What Do You Mean, “Christian”?

Let’s start with a little honest self-disclosure: in case you hadn’t noticed, I do identify as a Christian, a white, evangelical Christian woman, of a “certain” age. I’m often afraid to say that, not because I am ashamed of being a Christian, but because so many people immediately jump to conclusions about what that means: Does that make me a Republican or a Christian Nationalist or what?

When I say I’m a Christian, what conclusions do you jump to? I know what I used to think: “those Christians” were judgmental, finger-wagging people who always believed they were right and everybody else was wrong, and whose only interest in me was to get me to realize the error of my ways, repent, and then start sending them money for their private jets and air-conditioned dog houses. 

And now I am one (and how that happened is a story for another time). But not one of “those.”

“Christian” means someone who follows Jesus Christ. Following Jesus is supposed to mean we do what he tells us to do. And when a student of the Law asked him, exactly what is it that you really want us to do, he boiled it all down to exactly two things: Love God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself. 

Let’s start with the easier one: Love your neighbor. In Hebrew, the word “neighbor” carries connotations of proximity and relationship: next-door neighbor, fellow Israelite, friend, acquaintance, even kin. But human beings have been looking for loopholes for millenia, so of course the lawyer asks Jesus to define his terms: who, exactly, is this “neighbor” I’m supposed to love? And Jesus responds with one of his now-famous parables, the story of the Good Samaritan.

If you’re not familiar with the story, it goes something like this: a lone traveler is ambushed, robbed, stripped of everything of value, even his clothing, and left for dead on the roadside. We don’t know who this man was; he could have been a Jew, or a Samaritan, or Greek, or maybe even a Roman soldier somehow separated from his unit. I think Jesus was deliberately vague on this point for one reason: it doesn’t matter. This was a human being, created in the image of God, who found himself in a difficult situation. 

A Jewish priest, walking down the road, goes out of his way to avoid the bloody wretch. A Levite, a member of the tribe devoted to serving God and helping the priests, also avoids the victim. The “good guys,” the ones who work at the church and exhort others to love God, do nothing.

And then along comes a Samaritan, a citizen of a neighboring country, one of the people that good, god-fearing Jews loved to hate. Samaritans were the mixed race offspring of Jews left behind after the exile five hundred years earlier. They had their own mashup version of religion that wasn’t pure Judaism, they worshiped at their own temple, and they were often feared as being dangerous to the way of life the religious establishment had been working so hard to preserve for those last five centuries. Jews traveling through that part of the world would detour miles out of their way just to avoid walking through Samaria-—and the feeling was apparently mutual.

So it’s this representative of a feared and hated class of people who shows compassion above and beyond what might be expected: he cleans the guy up, dresses his wounds, takes him to a nearby inn and gives the innkeeper a couple of days’ wages to care for the man. This man, Jesus says, was being a neighbor to the victim.

Notice that Jesus does not make the Samaritan the victim. I imagine that would have been so much easier for his audience to swallow—someone from a lesser race being treated badly, probably by his own lawless people, rescued by one of “us” (because, after all, we are better than they are). No, this was one of “them” doing something totally unexpected (for a modern-day parallel, imagine you are the one being rescued in this story from the summer of 2020 about black men saving the life of a white counter-protester at a Black Lives Matter protest).

Jesus makes the Samaritan the hero, in stark contrast to the people who gave the outward appearance of being religious but chose to avoid direct engagement with the very real and immediate needs of a fellow human being. 

Notice also that loving your neighbor is not a passive thing. The Samaritan didn’t just offer his thoughts and prayers for the victim as he passed by. He stopped, right there where the bandits had attacked the man, where he could just as easily have been the next victim. He offered first aid, transported him to a safe place, then paid for his convalescence, even promising to pay more, if necessary.

If I want to call myself a Christian, I have to start by loving my neighbors, all of them, especially those who are different from me, who don’t do things the way I think they should do them, who may even look down on me for the ways I live. I have to love everyone, regardless of race, religion, political leanings, gender identity, immigration status, or any of the other excuses we use for drawing a line between “us” and “them.”. Like the Good Samaritan, I have to love my enemies, and be ready to do them good, even if it’s messy, inconvenient, or costly. There are no loopholes here. 

When I say I’m a Christian, I hope you will assume that I am someone who will see you, in all your glorious beauty and diversity as a fellow human being, created in the image of the same One who created me, that I will look at you through the eyes of that Creator, love you with the love of Jesus, and do my best to meet your needs. And I hope you will do the same for me.

That’s what I mean by “Christian”—the same thing Jesus meant.