Monday, August 25, 2014

Who is a Christian (or a Muslim)?

Every label used to describe persons has to be defined to be accurate. For example, if we are asked whether we or others are Christians, our answer will depend on the definition of what being a Christian means.

There are at least three types of people who might be labeled as Christians.
(1) First there are those who can be called cultural Christians. These are the people born in what is generally considered a Christian country or a Christian community, so they are Christians because of where, or to whom, they were born.
Many such “Christians” were baptized as infants and were raised as part of a Christian culture. In most cases, being a cultural Christian is much like being, say, an American.
Thus, the label “Christian” is a result of birth, not choice. It has little to do with belief, although it usually involves following certain customs, traditions, and rites common in the community.
Of course, it is the same with Muslims: many people who are labeled “Muslim” are mainly cultural Muslims.
(2) Then, there are people who can be called confessional Christians. These are the ones who have made a conscious decision to be a follower of Jesus Christ, and that decision usually involves making a “profession of faith” and being baptized, or in the case of those who were baptized as infants, being confirmed after learning in a catechism class what it means to be a Christian.
Most of these people were born in Christian homes and/or in a Christian culture. But now they are more than merely Christians by birth; they are Christian believers through their choice to follow Jesus and to be identified with the church as the “body of Christ.”
Of course, there are many Muslims who are such by their deliberately choosing to follow Allah as revealed by Mohammad in the Quran (Koran).
(3) Further, there are some who can be called coerced Christians. These are the people who have been forced, usually by cultural Christians but sometimes, certainly, by confessional Christians to convert to Christianity.
Many of the “pagans” in medieval Europe were converted by the threat of the imperial sword, especially by Charlemagne. Non-Christians in Spain were forced to convert, leave the country, or face death in the Inquisition that beginning in 1492 was directed especially against the Jews and Muslims by King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella.
Those royal monarchs commissioned Columbus’s voyage. So it is no surprise that Columbus and the priests who went with him coerced “Indians” to be Christians. Later in British North America, many Protestant political and religious leaders did the same among Native Americans.
The same sort of thing has been a part of Islamic history from its beginning—and it is still occurring in Syria and Iraq, especially by those who are a part of ISIL, which is now often called the Islamic State (IS).
While many of us would like to think that the “real” Christians (or Muslims) are those who are confessional Christians (or Muslims), in reality there are far more cultural Christians (or Muslims) that those who are Christians (or Muslims) by their choice and commitment to Jesus (or Mohammad) and the Bible (or the Quran).
Accordingly, the clashes/wars between Christians and Muslims are primarily between cultural Christians and cultural Muslims, and their actions are often in serious conflict with the core teachings of their religions.
Thus, I think the President was correct when, in speaking recently of the tragic beheading of journalist Jim Foley, he stated that “ISIL speaks for no religion. . . . no faith teaches people to massacre innocents.”


  1. Speaking from the perspective of a sociologist, Leroy, I doubt that empirical studies of individual Christians and Muslims would find a stronger correlation between those involved in "the clashes/wars between Christians and Muslims" and your category of cultural Christians/Muslims--at least as you've defined them initially in this piece. In fact, I worry that the stronger correlation would be the reverse of that. To change the venue of examination to the cultural clashes in this country, I suspect we'd find a higher correlation between confessional Christians and the radical right with its support of gun toting, capital punishment, and militancy in foreign military affairs, among other things, than between confessional Christians and the more pacific elements of our culture. Speaking from a theological angle, the president's comment needs a qualification that "no IDEAL IDEAL faith, AS UNDERSTOOD BY ITS CORE TEACHINGS, teaches people to massacre innocents." But, of course, in their histories, as you so aptly point out, both Christianity and Islam have abandoned their core strictures against violence towards innocents. I doubt, though, that we can so easily dismiss these actions as those of the uncommitted--as much as I would like to do so.

    1. Anton, thanks for your thoughtful response. I sort of expected it and am glad to have this opportunity to think more, and to write more, about this.

