Portrait of A.J. Swoboda

A.J. Swoboda

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Location: Portland, Oregon | USA

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Mar 16, 2015

Like it or not: Being a Christian in a “like” culture

If Facebook allowed a “like” button for Christianity (perhaps it does?), I suspect the likes wouldn’t be as common today as they would have been in years past.

If Facebook had a “dislike” button for Christianity, I fear we’d be shocked at how many would click it.

Those Odious Christians

Let’s be honest: Christianity doesn’t seem to be thriving in this “like” culture. Recently, a widely circulated op-ed piece in a well-known national online publication came my way wherein the author—discussing his disapproval of Christian views of certain moral issues—made clear his disdain for the general Christian community. Visceral dislike for the Christian community, such as this, has become particularly pronounced in recent years for (I would guess) a constellation of reasons (which I will not tackle here). Still, one thing remains certain—one doesn’t get much “street cred” these days for identifying as a Christian.

Theologically, personally—but perhaps mostly, pastorally—I’ve reflected a great deal on what seems like a swelling, fever-pitch dislike of Christians in our time. What makes a Christian so odious, I’ve pondered? Why are Christians so disliked? Why do so many feel such anger toward Christians? As a Christian, I admit that the perceived disdain can not only hurt, but remains somewhat perplexing.

These questions are not only important to ask, they are important to answer.

To begin, I’ve resolved to cease appealing to this popular notion that any of this is actually new. Nothing about it is new. Christians have always been cultural outsiders to some degree or another. Still, for some funky reason, we appeal to some mythical time in the not-so-distant past when Christians were supposedly liked and well-received by the general public. But such times have never really existed. Nobody has ever really liked Christians.

Christians Have Always Been Disliked

Historically speaking, Christians have almost always been odious to outsiders. Christians have only been “liked,” so to speak, when they were in power—when people are forced to like them by virtue of the power structures of the time. But elsewise, they weren’t. Michael Green’s ever-illuminating volume Evangelism in the Early Church reminds us that the church of Jesus has always been one that’s been on the margins of cultural approval. What’s unique, however, is how the earliest Christians learned to embrace being disliked. “The capacity of Christians,” writes Green, “to face criticism, hatred…and death…with joy must have had a tremendous impact…You could mow these Christians down, you could throw them to the lions, but you could not make them deny their Lord or hate their persecutors.

The call for Christians to be rejected—yet resisting the urge to reject others in return—is an ever-pressing need for the Christian of our time. We must quickly learn to be hated without mirroring such hatred. We must freshly re-embrace that whole “bless those who persecute you” idea. (Rom. 12:14) Although I am cautious to even bring up the word persecution. because Western Christianity doesn’t really know what persecution is like. It is beyond silly to believe that someone looking funny at you for reading your Bible at Starbucks is persecution. Trust me: that isn’t persecution.

Still, it might feel like persecution—emotional persecution. In experiencing these feelings, the historical tendency for most Christians is to jab back and persecute those who persecute them. Such a move has been a lurking temptation for all time—a temptation that must be resisted at all costs. Such hate mirroring isn’t the way of Jesus. As Judas would have told us, the way of Jesus is to wash the feet of those who have categorically rejected you.

With that, the story of Stephen should come to mind. In the story of Acts, Stephen becomes the church’s first martyr (after Jesus himself). In Acts 7, Stephen offers a death speech before religious authorities that includes the entire history of Israel and the good news of Jesus. It’s the most epic death speech ever.

Then Stephen dies. But just before he does, he looks up to heaven and sees “Jesus standing at the right hand of God.” Immediately, without hesitation, the religious leaders watching him “gnash their teeth” at Stephen, the text narrates. Of course, that language of the “gnashing of teeth” was is important for understanding their feelings toward Stephen. In the non-canonical text of 1 Sirach, the phrase is attributed to beasts that “gnash their teeth” as they feed upon their prey. Grating one’s teeth, in the Old Testament, was eventually used as an expression of pure anger that was to be doled out upon one’s enemies and the wicked (e.g. Job 16:9, Ps. 35:16; Lam. 2:16) Similarly, in the New Testament, it was an expression that was connected with a place where future punishment would soon take place (Matt. 8:12). One commentator writes: “There the gnashing of teeth is perhaps an expression of the futility of the wicked before God’s judgment or else a demonstration of their continuing refusal to repent and acknowledge the justness of God’s judgment (cp. Rev. 16:9, 11).”

What was it that made those religious leaders “gnash their teeth?” What caused them to grate their teeth in anguish at this man? In Stephen, they saw something that drove, that hit, that meddled with their hearts to such a degree they gnash their teeth in judgmental anger. Why?

Stephen had direct access.

This direct access that Christian claim to have is fundamentally offensive to general culture because to claim access is to simultaneously claim a certain version of truth. Look at what they didn’t gnash their teeth at. Stephen didn’t claim moral superiority. He didn’t claim to know what was right or wrong. He didn’t claim others were wrong. Stephen simply claimed he saw Jesus “standing at the right hand of the father”—Stephen had access. He had access to something the religious leaders didn’t.

This, to me, brings up a pressing truth: true Christianity—the kind embodied by Stephen—was not only disliked by the crowds but also by the religiously-minded. Authentic Christianity will always be resisted (if not rejected) on both sides: by culture and institutional religion. It has never really fit into either snugly.

They killed Stephen just as they killed Jesus. They’d kill them again if they were around. And probably some Christians would stand there giving their approval. True Christianity causes just about everyone to grate their teeth in some shape or form. The lesson is simple: we judge true godliness by the wrong things, then, when we see it standing before us, we do anything to kill it. Godliness just doesn’t play well in the world. But then again, it never really has. Godliness, in the end, virtually always ends up on a cross.

