The world is uncomfortably sloppy. We want clear lines but we frequently get muddied borders and blurred boundaries. We want black and white and get an infinite variety of grey (or is it gray? See what I mean!) We long for simple narratives of good and bad and clear rules. 65 mph is ok, 66 is speeding! But frequently the universe refuses to acquiesce to what David Tracy calls our “blessed rage for order.” And we demand this order of the universe and ourselves most emphatically in our religious stories. Look again at Exodus 19. Just before Moses receives the 10 Commandments from God we have several passages about the sacred mountain. Touch it at the wrong time and you must die, but when the trumpet blows everyone should run up on the mountain. Here is the world cut, dried and arranged into clearly defined realms: Sacred and Profane.
This sort of clarity may not necessarily be a bad thing. Perhaps such clarity is a fine aspiration, but when the real world we face is ambiguous and we try to force an ambiguous world into our simple categories, we do violence to the world and lie to ourselves. I think most readers of this blog can agree with these general claims. The challenge, as usual, comes with applying this logic to our lives as Evangelicals. And the wingnuts who argue that President Obama is a trojan-Muslim aren’t helping much either.
So by now everyone has heard the rhetoric from some on the Right arguing that our President is a crypto-supersecret-sleepercell-psuedo-brainwashed-Muslim. Let’s ignore for the moment the obvious question–So what if he were Muslim?–and look only at the issue of identifying “real Christians.”
How can you tell?
Well that’s really the problem isn’t it? How can ANY of us tell? Ask Jonathan Edwards or St. Augustine or even John Calvin whether or not they KNEW if where were “true Christians.” Perhaps the subtlest work of original theology ever penned in North America, Jonathan Edwards’ “Religious Affections” pertains to this very issue. How does any of us KNOW that we are true member of the elect, that we are saved?
I have no interest in driving my readers to ZZZZZZZZZs with a re-litigation of the questions surrounding blessed assurance, predestination and diving providence, but it may be worth our while to glance back into Christian history at some of the worst ideas Christians have ever had regarding the “true signs” of Christianity.
If you haven’t heard of the “Conversos” take some time to read the Wikipedia article. It’s not a bad summary but it does overlook some of the key consequences that followed the 1492 re-conquest of the Iberian peninsula by the Christians. By forcing large groups of Muslims and Jews to convert to Christianity or die, the Holy Roman Emperor and the Spanish Crown created a kind of caste system within Christianity: “Real Christians” and Conversos (converted Jews and Muslims). Perhaps predictably, these castes were soon associated with particular races. Decades later, whole families were suspect, even after having been loyal Christians for a generation. When the Spanish Inquisition arrived in the following years,–No one ever expects the Spanish Inquisition!–the Conversos made for easy targets. Islam and Judaism were treated as “stains” that were transferred in the blood. In other words, only ethnic Spanish Christians could be “true Christians.” Tens of thousands of Christians were murdered by fire in the name of protecting orthodoxy because the color of their skin or their accent meant that their faith was suspect.
We should look back even further in Christian history to an earlier time when the issues of language, ethnicity and family name emerged as a theological battlegrounds. Enter the Apostle Paul, a commonsense advocate for Gentile Christians. Were these foreskin retaining, pork eating newcomers to be taken as “true Christians” or did their lack of Jewishness make them suspect? Paul defended the legitimacy of Gentile Christianity and disentangled the issues of ethnicity and religious identity. There was nothing oxymoronic about the notion of a Greek Christian, or an African Christian or a Gallic Christian. Language, skin, and parentage did not matter. Luckily Paul prevailed, but only for a short time. Too soon and too frequently the old idea of bonding ethnicity and religious identity would reemerge in Christian rhetoric.
As a missionary religion, like Islam and Buddhism, Christianity faces a constant and self-inflicted challenge: once new peoples are brought into the fold, are they to be treated as equals or do they remain perpetually in a kind of liminal state? Metaphorically speaking, when does the initiatory hazing end and the full Christian sisterhood and brotherhood begin?
Do this. Go to Google and type in the phrase, “How to tell if you are a true Christian.” You’ll be amazed at the diversity of answers you receive from every corner of the virtual Christian world. Two things jump out at me. 1) Nobody agrees. 2) Everyone presents their case matter-of-factly, citing multiple sources and Biblical verses as if identifying “true Christians” were a strait forward question of plugging variables into a mathematical equation. Litmus tests and purity tests abound, and short of cutting professed Christians open and trying to count the growth rings, almost every conceivable method is being advocated by someone. So who do we trust?
I can’t offer a simple answer or I’d be guilty of repeating the mistake that so many others are making. I have no idea how to tell? So far as I know there is no secret handshake. But I do lean toward Jonathan Edwards’ suggestion that true religious affections are made manifest in Christian charity so the true Christian is the one who bears Christian fruit. But at the end of the day Edwards himself knows that this is a generalization, not a formula.
One of my pastors from my youth is in the habit of referring to non-Christians as “not-yet-Christians,” and while I understand that many non-Christians would take his words as insulting or colonizing, I prefer to see in his phrasing a generosity of spirit. Why be suspect? Why seek to draw hard lines when we know that our world is full of messy cases? Why not seek a kind of “Big Tent” Christianity that welcomes anyone who wants to bear the name for a while.
The origins of the phrase “Caedite eos! Novit enim Dominus qui sunt eius” (“Kill them all, God will know his own.”) in Christian history are not entirely clear, but despite the obvious evil intensions, there may be a seed of wisdom here. Why not adopt a modified version of this horrific idea and thus take something evil and use if for good? When confronted with the question of how we should recognize Christians and distinguish them from wolves in Christian clothing, how about applying the following as our maxim. “Accept them all, God will know his own.”