Everyone has that uncle. You know, the one who drinks too much at the family reunions and then throws water balloons at the neighbor’s dog for barking too much. The one who everyone still loves, and wants around for all of the good and endearing parts of their mood swings, but wants to disavow them every Thanksgiving when they fall down the stairs and crap their pants. When it is your family, it doesn’t seem to phase you so much. “That’s just uncle Bill!” you say. “He’s so funny and wacky!” Or in my family’s case, sometimes that’s my dad. Every family has one. I had no idea that when I was thirteen years old, and I decided to give Jesus Christ an official tryout during some youth group meeting, that I was signing up for the same type of plan. Possibly something worse.
Being a Christian is what I equate to having a hundred million drunken uncles. Mostly, we’re cool. Building hospitals, feeding the poor, torturing Jewish people... okay, maybe not quite cool. Let me start over. Let’s just, for the sake of argument, ignore the Spanish Inquisition. And, while we’re at it, we must also ignore the few dozen wars waged in the name of various theological differences, Manifest Destiny as a government program, and the Crusades. Maybe we can also forget the whole Galileo thing, and some other minor instances where Christianity as a whole just denied the existence of science. Aside from that stuff, we have done some pretty great things. Christianity is still by far the largest provider of healthcare and education in the entire world. We led the charge to abolish slavery, invented orphanages and nursing homes, created libraries, saved most of the ancient Western world’s literature and have been credited with the survival of Western civilization and modern culture as we know it. The Church has reformed prison systems, basically invented human rights in the context of our current legal systems, brought about benevolent organizations such as Habitat for Humanity, Amnesty International, YMCA, the Salvation Army, and founded over 90 percent of US universities and quite a few more in Europe.
And then, there’s JC. Nobody I have ever met - or heard of- actually has anything malicious to say of Jesus Christ. Even if they don’t believe in the miracles or His claims of being a deity (actually THE Deity), almost everyone believes that He was at the very least an extremely good person. Even then, I have spoken to countless Atheists, who, although they still wrestle with the reality of His existence as a human being, still believe that a constructed idea of the person of Jesus Christ, is good. Even if Jesus Christ is nothing more than a cobbled together construct from whatever religions people could draw from in the first century, the idea of being nice- of loving everyone and treating them as you wish to be treated- is very good.
It’s just that these things are not what we hear about or see. Instead- we get the drunken uncles. We get Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell on live television, two days after September 11th, telling us the terrorist acts were, in actuality, our fault, all for the atrocious act of not stoning to death the homosexuals in our country. My heart soared like a hawk that day, I can tell you. Thank you, Mr. Robertson, and posthumously to you, Reverend Falwell, for that conversation starter. I was not embarrassed enough to announce my affiliation with this little club we belong to before that. It was hard enough twenty years ago to explain why I was choosing some sort of moral high ground to my friends--without having to apologize for all these right-wing nutjobs that have become the public face of Christianity. The new normal is now to associate the Church with the bombings of abortion clinics, picketing the funerals of dead servicemen, molesting young altar boys, or just rambling on about the most inane and ill-conceived absurdities imaginable. Like a disbelief in Global Warming, or how we should defund public education because they have the audacity to let our kids read Harry Potter. Yep. Heartwarming, isn’t it?
It seems that the history of the Church is completely rife with examples of this pendulous war between being the gracious and loving Church of Jesus Christ, and this wicked, backstabbing, fear-mongering... monster. I absolutely loathe this aspect of Christianity. But, alas, it seems we can’t have one without the other. For some reason, Jesus brings out not only the best in us all, but also the worst. I can tell you with complete certainty that every church I have ever attended was pretty cool, in more than a few aspects. Each one was full of great, loving, well-meaning people, loving the poor and the lost. But, there’s always at least one crazy person in the congregation. Sometimes it’s someone who is just a bit too possessive about the pews, or loves fake flowers more than the rest of us. Everyone you know falls somewhere up or down the mental health spectrum; no one is perfect. But churches somehow attract those a bit further on the cooky side. There’s always that one guy who thinks that bats are chasing him, or who swears that the kicker for the Broncos is John the Baptist. Sometimes it’s just a slight misleading. Maybe it happens because we forget that Jesus was a revolutionary and a force for love that suffered and died out of love - that He was at the very least an example of unconditional love to us all. Maybe that just gets pushed to the back of our psyche for a while and we misplace our priorities. Maybe that slightly off person ends up being the pastor. Or they get their own TV network. Nonetheless, most of what the world sees isn’t the Church loving the leprous in the slums of Calcutta. What the world actually sees is what sells advertising on TV: stories about religious nutjobs. Your drunken uncles, at work.
