Friday, September 27, 2013

No True Martyr

The following came up in a Google+ discussion thread: "Anyone who faithfully followed all of the things that Jesus commanded his followers to do would likely be considered a dangerous fanatic."

Now, I'm not much of a student of the Gospels, but I have had four years of theology classes and that one was something of a head-scratcher. So I asked what struck me as an obvious question: "What dangerous fanaticism did Christ advocate?"

We went back and forth for another round, and then the discussion came to this:

"Try telling people that no, homosexuality isn't OK, and see how far that gets you. Try telling people that abortion is murder. Try speaking your mind about the things that are accepted by popular culture but are clearly abominable in the eyes of God.

Yeah, people will label you as a dangerous fanatic. I speak from experience."
At this point, I withdrew, not wanting to turn someone else's thread into a forum for this discussion, but that raised another obvious question: Where does Christ command that his followers go out and get into other people's faces about what they understand to be acceptable? In other words, where does Christ command that Christians "try telling people that no, homosexuality isn't OK" or that they "try telling people that abortion is murder?" Where is it written that "speaking your mind about the things that are accepted by popular culture but are clearly abominable in the eyes of God" is required of those who would follow Christ? I'm not familiar with any such passage in the Gospels - although I concede that there may be one.

But, that said, I'm pretty sure that there isn't anywhere in the Gospels where Christ commands his followers to expect that they won't be judged by the bad acts of the nominally Christian.

George Tiller was shot in the name of abortion being murder, Matthew Shepherd was beaten to death for being gay (although a new book calls that into question) and the Centennial Olympic Park bombing was motivated by religion. The perpetrators of these crimes were all nominally Christian. Whether they deliberately set out to do what they felt was God's work is debatable, but it's unlikely than any of them could reasonable escape the label of "dangerous fanatic." And many people associate what they did with a dangerous, violent strain of Christianity, not unlike that of the Ku Klux Klan.

The association between Christianity and dangerous fanaticism isn't born from "turn the other cheek," "love your neighbor as yourself" or "let he who has not sinned cast the first stone." It's born from a reasonable, if highly exaggerated, fear that opening with "telling people that abortion is murder" today could result in a doctor being shot or a clinic being bombed tomorrow. It's not reasonable to assume that a demonstrably pacifistic, generous Christianity would incite people to fear and distrust.

But Christians, like everyone else, are caught in the trap that "Christian" is a label - and it's one that people can take up for themselves. And despite the common "No True Scotsman" arguments that are often deployed to expel them, people who commit bad acts while claiming to be Christian are often considered Christian. And so it's quite reasonable for people to assume that someone who understands that Christ commands them to tell others how wrong they are may, just as others have done, take things beyond denunciations of the wickedness of others.

Martyrdom, for all its finality, often holds an allure, as proof of the ultimate in loyalty. And for that, we often commend and lionize the martyred. But simply because the wicked attack the righteous man does not mean the slings and arrows of those one considers wicked are proof of one's own righteousness. It's easy to see ourselves as martyrs, and in so doing, denounce others through placing ourselves on a pedestal. It's an impulse worth resisting.

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