Over the last year or so I have heard a number of people say something like this: “I’m a Christian…but not that kind of Christian.” Indeed, I’ve even heard that from the mouth of a Christian Bishop! And it’s a sentiment with which I can certainly sympathize. In my experience, it’s often easy to tell what kind of Christian that kind is. It’s this kind, and this kind, and this kind, and this kind, and this kind, and this kind, and on and on. However, I think it is culturally myopic to limit this sentiment to Christians, and can say that the prominence of any such religion (including militant atheism) makes me uncomfortable to even raise the subject of God in all but the most intimate of company for fear of being associated in some way with “that kind” of person. However, our American cultural context and the present situation seem suited to focus on this from a Christian perspective. The fact that so many people who feel Christian share a hesitance to label themselves as such, or feel they must do so with qualifiers, indicates clearly that the idea of Christendom is largely a myth and that the label “Christian” (like all religious labels) has no universal significance and thus only has real meaning when applied by oneself to oneself.
For an illustration of just two of many “Christianities,” consider these differing analyses of Haitian history and the recent, tragic earthquake.
First, the now infamous words of Marion Gordon “Pat” Robertson:
“…something happened a long time ago in Haiti, and people might not want to talk about it. They were under the heel of the French. You know, Napoleon III and whatever. And they got together and swore a pact to the devil. They said, “We will serve you if you will get us free from the French.” True story. And so, the devil said, “OK, it’s a deal.” And they kicked the French out. You know, the Haitians revolted and got themselves free. But ever since, they have been cursed by one thing after the other. Desperately poor. That island of Hispaniola is one island. It’s cut down the middle. On the one side is Haiti; on the other side is the Dominican Republic. Dominican Republic is prosperous, healthy, full of resorts, et cetera. Haiti is in desperate poverty. Same island. They need to have and we need to pray for them a great turning to God.”
Second, an excerpt from a sermon given by the Most Reverend Katharine Jefferts Schori on the Sunday before the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. Day this year:
“Moses led his people out of Egypt in search of that dream, of a land of milk and honey, where slavery would be left behind, and no one’s labor would be stolen by the powerful, where God’s children might live in peace and abundance…It is the eternal dream of God’s spirit within us, and the vision that Jesus urges on his followers…Haiti has its roots in a history of slavery. Spaniards first imported Africans as slaves to the island on which Haiti sits in 1517. The island went back and forth between Spanish and French control over the next two centuries, with the French eventually colonizing the western part. In 1804, a slave revolt led to the first independent nation in Latin America, the second independent nation in this hemisphere after the United States, the first post-colonial black-led nation anywhere, and the first nation established as the result of a successful slave rebellion. If that isn’t an Exodus story, I don’t know what is. The Haitians were delivered from Pharaoh, led by their own team of Moseses.”
These two profoundly different analyses of the Haitian situation each come to us from the hearts and minds of professing, believing, and leading Christians. How can we account for the chasm between them?
One way – and I suspect this is the way Robertson would deal with the conundrum – would be simply to suggest that while one is Christian, the other is not. While I know ++Katharine would never presume to make such a statement, I suspect there are many people – self-proclaimed Christians – who would. But in reality there is no intellectually honest way to say, “I am Christian and you are not” when the “you” in question believes that she/he is indeed a Christian. And so we shall toss aside this “easy” solution to our quandary, and press on for a more fruitful answer.
