Some places in America are observing Columbus Day today. This has become a controversial subject. For many years, schoolchildren were taught that Christopher Columbus, an Italian explorer working for the Spanish, “discovered” America when he landed on the island of Hispaniola in 1492.
Modern scholars are offended by this for a variety of reasons. First, there were already people in the Americas– Columbus didn’t “discover” a new-found continent devoid of people or culture. Just because the Spanish court, and most of Europe, didn’t recognize the existence of North and South America and the Caribbean, doesn’t mean they were undiscovered. It only means they were undiscovered by the major European powers. Scholars go on to argue that Columbus and the Spanish (and the French and English and Portuguese who followed) did not so much “discover” the “New World;” they invaded and stole it from those who were living here “in peace.”
I disagree with the way scholars have “revised” the history of Western culture. But it causes me to think of how, over the years, we have also revised the message of the Gospel, and our concept of Christianity.
Much like the modern scholars’ version of Columbus “Discovering” America, many people like to talk about “discovering” Christianity. We “encounter” the Gospel. Maybe we join a local congregation of believers, or a Bible study group. It’s exciting– at first. It is new and amazing in its message of hope and love and grace.
But then we hear ugly stories of Christians who are hateful, judgmental, condemning, greedy, hypocritical, and hurtful. “That can’t be true; that can’t be what Christianity is about,” we say. And so we vow that “our” Christianity will be different. We adapt our message to the current trends in our society. We tailor our message to our friends and neighbors, even when the it’s no longer true. We wipe out and “conquer” and reshape those verses that cause offense. We recreate Jesus into a “great teacher,” a pal or a guru, rather than a Sovereign Savior. We end up following our own gospel, rather than the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
Or, we double down on legalism, making our walk with Christ more like a walk with His accusers, the Pharisees. We scream and argue about the “right” way to worship, or dress, or manage money. And we seek to wipe out those who don’t follow our traditions. We remove the promise of Grace from our Christianity, and replace it with judgment.
Except it isn’t “our” Christianity. We haven’t “discovered” the Gospel to make it into a “new” and better religion. We haven’t “discovered” a Jesus who is kinder or more accepting or less judgmental than He ever was. And We don’t follow a Jesus who refuses to love those who are not perfect or forgive those who have “fallen short of the glory of God.” (Romans 3:23)
Our “discovery” of Jesus should be a lifelong discovery– a lifelong journey of becoming who He wants us to be; becoming more like who He really is. Part of that is living out our faith in a world that refuses to understand or accept the Gospel. Part of it is living our lives according to the Bible’s principles, and not our culture’s trends. Part of it is trusting that God’s word never changes, even when the world around it does. And part of it is a consistent pursuit and practice of humble and earnest prayer. Otherwise, we may well be guilty of the same conquest and colonization as those we are condemning who came before us.
I see a lot of articles, posts, and religious sites as I wander around the internet. And there has been a lot written and shared lately about the word Christian getting a “bad rap.” Many writers and church goers are no longer comfortable calling themselves Christians. They don’t want to be identified with “bad” Christians– hypocrites, political extremists, etc., who loudly and proudly use the label while treating others with contempt, and generally acting like bullies and/or clowns. The growing trend is to use the term “Christ-follower” to describe a lifestyle that seeks to mirror that of Jesus Christ during His life on earth.
Proponents of this practice point out that Jesus never called His followers “Christians.” Instead, He consistently invited people to “Follow me.” The term “Christian” is associated with the earliest Gentile churches and with the scattering of the persecuted church across Judea, Samaria, and Asia Minor. The term originated in Antioch a few years after Jesus’ resurrection:
19 Now those who were scattered after the persecution that arose over Stephen traveled as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus, and Antioch, preaching the word to no one but the Jews only. 20 But some of them were men from Cyprus and Cyrene, who, when they had come to Antioch, spoke to the Hellenists, preaching the Lord Jesus. 21 And the hand of the Lord was with them, and a great number believed and turned to the Lord. 22 Then news of these things came to the ears of the church in Jerusalem, and they sent out Barnabas to go as far as Antioch. 23 When he came and had seen the grace of God, he was glad, and encouraged them all that with purpose of heart they should continue with the Lord. 24 For he was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and of faith. And a great many people were added to the Lord. 25 Then Barnabas departed for Tarsus to seek Saul. 26 And when he had found him, he brought him to Antioch. So it was that for a whole year they assembled with the church and taught a great many people. And the disciples were first called Christians in Antioch. (emphasis added)
Christian was not a positive or honorable label for the early followers of Jesus Christ. There are still many places in the world where the label “Christian” invites arrests, beatings, and death threats. There are places where the name “Christian” invites scorn and derision. What has changed (or seems to have changed) in the intervening years is that we see and hear of more and more places in the world where the label “Christian” brings up images of sneering protesters condemning gays or smug white faces spouting self-righteous phrases to justify greed, racism, and/or injustice. “Christians” are not just unwanted or misunderstood by others–Christians are unwanted by their own; misunderstood and misrepresented, at odds and at war with one another.
