Hi! I’m John. And this is Give Me Space: A Dialogue on the Modern Perception of Christianity.
So every year my boss gives out job evaluations. They’re kind of like those reviews you give your teacher at the end of the semester, the ones that ask questions like, “Did the teacher treat all students in the class with basic human decency?” Somehow you’re supposed to condense all the nuances of who this person is into a scale from one to five. Anyway, this year at my job, for whatever reason, we had to fill out our own job evaluations, and our boss filled out his separately. Then, we came together to talk about the discrepancies between our self-evaluation and our boss’s evaluation of us. Yeah, it sounds just terrifying as it was.
For the most part, I gave myself ratings down the middle of the line. This had nothing to do with my actual sense of accomplishment over the year—I was just aiming at responses that wouldn’t raise my boss’s eyebrows. When I met with him, our evaluations were a little different, as you might expect. He did grade me higher on a few counts, but also lower on a few others. The evaluation had some question about my use of safety equipment. By the way, I work in grounds maintenance and run some heavy equipment like commercial mowers or tractors. I think I gave myself a three or four because I’m always pretty conscious of wearing ear muffs and safety glasses, especially on the mowers. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been hit with some small debris that was launched from another mower. But, as my boss noted, I usually don’t wear my seat belt. Now, I could give you about twenty-seven reasons why I don’t wear my seat belt on the mowers. But, in the end, he was right. I didn’t. We went over a few discrepancies like this—and I guess, overall, the experience wasn’t too traumatic.
It did make me wonder about self-evaluation. Can we really evaluate ourselves? Or more aptly, can we evaluate ourselves accurately?
I’m a Christian. I grew up in a Christian home and have been a member of the Christian community all my life. It’s not just my parents’ faith—I’ve had some beautiful experiences in my church and community that has made faith an integral part of my life. But I’ve also run across quite a few Christians and churches that have made me skeptical about the impact of Christianity in today’s world.
As a member of this community, I want to do some reflection on how we’re doing, as Christians, and if we’re consistently living out what we’re claiming. I’ll be the first to admit that Christianity makes some big claims about life and the universe. I’m curious if we’re living up to that. But, who can really evaluate us?
Whenever I’m in need of an honest opinion, I usually ask a good friend of mine. And his evaluations aren’t always flattering. But I think that’s the point. When I need some advice on a situation, I usually trust someone who’s outside of it to carry a more balanced perspective. That’s why I’ve ask some of my non-Christian friends to share their perception on Christianity and Christians, in general. I used Facebook to survey their responses. Here’s what they had to say:
One respondent defined Christianity as any other ideology—a framework that we use to tell us how to live, to “do good,” he says, or to “find a deeper meaning in life.” But he also framed this within a larger discussion of human nature. “People may or may not actually believe in the ideology, but instead use it to control others, hide/ignore the truth, usurp/consolidate power, or otherwise further their own agenda.” “So,” he says, “I can’t really say that I perceive Christians any differently [than] I perceive anyone else. Knowing someone is a Christian is another piece in the puzzle that is my understanding of who that person is, but not nearly as important as that person’s words and actions.”
His response is twofold, I think. First, Christianity is a social construct that is used by people—mostly to further their own agenda, whether that’s to “do good” or control others. Second, he evaluates Christians like he does anyone else—based on their “words and actions.” When it comes down to it, it’s not the labels we put on people but the unique humanness that they demonstrate in their everyday lives. But certainly, how we identify does impact how we see ourselves and how society sees us. I think he is right when he says that some people ultimately use Christianity, or any ideology, as a method of social control. I’ve certainly heard this argument before, and I think it’s grounded in history.
This sentiment is echoed by another respondent, who claims, “The most influential chriatians [sic] are the most hypocritical. If the goal of christianity is to be Christ-like in word and deed, many Christians are unforgiving and unkind. Basically, all christians are human,” he says, “and the point of christianity is lost on them.” Again, we see the evaluation based on word and deed. But he also brings up an interesting comparison: the more influence a person has, the more their hypocrisy.
This raises an age-old question: does political power, or influence over others, corrupt us? If we’re evaluating Christianity, we should probably see what Christ said and did about this. Jesus, time and time again, refused political power. We see him live this out in the story of his temptation, when Satan supposedly offers him all the kingdoms of the earth (you can find this in Matthew 4, and it’s also in Mark and Luke). Jesus rejects Satan’s offer—and we see this rejection echo throughout his ministry. The Jews of the time were looking for a Messiah who would deliver them from Roman oppression. And it’s not that the opportunity didn’t present itself. When Jesus supposedly fed the 5,000, he ordered his crowd of followers to organize into groups of hundreds and fifties. To any Roman official, this would have looked like an army. A Roman legion was, after all, about 5,000 men with various cohorts of smaller groups. But Jesus feeds them, the story goes, and disperses them. He let’s his army go. Again, when Jesus was being arrested, his devout follower, Peter, takes his sword and begins to fight. But Jesus rebukes him for it. At every turn, Jesus rejects any kind of political rebellion or leadership. He doesn’t want it.
