Branding Iron -- Cross by cibo00

Christians have a bad name these days. There have been scandals, of course – abusive priests, sexually immoral Christian leaders, cult-like churches, financial irresponsibility, hypocrisy, and more. There have also been a lot of people in the public eye who have identified themselves as Christian while espousing hateful or ridiculous points of view. To many Americans, Christians of all denominations are at worst hate-mongers and at best buffoons, Westboro Baptist protesters or creation science theme park operators. It’s gotten to the point that well-meaning people are hesitant to say they’re Christians because they know they’ll be immediately pegged as one or both.

So how do we reclaim the public view of Christianity? Here are a few areas where we need to exercise great wisdom.

Public legislation. Fighting to pass laws to protect exclusively Christian points of view is not going to work. First of all, not all Christians agree on the content of laws concerning marriage, education, public display of religious symbolism, or legalization of drugs. And even when various Christian groups agree that a particular thing is right or wrong by biblical standards, not everyone agrees that legislation is the correct way to address the problem. The very public arguments over these issues have made Christians seem, fairly or unfairly, to be divisive, harsh, narrow-minded, and legalistic. Christianity under these conditions shows itself to be a religion of laws and conformity – though a careful reader of the New Testament can see that Jesus’ intent was exactly the opposite. We simply need to accept that the days of the American Christian Empire are at an end, if they ever existed. (And when we see the complications that have arisen in the past when government and Christianity have been conflated, we should honestly be grateful that they no longer are.)

Of course I would rather live in a country where everyone respects all life and lives according to moral and natural law – but even if that is possible, we have for the present ruined our chances of it. Before laws can be imposed from the outside, they must first be written on people’s hearts – or the act of legislation is like building a sandcastle when the tide comes in; every new wave washes it away.

Culture wars. I have a new coworker – a nice woman, hard-working, caring, and responsible – who is also aggressively Christian. She has hung a poster on her office wall that displays the words of a hymn; I stuck my head in to tell her that I liked that hymn, too. “You’re going to see a lot of that kind of stuff when I get everything unpacked,” she growled. “And I don’t care what anyone says; they’re not going to stop me from doing what I believe.” Well, all right. But honestly, no one would have stopped her. She didn’t need to come out swinging. She can say “Merry Christmas” if she likes, and no one is going to care one way or another, even those who aren’t Christian. But I’m afraid that she, like so many Christians, imagines herself engaged in a battle for the soul of America, a battle that must be fought by offensive (I use the term in both the military and the interpersonal sense) symbols that, for modern non-believers, are stripped of all Christian content and are just annoying. Will any wandering soul ever be saved by seeing a poster on your office wall or being whopped in the head by a rosary when he gets into your car? In fact, the insistence on public placement of objects of religious symbolism skates close to idolatry, by presuming that a plaque of the Ten Commandments or a statue of Jesus have any power in themselves to effect change or to save.

 

Apologetics. Well, to some extent. There are good books out there that portray Christianity in an attractive light and that answer sincere questions about the content of the faith. St. Francis de Sales, C.S. Lewis, Phillip Yancey, G.K. Chesterton, and others do a wonderful job of portraying the joys and honest struggles of Christianity without being hateful to people who think otherwise. There are also wise and gentle people who chat with their non-Christian neighbors over the backyard fence, who wait to be asked and who answer simply. But the proliferating television stations, the films produced as propaganda and not as art, the vitriolic blogs and websites, the shoddy trade in “Christian” fiction and self-help books, all make Christianity look like a commercial brand or a money-grab

Again, I would love to see excellent literature, film, and radio portraying true Christian values. One day we can return to that – but when we do, those books shouldn’t be marked with a cross on the spine in the library, and those movies and radio shows shouldn’t have as their premise that being poorly produced is a guarantee of religious sincerity.

As far as I can tell, these three currently ineffective techniques are the go-to items when discussions of Christianity in America arise. Christian groups spend a lot of time, energy, and money on them and feel as a consequence that they have done something positive. But we have, by the bad behavior of many, forfeited our audience’s sympathies. Let us turn instead to the simplest, hardest, and most effective means of redeeming Christianity in our age: a humble life of service.

This requires no funding, no entrée to the corridors of power, no study. The poor and the wealthy, the prominent and the simple, the educated and the uneducated can live this way. A humble life of service may be a fulltime vocation, but it doesn’t need to be. Anyone in any profession can offer it. Physical and mental handicaps do not prevent Christians from following this calling. It is content with the simplest acts of kindness, done simply out of kindness and not for manipulative purposes. It doesn’t broadcast its motives. It doesn’t require publicity or reward. It is not a marketing technique. While it may organize for greater effectiveness – as the Little Sisters of the Poor did, for example – it can and must also be pursued individually. People living humble lives of service do not ask to “win,” to ride a wave of triumph into the public eye. If they are obscure, they are content. If they fail in the eyes of the world, they are not discouraged. If they are martyrs, they fix their eyes on God only.

