Like many people who would not consider themselves Christian, I as a Christian have grown to dislike much of what passes as Christianity. If it’s not one thing, it’s another. Talk-radio clichés parroted by the Christian right; the ideological liberalism of the Christian left – both seem to me as different from a gospel-shaped wisdom as night is from day. And far too much privatized pietism and the Hellenistic dualism remain to be swept from our minds.
Inside various kinds of church leadership for decades, I have seen churches run more like business enterprises, psychology sessions, entertainment centers, or political enclaves rather than as sacrificial, life-giving biblical communities working for justice. I have worked in the Christian publishing industry for thirty years and been burned more than once by publishers increasingly organized around the gods of gold and silver more than the God implied in their founding principles. Like churches that follow a similar path, staying committed to “staying in business at all costs” is costing them dearly: the fear of the Lord.
People who are not Christians are not stupid. They pick up on this stuff that we try to pass off as Christian, and they see through it. All sorts of bad rumors about Christianity – many are deserved – have lodged in people’s minds as obstacles to seeking a gospel-shaped wisdom for the ills of the world. When nonChristians see us as hypocritical, irrelevant, simplistic, offensive, or even comic, we have stripped ourselves of our prophetic calling in the realities of contemporary life and end up with little public relevance.
Rather then being voices and samples of biblical truth, healing, and justice to a nation of drifting sinners, exhausted ideologies, and failing structures we too easily take our cues from the world system (already judged by our Lord). What is a transforming vision organized around the principle of a sacrificial life to us? We Christians thus deprive our communities and nations of true insights into their problems. Are we not, then, “wretched, pitiful, poor, and blind”?
Alternatives will have to arise, and many are, but the extent of what needs to take place often seems like a pipe dream to some of us. However, I have been talking in broad categories and abstractions here, but those are not what one meets in real life. There, it is people we meet. People with wounds from Christians. I believe that before we will ever be able to get a fair hearing from such people for whatever truly Christian alternatives we have on offer, we ought to start apologizing publicly for doing so badly. And I think that those of us who are public Christians have a special responsibility here. I have personally seen such wounds healed through a public apology.
Some years ago while traveling and teaching about a Christian view of the New Age Movement, I met two “readers,” as the women called themselves, who turned up at a Davis-Kidd bookstore where I was signing my recent book, a Christian criticism of a New Age subject. They were professional psychics and we had an interesting conversation. It became clear to me that the two women represented the class of non-Christian spiritual seekers who saw through Christian dopiness about the New Age. “A friend said you might be different,” they told me. “So we’ve come to see.”
Their honesty was refreshing, and they were not being petty or cynical or ever bitter as they described some Christian failings they had encountered. They just wanted to think out loud with me about why some Christians don’t seem to know any better. Even though I’m a professional gasbag I really didn’t know what to say to them. But as I listened I began to sense that, as a Christian minister, I ought to offer some sort of apology for the church’s failing of them. But what to say?
Then the penny dropped and I swallowed my pride and said, “I’m also disillusioned about much of the current state of Christianity. In fact, I feel so strongly about this that I wrote about it in my new book. May I read a couple paragraphs to you?” They were good with that, so I picked up one of my books from the table and read from it.
What I read wasn’t a formal apology, but it showed them a public face of Christianity that they had not encountered before. It acknowledged their concerns and commiserated with them, instead of fobbing off their legitimate criticisms and going for the juggler and, say, rebuking them for being psychics.
I don’t know what happened to those two ladies afterward, but we continued to talk and eventually they left. But not before they bought two of the books. Now I had some tough love in that book about the New Age. Did my “apology” lay the groundwork for that to speak to them later? I don’t know. But I do know that they wanted some honest conversation.
Elsewhere during those same years, but now in Nottingham, England, near the legendary Sherwood Forest, I participated in a live, radio debate with a popular spirit medium (I’ll call her Sheila). Just minutes into the gave-and-take it was obvious to both me and the presenter that Sheila was being unjustifiably antagonistic toward me. You could feel the tension in the air of that quiet radio studio. Of course the presenter saw the makings of a real dustup, but I wanted to reach the woman’s heart. And something was definitely in the way. I had a hunch, looked to Heaven, and took a risk.
“This is off the subject,” I said gently, ignoring the presenter’s next question to me. “You seem upset with me. Have I offended you in some way?” When she said no, I asked if she had been hurt by other Christians. “Yes,” she said. “I’ve had some pretty bad experiences. I wasn’t even going come here today when they told me that a Christian would also be here. I’ve learned to stay away from Christians.”
Now what? I was acutely aware that this was going out live – who knows how many were listening – and that the presenter wanted to control what took place. And he wasn’t expecting Sheila to suddenly be talking about some of the wounds she had received from Christians. I was getting nervous and wondered where this was headed. Who ever heard of a debate like this?
I looked to Heaven and took another risk. “I don’t know if this will make sense,” I said, “but as a representative of Christianity, I want to apologize to you on behalf of those Christians.”
In the air and on the air things changed dramatically. It was one of those golden moments. Her animosity melted away. I remember her brightening and saying how nice it was finally to be talking “to a Christian who understands.”
The presenter, bless him, after sidelining himself for a few minutes, reentered the conversation and we improvised for the remaining few minutes. Outside the studio afterward, Kris astonished me. “What are you doing this afternoon?” she asked. “If you’re not busy, how would you like to see some of the historic sights around Nottingham? My daughter and I could show you Sherwood Forest or take you to see the cathedral.” Or take you to see the cathedral? My. What had happened? Unfortunately, I had another commitment, but I probably would have taken her up on the offer otherwise.
An appropriately sincere apology to a nonChristian by one Christian on behalf of Christian failures can be an intercession that warms an offended heart and closes the gap between that person and Jesus. Confession is good for the soul. It may be good for others’ souls too.
©2015 by Charles Strohmer
Images by Butupa and Radio Caravane respectively (permissions via Creative Commons)