Because I go to a church event for the first time in weeks and within twenty minutes, I hear people make off-the-cuff racist, sexist and homophobic comments and nobody bats an eye.
I lay on the couch, curled up in a ball with the phone to my ear and listen to a dear friend tell me how he feels like an outsider to the people he’s attended church with for years because he has chosen to plant his flag with the disenfranchised and the vulnerable in his community, as messy as that gets. And it got messy.
Another friend I grew up with sends me a middle of the night link to an article about the guy in Arizona who stood on his college campus holding a sign reading “You Deserve Rape.” We’ve been having conversations lately about some of his qualms with Christianity, and he sums it nicely by saying, “I don’t want to have to spend the rest of my life explaining this to people. I have better things to do.” And I sympathize. Because I don’t want to have to spend the rest of my life explaining that to people, either.
And that’s just in the last couple of weeks.
-Emily Joy Allison
“Church Prove Me Wrong”
The church is its own worse enemy.
I came across Ms. Allison’s blog (I get the impression she wouldn’t consider us on a first name basis so I’ll maintain some formality) as a link someone put on Facebook. That was well over a week ago, but this was the first chance I had to write about it. She says a lot of good things and a few things I disagree with, but she presents me with a struggle. Actually, she presents me with my own struggle, though I don’t conceptualize it in the same manner that Ms. Allison does. The struggle is with being a Christian and going to church vs. some of the really dippy and even hurtful things some Christians and some Christian churches do in the world.
For instance, she posted a screen capture of John Piper tweeting a message on twitter quoting Job 1:19 “in the wake of the terrible tragedies in Oklahoma,”
“Your sons and daughters were eating and a great wind struck the house, and it fell upon them, and they are dead.”
Even if Piper hadn’t intended this message to be taken the way it sounds, his timing (and probably his tastefulness) was ghastly. The tweet was subsequently deleted, but it’s another example of Christians (and people I refer to as “famous Christians” … more on that in a minute) standing on the platform of faith in Jesus Christ and throwing rocks at the injured and dying people of the world.
I sometimes have a problem with some “famous Christians.” These are usually televangelists or other Pastors or leaders who are in the public eye, people whose names are familiar even with atheists. Christians who typically are the worst examples of Christianity and who give the rest of the world the impression that we’re all like they are.
I recently heard an unsubstantiated story (that is, I can’t find it by Googling it) of scandal-plagued Jimmy Swaggart actually selling individual pages from his family Bible while leading a tour group in Israel. This would have been fairly recently, but I can’t find an online reference to the event. We’ve also heard names such as Benny Hinn and Joel Osteen, and I cringe to think that this is what the world sees when they think they’re looking at men who are disciples of and witnesses for Christ.
Many years ago, I knew some Americans who, when they toured Europe, would tell people they were from Canada (this obviously didn’t work at airports when they had to present their passports) because they were too embarrassed by America’s reputation overseas. There are days when I feel that way about being a Christian. I believe as a Christian, that I should be held accountable for my own behavior, my flaws, my mistakes, my errors, but it’s adding insult to injury if I have to be ashamed for every lousy thing someone else does in the name of Christ.
In terms of social consciousness and popular causes, it looks like Ms. Allison and I are different enough to where she would probably be embarrassed to be counted a Christian along with me, so from her perspective, I’m likely one of those folks she’s appealing to when she says:
YOU are supposed to be the living, breathing, embodiment of the gospel, and sometimes I can’t see anything good about it.
Church, prove me wrong. I’m begging you.
Church, prove me wrong. I’ve tried to be patient—and I will continue to try. I will be eating with you, talking with you, praying with you; from time to time I’ll probably be sitting in a church service with you. I will not abandon you, as long as Jesus has anything to do with it. But I need you to show me that he still does.
I recently read a blog post that quoted Jones, E. Stanley, (1925). The Christ of the Indian Road. Abingdon Press, 72-73. You’ve probably read this before:
“Mr. Gandhi, though you quote the words of Christ often, why is that you appear to so adamantly reject becoming his follower?”
Gandhi replied, “Oh, I don’t reject your Christ. I love your Christ. It’s just that so many of you Christians are so unlike your Christ.”
Ghandi’s rejection of Christianity grew out of an incident that happened when he was a young man. During his years studying law in Britain, he had become attracted to the Christian faith, had studied the Bible and the teachings of Jesus, and was seriously exploring becoming a Christian. One Sunday, in South Africa where he had gone to practice law after getting his degree, he decided to attend a church service.