So what can be gained by followers of Jesus Christ in re-branding themselves as “Christ-followers?” After all, it’s just a name. In the 1960s, many Christians were condescendingly labeled “Jesus Freaks.” Jesus Freaks were viewed much like Hippies. They spoke of Peace and Love and Acceptance. They taught about kindness and unity. They were often young, and generally disillusioned with the older generation and its way of life. They acted a lot like Hippies; they just didn’t do as much experimenting with drugs and free sex. Much like the early Christians, they were labeled by those who dismissed their message and their way of life. They rejected traditional or mainstream Christianity, and were dismissed by many who called themselves Christians. Some were openly critical of previous generations of Christians. Many of those who wish to be called “Christ-followers” now are the descendants (or remnants) of the Jesus Freaks of the 60s. The mind set is very similar– disillusionment with others who have misused or abused the name of Christ, and a desire to “rescue” the reputation of the church.
There have been other groups across the centuries who have tried to re-brand and re-label their devotion to Jesus– God-fearers, Disciples, Reformers, Witnesses, Saints, Fellowships, etc.. And there is no command in Scripture that we must all call ourselves by a particular label.
But is seems odd to me that the very label, “Christian,” that came about because of persecution, that came about as a derisive, sneering, condescending term, was embraced by those it sought to shame and intimidate. Why didn’t the original “Christians” re-brand themselves to make their cause less offensive? Why has this term, “Christian,” endured over the centuries?
I think there are a few very good reasons:
“Christians” bear the name of Christ, whatever other name they give themselves. When I say I am a Christian, I know that there are people who will compare me to others who make this claim. But I am not just a member of a group that likes the idea of Christ; I’m not just a Facebook follower of Christ, or a fan of Christ, or a student of Christ. Christ is my Lord; my life; my identity. Christ– Jesus the Christ, the Messiah. Not Joe Smith down the road who also attends my church, or a famous evangelist or Bible teacher, or even one of the Apostles, or Saints. Jesus– son of Mary and Joseph; Son of God and Son of Man. This same Christ was arrested, given a sham trial, condemned to be crucified like a common criminal, and hung, naked and tortured before a mocking crowd. He was humiliated, misunderstood, and abandoned by those who claimed to care the most. THAT is the name I willingly bear.
“Christian” is a label. I can label myself in any number of different ways– “Woman,” “American,” “Caucasian,” “College graduate.” But there are many others who can use those same labels. They may define what I am, but they don’t define who I am. I may be appalled (and I am, sometimes) at things other women do, at things other Americans say, at the history of Caucasians and their interactions with indigenous peoples in other parts of the world, at the snobbery of other college graduates…But I don’t say, “I’m no longer going be an American; I want to be known as a resident of the United States, but I have my own system of government and culture and language independent of those living in Missouri or Idaho or Chicago– they don’t represent who I am.” Of course they don’t represent who I am–they never did. We all, collectively, are Americans AND residents of the United States. I can’t decline to be a woman because I don’t like the way other women behave or speak. And I can’t choose to be “other than” a Christian…all I can do is give it another label.
