Saturday, November 1, 2008

What makes a point of view a *Christian* point of view?

Since I dabble in political philosophy and ethics from my little corner of the Middle East, I have looked back at some of my writings and wondered, “Am I presenting a Christian perspective on the issues I discuss, or merely a personal opinion?”

I tend to write in view of convincing the reader, without presuming that said reader refers to Jesus or Scriptures to guide his/her judgment and conscience. As a child of a Cartesian people, I try to argue logically and rationally for my point of view. Even if I may refer to the Bible or the example of Jesus, I don’t often state my opinion by quoting chapter and verse. “The Bible says it; I believe it; that settles it” is honestly not my way of presenting how I apprehend our human dilemmas. So, is there anything that makes my reflection and opinions more fitting with the identity and character of Jesus Christ?

As I try to answer this question, I need to consider different approaches that might frame a point of view as being specifically Christian.

Jesus says… The Bible says…
The most obvious, sometimes deceptive way of claiming that a position is a Christian one is to establish its credentials by referring to what the Bible says. There are some easy examples. The Bible tells us to tithe, that is to give back to God one tenth of our income. And Jesus says in the New Testament that the laws of the Old Testament (Torah) are not abolished. So, a Christian point of view on stewardship of our money should include tithing. Case closed.

Unfortunately, a lot of issues are not that clear cut.

Most Christian groups, for example, denounce divorce as un-Christian, based on scriptural principles. But Jesus himself—though he did not condone it—says that God authorized divorce in the Mosaic covenant because of the weakness of man, a weakness which (I have observed) remains to this day. Although I am fairly certain that divorce is not God’s purpose for a loving marital relationship, I do not find it obvious to always reject it as an alternative in some of the twisted relationships humans end up in. I remember a sad abused Caribbean lady married to a fiercely violent and alcoholic legionnaire. Adding insult to injury, the man, who was Caucasian, was racist and looked with disgust at the skin color of his wife and children. Not only did my parents recommend divorce, but they also helped her escape from him. The Bible doesn’t say to divorce racist alcoholic legionnaires, but I am still fairly confident that my parents did “the Christian thing” for this woman.

There are hundreds other examples to be found. The Bible says “Thou shall not kill,” but there are many exceptions to the not-killing rule accepted by many Christians, whether it is for war, the death penalty, or simply defense of one’s property. I am not saying those are necessarily my views, but they are rarely labeled as un-Christian. And neither are those who defend them at a loss to find “the Bible says”-arguments to defend their position. Whether in any situation the option to kill or not to kill is Christian, “the Bible says,” and “Jesus says” do not seem to assure us of having a Christian position. Actually, the Bible does say that some people ought to be stoned to death. Yet, I have not scheduled to participate in a stoning in the foreseeable future.

So, quoting Jesus or the Bible is not the solution. How about letting the church provide some wisdom in understanding God’s views?

The church says…
The body of Christian believers which constitutes the church has sometimes achieved wonders and taken positions of truth, charity and light at momentous times in history. But the church, institutional and historical, also has such an abysmal track record of getting it wrong, that the argument is barely worth addressing.

I have however been shocked to observe a number of people, probably overwhelmed by the complexity of moral issues, choosing to hide behind what the pastor, the priest, or the TV evangelist says. In that case a position becomes “Christian” because opinion leaders of official Christendom support the position. This is simple, convenient and un-taxing to lazy intellects. Of course this does great insult to the name of Christ. What was Christian behind Jerry Falwell supporting apartheid in the 80s? What is Christ-like in the Christian Zionists choice to conveniently forget the existence and rights of three million Palestinians? For that matter what was Christian in the anti-Semitism of church authorities in the first half of the twentieth century? What is reminiscent of Jesus’ grace when Christian leaders come out in support of a death penalty, which only occasionally kills the innocent, the (undefended) poor, or the intellectually disabled? What is inspired by the Father of light in the anti-social positions of evangelical leaders, which end up promoting disenfranchisement of the sick and poor and ever more gun deaths in American inner cities?

In the end, while we may explain that an opinion is “Christian” in that it reflects the views of a socially and culturally identified segment of population called “Christian”, the sad fact is that this certainly does not ensure divine endorsement.

So, maybe we just need to go directly to the source. Let’s have Jesus tell us what His opinion is and simply follow what He tells us. It should be simple enough, right?

Jesus told me…
If you’ve hung out enough in some corners of the Christian mosaic, you will be familiar with the pattern. “Jesus (or the Holy Spirit) told me.” After this statement, options for further discussion are seriously limited.

Of course, if Jesus did actually simply tell you, then who can argue that your view is a Christian one? But you may find many contrary people not entirely convinced that Jesus did tell you what you think he said; and before being convinced by your opinion, they may require that Jesus also tells them. For reasons of His own, He rarely does.

