"What then are we to say was gained by Abraham, our ancestor according to the flesh? For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. For what does the Scriptures say? Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness. Now to one who works, wages are not reckoned as a gift but as something due. But to one who without works trust him who justifies the ungodly, such faith is reckoned as righteousness..." -- Romans 4:1-5
This past week I began to notice similarities between the way Christianity is sometimes practiced and the way gangs behave. You may think this is really far-fetched, but I had an epiphany this week.
You see, in my youngest son's second grade class there is a boy who has formed a "club" in
which members are ostracized if they don't do what he says. He doesn't
ask them to do terrible things, necessarily. Unless you count the fact that
everyone in the club must also ostracize the non-compliant one, or else
they too will be ostracized. Wanting to play with his friends, and
fearing ostracism, meant that my son was being completely controlled by
this other boy, and was learning to be less than loving to his
classmates, to say the least. I'm glad he told me what was going on, so
I could let his teachers know. They are now trying to put a stop to
this "club," which acts like a gang.
At the same time, I have been considering whether to take our church youth group to a particular Christian summer camp this year. Trying to gather information about the camp, I looked on their website, and read their "Statement of Faith," a list of nine beliefs about Jesus, God, and the Holy Spirit -- each one supported by passages from the New Testament, quoted book, chapter and verse. Regardless of what it said, I have a problem with statements of faith, in general. At the very least, I don't find them at all helpful.
That's because statements of faith, or rather statements of belief, unless very, very general, are inherently divisive. The more specific they are, the more divisive they are. No differences of opinion were ever resolved by making a statement of faith. Just think about all of the creeds that were put into place so long ago. These statements reveal more about what was disagreed upon at the time -- the humanity or divinity of Jesus, his birth, his death -- than what was agreed upon by all. Have you ever wondered why the Apostles' Creed skips from Jesus's birth to Jesus's death, with nary a mention of his life? That's because no one argued about whether or how he lived.
The official creeds simply illustrate one side of the
disagreement -- the winning side. Those on the losing side became the
"heretics." Yet, even after the statements were made official by
certain churchmen (the ones with the greatest influence), the people who
disagreed with them continued to disagree with them. And usually,
after much heartache, if not violence, the body of Christ separated into
opposing camps, called denominations.
It doesn't even matter whether the particular statement of faith can be supported by passage(s) in the Bible, because oddly enough, the opposite statement of faith can also find support in the Bible in all of these divisive issues. That's is primarily what causes the debate in the first place: biblical support for opposing sides.
This has been true for millenia. Most divisions are caused by the certainty that one group has the right belief and the other group has the wrong belief, and that only those with the right belief are favored by God. So, either you are "in," or you are "out." You are either saved or damned by your beliefs. Carried to its logical conclusion, there is only one group in the whole world that is saved by the grace of God: the group with all of the same right beliefs. I wonder which group that would be? My Southern Baptist friend in high school thought that unless I was Southern Baptist, like her, I would go to hell. My Greek Orthodox friend in graduate school thought that only Greek Orthodox, like her, go to heaven.
Do you see the gang mentality in all this? Paul in many of his letters was also dealing with gang mentality. Then, whether you were circumcised or not was thought to determine whether you were in or out of the club. He told them to consider Abraham. Abraham was counted righteous by God before he was circumcised. It was Abraham's faith alone that made him righteous in God's eyes. Somewhere along the way, however, "faith" got twisted into "belief". Simply trusting in God couldn't be the only criteria. No, surely you have to believe what I believe about God. If you don't, well then, you have to be excluded from the club. That's gang mentality.
How did it get to be like this? How did we stray so far from Jesus's Good News?
Throughout this week, one phrase has kept coming into my head. "You shall know them by their love." Actually, the NRSV has it as, "By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another." It seems to me that that is, or ought to be, the distinguishing mark of a Christian. If you love one another as Jesus loved, then you are a disciple of Christ.
But guess what that means? Carried to its logical conclusion, it means that a Hindu could be a disciple of Christ, or a Muslim, or a Buddhist, or an atheist. It also means something else. It means that if you exclude someone, anyone, from God's Kingdom, you are not loving them as Jesus loved, and therefore you are not a disciple of Christ. You have just excluded yourself! I guess that's what Jesus meant when he said, "Judge not, lest you be judged."
Dear God, thank you for clarifying some things for me this last week. Sometimes it's very hard to know the difference between right and wrong, and sometimes it's not. Love always, Pam.