Does Being Christian Make Any Difference At All?

With the holiday season approaching, many Christians feel under attack again. After all, Starbucks abandoned snowflakes and reindeer on its seasonal red cup, apparently negating the sacredness of the season. Other Christians in the US also feel under attack. Some Catholic sisters believe it's an undue burden for the Affordable Care Act to expect them to sign a form to opt out of having their health insurance plan provide contraception. Kim Davis, the anti-marriage equality county clerk in Kentucky, feels under attack because judges keep telling her she has to uphold the law. Again and again we hear this refrain of some Christians who feel persecuted because the rest of the country doesn't necessarily see things the way they do.

On the other hand, I wrote a post a couple of months back called "Mean Christians in the Digital Age." In it I bemoaned the nastiness some Christians exhibit in their online and other behavior toward those with whom they disagree. None of my other posts have come remotely close to the number of "likes" and "shares" that post received. What that suggested to me is that a lot of people have had enough of Christian hypocrisy, self-righteousness, judgmentalism, and closed-mindedness.

And that caused me to wonder: Are those the words that are supposed to describe Christians? Is that the difference being Christian makes--people become more bigoted, more discriminatory, more exclusionary, more unwilling to engage with different ideas, more willing to ignore science and history? Is that what being Christian has become for so many? A new study just found that children raised in religious homes are less generous and less altruistic and more punitive than children raised in non-religious homes. Is that what being Christian means? What messages are children hearing about being faithful people?

Too often the public face of Christianity I see is one that focuses on a triumphalism associated with believing oneself to be right--and not only right, but also right and on God's side. And this triumphalism justifies attitudes, behaviors, doctrines, and laws that dehumanize and marginalize pretty much everyone else who isn't "right," with little regard to the effects on others. For example, the Mormon Church just clarified that, not only are gay people who get married not welcome, neither are their children. And, if their children want to be Mormon, they have to wait till they are 18, renounce their parents' sexual identities, and never again live with those parents. Did anyone in the Mormon hierarchy ever stop to imagine the spiritual and psychological damage this pronouncement brings?

Donald Trump has been buoyed in the polls by the appeal of his anti-Muslim comments to many Christians. Many Christians have criticized Black Lives Matter for challenging the authority of the police or Native Americans for demanding their images and lives no longer be mascots for sports teams or Halloween costumes. Instead of joining hands with oppressed minorities in solidarity, these Christians have demanded that their own privilege be maintained at the expense of anyone who differs from them.

None of this reminds me of what I read in the Gospels. Jesus said, "By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another" (John 13:35 NRSV). Jesus also said, "You have heard that it was said, 'You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.' But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you" (Matt. 5:43-44).

As I understand the Gospel, the difference being a Christian makes is supposed to be evidenced in our loving behavior toward others, including our enemies. The author of the book of James writes, "What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, 'Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,' and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead. But someone will say, 'You have faith and I have works.' Show me your faith apart from your works, and I by my works will show you my faith" (James 2:14-18).

Likewise, the writer of I John asks, "How does God's love abide in anyone who has the world's goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help? Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action. . . Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love" (3:17-18; 4:7-8).

I am hard pressed to understand how doing harm to others in the name of Christian belief is love. What I see in the case of so many Christians is that being Christian actually makes them less loving, less kind, less compassionate. How else are we to understand that three presidential candidates attended a "National Religious Liberties Conference" organized by a pastor who last month called for state-sponsored execution of gay and lesbian people?

I wonder too what difference does being Christian make, not only in one's public expressions of belief, but also in personal relationships. Does being Christian make us kinder to our partners? More willing to forgive when we are wronged? Opposed to revenge? Unwilling to use violence, whether physical or verbal? Do we stand up for civil and human rights in our communities? Do we challenge hurtful remarks made to people right in front of us? Do we somehow behave in ways that are fundamentally different because of our faith?

If not, as James writes, "what is the good of that?"