Labels and Meaning: “Christian”

A friend recently suggested that it seems disloyal for someone ordained or seeking ordination in a Christian denomination to publicly say, as I have several times, that I am uncomfortable using the term “Christian” to describe myself. I’ve discussed this with other ordained persons, and while I know others who agree with me, I may be one of only a few who will say so publicly. I don’t know if it’s really about “loyalty” or just about my own choice to enact my religious trust in my own way, but here is an explanation for those who have questioned me and those who have their own struggles with religious labels.

In recent years, I have seen the terms “Muslims” and “Islam” used as synonyms for “terrorist.” Even though most of my friends recognized this as an over-generalization, very, very few in society at large actually challenged the equation of the labels themselves. Terrorists are not people fighting for a particular religion, they are people who use fear as a weapon to feel powerful. There is no religion that advocates this as theological tenet. (There are lots of writings–scriptures–that suggest it as a tactic, and some of those scriptures are used in Christian traditions.)

I started thinking about what a religious label is and what it does. When it became allowable to label an entire spectrum of religious tradition as violent and primitive and misogynist based on the public actions and speech of a few leaders, I stepped back and tried to apply the same standards to Christian public presentations. I did not like what I found.

I realized that it was allowable to equate a religion with a murderous tactic, as long as it’s not “our” religion. But it’s horribly inaccurate, biased, and out of balance to do so. Christians have used the scriptures of our traditions for thousands of years as justification for terrorist actions, including enslaving people, destroying whole towns, attacking clinics, murdering doctors, blowing up buildings (McVeigh’s theological statements were, for the most part ignored), and threatening family members at funerals. “Christian” interpretation of scripture is used as a justification for “conversion rape” of lesbians and for beatings and bullyings of GLBTQ youth and adults. Christianity is used as a political tool in every election cycle in the United States, in direct contrast to Article Six of the U. S. Constitution. And Christians have very little to be proud of historically in our treatment of women.

Yet the rhetorical response “This is NOT acceptable behavior for Christians”–or the more definitive “Such people are not true Christians”–is rarely made and even more rarely published. Instead, we have the quiet, personal response: “everyone knows that’s not what it really means to be Christian.” And “these are only a few extremists. They don’t represent Christians.” Everyone knows that, we are told.

Does everyone know? It turns out that, as a conservative research tank recently discovered, the most common understanding (over 90% of responses) of what it means to be Christian is “anti-gay” or “anti-homosexual.” Atheist organizations can, with some justice, point out on Facebook that 25,000 children starved to death worldwide during the period of the recent North Carolina referendum on marriage equality while self-proclaimed “Christians” argued both sides of the issue.

Christians also worked to feed, house, clothe, and support people all over the world during this same period. The word no longer carries a clear meaning, if ever it did. “The” church does not exist. Instead, we have many different kinds of Christian, and the elements we hold in common are rarely explored. The assumptions of commonality are endemic, and they are mostly wrong.

I am a member of the United Church of Christ, which was formed from four different denominations in 1957 and has added other theological streams since. We are composed of difference, and we uphold and respect and recognize the need for difference. Yet–the actions and theologies that impel the members of Westboro Baptist Church to harass the families of dead military men and women are not welcome or recognized in the UCC. But the word “Christian” covers all of us together…apparently. This bothers me.

I have clergy friends who have chosen not to sign marriage licenses–some because they are not comfortable acting as agents of the state, and some because they will not participate in the inequality of access to marriage. I respect this choice, even as I choose to continue to sign licenses when I act as a wedding celebrant.

In this same vein, I have made a choice about how I identify myself. I am not willing to be confused with those who target (physically or politically) women’s health clinics. I am not willing to be identified with those Westboro Baptists who attack the funerals of military personnel. I am not willing to be aligned with many of the political individuals who use their “Christianity” to sway voters. So I choose to describe my religious practice rather than use a convenient label that means both too little and too much.

I am a student of the teachings of Jesus. I’m happy and proud to say that I will preach Jesus as I understand his words and works, and I will do my best to follow Jesus and learn from Jesus. But Jesus the Nazarene never called himself a Christian.

So for now, at least until we find a way to reclaim the word, I don’t feel comfortable calling myself one either.

Blessings to those who do.

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