It has always been a temptation for Christianity to let our imaginations run wild and dream of a day where all of our whims and opinions are not merely acknowledged but accepted as intelligent, winsome and even cool. This was such a great temptation that in the 4th Century, after his battlefield conversion to Christianity, Emperor Constantine began to align the culture he reigned over with his understanding of the principles of Christianity. This was, certainly, an admirable attempt, but it proved to be a seedbed of blood as the world found out that religion has the ability to mutate into ugliness when it is too closely tethered to political power.
And while the current social media storm pitting people who want strong coffee against people who love Christmas isn’t exactly the modern version of the Crusades or Inquisition, it is, at its philosophical core, roughly the same thing. The issue in the 4th Century is the same issue that Christianity continues to face now. That issue is one of identity. But our identity, unfortunately, can be too easily confused with what parts or issues of the world we feel obligated to disagree with. The question that we seem bent on answering (though it is rarely asked out loud) is “who are Christians anyway?” The answer, at least this week, is: Christians are the people who defend the rite of Christmas to be represented on a coffee cup. But obviously the issue is not the coffee cup, it is how we are really supposed to answer the above question about who we are. And maybe it’s just me, but I’m struggling to understand why we’re caught up trying shrink the beauty, love and eternal glory of our faith into a petty discussion about cups.
A great deal of our problem emerges in believing that we are called to be the “defenders” of Christmas, democracy, welfare or anything. The New Testament never refers to Christians as “defenders of the faith,” though it frequently speaks to us of “followers of Jesus” and “the body of Christ.” Our identity, based on the writings of the Apostles, is not to be found in what we are opposed to but who we love and have given our lives to – spoiler alert: that “who” is Jesus Christ. Unfortunately, in our culture, Christianity consistently seems to suffer from this identity crisis. Passion and energy are not the problem of the church, as we’ve seen over the last few decades when legislation infringes on our boundaries of morality, or when sociological shifts take place around us in culture. The Western church does not suffer from cultural laryngitis, but it does seem to be prone to dealing with selective memory.
At some point Christians were identified in one way and one way only: as disciples and followers of Jesus. For that simple, seemingly inocuous designation many were tortured, cut in half, ripped apart by wild animals, burned alive, crucified and exiled. They did not suffer these horrific fates because Rome refused to allow the Jews to celebrate Passover, or because they were rising up as a formidable voting bloc that could sway the tide as to who became the next Caesar. And they certainly weren’t suffering these things because Roman coffee shops wouldn’t acquiesce to sell products with Jewish festival themes painted on them.
To the contrary, the Christian movement – often referred to as “the Way” – drew animosity for their unwillingness to abandon the life, work and example of Christ. They changed the world by showing it just how beautiful Jesus was, and they did this not through griping and finger wagging, but through acts of mercy and love. They cared for the sick when the sick had been abandoned. They did not seek to retaliate when they were attacked because of religious prejudice. They did not look to gain standing or political influence but instead decided to sacrificially love the world until it couldn’t withstand the healing power of God’s grace. They ignored the typical means of political influence and instead saw the ripest harvest field for global change in serving the servants of the world, and in loving the outcasts of culture and showing unusual kindness to those who were unkind. This, friends, is the identity of Christians. And it is a far cry from many of the petty expressions we see in the present Christian culture.
Granted, Starbucks has done nothing to further the goals of Christians, but they haven’t done anything to smother them either. It has attempted to exist as neutral player in a dichotomous world where people despise both neutrality as well as passion. Now, the truth may be that both neutrality and passion possess treacherously exposed weaknesses, but that does not mean that either is intrinsically evil or undeniably righteous. And to be fair, I understand the angst that comes from watching a culture that never questioned these things begin to question them. I understand those who feel like America has lost its moorings and turned over the keys of our future to El Diablo. I am in no way defending our culture’s ability to make righteous, holy or even wise decisions. So please don’t think that I, in any way, support any move to marginalize Christmas. But also please don’t think that I believe the way we as a large-scale culture celebrate Christmas is all that holy or unholy, either. Buying clothes, electronics, tv’s and cars is, if we’re completely honest, not wrong but it’s also not exactly in alignment with the true spirit of the Bethlehem birth of Jesus. Again, I am not suggesting there’s no value in celebration or commemoration – there certainly is.
Once everything is boiled, skimmed and strained, and we are left with the heart of the matter, the issue becomes clearer (to me anyway) that Christianity has less need for guerilla techniques in coffee shop infiltration and more need for actually investigating and emulating the way of Jesus. If you can really imagine Jesus in a Starbucks (difficult to see) with a sly plan to make sure His birthday isn’t ignored (more difficult to see) which consists of giving a false name to pigeonhole a barista into something that he/she probably doesn’t even disagree with in the first place (unimaginably difficult to see), then you don’t need more passion; you might need to settle in with a cup of home brewed coffee and read the Gospels again.
Imagine for a moment what you think your greatest achievement as a Christian might be today. Now replace your face with Jesus’ and see if it still looks right. If it does, then I’m willing to bet paycheck for paycheck that it’s got nothing to do with coffee.