Reaffirming Christianity

One of the more gratifying things about the aftermath of the “Being Poor” piece I wrote a week ago is how often I’ve been seeing it pop up on Christian-oriented Web sites, blogs and journals, followed by a sincere examination by the poster of what one ought to do about poverty, as Christians and as members of a larger community. By this I emphatically do not mean that all of a sudden these Christians are thinking about poverty seriously thanks to me, and that I should get a shiny medal or something like that. That would be a wildly stupid and arrogant assumption on my part, and while I’ve been known to be both wildly stupid and arrogrant, this isn’t one of those times. No, I believe these Christians were already grappling with issues like poverty, and this was just one more data point for them to consider.

What’s gratifying about these Christians using “Being Poor” to discuss poverty is not so much that they are talking about it but that I am seeing them discussing it, reminding me — as I do need to be reminded from time to time — that however much I rail against people I see as mouthing Christ’s words and ideas and yet living a life apart from the ideals they claim to profess, there are as many if not more people who genuinely struggle to follow the example Jesus set and stay on the path that He walked. It’s a reminder that the question “What Would Jesus Do?” is not just a snappy catchphrase on a bracelet, but also and hopefully foremost a genuine question that cuts to the core of how one should live one’s life and how one should approach others.

Because here’s my thing about Christians: I expect more from them. If you step up and profess to Christianity, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to expect you to make a creditable effort at following in the footsteps of Christ. Expecting people to do this flawlessly is of course ridiculous; if even Jesus had his moment of doubt, we can hardly fingerpoint when a Christian stumbles off the path. What you hope to see is the determination to get back on the path and to go where it leads. If you make a commitment to Christ and you follow His teaching, I will celebrate you. But if someone claims Jesus and then ignores his precepts of mercy and compassion, I don’t see any point in letting them use Him as a flak guard for their own wholly unchristian attitudes.

I am not a Christian, but I know Jesus. I’ve studied the Bible; I know the history of Christianity and Christian thought. Unlike three out of four Americans, I know the Bible does not say “God helps those who help themslves.” Unlike sixty percent of Americans, I know more than four commandments, and unlike half of Americans I can name more than one author of the Gospels (hint: look at the name of the books). None of this makes me better than anyone who professes to follow Christ. It does mean, however, that I am familiar with what it takes to know Christ. I know Him well enough to expect quite a lot from His followers. And I do.

What do I expect from Christians? What Jesus did: For them to love their neighbor as themselves, which is a simple phrase but a monstrously difficult thing to do. Who is one’s neighbor? Jesus answers that in Luke 10:25-37, and explains why even the least among us deserve compassion in Matthew 25:31-46. I often wonder if many of those who profess Christianity will be surprised where they are placed on the latter day. On my more irritable days, I sometimes wonder if it won’t be most of them.

But today is not that day. Through the last week I’ve gone through Web sites and blogs and journals that remind me that so many who claim Christ do indeed walk the walk and put their Christian spirit and principles on the line and try live by them, difficult as they may be. And there is a gentle irony there: I wrote the “Being Poor” piece to help other people see what it means to be poor in the US. What it helped me to see, through the many of the people who chose to write and think about it, is what it means to be spiritually committed and engaged in the US. It reminds me what Christianity can be at its best, which is sometimes also when it is at its most questioning.

So for those Christians who allowed the “Being Poor” article to be part of their conversation with Christ and this world, let me say: Thanks, and thank you for showing me what Christianity can be.

39 thoughts on “Reaffirming Christianity

  1. Because here’s my thing about Christians: I expect more from them. If you step up and profess to Christianity, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to expect you to make a creditable effort at following in the footsteps of Christ.

    I’ve got to disagree with that thing particular thing, brother. Just because a ship finds the some stars it intends to steer by does not automatically haul it thither despite wind and tide. Now, I’ll readily agree that professing a direction and yet not actually going that way does tend to imply that either they were lying, were lost, or simply lacked the ability to accomplish it. But, really, that’s pretty typically human. To expect people to magically become superhuman because of their orientation seems just as closed minded as those that believe people to be depraved because of other orientations.

    Peace, brother.

