Types of Christianity?

Are there two different Christianities? Actually, it’s a poorly worded question that reveals a great deal.

Often we look at what “other” Christians are doing, decide whether it is good or bad, and then dispense with determining if those Christians are similar to us or far too different from us. It’s easy to do. I have spoken out loud and written that I struggle with this very idea. I see what some Christians believe and how they act towards others and I’m left wondering if we worship the same God. Are our Jesuses the same person? Are we reading the same Bible? Yet, the question remains, how is it possible that we not only come to different conclusions, but often conclusions that are in direct conflict with each other – polar opposites.

I struggle with grasping how I can be a part of the same religious faith with those who I perceive act with cruelty towards immigrants, those that are LGBTQ+, people of different faith traditions, and more. Where does cruelty fit into what it means to be a follower of Jesus? Yet these same people will claim they are following Jesus – some may even point to Scripture to back up their beliefs. But it is the exact opposite of everything I hold dear. And I point to Jesus as well, often backing up my beliefs with Scripture. How is this possible for two people to claim the same religious faith, but have it practiced so very differently and in fact in direct opposition to each other?

That is the question that there is no good answer for. There’s no simple answer. No spinning it. No nothing.

And this is not new. Mystics sought after encounter with the divine and looked through the lens of love. And at the same time, the church, with believers firmly believing they were following God, persecuted and killed and caused wars, destroying peoples and land in the name of God. Both claimed to be Christian. But how is that possible?

There is not a nice easy answer for this.

It would be easy to just claim that one of these groups of believers is wrong and false. We should just throw them out and stop considering them believers regardless of their claims. But how would that work? I think we’ve tried that in the past – the Western Church excommunicated the Eastern Church and the Eastern Church responded in kind. Protestants and Catholics killed each other over beliefs. Protestants killed other Protestants over various beliefs. It seems like there has been a constant focus on purity of belief for centuries. And when the focus is on getting it right, there seems to be a willingness to force believers into the “right” beliefs with any means necessary, or purging people in an effort to purify the faith. When “correct” belief is the main focus, we set aside Jesus’ way of the means being as important as the ends and then live by the ends justifying the means.

Are my thoughts of kicking out the people who act with cruelty a continuation of these things? Is my concern with making sure that there is congruency between what is claimed and how it is acted out just a continuation of the long history of Christianity since Constantine made Christianity into Christendom?

A friend posted a thought provoking question – “Why is it that so many feel no responsibility to be a good neighbor and citizen, no compulsion to help or care about others, but also feel they deserve box seats in the afterlife?”

Here’s how I answered – “There’s a long complicated answer to that.  The short version is that our cultural emphasis on individualism has warped an understanding of theology so that it’s about “me and Jesus.”  And it has a heavy focus on afterlife.  It’s what happens when you mix Rapture theology (God’s pissed and is going to destroy everything), with American individualism, scarcity beliefs, fundamentalism (in the sense of the primary concern being correct belief), and i’m sure you throw in a few other things too.  Needless to say, it’s destructive and not conducive to the wellbeing of a society.”

And that’s just one strain of Christianity – those claiming to be followers of Jesus. How many different beliefs are there about what it means to be a Christian? Far too numerous to list, that’s for sure.

And how many people have died because they held a variation of what it means to be a Christian? It’s got to be a pretty high body count at this point.

It continues to this day and probably will into the foreseeable future. We’re dealing with humanity after all. And regardless of our take on what the Kingdom of God coming means, I have concluded this:

I think we all have it wrong. I think we don’t have the slightest idea of what it means to be followers of Jesus. If we did, we’d all be doing it. And doing it well. Instead we seem to latch on to a few things that provide something very important to each of us. For some, what is provided is a sense of order and control. For others, there is forgiveness and acceptance. For others, there is peace and mercy. For others, there is encounter with God that goes beyond words. For others, there is service and vulnerability. And the list goes on. And that becomes the core of our belief and we align our actions with these things – trying to be true to them. Because it comes down to this – we are incapable of actually following Jesus fully. We do not have the capacity or ability to truly follow Jesus. But that’s not a bad thing. Even the Apostles fought with Jesus and they deserted him when he was arrested. These were the guys who literally spent three years with him night and day. And they had different beliefs about what it means to follow Jesus.

