What Do ‘The Christians’ Believe? Easter Reflections from a Non-Christian

Many scholars have argued that the term “Hindu” was essentially a colonial invention that erased difference and imposed uniformity for the purposes of power and classification. As Easter approaches and I read through the news, absorbing the cultural trends of the day, a lingering, increasingly vexing question comes to mind: what do “the Christians” believe? 

Over the span of a 24-hour news cycle, one hears about Christians in action with all sorts of spoken and unspoken moral commitments and sacred investments, but at the end of the day it is increasingly difficult to reconcile this array under one theological umbrella. 

This week, members of a Christian militia identified as the Hutaree were arrested by the FBI. Members of this militia (one of the many extreme right-wing Christian groups operating in the United States) are alleged to be stockpiling guns, teaching people how to use explosives, planning a war against the government, and initiating a final battle with the Antichrist. It appears they planned to kill local police officers with hopes this would bring others to the violent religious war.

What do the Christians believe?

We are witnessing what could be one of the most destructive scandals ever in the Catholic Church. A flurry of reports and allegations have been in the news recently of institutional authorities covering up or taking lightly charges against priests who have taken a vow of celibacy and are accused of sexually abusing children and misusing their power. Although it is not yet clear how Pope Benedict XVI will deal with these charges in the long run, his recent homily referring to the “petty gossip of dominant opinion” glossed over the seriousness of this scandal and what role, if any, he had in how the situation was mishandled at the Vatican, reminding his followers about the true mission of the church and to focus on Jesus Christ.

What do the Christians believe?

The recent health care debates surfaced the radical differences that exist among Christians about health and care. On the one side are conservative Christians who see in the recent legislative victory for President Obama nothing less than the triumph of a communist-inspired, baby-killing plot that is destructive for individuals, families, and the nation; on the other side are progressive Christians who believe President Obama should do even more to work for social justice and the betterment of humanity through governmental action. Yet both sides look to Jesus Christ for guidance about health in American society.

What do the Christians believe?

For many, rap and hip hop are the devil’s music with no redeeming features. But the growing number of artists and outlets for Christian rap (like the Web site Holy Culture) are challenging many stereotypes and perceptions about how entertainment and evangelization mix to bring a distinctly Christian message to young folks today. And in the recent efforts by conservative Christians to shape the content of educational textbooks in Texas, country and western music has been given a seal of approval as a significant cultural movement worthy of study. Yet for rappers as well as country crooners, Jesus inspires musicians and the music they create.

What do the Christians believe?

Same-sex marriage, euthanasia, immigration, race relations… the list of topics that demonstrate the vast and often heavily contested views of Christians goes on and on. Indeed, it’s much easier to talk about how Christians differ than to identify just what they all agree on, and that may be the point. Perhaps all agree about the life and teaching of Jesus? Or that the New Testament is God’s revealed word? Any investigation beneath the surface of these possibilities would reveal the impossibility of consensus. Just take a quick glance at conservative responses to Brian McLaren’s A New Kind of Christianity to get a feeling for the way this debate takes place in real time. 

And beyond the sorts of theological, political, and institutional differences among Christians of various stripes is the simple but complicating fact of globalilzation. Christianity is unquestionably the dominant religious presence in America, though the contours and composition of this tradition in the United States have been and are currently shaped by patterns of immigration.

The arrival of Irish Catholics in the nineteenth century had an enormous impact on neighborhoods, local politics, and church membership; today and in the future, Hispanic Catholics will make an impact on the life of the Church, ranging from an increase in bilingual services to intensified debates over undocumented immigrants. On the Protestant side, many denominations that were composed primarily of Anglo-Europeans, like Methodists in the nineteenth century, are confronting the rise of ethnic congregations such as the Korean Methodist Church.

This internal diversification of Christianity in America is more than just the multiplication of churches; it is a symptom of larger globalizing forces and processes that will transform cultures and theologies, and bear on lived experiences and moral communities producing ever-increasing differences. Specifically, it can be understood as what historian Philip Jenkins identifies as the global consequences of Christianity’s shifting worldwide alignment to the southern hemisphere; particularly Africa, Asia, and Latin America. How this realignment—‘de-Europeanization’ might be overstating it, but not by much—of Christian communities in America affects politics, ecumenical relations, and inter-religious dialogue remains to be seen, but American Christianity today belies any notion of common ground or uniformity.

Maybe it really is inaccurate to speak about “the Christians” or assume that those who self identify as “Christian” think alike or act in the same way—an inaccuracy, I would hasten to add, that exists in the same manner when speaking about the Jews, or the Muslims, or the Buddhists. The noun doesn’t really tell us anything about individuals and communities, and the adjectival use may be descriptive but can be also be applied across political, cultural, ethnic, and theological spectrums.

“Native American,” like the term “Hindu” as noted above, is one of those labels that simultaneously misrepresents reality and creates it for communities of people who have experienced the ravages of colonization and disempowerment. Perhaps it is time to see “Christianity” in similar terms—an antiquated category that does not hold up under serious scrutiny and distracts from real-world politics, power, and difference.

What do the Christians believe?

gladerm@emory.edu'

Gary Laderman is Professor and Chairperson of the Department of Religion at Emory University. His most recent book is Sacred Matters