This is the post in which I confess a kind of prejudice. A Christian prejudice. And I’m guilty.
I first noticed it when walking my dog past the house of a man and woman who belong to a prominent cult. In my mind I had written them off – lost causes, hopelessly deluded, enemies of Christ. You get the picture.
Pretty ugly. Possibly true. But I wouldn’t know because I haven’t asked.
This came home to me a few nights ago, when my wife and I attended a local production of Alfred Uhry’s The Last Night of Ballyhoo. Set in 1939 Atlanta, Uhry presents an upper-class German-Jewish family more concerned with the premiere of Gone with the Wind than with the plight of Polish Jews fleeing before the onslaught of Hitler’s blitzkrieg. The family has so acculturated itself to its Christian neighborhood that it decorates a Christmas Tree each year, but it struggles to accept a Jewish young man of Russian descent, who speaks Yiddish and celebrates Passover. From their privileged enclave in the anti-Semitic South, they practice their own brand of bigotry against “the other kind” of Jew.
And now I’m thinking about “the other kind” of Christian. The kind I’m glad I’m not. The kind I don’t want non-Christians to think I am.
What is a Christian, anyway?
I realize that some of my more enlightened friends ignore the idea of a Christian taxonomy – of different “kinds” of Christian. They see the plurality of denominations – and religions – as yet one more incentive to discard faith for reason.
But if I may use the very reasonable “law of non-contradiction” for a moment, I should defend at least some of our tribalism.
We either believe in a personal deity or not – which excludes most of the eastern religions.
We either believe that God became man in the person of Jesus Christ or that he didn’t – which excludes all but one of the Abrahamic faiths, as well as the more cultic “Christian” innovations.
We either believe that Jesus earned our personal salvation through his life, death, and resurrection or that we must somehow contribute our own good deeds to get it – which excludes the legalistic and ritualistic branches of the Church.
This defines “Christian.” (It also means that all religions don’t teach “basically the same thing,” as some claim.)
But how many different kinds of Christian are there? More than I know.
Which kind am I? The right kind, of course.
What about the other kinds of Christian? Or not?
Which must mean that everyone else is wrong.
And who knows? Maybe they are. Maybe 2000 years of dissonant Christian history has finally resolved into my own understanding of the faith. I’ll build a cabin in the mountains and await the pilgrims.
Or maybe we’re all mostly right and a little bit wrong. Maybe, believing the same Gospel, we’ve misunderstood something else – like church buildings or Communion or the way God communicates with us or what it means to be a conservative.
I’m talking about genuine Christians as defined above, but even if I weren’t, where does that leave everyone else?
Am I free to love the church and ignore the rest? Aren’t my cultic neighbors created in the image of God and loved by Jesus? Have I escaped their error by my own ingenuity, or have I been saved by the sheer mercy and grace of God? And is God’s grace so limited I cannot afford to share it with them?
As for the global body of true believers, if Jesus loves those on the outside, how much more should I love those on the inside?
Should I dismiss them because their church is too high or too low? Shall I disown them like my crazy uncle who wears foil hats and boils all his tap water (I don’t really have one of these)? Can I disrespect them because their “error” is more conspicuous to the world than mine is?
Do I want man’s approval so badly I will shun God’s family because of a few unsociable quirks?
Has the kingdom of Christ so captured the culture that we may now dispute our territorial claims? Or do we have more pressing concerns?