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.