Let’s be honest, Christians. For professing a belief in a relatively unpredictable God, we have incredibly predictable defensive patterns whenever people question or critique our religion.
When LGBTQ folks share their stories of church trauma, someone barges in talking about how their church is different. When I write an article critiquing white evangelicals, they slide into my inbox to tell me how exceptional they are or why I should give them, as an individual, a chance. When white evangelicals play a huge role in election Donald Trump president, other white Christians profess how they voted for Hillary Clinton or describe why their Christianity is different.
When a critique is offered of the general “you” ― or, for our purposes, “Christians” ― someone, like clockwork, comes barrelling in like the Kool-Aid man with an iteration of the phrase “not all Christians.”
“Not all Christians” is an interruption tactic that derails conversations about a general expression of the problematic facets of Christianity by making it about the individual exception(s) to the presented critique. It is an often passive cry for praise for doing the baseline work of not being a terrible human, but serves more to reveal how individual Christians, unable to hold the complexed and nuanced history that they are a part of, would rather pick and choose what they are associated with.
Some of us buy a pair of TOMS shoes to give a pair away to a child in Africa but never want to own the Christian industrial complex that economically disenfranchises children abroad and at home.
We are comfortable claiming the Christianity of Martin Luther King Jr. but quick to offload responsibility for the racially violent conditions that made his work necessary. We have mastered praising missionaries for going overseas but get defensive when our goodwill is questioned.
Some of us buy a pair of TOMS shoes to give a pair away to a child in Africa but never want to own the Christian industrial complex that economically disenfranchises children abroad and at home. Essentially, Christians want to have their cake and eat it too. We seek to hold what is pleasant or noble about our history while rejecting the notion of our participation in oppression systems, structures and organizations by nature of our belief in itself.
The problem is that if you identify as Christian (a highly politicized social identity as much as it is a religious one in the U.S.) you must, in having the social privileges of being Christian, also carry the social weight of taking on defensive postures to seem like one of the “good ones.”
This all gets shrouded under the notion that it simply isn’t fair to lump all people into one label or category. This is is sometimes true; however, with an identity as systemically privileged as being Christian is in the U.S. and with the gravity of historical nonsense perpetuated in the name of Jesus, it is not enough to simply ascribe responsibility to individuals in the same way it wouldn’t be helpful to focus on individual white people in dismantling systemic racism.
Christians must learn to distinguish the general “you” from the specific “you” and set aside the incessant ego that takes everything personally. Most critiques of Christians as a whole are rarely speaking in the specific, but rather about the belief and faith system that tie all Christians to each other, and to the oppression that we benefit from because of colonialism, genocide and globalization.
It’s clear that when people say some version of “not all Christians,” they are almost always the people who most need to hear the critique that is being offered.
We must also learn to take responsibility, even if the critique isn’t lobbed at any specific thing we ourselves might have done. Whether or not you’ve done something yourself to be ashamed of, if we identify as a Christian, we belong to a collective group responsible for discrimination, colonization and genocide and it’s time all of us under the umbrella of Christianity do what we can to change our public perception.
It’s clear that when people say some version of “not all Christians,” they are almost always the people who most need to hear the critique that is being offered. It does nothing to claim, through words, “not all Christians” if we don’t show how we are different in our actions. To be sure, there are faith communities out there who seek to do the right thing, to distance themselves from problematic Christianity, and do so with integrity to their words, not just integrity to who they perceive themselves to be.
There are many Christians who are seeking to empower the marginalized in their communities, provide support and resources for LGBTQ people, change their liturgies and theologies, attend rallies and encourage political awareness, inclusion and action. These people have no need to be defensive; they do the work, accept critiques and work in-house to change not simply the perception of Christians, but our impact and legacy.
I don’t read articles critiquing Christianity or evangelism and get defensive because, in my view, they don’t pertain to me. Rather, if something strikes a chord, makes me feel offended or if I am tempted to wiggle my way out of responsibility, I see it as an opportunity to look more deeply at myself and to note why I am inadvertently problematic instead of focusing on the ways that I feel personally victimized about something that someone didn’t personally write to or about me. At the end of the day, when has defensiveness and sinking into individualism ever benefitted anything other than your own ego or sense of self?
Christians must learn a posture of listening, and instead of trying to crawl out of critiques, to ask better questions that help them to own identity and, as a result, hopefully gain renewal. There is no need to be defensive and decenter a conversation on perceived individual Christian exceptionalism when it simply serves to make the conversation about that Christian’s feelings rather than a critique being made on behalf of the marginalized.
Brandi Miller is a campus minister and justice program director from the Pacific Northwest.