This is in effect the question that Steve Kneale raises in his blog post on the original sin debate. He argues that Christians are in effect “mud.” We are no longer seen as the good guys, perhaps with some quirky ideas and practices but at least offering a little bit of light and love to our society.
I’ve seen a couple of people respond by saying that they don’t think this is completely true. They can sight examples of how they and other Christians are well received. This means that their friends speak in genuinely appreciative terms about them and their faith. It means that Christians do get kudos for running foodbanks or advocating for refugees.
However, I think this means missing a point. Stereotypically, racists preface their racist statements by saying “I’m not racist …some of my best friends are black.” The statement gets mocked so often that we can forget that those making it are speaking truthfully. They separate out the particular from the general. Therefore it is quite possible to be on friendly terms with the kind, polite immigrant, even helping them with their asylum claim whilst in fact participating in a culture and holding views that are hostile to the presence of immigrants in the community.
So too, we need to recognise a distinction between how individual non-Christians view individual Christians or churches and how our society views Christianity in general in terms of its doctrines and its culture. The response of people to the “original sin” debate shows as Steve rightly points out that our culture no longer sees the Christian message as a bit weird but rather as harmful. Why is that? Well I think its because far from being truly secular, our culture is in fact deeply religious. The result is that the response of many is less with the Greeks that the Cross is foolish and more with the Jews that is offensive.
Admittedly, we have not been helped by the misrepresentation of the Gospel by those who claim to speak for the church but in fact do not hold to the Gospel. If what people hear is that Christianity is about morality, rules and example then they will react to what is in fact an ugly and hopeless message, just as we would too! Yet, even when they hear us right we must be ready for them to be offended.
It means that whilst they may even appreciate the good and kind things we do, they question our motives for goodness and kindness and they think they can have those good things without the trappings our religion brings. They want people who care enough about life to be against the death penalty, war, climate change and negligent responses to pandemics but without our opposition to abortion and euthanasia. They want people who care enough about communities and families to support fostering, adoption and free school meals but without all that stuff about the sanctity of marriage between one man and one woman. They believe that our position on these things is responsible for abuse, suffering and mental illness.
As I said, this may not be what particular people think about particular Christians but it’s the cultural environment in which we function and its even more the case for our children at school and University. I believe that this is the point that those engaging in culture wars in the US are missing. They are so focused on fighting a battle believing the world around sees them as the good guys that they miss that their children are simply not equipped to survive in a hostile world. They assume they are the cultural majority fighting a defensive battle against the elite but they miss that their kids are the minority and have a choice. Their children and our children can either stand firm and get crucified (I choose the word intentionally) or they can give in and go with the world around them. If your kids haven’t truly heard and seen the Gospel in and from you. If they haven’t found real hope in Christ or if they’ve not been equipped to live in the world they find themselves in guess what they are going to do.
Now, here’s the thing. Whilst this may be a newish experience for Western Christians, it isn’t new to the church historically or globally. Our brothers and sisters in many other countries have never been seen as the good guys. The early church were not seen by the dominant culture as the good guys -hence Paul’s words about foolishness and offence. That’s good news because the New Testament (especially 1 Peter) has plenty to say about living in a hostile world where the dominant culture paints you as the baddies.