a letter of apology

I presented the following letter on 11 Feb 2006 while speaking at Saturday Night Grace with I-Life.

Dear Friend,

I’m a Christian. By that, I mean that I identify with the teaching and example of the rabbi Jesus Christ that I’ve read about in the scriptures. I’ve decided to believe that when he said was God, that it was Real, and that he used the power of deep forgiveness to start a cosmic chain reaction that is reconnecting me to myself, to other people, and especially to Him.

It also means that I belong to a group of people throughout different times and places who have also been Christians.

Here’s the thing. I really feel this need to apologize. For us. For some things we’ve done. To say that there’s been times we’ve been really wrong, and to ask for your forgiveness.

This is tough to do, because while the History Channel has been pretty helpful, the truth is, I don’t know much about a lot these other times and other cultures. Heck, I don’t know a lot about other people on my campus here at the University of Illinois who are Christians too, but who are part of a different church, different community, or just live in Urbana.

But maybe, just for this letter to you, could we pretend that I was elected to speak for all Christians? I doubt I’d be the right person for the job. Maybe we could have the apostle Paul, or a pope, or Billy Graham or Mother Theresa. But I’m the one here now, and I still feel it’s the right thing to try.

It all has to do with the way that in the name of Christ, we’ve acted, especially when we’ve been thinking about how to invite other people to be Christians with us.

I’d like to apologize for four things.

1. I’m sorry we made it a war.
Maybe because it’s easier when it’s all black-and-white, but it’s devastating the number of people who have been killed in the name of spreading the Kingdom of Jesus Christ. During the summer of the year 1099 – because Pope Urban the II had given a rousing speech promising riches and happiness - the combined force of five armies, mostly French and Italian Christians, arrived outside of Jerusalem, their main target after being on the war march for two years. The Pope had said, “God himself will lead them, for they will be doing His work. There will be absolution and remission of sins for all who die in the service of Christ… Let none hesitate; they must march… God wills it!” On July 15th, we stormed Jerusalem.

There’s a historian named Raymond of Agiles, and he described it like this, “Piles of heads, hands and feet were to be seen in the streets of the city. It was necessary to pick one's way over the bodies of men and horses. But these were small matters compared to what happened at the temple of Solomon, a place where religious services ware ordinarily chanted. What happened there? If I tell the truth, it will exceed your powers of belief. So let it suffice to say this much at least, that in the temple and portico of Solomon, men rode in blood up to their knees and bridle reins.

And there were six more Crusades.

While it’s easy for me to reject everything they did, to say that real Christians would never do such a thing, and that I had nothing to do with it, let me stop myself by remembering how often I still blindly speak like it’s still a war against people.

It’s just that I learned to use the language of competition and war to describe what it means for me to relate to people who aren’t Christ followers. We’ve said that we should “win them to Christ…,” that we should “defend our families and values” that we must “conquer hearts” and “break down” resistance to the gospel. We’ve spoken of “strategies” and how we “fight” for souls.

I do believe there’s a fight, by the way. I believe sometimes it’s harsh and violent and tough – because I believe in a real spiritual enemy – the enemy that used to be the Angel of Light, and got turned inside out by his own conceitedness. A fallen angel who has only dark plans for God’s children. He’s our enemy. But people made by God’s hand are not.

I’m sorry we got the enemy wrong, and I’m sorry we made it a war.

2. I’m sorry that we made it into a T-shirt.
It’s not just that “Jesus Christ” looks sorta dumb as the Coca Cola logo. I’m not a fan of silly marketing t-shirts – but it’s not the t-shirts themselves. It’s that there was no relationship there. That somehow we forgot that relational truth is best communicated relationally. In other words, the good news of Jesus isn’t a message that you can easily print in newspaper unless you can also use ink to store real love.

Yeah, there’s part of the gospel that requires us to understand (head) a message of words. But it’s more to (heart) understand, you know?

And with marketing slogans, even though God never really does this with the lengthy, complicated Bible, we thought that simplifying or distilling would make this easier to digest. We tried it different ways: logically we simplified it down to just four laws, or emotionally some of us reduced it to saying that Just Jesus will take care of your TAM final and your boyfriend. And economically we made it into a marketing campaign.

So we’re guilty of oversimplifying, and presenting messages without any connection relationship. I’m sorry we made it into a t-shirt.

3. I’m sorry we made it into a bait and switch.
I think it’s been easy for us to be a bit embarrassed about what we really believe, and it’s natural to want to make it sound better. But I’m more embarrassed that we tried to make gospel pamphlets look like $20 bills so that you’d accidentally pick them up, or that we invited you to thank you business dinners turned into forced sermons, or that “would you like to take a quick survey?” turned out to be a gospel sharing appointment you didn’t ask for.

And sometimes it’s been an even gentler kind of bait and switch, where we tell you about all the good things that Jesus has done in our lives, and save the parts where we felt like crap, and were insecure, or our Dad died, or we didn’t get a good job – we sorta held back on those, because we didn’t want to make Jesus look bad. Like he’s less valuable because doesn’t make us happy or fulfilled. I do have a hope that I’d like to tell you about, but for now – I if have ever tried to sell you something that looks shinier or different than the real thing, I’m sorry.

I’m sorry we made it into a bait and switch.

4. I’m sorry we said that you needed to fix yourself first.
That to be a Christian you needed to first stop sleeping with your girlfriend, or dropping the f bomb, or smoking, or stop being gay. The truth is, the whole message of Jesus is that he starts making us into something new after we run into him. I won’t apologize for beautiful morals – I think God has a way of living that is better than what we’ve done a lot, and that his purity and perfection should be an inspiration for us to change into a whole new thing. And change is one the thick streams of hope in the Christian life.

But sometimes we’ve really gotten accidentally turned around on which came first – and the word “holiness” got thrown into the mix like a spear that we could throw at people, or a shield that we’d try to put between you and us. Everyone needs forgiveness, healing, and love. Daily. Especially me. My heart is as dark as ever, sometimes. Did we forget that if don’t live in state of grace toward others, that Jesus says he can’t give grace to us!

And while we’re at it, sometimes we’ve forgotten that real change is on the inside. Back in the day, the Board for Protection of Aborigines in Australia made this mistake. The missionaries with that group dressed local peoples to look more Western, and started thinking it was proof of inward changes towards Christianity.

But the blame really does fall on me. I can’t tell you the times when I’ve silently looked you walking down the sidewalk, and judged you just because of the way you dressed . Love inside comes well before change outside, and I’m sorry we said that you needed to fix yourself first.