We Christians should just shut up. If we criticize non-Christian institutions, policies or individuals, we are crusaders, forcing our archaic will on the world. If we comment on something that falls within our own Church, then it's Northern Ireland: in-fighting of the most despicable kind, evidence of our unworthiness as a faith. At least that's how it can sometimes feel as a Christian exercising one's right to free expression, even of religious views in the public square.
Last week, for instance, engaging in the debate over whether Anders Breivik was a Christian or not, I was told that Christians were in no position to define what a Christian is. If someone says they are a Christian, the argument went, then that is what they are and no-one has any right to argue. Which is an interesting way of looking at things. Wrong, but interesting. In such a world, after all, I could believe in the deity of Christ and await his physical return to earth while calling myself a secular humanist. And then Richard Dawkins would be annoyed. And nobody wants that.
My definition of what defines and constitutes a Christian is no doubt not exhaustive or transcendentally accurate, but I figure I have at least as much right to an opinion on the matter as someone who claims to reject Christianity. I mean, call me a Jesus-lovin' pansy, but if the 'Christ' in 'Christian' says, in the primary source of information about himself: 'Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven,' that sort of makes a nonsense of the school of thought that holds that we can wish ourselves Christian in a flash of rainbows and stars like something out of My Little Pony. Particularly since so many from that school think of My Little Pony as more ontologically convincing than the Christian Scriptures.
Of course, I'm speaking from an Evangelical perspective here. We believe a human being has to choose their faith, rather than having it thrust upon them. We believe this, partly because it makes sense within our culture, I'll admit, but also because much of that book about the Christ suggests it to be so.
It is interesting, perhaps fitting, that one of the great communicators of the Evangelical vision of Christianity, John Stott, died last week. If we are to live in a world in which no-one, least of all the adherents of a religion, has the right to define or articulate concepts from within that religion, then perhaps it was time for a man who did so much for the Church's understanding of what a Christian is to go.
The legacy of people like Stott is that Christians can explain (if not define) what a Christian is. But we should be careful not to do so simply to distance ourselves from unpleasant publicity. Saying, as US television sacremonger Bill O'Reilly did last week, that it is impossible for a follower of Christ to commit such a heinous act is nonsense. Christians have been responsible for heinous crimes, just as atheists (Stalin's purges, Shining Path, Maoists in Nepal); Hindus (attacks on Christians in Orissa, violence against Muslims in India) and Buddhists (attacks on churches in Sri Lanka) have at times been guilty, not just of committing crimes, but of being motivated by their religious (or nonreligious) views to do so. (Muslims, of course, may also have committed some crimes - I can't think of any because the media never focuses on them as if Islamism was the only form of religious expression on earth. No sir. Nobody focuses on it. Ad Nauseum.) But these aren't our problems as Christians in the West. Gay-bashing, forcing religion on others, and 'crusading' maniacs are.
Christians should be ready to apologise for our sins, and not in a 'this is the most humble day of my life ' sort of way. When they are pointed out we shouldn't deny or become defensive. We should admit our sins and repent. And where we have not been directly part of the sin but, as in the case of Anders Breivik, a culture that has permeated our churches may well have influenced the perpetrator of some sin (in this case the paranoid Islamophobia so popular with many of our churches and some Christian charities), we should look honestly at it and also repent. Whether the enemies of the Church will respect this is irrelevant. It is something we should do in order to make the Body of Christ, the church, more Christlike.
So, yes, we bear some responsibility for Breivik, because we have not vociferously enough denounced the demonization of a rival religion and a culture we have wrongly thought of as 'foreign'. And yes, though we may not be violent gay-bashers ourselves, insofar as our attitude to gay people subtly (or not so subtly) seeks to treat them as somehow more sinful than ourselves and exclude them or as our attitude to homosexuality itself (even if we believe it is a sin) seeks to make it a singular damning litmus test for faith or humanity, we are culpable. Similarly, even if our outreach to non-Christians is sensitive and positive in church, but we support (or do not speak out against) moves by Christian groups to force our religious views on all of society on matters of conscience as if Britain or America or wherever we live were still in the mythical once upon a time when we were all homogeneously Christian rather than a multicultural, pluralist society, then , yes, we do have to apologise for the Q'ran burners, the end of the world-failures and the Westboro Baptists among our number.
One of our biggest problems as a Church, however, is one which we have picked up from Western culture: a tiny concept of 'we', addressed in this post.
An edited version of this article appeared in The Baptist Times.