Three days after the horrific shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT in December 2012, an influential Christian leader–the founder of a large conservative, faith-based conglomerate focused on the preservation of family values, a group which serves as the moral guide and voice for thousands, perhaps millions of people—made the following comments:
Millions of people have decided that God doesn’t exist, or he’s irrelevant to me and we have killed 54 million babies and the institution of marriage is right on the verge of a complete redefinition. Believe me, that is going to have consequences, too . . . I think we have turned our back on the scripture and on God almighty and I think he has allowed judgment to fall upon us. I think that’s what’s going on.
The speaker prefaced these comments with “somebody is going to get mad at me for saying what I am about to say right now.” No shit. When I read these comments, forwarded to my Facebook news feed from a third-party source, I didn’t know whether to laugh, cry, or punch the wall. I went to this organization’s Facebook page and asked simply whether any of the close to one million “likers” of that page were offended or embarrassed by these remarks (no response), then shared the link to this person’s remarks with my collection of Facebook friends, commenting simply that “Here’s why I have been hesitant most of my adult life to tell anyone that I am a Christian.”
The remarks particularly saddened me, because the religious perspective framing this person’s remarks reflects the religious world that I come from. These remarks would resonate with many, many people as an endorsement of what Christian faith requires. These are people who voted in huge numbers for Donald Trump in 2016 and continue to support him. They would also alienate millions of others as a verification of their opinion that “Christianity” is most often simply a code word for insensitivity, judgmentalism, and mindless rigidity.
As comments from my Facebook friends trickled in, a post from a close friend who has spent much of his life with his wife fighting in the trenches for social justice particularly caught my eye. Why are we so bashful about calling fundamentalists like this guy what they are–out and out heretics? My friend’s comment challenged me to think hard about a volatile concept—heresy. And the timing was perfect, because within a few weeks the spring semester began, and my two faculty teammates and I jumped with ninety freshmen directly into the world of heresy.
Our semester was filled with numerous encounters with heresy, from the conflict over the Arian heresy that produced the Nicene Creed, through the Crusades, to the Reformation and the wars of religion that followed. But I particularly found myself particularly drawn to a story I first read to my sons years ago when they were young, from the insanely brilliant mind of Dr. Seuss. In one of his classic tales we are introduced to the Sneetches, creatures who look like yellow squashes just off the vine with arms, legs, faces and wisps of hair.
They have an interesting problem. All sneetches look exactly alike, except that some of them have a five-pointed star on their bellies, while some of them are starless. As sneetch culture has developed, the star-bellied sneetches have come to consider themselves as vastly superior to those lacking stars, excluding them from star-bellied sneetch games, conversations, and generally rejecting starless sneetches as second-rate in all ways.
To the rescue comes an itinerant inventor, who creates a “Star-On” machine that will painlessly put a star on the belly of a starless sneetch for a nominal fee. The starless sneetches flock to the machine, pay their fee, and emerge indistinguishable from the high-minded star-bellied sneetches. This upsets the original starbellies greatly, as it eliminates visual verification of their clear superiority. Once again the inventor comes to the rescue, inventing a “Star-Off” machine that will remove the star from a starbelly for a slightly higher fee. The original starbellies come in droves, have their stars removed, and once again have a visual indicator—lack of a star—separating them from the inferior originally-starless-who-now-have-stars sneetches.
Which, of course, causes the originally-starless-who-now-have-stars sneetches to have their stars removed in order to once again be indistinguishable from the originally-star-bellied-who-now-have-no-stars sneetches. And so it goes, with vast lines of sneetches looking to have stars removed and equally vast lines of sneetches looking to have stars put on. Before long, none of the sneetches can remember who started with what or why it mattered in the first place, while the inventor sneaks out of Sneetchville a rich man.
The original story was intended as a commentary on prejudice, particularly anti-Semitism. The sneetches, as all of us, are more interested in marking differences, drawing the lines between “us” and “them,” than in embracing similarities. Now apply this natural “divide-and-conquer” tendency to a high stakes issue like belief in God. In such instances I not only want to believe that I’m right, I also want to clearly define the boundaries between those who agree with me and those who don’t. Returning to Sneetchville for a moment, if an important symbol of my belief system is a star, for instance,I don’t want to include those whose star looks funny,who include a crescent moon with their star,or those who don’t even think a star is important.Orthodoxy is ultimately about certainty and purity, and those who do not cut the mustard fall outside the camp.
I suspect that what matters most is not so much what separates the orthodox believer from the heretic as that something does. In the early centuries after Jesus, for instance, the very questions What does it mean to be a follower of Christ, and what is such a person supposed to believe? were completely unsettled. If Jesus was the Son of God, what exactly does that mean? Did the Father create the Son as a creature something less than fully God, or is the Son substantially equal with the Father? The Arians believed the former, while Athanasius and others believed the latter. There was rioting and blood-letting in the streets over this issue.
Finally the emperor Constantine called clerical representatives of the various sides together at Nicea in 325, insisting that this debate be settled. When the main document produced from this council, the Nicene Creed, proclaims that Christ is “eternally begotten of the Father . . . true God from true God,” we know who won. Athanasius and his group are established as the standard-bearers of orthodoxy, while the Arians lose and forevermore are regarded as heretics. Just as the winners get to write history, they also get to establish orthodoxy. A good definition of “heretic”: Someone who lost an important theological debate.
But in my daily life, I’m not sure that the decision at Nicea about what is orthodox and what is heretical makes any difference. Is being sure about the Son’s ontological relationship with the Father a prior condition for my bringing Christ into the world more effectively today? I sure hope not, because such certainty escapes me. For me to call anyone a heretic, even the person whose remarks concerning the tragedy at Newtown so offended me, would mean that I am so certain about what my faith requires me to believe that I am able to clearly identify those “Christians” who have not earned the name. It means I can sharply identify the boundary separating those who are “in” from those who are “out.”
But I have no such certainty and clarity. At a seminar I was leading a decade ago with a number of fellow resident scholars at the ecumenical institute where I began pressing my faith in new ways, a colleague asked me “Don’t you have to believe something with certainty if you’re going to call yourself a Christian?” my immediate intuitive response was “I don’t know—do I?” And if the alternative is signing on the dotted line of orthodoxy, that’s still my response.
I call myself a “free-lance Christian” because I find that my Christian faith continually leads me to ignore, or entirely fail to see, barriers that could not be crossed within the Christian doctrine I was taught. What appalled me and continues to appall me about the Christian leader’s comments about Newtown is not his violation of Christian doctrines, principles, or orthodoxy but his spectacular insensitivity that was a violation of basic humanity. If my Christian faith means anything, it means learning what it means to be fully human with holy energy.
I find no room in my faith for the concept “heretic.” I don’t have the kind of certainty and clarity needed for that to be a meaningful concept, nor do I want it. Many years of being told what I “must believe” in order to be a “good Christian” produced nothing but frustration and a person ready to walk away. Learning that it’s not about a list of things to believe, but rather about bringing the divine into the world, has changed everything.