Easter is one of my favorite times of the year. This holiday always brings to mind the glorious promises of spiritual rebirth I associate with the new and vibrant life of Spring. Of course I would have trouble explaining the relevance of dyed eggs and Peter Cottontail to a Martian, but I enjoy holding these celebrations in my mind the month leading up to the first part of April, and like Christmas it provides another excuse to be thoughtful and kind to those around us. Contemplation on these holidays also causes me to reflect on what it means to be Christian.
Recently a number of friends were told they were not Christian. My friends are not all the same denomination, but each were told that for this reason or that, they were not Christian. An Episcopal was told she could not be Christian because she didn’t pray to Jesus, and another friend was told she was not Christian because she couldn’t articulate the doctrine of the Trinity. Some are told they are not Christian because they honor the faiths of others. I was chastised by an ecclesiastical leader in my own faith because I bore witness to the beauty of the Qur’an. This brings to mind a couple questions.
What makes a Christian a Christian?
Who gets to decide whether or not that’s valid?
A Christian, in simplest terms, is a person who takes on him or herself the Name of Christ.
Whether or not the person follows doctrines specific to anyone’s faith is beside the point – a person who calls himself or herself a Christian is a Christian.
Now I happen to believe that when a person takes that Name, there are certain behaviors we can legitimately expect. We can expect that person to follow the Golden Rule and, I believe, the moral and ethical expectations that are carried with the Beatitudes – a Christian will mourn with those who mourn and comfort those who stand in need of comfort, for example. I also believe a Christian would be the kind of person who would accept the idea that giving one’s life for a friend is the greatest love a person can demonstrate. Is a Christian perfect? That’s something which comes up occasionally in the media, where a person is attacked for having skeletons in his/her closet while claiming Christianity. Jesus said he was there for those who needed him, just as only sick people visit doctors – so I would be very surprised if all Christians were perfect. And those who paraded around claiming to be perfect would, I think, scare me a little.
I think it’s completely fair to expect a Christian to be someone who is trying to live the Beatitudes, who values the virtues of forgiveness and mercy, and who shows kindness to others and hopes to receive the same, and believes that there is a wonderful ideal of behavior, the striving for which can bring out the very best of humanity. That sounds, oddly enough, like the highest aspirations of every world religion. And that’s fine – a Christian is a good person, trying to become better, who labels him or herself as a follower of the teachings of Jesus.
Now, who gets to decide who else is Christian?
If a person is a member of a body of faithful, as in a church for example, there are rules, guidelines, and doctrines to follow – these are the structures of the community, after all. How closely the person follows those guidelines has relevance to his or her membership in that community, but doesn’t disqualify the person from being Christian. And how can a person from one faith community render judgment on the member of another, when the two communities have separate guidelines to begin with? If I’m not a Catholic but a Baptist, then I’m responsible to my fellow Baptists, not any members of the Catholic community. And my lack of understanding regarding the doctrines of another faith community should be an excuse for me to get to know their beliefs better, not give me cause to ridicule what I don’t understand. Conflict comes not from people following the teachings of Jesus, but conflict comes when people turn away from those teachings and begin arguing about who’s right and wrong in “interpreting” those teachings.
I have met Wicca practitioners who claim Christianity, as well as Secular Humanists. I know of those who follow Voodoo and see themselves as Christians, too. Although I do not understand the doctrines of their paths I am fairly certain we do not share all the same beliefs. But when I ask my Christian friends what makes them Christians, they tell me the same thing – they dedicate themselves to following the example of Jesus. The person two thousand years ago who fed those who were hungry, healed the sick, blessed a desperate fisherman with the best catch of his life, and looked for every excuse possible to do good to those around him. A Christian, I was told, is a person who enjoys making the lives of those around him or her better, happier, and more rewarding, because a Christian chooses to follow the words of a carpenter from Palestine.
And most interesting to me, the best things about a Christian are also the best things about a Muslim, a Jew, a Hindu, a Buddhist. When Mohandis Gandhi was asked his faith, he always said the same thing, “I cannot be any faith without first and foremost being human.”
The very best things about being Christian (or Muslim, or Jewish, or Hindu, or Buddhist) – are also the very best things about being human.