Today, more than half the world’s population — 31% Christian and 23% Muslim — regard Jesus the Son of Mary as a messianic figure who brought God’s message to the world. And what was that message? As Jesus announced to his hometown synagogue, reading aloud from the Torah:
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
for He has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the captives
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
(Luke 4:18-19, quoting from the Book of Isaiah)
Jesus taught a religion of boundless hope for all people — that we are beloved children of God, called to a high destiny as sources of light and ministers of compassion in our world.
But in a world full of ignorance and suffering, there were bound to be misunderstandings. For 2,000 years, people have been twisting the religion of Jesus into the very things he opposed — and in so doing, they have impoverished their spirits in a prison of darkness, bringing God’s disfavor upon their cause.
Jesus warned that this would happen — that there would be many people claiming to follow Christ, making an outward performance of a seemingly zealous Christianity, but who nonetheless would be accounted among the wicked: “Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’” (Matt. 7:22).
Such people harm not only themselves, but do great damage to the reputation of the Christian faith, causing millions to turn away from Christ. Today, for example, a new generation of Americans are growing up perceiving Christianity as a religion dominated by political conspiracy theories and a spirit of tribalism and discrimination. How many people are choosing not to celebrate the birth of Christ because they feel the religion associated with his name is doing more harm than good?
I have personally witnessed the damage this can cause. Increasingly, I have watched liberal and open-hearted people stiffen their bodies and set their face in disgust against the very mention of the word Christian. I have seen “interfaith” and “universalist” organizations that prefer to talk about any faith except the faith of Jesus Christ, avoiding it as if it were the plague. I have been judged as intellectually and morally deficient because I am a progressive-minded person who chooses to believe in Jesus — as if the only Christianity that is possible is a religion of madness and hate.
I can empathize with people who feel this way. They likely have never been exposed to more rational and inclusive versions of the Christian religion, or if they have, they see such forms of Christianity as so small and weak compared to the “fundamentalist” versions that they think the religion as a whole is lost and irredeemable. Perhaps they have been personally wounded by religious fundamentalism, or they have lost loved ones to an Evangelical Christian cult that tells them they’re going to hell if they don’t have the same beliefs, or that they must be devoted supporters of a dishonest politician who was supposedly chosen by God.
It is important to understand that the more uplifting something is, the worse it will be warped by other agendas. There is no greater victory for evil than to sully something incredibly good and beautiful until it appears to be hopelessly corrupt, and to turn its power to the service of the dark side.
But God asks us not to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Jesus Christ himself would not approve of many of the teachings of today’s influential churches and Christian leaders. This world can be a very dirty place, and Jesus experienced that himself — he was unjustly martyred on a Roman cross. Why would we expect people to be perfect today?
The Hindu saint Mahatma Gandhi reportedly said, “I like your Christ. I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.” To the degree that’s true, we’ve got work to do. It’s not an excuse for rejecting Christ, just because many Christians fail to live up to his teachings.
What it really means is that those of us who see the problem have a responsibility to model a better way to be a Christian for other professed adherents of the faith and for the rest of the world. With its future hanging in the balance, it’s time for Christianity to be reborn, and we’re called to be part of the rebirthing process.
Jesus said to his followers, “You are the light of the world … let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.” (Matt. 5:14,16). Let us arise with Christ in the same spirit of determination as he lived his life, rising from the hay of the manger to the wooden stake of the cross and from there to the glory of the resurrection. If we are sincere, the good we can offer the world will come shining through, and our faith will be cleansed and redeemed.