Christian, n. One who believes that the New Testament is a divinely inspired book admirably suited to the spiritual needs of his neighbor. One who follows the teachings of Christ in so far as they are not inconsistent with a life of sin. —Ambrose Bierce, The Devil’s Dictionary
This satiric definition nicely captures the hypocrisy commonly regarded as a notable trait of Christian conduct. Bierce, a humorist, not a theologian, drolly observes the disparity between “the teachings of Christ” and “a life of sin,” but he obscures the distinction between pre-Crucifixion Jesus the Jew and post-Crucifixion Christ the Son. Jesus did many things: taught, healed, saved from death, and comforted the poor; Christ, aside from reported visitations, taught and did nothing.
John Meier, a Catholic historian of great merit, implied this distinction when he explained that his faith did not impair the historical objectivity of his masterly three-volume biography of Jesus because his faith concerned only the risen Christ. So, too, many Christians, and therein lies a clue to their failure when they fail.
The paramount historical fact about Christianity is that, whatever its mix of contemporary Hebraic and Hellenic influences after Jesus’ death, it died out in the first century, in the land, and among the people of Jesus and his Apostles, all of whom were Jews by birth and breeding. Though Jerusalem later became a patriarchate, Christianity developed largely outside the Holy Land and largely among those not Jewish. Thus, Christianity became a religion based, not on empathy for, and service to, others as urged by Jesus, but on a self-centered concern for salvation and ritual observance as urged by its denominations in their churches.
The separation of Christianity from its cultural roots is indispensable to its evolution and expansion. The schism between James of the Jerusalem Church before it vanished and Paul reflected the geographic difference between, and the different demographics of, the Holy Land and other lands of the Mediterranean Basin. Paul realized the difficulty, if not the impossibility, of converting most Gentiles, especially adult males, to Christianity if they had to become Jews first. Knowing that the gap between Jewish and Gentile cultures and ethics was too great, Paul eliminated much of both: first, dietary laws of social cohesion; then, notably, circumcision, the fleshly sign of Jewish ethical allegiance; finally, the ethical laws themselves.
Thus, Christianity, shaped by diffused or diluted remnants and revisions of Jewish faith and Greek philosophy, owed its success in converting Gentiles to offering them a culture-free creed without obliging any culture-bound conduct. The Church bridged the chasm between Christian theology and indigenous morals and mores by incorporating those cultural features which would help propagate the faith in the risen Christ and God’s saving grace, and promote Church attendance and ritual observance.
However, what was good for Church proselytizing about the Trinity and salvation was often not good for Christian moral teachings and practice. In spreading the faith, the Church has emphasized the easier conformity to outward forms of rite more than the more difficult compliance with inward demands of right. Thus, the word “Christian” has become a brand name of religious affiliation; the worn crucifix, a membership pin.
The Church’s approaches to conquest and conversion, ranging across ruthless suppression, eclectic inclusion, or resigned acceptance of the indigenous religion and culture, have usually achieved only a veneer overlying surviving unchristian attitudes, beliefs, customs, and values. The reason is that survivals like Balkan codes of honor demanding vengeance for violations of honor, and Caribbean folk beliefs in myth and magic, are deeply ingrained in the culture and psyches of the people. Whatever the word “Christian” means, it does not denote such survivals and has shown no potency to overcome them.
Such incompatibilities between Christian, and English and American, attitudes, beliefs, customs, and values are quite common. In “The Dream of the Rood,” an Old English poem, Jesus embraces his Crucifixion as He and the Cross, both nailed by enemies, resist those attacking them. This Jesus resembles the heroic warrior of Teutonic lore, not the “Suffering Servant” of Isaiah. This Jesus resisting enemies is not the “Prince of Peace” turning his cheek and loving his enemies.
A millennium later, capitalist America reveres material wealth as the supreme measure of worldly success, and, in the Puritan tradition, many still regard it as a sign of God’s Grace. Indeed, some American denominations preach that Jesus in his love wants us rich and, when rich, happy to be rich. The commitment to serve the poor, the sick, and the oppressed in fidelity to Jesus’ example or His Sermon on the Mount is lost in the yawning chasm between the Synoptic Gospels, and Paul and the Wealth of Nations.
Worse for that commitment was the fourth-century accord between state and church. Constantine recognized Christianity as the official state religion, and the church became a partner of the state in rule. The church thereby doomed its ability to speak truth to power or to pursue Christian social justice without regard to the political consequences of doing so. For example, because of its alignment with state interests, the church condemned “Liberation Theology,” which arose to oppose economic oppression of the poor by the rich in Latin American countries.
Christians fail when their denominations absorb, in the absence of a creedal code of conduct, what is morally antithetical to Jesus’ example and his teachings; and their churches align their interests with those of the state. To their credit are those who call themselves Christian and are committed to service to others, whatever commitment they make to their salvation. To their discredit are those hypocrites who call themselves Christians but disregard the moral teachings of Jesus, in the name of Christ and in hope in their salvation, and act on unchristian motives, often for political purposes. Among them are those fighting “culture wars” and thus acting contrary to Jewish and Christian teachings to respect the stranger, love the enemy, and care for the unfortunate.
A final word. Christians use the formulation “Jesus Christ.” Few are aware that this formulation makes “Jesus” primary, “Christ,” as an appositive, secondary. What this grammatical point means is that “Jesus” is more and greater than “Christ.” So Christians fail when they make Christ more important than Jesus, faith more important than works, salvation of oneself more important than service to others. The question on the old bumper sticker gets it right: “What would Jesus do?”