Already I’ve rankled people who bristle at Christianity being a “brand” at all. Get over it. Jesus commanded us to go into the world, to preach, teach and baptize, which makes our faith a matter of public concern. And the Christian brand is continually being damaged, perhaps irreparably.
Consider the Public Religion Research Institute’s study of millenials’ views of Christianity. Three of the top perceptions were anti-gay (64%), judgmental (62%) and hypocritical (58%).
From church trials over the rights of pastors to perform same-sex weddings, to a pastor who wants to burn the Quran—again—to the bizarre rantings about women and girly-men by wildly popular pastor Mark Driscoll, there’s plenty of anecdata to support those statistics.
Then we have the Stingy Tipper Brigade. There’s been a rash of stories about Christians apparently putting their faith into action… by shafting their waitstaff. First there was the pastor who refused to give 18% because after all, she only gives God 10%. Then a photo started making the rounds of a fake 10-dollar bill tucked into a check holder with the message that “SOME THINGS ARE BETTER THAN MONEY, like your eternal salvation, that was brought and paid for by Jesus going to the cross.”
Finally, consider Pope Francis. Wait, what? Francis is awesome! Yes, he is. Look, I’m just as gaga as anyone when Pope Francis lets a child sit in his special chair, or embraces a man with boils, or refuses to hate on gays or atheists. He is receiving almost universal adulation at the moment, and rightly so. But here’s the thing: those are supposed to be basic Christian behaviors. Jesus said, “Let the children come to me.” He touched and associated with the sick and outcast. And his message was one of love, not judgment. So it’s a sad comment when the pope gets plaudits for simply doing what Jesus asked us to do… and it’s a sure sign that the public’s perception Christianity is on the ropes.
So why is this happening?
I see two things coming into play.
First is the role of the Internet and social media for propagating outrageous stories. Are people jerkier for Jesus than they used to be? Who knows, but I doubt it. The jerks, like the poor, will always be with us. (The Crusades, anyone?) It’s just that now we’re privy to every cringe-worthy encounter involving a Christian.
To paraphrase the old adage, the outrageous story travels around the world before the positive story puts on its shoes. Except that in the digital age, the outrageous story also gets liked, retweeted and shared multiple times over, which makes it hard to get a true picture of what’s going on. Is there really an epidemic of bad tipping, or are the same stories being circulated repeatedly? (On the other hand, the story of the waitperson who got stiffed because she was gay? I actually had trouble googling it at first, because there were several.)
Second: Christians whose lives proclaim a different set of values than the boorish headline-grabbers—values of mercy, humility and service—are people who intentionally do not wear their faith on their sleeves. We’ve got an initiative going at the church this month in which we’re encouraging random acts of kindness. This past Sunday we shared a few of those stories. The purpose is to make connections between what we proclaim on Sunday morning and the “sacred ordinary” of our lives.
The reaction has been interesting and telling. Some are wondering why we’re having a kindness initiative at all—shouldn’t we go out of our way to be kind every day? Yes… but some of us need reminders to look beyond the blinders of our own schedules and responsibilities. (People like me, by the way.)
But the other realization in hearing people’s kindness stories is how ordinary they are. They will not get tweeted or YouTubed. And although these folks are motivated by their faith, in no case did they punctuate their actions with, “And by the way, I’m a Christian.”
Let’s see… a disgraceful, homophobic response on the part of a Christian restaurant patron, versus the hour my parishioner spent helping a stranger fix the wheelchair lift on her husband’s van.
In the marketplace of ideas—in the media landscape we currently inhabit—Christianity doesn’t stand a chance.
I see two alternatives: either some of us need to get a lot louder—something I don’t see happening, personally; it’s not in our nature, and it’s likely to backfire anyway—or we need a different term for ourselves. Has anyone found one they like?
I find the whole thing sad. The haters are just SO loud right now. And they are doubly amplified: by people like me who shake their heads at the mean petty behavior in the name of Jesus, and the atheists and the non-religious who say “See?!? I TOLD you the whole thing’s bogus!”
A pastor friend posted one of these stories on FB last week and lamented, “It’s enough to make me give up and play for the other team.” I hear you, bro. But I can’t. I just can’t. This relentlessly persistent and gracious Palestinian Jew won’t let me.
And it’s getting pretty annoying.
UPDATE: A previous version of this blog included a paragraph about a woman who got stiffed on a $93 bill because the patrons didn’t approve of her lesbian “lifestyle.” That story is now in serious doubt, so it has been removed.