It was the beauty on the outside that drew me away.
Before social justice became trendy among evangelicals, people of all denominations, faiths, and philosophies had already been steadily working in the trenches without fanfare, caring for the least of these with a quiet strength.
Through seminary, I learned to grapple with justice being at the heart of the Christian Gospel — dignity, equality, and right to life for all — I marched out into the real world with zeal and vigor to champion the rights of the oppressed in the name of Jesus. However, I discovered the people who were doing this work often had no identification with Christianity, that those outside of church were behaving more Christian-ly than some inside.
I admired Nicholas Kristof, a self proclaimed nonreligious reporter, who tirelessly sheds light on humanitarian concerns.
I adored Malala, a Muslim, who stood up to the Taliban to bravely demand a right to education for girls.
I reflected on the justice heroes of recent history, people like Gandhi and countless other humanitarian workers who don’t claim the Christian faith for their own.
It disoriented me because for so long I believed it was only through Christ that one can walk in righteous paths; that without the Truth (which had been so narrowly summed up for me in John 3:16), everything was meaningless. I didn’t have an interpretive lens to categorize beauty that existed outside of the vessel I was told contained the only beauty to be found: the evangelical Christian church.
My faith was threatened as I began to question what else had been wrong about what I had been taught. As I edged closer to the perimeters of the church, all the time being drawn and inspired by the beauty and unconditional love (which I was told only existed within Christianity) I saw outside of her, the light from beyond cast even more shadows on the church. Darkness existed in the forms of misogyny, empire-building, anti-intellectualism, and systematic marginalization of GLBT persons; they were injustices coated with spiritual language — wolves in sheep’s clothing. I suffered through severe storms of righteous rage. I wept with the pain of marginalized peoples against the church’s exclusion. I wasn’t sure I wanted to be part of this movement anymore. And to be honest, sometimes I still struggle.
But here’s the thing: I missed out on the beauty beyond the church because I was raised inside — I just wasn’t aware. And as I wandered and spent time outside, I quickly realized I was missing out on the beauty back where I came from. For every bigoted, hateful Christian shouting their vitriol, there are many more steadfastly doing the hard, grinding, thankless works of love. If you know where to look, if you can hush enough to listen, Christ followers are courageously championing for justice as those who do faith differently. Mostly we don’t see them, because they are too busy diligently serving the needy instead of clamoring for the spotlight.
You see, I want all of the beauty. I want the irreverent, gritty honesty out there AND the deeply mystical sacred prayers in here. I want the pragmatic, scientific solutions for the world’s problems out there AND the earnest faith for the impossible in here. I want the big, huge tent that welcomes everyone out there AND the narrow road of lifegiving sacrifice in here. I want to glean the wisdom of the world AND own Jesus’ beautiful vision. I want to be a Christian, but not THAT kind of Christian.
At the heart of justice is this: we all deserve dignity and right to life because of our personhood — our shared humanity. To take seriously Genesis 1:27, each of us created in the likeness of God, is to see that our beauty is shared, transcending boundaries between churched and unchurched. I am deeply convinced, the more we spread the beauty:
in loving, forgiving, reconciling,
in peace, restoration,
in hope, rescue, JUSTICE, equality,
in not giving up on the good,
in chasing after dreams,
in laughter and genuine grief,
the more we see beauty shared, the better off the world will be. Or as we say in the church, the more we see “the Kingdom come.”
Those lovely words of sentiment are fluffy when written on paper. To translate them into concrete reality requires some seriously hard work. Beauty almost always takes us face to face with deep evil. It is too much to bear alone. It cannot happen without the power of community. So I turn to my people, the local and global body of Christians. I think our best chance of spreading beauty is together.
The paradox in my spiritual journey is that beautiful people, ones who are overly kind, extravagantly generous, yet remain unassuming and humble — they threaten my faith and simultaneously save it. My faith, it teeters on again and off again, never secure, keeping me on my toes.
I will never stop being drawn outside of the faith circle, because selfish person that I am: I need to have all of the beauty. I can’t ever go back to the safe kind of faith, the one that is full of certainty and claims beauty only for itself. I want my faith to be fragile and vulnerable and dangerous, because without the risk of losing my faith, there would cease to be any need to save it.
Cindy Brandt blogs at cindywords.com and serves on the board of One Day's Wages, an organization fighting extreme global poverty. She studied Bible/Theology at Wheaton College and holds a Masters of Arts in Theology from Fuller Seminary.