    Disclaimer:
    I’m not christian, but I am employed to pick on them on the Ship Of Fools. Actually, I try to follow the example of James Bond, but admit that I usually fall short.

  2. RooK writes:

    “To expect people to magically become superhuman because of their orientation seems just as closed minded as those that believe people to be depraved because of other orientations.”

    Well, of course, I don’t. As I said in the piece, one cannot blame Christians who are making a sincere effort if they occasionally lose their way (this is why there’s the parable of going after the lost sheep, I expect). But it’s not unreasonable to expect them to keep trying to make it up the path.

    I see too many people who as far as I can tell think saying “I’m saved!” keeps them from any further obligation to following Christ’s way. I think, however, that Christianity is a journey, for which accepting Christ is a necessary but not sufficient portion.

  3. John said:
    But it’s not unreasonable to expect them to keep trying to make it up the path.

    Isn’t just a teensy bit unreasonable? I mean, most humans are kind of frighteningly stupid, so it’s hardly surprising that some of them might sincerely believe that their seeming hypocrisy is actually some sort of path. It’s a matter of disagreement about the path, which I’ll generally agree that the Leviticans are probably wrong about. I suspect that many professed Christians are following forces other than their own rational deliberations, and expectations about them are about as meaningful as expectations about clothing fashion.

    Anyway, I suspect that we’re quibbling over a trivial interpretation of the word “expectation”, and actually have a high degree of concordance.

  4. RooK writes:

    “It’s a matter of disagreement about the path, which I’ll generally agree that the Leviticans are probably wrong about.”

    Probably. The irony here is that Jesus is pretty unambiguous about what the path is, in my opinion.

    But, no, I actually don’t think it’s unreasonable to expect those who claim to follow Christ to keep following him. To be flip about it, what they’re getting in the bargain (i.e., everlasting life in God’s bosom) is worth the effort. To not be flip about it, what they’re getting in the bargain is worth the effort. As I said, it’s natural that nearly all will fall off the path now and again, but returning to the path matters.

  5. Let’s not forget that when it comes to Jesus’s teachings we should look far afield of the bible. The bible represents only a tiny fraction of the many things written about Jesus even in his own day. The four gospels were canonized for reasons of politics not accuracy. Despite a great deal of philosophical inconsistency in all the writings about Jesus, the one message you’ll find in nearly every of them is this: Love one another. That is what made him a revolutionary. That is what got him killed. And that is what makes him great.

  6. Silly John, don’t you know that “neighbor” only applies to people of the same color, country, and/or religious background?

    Sorry, taking off the +1 Spectacles of Cynicism now.

    Ahh, much better. Ooh, look at the cute fuzzy bunny!

  7. Joe said:

    “Silly John, don’t you know that ‘neighbor’ only applies to people of the same color, country, and/or religious background?”

    Heh! Oddly enough, that’s exactly what Luke 10:25-37 addresses.

  8. St. Francis had it figured out better than pope Innocent III.

    Regrettably, there will always be more in the mold of Innocent III than of St. Francis, because the money’s usually better.

  9. Am I reading something wrongly? John, it would seem that your stance simplifies down to: “I have the one true understanding of what Christ really meant, and all those that disagree are failing.”

    I thought we were arguing about something akin to how reasonable it was to expect people who think movie stars are the physical ideal to diet and work out to change themselves.

  10. Am I reading something wrongly?

    Yeah, you are. I’m not sure why you think the reasonable alternative to “imperfect” is “gives lip service.”

  11. RooK writes:

    “John, it would seem that your stance simplifies down to: ‘I have the one true understanding of what Christ really meant, and all those that disagree are failing.’”

    If I had the one true understanding of what Christ really meant, I would probably be a Christian. I certainly think there’s more than a little room for variance on what the path entails (and there are thousands of protestant sects to back me up on that). Having said that, based on my knowledge of Christianity, I feel comfortable saying that some people who profess to be Christian appear to follow a variation of Christianity that has little or nothing to do with Christ’s actual teachings.

    I’m not at all sure I follow you’re saying there in your second paragraph.

