When I was a little kid, the big kids at church used to sing a song which almost sounded like a Native American melody, and the words were “They will know we are Christians by our love….” The idea seemed to be lifted right out of John 13:35. I didn’t understand who “they” are in that line or why we they would care, but it sounded nice. As I grew up, the connection to John 13 seemed to take the idea to a new level.
I’m not sure why I mention that now, except for whatever reason, it dawns on me how much comfort I felt in that notion. Enraptured in the song as a small child, it was almost as good as “give the world a Coke!” There seemed to be some slow-ride slide in the sentiment ushering folx into heaven as more and more people simply began to feel the love and join the ranks of rainbow-happy disciples who are in love with love with irresistible attraction.
It was a bubble. A utopian dream of a child. A fantasy, and not one well thought out, really.
I have not heard that song in decades.
When I was a young adult, maybe 20, I saw a tee shirt on a young man that looked like a cross between a cartoon and a rock tee you might get at a KISS or AC/DC concert. The picture and the caption showed a brain in flames (pretty rock-n-roll, if you ask me) announcing, “This is your brain in hell. Any questions?”
It was both cool and Jesus-nerdy at the same time. I was a bit spellbound by it. It was confrontational.
In the years – decades – following, I saw more, more and more tee shirts, coffee mugs, tattoos, and bumper stickers in whatever variety announcing Christian faith to others in various marketplaces and school settings. It seemed “They will know you are Christian by your tee shirt.” (That is not in John, by the way.)
I am an old metal head, and I have a closet full of heavy metal tee shirts. Most of them I no longer wear (too small, for one thing). Oh, and I really dig the cool ones like Iron Maiden or Cannable Corpse. I never found one like Slash had with the tombstone and a label for “Black Death Vodka,” so, I don’t have that one. But I always kinda wanted it.
Such shirts have a way of misrepresenting me anymore. In fact, my big kids went to an Iron Maiden show a few years ago and brought back a couple shirts for me. I wore them a few times, but I found myself in an impromptu prayer service with a couple street people I never met before on a street corner with passing traffic, and I was wearing it. No one made mention of it, and I didn’t think about it until I was leaving, but I decided then not to wear it out and about anymore. Then my four-year-old adopted son told me the monster on it scared him, and so I retired it altogether after that.
But I mention that to say that I always kinda liked how hostile, scary, and in-your-face some of those shirts could be. They don’t really tell you who is in it. Like a book cover, you shouldn’t judge the contents by the appearance. But such an appearance was just not congruent with me either. But that in-your-face grit was part of the thrill. It was “metal” as they say.
That brain-in-hell “Christian” tee was sorta like that. It certainly did not promote the they-will-know-we-are-Christians-by-our-love vibe, not on two counts: first, it was gritty and hostile and in-your-face; secondly, it was a tee shirt and not love. But it did indicate this person is “Christian” – whatever that is.
Let me change gears now, but this will loop back in soon, I hope.
There was a comfort in that give-a-Coke vibe I got from our old song about knowing we are Christians by our love. The world was safe and getting safer. As a kid, I wasn’t really getting the John-13 connection as much as the comfort connection. This was America where we were enjoying our freedom of religion, and the FIRST amendment had paved the way for Jesus to usher in the last wave of the apocalypse.
I look around even now at the massive cathedrals of the Bible Belt (at least), and a town like Lubbock almost literally has a church on every corner. We are “about as Christian as it gets.” If you want to get down on your knees and pray on aisle four in the United Supermarket, you sure can. (I’ve done it with some of my needy friends.) Of course, people will look at ya strange. The other “Christians” don’t drop their shopping and run to join ya, but they won’t run you off for this.
Lubbock “Christianity” has slowly morphed from being characterized by LOVE to being characterized by conservative politics (different tee shirts yet again). Our faith moved from mild-mannered confrontation, past defensive, and has become offensive. No concern to be loving, the more power-grabby it gets, the less love it has at all. But is sure is IN YOUR FACE as a voting matter. Lubbock is a “sanctuary city for the unborn” because the “Christians” who otherwise can’t turn out to the same church (some of us are Catholic, others Baptist, still others Methodist, and still others church of Christ, or Presbyterian, Pentecostal, and a few are Cowboy Church, Trucker Church, or even Biker Church (I almost forgot to mention “Metropolitan Church” which seems to be code for LGBTQ)) found they can join in the power grab. We can’t get ourselves TOGETHER to honor Jesus like we do to honor a football game, but we did turn out the vote together.
And we feel mighty comfortable with ourselves for that.
I am not a church historian. I cannot speak with really any authority about the church in the Middle or Dark Ages or even the Renaissance. But I know the church of the first, second, and third centuries knew no privilege. Persecution? Oh, yeah. Lotsa that. Long before there was “gay bashing,” there was feeding Christians to lions! (You’d think we might have some real comfort to offer to persecuted people of all kinds, even if we view their lifestyles as sinful.) (That would be love.)
But as a modern-world Christian in America, I am slow to see that most folx outside “the church” look at the church as very privileged. Especially the white, middle-class kind. And honestly, my comfort with that old song from my youth tells me I am colluding with that notion in ways I don’t normally think about. If you don’t have the benefit of the ancient history (and maybe the middle history, though I cannot say decisively), the church changes from the persecuted to the persecutor pushing policy and driving people to do things they aren’t naturally inclined to do – often with impunity.
Those of us in touch with those origins might tend to see it otherwise, but we need to wake up to the more current perception which also has merit. I think there is a Christian comfort that approximates white privilege in that regard. It’s not characterized by love either. What a mistake it is for the church to be known as Christian by our uncaring privilege and unbothered comfort, by our tee shirts, tattoos, and voting power. You can’t give the world a Coke like that. You sure can’t give it Jesus.