Learning to be Disliked

This brings us back to being disliked. I’m learning a few things about this whole thing—about learning how to be disliked.

First, being liked is over-rated—it never really got anyone anywhere. The most liked are usually those who have tasted the status quo and gone along. Going along is the quickest way to be liked. The truth is, only living fish can swim upstream.

I suspect people have come to “like” Christianity for all the wrong reasons and have come do “dislike” Christianity for all the right reasons. The familiar trump card is often played—“My atheist/agnostic/non-Christian friends are far nicer than my Christian friends”; to which our emotional response is to try and defend the church. But Jesus was not right because he was the nicest. Nor is Christianity. I think such an argument as profoundly silly on various fronts.

Just because someone is nicer doesn’t make someone more right. How many racists are nice? How many serial murderers can be sweet sounding? How many Nazi’s had a nice veneer. Niceness isn’t the mark of authentic godliness nor a universal sign of religious correctness. To argue against the validity of Christianity by saying that one knows there are far more nice non-Christian than Christians is as nonsensical as saying one knows more sober people outside of Alcoholics Anonymous than they do within. Indeed! This is the mark of a culture that has disliked Christianity for all the wrong reasons—namely, that Christians aren’t the nicest. We’ve done a terrific disservice to the identity of the church by equating it to a congregation of the morally superior. The church isn’t morally superior. The church is a community of saved sinners. The morally superior, I guess, don’t need a doctor. So they often aren’t drawn to the church.

Only a pragmatist would say that truth is true so long as it comes through nice tongues. The very truthfulness of the gospel is not found in how nice Christians are. Nay, it is found among sinners who are loved by God.

Still, the very implication of such an argument (the “Christians are not nice” argument) is that being nice does not demand one to be a Christian. Indeed, this is the case. My atheist friends can be way nicer than my Christian friends. However, the Kingdom of God established by Jesus is not mediated through “niceness.” The Kingdom is one of sick sinners who are desperate for a God of grace to love them.

The church isn’t a cloistered club of nice people who have their act together. The church is a gathering of sinners, saved, redeemed, in the grace and blood of Christ who approach God confidently for the grace in which they swim. This is probably why Christians can be the biggest grumps in the world—they’ve acknowledged their inescapable need for a doctor. 

Not to mention that Jesus wasn’t right because he was nice. At least I don’t think he was nice. People who turn over tables and call people sinners and argue theology aren’t nice. Let’s stop making that our sole litmus test for religious validity.

Secondly, we must resist the urge to add offense to the gospel. Please, by all accounts, don’t try to be disliked. Being disliked isn’t always the sign that you are right, either—too often Christians have taken the reality that they are disliked as the sign they are on the right track. In the end, being liked or disliked isn’t the endgame for the Christian. And, if we’re honesty, if we are disliked, it is almost always for the wrong things.

The gospel is offensive enough; we’re really good at adding the silliest offenses to it.

Third, and most importantly, neither “like” or “dislike” are categories the Bible choses to employ. Nor shouldn’t ever aim for them. We shouldn’t lose sleep over them. They simply aren’t important in one iota for the God of Scripture.

Love and like are worlds apart. I love God, but I don’t always like Him. So even if Facebook did put a “dislike” button in place, or even if fewer people would “like” Facebook, or the church isn’t growing in a “like” culture, it really doesn’t matter in the end. We aren’t invited to like God, or like people; nor are we told God likes us, or that people should like us.

By way of conclusion—go on clicking “like” here and there for our favorite persona or band or organization we appreciate and value. But do remember that the Kingdom of God is not manifested in “likes.”

We are called to love others because we were loved first.

The Kingdom of God isn’t to be liked. It is to be entered into with a passionate, loving abandon. Do know that you are invited in. I can tell you, I have been. And I am in. More than ever.

Frankly, whether anyone likes it or not.

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Living People I Read

Alan Hirsch

Allan Anderson

Amos Yong

Bernard Anderson

Dale Davis

Don Carson

Donald Bloesch

Donald Dayton

Donald Gelpi

Ed Dobson

Elizabeth Johnson

Eugene Peterson

Frederick Beuchner

Gary Babcock

Gordon Fee

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Harvey Cox

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Richard Baukham

Rodney Clapp

Robert Banks

Rowan Williams

Sallie McFague

Stanley Fish

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Zygmunt Bauman

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Aimee Semple McPherson

Athanasius

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Charles Spurgeon

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Colin Gunton

C.S. Lewis

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Leslie Newbigin

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Raymond Brown

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Roland Allen

Simone Weil

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Theresa of Avila

Vincent Donovan

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Top 10 Books Ever

#1 Theology and Hope: On the Ground and Implications of a Christian Eschatology (Jürgen Moltmann)

#2 Church Dogmatics (Karl Barth)

#3 Systematic Theology: Doctrine, Witness, Ethics (William McClendon)

#4 Scandalous Beauty: The Artistry of God and the Way of the Cross (Thomas Schmidt)

#5 On the IncarnationDe Incarnatione Verbi Dei (St. Athanasius)

#6 Proper Confidence: Faith, Doubt & Certainty in Christian Discipleship (Leslie Newbigin)

#7 Narratives of a Vulnerable God: Christ, Theology, and Scripture (William Placher)

#8 Personal KnowledgeTowards a Post-Critical Philosophy (Michael Polanyi)

#9 Desiring the KingdomWorship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation (James K.A. Smith)

#10 Exclusion and Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation (Miroslav Volf)