      Granted, it is hard to make a clear distinction between cultural Christians and confessional Christians. But I maintain that the fighting, or the coercion, that has been done by Christians has been mostly done by those who were cultural Christians first and only confessional Christians secondarily.

      As I see it, so-called religious wars have rarely been primarily about religion. They have been far more about political (or economic) power. From Constantine on, is has been mostly Christianity linked to the state that has engaged in wars and/or coercion. Certainly that was true with Charlemagne, I think. And the Spanish Inquisition was led by the monarchs, although there were churchmen closely aligned, of course. The early coercion of "Indians" were by those acting to extend the Spanish Empire.

      Things were a bit different with those in British North America. Most of those who tried to coerce Native Americans to be Christians were confessional Christians, of course. But they were also seeking to establish a theocracy with Christians having political power over society. So they were confessional Christians seeking to form, often by oppression, a "Christian" culture.

      Christians who have not had, or been linked to, political power have not been instigators of clashes/wars against other religions or have not been engaged in trying to coerce others into becoming Christians. Of course, it is mainly the Anabaptists (with the exception of the Munsterites in the 1530s) and the Quakers that I am thinking of here. While some of them may be sub-cultural Christians, those groups as a whole have never been involved in violence or coercion.

      It is harder to know how to relate this to Muslims and fanatical groups like IS. On the one hand, one might say it is because of their commitment to Islam they are doing what they are doing. Still, and I think this is decisive, there are other Muslims and Muslim countries, such as Indonesia and Saudi Arabia, who are openly condemning IS. It seems to me that to a certain extent they are condemning them not in spite of their Muslim beliefs but because of their Muslim beliefs.

      So, again, when any group is seeking control over others by use of force/violence, I think that such activity should be seen as being primarily as the work of cultural Christians, Muslims, or whatever rather than by those who have confessed belief in the core teachings of their religion.

  2. This is a very important question. Sects within religions regularly dismiss those who are not of their branch. Although I would describe myself as a "confessing" Christian (in your terms), I have been rejected as a non-believer by various "confessing" Christians. The same is true of my Muslim, Jewish, and traditional Christian friends. Within Christianity, the same can be said of what is the Church. I hear some of the "reformed" Christians quoting Augustine, Luther, Calvin, Bonhoeffer, and Lewis. But if the truly knew what those men believed and practiced, I doubt that they would find them to be "Christian". Too bad the ecumenical councils are long gone.

    However, the opportunity remains for friendships to develop across the divides. I am thankful for my friends and acquaintances across religions and cultures

    1. Some confessing Christians not only think that cultural Christians, by and large, are not "real" Christians but also think that other confessing Christians are not "real Christians" either. This is what we see in fundamentalism: the "fundamentals" of the faith are set forth and then those who don't agree completely with those fundamentals are not considered to be true Christians. So the number of true Christians, in their mind, grows smaller and smaller.

    2. I have witnessed this personally with conservative evangelicals, progressive mainline protestants, and the traditional Church. Not all in those groups adhere to this, but it is common - more typically of the laity rather than the clergy, although one finds it across the board with clergy as well. As a Catholic priest friend put it, probably only about 20-30% of any Christian group are truly active followers in practice, but if they have not rejected the faith, God may be merciful to the others for their minimal faith.

      I don't know, I am not God. But it would be good for some Church unity and acceptance around the basics, such as the Apostles Creed. In my cynicism I don't expect that, but I have seen it in the past within a localized region.

  3. Here are more meaty comments by local Thinking Friend Eric Dollard:

    "Your categorization of Christians reminds me of a distinction made by Timothy Johnson in his book, "Finding God in the Questions: A Personal Journey" (2004). Dr. Johnson was the chief medical correspondent for ABC News; he is also an ordained pastor. I have no doubt that you are familiar with him. He distinguished between Christians, who believe in the divinity and resurrection of Jesus, and 'followers of Jesus,' who view Jesus as just an exceptional man and teacher. It is his hope that the followers of Jesus will eventually become Christians and I am sure this happens for some of them.