It seems to me that a key difference between these two perspectives is the way in which both ++Katharine and Robertson approach and deal with mythos. Robertson’s analysis of the Haitian crisis relies on the legend – or, it seems to me, the colonial interpretation of the legend – that as a part of their struggle for independence, Haitian slaves invoked their own religious tradition in an effort to overthrow their oppressors. And it appears that as Robertson knows it, this religious expression involved a pact with the devil – sort of a “sell your soul” kind of thing. The key here is that Robertson seems to approach this legend as an historical fact. We see evidence of this in both the direct way in which he invokes it as a real cause of the earthquake, and also the way he frames it with – though sometimes incorrect – truly historical data points. By that I mean, we actually know that the French were Haiti’s oppressors, that there was slave revolt, that a Napoleon (though not III) was involved, etc., and Robertson simply includes the legendary element as a part of the list of known, historical facts as if the legend were one and the same. No matter where it originated and in whatever context it is invoked today, this story of Boukman and his Bois Caïman prayer – particularly the “deal with the Devil” version – is a prime example of mythos. Whether it occurred as an historical event or not, some Haitian people’s version can serve as a reminder of the strength of their heritage and foster dedication and loyalty, and the “deal with the devil” version can reinforce the sense of superiority and chooseness so dear to some of those who represent the old oppressors of the Haitian people (and indeed of many more peoples of African origin). As a representative of the latter group, Robertson’s apparent literal understanding and treatment of this mythos as an historical event with real world consequences seems to betray a deep insecurity about his and his people’s place in the cosmos. It is as if Robertson needs this story to be a fact in order to psychologically bolster his desired position and his self-image.
Like Robertson’s, ++Katharine’s analysis of Haitian history and the recent tragedy is heavily reliant on mythos, though in her case the mythos comes from the heart of so much Christian tradition, the Bible. The story of the Exodus is a profoundly meaningful story for the Jewish people; it is deeply reflective of both their historical and spiritual experience. But, like any good mythos, the power and meaning of the Exodus story is, like God, not limited to the Jewish people. As a story of liberation, it is deeply Jewish precisely because it is deeply human. As a shining example of the universality of the Exodus, Christians have successfully absorbed it into their own experience for 2000 years. But, the universality of this story is lost when it is tied to a literal, historical time, place and people. Indeed, without understanding the Exodus as mythos, it is largely irrelevant to the non-Jewish world – and possibly even to the Jewish world, as the story lives in its own non-literal recreation each year at Pesach. As a result, I suppose it should not be surprising that ++Katharine, in stark contrast to Robertson, treats mythos as mythos – an archetypical story with being beyond its details – in her analysis of the Haitian situation. ++Katharine sees biblical history in Haitian history. She sees the liberation of God’s chosen people in the liberation of Haitian slaves. The historical veracity of the Exodus story is utterly irrelevant. Even if it never happened as it is recounted in the Bible, it is true. Indeed, we have the evidence everywhere around us, perhaps most poignantly this month in the Haitian people. And this is what makes the Exodus mythos. Like the Bois Caïman affair, it has power and meaning well beyond it’s historicity – even if it never happened.
It is clear that ++Katharine and Robertson approach mythos in very different ways. While ++Katharine seems to see mythos for what it is and derives hope and inspiration from it even in the most dire of circumstances, Robertson seems to seek to strip mythos of its true nature and character applying to it a foreign sense of factuality that leads him to offensively condemn and blame when faced with the same dire circumstances.
If ++Katharine were to understand the Exodus as literal, historical and factual then she might view Haitian history and the earthquake rather differently. She might think that the Haitians were deserving of slavery and not deserving of God-led liberation because they, clearly not being Jewish or otherwise connected to Jewish religion, are not God’s elect. As a result, she might think that if only the Haitians would do – or have done – what it takes to be God’s elect they would be spared their current misery. And if Robertson understood the Bois Caïman affair as mythos, he might view Haitian history and the recent earthquake differently. He might see in the Haitian slaves the deeply human impulse to turn to the transcendent at our hour of greatest need. Additionally, he might see the earthquake as evidence that even a devoted people can suffer the indiscriminate pains of life, because no amount of godward reliance makes us secure. What different sort of tangible response to the calamities of the world, I wonder, would we see from both ++Katharine and Robertson if they held these inverted views?
