A couple of days ago a co-worker asked me if I were Christian and I didn’t know how to answer.
I might have said yes; I pray to God and Jesus and Mary and the saints. I try to be compassionate and give people the benefit of the doubt. I believe in the human soul and the afterlife, and that love is stronger than hate, however slower.
Is that what it means to be a Christian? When I wavered in my response, my coworker laughed and said, “It’s a simple yes or no answer!”
For me it isn’t.
Words are agreed-upon symbols. We don’t always mean the same things when use them, but they exist to convey a picture, an ideal, a whole basketful of notions. The word “Christian” has been through many permutations, and these days, at least in the broader cultural sense, it doesn’t just mean a person who tries to follow Christ’s teachings. It has an unfortunate amount of connotations tied to its tail. Bigotry, violence, political manipulation, contempt, and worse have all been perpetrated in the name of Christianity. Take, for example, the bumper sticker my husband saw recently that said “Praise Jesus and pass the ammunition!”
Along with all the contemporary, so-called Christian ideals and mores with which I have no desire to be associated, there are all the things I do believe, or partially believe, which have no accepted place in the modern church. The I Ching, for example. The Enneagram. Past lives.
I spoke to someone else about this recently, someone less conflicted about his faith. When I asked him why he called himself a Christian, he said it was because he believed that Jesus Christ died on the cross for his sins, and was resurrected.
“But what does it mean to believe that?” I pressed. I wanted to know: Does belief in the crucifixion as historical fact suffice? I have no trouble “believing” the story (and by “belief” I mean acceptance) that there was once an extraordinary, perhaps even divine man named Jesus who was murdered for political reasons. And, I am an imaginative person: I can even go along with the resurrection. The trouble for me comes with the meaning ascribed to that event over the centuries. The idea of divinely sanctioned slaughter as the ultimate and final cosmic sacrifice is particularly difficult for me to swallow.
It’s not that I don’t want to see the dark side of God, or that I can’t accept a God who would allow the murder of his supposed only son. That part is actually easy for me. Scripture claims people are made in God’s image. If this is true, then I see God’s dark side every day on the news and—if I’m honest—in my own heart.
What troubles me is the idea that Jesus’ crucifixion was the last word, cosmically speaking. For me, this interpretation of the story diminishes any larger meaning we might find in our own quotidian sufferings. Do you and I not suffer for mankind? And by that I mean because of mankind, and also on behalf of mankind. Consider the victims—and the survivors—of the recent terror attack in Nice. Consider the woman whose young husband is on hospice and cannot get her insurance company to provide for his comfort and dignity. Does their anguish not hold up a mirror, asking us as a society and as individuals to examine ourselves? If our struggles are meaningless and must only be endured until the afterlife, if our pain is only the consequence of living in a so-called “fallen world,” then our lives are ultimately meaningless.
Perhaps this is what is meant by those saints who have taken solace during times of hardship by imagining that they suffer “with” Christ. Rather than a sense of solidarity, it might simply be a realization that suffering is unavoidable; it makes us human. In a way, it is our duty. To suffer “with Christ” is to accept with humility that which we would prefer to avoid—and a feeling of isolation is inherent. On the cross, even Jesus cried out to God in agony, “Why have you abandoned me?” That part of the story has survived redaction for a reason: It is important for us to understand that despair is natural, and also forgivable, when God’s care seems as weak and ineffectual as starlight.
In consideration of this necessary humility, I realize something else: my reluctance to be called a Christian, to avoid being associated with what I consider to be perversions of Christianity, the low-minded flag wavers and regurgitators of empty jargon who also claim to be Christians—this is a kind of pride. Christ never flinched from suffering and he also never shied from associating with pariahs. He was crucified alongside common criminals. If humility is called for—and Christ’s example implies that it is integral—then perhaps for me it means wearing a garment dirtied by others without explanation or excuse, or presumption to an advanced understanding.