  12. Perhaps I’m just a little insensate regarding all the unbelievable craziness that Christians purport to swallow. Too much exposure might be the problem. Same with those that think some diet pills are going to make them beautiful, or that they’ll be outcasts from society if they wear white after Labour Day. I just chuck it all aside as being irrelevant oversimplification, and try to only expect people to be people or individuals to be themselves. Because reality is generally too complex to consistently interpret into platitudes, no matter how justified any one person thinks their own view is… or was.

    My previous second paragraph was meant to relate to those who would agree with you about what the ideal is, John. The ability to see the path is not the same as the ability to follow the path. Ask any alcoholic. That’s the idea that I was originally arguing; that it’s not always reasonable to expect people to do what they know is technically right. But, you’ve already made plenty of accommodations there, so I just sound petty now.

  13. You don’t sound petty, we’re just clarifying our terms.

    Certainly one can see the path and yet not walk it; as I’m not a Christian, I would qualify in that category. A Christian, however, and in my opinion, affirms he is on the path, so it’s not aside to point to note to him when he leaves it, yet loudly proclaims he is still on it.

  14. Fair enough. Though considering how little agreement various ilks of Christians manage amongst themselves, it might be difficult to arbitrate where exactly that path is.

    Actually, I revoke that “might”. It has proven impossible, in my experience. Religion is too much about herding instinct and too little about sentience.

  15. Now that RooK and Scalzi have sorted their thing out, I’m going to add my two bits.

    RooK wrote:
    I’ve got to disagree with that thing particular thing, brother. Just because a ship finds the some stars it intends to steer by does not automatically haul it thither despite wind and tide. Now, I’ll readily agree that professing a direction and yet not actually going that way does tend to imply that either they were lying, were lost, or simply lacked the ability to accomplish it. But, really, that’s pretty typically human. To expect people to magically become superhuman because of their orientation seems just as closed minded as those that believe people to be depraved because of other orientations.

    Given that Christianity does claim that personal transformation is possible, I expect Christianity to provide a statistically detectable improvement. Christianity does have some pockets of light but, in general, I don’t see the improvement and the harm probably is worse than the help. That’s my perception but I could be wrong.

    On an individual level, I expect people to at least try to do the right thing. Given that I don’t think that there anything out there to back them up, I don’t expect any more than the effort. However, if Christians are morally bombing out in a significant way, I expect them to stop and ask some hard questions rather than blindly forging on in hypocricy. Christianity is more than human effort in a spiritual vacuum in exchange for fire insurance. If Christianity makes some claims — and I think it does — I want to see some way that those claims are coming true.

    RooK, you seem to be implying that we shouldn’t expect anything from Christians at all. I’m saying that there should be some detectable improvement. If Christianity can’t, at least, attempt to achieve its own claims, then it doesn’t have any credibility.

    As to whether Christianity really does improve things, people have been arguing about that for millenia and the argument isn’t stopping now.

  16. I just realized how negative that all sounds after Scalzi’s positive comments. I was arguing about the claims of Christianity and not about whether Christians care about the poor. I am glad that Christians are concerned about the poor and I wouldn’t expect any different. Most of the Christians that I know are nice people.

  17. Freehand:
    RooK, you seem to be implying that we shouldn’t expect anything from Christians at all.

    Freehand, you know me well enough to know that I’m actually implying that we shouldn’t expect anything from anybody. Christians are just humans, like the rest of us arrogant upright monkeys. There’s bound to be hypocrits distributed amongst the population, regardless theological distinction.

    I personally wish to emulate aspects of another fictional character (the aforementioned James Bond), but sometimes I just don’t measure up. It can be because of my fear of handguns or my lack of special training, and sometimes it’s because I get too caught up in just being a person that I temporarily forget about the ideal. I bet that sometimes it’s just a plain matter of me being confused about what that ideal actually means in a given instant. Regardless, when I fail, it doesn’t change my avowed intention. Why should I or anyone else think this is better or worse than being Christian? Why should each of our own little hypocrisies and contradictions be of different magnitude just because they might be easier to point out?

    Sure, many Christians will claim that there’s a difference. I’d argue with them too.

    Beside, Freehand, you’re biased. At least as much as I am.

