I remember attending the annual music evening at a local primary school in support of a cousin who was performing a solo item on violin — Bach’s Minuet 2 in G major. The plastic violin squeaked and wailed through a rendition that will surely have left uninformed audience members with the belief that J. S. Bach is an ultra-contemporary experimentalist rather than, in fact, the Baroque master of fugal harmony.
Judging Christianity on the behaviour of Christians who misact is akin to judging a Bach minuet on a beginner violinist’s attempted performance. Neither the Christian’s deplorable deeds, nor the violin student’s poor intonation worthily demonstrate the majestic traditions they represent. For this reason, we must fight the temptation to dismiss Christianity, and Bach for that matter, out of hand. I am convinced that it is more intellectually sophisticated to judge a subject holistically, with a focus on relevant facts rather than on flaws, however glaring and inexcusable they are. To do so is certainly not to ignore any atrocities but rather to recognise that these are not emblematic of the subject’s character as a whole.
What are the atrocities I’m thinking of?
While the European Crusades of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries are salient historical examples of Christians behaving badly, sexual abuse of children by the institutional leaders of the Christian church is front and centre, currently being exposed by the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. What makes this perpetration of sexual violence that much more heinous is the blatant misalignment of this behaviour with purported Christian ethics.
Among my friends, one of the most common objections to investigating a personal Christian faith is their repugnance towards this kind of horrendous and hypocritical behaviour. Add to that the overwhelming volume of bad personal experiences with the church, and Christianity is promptly Public Enemy No. 1. We’re a society that hates hypocrisy and we find that there’s a lot of it to expose when it comes to Christianity.
Making excuses is certainly not on my agenda.
Rather, as someone who wants to see everyone give personal faith a chance, I think it’s crucial to tease apart, with clarity and respect, what Christianity is really about and the ugly misrepresentations on display in the public arena.
What is the essence of Christianity? It’s certainly harder to look beyond the tragic shortcomings of Christians to see what draws two billion people to associate themselves with Christ. But with numbers like that it may be worth even a cursory investigation. I believe it would be a mistake to dismiss Christianity altogether on the basis of the shameful behaviour of some clergymen, though doing so would be very easy. Perhaps the only good that could come from this present atrocity is the clarification that these clergy are not in fact embodying true Christianity.
So, what is the embodiment of true Christianity?
Perhaps the question should be rephrased.
Who is the embodiment of Christianity?
The namesake of the faith is, after all, neither a place nor an ideology but an historical person, Jesus of Nazareth, a first century Palestinian who Christians believe to be concurrently fully human and fully divine. Examinations of the historical accounts of his life confirm that Jesus stands for moral purity (Matthew 5:27-30). They confirm that he has great tenderness and respect for children (Matthew 19:13-14) and that he takes abuse of the vulnerable extremely seriously (Luke 10:25-37). Jesus’ biological brother, James, a leader of the first-century church, points out that the leaders of Jesus’ followers are held to the highest standard of accountability to God. One probable reason for this is that leaders, that is to say, clergy, model Christianity in a very visible manner: their behaviour influences not only the public perception of Christianity, but also the views and behaviour of (usually unreflective) Christians who follow their example. “Not many of you should become teachers , my fellow believers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly” (James 3:1).
I must reiterate that making excuses for the inexcusable behaviour of misguided Christians is not my agenda. Urging participants in public discussions about faith to pursue informed opinions is. I do not contest that the church — its leaders and its members — has a lot to answer for. But answer it must, and as The Gruen Transfer’s Todd Sampson aptly pointed out, Jesus is the best thing church has going for it.
My appreciation of Bach has been resurrected by Isaac Stern’s other-worldly performance of the Chaconne in D minor.
In a similar way, refocusing public faith-related conversations on Jesus may clarify and contextualise important discussions about the essence of Christianity