Those were words I heard over and over as a child, my missionary father thoughtfully quoting a Liberian radio preacher. I could tell my father took them very seriously, so I did too, branding them into my brain right next to my parents’ constant admonishment against the sweeping generalizations little girls are wont to make (see what I just did there?). “Jenny, don’t generalize!” could have been my proper name, my “Christian name” as my Liberian friends would have called it.
So I grew up ultra-aware of two important facts: It’s extremely rude to talk about a group of people as if they’re all the same, and if you try to make people act the way you think they should act, you may actually drive them away from Jesus. The shudder-worthy image of someone choking, gagging, and suffocating as a well-intentioned outsider shoved a loaf of cellophane-wrapped bread down their throat was hard to shake. The gospel can be deadly if you don’t remove the cultural packaging and offer it freely, instead of forcefully.
As a little girl in Liberia, running around with my posse of neighborhood friends, I didn’t have much cause to think deeply about my father’s words. They were simply part of The Williams Guide to MK Etiquette, along with never refusing gifts from the Indian couple who lived upstairs, because they would consider it an insult, and never paying full price for the carved trinkets merchants brought to the door, because they would consider you a sucker. I could be annoyed that Allushus could shimmy all the way up the coconut tree while I could only manage a few feet, but to chalk it up to him being a Liberian boy and me being an American girl would be rude, and hardly representative of universal truth.
Ironically, it wasn’t until I was back in America that the full impact of my father’s words hit me. “Don’t generalize!” my mind would insist as a congregation tittered in response to some lame joke about gender differences. “Alas!” it would cry as legislation against the GLBTQ community took higher priority than love for them. I would sit in “Bible studies” about how to be a good Christian housewife and think of the girlfriends I left behind in Liberia, a nation now ravaged by war, disease, and hunger. The dichotomy was grotesque. If being a “good Christian woman” meant being some pretty, passive thing who kept a beautifully decorated home and greeted her husband with homemade meals when he came home from his 9-5, where did that leave my friends who had been forced to flee their zinc shacks and subsist in the jungle?
No. Clearly, we American Christians had wrapped the gospel in some heavy-duty cultural packaging, in a misguided attempt to protect the Bread of Life from worldly contaminants. Our message, shrouded as it was in the trappings of WASPy Christendom, was impossible for some people to digest, suffocating the spiritual life out of people Jesus suffered and died for. Isn’t it ironic that so much of the New Testament is focused on liberating the gospel from its cultural baggage so it could truly be good news to every tongue, tribe, and nation, and yet we have the gall to call our narrow western worldview biblical; that we who worship the incarnate God are so quick to distance ourselves from the wider world around us, calling it unclean? It became clear to me that we hadn’t only failed my friends in Liberia, as that radio preacher said–we had failed the people down the block, the people who live differently than us, vote differently than us, dress differently than us, think differently than us.
Our insensitively-expressed opinions, prim expectations, and slow-burning cultural condemnation have alienated people, and in some cases cut them off from Christ. We have piled righteous-sounding burdens on their backs, declared them unfit to enter as they are, and slammed the door of the kingdom of heaven in their faces.
In Matthew 23, Jesus had strong words for the Pharisees who did exactly that. And yet many of us seem to have appointed ourselves Teachers of the Law, defending the traditions of our elders at the expense of the precious people standing before us.
And just for the record, our elders don’t just have names like John Piper and Ronald Reagan and Bill Gothard. Some of them have names like Jimmy Carter and Dorothy Day and Tony Campolo.
We humans can find ways of being obnoxious, militant, and mean-spirited about just about anything, even the good news that God sent Jesus to reconcile us to himself and one another.
The good news is that there’s grace, even for us self-righteous Pharisees convinced we know what the kingdom of heaven is really all about. The question is, do we have the humility and courage to accept it on God’s terms, instead of our own? Embracing the kingdom is going to mean embracing a lot of people we may not like or understand, people who are different than us, people we don’t consider good or obedient or kind enough to represent Jesus, people whose way of life feels like a threat or affront to our own.
The Pharisees of Jesus’ day counted the cost too high. Given the choice between Jesus, who they could not define or control, and a religion they could, they chose religion. The Bread of Life was standing before them, but they clung to their empty plastic bag with a fervor fueled by fear, fear that if they stopped performing for God and demanding the same performance from others, their whole way of life would collapse.
And it did, in spite of them. And ours might, in spite of us. And God will still be good, still be enough.
Let’s peel the wrappings of culture and bias off the gift God has so freely given, and offer it to the world with open, trembling hands, trusting Jesus to preserve his people, not the other way around.
Jenny Rae Armstrong is an award-winning freelance journalist who blogs about faith, social justice, and women’s issues at http://www.jennyraearmstrong.com/. She is passionate about building up the body of Christ by building up women, in her rural community and around the world. She loves making new friends, so drop by her blog and say hi, or follow her on Twitter or Facebook.