For a few weeks I have been ruminating on what I would post for the Christmas season, and then it finally came to me: Who owns Christianity? Who has the authority to codify what it does or does not mean to be a Christian, or regulate who can or cannot call themselves Christian, let alone who is permitted to be Christian?
Recent discussions with dear friends have once again brought to my attention how easy, how seductive, how unconsciously reflexive it can be to think and speak with labels, such as “Christian” or “Christianity.” As labels, these terms serve as a kind of shorthand conveying a wide range of assumptions and generalizations about the person or persons to whom they are attached. Sometimes we even label ourselves in this way. The use of labels also easily taps into my personal beliefs and value judgments that accompany those assumptions and generalizations, and thus stimulates emotional reactions and attitudes toward the person or persons I have labeled. Almost invariably, these processes occur semi-consciously, and I do not realize that in the process I have dehumanized somebody. I do not realize that I have started treating a person as an abstraction that I am judging as right or wrong, and thus about which I am either comfortable or uncomfortable. I do not realize that I have forgotten she is a unique child of God, a one-of-a-kind gift of Love to this world, like that little child in Bethlehem. I may not ever realize that I have missed an opportunity to welcome, understand, accept, value and coexist with her, to love him, as that precious gift. One of the ironic things about this pattern is that I do it despite how much I dislike other people doing it, which reminds me of Paul in Romans 7:15.
I know what it feels like to be the object of someone’s labeling, their stereotyping, and how it can harm the potential for us to care for each other as two whole and fully present human beings. Some of the most troubling labels I’ve experienced are “Christian” and “bad” or “false” Christian. Even “good” or “true” Christian can be troubling, and perhaps even more so! The baggage that comes along with identifying as Christian can be enormous. Many non-Christians automatically assume I fit their stereotype, which seems to be an increasingly negative one that prevents them from being open to anything more than a superficial relationship. At worst, it leads some people to instantly take a distrusting, defensive and hostile position with me because they are certain that I am going to be judgmental, narrow minded, prudish, condescending and proselytizing. On the other hand, fellow Christians often automatically assume I share most if not all of their beliefs and attitudes about things, or fit their own stereotypes of “Christian”. When it’s discovered that I don’t fit their expectations, it’s not unusual for them to act like they are shocked and offended or threatened, as though I have personally challenged their own sense of identity, and then they put me in some other box. I know I am not alone in these things, and it’s probably safe to say that you have also been painfully aware of them at times.
Experiences with the Christian stereotypes, and having seen myself in all the roles, have repeatedly led me to wonder about the value in calling myself Christian. Of course, I do it for a number of reasons: It is my native religious culture, and its symbolism, ritual, lore and language were being poured into my psyche even before I was born. Through childhood, adolescence and early young adulthood it remained the primary milieu in which my ideas about self, other human beings, and the world took shape. As I explored other traditions in adulthood, and now well into middle age, despite my willingness and attempts to let it go, Christianity has remained a constant reference point. These experiences, combined with a growing understanding of how the psyche works in general, and mine in particular, led me to realize that, of all the world’s spiritual traditions, Christianity has the greatest potential to serve as a bridge between the consciousness of my adult personality and the childlike presence deep in my heart. I came to realize that I just can’t help it that Christ’s love is the spiritual ideal that most inspires me. I, this adult named “Chuck”, didn’t choose for all of these things to happen, but I do choose to accept them. I am a Christian because I embrace the reality that the spirit and traditional forms of Christianity permeate my being; it is my religious home.
No matter how much doctrinal testing, prooftexting or Bible thumping anyone might do, nobody can take away my Christian identity, and in that sense I own it. I also own it to the extent that I accept responsibility for the never-ending process of determining what Christianity means to me, and what it means for me to be a Christian. In these ways I own Christianity for myself, and in doing so I realize and respect the right of every other Christian to do the same. But, as noted earlier, I must also admit that even I can’t take my Christian identity away from me. In many ways it is bigger than me, not controlled or possessed by this personality named “Chuck”, and so I can no more own it than the air I breathe.
Yet I don’t think that is where this issue of ownership stops. As you might have been expecting from the moment you read the title of this post, if anyone rightfully owns Christianity it must ultimately be God through Christ. Furthermore, as all creatures are God’s children, I believe we are all heirs and co-trustees of Christianity, just as we are with the air we all share, whether we consider ourselves Christian or not.
And the messenger said to them, `Fear not, for lo, I bring you good news of great joy, that shall be to all the people — because there was born to you to-day a Saviour — who is Christ the Lord…. (Luke 2:10-11, my emphasis)