My wife is Jewish, and I was raised Catholic (confirmed and all) but I’m no longer a practicing Catholic. Even so, I find myself explaining some of the finer points of Christianity in our household. That’s because there are so many supposedly Christian folk who do very unkind and ungenerous things. Since my wife is no fool, she interprets Christianity by what Christians do, not by what they say.
And since it’s Christmas time, some Christians are saying and doing so many unkind things. Maybe it’s that I’m hearing too much about what’s on Fox News, with its insistence that everyone say “Merry Christmas” or their vocal opposition to fair pay for low-wage workers… you are not making the case for what it is to be Christian, much less why people would want to be Christian.
I want to bring us back to three Christian fundamentals that A: make the world a more decent place and B: bring Christianity a great reputation when Christians do them.
1- Love everyone as if they are your brothers and sisters. Everyone.
Okay, this includes strangers, people different from us, and people we don’t even know. From any and all countries and even people of other religions (self-disclosure: this would include me now). In case this is unclear, take a look at Luke 10: 25-37, where the greatest commandment includes, “Love your neighbor as yourself” and someone asks Jesus, “but, really?” and he answers, “yes, really” and we get the tale of the Good Samaritan helping a complete stranger.
In terms of being “fundamentally Christian,” this one instruction offers a simple answer to all sorts of questions. For example, it means that we care about people and want to help them in any circumstance.
Instead of making arguments against health care insurance reform such as “why should I support change to the health care market to require insurance companies to cover infants when I’m too old to have children?” (Forgoing at the moment the myriad other reasons that is a ridiculous question.) I find myself shaking my head… why call yourself Christian then insist, “I’ve got my health insurance, but I don’t know why you think you need health insurance.”
This also means it’s fundamentally Christian to be against war, since war involves killing your brothers and sisters.
There is no “us versus them” in this directive to love your neighbor — it basically turns the whole world into “we” and a “we” that we are compelled to act for. This is pretty cool, and when I remember being Catholic, this is one of my favorite parts, a practice that I still work to hold onto.
Being self-interested is not fundamentally Christian. Being kind and generous to all is.
2- Christians live by example instead of condemning others.
Okay, and then there’s that great Jesus story that culminates in “let he who is without sin cast the first stone.” Which is a story about how it’s easy to be harsh on other people even though we generally want to be treated mercifully. I didn’t understand this story when I first heard it as a young person (I didn’t know what adultery was, and I was particularly puzzled as to why you would “stone” someone when you could just shoot them… I was very young.)
But at the core of the story is that if we want God’s mercy we would do well to show mercy to others, since we have plenty of our own sins to be worried about. Think of all the scenarios this covers… opposition to the death penalty, opposition to “lock ’em up and throw away the key.” This ethic in action brings us deep things like Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s work to lead the Truth and Reconciliation process in South Africa (and his support for restorative justice). We can still hold out accountability, just not harshness.
My mother and I talked about this concept of not judging people harshly when she was dying (when we had many long philosophical discussions, some of which involved how to respond to my brother’s murder). We talked about the Lord’s prayer, and how it says, “forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.”
My mom was laying in a hospital bed with a tube coming out of her nose and not much time left and she said to me with some despair, “Kath-a-leen, nobody cares about the second part of that as much as the first part.” Nobody? Really? Sometimes Christians hold themselves to a low standard.
But I care about it. This is one of my favorite part of the Christian doctrine because it’s hard to do in the moment, but it has so clearly made my life easier than if I were lugging around all that criticism and judgement.
Judging others harshly is not fundamentally Christian. Showing patience and compassion to all is.
3- Question powerful institutions and be on the side of the underdog.
Here, I look to the recently-sanctioned nuns of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, who focus on doing good deeds and helping oppressed communities rather than enforcing randomly selected pieces of Christian doctrine (since there are plenty of biblical directives that Christians disregard, after all). Not that the Pope and I completely agree on this what this looks like — he has supported the bishops’ criticisms of the nuns for spending too much time on social justice.
Unlike the first two fundamentals, which I think of as hard but make our daily life easier, this one makes it harder because it involves siding with the “weak” and probably angering the strong. It means getting our hands dirty and sometimes, putting ourselves at risk.
I’ll give respect to the Pope for his commitment to live in relative austerity and reach out to prisoners, atheists and, well, pretty much everybody. Then there’s his recent exhortation (seriously, that’s what it’s called) to stop worshipping money like it’s God. He’s not using his powerful position to align himself with powerful institutional forces, and of course, he’s being criticized for it. Good for him. Good for all of us.
Aspiring to power and wealth is not fundamentally Christian. Siding with the disenfranchised is.
When you stick to the fundamentals, Christians can be a pretty awesome force for good in the world. These fundamentals are also where Christianity overlaps with many other great religious traditions as well as many great secular ideas that make the world more livable for all of us. So, please focus on these: for all our sakes.
Oh, and if you’re celebrating it, have a great Christmas!
Image from the “Works of Mercy” series by Ade Bethune, a Catholic Worker and artist, courtesy of Jim Forest on Flickr.