This is curious because since the fourth century, Christians have lived and breathed political power. But I wonder if this is really the kind of movement Jesus came to inaugurate. According to Christ himself, his “kingdom is not of this world.” So when my respondent suggests that influence corresponds to hypocrisy for Christians, I wonder if he’s not seeing the symptom of a larger issue within the Church. Is our quest for influence corrupting us? You can read more about this in Dr. Gregory Boyd’s The Myth of a Christian Nation: How the Quest for Political Power is Destroying the Church.
Today, nearly every President of the United States has been at least affiliated with Christianity. To some extent, it’s become almost a litmus test for candidates. President Obama has long faced accusations of being Muslim, as if that should have disqualified him from being President. Take this interview with Antonio Sabato on an ABC news panel during the 2016 Republican National Convention:
The first clip you heard was Dr. Gregory Boyd in a 2007 interview with Charlie Rose. The second was Donald Trump at one of his rallies in March of 2016.
But how’d we get to this point? Christianity has gotten tangled up in the very fabric of our country. We’re reportedly a “Christian nation.” But what does that even mean, really, because I don’t see anything in the Gospels about forming a country and becoming the superpower of the world. I don’t see anything in the Gospels about “America first.”
One of my respondents claimed that Christianity was an identity, not an ideology. He said says that “The identity of ‘Christian’ is used to identify with a community that has a specific set of values that is often exclusionary to those who choose not to or are unable to meet those social standards.” He says, “I find that in current discourse, this type of identity is employed when people say that ‘America is a Christian country.’ It’s not about the religion itself, but using the word to signal a set of social standards that revolve around the appearance of chastity, wealth, piousness, whiteness and patriotism.” And this review certainly isn’t isolated. If we travel beyond the confines of our churches, I think we’ll come across these perceptions far too often. How have we allowed Christianity to become so entangled with the American dream that its known for patriotism and wealth, which have nothing to do with the message of Christ? In Matthew 19, Jesus says, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.” How did we let a movement started by a young, homeless middle-eastern man become defined as white and rich?
Perhaps this explains why one of my respondents, a self-described believer in God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirt, says she no longer identifies as Christian. To her, Christians are “exclusionary and calloused.”
Many of the conversations I’ve had with my friends and colleagues have questioned the hypocritical nature of Christians—almost always falling on some political stance the Church has taken on. My response threads are posted with comics like this one: a two-sided sketch in which the left panel has a picture of an unborn baby in the womb and reads “Every life is precious,” while the right panel has a sketch of the infamous photo of a tiny refugee boy’s limp body who washed up on the Mediterranean beach. The panel reads, “Not my problem.”
One of my respondents wrote a short essay, and I asked him to read it in its entirety. Grab a blanket and a cup of tea, if you can, and a box of tissues. He says:
“I try to see the good in Christians, I try to see that they are just people who want to belong somewhere. They are people looking for a community to celebrate the good times with and a source of compassion in the hard times, a safety net. They are just looking for some kind of path to follow and I understand that, because without community, life is very difficult. However, in the same breath that I try to rationalize their choice of an easy path, I condemn them for willfully turning a blind eye to hateful cruel behavior toward women and lgbt people in their community. I especially condemn Christians for their lack of compassion during the aids crisis in the 80’s. Today I watch them persecute those who are not like themselves as they live in their segregated church bubbles. I watch them deny women positions of authority in their churches or ‘social clubs’ as I like to call them. I have friends who have been excommunicated from their churches for loving the wrong person. I have watched as a woman was forced to apologize for a homosexual kiss at a party in front of a congregation under threat of financial hardship. I have watched and joined in the verbal assault of a lesbian woman.
“I participated in this blatant abuse and I became like these people, hateful toward anyone deemed ‘other’. I thought if I hated the people like myself then I would fly under the radar, and it worked for a long time.
“I resent the people religion turned my parents into. Religion is the reason that my parents went from hero to villain in my life. When I was around nine years old my father and mother noticed some things about me that they didn’t like. They pulled me aside and they said ‘it’s time you know about gay people. They are sick and they do things that make god very angry. Gay people carry disease and they hurt their families and kill the ones they love.’
“Following that was years of watching high school musical at 2 am with the lights off on the lowest volume setting, of watching Ellen and rushing to change the channel before dad came home and asked me why I was watching Ellen degenerate, and years of being ashamed for who I am and what I am interested in all because of a bigotry that my parents adopted from Christianity. Maybe it’s misguided but I believe Christianity’s morally superior reaction to the aids epidemic informed my dad’s opinion of gay people. He thought that gay people were being plagued by god and they deserved it because that’s what his church told him. I never knew my mother’s opinions on the subject because my mother’s opinions were all of my father’s opinions. She had ceased to be her own person because religion modeled for her that women should be seen and not heard.
