This week, the Supreme Court ruled on a complicated healthcare issue with religious rights at its center. I am not at all qualified to comment, much less fully understand, what it really means, and I have read several blogs that have tried to explain it from different points of view. But I still find it dismaying. As a follower of Jesus, I worry more and more about how the rest of the world views and defines the term 'Christian'. I am afraid that regardless of the faithfulness and good intentions of millions, the label 'Christian' is consistently associated in our culture with negative characteristics. And I perceive that the message the larger culture is receiving about who Christians are and what they believe is so very different from the one that I understand and devote my life to. I recently saw a cartoon featuring a woman holding a Bible and saying, 'when I say what you can do, it is called religious freedom. When you say what I can do, it is called discrimination.' There are so many ways I find this painful, because I both fear that there is a modicum of truth to it, and because I fear that the general public really does see Christians in this light. And because the Christianity I practice, and that I see practiced all around me, is, God willing, actually nothing like this. The Christians I know, and the religion I follow, have love, generosity, self-sacrifice, caring for others, and forgiveness at their center. How can it be that when young people were polled by the Barna Group in 2007 about how they view Christians, their answers are 'judgmental' (87%), 'hypocritical' (85%), 'old-fashioned' (78%), and 'too involved in politics' (75%)? How is it that there is such a huge gap between what I mean when I call myself a Christian and what others hear?
Is it time to reclaim the word 'Christian' and what it means?
I realize, of course, that this is very difficult. What it means to call oneself a Christian, in terms of belief and practice, does vary widely. Lots of Christians believe things that I don't, and vice versa. What really concerns me, though, is that only one type of Christian seems to be present in the popular imagination. Hobby Lobby, whose case the Supreme Court was deciding last week, is now known as a company that does not want to pay for insurance to cover birth control for women. Much less well-known is the fact that they close on Sunday to offer their employees a day of rest with their families and an opportunity for worship. Only the part of their Christian identification that causes controversy and is easily ridiculed is widely known. I wonder if that is because controversial news is more interesting, or because we as Christians are not as bold as we could be in all the ways we manifest our faith in the world.
Are we willing to publicly identify ourselves and our actions as Christian?
It seems to me that there is only a small group of Christians that feels very comfortable talking about their faith in public. I am not saying they shouldn't. But what I do wonder is whether this is part of the overall perception of who Christians are. Very many of those who do follow Jesus are also hesitant to make a big deal about this, to talk about their faith in public, to attribute decisions they make and actions they take to their faith. This helps present a very skewed idea about what Christian faith and practice looks like, if only some Christian views are present in the public realm. When I speak of this in churches, I often say that if the perception of who Jesus is and what it means to follow him that I see online and hear in the news is nothing like the one I practice, then I have to ask myself how others will know the Jesus I know, if I am unwilling to share about it. I think we can look at evangelism as a one-on-one phenomenon, but there is a cumulative effect to how we are perceived, and our words, or lack of them, have consequences.
Maybe we should also embrace being ridiculed
On the other hand, it does occur to me that general public acceptance has never been the aim or the outcome of being a Christian. 'You will be hated by all because of my name,' Jesus says in the Gospel of Matthew. Calling the culture into question, calling the world to believe in the Kingdom of God, has always been part of the church's aim. And part of this, of course, is bearing the world's misunderstanding, and unflattering characterization of who Christians are and what their aim is. In some ways, negative views of Christians is something that has been part of our experience from the very beginning.
They will know we are Christians by our love
Yet there is a difference between the world hating us because we refuse to hate others and the world hating us because we appear to manifest our own hatred and fear. Deep down, my concern for how the world sees Christians today is that, rightly or wrongly, we are viewed not as those willing to lay down our lives for our friends, or walk the extra mile, or forgive seventy times seven. Instead our reputation grows more solid as people who cast judgment on others, who speak of sin but not of reconciliation, of a kind of restrictive view of God's love that seems to admit only the very few. Regardless of what particular views any given Christian has, we all belong to a faith that has love at its core. That the inverse of this could be the public reputation of Christianity is bitter irony indeed.
I am a Christian
And so I feel compelled to speak publicly of my own faith and to say boldly what I believe as a follower of Jesus. My views, ultimately, are of course, not necessarily those of others who profess the same faith. But I do think the world will get a broader view of all the ways we proclaim good news in this world if we all keep doing it, keep saying it, out loud. Jesus died to save me from my sins, and because of this I have gone from a broken person to one who is redeemed. From someone who could not forgive others to someone who forgives because I know how I have been forgiven. The love of God saved my life, and I want others to know that it can and will save theirs, too. We will all have different ideas about what this means and what it looks like, and what the consequences are. But the deep-down basics are about love and grace, and always will be. It is my hope that this is what Christian means to the rest of the world, now and always.