  18. RooK wrote:
    I personally wish to emulate aspects of another fictional character (the aforementioned James Bond), but sometimes I just don’t measure up.

    Have faith, it will come in time.

  19. John,

    I am a Christian and a conservative, and Being Poor definitely impacted me powerfully. I plan to have a post up on my blog sometime soon regarding my reaction to it; I’ll track back or something once I get it posted. In the meantime, though, I wanted to comment briefly (well, not so briefly, as it turns out) on Reaffirming Christianity here.

    First, a few quotes (emphasis obviously mine):

    repent (v.) 1 : to turn from sin and dedicate oneself to the amendment of one’s life (m-w.com)

    From that time on Jesus began to preach, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near.” (Matthew 4:17, NIV)

    1 Now there were some present at that time who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices. 2 Jesus answered, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way? 3 I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish. 4 Or those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them—do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? 5 I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish.” (Luke 13:1–5, NIV)

    The term ‘repent’ as is commonly understood (roughly meaning ‘feeling bad about something one has done’) is not the complete definition of the term as it pertains to Christians, at least IMO. John, I definitely agree with your expectation of Christians to evaluate themselves and do their best to re-align their lives with Jesus’s teachings when (not if; imperfect humans invariably stray) they discover they’re headed in the wrong direction. The command is right there in the Gospels, in plain language.

    Rook, it’s interesting that you bring up diet pills… in my mind those who, as John puts it, “will be surprised where they are placed on the latter day,” try to use Jesus as a ‘salvation pill’… “Well, I’ve got Jesus over here, so wheeeee! Anything goes!!” Genuine Christianity, again IMO, means a lifetime of dedication to Godly principles and serving others—in some sense, sacrificing the present for promises about the future. And I assume this makes little sense to some folks, but that’s not surprising, as it’s stated pretty clearly in the Bible: “For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” (I Cor. 1:18, NIV)

    Also, Rook… you’re right… religion is all too often about little more than mindlessly following dogmatic ritual. And that’s not Christianity. A major part of Christianity is, as John points out, questioning and growing one’s beliefs, studying the Bible, and just generally learning as much as possible about Jesus and investigating God’s presence in the world in which we live. For some people the rigid, highly-structured ritual of Catholicism just works. For others, the repetition therein is incredibly stifling and perhaps find a Protestant church a better match for their tastes. But, these types of differences really don’t matter:

    1 Accept him whose faith is weak, without passing judgment on disputable matters. 5 One man considers one day more sacred than another; another man considers every day alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind. 6 He who regards one day as special, does so to the Lord. He who eats meat, eats to the Lord, for he gives thanks to God; and he who abstains, does so to the Lord and gives thanks to God. 13 Therefore let us stop passing judgment on one another. Instead, make up your mind not to put any stumbling block or obstacle in your brother’s way. (Romans 14:1,5–6,13, NIV)

    That Jesus died on the cross as a sacrifice for the sin of all mankind and established “love thy neighbor as thyself” as the second highest commandment (“love the Lord your God” is the highest; see Mark 12:28–31) is the core essence of Christianity as I understand it. Broadly speaking, other details are of markedly lesser importance. As John points out, though, ‘loving thy neighbor’ is very often a “monstrously difficult thing to do.”

    One last thing, and then I’m done. Freehand, the Bible does indeed specifically claim that, if one is successfully following Jesus, then one should see positive fruit borne out in his/her life (with the logical inverse also holding true, loosely speaking):

    19 The acts of the sinful nature are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; 20 idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions 21 and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God.

    22 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law. 24 Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the sinful nature with its passions and desires. 25 Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit. 26 Let us not become conceited, provoking and envying each other. (Galatians 5:19–26, NIV)

    Note though that these ‘fruit of the Spirit’ are not in themselves goals of the Christian lifestyle, they merely result from successfully following in Jesus’s footsteps.