“It’s hard to think about how I see Christians because of all of the personal trauma I have wrapped up in my experience of religion. Religion has ruined my relationship with my family, my college track, and my emotional health. But if I had to think of how I see Christians, apart from all of that, I look toward how I see people. I think that a lot of people are so afraid to be left out that they will compromise their moral fiber to be included, and Christians are really good at making people feel loved, accepted, included, and empowered, provided you’re not lgbt or an ambitious woman.
“I look back at the church’s stance on important events in the past and I see them on the wrong side every single time. I often see Christianity being nothing more than a conduit for whatever kind of nationalism is prevalent at the time. From way back in the middle ages when the Christians went on the crusades to the time when Jesuits converted native Americans so they could steal their land and gold, they have been on the immoral side of history. Christianity was used as a tool to pacify slaves and put Christians on the wrong side for black issues as they often still are. They were on the wrong side of women’s rights issues and many churches still think a women has no authority to tell a man what is right. They are on the wrong side of lgbt issues and in the 80’s they turned a blind eye as millions of gay men were dying of aids and they turned their smug little noses up in the air and had the audacity to feel morally superior about their decisions.
“I think a lot of the time, Christians fall into the trap of trying to follow the bible literally, but they pick and choose the passages that confirm their biases. I look at history and I see the laws of the church lagging behind morally. Conservatism and biblical literalism have kept churches behind the times and now with sagging membership the churches resent being pushed out of their comfort zones.
“I personally find it hard to respect a group of people who think that lgbt people are 2nd class citizens. I find it hard to respect people who go to segregated churches. I find it hard to respect people who think women should be seen and not heard. I find it hard to respect people who think that ‘man up’ or ‘stop being a pussy’ are phrases that will make a child strong. And I find it hard to be patient with a group of insolent, morally corrupt people complaining about being persecuted when they are historically the persecutors.
“We are asking that they include lgbt people and accept that they are humans. We are asking that they allow women to be equal parts of their religion. We are asking them to bring up boys who are emotional[ly] whole and capable of empathy, and we are asking them to bring up women who are confident and believe in their own abilities. But to those who are privileged, equality feels like persecution and they resent being forced to change as much as I resent them for not changing.
“I want Christians to raise their moral standards.
“Love one another for love is of god, he who loves is born of god and knows god. He who does not love does not know god, for god is love. God is love.
“I really wish Christians would take their own damn advice because in my heart I know they can be good people, but my expectation is that they will continue being sheep who will attack anyone who doesn’t fit in with the flock.”
The first time I read that, I cried. I cried not only because his message is powerful—but because it’s true. I cried because from outside of the Church, he seems to know more about the message of Christ than anyone in it. But we shut out eyes and close our ears. We don’t stay silent long enough to listen. I wonder if we’re missing God’s call because it’s coming from outside out church doors.
That’s 1 John 4 that he quoted, by the way, that God is love.
The last excerpt I want to share is a response I received from one of my Muslim-American friends. She says:
“Based on what I’ve seen from my best friends, the majority of whom are Christians, i can honestly say at it’s essence, [Christianity] is an open and loving religion, full of motivation, hope, and a sense of support and acceptance. [It] has values that promote caring and repect [sic] for one another, regardless of what religion [we] hold. Of course, there will always be extremist in every religion that hinder the progess [sic] and the prospect of having a united group of people. I for one feel very comfortable in churches. I sing in them and use the piano always to practice. I even go in sometimes because i find churches to be serene and beautiful. Yes, there are differences between religions, but it all comes down to how we choose to live with and amongst our diverse peers. Beauty can be seen in everything if [we] merely opens [our] eyes and accept diversity without judgement.”
I think this is a beautiful view of the Church. And this is what I truly hope the Church can be. But I also wonder if she’s speaking on a reality that’s not quite here yet—if she’s prophesying over us what we should be. I’m not entirely sure she’d be as welcomed in my church. I mean, certainly we’d love her and open our doors to her. I’d like to think that my church would be a safe place for her. But I also wonder if we would accept her without trying to change her, if we’d let her be just who she is.
So we’re left with a lot of questions about the Christian community. How are we living out the message of Christ in our daily lives? Is our quest for influence corrupting us? How are we welcoming those in our communities? Are with presenting the world with an image of Christianity that’s contrary to the nature of God? What would our lives look like if we took to heart the message that God is love—and he loves us and those around us with everything he’s got.
If I’m perfectly honest, my Muslim friends and colleagues on campus have been far more loving and kind and welcoming than most self-described Christians that I’ve met. But that’s just my perception.
In this episode, you heard an excerpt from the iconic score to 1960 film, Psycho, written by Bernard Herrmann. The rest of the music was written and produced by yours truly. I’d like to thank all my respondents for their invaluable help in beginning this conversation. Thanks for listening.