I just finished having a conversation with an old friend who attended the same college I did. He didn’t go into detail, but he said that things got really hard for him after I left and that he was still carrying a lot of that baggage today. I was his Resident Director during his Freshman and Sophomore years. His negative experience boiled down to a general judgment on the content of his character. This judgment came from the community around him. After hearing parts of his story, I felt a mixture of anger, embarrasment and sadness. I can’t help but wonder what drives some Christian communities to become so toxic when others are truly life giving.
Most of you know exactly what school I am talking about so I will add a little disclaimer. My own experience, while occasionally frustrating, was generally good. I was not one to rock the boat so I was never the target of this kind of thing. Don’t misunderstand; I actually have a great respect for my Alma Mater. I underwent a great deal of personal growth and experienced the setting of a foundation that has led to several points of transformation. But, I can’t seem to shake the image of confused Christians causing others to feel terrible about themselves — or at least attempt to make them feel that way. I also must confess that I spent my first year (or two) of college joining in with that “Shaming in the name of Jesus” parade. I say that with a great deal of humility and embarrassment. I only hope that I didn’t cause anyone to live with a lasting pain, like many of my friends have expressed.
The image of a schoolyard bully comes to mind. In most cases he/she feels like they have little worth and are dealing with tremendous pain at home. But, rather than learning compassion through their own pain, they transfer their own shame, insecurity, etc. to the weaker ones around them. They are convinced that this will somehow heal their own pain. Of course, it never does. It only offers the temporary relief of focusing on the misfortune of someone else as opposed to their own.
Really ‘Good Christians’ are sometimes no more pleasant to be around. Not only is personal piety a goal, but they feel a personal responsibility to expose the shortcomings of other Christians for the glory of God’s Kingdom. I am reminded of the valiant Christian hero who took note of the Resident Assistant’s having a beer *Gasp* at an Old Chicago. They documented the travesty and reported each name to our Student Life Office. Many of my friends lost their positions because of BeerGate 2007. Now, I recognize that my friends signed a contract committing to refrain from the consumption of alcohol. Truth is, those RA’s (contractually speaking) were in the wrong. What I can’t understand though is what drove the whistle blower to report them. What reward did they expect in this life or the next? I also lament the marginalization and shaming my friends experienced in the wake of this very public exposing of their decision to break their contract. Once again, I am left to ponder the question of what causes this kind of toxicity within a Christian culture — one that seeks to expose the mess in everyone else with such great passion. It doesn’t seem to reflect the attitude and character of Jesus Himself who befriended those breaking the rules and allowed His own reputation to suffer for the sake of those relationships. I would assume He didn’t necessarily condone the breaking of those rules, but the people doing the breaking mattered more to Him than the rules themselves.
It seems that, much like the bully, these folks are trying to heal themselves by policing morality. It seems that Paul’s transformation has done little to inspire many of us. Paul was a Pharisee. His entire life was built around an understanding of justification through obedience to the Law. His mantra after Jesus got ahold of him was justification through grace. Grace became the most important part of what it meant to follow God — not obedience and enforcement. In this view of Grace, befriending the sinner (according to whatever our understanding of sin is) takes precedent over exposing their sin and inviting shame to define them. When I look back at my years of shaming, I can’t help but notice that my view of others was a bit distorted by the huge log in my own eye. I only wish I would have understood that back then.
I want to issue a challenge to any Christian community. Take a minute to observe whether those who fall outside the boundaries of the agreed upon moral standard are experiencing isolation and shame. If you find that this is happening, and that maybe you are partly to blame, ask yourself if what that person is experiencing is rooted in Grace. Are you, as a ‘Little Christ’ welcoming the stranger, dining with the sinner, accepting the unclean person? Or are you, in the name of Christ, doing exactly what the Pharisees did — placing a heavy moral burden on those around you and threatening shame if they fall short?
One last disclaimer. I am not saying that morals are pointless or that you should remain silent if you feel that those around you are practicing moral corruption. I guess that I am saying that we need to adjust our approach in 2 ways. 1. We need to figure out whether we are actually confronting moral corruption or simply a lifestyle or choice we find uncomfortable. 2. We need to approach, even the truest corruption, with the same love that Jesus did. At times harsh words were used. Of course, those words were never uttered toward the morally corrupt prostitute, tax collector or criminal. They were reserved for those who believed their religious commitment elevated them to a level of acceptance with God that surpassed all the simpletons around them. I won’t lie, that sounds like a former version of myself. I thank God that I have learned to let go of these tendencies. For the sake of all my friends who have experienced deep shame and pain because of their experiences within their own Christian communities, I pray that many more like me will do the same.