What Does Being a Christian Mean to You?

Every time I manage to think of something to blog about, it falls into one of two categories: Woah-is-me-isms or reflections on American Evangelical Christianity.

Last time it was a Woah-is-me-ism, this time it’s about Christianity and how deeply conflicted I feel about Christianity.

On the one hand, Christianity and religion in general is a mollifying force, a force to pacify the anger and sense of rage in us when we look at a supremely unjust world. Religion is the opiate of the masses and that sort of thing.

On the other hand, religion is an organizing tool in the face of injustice. Look at churches around the United States, for example, organizing around immigration reform, harboring undocumented residents in their buildings.

My particular beef here, which I think I will do a very poor job of explaining, is Evangelicals in particular and their penchant for a “personal relationship” which, for the sake of this post, we’ll assume means God as a white, bearded genie sort that you get to carry around in your pocket. (I realize this is vast oversimplification, so don’t freak out at me.)

When my Evangelical friends and family talk about missions trips and going to share the Gospel, I am so deeply conflicted inside. What is the Gospel? For many, it comes down to a few core things:

  1. A set of rules. Usually with unbalanced emphasis on things like sex outside of marriage, homosexuality, drinking, drugs, etc.
  2. A political vantage point. When you see your ultimate leader as (your version of) Jesus, it takes precedence over everything else. The government should allow your views not only to be freely expressed, it should also be a vehicle to further those views or at least allow you significant leeway in enforcing and promulgating your version of Christianity.
  3. Looking for signs. You are constantly seeking out God’s will for your life in one way or another. If something goes wrong, if you come up against a wall in your life, you start to wonder what God is trying to teach you, or perhaps you examine your life and try to determine if there is any fault or guilt that you need to expunge.

Of course, the Gospel means a lot of different things to a lot of different people. These are my observations based on having spent 20+ years living within the sort of community that I’m describing. I’m sure I could add a good deal more to this list and perhaps I will with a little time and thought on the matter.

So back to missions work and sharing the Good News with people all over the world and why I feel so conflicted about this.

Accepting the Good News of the Gospel is often reduced to a set of rules and encouraging people to accept this new set of rules. When people share testimony about how they were saved and how they came to know the Lord, the most exciting stories always involve leaving behind a life of rampant sin. The best ones are the most scandalous: adultery, addictions, drugs. Many of these things are very good things to reject. There are indeed healthy (“moral”) ways of living and unhealthy (“immoral”) ways of living. It does seem to me, however, that the focus is usually misplaced for two reasons: 1) By going out to share the Good News in foreign countries, we are by necessity neglecting our own relationships and our own communities which are very often in need of love and support. How many nice white people from the United States have gone on missions trips to Mexico or Europe or Africa but don’t know the black or Hispanic neighborhoods down the road from them? 2) By sharing Christianity, we are presenting our version of the religion, with our own emphasis on the morals and rules that we find to be of particular importance (take extreme examples such as American missionaries going to Uganda and Russia selling fake science about homosexuality to target those countries’ LGBT communities). This is an extreme example, but it is an equally real example. Moreover, it takes a good deal of sensitivity and cultural awareness to be able to relate to a community. It takes people who are a part of that community, who understand, know, love, and sympathize with its members, to really be able to accurately and fairly speak to those people. Some missionaries do this. Some missionaries go out and spend years or even lives in communities and you have to respect them for that level of dedication. Here I’m criticizing more of the tourist missionary than anything else, someone who goes for a week or two in another country, “feels the Holy Spirit,” and comes back home changed and “on fire for God” and with a new passion for the people of this or that country, people that they don’t even understand.

I want a version of Christianity that’s outraged, that’s less about me and my personal relationship and less about subjectivity (“I feel God is telling me this…”). I want a religion that doesn’t send missionaries to Mexico to convert Catholics, but that sends missionaries to Mexico to learn about the atrocities that the government is committing in collusion with drug lords. I want a Christianity that doesn’t send missionaries to Uganda to condemn homosexuality, but a Christianity that rallies protestors in Washington and New York and across the world when bad policies are enacted that hurt third world countries. I want a Christianity that stands up and says, “No. We will not bomb foreign countries because we believe that Iraqi, Afghani, and Yemeni lives are sacred as well.”

That’s what I want out of my religion. Less pacification, less inward searching, and more doing. American Christianity has become totally self-absorbed. We have a whole subculture to help you live your life in a good and godly way. We have short-term missions trips galore to send you out into the world so that you can have an unforgettable experience that you get to talk about for the rest of your life like you’re a saint for stepping foot in a country where you can’t drink the water. It reminds me of a Switchfoot song, actually. “Gone.” Wow. That song was good the first 100 times you heard it.

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4 responses to “What Does Being a Christian Mean to You?

  1. I cannot thank you enough for this post. I love your honest anger and frustration at the cheapened “gospel” for which we have settled in North America. The self-help self-gratifying testimonialism and voluntourism that surrounded us as children/youths (and in which we participated, unaware of what the broader world held or meant) needed scrutiny and criticism a lot earlier than now. The paternalism that reeks in our interactions with those we perceive as “other” is finally being perceived as toxic, but seemingly too late for places like Uganda and Russia.
    I would encourage you to read Gustavo Gutierrez (if you have any time to do so)–his understanding of justice and the gospel as inextricable is convicting AND empowering — for individuals who are beginning to understand themselves communally (finally), and seeing where God is really present in this world: in justice and in the lives of the oppressed. I’d love to have a jaw with you on this topic sometime soon. I’m so thankful for your insights.

    • Andrea, thank you so much for your thoughtful words and taking the time to wade through the mess I wrote.

      My relationship with Christianity has been complicated for years, but I am glad that I have always been able to say that I know good, solid, insightful, and prophetic Christians. Our hope cannot be placed in human hands, but I am so lucky/fortunate/blessed to have the friends who are striving and searching and studying out of a place of earnest and genuine humility.

      I did a quick Google search, and I think I may have actually read an essay by Gutierrez while I was at Calvin. I am always looking for people of faith who speak with a prophetic, clear, and honest voice so you can believe me when I say that I will do what I can to try and read more by him.

      I hope you and Nick are both well. We need to not do a repeat of DE/NJ and actually get together a time or two while we’re both back in the Mitten! 🙂

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