The more open our country becomes toward people who fall outside the traditional norms we’ve grown comfortable with, the more I watch in awe and sorrow as people who identify as Christ followers become more hateful and look less like the Jesus I know. Although, perhaps not surprisingly, these people do look eerily similar to the Pharisees Jesus repeatedly rebuked and chastised.
In the Bible, being a Christian means letting in “the other”—those previously seen as not included in the blessing promised to Abraham. In the Bible, these are Gentiles, people who aren’t Jewish—in other words, they are the people most non-Jewish Christians alive today are descended from at some point along the line.
In 2016 in some parts of America, being a Christian seems to mean judging the behavior of others, being close-minded, and barring the gates of heaven to anyone who does something that is really hard to understand.
Is it really very surprising that, 2,000+ years removed from the life and death of Christ Jesus, we’re screwing up his message? Anyone who’s ever played a game of Telephone can tell you that ain’t much of a shock.
But that doesn’t mean it isn’t sad. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t mourn the perversion of the gospel—which is love first and foremost, and then grace, and then mercy. Not bigotry. Not racism. Not class distinction. Not homophobia. Not transphobia. Not conditional acceptance. And not fiery Facebook status updates that proclaim all sorts of things we’d never say to a person’s face and that, above all, tend to prove our own ignorance, our own inexperience, our own lack of empathy.
Aside from the obvious answer—the Telephone explanation—I’ve been thinking about why mainstream Christian culture has become this way. Of course I cannot answer for how others think and act, but I certainly can examine my own life and the times I have failed to represent the love of Christ—almost always because I’ve failed to understand the love of Christ.
I was raised in a Christian home. I grew up going to church and memorizing Bible verses and learning about “the right way to live.” I claim Jesus as my Savior even today—but only because I’ve recognized and tried to shed some of the harmful habits Christianity can enculturate, whether intentionally or inadvertently, and because I finally realized in my mid-twenties that it wasn’t God I was mad at; it was the church.
The main thing I’ve struggled with throughout my life as a Christian is judgment. At church, we use euphemisms that give us permission to judge others—terms like accountability, looking out for the souls of others, and moral behavior. Often, being a good Christian gets reduced to a set of right and wrong behaviors that include perfect church attendance and exclude using tobacco or saying fuck. And quickly, very quickly, we find ourselves trying to follow an arbitrary list of do’s and don’ts that’s longer and more complex than the unwritten rules of baseball.
For me, grace (receiving something that was not earned) and mercy (being granted clemency from deserved punishment) were not concepts I understood as a child. Which is weird because I definitely received both on a more than regular basis.
My parents gave me a weekly allowance that I was supposed to earn by doing chores throughout the week like making my bed, taking out the trash, feeding the dogs, washing the windows, and dusting. More often than not, when Saturday came, I held out my hand, expecting my allowance, with no thought to whether I had actually performed my chores that week (and most of the time I hadn’t). I didn’t earn my allowance. But it was given to me anyway. It’s too bad the lesson of grace didn’t accompany it.
Mercy was even harder. Kids are familiar with discipline and punishment, and I was no exception. I got grounded, I got privileges taken away, I received punishments that my parents thought were proportionate to whatever wrong I had committed. As such, I felt deep in my soul the unfairness of others breaking rules and not being punished, and I styled myself as a mini-vigilante (known in some circles as a snitch, a narc, or a tattletale), pointing out rule breakers left and right, making sure that, since I had suffered for breaking the rules, everyone who broke the rules would suffer in the same way. That was my concept of justice: If I suffer, everyone suffers. Strangely, the reverse didn’t translate. If I was shown mercy—if I was let off from receiving a punishment I justly deserved—I saw no reason to let others off for the same offense. My reprieve should be the exception, not the norm—lest the fabric of society be rent at its very seams!
So when I think about how this applies to the question of why some Christians find it so important to police the way others behave, I really think it’s as simple and immature as my childhood mentality. Since there is such a strong expectation of right behavior in Christian culture, many Christians get caught up in making sure they’re toeing the line. And, by golly, if they’ve gotta toe the line, then so should everyone else! These types of Christians are afraid to confront the possibility that they could do everything that’s “right,” and live their lives as straight-laced as possible, and still not get into heaven. Or perhaps they’re angered by the perceived injustice of the idea that someone else could not live the straight-laced way they’ve done and still slide into heaven alongside them (or, even worse, instead of them?).
This mentality has certainly been a struggle at different points in my faith journey, mostly because, in claiming salvation and inviting Jesus into my heart as a young child, I missed the key to the whole thing, which is grace. I don’t deserve salvation. I’ve done absolutely nothing in my life to earn it, and in fact, I’ve done quite a few things in my life to warrant losing it. But I have learned that it doesn’t really work that way (although I’m far from a once-saved-always-saved apologist). On the other hand, receiving the gift of the grace of salvation is meaningless if I don’t learn how to recognize that same grace working in the lives of others; if I don’t learn how to extend to others my flawed, imperfect, human version of the perfect grace of Jesus.
In my long and slow journey toward understanding the grace that Jesus has extended to me, and accepting my responsibility to extend it to others, I’ve been convicted multiple times by three parables in the New Testament. Some of Jesus’s parables go in one ear and out the other because—let’s face it—they can be weird and confusing. But three have acted repeatedly as agents of conviction in my own life: The Parable of the Unmerciful Servant (Matthew 18:21–35); The Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard (Matthew 20:1–16); and The Parable of the Lost Son (Luke 15:11–32). All three contain characters who have been recipients of grace or mercy and fail to understand the true magnitude of these gifts (hint: For once, the Prodigal Son is not the one at fault from this perspective!).
Some people in this world may only ever know the version of Jesus we ourselves translate (usually poorly or inaccurately). With that daunting thought in mind, I’ve become less worried about whether the people around me are going to hell or whether they receive the punishments they deserve, and I’ve grown much more concerned with whether they, in interacting with me, ever experience glimpses of unconditional love, unearned grace, and undeserved mercy.
Jesus said, “Go into the world and make disciples of all peoples” (paraphrase of Matthew 28:19). And he said, “Do not judge, lest you be judged” (paraphrase of Matthew 7:1 and Luke 6:37).
He did not say, “Go forth and tell those you perceive as sinners that they’re going to hell.”
He did not say, “Go forth and refuse certain people the right to get married.”
He did not say, “Go forth and act like you’re better than everyone who hasn’t read the Bible.”
And he did not say, “Go forth and punish those who don’t engage in ‘moral’ or ‘right’ behavior just because you’re mad that you’ve done it and they haven’t.”
Some Christians in America in 2016 act like salvation is an exclusive club that anyone can get kicked out of at any moment. But that vision is a warped, garbled, Telephone-scrambled misunderstanding of the truth. Salvation and the gospel of Jesus are wildly, scandalously inclusive.
And thank God, or I would’ve been eliminated from contention years ago.