Monday, September 21, 2009

A Representative of the Kingdom

I heard an anecdote from my mother a while back. A preacher she knows said he went out of his house in an especially good mood one morning, and while he was on the way wherever he was going, he got behind a car that had a bumpersticker that said "Honk If You Love Jesus!" Being in a good mood and, as a minister, loving Jesus, he honked. Whereupon everyone in the car--the woman driving and her small children--all turned around and flipped him off.

He said it flattened his mood so much he turned around and went home.

People, this isn't the way to represent the body of Christ. When you identify yourself in public as a Christian,you become a representative of Christianity and thus of Christ. Flipping people off is bad PR.

When you slap a Jesus bumpersticker on your car, wear a tee-shirt with Christian slogans or graphics, or hang a big cross around your neck, you are proclaiming yourself a Christian, just the same as if you loudly announced, "I am a Christian" to all and sundry. Some of the people who see or hear your proclamation may not be familiar with Christianity or with the particular subgroup of Christianity you are a part of (if your announcement was, say, an XYZ Church Annual Picnic tee-shirt). Other of the people who see your proclamation may have a prior inclination to think negatively of Christians. So here you come saying "Honk If You Love Jesus" or "Follow Me to Church" and you proceed to act like a jackass. Which gives people in the former category a negative impression of Christians (or Christians of XYZ branch) and gives people in the latter group confirmation of their tendency to think badly of all Christians. Was that really what you wanted to do when you bought the bumpersticker?

Here's why I think this is going to become even more important than it used to be.

When you go somewhere you and your kin or kind are not much known, you become a representative of your group, like it or not. People in minority groups know this. Natalie Goldberg once wrote of going into a rural, Midwestern classroom and telling the kids she was Jewish; none of them knew anyone Jewish, so she figured that now she represented Jewish people to them--she was eating an apple, therefore all Jews eat apples sort of thing. Christians in America and perhaps especially in the Bible Belt have had the luxury of being in the majority for a long time. Even now something like 89 percent or more Americans self-identify as being at least nominally Christian. But that's going to change and do so sooner and faster than we are going to find comfortable. I'm not referring to immigrants from historically non-Christian parts of the world changing the demographics of our country. Already a lot of citizens who tick Christian subgroup XYZ or ABC on forms that ask religion could be more accurate by checking "other" and writing in "secularist who sometimes uses XYZ facilities for weddings and funerals and may bring out a manger scene tree ornament at Christmas". Throw in a little mild persecution and a great many of those people will fall away. And some of the people who remain will be people committed to redefining Christianity as something historically unrecognizable.

This means that practicing Christians will more and more often run into people who have never met a practicing Christian and have formed their view of the faith based almost wholly on the mockery of contemporary comedians and the vilification of our enemies. What you, as a known practicing Christian, do and say before such a person will either reinforce the negative opinion they've taken from pop culture or will be a witness against the caricature. Given that we're supposed to evangelize, which is better?

My point here is not to point fingers, but to point out the responsibility we take on when we display symbols that identify us as Christians. I've never worn any of those smarmy Christian tee-shirts that some people wear because I don't like them, but if I ever found one I liked, I would be reluctant to wear it in public, because it would make me feel under a greater obligation to mind myself. I do frequently wear a modest-sized Marian medal and I would hate it if I ever spoke nastily to someone or hit my shin and let out a stream of profanity and then had the people who witnessed this notice my medal; their seeing my behavior and thinking I am a jerk is one thing, their seeing my behavior and thinking Christians are jerks is another thing. I know I would hate this scenario because I let something like it happen once. (So if there were a finger pointing, it would have to point at me as well.)

Some years back I noticed myself getting angry while driving more and more often and I didn't like it. So, although I've never liked things dangling from rearview mirrors, when I got a free plastic rosary in the mail, I decided to hang it from my rearview mirror as a reminder to remember Jesus and not get angry and mutter bad things about other drivers. And it worked pretty well for weeks. Then I lost my temper worse than I ever had while driving.

I had to go pick up some medicine or something at Wal-mart and, unfortunately this was on the day before a hurricane might or might not hit us, and it was afternoon. Leaving the store after having suffered through the crowd inside, I ended up in the most godawful snarl of parking lot traffic likely to be seen in a small town. After what seemed like ages of this and escape to a less congested area seemed nigh, I witnessed a bit of what I took to be insane driving and someone nearly hit me, and I flipped out and did something I'd never before done while driving: angrily thrust two upturned fingers toward my window, while shouting the air blue.

But there's Jesus. Before I had even calmed down, I was overcome with remorse: Suppose they saw the rosary dangling from my mirror and thought all Catholics act like this? I felt horrible about it. Now, maybe it would be a finer thing to say I thought only of the wrongness of the act itself or of how sin hurts Jesus, rather than how I might have created a negative impression of my group of Christians. But if I were pure of heart, I probably wouldn't have snapped like that in the first place, and the results were good: my little bout of road rage ended, I became a much calmer driver for years after, and I found myself glancing over at my little plastic depiction of Jesus quite often.

And that's the good part of displaying symbols of our faith on or about our person: they make us think of God more often. The "bad" part of course is that they require we take on a responsibility to act as representatives of our faith; it's harder to hide when we're wearing a sign. And maybe that's a good part too.

1 comment:

Heather and the Rascals said...

I get you. If we display the symbol we need to first remember that we have it displayed! We need to remind ourselves of who the symbol represents. He is watching us. But there to, secularists need to understand the whole point is that we are not perfect. I think many non-christians think that we think we are perfect. They know we are not, and so to them, we seem hypocritical. Actions like those described reinforce their opinion of us. I think the goal is to show others that we are not perfect, and that is why we need Jesus. The symbol represents the One Who Is Perfect and therefore when one sees the symbol associated constantly with those that are not, they began to see the whole idea as imperfect. Wow! I need to hide my symbols or be very conscious of my actions. I think it will be easier to hide the symbols:-)