Christianity misunderstood by detractors and faithful alike

In almost every discussion I have ever had about Christianity with someone who was non-Christian or atheist, I have come away with the same level of shock at others’ assumptions about my faith — and about me — that are presented.

As someone who describes himself as a Christian, I am more often than not automatically a homophobic, ignorant, unthinking individual in others’ eyes; one who refuses to see anything other than what the church tells me to see.

Such responses disturb me for many different reasons. Primarily, I am disturbed because this phenomenon reflects not only the misunderstanding of Jesus’ message by people with different perspectives on religion. More so, it reflects the misunderstanding of many Christians concerning Jesus of Nazareth.

The source of such problems is obvious. Christianity as a whole is the inheritor of a long history of injustice — a tradition in which it takes part even today. I cannot blame many people for mistrusting Christianity when, in most of its denominations, women are not allowed to be priests or ministers, Jesus is hailed as a man who will bring eternal flame upon the wicked and homosexuals are banned from participating in any significant manner.

Let me go on the record as stating that such practices are a far cry from the ones that Jesus attempted to instill in his followers at the beginning of the “”common era,”” 2,000 years ago. To understand Jesus and his goal for humanity, we must return to his time and examine the words he spoke and the punishment he received for those words.

At the beginning of the first century, the Roman Empire stood on the brink of its “”Pax Romana,”” the period in which it enjoyed widespread peace and prosperity. Rome had spread its power throughout Europe, the Middle East and northern Africa.

The Judeans were one of the many peoples who had become subjects of Augustus Caesar against their will, and they lived an impoverished life in what was then called Palestine. Judean high priests enjoyed sickening wealth as puppets of the imperial government, while most Judeans scraped out a meager existence in the city of Jerusalem or in the desert. Women shared their social status with cattle, children were abused, the sick were outcast from society as sinners in the eyes of the Judean God and the poor were labeled as less than fully human.

Radical Judean religious leaders said that God was going to send them a messiah to lead them out of oppression. Militant Judean freedom fighters called Zealots awaited the coming of this warrior prophet and tried to inspire rebellion against Rome. Many of these fighters were subjected to the Roman practice of crucifixion in public places in towns throughout Palestine.

According to the New Testament of the Bible, God heard the cries of the Judeans and sent them Jesus.

It is difficult for us to comprehend the amazement with which people must have reacted to hear that the poor son of a carpenter was to be their liberator. People wanted a giant like Moses and, as Christians believe, they got a pacifist young man who spent his time eating and socializing with prostitutes, tax collectors, the infected, the wounded, the poor and the downtrodden.

Jesus managed to fit all this in while building a career on publicly condemning the Judean and Roman establishments of social class and conservative religious doctrine. He also proclaimed himself to be the Son of God. This did not go over well with the authorities.

Herein lies the paradox of modern Christianity. The leadership of the Catholic and Protestant churches seek to make Christianity a reactionary institution that excludes certain groups of people and silences other views, much like the institution Jesus sought to reject 2,000 years ago.

Jesus sought to build a world where all were included and valued equally as individuals.

Jesus said that those who were first on Earth would be last in heaven, and vice versa. He said that people with terminal illnesses and the poor were the beloved ones of God, not the corpulent priests of the high temples in Jerusalem or the pagan rulers of Rome. He ate at the same table as those who were labeled heretics because he knew that they were not. He conversed with lepers when no one else would, and upheld Samaritans, members of an isolated northern sect of Judaism, and just as loved in God’s eyes as the Judeans.

He spoke of forgiveness and love when religious authorities spoke of punishment and banishment, things that are often invoked, tragically and ironically, in the name of Jesus by those who would call themselves Christians. For example, the Rev. Jerry Falwell professes a belief that AIDS is a result of God’s wrath at society’s inclusion of homosexuals. This is a man who has grossly misunderstood the message of his Lord.

For all of the trouble Jesus dedicated himself to raising, he was sentenced to die on the cross. He died somewhere around A.D. 33 as best we can tell from biblical and Roman sources.

However, from the little-noticed death of one man arose the most influential and powerful religion in the history of the world. The death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth inspired his original followers to endure horrible deaths at the hands of the Romans. In fact, until the fourth century, Christianity was illegal in Rome and anyone accused of being a follower of Christ could be executed.

Many people today, it seems, forget the past too easily. Christianity is a radical religion that has inspired people to do both gloriously wonderful and horribly ugly things for the world. Christians today forget what they are called to do: They are called to love all people and to be willing to die for the belief that God loves all people too.

Today, we live in a world where such idealistic goals seem to be distant dreams. Catholic presbyters tell their congregations that only Roman Catholics can truly be saved. At the funerals of homosexuals, fundamentalist ministers hold up signs that read “”God hates fags.””

All people who claim to be followers of Jesus should understand that such behavior is so far removed from the message of Jesus as to be laughable.

Quite simply, to be a Christian, one must understand the truth of only a few basic ideas: first, that God loves all people regardless of color, gender or creed; second, that God sent Jesus to die on the cross to save humanity from the sin of not loving all people; and finally, that the spirit of Jesus was resurrected and lives on in our daily actions.

Anyone who tells you otherwise is quite simply wrong, and those who would seek to use their faith to exclude others and to harm others are seriously perverting the message of their beloved leader.

This, I must end in saying, is true for all of God’s religions on Earth.

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