02 May 2019

If you were a real Christian...

Recently Franklin Graham challenged Democratic presidential aspirant Pete Buttigieg on the latter's gay/Christian identity:
Mayor Buttigieg says he’s a gay Christian. As a Christian I believe the Bible which defines homosexuality as sin, something to be repentant of, not something to be flaunted, praised or politicized. The Bible says marriage is between a man & a woman — not two men, not two women.
Here, Graham is pointing out a contradiction (in his humble opinion) in Buttigieg's Christianity. At least within the text of this tweet, he's not denying the Democratic mayor's right to call himself a Christian.

On the other hand, what about Franklin Graham's Christianity? His comments on Buttigieg earned him a social-media backlash, much of which referred to Graham's enthusiastic support of the USA's Sinner-in-Chief and questioned whether Graham was a genuine follower of the Prince of Peace.

I actually defended Graham on Twitter, if you can call this a defense:

This business of distinguishing between imperfect Christians and fake Christians reminded me of Roger E. Olson's blog post from a month ago: Is Everyone a Christian Who Claims to Be a Christian? Olson says that an attitude of total acceptance of anyone's Christian self-identification, without actual comparison with the essence of Christian faith, is anti-intellectual and a-historical. It's not mean or judgmental, for example, to expect that any authentic Christian acknowledges being a sinner and repenting.

I respect Olson's argument but have a few misgivings. My most important caution: consider the context of any situation in which one person is judging another's Christian credentials. In the best case, the question could come up in an honest face-to-face encounter, with the well-being of the would-be Christian as top priority. That's far from the reality we see all around us in political discourse. (Example.) When a politician announces that Pete Buttigieg or Franklin Graham or Barack Obama is a fake Christian, they're no doubt expecting approval from their audience, and perhaps some political benefit from that denunciation. And without a personal conversation based in love for the soul of that public figure, chances are the denunciation crosses the line of bearing false witness.

Martin Marty provided an example of taking context into account when he discussed the phenomenon of post-Watergate prison conversions, including that of the late Chuck Colson. He couldn't help but question the trend of jailhouse conversions, but said he would never question an individual case. He certainly respected Colson's sincerity.

In the preface to Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis (whom Olson mentions) insisted on a very straightforward definition of Christian, one that dates before the emergence of the New Testament:
Now if once we allow people to start spiritualising and refining, or as they might say "deepening," the sense of the word Christian, it too will speedily become a useless word. In the first place, Christians themselves will never be able to apply it to anyone. It is not for us to say who, in the deepest sense, is or is not close to the spirit of Christ. We do not see into [people's] hearts. We cannot judge, and are indeed forbidden to judge.

It would be wicked arrogance for us to say that [anyone] is, or is not, a Christian in this refined sense. And obviously a word which we can never apply is not going to be a very useful word. As for the unbelievers, they will no doubt cheerfully use the word in the refined sense. It will become in their mouths simply a term of praise. In calling anyone a Christian they will mean that they think him [or her] a good [person]. But that way of using the word will be no enrichment of the language, for we already have the word good. Meanwhile, the word Christian will have been spoiled for any really useful purpose it might have served.

We must therefore stick to the original, obvious meaning. The name Christians was first given at Antioch (Acts xi. 26) to "the disciples," to those who accepted the teaching of the apostles. There is no question of its being restricted to those who profited by that teaching as much as they should have. There is no question of its being extended to those who in some refined, spiritual, inward fashion were "far closer to the spirit of Christ" than the less satisfactory of the disciples. The point is not a theological, or moral one. It is only a question of using words so that we can all understand what is being said.
Those early disciples in Antioch "accept[ed] the teaching of the apostles" ... but we cannot be sure exactly what the disciples were taught. Jesus and Paul specified very few tests; a complete New Testament canon and formal creeds were centuries in the future. I agree that those early tests are supremely important, powerful, and (to me) persuasive, but they were limited in number and had no artificial precision: "The kingdom of God has drawn near. Repent and believe the good news." (Jesus.) "Not everyone who says 'Lord, Lord' will be in heaven, but only those who do God's will." (Jesus.)  "If you declare with your mouth 'Jesus is Lord' and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved." (Paul.) Finally, you will be numbered among the sheep rather than the goats if you have ministered to him through your care for "the least of these." (Jesus.)

Ilya Grits vividly described the consequences of defining those we don't like as not belonging to the "people of God." The stakes are high. Exclusion can be a first link in a chain that leads to genocide.

Does it matter whether being publicly identified as Christian has positive or negative public consequences? In the USA, we grew accustomed to Christianity being the majority religion, earning its adherents approval or, at worst, indifference, even some mild hostility in limited circles. It's not dangerous, whereas there are places in the world where Christians are persecuted and those who convert to Christianity are killed. Those are not places where the Christian tag is adopted lightly, and there's probably little temptation to be a fake Christian. We Quakers now get mild approval in most places, and may easily forget that our first generation risked confiscations and prison and martyrdom for their Friendly discipleship. We don't often hear about "fake Quakers."

One final note on Olson's essay: I may be dubious about anyone's right to call someone else's Christianity into question, but I draw an implication from Olson that I agree with. If someone calls attention to their Christian identity, we have the right (humbly, knowing that we too have imperfections) to call attention to inconsistencies in their faith and practice -- especially when those inconsistencies are likely to confuse the public and endanger the reputation of our message. Once you make an issue of your faith in the public arena, you are fair game for debate. Only, let's conduct the debate with love and honesty.

Will voters care about the Graham-Buttigieg exchange?

Steven Davison provides a contemporary case study in defining Christian boundaries among liberal Friends.

I'm late in acknowledging a death in the Russian film world: Georgy Danelia.  One of his films, Kin-Dza-Dza!, is one of my all-time favorites, a tribute to friendship and a unique grunge-steampunk science fiction landscape laced with wicked humor. (It's on YouTube, with captions. Part one. Part two.) Also check this list of five must-see Danelia films.

It's been a while since I spoke with my Linux operating system fan voice. Here's Jack Wallen's summary of the top five Linux distributions. These days I'm using Ubuntu, with the Mate desktop. It's been eleven years since I abandoned Microsoft Windows, and I've rarely looked back.

Remembering John Lee Hooker....

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