Reclaiming the word Christian

christian-pI have in a previous blog post told the story of the young mother in my parish who, on the death of her baby, felt she had to go 50 miles outside the area to find a ‘Christian’ undertaker. Having had good relations with other undertakers who lived much closer, I was surprised at this slight to the professional and spiritual integrity of these other firms who served the local neighbourhood. My reader will no doubt be familiar with the way the word ‘Christian’ has been appropriated by particular groups in society to denote what this blog would describe as a conservative legalistic version of the faith. When the UK MP Andrea Leadsom was described by the press as being a Christian, we all knew how to understand the way this word was being used. Her faith turns out, unsurprisingly, to be an extension of her right-wing opinions. To be a Christian in 21st century Britain and America means for many to be a person who knows all the things that they disapprove of. In particular, they deplore same-sex marriage and a variety of other behaviours which are deemed to be unbiblical in some way. We could summarise by saying that a Christian is defined more for the things that they disapprove of than for the things they want to promote. Such a perspective of the meaning of the word ‘Christian’ is not in fact completely false. It is rather, we would claim, one sided and at the very least incomplete.

It is worth reflecting once more on Jesus’ story of the Samaritan. This is a parable that needs to be told over and over again. It is told in the context of a conversation between a lawyer and Jesus. This lawyer who asked the question – who is my neighbour?- knew perfectly well what was the proper answer in terms of Jewish law. But Jesus responded not in legal categories but in terms of practical action. A question that we might well want to ask Jesus today is a similar one- who is a Christian? The story of the Samaritan might easily form the response to this question as well. The lawyer’s question was answered by contrasting good conventional Jewish behaviour which was correct by the laws of the day with the action of a person who was right outside the orbit of the Jewish community. In Jesus’s day the good Jew was someone who kept the laws of purity, worshipped in a correct way and generally conducted himself properly according to the social and religious norms of the time. What today we regard as proper Christian behaviour will involve an individual saying the right things when faced with a number of moral issues. The correct Christian response to gays is, according to numerous Christians, is to avoid them or have as little to do with them as possible. The only reason for talking to someone with a gay life-style would be to try to convert them and convince them to turn their backs on their old behaviour. Such people, the conservative Christian believes, are destined for hell and this involves eternal punishment. That these attitudes held by sincere Christian people, I find puzzling but simultaneously utterly repugnant. In a moment of extreme anger with another person, I might conceivably desire them to experience pain but this stage does not survive for very long. Hatred for another person and wanting their eternal punishment would take energy out of me, and I for one do not have the stamina to attempt to keep it up on such a futile activity. Am I in some way deficient as a Christian because I cannot summon up sufficient hatred towards an individual to want to consign him/her to hell? Everything that I have learnt about the Christian faith does in fact tell me that no one can ultimately escape the orbit of God’s love. I recognise that some human lives are lived in such a way that the process of ultimate redemption will be hard and extremely painful. I do not anyway believe that members of the gay community are behaving in a worse way than those who allow their Christian faith to adopt attitudes of hatred and condemnation towards others whose behaviour they disapprove of.

To return to the story of the Samaritan and our suggestion that Jesus is answering our modern question – who is a Christian? The Christian, according to Jesus, is not the one who merely believes things and behaves correctly according to a written code. The Christian is one who is motivated by human compassion and practical help. In short the Samaritan/ Christian is the one who follows the rules of love. The way that Jesus identifies with the outsider who follows his conscience and his humanity is an important lesson for us today. Our culture loves definitions; it enjoys being able to put people into particular boxes, deciding in a binary way whether they are good or bad, Christian or non-Christian, in-crowd or out-crowd. This creation of tidy boundaries between people seems to be completely subverted by what Jesus is saying. In the parable he shows clearly how the law-abiding Jew, represented by the priest and the Levite failed totally to respond appropriately to the challenge of helping the wounded man. The law forbad any contact with a possible corpse and so the law was the effective barrier preventing effective and human action. In the parable Jesus seems to be telling us that the true law is the law of compassion and love and this takes precedence over everything else.