I am not entirely bashing the concept. I actually think that Jesus told me (not out loud) a number of things for the proper conduct of my personal life. But I ask no one to agree, disagree with me, or comply to rules and laws because of my personal convictions. However, when I write of justice, war and peace, basic human rights, or equitable access to health and education, I am trying to influence my reader at a minimum, and society if possible, in a direction that I judge more desirable, and yes more “Christian.” Not only does the “Jesus told me”-argument not hold a lot of ground in that effort, it also does not seem to be a very reliable way of finding the just tone in these complex debates.

But the idea that Jesus has something to do with Christian point of views has tautological merit at least. So how did the Man-God himself go about establishing his point of views during his days on earth?

The message and the messenger
Now, here comes a good spot to stop and look at what the Gospels tell us. Not just a verse or a quote, but the entire story, the entire revelation of who Jesus was, what he said, how he behaved and interacted with others and responded to their challenges.

The Bible tells me that Jesus was irremediably wedded to the truth. He spoke in and with love for his neighbors. He also spoke based on what the Father told him, but he did not shy from explaining the practical implications for his listeners. He referred to scriptures to support his position, though he used scriptures more to illustrate his points than to impose them. He called on people’s common sense and wisdom, debunking myths and lies and he did not hide behind scriptures or religious authorities. He even challenged the latter and offered original interpretation of the former. He also had a thorough understanding of his times, although he felt no urge to conform to the zeitgeist. It seems he systematically tried to provoke a response, an inner understanding and decision from his listeners. This is probably why people can find justification for the most opposite views in their reading of the gospels. Jesus avoided simplistic answers and let his listener pursue not only truth but ultimately the truth-giver, the healer, the Father. He referred to scriptures but also debunked “an eye for an eye,” a scriptural commandment of his father. He said that “salvation comes from the Jews,” but also recognized and gave credit to the faith of the gentiles. Whether he spoke of using swords against one’s enemies or paying taxes to Caesar, his position was one which led his disciples to greater trust, love, and dependence on God in each moment. His position was rarely—perhaps never—a recipe which could be applied without thought and moral courage.

The points of views expressed by Jesus are based on truth, love, the entire revelation of the Father brought down to a personal relation, the potential for wisdom and understanding from even the most lost of his interlocutors, and ultimately love of God and love of neighbor manifested in justice. It is basically impossible to dissociate the positions of Jesus from who Jesus is. Truth and grace come from the word, and the word is the messenger.

In search of truth, charity and justice
If we follow the example of Jesus, a Christian point of view should be based on a combination of an honest pursuit of the truth (a.k.a. a sound understanding of reality), love and respect for God, demonstrated through a love and respect of our neighbor, the pursuit of justice, a consistency with the entire revelation of scripture, a dissociation from both reductionist religious dogma (verses) and simplistic conformity with the political correctness of the day, and finally a willingness to challenge our presumptions, ego and cultural references, and to yield to a greater power and greater good.

Maybe the business of forming a Christian opinion is not a matter of labeling and branding them with biblical quotes, but a matter of being open to inner transformation, freeing me from prejudice, selfishness, pride, and blindness. It may be a matter of trying my best to be the neighbor of my enemy, to refer and submit to a Greater and Holy Father, who wants to transform me into a more honest, charitable, just, and loving intellectual person. To be Christ-like, my views need to be based on truth, charity, justice, sound mind and sound reasoning, whether I am a Christian or not.

This means that non-believers can frame the same positions, if they consider the truth honestly and are led by charity and justice. This also means that another authentic Christian may be honest in his/her pursuit and may form another opinion than mine, yet one that will also seek to be based on truth, charity and justice. The challenge if we work in a society will not be to “out-Christian” the opposition, but to work together to reach more truth, more charity and more justice.

The difference between a Christian point of view and one merely just and charitable comes not in the final position, but in the process used to reach it. Maybe this is why non-Christians, who “are a law unto themselves”, can have righteous and charitable positions, which are indeed Christ-like, while Christians can have unjust positions, which have no relation to Christ at all, even if based on a church commandment or bible verse. The difference between the Christian and the non-Christian is that Christians should not entirely trust their own ability to form a right opinion based solely on their human abilities. I need Christ, not so often to give me the final answer to the question, but to always overcome the many biases and flaws which prevent me from reaching truth, love and justice in my answer. To be fully Christ-like, my position requires my assent and submission to God’s loving challenge of my self-will and my personal biases.

In conclusion, if I want to defend a position as being Christian, I have to argue that it is based on: (1) a true understanding of reality, (2) on love of neighbor, and (3) on justice or, even better, grace. The inner process through which I let Christ form my views is personal. It is a process question. While it is essential to me, it is not for external marketing purposes. As he assists me, it suffices that I present my views based on truth, charity and justice. All God’s children—those who know or do not know him—can best be brought to reason on the weighty debates of the day, if at all, by arguing for these three simple but difficult principles.

Maybe we should worry less about having a Christian point of view, and challenge ourselves more about having a truthful, just and charitable one. As we pursue the latter, we will find that we reach the former.

Christ owns the patent on truth, justice and charity after all. But we don't own the patent on Christ.


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