Thursday, 3 November 2011

What about religious hypocrites?

My friend Mucky was in the U.V.F., before he became a Christian. That terrorist organisation may have claimed that they were fighting 'for God and Ulster' but God had very little to do with it. Indeed, those above him were unimpressed about his conversion, and his new found faith led him to renounce violence. A lot of people claim that there is a link between religion and hatred, and cite Northern Ireland as part of their case. The truth is more complex. I believe that the 'troubles' were more about tribalism than alternative understandings of the Reformation.

That is not to say that there haven't been acts of evil committed by those who are sincere in their religious beliefs. I am sure there have been fanatics who believed that they were acting in line with God's will as they blew up abortion clinics. However, I think such people are mistaken in their logic. Similarly, I have met people who claim to be Christians yet whose attitude towards other groups was marked by an underlying bigotry.

Christianity and terrorism are incompatible. I do not want to deny that there are difficult texts in the Old Testament where God instructs his people to carry out acts of war. But it is important to note where we are in God's direction of his people. God's people are no longer associated with a holy nation and a holy land. God's people are no longer commanded to carry out his judicial sentence on evil nations. Christians are called to be subject to the states in which they find themselves resident (Romans 13). The case of when a nation is justified in going to war is more complicated. However, the church is never called to ‘holy war’.

What about the Crusades? Yes, they are a terrible indictment on organised religion. I don't know enough about them to judge the sincerity of those who ordered them. Perhaps they were driven more by political and economic ambition than devotion to Christ. Unfortunately they are a blemish on the name of Christianity.

There are some things worth keeping in mind.

Firstly, not all who claim the name of Christ are actually Christian (Matthew 7:21-23). There will be some people who are fanatical for a 'religious cause' who are not ‘born of the Spirit’. They may claim allegiance to Christ but they neither have the desire or ability to truly follow him. Those whose lives are marked by hatred, bitterness and unforgiveness should not be confident about the coming Day of Judgement.

Secondly, some people do evil knowing that the evil they do is inconsistent with the faith they protest. Take a priest who engages in child-abuse. Such an act is evil and inexcusable. But surely most of those who did these things knew that they were acting against the faith they professed. Again those who claim to be Christians but whose lifestyle is inconsistent with the rule of Christ have no reason to be confident of their standing before him.

Thirdly there is the problem of ignorance. Take those who justified a system of racially-segregated churches. The argument simply does not stand up to the teaching of Scripture, which tells us that all are made in the image of God and that believers are a part of one new family (Gen. 1, Gal. 3 and Eph. 2). Some might point to past ignorance and say that we need to be careful about being dogmatic about what we believe. I see it slightly differently. We need to ensure that we rigorously examine what we believe in the belief that truth matters and that error can distort the witness of the faith.

All evil points to our need of Christ. The Christian should be the first person who acknowledges that evil is not simply a problem of other people, but that we all have failed to live up to even our own standards (yet alone God’s perfect standards). Sin is not just the preserve of religious hypocrites. Some of the most awful atrocities were committed by anti-religious regimes like those of Stalin, Mao and Pol-Pot. The Bible’s diagnosis is that sin is something that all people are guilty of. All people need forgiveness and Christ took upon himself human guilt that people can be forgiven.

Yes, Christians shouldn’t be creeps. When we handed our lives over to Christ he gave us his Holy Spirit and is transforming us into the likeness of his perfect self. As has been pointed out, if a person claims to be a Christian but doesn’t show any evidence of change, or ignores Christ’s way of love, then it is doubtful that actually have been born again. But the Christian also knows that they are not perfect. We are works in progress. We are being transformed. We still battle the sinful nature and often fail. But we delight that God continues to forgive us. No Christian should claim to be without sin.

So my final plea to those who see my hypocrisy, and a difference between what I ought to be and what I am, is to ask you to look away from my imperfections and look to the one I say I follow. Please don’t write off the perfect person of Jesus because he shows such patience with imperfect people like me. Please see that he is willing to forgive your hypocrisy as well as the hypocrisy you see in others.

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