    Christianity is a challenging lifestyle, with lots of hard choices and more than a few sacrifices. However, I’ve already seen more than enough of the above-mentioned fruit in my life to eliminate most regrets about the choices I’ve made. (I can’t in all honesty say ‘all regrets,’ as there are times when the worldly path seems darned appealing.) And hey… the promises about eternity ain’t too bad, neither. ;-)

  20. Also, John… did the commenter logs get reset on your last MT upgrade? It claimed this was my first comment post and thus flagged my comment for moderation. Is there something I should do to make sure MT ‘remembers’ me?

  21. Sorry for the repeated comments, but LOL. My second comment went straight through whilst my first one was still in the moderation queue. :-P

  22. Brian — the reason the post was punted into the moderating queue is that it had an abundance of hyperlinks (spammers will put multiple hyperlinks into their messages). I’ve approved it.

  23. They live here too

    “Poor” is not limited to the third world. “Poor” exists down the street, in the grocery line, at the dumpster, in the pharmacy, on the bus, at the Goodwill, behind the counter… “Poor” means that people like me who call themselves “poor” really have n…

  24. They live here too

    “Poor” is not limited to the third world. “Poor” exists down the street, in the grocery line, at the dumpster, in the pharmacy, on the bus, at the Goodwill, behind the counter… “Poor” means that people like me who call themselves “poor” really have n…

  25. “Because here’s my thing about Christians: I expect more from them. If you step up and profess to Christianity, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to expect you to make a creditable effort at following in the footsteps of Christ.”

    As a christian, I have to say you are entirely correct. To your Luke and Matthew quotes I would add Micah 6:8: ‘And what does the Lord require of you, but to do justice, and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.’

  26. “Let’s not forget that when it comes to Jesus’s teachings we should look far afield of the bible. The bible represents only a tiny fraction of the many things written about Jesus even in his own day.”

    I keep hearing this meme, but in spite of much searching I have yet to find this enourmous treasure of non-gospel accounts of Jesus written within 150 years of his death. Could someone please point me to them? And please don’t just link to the Gospel of Thomas or any of the other gnostic gospels written in 250ad or later…

  27. A little addendum to your list, with a comment on some “Christians” thrown in for good measure:
    Working for the director of the Spartanburg Habitat for Humanity for minimum wage and no benefits (if I was sick, or my children were sick, and I couldn’t come to work, I didn’t get paid), I was told by the director that I should learn to manage my money better when he learned that my phone had been turned off. When you make less than $15,000/yr, you have to watch every cent, and I did. I knew it was better to pay the rent than the phone bill; I had to know what was a priority and what was expendable. He had no idea, and little empathy.

  28. RooK, if I could think faster, I would respond sooner.

    Feel free to defend the rights that people have to be hypocritical. I just don’t feel that I need to pay attention to what people say when their actions contradict their words.

  29. This post (and subsequent discussion) is all about Why Most Christians Are Annoying — they’re hypocrites! Rook and his ship are an excuse, or metaphor, for what I consider all-too-human behavior. Another justification I heard recently was “The sign that points to Paris doesn’t have to go there.” But as the parable of sheeps and goats instructs, pointing won’t be good enough.

  30. I dunno. I don’t mind people being hypocrates as long as they don’t try pushing the hypocritical agenda on me. And, of the many Christians I know, most of them are really decent people. I think that many of them are misguided but they seem to be honestly trying. (They would likely say the same of me.) I think that people cause the most suffering when they are trying to do the right thing but exerting force in the wrong direction or doing it incompetently.

  31. John Scalzi on Christians

    Last week, I linked to John Scalzi’s lyrical and profound list Being Poor. This week, Scalzi follows up his post with this comment: One of the more gratifying things about the aftermath of the “Being Poor” piece I wrote a…

  32. Being christian in the New Testament sense – thank you again John for your post. And yes, I do agree, I also “expect more”. It IS ALL ABOUT MERCY and COMPASSION (emphasis only). And about no question/s asked and no judgement being made. It is, for me, quintessentially about 1. Cor. 13 : “Unconditional love”. And yes, about “practise what you preach”.
    As a non-American I cannot say what I felt and feel seeing what is going in the US after Hurr. Katrina – but also before being “exported” worldwide (e.g. just recently Afghansitan, Iraq). The level of incompetence and neglect by the official government is beyond words for me. And I live here for the time being.

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