It might surprise some of you when I say that I stopped being a Christian about ten years ago. Last week’s picture of the world’s most powerful man holding up a Bible for what was in my view a questionable photo-opportunity polarized many, and prompted much discussion and outrage. It certainly got me thinking, and such events reinforce my reticence to be identified with ‘Christianity’.
In his book ‘Blue Like Jazz’, Donald Miller recounts how a secular talk show host urged him to defend Christianity on air. Miller refused to do so, which made the host curious:
He asked me if I was a Christian, and I told him yes. “Then why don’t you want to defend Christianity?” he asked, confused. I told him I no longer knew what the term meant. Of the hundreds of thousands of people listening to his show that day, some of them had terrible experiences with Christianity; they may have been yelled at by a teacher in a Christian school, abused by a minister, or browbeaten by a Christian parent. To them, the term Christianity meant something no Christian I know would defend. By fortifying the term, I am only making them more and more angry, I won’t do it. Stop ten people on the street and ask them what they think of when they hear the word Christianity, and they will give you ten different answers. How can I defend a term that means ten different things to ten different people? I told the radio show host that I would rather talk about Jesus, and how I came to believe that Jesus exists and that he likes me. The host looked back at me with tears in his eyes. When we were done, he asked if we could go get lunch together. He told me how much he didn’t like Christianity but how he had always wanted to believe Jesus was the Son of God.
Words can be so abused, misused, misunderstood. Am I a Christian? Honestly, I don’t know – or rather it depends who’s asking, and what they mean by it. I’ve not used that term of myself for a decade now. What sits more comfortably, and what I tell people more often, is that I’m a follower of Jesus.
I have a friend who is working in Mozambique. One time as he entered the country, he put ‘missionary’ as his occupation on the entry form. The official spat at him: “Missionary? We don’t want you missionaries in our country!” Now instead he writes ‘Transformational engineer’, and if they question him further as to what he does, he says he builds people! I like that. In fact, I started doing the same when filling out the ‘occupation’ box on my entry forms.
‘Christianity’, ‘missionary’, etc – they’re loaded words. Depending where you live, you or those around you may or may not have a problem with them.
Let me share another anecdote from Carl Medearis from his book ‘Speaking of Jesus – the Art of Not-Evangelism’:
I was teaching a class at the American University of Beirut one day, and after the class, a young man came up to me and asked bluntly if I was a missionary.
“Are you kidding?” I asked. “What makes you think I’m a missionary?”
“You were talking about Jesus earlier,” he said, “and I thought that you were a Christian missionary.”
I held a hand to my forehead, appalled. “Are you saying,” I asked, “that I’m one of those people who wants to spread capitalism and democracy and political idealism and Westernism and import a new religion?”
He looked at me, suspicious. “Well, that is what missionaries do, isn’t it?”
“Yes,” I said, “typically. Now tell me, do I look like a person who would ever be interested in changing your culture, obliterating your heritage, and making religious converts? Why would I do that? There’s nothing sensible or right about that, is there?”
“Of course not.” He held up his hands. “Look, I didn’t’ mean to offend you, but I just had to ask.”
“Because…” He trailed off, unsure of what to say.
“Because you don’t trust missionaries,” I stated.
He nodded. “Honestly, yes. I thought maybe you had an agenda and I wanted to find out. Sorry if I offended you.”
“Don’t worry about it,” I said. “Look, if you are interested in anything, just let me know, but don’t worry that I’m here to subvert your culture or anything, because I’m not. My interest in Jesus has nothing to do with religion, okay?”
“All right, Mr Medearis, I’ll see you later.”
If that’s all you knew of Carl, you could misunderstand what he meant. Let me assure you, he is a passionate follower of Jesus indeed, but one who doesn’t insist on wrapping Jesus in extra damaging and distracting cultural layers. That approach doesn’t benefit anyone.
In a telling discussion, Ayatollah Fadlallah (the late spiritual leader of Islamic fundamentalist Hezbollah in Lebanon) said to Brother Andrew (founder of Open Doors):
“You Christians have a problem.”
“What do you think our problem is?”
“You’re not following the life of Jesus Christ anymore.”
