23 October 2011

Christian vs. christian

What exactly constitutes being a Christian? In 1982 the "Christian" Phalange militia in Lebanon massacred every man, woman, and child in the Palestinian Sabra and Shatila refugee camps. Christian?

When I was baptized into the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, my Jewish-atheist roommate at Berkeley expressed disbelief and surprise. "There's something to this, you know. You ought to investigate it yourself," I replied. He turned on me and for the only time I ever remember, I saw anger in his face:

"Do you have any idea how many of my ancestors were KILLED in the name of Christ?!??"

I have had various reactions, ranging from polite curiosity to dislike, suspicion, and even contempt aimed at me for being a Mormon (world's term) or LDS (preferred term). This has been brought to my awareness almost daily through most of my adult life since I stopped being an atheist and chose to be baptized.  Presidential candidate Rick Perry's pastor is the current source of anti-Mormon hate, but just one of many. Polls suggest that fully 25% of this country will never vote for a "Mormon" for president. I suspect that this is in the same ballpark as anti-Semites, but likely quite a bit higher than the percentage of the population who are skin-color racist types.

The other night I went with my Bishop to visit a friend in our ward whose son had been found dead of acute Oxycontin poisoning. He had been living with back pain; a doctor prescribed Oxycontin, he got hooked, and had been fighting addiction for years since then. That young man's wife had just given birth three weeks earlier to a baby daughter. It is incredibly sad. However, the wife will not have anything to do with any "Mormons" - something she learned from her dad. This has estranged her husband from his parents, and has made the funeral arrangements even harder on my friend. It was made even worse by a former band-member of the deceased asking people on his Facebook page to come to the funeral and try to "save" the parents - my LDS friend and his wife. Ken told me this was like the knife in his heart was now being twisted.

A scientist in my research team in the USGS National Center in Northern Virginia was constantly making fun of me when I was still resident there, typically making snarky comments about me at the group table in the cafeteria. He is from a narrow Protestant group in the upper Midwest. He told me when I asked him about it that there are about 200,000 of them, and they are the only ones that will "make it into Heaven" - the rest of us all being "damned to Hell".  I was amazed; he's a senior scientist with a PhD, which at least implies some thoughtfulness. I quietly took this abuse at lunch and in the hallways for a long time. Finally one day, as I was helping him with his desktop computer, he did it again - only half-jokingly told me I would be damned to Hell. I asked him why he was being so overtly offensive? He told me that my particular LDS belief was "not Christian", and was particularly anathema to him and his small sect, worse even than if I were a Moslem. I told him (very mildly I think) that his behavior struck me as startlingly un-Christlike, and asked him if he had read the New Testament recently? He stared at me. I pointed out that I was the only person in the team who would help him when he had computer problems, that despite the rude and contemptuous treatment leveled at me, I felt it was expected of me as a follower of Christ. He didn't say a word, just stared, so after fixing his problem I went back to my office. About 10am the following morning, he leaned into my office doorway and said, very awkwardly, that he had been thinking all night about what I had said, and had concluded that I was right. He said that he was not acting like a follower of Christ, and that he would stop saying things that caused me discomfort. I believe he still did so behind my back, but I thanked him anyway.

My perception of MY responsibilities, as a follower of Christ, includes being patient with abuse like this. If an opportunity avails itself, I believe I'm allowed to raise the obvious contrary-to-Christ's-teachings behavior.

How many times must you turn the other cheek to this sort of abuse? Probably forever ("seven times seven" said Christ). Where do you draw the line between abuse and deadly threat? Is it Christ-like to defend yourself against almost certain physical damage or death? The head of our local YWCA is wheel-chair-bound, a devout pacifist, and took exception to me and my family teaching women how to defend themselves against physical assault. I never had an opportunity to talk with her about this - she just made it clear that we were not welcome to teach there again. Every one of the students, however, thanked us - some with hugs.

No one can honestly deny that there is evil in this world. 

And everyone has the right to choose if they want to return home to their families from wherever they may be. I do not believe the Christ requires of us to permit others to stomp our brains out in a drunken rage on a parking lot, or to submit to a brutal sexual assault with life-long consequences. On the contrary, I feel strongly that everyone deserves the opportunity to live their life on this Earth to its fullest, and that violation of this right puts the attacker at immeasurable, eternal risk.  The attacker is also a child of the same God - and I think God would prefer the attack be stopped before irreversible consequences happen - for BOTH of His children's sake. We teach our students that a proportional response to an attack is for their own and the attacker's long-term benefit. We just give them the tools to have a say in the matter.

Back to the self-styled "Christians" out there: did any of these people read the New Testament? Really read it? Why do they assume that they are uniquely God's chosen? Especially: why do they assume that God only loves a few of His children?


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