Where does Jesus fit in?
By Jeremy Rifkin
The death of Pope John Paul II and the election of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger as Pope Benedict XVI has put Christianity front and center on the world stage over the past few weeks. Many in the Christian world quietly question the wisdom of continuing to elect European Cardinals as Popes when Christianity seems to be quickly fading on that continent. The new Pope even made a point to question “the dictatorship of relativism” in his pre-conclave homily, in a kind of veiled criticism of the growing secularism in Europe. All of this soul searching about the future of Christianity has made me wonder If Jesus were to come back to the world today, where would he feel most comfortable, in God-fearing America or in Godless Europe? Of course, ones first thought is America where secular relativism is far less influential than in Europe. After all, we Americans are the most devoutly Christian of any industrialized country in the world. Six in ten Americans say that their faith is involved in every aspect of their lives. Fifty-eight percent of Americans pray at least once a day and nearly half attend religious services once a week.
America’s religious convictions run deep. More than one-third of all Americans believe that every line of the bible is the actual word of God and not simply inspired interpretation or made up stories. (Ninety-three percent of Americans own a bible). Forty-five percent of Americans believe that God created human beings ten thousand years ago. Fifty-six percent of Americans believe that creationism should be taught alongside evolution in the schools. Sixty-eight percent of Americans believe in the devil, eighty-two percent believe in heaven and forty percent of Americans believe that the world will end in an Armageddon battle between Jesus and the Antichrist.
While six out of ten Americans say that religion is very important in their lives, in European countries, religion is barely a factor in people’s day-to-day lives. In Germany, only twenty-one percent say that religion is very important to them, while the percentage in Great Britain drops to sixteen percent, in France to fourteen percent and in the Czech Republic, eleven percent. In Sweden and Denmark, the numbers are even lower, under ten percent.
Yet, what is so utterly surprising is that it is Europeans who more often walk in the footsteps of Jesus, although they would, no doubt, be somewhat taken aback, maybe even upset by such a characterization.
True, there is not a single mention of God in the European Constitution currently being debated across the twenty-five member states of the European Union. But, when it comes to practicing what Jesus preached, our European brethren may have something to teach American churchgoers. Consider the following.
As he lie dying, Christ pleaded with God to forgive his executioners “for they know not what they do.” At the heart of Christian doctrine is the belief in forgiveness and redemption even the worst sinner can be saved. In his sermon on the mount, Jesus said “ye have heard that it hath been said, an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth; but I say unto you that ye resist not evil; but whoever shall smite thee on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.”
Europeans have taken the notion of forgiveness and redemption to heart in public policy. Capital punishment has been abolished across all twenty-five-member states of the European Union. While the EU has substituted the word rehabilitation for redemption, thus secularizing their morality, the intent is clearly in line with Jesus’s teachings. In America, on the other hand, the vast majority of people - two out of three - favor the death penalty and thirty-seven percent of all Americans say they believe in “an eye for an eye,” rather than turning the other cheek. For many Americans, retribution trumps rehabilitation. Currently, thirty-eight states permit the death penalty and in the past twenty-nine years, more than eight hundred people have been executed.
What about waging war? Jesus said, “Blessed are the peacemakers.” Christ goes further saying “ye have heard that it hath been said, thou shalt love thy neighbor, and hate thine enemy. But I say unto you. Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, and persecute you.” Jesus continually admonished his followers to put down the sword. Ironically, America, the most Christian country in the world, boasts the most expansive military machine in all of history. American military spending alone is more than the next nine largest defense budgets combined. The U.S. now accounts for eighty percent of the world’s military research and development and forty percent of the world’s total military spending.
The European Union, by contrast, was founded on the principle of waging “perpetual peace.” And while the EU can be rightfully chastised for overdependence on the U.S. to protect its vital security interests during the Cold War and more recently in the military skirmishes in Bosnia and Kosovo, it is equally true that European’s do take seriously the idea of being peacekeepers. Over the past half-century, EU member states have provided eighty percent of the peacekeeping forces in conflicts around the world. The EU also provides seventy percent of all the reconstruction funds, fifty percent of all civilian development assistance, and forty-seven percent of all humanitarian assistance in the world. (The U.S. only contributes thirty-six percent).
Jesus devoted much of his sermons to the issue of serving the less fortunate and poor. One out of every sixteen verses in the New Testament is devoted to the subject of the proper distribution of wealth and providing for the weakest and poorest members of society. Jesus says “The spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free ”
America has strayed far afield from Christ’s teachings. Today, the U.S. ranks twenty-fourth among industrialized nations in income disparity, that is, the gap between the very few rich at the top and the multitude of poor at the bottom. All twenty-five member states of the European Union enjoy a more equal distribution of wealth.
There are also more people living in poverty in America than in the sixteen European nations for which data is available. A staggering twenty-two percent of all the children in the U.S. are living in poverty. The U.S. currently ranks twenty-second, or second to last in childhood poverty, among the developed nations. Only Mexico scores lower. Sadly, fifty-eight percent of Americans say that “it is more important to pursue personal goals without government interference,” while only one-third of Americans say “ it is more important for government to guarantee that no one is in need.”
Jesus preached non-violence, but, in America, where church attendance is the highest in the industrial world, there are 250 million handguns in circulation. It is no wonder that the U.S. homicide rate is nearly four times higher than in Europe. More terrifying still, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) report that the rates of childhood homicides, suicides, and firearm-related deaths exceed those of the other twenty-five wealthiest nations in the world, including the fourteen wealthiest European countries.
Finally, Jesus asks the faithful to respect and steward the Creation. Europeans, though far less religious, have shown a higher regard for protecting the biosphere upon which all of life depends. It was the European Union that championed the Global Warming Treaty and Biodiversity Treaty, while the United States refused to endorse either treaty. Many of the member states of the EU have benchmarked the shift to renewable energy and organic agriculture and even recognized the rights of our fellow creatures in law. The U.S. has not.
All of which begs the question; Is going to church the litmus test of the moral life, or practicing what Jesus preached? Are Christ’s teachings more alive in America or Europe? Something to think about.