Michael Abrahams | The amazing diversity of Christianity
There is a principle that I try to adhere to, and it is to not stereotype and generalise. Sometimes so many persons of a particular group may be observed to share certain characteristics that everyone in the group is painted with the same broad brush.
Christians are no exception, and have been labelled with all sorts of unsavoury titles. It is not uncommon to hear Christians being dismissed as being judgemental, self-righteous and brainwashed.
The fact is that Christians are a truly heterogenous group. But they ought not to be. According to the Holy Bible, Jesus Christ, the figure that Christians accept to be the Messiah, had 12 disciples who were said to be in “one accord”.
Today, thousands of denominations exist, with varying scriptural interpretations, dogmas, doctrines and rules. And within each denomination there exist varying degrees of conservatism and fundamentalism. Add to that, the different personalities that you will find in these organisations, and the spectrum of beliefs attains a truly dizzying level.
The spectrum ranges from those who believe that Christianity means walking in the footsteps of Jesus Christ and espousing love, compassion and empathy, admitting that their belief is based on faith and not fact, and leaving judgment to God, to strident crusaders who insist that their holy book is the inerrant Word of God and spend much of their time rebuking ‘sinners’ from their lofty pedestals.
Indeed, some of the most beautiful, and some of the ugliest, people I have encountered profess to be Christians.
I recently attended a fund-raising dinner for a popular church and was amazed at the work it has been doing. The church has given rise to more than 40 ministries, and the fund-raiser was aimed at five specific interests: a foundation that works in an inner-city area, a women’s prison ministry, a men’s prison ministry, an outreach programme aimed at feeding the poor, and another aimed at packaging food for the poor.
While at the event, I spoke with several Christians of that denomination, and all the conversations centred around helping others. One woman spoke about going into a prison and teaching inmates how to cook and sew, another spoke of being primarily interested in homeless elderly folk, and another about abused children. It was all about love.
I also recall being present at a church service a few years ago when, to demonstrate compassion, a priest washed the feet of two lesbians, people scorned and reviled by many in our society. Like the Christians at the fund-raising event, the priest’s interpretation of the scriptures was to focus on showing love to others.
But there is also a nasty side to Christianity. A side that clearly ignores Christ’s command to love others, or interprets the scriptures in a way that allows believers to practise bigotry. They bypass verses asking us to treat others the way we wish to be treated, warning us about judging our brothers and sisters and being wary of pride.
I recall asking a Christian how he defined the word ‘love’. He quoted 1 John 4:8, which states, “Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love.” He elaborated that because “God is love”, love means doing what God would do.
There are biblical stories of God acting harshly, destroying cities, telling people to kill other people, and striking people down for disobeying Him. So, for this Christian, being harsh and abrasive to ‘sinners’ is acceptable, because, in his mind, he is doing what God would do.
I also recall engaging a Christian in a conversation that became rather contentious. I remarked that Jesus Christ is called the ‘Prince of Peace’ and is supposed to embody love. However, my friend was quick to point out verses to me such as Matthew 10:34-35, quoting Jesus as saying, "Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to turn a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law.”
As for my sceptic friends, when I extol the virtues of Jesus Christ, they are quick to remind me that Jesus told people to abandon their families and follow him, which does appear to be rather selfish, and that he spoke about Hell quite a lot, which smacks of demagoguery.
It is not in my place to tell Christians how to interpret Jesus Christ. However, it is clear that the majority of what he taught was centred on love, compassion, empathy, humility, kindness and forgiveness.
I am wary of organised religion for many reasons, including the encouragement of the suspension of rational thinking, which I believe to be unhealthy. But I see few things in black and white, and in Christianity, I see way more than 50 shades of grey.
The religion has the potential to make the world a better place, but only if its adherents will all agree to humble themselves and focus on the principle of genuinely loving others and leaving the ultimate judgment to God.