[Unpublished, March 2003]
I subscribe to a newsweekly magazine. One week the cover story is about Buddhists. I read the article. It is about spirituality.
Another week the cover story is about students of the Kaballah. I read the article. It is about spirituality.
Another week the cover story is about Christians. I read the article. It is about politics.
Ouch. I’m a Christian woman, and I do have some political views, but I don’t like seeing my faith regularly reduced to Capital Hill hijinks. Please: it’s not a special interest group, lobby or PAC. It’s a faith.
There are two reasons why Christianity is thought of as a political force, rather than as parallel to the other great world religions. The first is the powerful ability of politics to eclipse other categories. Christian individuals and organizations have plunged into political activism and identified themselves by their faith. They’ve also plunged into medicine, media, academics, entertainment, and care for the poor, but it seems that the political realm is the only one where their group presence is recognized.
The second reason is the tendency of the familiar to disappear. America is far from spiritually monolithic, but the vast faith background of our country is Christian. The average person first learns of it in Sunday School, where they’re offered a simplified version, boiled down so a child can understand. The startling, indeed shocking, claims of the faith—that God became a human baby, that he was crucified and rose again—are placidly absorbed at an age so young that they fail to surprise. For many people, the last time they walked out of Sunday School was the last time they thought seriously about this faith.
On the other hand, we learn of the other great religions as adults, and are impressed by their depth and complexity. Christianity in comparison seems simple and childish—because a child-level version is all we’ve ever known. We’ve effectively been innoculated against encountering it in its grown-up dress, as a faith of beauty and profundity.
Christianity is an ancient spiritual path leading to union with God. The way lies through the man Jesus Christ, who was fully God—a claim so astounding that it fails to shock only because it is so blandly familiar. Over the course of two thousand years, in diverse communities around the world—Jerusalem, Africa, Rome, Europe, Greece, Russia, Alaska—the community, "the Church," has accumulated wisdom about the practices that lead to growth in holiness. These spiritual disciplines are recognizable as such in other faiths: fasting, prayer, life in community, care of the poor, study of the holy book, love of God and neighbor. There’s enough here to keep theologians busy for two thousand years, and to inspire millions of women, as well as men, to lead lives so exemplary we call them saints. This is the Christian faith. It’s not a polling position.
This sense that I’m being mischaracterized, always uncomfortable, becomes more pointed during this season surrounding that holiest of Christian feasts, Easter (no, not Christmas). Since I am an Eastern Orthodox Christian, most years we observe the day we call Pascha after Western Christians do. At that point, my fellow parishoners and I have been fasting from meat, fish and dairy products for seven weeks. In addition to prayers at home, standing as a family before the candles and icons in the living room, we go to church more frequently. My calendar is penciled with eleven services in the last eight days before Pascha. Pascha itself is a six-hour event composed of several exuberant services with boisterous feasting and champagne in the middle.
During Lent we think about the whole purpose of our spiritual lives: oneness with God. We take stock, sometimes wincing, of the ways we estrange ourselves instead, and express sorrow at this separation. We repeat the 4th century penitential prayer of St. Ephraim the Syrian and bow down with our heads to the floor, joining our petition to that of centuries of believers before us in widely differing cultures all over the world. Someone who didn’t know we were Christians might get the idea we were following a spiritual path.
But in an office at the Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, I spot a poster announcing a series of speeches and presentations. It’s headed "In God We Trust?" with a big, skeptical question mark, and subtitled: "America’s Response to the Rise of Religion."
Funny, I don’t see any names here that I think of as primarily spiritual leaders—no monastics, no inner-city pastors, no successors to Thomas Merton or Mother Teresa. Speakers include Alan Dershowitz and Ralph Reed, someone from the ACLU, someone from the Department of Education, Michael Dukakis and Jesse Jackson. Who here represents "Religion"—that is, who represents me? And who represents "America"—which I guess is me, too? Come to think of it, where did the idea develop that "America" and "Religion" are mutually exclusive groups? Or that "Religion" is something threatening to which "America" must respond?
