The class seemed pretty normal. World Religions for three hours a night in June, however, challenges the patience and endurance of even the best students.
So, when I started grading the final essays, my expectations were, understandably, I think, fairly modest. But every once in a while, a student steps up to the challenge, and smacks you hard on the jaw.
This time it was a Sikh woman, who was here with her family from Punjab. According to her essay, she had never lived among so many people who identified as Christian before, let alone study Christianity in a formal way.
This young woman made an observation that continues to kick about the corners of my mind as I reflect on what it means to follow Jesus. Simple really, but elegantly put.
My young Sikh student from Punjab wrote: “After learning about Christianity, it occurs to me that most of the Christians I know in America practice less than they say they believe.”
In the words of business, Christians too often over-promise and under-deliver.
I think about her statement a lot. Popular Christianity — based as it is on a sometimes shallow reading of the Reformation emphasis on Grace vs. Law — often stresses the importance of believing the right stuff over doing the right stuff (since doing is fraught with resonances of Pelagianism and “works righteousness”).
However, when it comes to following Jesus, possessing correct beliefs is never enough. Unless those beliefs underwrite a life devoted to loving your neighbor, they’re useless. And while that might strike you as harsh, it’s no less harsh than the Bible. As the author of 1 John so eloquently points out, “Those who say, ‘I love God,’ and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen cannot love God whom they have not seen” (4:20).
In other words, the very way you demonstrate love for God is by loving your brother or sister. You reveal your beliefs are genuine not just by proclaiming them publicly, or by believing them really, really deeply in your own heart, but by pursuing a world in which your brother and sister, those whom God loves, can flourish in justice and peace.
And to put an even finer point on it, loving your brother or sister means more than feeling properly disposed toward them. Loving your neighbor means having your hands dirtied, your knees callused, and your back bent in trying to see that your brother and sister have enough to eat, a place to sleep, adequate healthcare, a world in which to be safe as they pursue their projects and goals with the ones whom they love.
Not hating your brother or sister means more than not lynching them; it means more than refraining from being angry when they cut you off in traffic or make you stand too long in line at the DMV; it means more than avoiding personal conflict or violence.
Not hating your brother or sister means not sending drones to kill their children in the night, it means not rendering them rhetorically insignificant — as nothing more than “takers” or threats to your traditions, and it means not breaking up their families through deportation.
Not hating your brother or sister also means not working to cripple or otherwise defund programs meant to help feed, house, educate, and heal them — even if the programs don’t solve every problem (and sometimes create a few of their own).
And here’s the thing I think many Christians fail to take into consideration: people are watching to see if we believe what we say enough to put it in practice. They’re not stupid. They’ve read our sacred texts enough to know what Jesus expected when it comes to our treatment of those who seem to live their lives at the back of the line. They hear those who proclaim their orthodoxy loudest, who say they’re most concerned about “saving souls,” walk right past those souls starving in the streets … and they are completely underwhelmed.
According to David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyon, one of the first things people outside the church think when they hear the word “Christian” is rather unflattering — “hypocrite.” It’s noteworthy that when outsiders observe Christians in America they see two things: 1) we claim to believe a lot, but 2) we actually live those beliefs at a conspicuously lower rate.
But what if our beliefs, though imperfect, were enough to get us started living the way Jesus told us to live?
What if when we said things like “love your enemies and turn the other cheek,” or “sell all you own and give it to the poor,” or “just as you did it to the least of one of these who are members of my family, you did it to me,” people had confidence that we actually meant it?
What if we surprised my Sikh student and began living at least as much as we say we believe.
What if Christians started under-promising and over-delivering?