As he came up the steps of the large church where he intended to go, a white South African elder of the church barred his way at the door. “Where do you think you’re going, kaffir?” the man asked Gandhi in a belligerent tone of voice.
Gandhi replied, “I’d like to attend worship here.”
The church elder snarled at Him, “There’s no room for Kaffirs in this church. Get out of here or I’ll have my assistants throw you down the steps.”
Gandhi is certainly an outstanding example, but how many Christians have thrown people out of the church or driven folks away who otherwise are men and women who act and think and breathe with the heart of Christ?
On the other hand, and there’s always an other hand, I can’t use all of this as an excuse to go “church bashing” or “Christian bashing.” From her writing, I get the impression that Ms. Allison is representative of a specifically narrow corridor of the believing world that exists in fusion with many of the popular values western society espouses today.
If the problem Ms. Allison or anyone else has with “the church” is that “the church” has a specific values system that conflicts with the non-religious social priorities we see continually in the popular news media, then maybe it’s a case of the church following its own priorities rather than believing it must “go along to get along” in American culture.
Also, if your issue is that your particular religious group or you, as an individual, have difference of opinion with how other religious people or other religious groups conceptualize and operationalize a life of faith, that may not be a matter of the church needing to prove anything to you. That might just be a difference in how you see a life of faith vs. their perspective.
Some churches aren’t going to support what has come to be known as “marriage equality,” not as a matter of bigotry (note, I think the Westboro Baptist Church is reprehensible and does not represent Christ on any level), but a matter of conscience.
If your problem with “church” is that “church” doesn’t mesh with the values we see paraded in public by CNN, MSNBC, the New York Times, and such so that “church” refuses to blend in like a chameleon into the progressive social background, then that’s not the church failing to follow Christ, it’s the church failing to worship society and culture.
I can’t prove to Ms. Allison that she’s wrong. If the church has failed to live up to her expectations, then I’m sorry. The church isn’t perfect because it’s full of imperfect human beings. Sometimes we do stupid things. Sometimes we do mean things. Sometimes some people in the church need to be told that Jesus would never act the way they’re acting.
Ms. Allison will never find a church that is perfect. No matter where she goes to worship and fellowship, she’ll always find “bad apples.” There are whole churches that are “bad apples.” I don’t doubt though that there are a number of Christian churches that demonstrate values sufficiently similar to her’s that she’d be comfortable worshiping within their walls. I’m not sure what to make of such churches, but if Ms. Allison wants a place to belong, I’m sure it’s out there.
But we’ll never be perfect. Frankly, if a church is following in the footsteps of the Messiah, they probably shouldn’t look and act exactly like the world around us. Jesus said that we are in the world but not of the world.
I’ve been afraid of church for my own personal reasons, but they’re my personal reasons. My problems with going to church belong to me, not church. And yet, I came to a point in my life where I felt I had no other option but to go to church. If you call yourself a believer and a disciple, you can’t go off half-cocked following your own priorities when you know you need to be in fellowship with other believers and you need to follow the Master.
If you want to think that “the church” is irredeemably bad, you’ll find plenty examples of bad churches and bad Christians. If you don’t want to accept church-bashing lying down, and you believe that Christ still exists within the body of believers, you can do something about it. Instead of pointing a finger at what’s wrong, you can be what’s right in the church.
Gandhi is famous for saying, Be the change you wish to see in the world. If you don’t like what you see happening in the church, then be the sort of Christian you believe Jesus wants to see in the church. Walking away doesn’t make you more noble, it just makes you alone. Jesus didn’t walk away from an imperfect world. He died for it.
And then he lived. Someday he’ll come back to redeem our imperfect world. In the meantime, if we call ourselves disciples, if we call ourselves Christians, then we have a responsibility to do here and now what he is going to do when he comes back. We need to introduce a little kindness, compassion, and self-sacrifice into an otherwise broken and bleeding world. Jesus didn’t complain about what was wrong. He was moved by compassion. He caused the blind to see, caused the deaf to hear, caused the lame to walk. Like Christ, don’t complain about what’s wrong. Just do what’s right.
To the contrary, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
If I should ever leave the community of faith, it won’t be because church is broken. It will be because I am.