How often do we a judge a book, not only by its cover, but by other people who have read it and swear by it and recommend it? The “fans” of the book, in other words. Fans often form communities around leaders, lifestyles, and ideas that deeply influence how these leaders, lifestyles, and ideas are perceived by others. For example, celebrities, politicians, ideologies, sports teams, diets, workout regimes, and philosophies are often judged by the people who follow them. Christianity is no exception to this rule. People often judge Christianity by what Christians have done throughout history and what Christians do today, independent of the faith in its own right.
The Historical Abuses Of Christianity
If Christians throughout history perfectly represented Christianity, there would be no issues. However, that isn’t the reality of the world. People lament the political abuses that Christianity was caught up in after it became the official religion of the Roman Empire in the 5th century and of Western European Kingdoms for centuries. People are repulsed by the crusades undertaken in the name of Christianity. People lament how Christianity was used by Western imperialist powers in their enslavement and indoctrination of subjugated populations. My opinion is that the politicization of Christianity has an abysmal moral track record, and leads to all kinds of abuses and excesses that are common in the realm of politics. There are also people who are put off by the alleged chasm between the teachings of Christ and the behavior of confessing Christians today.
The Positive Social Good Of Christianity
To be sure, Christian institutions have also done great good for the world. Christians have founded schools, universities, and hospitals around the world, and promoted education, innovation, and human flourishing. Christian charities have sent missionaries to destitute places to bring aid, supplies and spread a message of hope. Many of the world’s greatest scientists and inventors were confessing Christians, and Christian institutions are routinely involved in global philanthropic work to this day.
I personally had a lot of bad experiences growing up in church, including some with members of my own family who were in positions of leadership. I can relate to the pain people feel and the temptation to be dismissive of an entire institution, whether that’s a church, a school, a college, or club. However, I also had Christian mentors who stepped into my life at critical times and did their best to be a blessing to me.
Today, I realize that the good, the bad, and the ugly of my private experience is not a good indicator of the truth. In order to heal, we often have to come to the realization, again, that our private experience of something may not be a good indicator of how it is in reality.
Iron, steel, and wood are used to make weapons that are used in combat to destroy businesses, neighborhoods, and cities. However, that doesn’t stop us from using iron, steel, and wood in our homes, appliances, and civil infrastructure. People mismanage and abuse money all the time, but that doesn’t stop us from using money to pay bills, purchase food, and be a blessing to our families and friends.
If we don’t let the abuse of materials and money, which are neutral inanimate objects, to stop us from appreciating them and using them to be a blessing, why should we let the abuse of Christianity, something that is essentially good, stop us from appreciating it and letting it be a blessing to our lives?
Some people think religion is whatever you make of it. There is good, bad, and ugly in religion, they say, and we cannot make any essentialist claims. I think this perspective is uncritical, at least as it applies to Christianity. Christianity is not ambiguous. If you read the Gospels—and I have many times—you cannot come away just thinking anything you want. The Gospels have a clear message and spirit that is reiterated internally, which makes the crimes and abuses committed in the name of Christianity that much more blatantly hypocritical and easy to identify.
If you are reading this today, you almost certainly have ideas about Christianity owing to your experiences and observation. Some of you may even feel resentment toward Christians and the church. Today, I invite you to return to the roots of the faith. Open up the Gospel of John and you will find the following at the very beginning.
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.John 1:1
The “Word” is the metaphorical way the author of John introduces Christ. There are many takeaway to be had in this verse, but we are told right away that the story of Christ begins in the beginning, before there were Christians, before Christianity became politicized, before any good and evil was done in its name, and certainly before you and I were born.
Christ Is The Essence Of Christianity
Re-reading the Gospels is what kept me a Christian. I’m talking about the Sermon on the Mount where we are told to love everyone; to beware of the dangers of lust, anger, and greed; to treat everyone with the same respect and dignity; and to stop worrying and put our faith in God.
Christ is the heart and essence of Christianity. As a mature free-thinking human being, who is literate and has access to the roots of Christianity, I won’t let what anyone else says or does in his name influence my thinking.
Many a wise man once said, “Be the change you want to see in the world.” It’s easy to criticize, condemn, and complain. It takes discipline, character, and strength to bring about lasting change.
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