“I’m Christian, unless you’re gay.” That’s the title of one of the most popular blog posts of 2011. After its posting on the blog Single Dad Laughing this November, it has accumulated 228,000 facebook likes and 7873 comments, including a dozen or so within the last day. Best I can tell, the author Dan Pearce writes from a perspective outside of organized religion. After reading through his post several times and the flood of responses he received, it seems to me that a large subsection of our population has come to equate being “Christian” with being so ideologically committed to a set of “values” that you are no longer capable of human sympathy. When I was a kid, we used to sing a song in Sunday school called “They’ll know we are Christians by our love.” I’m not sure what happened to that concept.
I call myself an evangelical Christian, because I have bet my life on the belief that Christianity is uniquely capable of creating perfect human community, where people treat one another with compassion and sympathy because each of us recognizes that we are sinners redeemed only by God’s grace. I long for other people to know Jesus and become part of the amazing reality that I’ve only begun to discover called the kingdom of God. Because this is so important to me, I want very badly to exude the spirit of Christ every time I interact with another person. I call it being Christ to others and seeing Christ in others. It would be devastating for me to learn that anything I had done to somebody else was the reason they couldn’t consider Christianity.
This is why I’m mystified by how many evangelical Christians don’t seem to care about how they represent Jesus to the world. It really seems like many evangelicals want Christianity to be hard for others to swallow so that heaven will be less crowded. 1 Peter 3:15-16 says, “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their slander.” How do the gotcha games and demonization of ideological opponents deployed by Christians in the public sphere today even remotely resemble the thoughtful, sensitive approach to evangelism that Peter describes?
How is it Christian to call it “religious persecution” when bullies whip out the Jesus card after getting disciplined by their schools for harassing other boys who seem too feminine (whether they’re actually gay or not)? How is it Christian to organize a boycott campaign against a TV show that has the audacity to assert that Muslims might be normal people and not terrorists? How has a movement that was supposed to create compassionate, sympathetic people turned into a factory for self-righteous ideologues who seem completely immune and unresponsive to the pathos of others?
I may be reaching out in the dark on this, but I feel like there’s a basic fault-line between two different forms of evangelical Christianity in terms of our understanding of God’s nature. Consider these questions. Is God’s agenda in Jesus’ incarnation, death, and resurrection rooted in His intolerance for imperfection or His desire for communion with humanity? Does Jesus show us that God will let Himself get dirty to reach out to us in love or that God cannot stand our presence until we’re made clean through His son’s sacrifice? Is the cross fundamentally an expression of God’s love or hatred for humanity?
If what makes us acceptable to God is simply to agree (with God, presumably) that other people are despicable enough to deserve eternal torture, then it makes sense that Christianity would make us into unsympathetic people. Our lack of sympathy for others would be solidarity with God’s hatred for them and our approval of God’s uncompromising judgment upon them. Of course, the question that comes to mind is whether this perspective really amounts to sympathizing with God’s hatred or creating a God (out of our own particular reading of scripture) who sympathizes with our hatred of others.
But what if we’ve missed the point in thinking that we are saved by agreeing with “truths” about the world according to how difficult they are (for others) to swallow? What if Jesus’ cross says that God accepts us not because of what we say we “believe,” but in spite of the fact that we crucify Him every day? What if God just wants us to stop trying to prove that we deserve His acceptance and instead allow Jesus’ sacrifice to be our acceptability? It seems to me that accepting God’s annulment of our meritocracy would eliminate the root cause of our inability to sympathize with others: our slavish devotion to being right.
You can’t be saved from the need to be right if you think you’re saved by believing the right things about Jesus. On the contrary, this “salvation” only makes you more insalvageably self-righteous. I really think that’s the prison in which many evangelical Christians today are trapped. Their misunderstanding of salvation has allowed them to become ideologues whose fundamental belief in opinions rather than people makes them incapable of sympathy, which is the opposite of how Christianity is supposed to shape us. We are saved from ideology and the eternal separation it creates between us, God, and other people, when we trust that Jesus’ blood has made it okay for us to be wrong.
People who have put their trust in the sacrifice by which God has made us right with Him are people who can admit that they’re wrong. And people who can admit that they’re wrong are people who can sympathize with fellow sinners and have genuine, vulnerable relationships with them. So if you run across somebody who makes a big fuss about how Christian they are, but they seem to have a lot of trouble sympathizing with other people, that might be the indication that they haven’t really put their trust in Jesus yet. Real Christians trust that God’s love has made it completely safe to be open about their flaws. This doesn’t mean that they don’t have values or desire passionately for people they care about to lead holy lives so that they can be more intimate with God. But it does mean that they love people more than their own opinions, and they’re capable of sympathy because they’re okay with being wrong.