“So what do you think we should do about that?”
“You must go back to the Book.”
For us, going ‘back to the Book’ will involve re-reading the Scriptures right now in the context of COVID-19 and Black Lives Matter and humbly asking God how I/you/we’ve been blinded by my/your/our own cultural presuppositions. People talk of a ‘broken’ system. It’s not broken, it’s been designed that way.
In the USA particularly right now (but not just there), the Church has a real challenge finding her voice amidst all the outrage at the murder of George Floyd and the deeply-rooted systemic injustices in almost every sphere of society. As I wrote a decade ago in my book ‘More Than Conquerors’:
We are part of the system and share in its complicity. Desmond Tutu said: “I am not interested in picking up crumbs of compassion thrown from the table of someone who considers himself to be my master. I want the full menu of rights. If you’re neutral in situations of injustice, you’ve chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you’re neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.”
Mahatma Gandhi’s comment on the Book to a group of missionaries rings as equally challenging today as it did back then: “You Christians look after a document containing enough dynamite to blow all civilisation to pieces, turn the world upside down and bring peace to a battle-torn planet. But you treat it as though it is nothing more than a piece of literature.”
The Rev. Pattison, a respected friend of Gandhi, recounted how one Sunday morning Gandhi decided to visit one of the Christian churches in Calcutta. As he tried to enter the church sanctuary, the ushers blocked his path. They told him he wasn’t welcome, nor would he ever be allowed to attend this particular church because it was only for high-caste Indians and whites. He was neither high caste, nor white. As a result of that single event, Gandhi rejected the Christian faith, and never again considered the claims of Christ. He was turned off by the sin of segregation that was practiced by the church, and that experience of rejection prompted his declaration: “I’d be a Christian if it were not for the Christians.”
Mother Teresa was 85-years-old when she was invited to address the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington, D.C. This frail old lady, dressed as ever in her simple cheap clothing, passionately and eloquently called on the powerful luminaries gathered around her to enshrine the protection of unborn babies in law. She pleaded for compassion on behalf of the ‘little ones’: “How can we speak out against violence, when we are the most brutal with the most defenseless?”
It was obviously a controversial and sensitive subject, and many of the media elite spoke of that awkward moment for the President Clinton, Vice-President Gore, and their wives as this humble diminutive lady spoke with such conviction. As she stood down, the audience gave a roaring standing ovation. However, a number of people, who were seated on the stage, very ostentatiously chose not to stand up, in obvious disagreement with what she’d said.
Afterwards, President Clinton was asked in an interview what he thought of Mother Teresa’s pointed message. He paused and said only this: “It is very difficult to argue against a life so beautifully lived.” He was wise to keep his words to a minimum, because he recognized that all the arguments supporting his opinion about her words were irrelevant at that time. Anything he said would only reflect his attitude toward Mother Teresa the person; and in the presence of a life well lived, he was no longer responding to an issue at hand, but to a person in front of him.
Jesus was the supreme example of a life well-lived. Indeed, he was and is the Life. He shows us the way – indeed He is the Way. He shows us the truth. Indeed He is the Truth. And we can remain hopeful because He is the Resurrection.
So we find ourselves at a critical, long-overdue moment – one full of noise, anger, and indignation. How will we respond? What/Who are we passing on to our children? Will we maintain our neutrality between the elephant and the mouse? There are many more big questions to grapple with…
May God help all of us to listen humbly, to learn important lessons, and to look forward in hope, committed to embracing the cost of authentic faith, whether we reject all labels, or proudly call ourselves Christians, transformational engineers, or followers of Jesus…
PS The above has resonated with many but alienated others, as showed in private or public comments on different platforms. Some people I care deeply about have misunderstood what I’m trying to express and been offended. To them I simply ask that they re-read it, without interpreting extra layers of meaning which I’m not intending. Apologies for where it simply hasn’t been well-expressed. Of course I’m still a Christian(!), and orthodox too, as we would both probably agree on defining. But ‘judgment begins at the house of God’, so asking painful questions, re-evaluating, and maintaining a stance of humility (and repentance where appropriate) are pre-requisites to our discipleship journey.