The most ineffective way to battle this, I have found personally, is to announce to the people that you meet that you are indeed, one of these Christians. To the general public, it is now something akin to the equivalent of telling someone that you like to give kittens Herpes. Downplay it all you will, “No really, I only give Herpes to the ugly ones!”, but the results are still the same. You hate kittens. You hate kittens and you give them Herpes. There are a million ways that people try and get around this: T-shirts with clever sayings, masking some aspect of the gospel just enough to give the reader pause before they realize you are the reason their kitten is now disgusting, Christian songs, Christian TV shows or movies, or some other backdoor approach to sneaking the gospel into popular culture with the added benefit of keeping Kirk Cameron’s acting career alive. All of these only distract from the countless piles upon piles of really detestable kittens. And Herpes. So what can we do? How should we then live, you may be asking yourself? Insert winking smiley face here.
The reason every other person in the world doesn’t have a problem with Jesus Christ, yet hates his followers, is that there is a gaping chasm between how Jesus acted and how the Church behaves. The dichotomy is readily apparent to just about anyone, except for Christians, who are claiming somehow to have been enlightened, and also to be loving. And usually, we are neither.
Every time I have had a conversation with my atheist or agnostic friends and coworkers- they bring up the same argument: that the God of the Old Testament and the God of the New Testament seem different. One seems erratic and punitive, and the other is a really nice Jewish hippie. How is this the same person? The argument is that because they seem so different, there is no God. It sounds like a good argument, but it only really works if your sole experience with the Bible is from watching Matlock and a handful of cartoons about Christmas. They, like most of Christianity, forgot to read the book of Romans. So, let me sum it up for you: 1. God is perfect and to truly know Him, you also have to be. 2. You can’t be and this makes God unable to hang with us, because He is holy, or unable to contradict Himself. 3. So... God became a person who was perfect in your place, and then took all of His required wrath/anger upon Himself, so that now, just by merely believing, nothing can separate you from His unending love.
It sounds better when you actually read Romans. Its author, the Apostle Paul, was being primed to become the foremost authority on Jewish law when he had a transformative experience with Jesus Christ. He realized that Jesus was not counter to the anger and wrathfulness of God, but the fulfillment. He realized that His perfect life, according to the same body of law, could be offered as a sacrifice, and become the fulfillment of the law. Like if Bill Gates just pulled out a checkbook and wrote a check for thirty million dollars after you plead guilty at traffic court. “Here you are, your Honor, and for you, officer, you guys get yourselves something nice. And uh... let’s just forget about this guy’s speeding problems from now on.” Winking smiley face. It shifted the Gospel from being a book of laws- of requirements- to a new Gospel... a Gospel of Love. Meaning that mankind was no longer required to do anything except believe in this new truth. Everything you could do that was deemed bad by the impossibility of Levitical Law, is already paid for. Anything and everything we do should stem from the fact that we believe that we were unlovable and corrupt, and that God has fixed that because He loved us. Our only motivation in life can now be LOVE.
And that’s where the craziness comes from. I think it is human nature to want to break from this- to try and work our way to greatness. It’s not enough to just save orphans because we love them; we have to do it out of guilt. Or make others feel guilty for not doing it themselves. Humans love to compete, to have something that sets them above other humans. If you don’t believe me, please ask any mother what her opinion on breastfeeding is. (No offense to those breastfeeding or not breastfeeding, militantly opposed to or rabidly supporting breastfeeding, or all women/womyn, pediatricians, scientists, or people in general who just want to cut me right now). We are a species that cannot stop fighting to survive. We want to always be in control, to earn something- especially something that we deem to be as costly as the salvation of our very souls. The result of this behavior is that it causes us to be obsessed with rules.
The difference between how Christ acted and the Church acts is that we make Scripture be about rules. We make what He did about rules. We make the Gospel be one of works, versus the true heart of the Gospel (of the entire Bible)- LOVE. Love builds others up and is constructive, where destructive acts stem from fear. Christianity has become nothing more than a bunch of thugs making threats over the the perils of damnation, instead of using our greatest super-power... love.
In fact, remember at your cousins wedding before you ate fifty shrimp and fell down the hill in your periwinkle tuxedo/bridesmaid’s dress? Remember when the pastor/priest rambled off 1st Corinthians 13- that whole thing about “love is patient, love is kind...”? It may be more than just some precursor to you getting to the garter toss or the salad bar. It may be more than one of the all-time greatest literary descriptions of love. Because it starts with this: “If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.”- 1st Cor. 13: 1-3 NIV
Love is the superpower. More than knowing the future, or being able to move mountains. Mountains.That’s crazy talk. What if, instead of picketing abortion clinics, we were known for adopting every single orphan in the known world? Wouldn’t that spin things a bit differently when you told your coworkers what you actually do on a Sunday morning? What if when you confessed your beliefs to your coworkers and friends, they didn’t cringe because they saw your brothers and sisters completely erase hunger from the planet earth? Because, this can happen. With one single twist, we can make this whole thing be about love, instead of being about our good or bad behavior. What if instead of being known for not swearing, or being starchy, or being uptight- it was our love, and only our love, that people saw?