I was reading a commentary on the activities of Church of England General Synod this week. One well-known conservative Christian was listening to a gay Christian speaking in the so-called ‘shared conversations’. All she could think about was the fact that this Christian man, who was also a priest, should be ‘lovingly’ removed from his position. Her faith, her version of Christianity, could only see as important the rigid application of a law that she had extracted from Scripture. She was blind and deaf, it seems, to the experience of the person standing in front of her. The same motivation, adherence to a law connected with preserving purity, guided the actions of the two men in the parable who passed by on the other side. Legalism in other words was more important than the impulse of love which most of us believe should play a major part in motivating a Christian response to life. Jesus approved of the behaviour of the one who didn’t even claim to be a Christian, the Samaritan. He tells us to go and do likewise.

As a response to the story of the Samaritan let us, rather than drawing barriers about who are ‘true Christians’, celebrate the unconventional and the free spirits who live out an authentic path for their lives. One thing the parable tells us firmly is that none of us has the right to say who is inside or outside the orbit of God’s mercy. It is unhelpful, but also wrong, to declare this or that person to be beyond God’s concern. This kind of categorisation is, I believe, a form of blasphemy. There are many ways of living ‘Christian’ lives. To be a follower of Jesus in terms of acting with love compassion and service is always going to be hard but who is to say that it only happens inside church buildings. We have the challenge to see and work with Christians who, like the Samaritan, are completely beyond the boundaries of our comfort zone and familiar circles.

About Stephen Parsons

Stephen is a retired Anglican priest living at present in Northumberland. He has taken a special interest in the issues around health and healing in the Church but also when the Church is a place of harm and abuse. He has published books on both these issues and is at present particularly interested in understanding the psychological aspects of leadership and follower-ship in the Church. He is always interested in making contact with others who are concerned with these issues.

2 thoughts on “Reclaiming the word Christian

  1. Great post, Stephen. You have a stray “they” in your penultimate paragraph.
    Interesting to define “Christian” as relating to “by their fruits you shall know them”. If I may venture to say so, the Samaritan was neighbour to he who fell among thieves, even though he was a perfect stranger from an enemy tribe. and a profound lesson to all who think they are better human beings because they keep the letter of the law. But he didn’t become a good Jew. Perhaps Jesus was saying that it didn’t matter as much as all that if he didn’t. Much to think about.
    I have always found it irritating when people talk about Christian behaviour, meaning moral and decent. Fine, in its way, but very rude to Muslims, Jews, Sikhs, Hindus and happy heathens who behave well, and flawed in its definition. Being a Christian means believing that Jesus is the Christ. Certain things follow from that, or should. Showing God’s love, for one. But wasn’t it Irenaeus who said we are a club for people who believe certain things, not a club for people who behave in a certain way? And just as well, too, since we cannot attain salvation by works.
    I’m not going anywhere in particular with this, I have always liked the lessons of the Good Samaritan. I was brought up in a church that believed all Catholics were going to hell. I was surprised to discover that some Catholics at least, when I met them, seemed nice! And it made me think. I was about 12 at the time.
    The phrase “gay life style” isn’t quite PC. And wouldn’t it be great if gays could just live the same as everyone else, instead of in effect in the gay ghetto that so many seem to inhabit?

  2. Sorry, back again. There is a para before “I have always found it irritating”, which isn’t apparent from the word spacing. It’s not a criticism of your post, I’m musing.
    Also, I recently went to a talk on theosis. For the benefit of others, I will summarise that as the image of God in us. It’s a Eastern Orthodox emphasis. But it is connected to the parable about “Insomuch as you did this for the least of my brethren”. That we should do good things perhaps not so much because we want to live up to the faith that is in us, but because we see God’s/Christ’s image in the other person. If you can see God’s image in the gay man, it changes things. And as for marring it, well, George Herbert’s poem “Love III” springs to mind. We have all marred it.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.