“You’re a Christian?” he asked me. “Are you an evangelical?” Although the dimly lit bar buzzed around us with late-night conversation, I was certain that no other discussion resembled ours.
“I’m a Christian, but not that kind of Christian,” I replied quickly, hoping to claim my ground before any stereotypes did. He looked relieved, but I felt weird.
During the weeks that followed, my response lurked in the corners of my mind. When I differentiated between myself and “that kind,” my words created a hierarchy that inherently positioned myself at the top–as better–and I’m not.
I know I’m not the only one who has responded to this question, “I’m a Christian, but…” I’ve talked with friends about this issue. There is so much to be said, but we don’t know how to say it. To offer an understanding of how complicated this question is, let’s look at my own story.
When I was younger, I loved Jesus, but my love was convenient. I only asked Christ to change me for my own gain; I didn’t ask God to challenge my social framework. Because of this, my faith lacked important insight about social justice. I thought that people were poor because they didn’t work hard enough. Working with vulnerable and marginalized patients taught me how wrong I was. Laziness isn’t the problem. Unjust and oppressive social structures and policies are the problem. To understand this, I needed proximity to the poor to change my mindset.
When I returned to the States from Mercy Ships (Benin) 18 months ago, I was shocked at the palpable turbulence and division among Christians. Although there were people on the ship who had vastly different perspectives about the Bible, we set them aside in order to prioritize healing and justice. When I returned to my motherland, the air felt different, tense.
Over the past six months, as my understanding of oppressive policies and systems deepened, I felt my attitude towards Christianity gravitate towards bitterness. I browsed the news in the morning, absorbing stories about Christians who made decisions that perpetuated injustice. In the afternoon, I attended “secular” classes and was filled with passion for change. Focusing only on the negative stories I read in the media, I felt embittered toward Christians in general. Eventually, I stopped reading the Bible. I still identified as a Christian but I needed to maintain a distinction from those I read about in the news, so I added, “I’m a Christian, but….”
In November, a single conversation with a new acquaintance (who I met on a dating app, of all places!) challenged me. Basically, I was called out on my bitterness. I realized that if I truly loved Jesus (like I say I do) then I also need to choose the church, my brothers and sisters. Following Jesus’ example of love for me, I have to love others–even those I would rather not love. I must check myself for my own prejudice towards, well…everyone. And, most importantly, I have to read the Bible again.
Receiving this criticism wasn’t easy for me. Attending Urbana (a Christian conference) at the end of December helped me navigate the process. The opening session blew me away. The leadership team reflected the demographics of the students attending the conference: different colors, sexes, and cultures. Prior to the conference, Intervarsity (the organizing body) had met with the local Native American/First Nations tribe leader. The Osage tribe used to live in the area that later became St. Louis. In the 1800s, after living in the region for over a thousand years, the tribe was forced to surrender their lands to the American government. Recognizing the injustice that prevailed against this group of people, the staff approached the tribe’s leader and asked for his blessing. In front of 13,000 students, the leader offered a blessing over the conference in his native tongue.
I was moved to tears.
From seminars to plenary speakers, the theme of justice prevailed. Speakers discussed mass incarceration, the misuse and abuse of the environment, racism, and oppressive systems. We had the opportunity to reflect and repent from the “Babylon that lives in our hearts,” which refers to the mainstream American culture of excess, comfort, and image. Each day felt heavy, but simultaneously filled with hope. Specifically, living among a generation of Jesus followers who are committed to fighting for justice gives me hope.
When I consider my own struggle, I see myself in two ends of a spectrum. I want to share them because I think they could be helpful for others.
The first pattern I’ve noticed is marked by denial. Sometimes, in our depths, we fear that acknowledging our role in oppression will undermine our past or present way of life. Instead of promoting empathy and advocacy for marginalized groups, we believe that society’s most vulnerable and weak are our greatest threats. I think that people who succumb to denial ultimately fear two things: change and blame. We put up defenses to protect ourselves.
The second pattern I’ve noticed is marked by bitterness. I think that some of us have distanced ourselves from our faith because we don’t know what else to do with bitterness we have towards the church. We have reason to be critical of the church, but fear of association prevents us from spiritual reconciliation and growth. I think that people stuck in this trap are often on the offensive, and quick to blame others without humility or grace.
My participation in both extremes has taught me that remaining too far on one side of the spectrum inhibits the church from its primary role: to be an extension of Jesus. They perpetuate false stereotypes, ignore ignorance, and shunt blame–all of which slow down healing that could otherwise occur.
I want to be a person who is both passionate about social justice and committed to redeeming the church. I will not walk away; instead, I will pray, “God, break my heart for what breaks yours, even if that includes me–when my unkindness and fear and criticism break your heart, open my eyes and help me change.”
Since we understand the “church” to be comprised of imperfect, broken people and not merely buildings, it makes sense that fear, blame, prejudice, and bitterness would be rampant. We all think and say dumb things, some more than others. But that doesn’t mean we should divide ourselves, like I attempted to do. We should identify where we are on the spectrum and move away from the extremes. By God’s grace, I believe that we all can change–not once, but continuously. Even today, at this moment, God is working to restore all things through Christ.