Today was one of those days I am reminded how difficult it can be to live as a Christian in the United States of America.
I am not referring to any type of persecution, nor to defamation of character. Those Christians who claim to be under some kind of deliberate attack when social constructs or political entities don’t abide by their interests are woefully off base. American Christians know very little of religious persecution. For insight into what it really feels like, we might consider talking with the folks who worship at the mosque down the street.
At the same time, when I claim being a Christian in America is difficult, neither am I referring to the despondency many of my brothers and sisters have no doubt experienced since news of the Supreme Court’s decision on marriage equality broke. Despite what some may claim – and what will almost certainly be part of the talking points of many a Sunday School class this weekend – rulings such as this one are not the savage blows to our faith we fear them to be. The Church has existed – it has even thrived – in societies with all sorts of political, cultural, and moral norms that contrasted with orthodox teaching. Not only so, but in these societies Christians strove to live ordered, submissive, gracious lives within “the state,” even as they maintained devotion to the God they believed reigned far above it all (see 1 Peter 2). Sure, at times the state has viewed the Church as obstinate, but mostly in regard to the latter’s refusal to bow to idols, not a spurning of compassion for her fellow man.
So, what is it that makes being a Christian in America difficult? If days like today have not made me afraid or driven me to despair, what struggle do I face?
It is living with and within the tension that exists between so-called progressive ideologies and the presumed hallowedness of ancient, biblical tradition. It is coping with the desire to live as a faithful citizen of the country while remaining a person of religious conviction and depth. It is constantly evaluating how to embrace the celebrated little freedoms of the City of Man while clinging to the grand Freedom of the City of God. It is forever asking the question, “How much of this can I support… how much of that should I ignore… how much is too much?” As a friend and I were recently discussing, it can sometimes feel like you’re walking a tightrope, desperately trying to keep your balance amidst cries to declare allegiance to this theological viewpoint or that political cause.
An honest example: the more I reflected on today’s Supreme Court ruling, the less anxious I felt about the whole thing. I could not help but think that – after reading statements from both sides of the decision – perhaps this was the good thing so many people were hailing it as. Had I become a supporter of the ruling, rather than a dissenter? If so, did that mean I’d lost sight of my religious conviction? All I know is, whatever disagreements I may have with the core practice at the heart of the issue, I also believe strongly in justice, especially when it sides with compassion. I can only imagine the anguish that would come from having basic rights withheld from me – rights that, in reality, I have almost always taken for granted – simply because my lifestyle was viewed as depraved or, at best, sub-standard. And given that it is not the Church but rather the state that affords such rights, I have found it difficult to balk at the crescendo of voices calling for marriage equality in America. To me, it seems justified. And today my appreciation of such fairness held firm, despite those who claimed the definition of marriage (which, confusingly enough, so many people seem to have different source arguments for) had been defaced.
Of course I understand the “can of worms” concern – that this only creates stickier situations for the Church – but part of walking this tightrope of faith is being very, very careful to not give in to one’s emotions. How much of a reaction is too much? To give in to anxiety (“If they legalize this, what’s next?”) would be to step out of the Spirit’s provision of peace and faithfulness and instead plummet into the turmoil of stress and worry. To react in anger (“This country’s headed to hell in a hand basket!”) would be to squelch the fruits of joy and patience from my life, a costly abandonment. And to fall victim to fear (“This is going to ruin everything!”) would mean to lay aside love and self-control. If I’m not careful, in my effort to contend for my Christian faith, I could end up losing the very essence of it.
“We don’t get to be Jesus in the story,” tweeted my friend, Mark. “When it comes to morality we have two choices: deal with our own sin or drop our rocks and walk away.” Such is the tension I am laboring to describe. How much of the desire to resist the movements of our society is the inclination not of the Spirit who indwells our hearts, but the selfish old man who was evicted when salvation came? So often I find myself wondering if we Christians are just as guilty of the culture-defining adage, “Do what you think is right,” as everyone else.
It is irregular Christianity, this faith I live. It is not the bigoted Christianity of the skeptics, nor the uninvestigated Christianity of the folk believers. It is bigger than me, reaching to heights and depths far greater than I have the capacity to explain. It is like reading Joyce’s Ulysses or Proust’s In Search of Lost Time – there is more here than I will ever comprehend, so I must appreciate it for all that I will never understand as much as the little that I do. And within this glorious, vast orbit of faith, hope and love, there stretches on into the darkness of future time a tightrope. It is thin, straight and taut. I walk it slowly, carefully, with as much ease as I can manage. After all, one cannot successfully walk a tightrope under strain or with knotted nerves. I must remain calm. I must breathe steadily. My eyes must be clear and watchful.
And now that I think of it, it wouldn’t kill me to smile.