Finally, who I am is not found in a name or title or label. It is the sum total of my character and the way I live my life. Jesus didn’t tell His disciples that they would be known by any particular name, but He did say they would be known and identified by their love: 34 A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; as I have loved you, that you also love one another. 35 By this all will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:34-35 NKJV). That doesn’t mean I have to approve of everything other “Christians” do– in fact, if they use the name Christian and do not have love for others, they prove they are liars– but it means that I must do everything in the name of Christ. I am a Christian first, before I am a woman or an American or any other label. That means that I am the co-heir and sister to a young man in India who has been rejected by his family and expelled from his school for being a Christian. I am an ambassador of Christ to the woman I meet in the grocery store whose children are taxing her patience and whose cart is blocking the aisle I want to enter. I am an example of Christ’s love to the young couple who have been victimized by other “Christians” because they are “different.” And I am a Christian in a world of “fake” Christians, and confused Christians, and faulty and very human Christians just like me, who need correction, mercy, justice, and wisdom to follow Christ, to die to self, and to bear the honor of His name. Ultimately, I can call myself a Christian, a Christ-follower, a Jesus Freak–any other label I want. Whether I AM a Christian or not will be determined by how I live, not what I call myself.
If you are a Christian reading this– how are you bearing His name today?
I spent the day with my granddaughter today. We went to the bakery, the bank, the grocery, and the library. Some days we visit the post office or a local cafe. We live downtown, so we walk everywhere, and say hello to people we meet along the way. At each stop, we thank the people behind the counter or desk. My granddaughter is learning manners– how to be polite in public. Her parents do a wonderful job of this, and it’s very easy for me to bask in the proud glow of people remarking on how cute and polite and engaging she is. (I may be a little biased, but they DO say such things…)
Years ago, when I worked at a library, there were always families who came in and practiced good manners– “Please” and “Thank You,” “Excuse me,” “I’m sorry,” and “May I?” Often, the children were prompted, especially when they were young. Sometimes, they didn’t understand why they were being told to say such things. A couple of times, I had other parents roll their eyes and comment negatively on such practices. “They don’t even understand what they’re saying.” “I’ll bet they don’t say any of those things at home– what hypocrites. They’re just trying to make people think they’re better than everybody else.” “You shouldn’t force kids to say such things. They’ll just resent you for it later.”
There are actually parenting articles about forcing children to say “I’m sorry.” They are well-intentioned, and some are helpful about explaining what the issues are (here’s a link to one of the articles) . Other articles advise parents not to prompt children to say, “Thank You.” (Here’s another link.) I don’t disagree with these authors. In fact, I think they make a valid point about teaching our kids “shallow” manners and neglecting the deeper values of gratitude and empathy. But I think children need both.
Manners (especially as they reflect deeper values) are important. We live in a society where manners are becoming relics–laughable reminders of a quaint culture we have long outgrown. There are pockets of the country (and the larger world) where politeness is almost an obsession. It is not polite or helpful to be facetiously “nice” or sarcastically “nice”. But what happens when we no longer dare to show gratitude or empathy without inviting ridicule and contempt? What happens when saying “Please” and “Thank you” make you a target for mockery? When and how did this happen to our culture?
With all due respect to the recent spate of articles, I think something gets lost in the hyperbolic headlines and fascination with “feelings”–manners should originate, not with feelings, but with the acknowledgement of some basic truths:
I am not the center of the universe!
Other people– all other people–have value, worth, and dignity.
I need other people, and they need me–I am not an island.
There is a God who is kind, forgiving, loving, and wise.
I am polite to others, not because I feel “nice”, but because I recognize that God created all people; He loves us all equally, and I have a duty to treat others with dignity, respect, and kindness– even if I don’t “feel” it; even if they don’t respond in kind. Do I always remember and acknowledge this, even as an adult? Sadly, no. But I practice politeness as a discipline and a reminder that this should be so. I teach it for the same reason. And the amazing thing is that it makes a huge difference. Maybe not in the moment, with all my emotions running wild…but in the quiet aftermath of knowing that I said “Thank you” instead of the hurtful and sarcastic comment. I said “I’m sorry” instead of holding on to my pride and bitterness. And I may never know the difference it made to the harried waitress, or lonely shopper, or tired mechanic to hear two or three kind words– “Thank You” (You are noticed– you matter). “I’m so sorry” (you have dignity–you are worthy of kindness) “Please” (you have value–your time, skill, or service is special)
I’m not a “nice” person– I am often hateful and stubborn and impatient. But God has been abundantly gracious and merciful to me when I don’t deserve it. Being polite is such a small thing in light of God’s eternal and boundless love toward us.