Some followers of religions wear their faith on the sleeves. Or heads. Or are recognized by their robes or jewelry. Or avoidance of robes or jewelry. Late 20th Century Christians had a phase where they wore buttons or had bumper stickers on their cars.
But now Christians can be identified, not by clothes or accoutrements, but by . . . I’m not sure what.
You’d think that “salvation” or “conversion” would lead to some dramatically life-altering impacts. How one carried one’s self in the world must surely be different after an encounter with the immensities and mysteries of the Eternal, mustn’t it? We Americans think we’re far too “cool” and independent to have our faith defined by any tassels or turbans, scarves or markings. Or do we think we’re too “cool” for any belief that might make any difference in our lives? Or any belief that might make us stand out from our friends or families?
Is it ironic, or is it just true, that American Christians look like American atheists or pagans or car salesmen or waiters or teachers or football fans, or in fact just about anyone? Is there, should there be, a distinct “look” of a Christian?
Again, you’d think that an encounter with Eternity would leave its mark.
But if Christians look like anyone else, surely a true believer who has experienced, deeply and unforgettably, the universality of human existence and the frailty – and yet inherent glory – of conscious being – would carry that into every act, every conversation, even every sacred word. How could such a person, after encountering divine peace and compassion, that is, as the scriptures put it “beyond explanation or understanding”, abuse, threaten, or even kill another person created just as much in the image of the same Creator?
It defies comprehension, yet who does not see it every day?
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Who does not see vindictiveness, deception, and cruelty on display in conversations, headlines, relationships and business? There is no Christian veneer – or even a coat of paint – on the violence and ugliness we see in our world or in our own hearts.
One of the many problems with American Christianity (which is not only exclusively “American” but also historically recent) is the idea that “personal salvation” is the end. No religion, and certainly not historic Christianity, would believe such a thing. Conversion (and by extension salvation) is the beginning. It is one of the first steps, certainly not among the last, at least for most of us.
But what does a “Christian” look like? How could someone recognize a disciple in a crowd?
You’d think the traditional “markers” of our faith – humility, compassion, sacrifice, integrity and generosity—would stand out in a culture as avaricious, violent, and dehumanizing as our own. And they would – if we ever saw them.
I hear religious jargon, and fragmented verses taken out of context all the time (usually in ways that would make a Jesus-era Pharisee proud). The Bible makes a great weapon – and ends too many arguments and relationships. But the Bible is an immensity itself, one that speaks to and challenges people of faith to live up to a calling that can only be described as divine. This is kind of a code for being more kind, compassionate and generous than we have human justification to be.
If you have ever committed, or witnessed, one of these acts of more-than-human courage, sacrifice, or compassion, you are not likely to ever forget it. These are life-defining encounters. And we are called to embrace and embody them.
But like those people portrayed on the pages of the Bible, we often refuse to do it. Those who do are hounded or betrayed or somehow meet the modern-day equivalent of crucifixion. Real faith is lived. Real courage is lived. Real compassion is lived. Real sacrifice, integrity and generosity are lived. Real forgiveness is lived.
And these things are almost always uncomfortable. Real faith leaves us baffled and uncertain. In fact certainty itself could easily be defined as the opposite of faith.
Jesus tells us, repeatedly, to cast our bread on the waters, care for the least of these, loan to those who can’t pay us back, work to make sure no one goes hungry, is cold or abandoned and consider those who share our faith to be our truest family. Could we even imagine a community like this? Where giving, and not keeping track of it, is the first principle of living together.
In contrast, many religious traditions, including my own, have a focus on knowledge; knowledge of Christ, knowledge of traditions and rituals, knowledge of the scriptures. I call BS on the whole system. The Apostle Paul, when he was still Saul the heretic hunter, “knew” Scriptures and the Law. It was only after he was literally thrown to the ground and blinded that he finally understood the words he “knew”. Jesus never cared about knowledge. Knowledge never “saved” anyone.
But caring people will. People who stand for, or sometimes kneel for, the truth, the restoration, the healing power of forgiveness, and the uplifting of the broken spirits among us can, as we have seen so few times in human history, literally change the world.
This is what people of faith look like.