    "With respect to the Islamic State, it is ultimately the product of long misguided U S foreign policies in the Near East, policies based in large part on the politics of oil. If the Near East had no oil, it would generate about as much U S interest as Mongolia. But since parts of the Near East are awash in oil, we have supported regimes, no matter how corrupt or dictatorial, that protect our oil interests. Thrown into this toxic brew is the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, so the situation has become exceptionally complicated.

    "Of course, the Europeans also contributed to the mess in the Near East when they redrew the boundaries after WWI, boundaries that ignored ethnic realities. And we should not forget Saudi Arabia, which has had the oil wealth to push its Wahhabist and Salafist agenda.

    "Also, there is an interesting link between racism in America and Near Eastern oil, but that would require far more explanation than what an email will allow, so I will stop here."

    1. Eric, thanks much for your comments, also.

      I know who Luke Timothy Johnson is, but I don't remember hearing anything about Timothy Johnson before. (I have just put a copy of his book that you mentioned on hold at the RU library.)

      The distinction between Christians that he was referring to is partly that of the fundamentalists. Back in 1923 J. Gresham Machen wrote "Christianity and Liberalism," claiming that orthodox Christianity and liberal Christianity were two different religions. So my comments to 1sojourner seem to apply here also.

      I appreciate your comments about IS, which are different from what we hear mostly in the media now. This will be more for me to think about this week as I work on my next blog article.

  4. Towards the end of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says, in Matthew 7:21, "Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord' will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven." Jesus makes various parallels between saying and doing throughout his ministry. On that basis, he seems to come down on the side of saying that much of the problem is exactly among confessional Christians.

    Leroy's comments look at followers who are not confessional Christians, but not at confessional Christians who are not followers. Indeed, we all to an extent bring in our worldly understanding to inform our Christian understanding. However, sometimes that so distorts what it means to be Christian that it effectively ceases to be Christianity. Sometimes the outward form of Christianity becomes a screen behind which hides great error, and even evil. Think about the sex abuse scandals that have rocked Christianity (not just Catholicism) in recent years. Certainly Jesus never endorsed any such action against children or adults.

    The history of sectarian strife is so deep and wide that we can hardly ignore it when setting definitions. Personally, I would accept as Christian anyone who publicly confesses it. Anything short of that just leads to contention. However, as to how many Christians have found a path to the kingdom of heaven, well, that path is famously narrow. There, however, the job is not so much to judge the Christianity of others as to find our own way forward on the pilgrimage of faith. We have seen that lived out recently in the agony of Ferguson, Missouri. Lots of Christians all around, but not much kingdom. Just too much blood, lying in the street, calling out to God. Sometimes it seems humanity got from creation to chapter four in Genesis, and just got stuck. No wonder Jesus wept. The judgment due in Ferguson will be of criminal responsibility and community restoration, but I hope not of calling out who is a "true" Christian.

  5. Craig, as I have said many times, your comments enhance the value of this blog, for me and for others who read them.

    You are dealing with the same sort of issue, it seems to me, that the fundamentalists do: who among confessional Christians are the "real" Christians. While fundamentalists tend to say that it is those who believe the right things, what you are saying, I take it, is that "real Christians" are the ones who actually do what Jesus says to do. Thus, it is ethics far more than beliefs that determine who is a true Christian. I certainly tend to agree with the latter position.

    Still, even though there are many problems between, or among, different types of confessing Christians, they are still different, I think, from those who are primarily cultural Christians whose religion is subservient to, or supportive of, political and economic power.

  6. The following comments were posted yesterday by Thinking Friends Debra YS. (I deleted her comments by mistake as I was attempting to correct a mistake in my reply to her.)

    I'm with Anton, Leroy. The dangerous people in religion are those who adopt a zealous confession to die, if necessary, for their faith, accompanied by a corresponding commitment to kill for it too. As Mennonite Christians, we presumably adopt the former confession without the latter. That means that we are open to being victims and, more discomfiting, we open others, innocents, to victimhood whom we would not protect if it called for our own use of violence.

