By different names

Don’t let labels get in the way of following Jesus

Mar 31, 2014 by

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Speaking at the recent Anabaptist women’s theology conference in Virginia, Erica Littlewolf, from the Northern Cheyenne tribe of Montana, said she doesn’t like to call herself a Christian.

She prefers terminology from Native American educator and author Richard Twiss. He followed and called people to “the Jesus way.” In his experience, Christianity meant violence, broken promises and rejection of his culture. But his experience with Jesus was life-giving.

“Following the ways of Jesus seemed one thing, becoming a white Christian quite another,” he wrote in Leadership Journal in 2012.

For many, Christianity comes with negative connotations. Christianity has been used to deny rights and commit violence on the basis of race, gender and sexual orientation. Christians have written books using the Bible to advocate borderline-abusive parenting. Some use Scripture to support their desire to accumulate wealth.

Christianity’s damaged reputation has made identifying as Christian a conversation stopper in certain contexts. For those who can’t imagine calling their faith anything else, this can be hard to accept. We protest: Don’t judge my faith by the bad examples. Sometimes we might want to leave altogether. The reality is hard to face.

Should deciding to follow Jesus be contingent upon the labels used? Probably not. But when violence is attached to a group, labels get in the way. Rejecting a Christian label can help certain people — some of whom are surely seeking a new vision for a broken world — see Jesus differently.

But what Jesus calls humanity to is greater than labels. Jesus called people to a new vision. It’s a vision that can exist, as Twiss dem­onstrated and Littlewolf believes, despite cultural differences. And by different names.

“Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins,” Paul writes in 1 Peter 4:8.

When Christians focus less on condemning others’ sins and more on embracing the power of love to change lives, our faith’s negative associations fade into the background.

Jesus acknowledged the pain and hate-filled bits of humanness without diminishing them. At times he called them unjust. He called for repentance from sin. But his primary focus was clear. Again and again he urged his followers simply to love. “Love your neighbor as yourself,” he said (Matt. 22:39).

The center of our faith should be love. It doesn’t matter whether you call it Christianity or the Jesus way. God is love.

As we show love, labels will be less important to us. And others may begin to see it that way too.

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