The 2017 Shari Prestemon Social Justice Interns have graciously agreed to share their experiences with all of us. From time to time, we’ll be posting ‘journal entries’ from Naiomi Gonzalez and Katy Morton. Below is one of these entries.
WWJD: What Does it Mean to Be a Christian?
The United States is a highly religious country, with about 70% of Americans identifying as some form of Christian. Some will see the high percentage of individuals identifying as Christian as evidence that America is a “Christian” country, based on Christian principles. Ignoring the fact that such a statement grossly misrepresents the diversity of religious opinions shared by the founding fathers, the reality is that Christianity itself is a diverse tradition, with thousands of denominations within Protestantism alone. And while there is a desire to want to turn Christianity into a simplistic checklist of beliefs where one can easily determine who is a Christian and who is not, the history of Christianity is fraught with theological debates that wracked the Church and in some cases society.
For example, the fledging Christian community was almost ripped apart numerous times by debates regarding whether or not Jesus was both the Son of God and human. And believe it or not, the issue’s resolution had just as much to with politics as it did with theology. Even today, if one studies what some consider to be the “fundamental” beliefs in Christianity, one will find that such fundamentals were not necessarily believed by the earliest Christians. As a student, I love examining the different beliefs that Christians have/have had throughout the centuries and I love studying the rich diversity of Christianity. As a Christian, however, I am less concerned about believing the “right” things about sex, marriage, drinking, cursing etc and I am more concerned with how my faith propels me to treat other people, particularly those who are vulnerable and marginalized.
American Christianity is obsessed with individualism. It is obsessed with individual salvation, it is obsessed with individual behavior, often at the expense of societal issues. For example, some forms of Christianity are so focused on regulating the sex lives of consenting adults, that it ignores larger issues: such as rape culture and the bullying of LGBTQ+ youth. Or, it focuses so much on trying to get individuals to stop cursing that it ignores, or worse, praises militaristic language that seem to relish the deaths of other people. I mean, the fact that some forms of Christianity see no contradiction between viewing cursing as a sin and praising a drone strike that kills hundreds of civilians, demonstrates American Christianity’s disconnect between the individual and the larger community. Orsome forms of Christianity claims to revolve around the life, death and resurrection of a man who challenged state authority, who broke the laws, and who was killed and abused by state power expressed through the roman military. (At the time there really was no distinction between the military and the police. The modern police force, understood as a separate entity from the military, is a modern distinction. Though, as some individuals argue, such a distinction is once again, becoming blurred). Yet amongst some forms of Christianity, there is an obsession with the state: patriotism is viewed as the hallmark of being a Christian, and those who are considered to be criminals, (whether or not they have actually committed) a crime are viewed as less than human deserving of death.
This disconnect is also seen in how some Christians treat the poor and the homeless. The Washington Post and the Kaiser Family Foundation asked a small number of individuals, “Which is generally more often to blame if a person is poor: lack of effort on their own part, or difficult circumstances beyond their control?”. Forty-six percent of the Christians polled blamed poverty on individual efforts compared to 29% of non-Christians polled. The sample size is admittedly small. Only 1,686 individuals were polled and the answers also varied by denomination/politics/race etc. But while this attitude, of course, does not reflect the opinions of all Christians, the reality is that there are some who believe that poverty and homelessness are predominately individual concerns caused by individual factors. We hear this from some church pulpits. Some politicians routinely express this opinion and justify horrific cuts to social service programs. And individual Christians will say in one breath, “God loves everyone” and then they condemn all poor and homeless people as lazy and as deserving their fate. Such a view ignores the humanity of those struggling with poverty and homelessness. They are viewed as faceless individuals who caused their own suffering. Such a view seems to disregard grace, a concept in which God’s love and care is not reserved simply for those who “deserve” it. While I am for personal accountability and responsibility, a Christianity that is simply focused on the individual is not a Christianity worth following.
Interning at Back Bay Mission serves as a reminder that those struggling with poverty and homelessness are not just faceless individuals. But real human beings and as such they are Children of God that deserve respect and to be treated with dignity. It is amazing how so many Christians expect God to show them grace, mercy and forgiveness, but when it comes time to share that with others, we create barriers and checklists to determine whether or not someone is worthy of our compassion and help.
Many Americans identify as Christian. But what does it mean to be a Christian? Is it about following a defined set of beliefs that may or may not have been held by the early community? Is it about focusing on individual behavior to the exclusion of addressing larger issues? Is it a Christianity that continues the societal obsession with power and wealth, or does it demand that the poor and homeless, the “thug,” – the marginalized be treated as beloved Children of God?