Jesus withdrew with his disciples to the lake, and a large crowd from Galilee followed. When they heard about all he was doing, many people came to him from Judea, Jerusalem, Idumea, and the regions across the Jordan and around Tyre and Sidon. Because of the crowd he told his disciples to have a small boat ready for him, to keep the people from crowding him. (Mark 3:7-9 NIV)
As a local pastor serving a congregation, I often run across the most peculiar of human behavior. I’ve seen children fight at funerals and laugh at suffering. I’ve seen church bullies who dominate meetings and intimidate members. I have seen people invited to the parking lot to “continue” contentious conversations. Many years ago, after one particularly aggressive confrontation between two parishioners in which an argument devolved into cursing and threats of bodily harm, I overheard one of them say, “that is not my style, I am a Christian.” To which the other also said they were Christian, but they still were going to “kick their ass”. After some, shall we say, “vigorous and spirited” pastoral intervention, I calmed the parties down and got them to go home. Later, reflecting on the events, I found it curious that both members situated themselves in the Christian experience and validated their behavior because of (or in spite of) the label Christian.
More recently, I have witnessed instances in society in which the behavior of various churches, communities, politicians and commentators are identified as “Christian”. This identification infers that their shenanigans are representative of practitioners of the faith. Whether it is the hatred of the now infamous Westboro Baptist Church or the political ads of Rick Perry, (in which he touts his Christian identity as much as car makers tout the voice recognition software in their latest model vehicles), the behavior tend to range from the extreme to the absurd. Their behavior means I have to spend time explaining to my non-christian friends all the various reasons why they are not really Christian, even though they say they are. These incidents constitute symptoms of an interesting phenomenon that exist our culture. This phenomenon assumes that Christian identity is universally expressed and politically monolithic and yet somehow only personally experienced.
This ideological myth furthers the idea that all American Christians share the same “values driven” motivation and subsequently share the same politics. The myth is furthered through the various coded mainstream cultural dictates that prescribe proper Christian behavior. You know, Christians are loving and soft. Christians will convert you at all costs. Christians don’t believe science. According to those dictates, Christians think with their hearts (to the exclusion of their minds), are fiercely patriotic (almost xenophobic), promote American theocratic structures, vote solidly Republican, and unequivocally support Israel. This monolithic portrayal of the faith is born in the modern political Conservative Christian movements of the 1970’s and 1980’s (Google Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson). With intense political interest and a dogged determination, the Christian Right, as it is known, rebranded Christianity for the mainstream culture.
The issue is not that the nation is religious (because it is and yes I said it), but instead it is that the mainstream culture of the society goes to great lengths to categorize everything in the society- to which religion has become a victim. People, ethnicities, economic classes, geographic origins are all subject to pop culture and media classifications like black upper-middle class or young-urban-chic. Those societal dictates also regularly define what the appropriate expression is in the Christian tradition. In spite of this caricature, history tells us of a long tradition of Christian activism that encompassed a whole host of ideas- liberal and conservative. Many abolitionists were Christians. Educational reformers were often rooted in Christian ideology. The civil rights movements that lasted throughout the 19th and 20th century are rooted in Christian ideals, but were historically criticized at the time as being leftist, and Communist. It wasn’t until the rise of the Christian Right that the rebranding of American Christianity was packaged as an exclusively right-wing phenomenon. To be Christian is to be Republican and to be liberal is to be atheist (or at the very least agnostic).
Fundamentally at the heart of the Christian identity myth is the idea that religion is a private and personal decision that is not open to communal interpretation except when it comes to political discourse. Promulgated by the media, portrayals of American Christianity have often been caricatures of political extremes or extraordinary examples of religious bigotry and bias (see Quran burning pastor or Westboro Baptist, etc.). The hundreds of thousands of Christians that are not gun-toting, conservative minded, Creationist, Biblical-Fundamentalists rarely get a hearing in the mainstream culture and media. These Christians abhor the politics of the religious right as a litmus test for true faith in Jesus Christ.
If there is a litmus test for the Christian, then perhaps the passage from Mark sheds light on what it might look like. The gospel of Mark mentions a nameless, faceless crowd that follows Jesus wherever he goes. Whenever he enters a town or performs a miracle, this crowd shows up. Sometimes clamoring for more, sometimes cheering him on, the crowd lives and breathes on Jesus’ activity. Jesus on several occasions even tries to escape the crowd, (as in the above passage) often to no avail. The gospel writer Mark however makes two interesting suppositions. First, there is a distinction between the crowd and the disciples. We see intimate activity and teaching occurring with the disciples. We are privy to all of the emotions and connections that occur with relationship in Jesus, because of the disciples. The crowd gets none of this Jesus. The crowd is kept at a distance and receives some teaching, but not necessarily the intimacy of relationship with the Christ. Secondly, Mark portrays the crowd as being present in a different form at the foot of the cross. When the climate changes and the political winds shift against Jesus, the crowd shows its fickle nature and turns violent. The crowd becomes the mob that chants, “Crucify Him, Crucify Him!” (Mark 15).
What is my point? Everyone that follows Jesus is not a disciple. Everyone that claims Christian identity does not intimately know his ways. Some folks are just in the crowd. The identity of a Christian manifests in the behavior of the proclaimed Christian. There are many church members who are members of the crowd and not disciples. There are many folk outside of churches who are disciples because they think the church is the crowd. Disciples seek understanding and are looking for deeper relationship. Crowds go where the action is. Disciples may not get it right but they grasp a life with Jesus as being a member of purposeful community. The crowd goes along to get along. Disciples are characterized by their love and compassion for all God’s creation. Crowds are fickle and can quickly turn in on those who do not meet their expectations.
Visions of truth can appear once we become self-critical and reflective as individuals in faith communities, neighborhoods and families. This reflectivity helps us to always examine our position in relationship to Christ. When politicians, celebrities, laymen, clergy, (or even when we), proclaim our faith, the Marcan dichotomy between crowds and disciples is present. Instead of being static in our relationships with Jesus, maybe we drift in and out of the Marcan crowd that follows Christ. Sometimes we are as close as the women with the issue of blood; other times we are far and distant as the north star. And for that reason, we must take care in looking at our behavior and the behavior of any of those who claim to be part of the Christian tradition. We are not vigilant so that we may judge or exclude, but we are vigilant so that we can do better. So be mindful of who you call a Christian and who calls you one. Somebody is just in the crowd and somebody’s stealing away with Jesus…