“I am a Christian.”
That’s a pretty simple statement, right? Just a declaration that you belong to the faith of Christ. It doesn’t require much explanation. People who believe that Jesus Christ is God are Christians.
Hold up a second. What about that statement, “Jesus Christ is God?” Well, that’s pretty straightforward too. Jesus of Nazareth, whom Christians call Christ (meaning the Messiah or Annointed One) was born about two thousand years ago as the fleshly incarnation of God, lived a brief life, and was crucified by Rome before appearing to his followers alive and well three days after his death, launching the Christian faith. It’s all very simple, and I’m sure I don’t need to elaborate any further.
Oh, why was he crucified? Because he taught things that contradicted the religious leaders of his own Judaism, claimed he was empowered to forgive people of their sins, and hung around with the dregs of the community. We good now?
Clearly, you still have a lot of questions about what I’m saying here. I could go into more detail explaining Jesus and Christianity, but I have other things that I need to do today, so why don’t you just Google around a bit? You know, do your own research. It’ll be fun.
Isn’t telling others about my faith one of the most important aspects of it? Oh, sorry, you’re confusing me with an evangelical Christian. They’re the ones who are all about telling everyone about Jesus these days. Other Christians tend to think there are more important parts of the faith, like helping the poor and needy.
So I guess that statement needs a bit of revision: “I’m a progressive Christian.”
What’s progressive mean? It means that I care more about fostering positive attitudes about community; working for racial, sexual, gender, class, and religious equality; and trying to demonstrate an ethos where harm to others is avoided as much as possible. It’s what Jesus has taught me.
Okay, let’s leave that weird one-sided conversation now and try to get into the meat of this post. When a person says, “I’m a Christian,” or, “I’m a Muslim,” or, “I’m an atheist,” they’re saying something very broad about their faith (or lack of faith) identity. These things are important to a lot of people, but they’re rarely statements that are really very precise. You have to add qualifiers and explanations ad nauseum to create a clear picture of what a person believes.
For example, if I were going to run on and on with the exercise I began with, I probably wouldn’t be happy with the statement until it read something like, “I’m a white, American, straight, cisgender male, formerly atheist, formerly evangelical, progressive Christian who doesn’t believe in hell or atonement theory.” It could get even more granular than that, but the more qualifiers and modifiers you add on, the more unwieldy it becomes.
Of course, those qualifiers and modifiers are all important because they provide essential information to explain my perspective on faith. Yeah, it’s work asserting them all the time, but it’s necessary as a reminder to myself that my perspective doesn’t fully align with that of everyone else who starts with the statement, “I am a Christian.”
Rachael and I have been talking pretty extensively about this phenomenon for the last month or so, and it’s gotten us thinking about the importance of labeling as a way to help ease the burden of placing so many addenda on our faith identities. The result of that is a (hopefully ongoing) series from the two of us discussing how seeking out faith labels can help refine the way we communicate our identities to other people (and to ourselves, because honestly, my personal statement is a mouthful).
Naturally, some things won’t be trimmed. All the modifiers explaining my identity as a human being are non-negotiable; I always need to identify myself as a white, American, straight, cisgender male, or else I’ll fall into the trap that the writer of this article has and assume that some or all those parts of my identity don’t color what I think of as objective truths about my faith (that’s an extreme example, but it’s a pretty good illustration of what can happen when you leave your personal statement at “I am a Christian”).
I’ll be turning this space over to Rachael in the next couple of posts so she can discuss her own perspective on this whole issue, and from there we’ll see where this leads. It’s our hope that this project will help us learn more about ourselves and about our friends and family in faith.