Tuesday, January 1, 2008

What Does Being a Christian Mean to You?

I wish someone would do a survey of the main five elements Christians believe their religion demands of them. I would truly be curious to know how behavior is determined by faith. What is it Christians believe Jesus expects from them?

This applies to me on only a marginal level. I have my own quirky beliefs that don't really match up with any particular denomination - and my bottom line is that no one really knows for sure. Still, even in my doubt, I have certain basic assumptions. My five are:

1) The Golden Rule - if you want to cut right to the chase of a faith system, you probably can't go too far wrong with "do unto others as you would have them do unto you." It states in one simple, elegant sentence the ideal of most major religions.

2) With power, comes responsibility to be fair. Anyone who holds power over someone else, be it parents over children, animal owners over their pets/livestock, the judicial system over those who fall into its influence, employers over their employees, etc. have an absolute moral duty to use that power justly.

3) Tolerance - The God I choose to believe in expects His/Her practitioners to extend tolerance to those who are different from themselves whether that means skin color, religion, culture, language or sexual orientation And tolerance goes farther than simple tolerance, but includes sincere attempts at understanding.

4) Concern for the Less Fortunate - It has always seemed to me that one of the Bible's key teachings is compassion for the poor. There are many more lessons about helping the poor than there are about, for instance, homosexuality.

5) Stewardship of the Earth - If there is a single reason I believe in a Supreme Being, it is the absolute miraculousness and interconnectedness of this Earth and all the living things that walk, fly, swim and grow upon it. It is as if we were given an incredible gift but have so little respect for it, that we throw it out in the yard, unconcerned as gets dirtier and more battered by the day.

Okay, so those are my main beliefs about life. I frequently fail in putting them into practice. Sometimes, I feel vengeful about wrongs that have been done me or others. Sometimes I feel sorry for myself regarding the things I don't have rather than grateful for the things I do have. I have my moments of envy and of anger. But, still, such as I am able, I try to live consistent with those five beliefs and I am aware of it when I falter.

What has stirred my curiosity about the beliefs of others and what it means to them in actual practice is politics - because, it seems to me, there is a huge disconnect between modern politics and faith. I truly would like to understand how so many people seem able to balance what seem to me to be conflicting beliefs.

This seems particularly true of the Republicans. To a large extent, the Republican party has been successful in branding itself the party of Christian values. But what values are those? If you have watched all the presidential debates, as I have, you have to have noticed that the Republicans are considerably meaner than the Democrats in many different ways. They seem more prone to seeing war or at least some kind of violent response as the answer to all our geopolitical differences. They are much more favorably disposed toward torture. The Republicans have much more of an "every man for himself" attitude toward economic policy which extends even to children (i.e., health care). They are more judgmental about differences in humans. They may say that when it comes to gays, "they hate the sin, not the sinner" but the actual legislation they propose has the practical effect of punishing gay people and their families, leaving them far short of being able to "pursue happiness". Republicans are more approving of capital punishment and/or harsh sentencing than Democrats and more hostile toward working out any kind of amnesty toward illegal aliens, even those who have lived here a long time and contributed positively to our society. Republicans, over all, seem more unconcerned about the wounds we are inflicting on this earth.

I'm not necessarily saying all these views are either good or bad or right or wrong but just that they seem to against the very essence of Jesus' teachings and I don't know how those who believe them reconcile the two philosophies.

I'm not one who believes churches shouldn't engage in politics and to try to influence legislation. Both black and white churches were in the forefront of abolition and later, in the civil rights movement. Those were principled positions and the churches felt faith-bound to pursue them. I even understand the power of the anti-abortion issue. I don't agree with it but if you truly believe that life begins at conception, then I guess there's not much room for compromise.

But I asked someone whom I believe to be very genuine and devout about her faith if her church had discussed torture and the appropriateness of our country engaging in it and she said no, that she'd never heard anyone mention torture. I found it stunning that churches, the very arbiters of social morality, would not engage their members in such a fundamental issue of right and wrong? It's all very well to collect alms for the poor and declare yourself good but isn't insisting that your country maintain standards of righteous conduct that America has always stood for a much more important mission?

If Christians have the faith they say they have and if they believe that God is on America's side as they so frequently do, then it seems they would practice what he preached and believe that everything will turn out right in the end.