    What I might like you to address in your article on the IS is the role of media coverage and how the choices they make with regard to showing the depth of depravity affects our point of view. When I'd only seen mainstream U.S. coverage, I felt remote, removed from the conflict, and it was easy to disconnect myself from both the politics and suffering. It was easy to be Mennonite. Then I watched this:

    Having been a parent, I fully understand why many of the images on that video are inappropriate for the mainstream news here. On the other hand, I needed those images to jolt me into awareness. The training of the next generation of jihadists is particularly chilling. The utter lack of visible women in the IS also makes me ill. The only evidence that women exist in the above video is when a police officer of the IS affably instructs a Muslim brother to have his wife use a thicker fabric for her hijab, lest she be on display. It is clear to me that my Muslim sisters have very little influence in the conversation that is creating this movement.

    As a Christian, particularly a Christian committed to nonviolent resistance (one need not be Mennonite to be in that camp), I wonder what more I can do than pray for my sane Muslim brothers and sisters to subdue this problem, clearly a WWIII potentiality. What are my options, other than compromising my values to the level of the jihadists?

    1. Debra, thanks so much for your comments about yesterday's posting and also for giving me much to think about as I work on the next one.

      Please see what I have written above in response to Anton's comments.

      It is hard to know how to distinguish cultural Muslims from confessional Muslims. In USAmerican Christianity we are so accustomed to the idea of the separation of church and state that it is not so hard to say that those whose primary loyalty is to the state are cultural Christians while those whose are primarily loyal to Jesus are confessional Christians.

      But the view of the hard-line, radical Islamists is that there is no separation of mosque and state: they are completely unified. Thus, this new, most dangerous group is the Islamic State.

      Still, as I said above, since many other Muslims oppose the IS, I think they have to be consider more of a political (cultural) entity than a religious (confessional) one.

      Thanks for linking to the powerful video, which June and I watched yesterday evening. It was an alarming account of a terrifying group.

      I will keep your comments in mind as I work on my Aug. 30 article.

  7. Here are comments from Thinking Friend Truett Baker in Arizona. They dovetail in with some of the comments made above, but were were written before those comments were posted:

    "I believe it would be appropriate to sub-divide Confessional Christians into two groups:

    "First, those who believe in and are committed to the tenants of their faith and focus on correct doctrine as do the fundamentalists.

    "Second, those who believe in and confess the Person of their faith--Jesus the Christ. The dynamic of this group is love as opposed to correct belief."

  8. Here are significant comments from Thinking Friend Glenn Hinson:

    "Islam faces a critical challenge in regard to those who support terrorism with religious belief.

    "Christians struggled with the same problem for centuries. I don't know whether we have succeeded in overcoming it, but the dawn of modern approaches to scripture has helped. The U.S. model of religious liberty and separation of church and state depend on it.

    "So long as the theocratic model of church and state prevails we will face danger of lapsing into coercion. Sadly this model prevails in the thinking of some Christians."

  9. And here are comments from Thinking Friend (and boyhood friend) John Tim Carr in California:

    "Leroy, I especially like how and to the extent you go to paint the most Balanced picture on whatever subject you write. Your fairness has certainly reversed my thinking on certain matters.

    "In one of my recent Bible readings (2 Chronicles 15:13), I came across this verse that seems similar to what the Muslims are now doing. Is my thinking correct?"

  10. John Tim, thanks for your kind words--and for your pointing out the relevance of the Bible verse from 2 Chronicles.

    Some Christians point to passages in the Koran that "prove" that Islam is a violent religion, which is has been at times and is now under the Islamic State, but they fail to recognize that the Bible of Judaism and Christianity also has violent passages, such as you pointed out.

  11. The first third of the reformation era saying was "In essentials, unity". What are the essentials? I have heard polar views on this, but the central unity that I have seen centered on a creed, even among the non-creedals.