In “Slander,” from her latest collection of essays, What Are We Doing Here?, Marilynne Robinson writes that when she applied for the faculty position at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop at the University of Iowa where she spent her teaching career until her retirement in 2016, the job description said that candidates should be able to teach the Bible as literature. And so she did—something that I also have the privilege of doing as a professor at Providence College. She notes, though, that this often made her students uncomfortable, not because they didn’t appreciate the value of understanding the literary importance and influence of the Bible, but for another reason entirely.
Many of them were uncomfortable at being seen carrying a Bible on campus because the groups who have been so successful at claiming Christianity as their own exclusive province have also been successful in associating it with intolerance, guns, and hostility to science, among other things.
Although I was born and raised in a conservative, evangelical Christian world, I spent much of my adult life keeping my Christian faith to myself as much as possible, at least partially for the reason Robinson describes. I have “come out” as a progressive Christian publicly over the past several years, but I still often wonder how it is that Christianity’s “brand” has become so twisted and tainted.
Robinson wonders the same thing—her reflections over the past decade on precisely how Christianity’s supposedly good name and reputation has been lost are among the best I have read.
In “Awakening,” from her 2014 essay collection The Givenness of Things, Robinson writes that
What some have seen as a resurgence of Christianity, or at least a bold defense of American cultural tradition . . . has brought a harshness, a bitterness, a crudeness, and a high-handedness into the public sphere . . . Its self-righteousness fuels the damnedest things.
Two years before the 2016 Presidential election, Robinson observed that “the word ‘Christian’ now is seen less as identifying an ethic, and more as identifying a demographic.” The role of millions of self-identifying Christians in electing Donald Trump as President is so well-documented that for the last several years, the name “Christian” has come, in many people’s minds, to be synonymous with “white person (most likely male) who voted for Trump.”
For many professed Christians, “Christian” is used to justify a certain type of tribalism, a dividing of oneself from “Others” of various descriptions, and to energize a defensiveness that seeks to convince us that Christianity is a persecuted majority. In “The Sacred, the Human” from What are We Doing Here?, Robinson writes that
There is a large, loud faction who represent themselves as Christians, while speaking and acting with such contempt for “love your neighbor as yourself,” this most difficult commandment, that they have erected a sham moral system based on the principled rejection of it.
In what ways does this “sham moral system,” identified by many as compatible with Christianity, differ from the basic principles of an ethic built from the Gospels? Most basically and profoundly, the Gospels identify each person, regardless of race, gender, social status, power, or homeland, as equally valuable and precious in the eyes of God, as bearers of the divine image. Evidence in action of recognizing this truth, according to Jesus’ reported words, include clothing the naked, giving drink to the thirsty, and beating our swords into ploughshares. The words “stranger” and “alien” never have a negative connotation in Scripture, nor are the poor, disenfranchised, homeless, widows, or orphans ever the recipients of anything less than divine attention and love.
Somehow this essential foundation of a Christian ethic has been replaced with a “Christianity” that is more of a tribal label than a faith that aspires—imperfectly, because human beings are imperfect—to lift and unite human beings rather than to judge and divide them. The “Good news” of the Gospel is truly good news, and as Robinson points out, this is a message that the world hungers and thirsts for. But the “Christianity” that has become a tribal label for those who are “in” and an instrument of offense to those who are not is something entirely different. In “Slander,” Robinson writes that
Christianity is not scorned or rejected because it is the Gospel of faith, hope, and love but because this Christianity of theirs, on whatever pretext, is determined to bring bad news to the poor and the stranger, and is even self-righteous about this . . . the faith they urge on the rest of us is precisely deficient in Christianity. If slander is a factor in all this, the first object of slander, the one traduced, is Jesus of Nazareth. And this is not the work of the atheists.
To be fair, the attractions of tribalism are clear and obvious. The desire to belong, to be accepted, to know who is part of one’s group and to seek security and comfort in like-mindedness is a fundamental part of what human beings are. The problem with the Gospels is that they run contrary to many of our most natural and hard-wired human tendencies. As Robinson writes in “Awakening” from The Givenness of Things,
Christian ethics go steadfastly against the grain of what we consider human nature. The first will be last; to him who asks give; turn the other cheek; judge not. Identity, on the other hand, appeals to a constellation of the worst of human nature. It is worse than ordinary tribalism because it assumes a more than virtuous us on one side, and on the other a them who are very doubtful indeed, who are, in fact, a threat to all we hold dear.
To anyone who is inclined to attempt fitting their Christian faith into political and social straitjackets of separation along economic, racial, or nativist lines, remember from “Slander” the following crystal clear message from the Gospels.
In the great majority of cases, a sin is injury done to another person, other people, who, we must assume, God loves at least as much as he loves us. The loving-kindness Jesus models for us is very largely a matter of feeding and healing those in need of such care . . . Jesus makes it clear that he is one among the hungry, the thirsty, the naked, the imprisoned . . . After all, in order to identify himself with them, he parted the heavens and became a slave obedient unto death.
Christianity is not a brand or a demographic. It is a life, a commitment that cannot and must not be violated by separation, defensiveness, or fear. When great things are at stake, Christians should think and act like Christians. This would mean practicing self-restraint, curbing our speech, and remembering that all people, even those with whom we disagree most strongly and from whom we are most different, are owed the respect due to the divine image.