"He said I wasn't a Christian": teaching confirmation class at a liberal Episcopal parish
Yesterday afternoon (after the long run, before going off to Borat), I spent a few hours with our 2006-2007 Seekers Confirmation Class at All Saints Pasadena. We've got about 19 kids this year, and it looks like another wonderful group. The dear Susan Russell came to talk to us, and she was, as always, a hit with her candor, her humor, and her knack for turning the perfect phrase to appeal to adults and youth alike.
In our discussion, one topic came up that always comes up, and one that I haven't blogged on before: the common experience All Saints youth have of being told "you're not a real Christian." Especially in recent years, as All Saints Pasadena has gained national prominence for its fight with the IRS and our bold stance in favor of gay marriage, I've heard from many, many of the teens I work with that they have been subjected to some fairly hurtful remarks from school friends and classmates.
"You're not a real Christian"; "That's not a real church"; "You're the gay church"; "You don't follow the Bible"; "People at All Saints are going to hell" --every one of those comments was uttered to one or another of the kids in my confirmation class in recent months after telling people they attend All Saints Pasadena. Some of our teens met the scorn and derision with pride and defiance; others responded with a shrug; others were genuinely hurt; still others were frankly bewildered.
Few things make me angrier than to have the youth I call "my kids" told that they aren't real Christians. Kids may not be particularly interested in theology, but they are intensely sensitive to judgment -- and to be on the receiving end of so many unkind, cruel remarks is hard for many of them. The church in which they've been baptized, the church in which they are preparing to be confirmed, is under attack -- and for most of them, that means that their parents and many of the grown-ups they know and trust are also under attack. As a thirty-nine year-old, I'm quite happy to cross swords with a fellow believer who questions my salvation or my theology because I endorse same-sex unions; I'm less happy when my fourteen year-olds are told they are going to hell because they worship where they do.
Still, like most of my fellow adult youth leaders, I have no intention of instilling a "martyr complex" in our teens. I'm not going to give them the pathetic "the world hates us for our commitment to Christ" song and dance. One of the least attractive strategies employed by Christian conservatives is to insist to their youth that by adhering to antiquated social mores they are somehow being boldly counter-cultural; I'll be darned if I'm going to foist the left-wing version of that nonsense on to my teens. In a world where real suffering is omnipresent, being told "you're not a Christian" because you worship at an inclusive church is hardly a major form of oppression.
On the other hand, we don't simply encourage a "stiff upper lip". We reminded our kids yesterday that no one issues "Christian credentials." There is no agreed-upon litmus test. While some evangelicals insist that Catholics aren't Christians, and others refuse to acknowledge Mormons as our brothers and sisters in Christ, most sensible believers choose to see all who follow Jesus as authentic Christians. While part of being Christian is certainly holding the person of Jesus Christ as central in one's faith, it is absurd to suggest that only those who believe in biblical inerrancy, for example, are actual Christians. "Being a Christian is about being willing to be on a journey with Jesus", I said, "even if you aren't quite sure who exactly Jesus is and even if you are very unsure of where it is you are going."
Mind you, I think there are limits to who gets to call themselves a "Christian." My mother regularly told my grandmother she wasn't a Christian. My grandmother had been an atheist since she was a student at Berkeley in the 1920s; she read Lucretius (De Rerum Natura), and that did it for her. She rejected the whole idea of a loving God who took an interest in human affairs. Yet she insisted on calling herself a Christian because in her childhood, to be "Christian" was simply to be kind and good. It wasn't a theological statement to her -- it was a statement about how one behaved towards one's fellow citizens. "Doing the Christian thing" referred to taking an active interest in the well-being of others, and had damn all to do with a belief in Jesus. To the end of her life, she was both "atheist and Christian".
While I adored my grandmother, I think she was outside the realm of what a Christian is. A specific belief about the inerrancy of Scripture or sexual morality is not a prerequisite for calling oneself a Christian, a recognition that the person of Jesus of Nazareth is central to one's faith does seem to be essential to using the term accurately. As a youth leader and confirmation teacher, I want to bring my kids closer to Jesus. I want them to love Him not merely as a great role model for righteous praxis but as the greatest of friends, the best of brothers, the most intimate of lovers. That is how I know Him, and that sweet, intimate, spiritually erotic relationship is the most exciting and enriching of my life.
But whatever relationship this year's confirmation crop chooses to develop with Christ, I want them to know that their right to call themselves Christians, their "claiming of the name", is not contingent on any one particular worldview; any one particular political allegiance; any one understanding of how, when, where, and with whom it is good and right to be sexual. And this year, our confirmands will learn that no narrow-minded classmate or friend can rob them of the right to embrace the Holy Name.