This piece appeared in a modified form on the blog I write, “Ten-minute Theology,” which can be found at ten-minutetheology.blogspot.com.
I used to volunteer every now and again to run the cash register at a bookstore operated by an anarchist collective. It was a pretty dinky, hole-in-the-wall place, but because it was located among some old Victorian houses in the hip Uptown area of Minneapolis it had a certain charm. I had never claimed to be an anarchist, but I was certainly interested in an alternative socio-economic system and curious enough to give them a listen. It soon became clear, however, that for many of the members of this collective, anarchy was an excuse to sit around and get drunk all day while talking about revolutionary action they’d never take. Many of these so-called anarchists held regular menial jobs, some even with major corporations! Though there were admittedly a few “real” anarchists in the bunch (the type who lived on food gathered from dumpsters and slept in caves along the Mississippi), the group as whole demonstrated lip service to an ideal that few bothered to take seriously. Their hypocrisy turned me off to their message. (Well, that and the fact that I came to find their worldview entirely self-contradictory and nihilistic, but I digress…).
Christians have a similar image problem in today’s America. In fact, one of the biggest problems that Christians face in the realm of apologetics (rational defense of the Christian faith) comes not from outside our community but from within it. Quite simply, there are many nominal “Christians” who fail to live their lives in the spirit of loving devotion to God and humble service to one another, and this failure is readily seized upon by those who seek an easy way to discredit our faith. The Christian worldview is not to be taken seriously, it is said, because Christians are hypocrites who often seem not to take it seriously themselves. Even though such an argument is logically unsound and avoids addressing the real substantive claims of Christianity, it carries an emotional power that should be addressed.
The first thing that needs to be said about this is that it is unrealistic and unfair to expect conversion to Christ to instantly make all believers into saints on earth. It would be a distortion of Christian doctrine to claim this, and no Christians do. Instead, we believe that with Christ or without Him we remain flawed human creatures constantly tempted by, and succumbing to, sinful behavior. Second, it hardly makes sense to judge a religion by those who don’t follow what it teaches. That would be like condemning the institution of marriage as worthless because some people commit adultery and fail to honor their vows. Third, it is absurd and offensive to judge a massive group of people by extrapolating certain absolutes from the few members of that group one has had contact with. This kind of stereotyping leads to prejudice and is wrong no matter where it’s directed.
That being said, there are some believers out there who forget that in everything Christians do, people are watching them and calibrating their feelings about Christianity according to their behavior. One of the most visible ways that Christians fail to be good witnesses to the truth of Christ is in the realm of politics. There is absolutely no reason for Christianity to necessarily be associated with extreme conservatism, and yet this is the prevailing cultural view today. This is very dangerous for the faith, which is at risk of being marginalized as little more than a spiritual adjunct of the Republican Party. We have to recognize, without demonizing or questioning the motives of the opposition, that there are devoted Christians on both sides of the debate concerning any hot-button issue, including health care, immigration, the correct conduct of our current wars, and even abortion and homosexual marriage. Regardless of how we feel about these individual issues, when we allow ourselves to become shrill and to angrily condemn those who don’t agree with us, we’re doing the Devil’s work, not God’s. “The Lord’s slave must not quarrel,” St. Paul counsels believers, “but must be gentle to everyone, able to teach, and patient (2 Tim 2:24).” Do any of the currently fashionable demagogues on the right or left fit this profile?
Christians can absolutely be politically engaged, but when we wield our faith like a weapon, determined to prove others wrong at any cost, we have to ask ourselves what our ultimate aim really is. Are we truly interested in sharing with others the truth and love of Christ, or do we just want to be right? Are we more concerned with winning arguments or winning people? Because make no mistake, when we allow ourselves to become overheated in debate and forget God’s love, and we fail to show that self-giving love to others, we lose them, and in the process we bring the name of Jesus into disrepute. We bear the label, so we bear the responsibility.