The failure of the Western church is a failure to live out the love command. We are commanded to love God and to show our love for God by loving others. Our actions have, instead, too often conveyed a message of arrogance and disrespect.
“It is not enough to look at the world right,” I remember my high school Bible teacher saying. “We are also called to act and live right.” It is far easier to be a Christian in theory than it is to practice our faith. As the hands and feet and voice of Christ, Christians represent Christ in the world, and we are commanded to show God’s love to others. Despite good hearts and the best of intentions, however, we are not always successful in communicating love. This crystalized for me a few years ago when I began a PhD program at a public university.
At the start of my program we explored issues of marginalization and oppression in Western history. I discovered that a postmodern, post-Christian interpretation of history places the blame for these events on Christianity. Not on the sinful actions of a few misdirected Christians who certainly do not represent Christ. But on Christians, like the wealthy, 19th-century slave owners drawing on Biblical principles; the dominant white male church leaders denying women’s rights; the well-meaning Christians working in Canadian residential schools; and those whose beliefs and convictions cause them to be hostile toward people who identify as LGBTQ+.
As a believing Christian, I could argue that these people do not represent all Christians, and that for every such misguided Christian there were probably 10 or more actively (and quietly) working to support the marginalized and oppressed. Inside the Christian community, this is an important clarification. But to others, the distinction is irrelevant – terrible things happened, and Christians were heavily involved.
How did this happen?
My research into the communication of care allows me to make an important, if obvious, point. Most of the Christians who led the marginalization were not evil people, seeking to abuse their power over others. In many cases, the people at the forefront were good people with good hearts and good intentions. Indeed, their objective was almost always to spread God’s Word and to combat sin, and their faith commitment clearly directed their actions. As a Christian community we need to own the consequences. Their biblically-faithful good intentions and the resulting well-intended but sinful actions are our legacy. As importantly, these events continue to influence how others see Christ.
One of the biggest challenges I have faced in my graduate program is the irony of the modern dialogue landscape. Christians have “had their turn” and our insight and guidance is no longer needed. Now that the voiceless have found advocates or have discovered their own voices, the sinful actions of hundreds of thousands of Western Christians have been named. In a pluralistic culture, everyone is invited to speak . . . but Christians are often left out of the conversation. As much as I struggle with this, there is a certain degree of justice. Because of our behaviour we have essentially forfeited our right to speak.
It’s worth noting that our youth – Christian high school and university students – often come to the same conclusions. They’re asking good questions about how we treat other people. They notice when our theoretical beliefs are not in line with faithful actions. And some of them walk away when those questions are discounted.
The real tragedy is not that we’ve lost the opportunity to be heard. It’s the impact on the victims. Lives have been lost. Human beings have been demeaned and damaged. Trust has been broken. And many Christians remain unrepentant. In some cases, oppression continues. Even more significantly, from a theological vantage point: because of the actions of good-hearted, sinful Christians who have done significant harm in his name, hundreds of thousands of people have not met Christ.
The failure of the Western church is a failure to live out the love command. We are commanded to love God and to show our love for God by loving others. Our actions have, instead, too often conveyed a message of arrogance and disrespect. And we have not paid enough attention to how others perceive our actions, regardless of our intentions. While most Christians I have known would never condone the actions carried out by Christians in either the past or the present, I suspect that many of us have participated in this same failure to successfully communicate love to others.
If I had been alive at the time of Christ, I would have been a Pharisee. I would have known my Hebrew Bible well. I would have been powerfully aware of Israel’s loss of status and power. I would have been focused on the injustice of Roman oppression and the fear of Roman reprisal. And I would have seen Christ as a threat to God’s plan for Israel. With all of the fervor I could have mustered, I would have called for and supported his crucifixion. And to my own shame and horror, I would have been wrong. It is no coincidence that many of the early converts to Christianity were repentant Jews who had seen the error of their ways, were ashamed and transformed, and were radically determined to authentically live out their newly-awakened faith.
I hope we can experience a similar awakening today.
Will they know we are Christians by our love?