easier for us to see that, of course, Jesus would dine with prostitutes – with those who are marginalized to the point that they are often written out of the Bible.

It may be harder to stomach that Jesus also showed compassion and love for tax collectors. Tax collectors were disdained by the Jews of Jesus’ day because of their perceived greed and collaboration with the Roman occupiers. It’s like saying, in our day, that Jesus even had compassion and love for corrupt politicians or lobbyists. Jesus would have compassion and love for the greatest polluters of our planet.

Of course, as Sara said last week, sometimes love requires us to tell hard truths to the people we love.

The question today isn’t who we’re going to be like on the road but whether we can see any good in the people we’ve been taught to disdain or we’ve been conditioned to distrust.

Can we? Is there good in them? Do you see the image of God in them? Because we have to concede, if the image of God is in us, that the image of God is in everyone else, too. Full stop. No exceptions. We have to concede that, if we are complex people with backstories and fears and desires, and we are both imperfect and holy, then so is everyone else.

Sometimes it’s easier to believe that all of us are depraved. That in the people who most confound us, the spirit of God is neither present nor working. It’s an easy shorthand for the defensive heart: if folks hurt us, it’s because they’re bad people. If folks act or vote or spend their time in ways that confound us, it’s because they’re bad people.

What we say when we relinquish the doctrine of depravity is that we dare to recognize the image of God in one another, and that there are no bad people.

Because if we cannot see any good in others, in the people most unlike us, then what is worth loving in one another? What is worth beholding? 

Jesus dined with both the prostitute and the tax collector. He spoke comfort to the marginalized and he challenged those who had power. He saw the potential of their inherent good.

In the careless doctrine of depravity, we deny our own and others’ inherent good. We mischaracterize one another, and we mischaracterize God.

But if we take seriously that, as Jesus said according to the gospel of Luke, the kin-dom of God is within us, then within us and even the people who most confound us – is the potential of our inherent good.

The notion of depravity says that people are like mud – not worth much except for the stray diamond that may or may not be in it. But the belief that we are all made in the image of God says that people are like riverbeds – mixed up together with gold, lined with stones that are beautiful, with water running over us, changing us, shaping us.

It’s Who We Are

All of us are walking down the road to Jericho, all of us walking with each other. And all of us, at some point, will be battered by the road and wounded. We’re going to be cheated and robbed. We’re going to get dusty and thirsty. And we’re going to trip over our own feet. And some days, unexpected angels will gather us, unknowing, and bring us in for healing.

When we awaken, will we recognize the unexpected people who carried us? Their feet will be dirty, like yours. Their faces will be leathered, like yours. They will be common sinners, like you. And they will be common saints, like you.

For none of us are beyond help, and none of us are beyond helpfulness. None of us are depraved. None of us are unmarked by God’s craftsmanship. All of us are made in God’s image. 

The notion that all of us are depraved – that we can do no good except what God does through us empty shells – is a toxic one. And it’s important to call out toxic beliefs not because we want to believe all the right things — or that there even is a slate of “right things” to believe — but because the fruit of our beliefs is our actions and their consequences. If we believe that people are depraved – that we are or that other people are, then that’s how we treat ourselves and how we treat others.

But if we believe, as Jesus did, that the image of God is in all of us, then we have to treat each other that way. We have to treat ourselves that way, and we have to treat those we’d call our enemies that way.

Pat Anderson, the editor of Christian Ethics Today, wrote in an article: “Jesus calls upon his followers not to produce ‘believers’ or ‘knowers,’ but rather to nurture and activate ‘disciples’ who ‘do’ what Jesus said: Love neighbors unconditionally. Welcome strangers. Protect vulnerable people. Condemn hypocrites. Expose liars and thieves. Practice nonviolence zealously.”

All of us are both infinitely holy and capable of evil. All of us can do commonplace good and all of us can do commonplace harm. It’s not just the spirit of God pulling our strings like a cosmic puppetmaster. It’s interwoven into every part of us. 

It’s who we are: made in the image of God.

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