In the past, this humble life of service was overtly identified as Christian. Religious orders and movements made it clear by their names, clothing, and disciplines that they were Christians. That was – and is – not wrong, but I might suggest that laypeople at least avoid overt identification in the current era. Christianity has become so odious to so many that even acts of mercy may be seen as manipulative or hypocritical. Instead let people know that we are good people, gentle, helpful, supportive, and quiet, only by the way we act; we can talk later.

The humble life of service will be more effective in redeeming our faith in the eyes of the world than any of the techniques discussed above. It will also be an act of penance for all of us who have tried through pride, power, and pushiness to further the cause of the Suffering Servant, who died a shameful death in an obscure backwater as a means of saving the world.

6 comments

  1. Comment by Ed

    Ed Reply January 29, 2018 at 6:44 pm

    I fail to see how any of this is controversial! 🙂

    Spot on.

  2. Comment by Andy

    Andy Reply January 29, 2018 at 7:50 pm

    There are very good ideas here, coupled with an accurate description of how far the public good will for Christianity has fallen. And I’ll add, with the highest praise, that your suggestions aren’t new at all. I see a lot of common ideas between what you’ve said here, and what John Withrop said in 1630 to the puritans getting off the boat at Massachusetts Bay:

    Now the only way to avoid this shipwreck, and to provide for our posterity, is to follow the counsel of Micah, to do justly, to love mercy, to walk humbly with our God. For this end, we must be knit together, in this work, as one man.We must entertain each other in brotherly affection. We must be willing to abridge ourselves of our superfluities, for the supply of others’ necessities. We must uphold a familiar commerce together in all meekness, gentleness, patience and liberality. We must delight in each other; make others’ conditions our own; rejoice together, mourn together, labor and suffer together, always having before our eyes our commission and community in the work, as members of the same body. So shall we keep the unity of the spirit in the bond of peace. The Lord will be our God, and delight to dwell among us, as His own people, and will command a blessing upon us in all our ways, so that we shall see much more of His wisdom, power, goodness and truth, than formerly we have been acquainted with.

    http://www.americanyawp.com/reader/colliding-cultures/john-winthrop-dreams-of-a-city-on-a-hill-1630/

  3. Comment by Arria

    Arria Reply January 30, 2018 at 4:49 am

    Interesting article. There are a few areas you touch on that I would want to get a little clarification on. In terms of legislation, do you draw a distinction between laws that would merely promote aspects of Christian morality and laws that are directly in opposition to Christian values in such a way as to remove an individual’s ability to follow their conscience (cake makers and business owners providing contraception being two common examples)?

    Additionally, how does one give the credit back to God for any good they may accomplish in their “humble life of service” if they avoid “overt identification”? The goal of our short Christian life here on earth being, not only to serve others materially in any way that we can, but most importantly to help them spiritually to enter into relationship with their Creator.

    Some thoughts I’d be interested to get your perspective on. Thanks for the thought provoking article.

  4. Comment by Damaris Zehner

    Damaris Zehner Reply January 30, 2018 at 3:27 pm

    Arria – Great questions. For the first: In a better time, I would at least aim for laws that allow for freedom of conscience. My question now, though, is whether Christians harm their witness for the Gospel by arguing for or against legislation at all. I guess my point here is that as far as living the Gospel goes, we’d do better nowadays to suffer injustice with grace than to fight for legislation. It might mean that Christians lose their jobs or endure other hardships, but it seems to me that in doing so, we are acting more like Jesus than we are when we lobby and petition.

    For your second question: Certainly we can and should give God the credit for everything, including any good we might do. Timing is important, though; simple human connection first, overt Christian witness once someone is ready to hear. We really have a lot to undo. I listened to a missionary working in a Muslim country, for example, tell me how impatient he was with a local man. “I’ve been friends with him for six months,” he told me, “and he still isn’t open to hearing the Gospel. I think I’ll need to drop him and move on to someone else.” This missionary would offer in his defense that he was concerned with efficiency and spending his time where it would yield the best results. He was still objectifying another human being and failing to love him as he loved himself. This is the Christian stereotype we have to overcome.

  5. Comment by Paul

    Paul Reply January 30, 2018 at 6:46 pm

    Hey Damaris:

    Thanks for posting! It gave me much to think about. I have a couple questions.

    1) How does one learn to live a life of humble service?
    2) What role to the sacraments play in this alternate form of evangelization?

    Thanks,
    Paul

  6. Comment by Damaris Zehner

    Damaris Zehner Reply January 31, 2018 at 12:35 pm

    Paul,

    I’m not the person to say how to live a life of humble service. I suspect that adapting the Benedictine goals to one’s daily life would be a good place to start: not striving after wealth, practicing physical restraint and moderation, obediently following the path God has laid out for us, staying put, both physically and mentally, and being hospitable to the people and challenges God places before us. We don’t have to look far for opportunities for humble service, although we may have to look carefully. I find using short prayer as a leash to haul me back on the right path also helps, whenever I wander into vain or critical thoughts.

    And the sacraments, rightly perceived, are themselves acts of humble service, so long as we remember the prayer of the sinful man at the temple: God, have mercy on me, a sinner.

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