I shouldn’t judge the lecture series, since I didn’t attend; perhaps it really was about religion, perhaps Alan Dershowitz shared about his prayer life, and Michael Dukakis, erstwhile Greek Orthodox, demonstrated how to use a traditional prayer rope in reciting the ancient Jesus Prayer. I don’t know who responded in the name of America; perhaps Ralph Reed make a speech about what a great country this is, that honors all faiths, even his. But I doubt it.
In response to these two problems, I’d propose two solutions. Taking the second problem first, I’d invite the curious to acquaint themselves with the Christian faith as a faith, and from an adult’s perspective. A religion that was shallow or childish would not have been sufficient to compel such devotion in centuries of people all over the world—people, I dare say, who were as smart as you are. It could not have been enough to inspire the brilliant young African woman, Perpetua, to defy her theological challengers and submit to torture and death rather than deny her faith. A negligible faith would not have inspired centuries of male and female monastics to undertake the extraordinary fast of celibacy. A silly faith could not have sent Mother Teresa to India or Fr. Damian to bathe lepers. What made them do it? Come and see.
I am often surprised at the childishness of the reasons people give for being unable to consider the Christian faith, reasons that sound like they were thought up by a bored 8-year-old sitting on a hard pew, and never reviewed with adult insight. Eye-rollers such as, "How can God hear all those prayers at the same time?" or "Why doesn’t God stop bad people from doing things?" (They don’t seem to consider what such an interventionist policy might mean for their own petty misbehaviors.) Or the classic, "Christianity is bogus because some Christians have done evil," as if it were other fallible Christians, and not Jesus Christ himself, with whom they had to deal. Objections formulated in childhood shouldn’t keep an adult from experiencing something, whether it’s brocolli or spirituality.
Second, while not wishing Christians should cease to be involved in politics, I wish we could do what we do in a more distinctively Christian manner. We seem to have adapted the battling, we’re-number-one mindset of the arena around us, rather than following Jesus’ scary directives to love our enemies, accept abuse, embrace our low estate, and bless those who hurt us.
This is not incompatible with continuing to take a clear stand based on our principles. There’s nothing wrong with citing a faith basis for our political beliefs; such a basis is indeed preferable to other motives, such as self interest or powermongering. A more humble approach doesn’t mean Christians should be expected to compromise, either. With an ancient faith comes, not unexpectedly, an ancient morality, one which its inheritors do not have authority to amend. New, fashionable notions of moral behavior aren’t very convincing when the topic is a phenomenon as ancient and stubbornly unchanging as human nature. Thus the multicultural, multigenerational consensus on moral issues that’s been handed down to modern Christians is one they treat with deserved respect. Its timelessness and universality make it a good interrogator of contemporary fascinations, prejudices, and fads, things that are otherwise hard for residents of the current fishbowl, subject as they are to peer pressure, to recognize, much less critique. Chesterton called it, "Giving our ancestors a vote," and it’s a good way to check reality and to question loud but transient authority. Thus, for example, Christians who value this ancient wisdom will not be able to countenance abortion; it’s been explicitly condemned as unjust violence against children, ever since the writing of the Didache about 70 AD.
But how do we do what we must do? If opposing violence against the helpless means opposing abortion, for example, how can we best take that stand? How can we avoid having "Christian" become just another political label?
The last time I spoke at Focus on the Family I addressed a crowd of eight hundred pro-lifers, most of them women, all of them providers of aid—housing, job training, medical care—to pregnant women. Other speakers no doubt gave more fiery messages, but I told them to befriend abortion activists, love their enemies, and repent of their own sins.
My husband teased before I left for the airport, "Are you going to give that speech about how we should betray our principles?" But I think this is rather the core of our principles—doing what we do, bearing witness, in the manner of our leader who was (surprise) rejected and despised, and eventually killed for his offensive teaching. It’s a very difficult path, which is why he used terms like for it like "death to self" and "take up your cross." You may imagine that the inspiration to agree to undertake such a difficult and risky calling must be very beautiful and compelling indeed—which is the mystery that was hidden when Christian faith became routine.
We have to do it his way, in the light of this spiritual journey toward union with God, recalling that we’ve been warned how we treated our opponents will be on the final exam. Otherwise, being a Christian is just politics as usual.
[Unpublished, March 2003]