It should come as no surprise that Christianity seems to be experiencing the same polarization that much of society is going through. Pick up a newspaper, watch the evening news, or notice what is trending online, and you’ll often see items about Christians taking principled stands that are almost polar opposites.
In the current debate about immigration, some Christians emphasize the rule of law, and point out that citizenship is a privilege reserved for those who have jumped through the proper hoops. Other Christians, citing the deplorable levels of violence in some countries, favor using their church buildings as sanctuaries for illegal immigrants to avoid deportation.
These are all Christians, mind you. They all claim allegiance to Christ, and use the Bible as their sourcebook for all things ethical and moral. Yet you might see them on opposite sides of a public place, holding posters and placards demeaning the positions taken by those on the other side.
At moments like this it is essential to remember that being a Christian is not so much about what side of the political spectrum we’re on, as much as it is about how well we reflect Christ’s character to the people around us.
Ideally Christians should be known for their devotion, for their faithfulness, for their generosity, for their sacrificial service. How is it, then, that so many Christians are known for hypocrisy, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness?
Jesus began His earthly ministry in a climate of religious and political intolerance. His manifesto is recorded in His Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5-7). Let’s highlight just a few things from Matthew 5.
First, Jesus placed a blessing on those we usually think of as marginalized: the poor in spirit, those who mourn, those who are meek, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, those who are persecuted. Clearly Jesus saw things from a different perspective than those who usually establish societal norms.
He went on to point out that keeping the letter of the law is not enough for those who want to live kingdom values. According to Jesus, we don’t have to commit murder to kill someone. We can wound people just by what we say. We don’t have to go to bed with someone to commit adultery; what happens in the head is as bad as what happens in bed.
What matters most is how well we reflect Christ’s character.
Jesus took an Old Testament concept, “Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth” (Matt. 5:38), and said that it no longer applied in the kingdom He came to set up. Indeed, anyone who takes Jesus seriously can expect to be slapped, walk around coatless (and shirtless), and carry someone’s pack twice as far as anyone else (verses 39-41).
For Jesus, obedience is not just observing the letter of the law—it’s taking obedience to a whole new level.
In fact, Matthew 5 ends with Jesus observing, “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven” (verses 43-45).
Loving our enemies: it’s a radical concept, and it’s the surest sign that we know Jesus: that we love those with whom we disagree, whether they be liberal or conservative, gay or straight, Christian, Jew, Muslim, or Atheist.
Perhaps one of the best-known stories about Jesus, and how He balanced justice and mercy, is found in John 8: the woman taken in adultery.
After Jesus confronted the teachers of the law and the Pharisees about the claims of Moses’ law, and issued His classic statement “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her” (verse 7), Jesus said to the woman: “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” (verse 10).
“ ‘No one, sir,’ she said.”
“ ‘Then neither do I condemn you,’ Jesus declared. ‘Go now and leave your life of sin’ ” (verse 11).
Jesus knew that the only thing more important than Moses’ law is forgiveness, grace. The woman could hardly leave her life of sin if she was dead. So Jesus gave her the opportunity to begin again.
The spirit of Christianity is the spirit of generous grace. Sadly, in the minds of many Christians, once a sinner, always a sinner. Many Christians can’t forgive others; they can’t even forgive themselves. But Jesus promised new life, for ourselves, and for everyone who comes into our orbit. That’s real Christianity, because it’s how Christ lived.
One of my favorite stories about Jesus is His encounter with Zacchaeus, the height-challenged tax collector (Luke 19:1-10). We know the story. The crowd following Jesus stopped when Jesus stopped. As they followed Jesus’ gaze, they saw Zacchaeus staring down from the branches of a sycamore-fig tree.
Then, in the words of the classic children’s song, Jesus said (all together now), “Zacchaeus, you come down. For I’m coming to your house today. I’m coming to your house today.”
That, of course, raised the ire of the crowd following Jesus: “He has gone to be the guest of a sinner” (verse 7). Zacchaeus’ reputation was well-deserved. He cheated his own people as much as he could. Going to Zacchaeus’ house made Jesus look as if he was being “soft on sin.” Being like Jesus isn’t easy. Jesus was often misunderstood and His motives impugned. Those who follow Him should expect nothing less.
I wish I could have been a fly on the wall in the room where Zacchaeus entertained Jesus. What did they talk about? Who steered the conversation? Did Jesus twist Zacchaeus’ arm?
All we know is that by the end of the conversation “Zacchaeus stood up and said to the Lord, ‘Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount’ ” (verse 8).
When we experience salvation, we can’t be content to merely undo the bad we’ve done; we strive to pay back “four times the amount”; or, as Jesus told Peter, “not seven times, but seventy-seven times” (Matt. 18:22).
We might call it Christianity to the max. We might even say it’s putting “Christ” back into “Christianity.”
What matters most is not whether we call ourselves “Christian Fundamentalists,” “Social Christians,” “Evangelical Christians,” or “Red-letter Christians.” What matters most is how well we reflect Christ’s character.
Living like Jesus is not easy; it’s contrary to our natural inclination. We would rather live for ourselves, for our own selfish interests, than live for Christ and others.
We’d like to think that living like Jesus is easy: you just read the Gospels and live accordingly. But living the principles of the kingdom cost Jesus His life. And in the two millennia since Jesus lived on earth, countless martyrs have risked their lives to live like Jesus. These martyrs were often persecuted by other Christians, people who thought they were being faithful to God.
These persecutors may have been faithful to their convictions, but they forgot to put “Christ” into their “Christianity.”
Stephen Chavez is an assistant editor of Adventist Review.