The great Hindu hero and leader for justice, Mahatma Gandhi, once said: “Hey, I’d be a Christian too if it weren’t for all the crappy Christians running around the place.”
Ok, so Gandhi didn’t say that. Not really. But he is alleged to have said something to that effect: “I like your Christ, but not your Christianity.” In our view, that’s pretty much the same thing.
The tagline for our book—Faithful Witness in a Fractured World: Models for an Authentic Christian Life—developed out of a running joke between us. While we were working first on the book proposal and then on the manuscript, we would occasionally fall into fits of laughter referring to it as “our little book on how not to be a sh*tty Christian.” When our students caught wind of the joke, however, they insisted that we keep that as the book’s title.
Thinking that they were just being edgy, or maybe thought it was funny to hear their professors confess to using bad words, we laughed off their insistence. And then we started getting the same response from older adults: “I’d definitely read a book with that title!” We compromised a little: it’s a tagline, not the title nor subtitle of the book, and we shifted to the word “crappy” so as not to offend too much. But alas, there it is, right on the cover: “How Not to Be a Crappy Christian.”
If you’re a little uncomfortable with the tagline, that’s ok—we are too. But please know that it’s not a gimmick or some crude ploy to get you to buy our book. (We’re not keeping the profits anyway.) There’s actually sincerity and seriousness behind the language. Despite our hesitation to use this verbiage in a book about something as sacredly important as religious faith, the terminology does express our frustration with the current state of Christianity in America. If you’re frustrated too, and if you can handle a little snark and the occasional reference to crappy Christians, we invite you to read on.
Like many American Christians, we are concerned with how Christian faith is playing out in the current political landscape and in American culture more broadly. The polarity and in-fighting among Christians over how (and even whether) to engage in the work of Christian mission and service seems more acute in this historical moment than it has been in prior decades. We suspect you know what we’re talking about. Like us, in the year prior to and in the months following the 2016 presidential election, you’ve seen it on your Facebook thread and your Twitter feed, and if you’re really lucky you’ve experienced it right in your own family or friend group, at school or at work, and elsewhere: the ugly divisiveness that permeates everything from our news media to our dinner conversations. It is a divisiveness that makes assumptions about our politics based on our religious affiliations and vice versa and which has the power to cut communication between family members and long-time friends. The divisiveness is exacerbated by social media as we create echo chambers of our own views by un-friending (and being un-friended by) those whose perspectives are opposed to ours.
As professors—one a politically-engaged theologian and the other a theologically-engaged political scientist—we admit that this situation leaves us concerned and scratching our heads. In our current American context, we wonder: what does it mean to live an authentic life of faith? How does one live an authentic Christianity in “Christian” America? Are Christians called to be in charge of the whole gig, legislating Christian morality and ensuring that the rest of our nation does not go too far down an immoral path? Or must Christians scrap the key tenets of biblical faith in order to engage politically or to bring a social or political position to the table? Given our current context, what is the future of Christianity in terms of its relevance and its capacity to create positive social change?
It seems to us that in the absence of real, widespread efforts among factions of Christians to bridge the divide, we need models to look toward for inspiration. That’s what this book is really about. It’s not actually about politics, or theological perspectives per se. It’s about people who, because of their Christian faith, have chosen the path of service and pursue their work in somewhat less-than-conventional ways. They are individuals who are not famous for their work, and may never be beyond our telling their stories in a public way here through this book. They are in many ways “ordinary” people who have simply followed a path that most would find commendable, yet in the same breath would admit that their efforts are perhaps too challenging, or even “unsafe.” And yet they are models that Christians from all corners of the political landscape can look to as models of authentic Christian faith and practice.
While Martin Luther King Jr., Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Dorothy Day, William Wilberforce, and other Christian social justice- and peace-activists continue to inspire and move us to action, sometimes the lives and commitments of these “greats” can seem too radical (and their sacrifices too excessive) to be emulated. Certainly, we hope and pray for Christians to rise up in imitation of these extraordinary individuals who have changed the shape of world history for the better. But perhaps not all are called to that extraordinary path. Perhaps most of us are called to make significant changes in smaller corners of the world, or simply to make incremental changes for a particular population of people. The “heroes” we highlight here fall into these latter categories, but their contributions are no less noteworthy for being smaller-scale.
To be clear, we do not believe there is one right way to be a Christian in America. Yet certainly there are wrong ways to be Christian, a reality that we believe will become apparent as we move through this book. The point here is to highlight a handful of folks we have known or have come to know through our teaching, research, and civic engagement, and to showcase the example and witness of each as one sure way of being a Christian. We believe that regardless of political persuasion, the reader will agree that these are people whose commitments are inspiring and faith-full—and in that agreement, we might find something to lessen the chasm between Christians in this historical moment.
Our goal, in the end, is not to offer something radically new, but rather to build upon foundations well-established by other contemporary scholars and activists and the long tradition of Christian social thought before them. What we think is new is the way in which we attempt to offer some light in dark times, some clarity amid the confusion, some peace to counter the polarization.