“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven” (Jesus, in Matthew 7:21).

“[T]ruth is in order to goodness; and the great touchstone of truth [is] its tendency to
promote holiness, according to our Savior’s rule, ‘By their fruits ye shall know them.’ And…no opinion can either be more pernicious or more absurd than that which brings
truth and falsehood upon a level, and represents it as of no consequence what a man’s
opinions are. On the contrary, we are persuaded that there is an inseparable connection
between faith and practice, truth and duty”
(Presbyterian Church [USA] Book of Order 2011-2013, F-3.0104).

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A Methodist bishop in Alabama described the state’s immigration law as one of the nation’s “meanest.” State senator Bill Holtzclaw responded to the charge with this: “I want you to know I am a Christian. I’m a Methodist, and I voted for this law. This legislation was written by Christians” (The Christian Century, December 22, 2011: 9). 

My purpose here is not to debate the merits of the Alabama statute, because I know nothing much about it. Instead, what I want to do is reflect a bit on how the bishop’s and the senator’s contrasting views on the law remind us of one of the central issues in the church and the nation today: the definition of “Christian.”

I suspect the majority of people in the churches and those outside the Church who still care about such things believe that being Christian means a) the same thing as “American”; b) being a “good” person, especially as measured by your gifts to charity, whether your time or your money and by your abstention from  drinking/smoking/ cursing; c) believing certain doctrines about Jesus/God/the Holy Spirit; d) belonging to a church; e) being against abortion and gay marriage and for Israel; f) all of the above. So, because on this view being a Christian has to do with intellectual assent to propositions and support of an institution, one can be a Christian and write a law or do something else which others, also claiming to be Christian, would label as “mean.”

The minority these days would claim that being a Christian is not about what you believe, but whom you follow, namely, Jesus. And they would point out that Jesus commanded us to care for the poor and the stranger in our midst (Matthew 25) and that he told us we would be judged on how we treated the “least of these.” In this, these folk would go on to observe, Jesus echoed the Mosaic law, which commanded the love of neighbor as oneself; and the Old Testament prophets, who were constantly calling for justice for the poor, the overlooked, and the left-out. The litmus test of faith is thus not assent to a doctrinal stance or your position on a hot-button issue, but rather the total witness of your life, especially how your faith works itself out in the way you treat others. And not just giving them charity, but moving beyond charity to doing justice. Not just being nice, but showing true compassion. Not just saying a prayer of praise on Sundays, but walking humbly with God daily. So, no one who is really a follower of Jesus could even contemplate writing legislation which people of goodwill and sensitive conscience would label “mean.”

I’m reminded of the statement of the biblical author James: “You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder” (2:19). He was making the point that faith (doctrinal assent) without works (specifically, taking care of the bodily needs of neighbors) is dead. Faith, he insists, is shown by works.

The assassinated bishop Oscar Romero reminded us that charity is the standard by which so many measure “Christian” works. And charity is necessary and good until there is justice. But charity is also approved of by the Powers That Be; it’s the safe way to go. It does not challenge the assumptions or the comfort of those at the top of the ladder. Romero (or some say it was Dom Helder Camara) said: “When I fed the poor they called me a Saint, when I asked why they are poor, they called me a Communist."

No doubt the debate will go on and on. I don’t know what the outcome will be. But this I do know: those who were once people of faith or who are of no faith (like so many younger adults*) are not convinced or impressed by the doctrinal wrangling and hate-filled invectives of so-called “Christians” of any stripe. As pastor Dan Kimball has noted in a book title “they like Jesus, but not the church.” What they do pay attention to is whether those who name the name of Jesus actually follow him and seek to live as he lived. As he himself said: “By their fruits you will know them.”

Judging by the fruit of our lives, not the words of our mouths, are you and I Christians?

© 2011 Tom Cheatham. All rights reserved.

*For a particularly poignant look at faith (or the lack of it, actually) from the point of view of a thirty-something, see Margaret Wheeler Johnson’s piece here: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/margaret-wheeler-johnson/atheism-religion-doubt-faith_b_1172849.html?ref=daily-brief?utm_source=DailyBrief&utm_campaign=122911&utm_medium=email&utm_content=BlogEntry&utm_term=Daily%20Brief

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