Religion, generally speaking, tends to create a slippery slope in the heart. Each religion informs its followers that they have "the truth," and this naturally leads them to feel superior to those with differing beliefs. Also, a religion tells its followers that they are saved and connected to God by devotedly performing that truth. This moves them to separate from those who are less devoted and pure in life. Therefore, it is easy for one religious group to stereotype and caricature other ones. Once this situation exists it can easily spiral down into the marginalization of others or even to active oppression, abuse or violence against them.
Timothy Keller: The Reason for God, pg. 4.
Perhaps you have heard the following Joke:
Do you know the three religious truths?
1. Jews do not recognize Jesus as the Messiah.
2. Protestants do not recognize the Pope as the head of the Church.
3. Baptists do not recognize each other in the liquor store.
I apologize to my Baptist brothers and sisters out there, but as with all cutting jokes there is a ring of truth to it. In fact, even when I pull up to the liquor store I wonder if I am going to run into anyone I know there and then be forced to explain why I am purchasing some hard stuff. I really shouldn't worry. Most folks around here have seen me have a drink on more than one occasion, so the fact the local pastor drinks a little from time to time is widely known.
Yet, there is still that little pang. Not because I believe I am doing anything wrong, but because I believe I might be judged unfairly. I feel like I might be judged as a tee-totalling preacher who says one thing and yet does another. (For the record, I have already said I do not believe consuming moderate amounts of alcohol is sinful.)
Why does such a thing bother me? Perhaps it goes back to the initial quote from Timothy Keller regarding religion. Oftentimes, our religious belief can indeed put us on a slippery slope to self-righteousness.
Christianity proudly proclaims that Jesus is the "way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through" Him. There have been many who try to soften Jesus' words and make Christianity sound more open and less exclusive. There have been many who out and out say that Jesus didn't mean one had to believe in Him in order to achieve salvation. I understand their reasoning. I know why they say such a thing.
Believing one has the absolute Truth can and very often does lead to an attitude of self-righteousness. It can and very often does lead one to believe that "I've got it, and that poor schmuck over there doesn't." It can and very often does lead one to begin viewing one who does not believe in the same manner as you as inferior--not worthy of the same consideration as you; as less loved by God.
It is exactly this spiral of beliefs that contributed to a couple of black eyes for the Christian Church, namely the Inquisition of the Middle Ages--where thousands of Jews, Muslims, and people of other faiths were brutally tortured and murdered simply because they were of another faith tradition--and the Russian pogroms where thousands of Jews were murdered simply for being Jewish.
Such behavior surfaces even in our day and age and is witnessed by Radical Islam. Islamic terrorists have no issues killing folks of other faith's. Those who do not adhere to the strict understanding of Islam are infidels, and if one is killed while killing infidels, one gets great reward in the afterlife. Is it surprising, then, that we have suicide bombers?
The examples I speak of in the previous paragraphs are indeed the extreme. Yet, you can easily see examples of behavior all along this slope. You have probably seen or heard fellow Christians who make snide comments about someone drinking, or smoking, or dancing, or engaging in some form of sexual activity. You might have heard snide comments of someone being less than accepting of others points of view. You might have even heard comments chastizing those who go to church but fail to help the poor, the hungry, the thirsty, or the sick and imprisoned.
Such comments are usually followed up by a refusal to engage or even hang out with the people they talk about. Folks don't want "sinfulness" to rub off on them. Soon, it becomes an us versus them situation, and we travel further down the slope.
While there might be some truth in the initial statements, generally, they come from a person who is lifting up their own willingness to do what others are not doing. There is a smidge of self-righteousness in their comments.
So, what is the cure for such an attitude? What is the counter-balancing force that leads a person away from the slippery-slope of demonizing another and separating one's self from them?
Two thoughts on that one. First, humility. Genuine humility. As Jesus commented, "Why do you worry about the speck in your neighbor's eye, yet refuse to remove the log in your own eye?" Remembering that one is a forgiven sinner who continues to live in sin works wonders. Intentionally looking for the log in one's own eye and seeing it lessens the willingness to judge another.
Secondly, intentionally seeking out and spending time with those who, in the words of Keller, are less devoted and pure in life. Yes, get to know and spend time with those who do not share your perspective on faith. Spend time and effort building relationships with those who don't attend church. Liberals spend time with conservatives, and conservatives spend time with liberals. Those who don't drink, spend time with those who do, and vice versa. And I don't mean spending time just to argue and become absorbed in one's "rightness." That's not forming a relationship. That's being self-centered.
Engaging others who do not share my own perspective on faith has been something I have tried diligently to put into practice. This is why, on occasion, I will head down to the local tavern in the afternoon.
Crossroads Tavern is the place all the locals gather to unwind after a busy day. They enjoy their beer there. The owner of the tavern is a church member, and she doesn't put up with unruliness. She won't allow you to go too far in your drinking--for this I have the utmost respect for her--and she won't tolerate obsene language or obnoxious behavior. Believe it or not, I feel very comfortable taking my kids to the place at all hours of the day and night for two reasons: 1. I know the owner and the environment she tries to create. And 2. I know the people who frequent there.
While some might look down their noses at the crowd who gathers to socially drink and relax, I have come to know them. I know many of their stories. I know their families. I know how hard they work to make a living. They are blue collar, rough around the edges, and oftentimes they smell of a hard day's work. They can cuss with the best of them, and they aren't afraid to let their feelings be known about a great meany things. Not many of them attend church regularly--if at all. None of them fit the stereotypical image of a Christian who has turned his/her life around after finding Jesus.
Yet, I have found they have a tremendous respect for God. They respect me. I've been offered drinks just about every time I walk in. A few times, I have joined them, but I only drink one. They respect the fact I don't judge them, and I think they don't judge me as someone who is holier than thou. A few of the folks have come to church. Some have even become church members. Many won't, but that's O.K. I don't mind. They are finding their way in this world, and even though they are not doing it in the path I am traveling, I have come to know them as good people. I know if I had a need, I could count on them despite the fact they do not share the same ideas of faith I do.
I don't think I could say those things if I acted in the manner Keller speaks about in his book. Religion can divide. Christianity can set a person up to act holier than thou and self-righteous. But, I believe that's only if a person picks and chooses what parts of Christianity to adhere to.
If a person follows in the footsteps of Jesus--who ate and drank with tax collectors and sinners--he or she will seek out those who are different and seek to form real realtionships with them. Not the superficial crap that many of our relationships tend to be, but honest to goodness friendships. It's much harder to demonize someone when you truly know them. And that's why I go to Crossroads Tavern.