Following Christ (But Not A Christian)

Sanford "Sandy" Wilbur - February 2017

  I considered myself a "christian" from early childhood, long before I had even a basic understanding of what the term meant. (That's probably because, in America in the 40s and 50s, you were a "christian" unless you were clearly something else.) I didn't put meat on the bones of this belief until my twenties, when I met people and read books that presented me with a more tangible definition of - or at least a framework for - Christianity. It sounded good to me, and I came to believe that I really was a Christian.

   As I grew serious about reading the Christian bible, and as I regularly attended church meetings, I found I had a lot of questions about how these "Christians" used (or, just as often, didn't use) their bibles to define their religion. I regularly brought up my concerns as I taught "Sunday school" classes and otherwise participated in church activities. ("Is that what that bible passage really means? Didn't Jesus say something quite different?") I became bolder with my questions when I wrote my novel "If God is God," and then quite strident in some of my more recent writings. Still, my questions and concerns were more about the organized church than they were about "Christianity." In effect, I still believed that Christians wanted the teachings of Jesus to be foremost; they were just having a little trouble with the application.

   I gave up on churches and denominations twenty-five years ago, when I reached my limit of what I consider irreconcilable differences between what Jesus said, and what the churches were teaching. Particularly troubling to me was the trend toward militant politicization of the church message. "Christians," through their votes and through their spokesmen, more and more espoused "preemptive war," suspension of civil rights, torture, racial hatred, bigotry, and denigration of knowledge and science. Not only were they in favor of these decidedly un-Jesus-like ideas, they sought through political processes to force all Americans to abide by their religious beliefs. Some of us who try to follow the teachings of Jesus became appalled, disgusted, embarrassed and frustrated by the increasing numbers of Americans who loudly proclaimed they were Christians, yet showed almost none of the attributes of Christ. "They aren't really Christians!" we shouted. "How can we present ourselves to the world as Jesus directed, when so many others have made the world-at-large despise the word "Christian?"

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  To date, the fight-back strategy of we Jesus-followers has been to bemoan (mostly among ourselves) what we consider the political corruption of Christianity, and to suggest (mostly among ourselves) that we shouldn't allow those people to call themselves "Christian." We try alternative names for them, like "evangelist" (omitting the adjectival "Christian"), or like author Thom Hartmann's "christianist" (to suggest some perverted relationship with "true" Christianity). I've written "don't call them Christians" essays, myself, but I've changed my mind about that approach. Here's why.

  First, it doesn't really matter what we call them. They call themselves Christians, and they've done it so loudly and effectively for so many years that they are Christians to the majority of the world. Our outrage over them "stealing" our preferred title accomplishes nothing.

  Second, I think maybe they really are the Christians, and we're not. Remember that the term "Christian" wasn't used until Antioch, many years after the death and resurrection of Jesus. By that time, Peter, Paul and the other apostles had already irreparably defected from many of Jesus' teachings, and even though the term was meant (often derogatorily) to denote followers of Christ, it really was being applied to the various religions that had been created by others who came after Jesus. Over the centuries, the concept of "Christianity" changed more and more, and now there are hundreds (thousands?) of religions that claim to be "Christian." Most of them use only those teachings of Jesus that meet their particular needs, ignoring any that don't fit their specific religious objectives or (in many cases) don't adequately reflect their organizational prejudices. Do we people who are trying to follow the teachings of Jesus want to be considered just one more "Christian" religion? I don't.

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  But, if we let THEM be Christians, what are WE? Have you considered that maybe we don't need to be ANYTHING? Jesus didn't come to establish a Christian Religion. I suspect (in fact, is, I'm sure) that he would be adamantly opposed  to any religious creation that elevates him, personally. Regularly, he made it clear that everything he said and did was for the glory of God. Although he unambiguously presented the message that - ultimately - there would be a division between those who chose God's ways and those who didn't, his proximate message was just as clearly one of unity, of breaking down barriers, of joining together to better understand one another. I think he eschews any labels, except for the implied one of "God's children" (with "children" in lower case letters).

  Right away, I can hear some of you protesting: "Jesus is the Messiah, and since following him separates us from all those others who wrongly think they are following God, we do need to identify ourselves, to separate ourselves from those others." I wonder if you need to, or even if you should. Here's where I stand: My basic beliefs are "christian." I believe in a god who (in some way) created the Universe, including us. I believe in a god who is not only creator, but is also a parental figure. [In other words, this god cares for us both as creations (pride of workmanship) and as individuals (children).] I believe this god has given us good basic training, and continues to make knowledge and wisdom available to us, even if we haven't always put that training to good use, and even if we don't ask for the available help. Finally, I believe that this god wants a closer relationship with us - in fact, a familial reconciliation - and has provided the means for us to have it.

  What strikes me about my beliefs is that, put in this raw form without specific religious identifiers or jargon, they sound to me very much like what most other "religious" people believe. I'm not as well versed as I could be on the religions of the world, but it seems to me that their stories of creation are all remarkably similar to one another. Their god (or gods) may be personal or stylized, but he/she/they are still concerned with the daily affairs of humans. Many religions have a belief in a life after death, and many believe in a process whereby humans are reconciled with their god(s). If I step aside from my own "christian" biases, and neutrally compare them with other belief systems, it's possible for me to see "Christianity" and many of the other religions as modifications (corruptions) of the original works and plans of one and the same god.

  But, you respond, Jesus himself separated US from all the others: "No man comes to the Father but by me." Well, maybe, but I think there has to be more to the story than we get from the Christians. I'm confused, because the only reference I have is the Judeo-Christian bible, which was not completed for hundreds of years after Jesus' time on earth, and clearly has many errors (the result of hand-transcribing ancient manuscripts one at a time), intentional changes from the original manuscripts, and (considering Jesus' own words) just plain unexplainable oddities. I'm left with a very large question: Would God - who everybody who believes in him/her/it agrees is wise and just -- have entrusted the eternal fate of all of humankind to a small group of people who God knew would corrupt Jesus' teachings almost as soon as he left the tomb, and would turn it into a message of division, rather than reconciliation? I can't believe it. 

  I'll continue to follow the teachings of Jesus to the best of my ability - without expectation of any heavenly reward, but just because they seem to me to be excellent teachings. And I'll continue to hold to the hope that one day we'll be physically reconciled with God - even though I don't think the Christian bible or any other book I know about clearly says how - or if - this will really happen. To all the other religious trappings of the Christians, I can't accept them: I am not a Christian.

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© Sanford Wilbur 2017