Allegra Jordan: What does “Christian” mean?
Thankfully, we don’t have to answer that question by ourselves.
In early October I received this note from a friend in Uganda, Monica Angeyo. Monica is the director of the remarkable L’Arche community in Kampala.
Attached is a photo of my new adopted baby girl I’ve had for two months. We didn’t know if she was going to stay alive. She is a victim of child sacrifice. She was found thrown in a swamp behind a convent not far away from our community. Both of her parents are uneducated and poor. They are Christians who pray every Sunday. But they went to a witch doctor who advised them to off the baby so they would get rich . . . They took her naked to the swamp. Nuns found her after what they think was two day or three days. She could not cry, laugh, sit or stand. This baby hurt my heart, and I took her into my life. She can now stand, crawl, cry, laugh, walk around my small house holding things.
Monica’s new baby’s story has the extremes of human behavior, from barbarism to watchful care. But here is common thread: all the people in the story, except the witchdoctor, will tell you they are Christians. The word just means different things to each person.
When someone says the term “Christian,” how can we be sure what they mean by it? God knows the heart, but we can’t see as God sees. Words are cheap. The Bible confronts this problem over and over: Ezekiel’s false shepherds (Ez. 34), Jesus’ denunciation of the Pharisees (Matthew 23), or 1 John’s outright condemnation of those who say they love God but fail to love their neighbor (1 John 4:20). In the final judgment God tells people that they’re righteous even though those people say, essentially, ‘You’ve got the wrong person.’ (Matthew 25:31-46).
“Christian” can mean deeply wonderful things. For example, Romans 12 describes the marks of the true Christian this way: love, service, patience, perseverance, hospitality, forgiveness, harmony. There are Christians who vastly improve the world with their clear thinking, their care for others, and their faith.
But human imperfection complicates things. On a given day even a “good Christian” might be both unchristian and Christian. As Esther Acolatse, a theologian from Ghana, says, “We are not Christians trying to be human beings. We are human beings trying to be Christians.”
And so, in our chronic state of recovery, we wake up ready to “march in the light of God.” Some days we are defeated over issues we thought we had mastered. Yet there are some Christians who are transforming, not mirroring, their culture.
Thankfully we don’t have to be alone on this journey. Our Christian friends and communities can help us discern whether or not our actions move us in the direction of God’s heart. Such discernment is tricky business. Our friends have their own projections. Scripture advises us not to pass judgment on each other but to “resolve instead never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of another” (Romans 14:13). This difficult engagement is not optional for us. Paul writes that if Christians detect a friend in a transgression, that Christian is obligated to help restore the offender with gentleness and (this is important!) not to be tempted her or himself (Gal. 6:1-2).
In addition to friends, interruptions cause people to see things in a new light. Emmanuel Katongole, a theologian from Uganda, writes beautifully about the interruptions of pain, hope, laughter, tears, travel, and beauty. These interruptions create space where we have the opportunity to see things in a new light, and can potentially interrupt old cycles of violence.
If you are a Christian who is willing to live into God’s love, and to actually work at it, we ask for God’s travelling mercies. After all, it is into God’s story that we live, and breathe. It is God who has invited us and said we are beloved. And in the end, it is God who knows whether our words and actions reflect a renewed mind and a transformed heart.
Allegra Jordan is a senior consultant at Leadership Education at Duke Divinity.