Both Marion Gordon “Pat” Robertson and the Most Reverend Katharine Jefferts Schori consider themselves to be Christians. But there is a wide chasm between them. Obviously, Christianity as a clearly and uniquely defined concept does not exist in any meaningful sense. Rather it is a concept that has true meaning only in personal experience. As a result – now that the Church no longer exists as a political institution as it once did – the concept of Christendom appears to be a myth. (Perhaps however, if we treat the idea of Christian unity as embodied in Christendom as mythos, as opposed to literal fact, we can derive from it something meaningful and powerful – though spiritually this time – once again.) It seems to me that one reason why Christendom as such is extinct is the varied ways in which different people approach and understand mythos.
I am certainly not one to say definitively what is and is not “Christian.” But I have heard a number of explanations of what it means to live a “Christian life.” One such explanation that I find rather good – and, when understood correctly, universally applicable – is that a “Christian life” is a life that presents the “first fruits” of the “Kingdom of God.” I take this to mean that the specifics of our beliefs are largely irrelevant beyond the extent to which they influence the “produce” of our lives. I blieve I am in no position to suggest what precisely the “Kingdom of God” is or looks like, etc. But, it does strike me as true that any godly (which here could be synonymous with “Christian”) life should be representative of whatever that “Kingdom” is; a godly life should be a reflection of God, a foretaste of the fruits of God’s “Kingdom.” I don’t expect that many would disagree with that idea. But the question remains, What sort of things are reflections of God? This is inherently unknowable in any empirical sense, but I do believe it is “experienceable,” and that we can intuit such things. And so we might ask ourselves what sort of fruits we taste as the produce of our lives? Do we experience it as a reflection of God? And if you’re a Christian who finds yourself clarifying that you’re not “that kind” of Christian, what sort of fruit does “that kind” of Christian produce? Does it taste like the “Kingdom of God?” Furthermore, if the label “Christian” only has true meaning when applied by oneself to oneself, we might ask ourselves what sort of meaning we want that label to express to the world.
The two approaches to mythos briefly explored here certainly lead to some rather tangible “fruits.” One leads to hope and inspiration as it emphasizes the universality of the story of God and applies it to people far removed for theparticulars of that story. The other blames and condemns based on something perceived to be an historical event that is specific and identifiable. I cannot say with factual accuracy, which “fruit” is a “first fruit” of God’s “Kingdom,” but my intuition gives me clues. For me, stripping mythos of its true nature and thrusting it into the utterly foreign realm of facts leads to very little fruit, and the fruit to which it does lead tastes rotten to me. In contrast, a full embrace of the mystery of mythos sprouts the fruit of universality and the interconnectedness of human experience, which my intuition tells me is a natural, logical, even necessary, aspect of any God worthy of worship. I think such fruit can be tasted in the end of ++Katharine’s recent sermon:
Haiti is a bellwether for all the world’s children, for all God’s children, caught in that network of mutuality. None of us will arrive in that land of milk and honey of which we have dreamed for eons, none of us will enter that land until and unless we cross the river together. Only hand in hand with our neighbors, poor, hungry, thirsty, only when we keep on building that network of mutuality. Take my hand, precious Lord, and put it in the hand of my sister and my brother. Take my hand, take all our hands, and together – together – we shall come into the promised land.
Our varied approaches to mythos and religious mystery can stand in the way of the togetherness of which ++Katharine speaks. And so as people continue to disagree over the meaning and application of our common stories, I pray for God to pour out on all of us a spirit of grace and supplication and deliver us from coldness of heart, that we may no longer delight in discord, and work together to create a present salvation of peace.
And finally, I would like to point out that by now the time has passed during which all but the most resilient of people trapped without water could have survived. I encourage everyone to pray for or otherwise connect with Haiti’s most recently departed in your own way, and I offer this simple prayer:
May God help us to remember our Haitian brothers and sisters and keep them in our hearts, that we may know that their suffering is our suffering, and that without them we are not whole.