I've been told that I am obviously not a Christian because I watch movies. Because I believe women can be pastors. Because I don't take Mass in a Catholic church. Because I've read Brian McLaren and N.T. Wright. Because I voted for Obama. Because I am not a Calvinist. I've had friends who have been told that they are obviously not Christians because they have tattoos, because they are gay, and because they don't go to church every Sunday.
Given the fine tradition in the church of adding such litmus tests to the gospel, I found it fascinating to hear from diverse sources last week that the Hutaree militia (a self-described Christian group) obviously could not be Christian. I find the group disgusting and disturbed, but the question of if they are Christians haunted me. I understand the tendency to get defensive and want to distance ourselves from groups like this. No Christian wants people like these to define us to the world. But at the same time I'm hesitant to proclaim from on high that they obviously aren't Christian.
These were people who had a literalistic, dogma-based faith. They believed their faith rested on their belief in and confession of a certain list of doctrines, especially dispensational views of the end times. They believed in the literal interpretation of scripture. They believed that their lives should be committed to moral living and opposed to sin. As they state on their Web site, "We, the Hutaree, are prepared to defend all those who belong to Christ and save those who aren't. We will still spread the word, and fight to keep it, up to the time of the great coming." To that end they hated the government, especially our current government, and decided that violence was the best way to uphold their moral convictions. Sure, I think they are messed up, but my issue is, if I say that they are not Christians, then I have to say the same regarding other so-called Christians who believed in similar ways. In fact, if this group isn't Christian, then most American Christians today can be written off as "obviously not Christian."
On one hand, I don't think following Jesus really has much to do at all with affirming a set doctrine, a literal interpretation of scripture, a public confession of Jesus, a life of culturally defined morality, and church sanctioned violence. But that is the message that you will hear in countless churches on any given Sunday. Jarrod McKenna at the God's Politics blog affirms the dichotomy of Jesus and violence when he refers to the association of the term "Christian" with "militia" as shameful, and wonders how Christianity ever came to be associated with something so anti-Jesus. The Hutaree group may have promoted a somewhat culturally taboo form of that violence, but other Christians will defend the "God-ordained" need for and their right to violence regularly. I truly don't see much of Jesus in this civil religion of most U.S. churches today, but even so, I am uneasy saying they just aren't real Christians.
But it's a tough call. If a Christian is a person who follows Christ, I assume that implies that person follows the disciplines Jesus demands of his followers. Jesus himself tells us the only people who are his true followers are those who, when "I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me." (Matt 25). And in Isaiah (1 and 58) we even read that God detests our worship gatherings, ignores our acts of piety, wearies of our songs and rituals, and turns his head from our prayers unless we are seeking justice, treating our workers rightly, giving shelter to the immigrant and homeless, and helping the oppressed. By these biblical standards I think I could count on one hand the number of people I know who can actually be called Christian. In fact many Christians I know actively work against things like helping immigrants, providing health care to the sick, and making sure all people have food to eat (or they are advised to run away from churches that do such things).
As Brian McLaren points out in reference to this militia incident, a faith that promotes violence and ignores Jesus misses the point. Jesus instead "provides us a living alternative to the confining [violent] narrative in which our world and our religions live, move, and have their being too much of the time." Too many of our churches have succumbed to the siren calls of this world -- replacing following Jesus with sets of doctrines, cultural rules, nationalism, and sanctified violence. This militia group simply took that proclivity to its natural end. That sort of religion has nothing to do with being a Christ-follower. But at the same time, as McLaren points out, Jesus looks at those who do violence (to others and to him) and says "Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing" (Luke 23:34).
So I can only be left with grace. When even the most pietistic and committed "Christians" don't actually look like Christ-followers, it seems like all we can really have is grace. Grace is bigger than our pointing fingers. And it extends far beyond out trivial additions to the gospel. For if there is no grace for this messed-up system we call the church, then God help us all.
Julie Clawson is the author of Everyday Justice: The Global Impact of Our Daily Choices (IVP 2009). She blogs at julieclawson.com and emergingwomen.us.