Yet, it wasn’t ever about how well they could follow Jesus. Just as it isn’t for us either. That’s not an excuse for cruelty or abuse. Those things are wrong and need to stop. And yes, I’m going to keep pushing back against Christianity that acts with cruelty against others. I find it antithetical to following Jesus. But it is a part of Christianity. That can’t be denied or explained away. There’s a long history of Christians using violence and justifying it in the name of God. We can’t ignore this history. But we can acknowledge it, put a stop to it, repair the damage that is done, and take a better path forward.

When I think of this, I can see why we struggle with other things. American history is one of those. Americans have a difficult time acknowledging that slavery was wrong and destructive. We have folks who want to spin it away. The reasons are numerous – they might feel uncomfortable about it, they may feel that talking about slavery is some kind of attack on America, they may see such a discussion as conflicting with the idea of American exceptionalism, they may feel guilty, and the list goes one. We see this in debates around Confederate statues, educational curriculum around the Civil War and slavery, voting rights, dealing with laws on the books that have targeted black men and women like sundown laws and red lining, and debate around songs that make reference to urban/rural divides, just to name a few things.

Humanity has a difficult time dealing with differences. Humanity has an especially difficult time weighing a balance between so-called “correct” thoughts/beliefs and how people are to be treated (to the point of what level of dehumanizing is acceptable or not for those who are different in any way).

Instead of there being two types of Christianity, or ideologies, or sides, there are many who say that we have a spectrum on these things. I think that is more accurate in some ways than just the idea of two opposing sides in conflict (which is far too simplistic and unrealistic given how the world operates). But I think there is an even better metaphor – a circle. The extreme left/right, for example aren’t really at opposite ends of the spectrum when it comes down to it. Or take any dichotomy that exists that has two opposite and opposing sides. In actuality, those two sides are actually right next to each other on a circle. Their idea of what is “correct” are far apart if you start at one point and go the long way around the circle. But they’re means, what they do, because of their belief are often very similar. It’s like starting with one point and having the other point right next to it with no gap. Extremes often see how their beliefs are far apart, but their methods based on those extremes are often the same – using violence and manipulation, seeking control, being in control, using force, mandating, etc. These are the means to the ends. While they see themselves as far apart, it is because their main concern is with “correct” beliefs. Correct beliefs are a spectrum. But the means, the methods, are a circle. This may not make much sense to anyone else, but that’s ok, it’s how I envision it. If it’s helpful, great. If it’s confusing, then ditch it. It’s my way of struggling with these ideas. My way of trying to make sense of the world. My way of trying to figure out why there are various types of Christianity and how I relate to them.

We’re all on the circle together. It’s far easier to see a spectrum than a circle. Spectrums tell us that there are opposing sides. It’s easier to see enemies on a line – based on how far apart we are from someone else. An enemy is someone who is far away on the spectrum. But a circle is more complex. Who is far away on a circle? The opposite side? But that side is connected to us in two different directions. And with others we feel closer to who have opposing beliefs with each other. A circle doesn’t allow us a nice easy dichotomy. It forces us to see our “enemies” and ask – what is it about them the have trouble with? What is that telling me about myself? How am I called to see their humanity? How am I called to see past the facade of their beliefs?

I can’t change anyone else – especially if I always see them as an enemy. I have to do the hard work of seeing both of us on the circle. Sometimes I can do that. And other times I struggle greatly with it. Sometimes I don’t want to for certain individuals and groups. Sometimes it’s just too much and I don’t have the energy. But when I do, it changes me. And my approach to these folks and groups changes. It’s not a matter of making excuses for people or their beliefs – especially if what they espouse is harmful or destructive. Rather, it’s focusing on how I can contribute to healing, to wholeness, to peace. How am I called to act with these people? Not to adopt their methods, but rather to live into what I claim to believe. To see their humanity. To live the way of peace. To move towards shalom. To care about people and creation. To forgive myself. To be in community that is moving toward health.

I can’t control what others will do. All I can do is follow what I am called to do. And when I fail at that, to hear the words of the one I follow – “You are forgiven. Do not be afraid. Follow me.”

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