What Kind of Christianity?
by Rev. Cindy Kohlmann
What kind of Christianity do you want to be part of? What kind of Christianity is worth dedicating your life to, or at least important parts of your life like baptism, marriage, and death?
This question has been rolling in my mind and heart as I dig deeper into the good news of Jesus Christ and learn more about the history of the Church since his death and resurrection. What kind of faithful living did Jesus invite his followers into? What kind of Christianity would seem familiar to Christ today?
What kind of Christianity do I want to be a part of? As someone whose life and work are centered in the PC(USA), I attempt to answer that question on a daily basis with my words and actions. I want to be part of a Christianity where Jesus’ message truly is good news for the poor and downtrodden, where love for neighbor translates into justice and abundant life for every person and all creation. I want to be part of a Christianity that celebrates the dignity of every living being and seeks continuously to live into our prayer that God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven.
Does that resonate with you? Do you also long to be part of a Christianity that builds up instead of tears down, that embraces and supports not only people with power or wealth but those who the rest of the world turns their backs on? Do you, like me, want to know the joy of celebrating with one another and the satisfaction of lifting each other up? I think that’s part of what Jesus intended.
Today is Palm Sunday, when Jesus led what amounted to a protest march into Jerusalem. His ministry had focused on healing and teaching, calling people who were oppressed by both an occupying nation and the religious elite to both imagine a better world and work for it. By entering Jerusalem the way he did, the streets lined with people shouting and singing and then following behind him, Jesus was directly challenging the powers and principalities of the day.
Christianity grew into a worldwide movement, despite hardship and abuse, not because of a promise of salvation after death but because of the care extended to one another in the here and now. Those living in poverty and fear, those who were marginalized and suffering from injustice, the “least of these” as Jesus called them, were welcomed into a community of faith where people were loved simply because God loved them first.
That is the kind of Christianity that captured the imagination of people’s hearts and minds. That is the kind of Christianity that I want to be part of building up today.
One of the reasons this question has been on my heart and mind is because of a book I read in preparation for a mid council leaders’ pilgrimage to Montgomery, Alabama. This question is the title of a new book by Dr. William Yoo, professor of history at Columbia Seminary, and a direct quote of the Rev. Dr. Katie Geneva Cannon, the first Black American woman ordained as a minister in the Presbyterian Church (1974). The full quote is “What kind of Christianity allowed white Christians to deny basic human rights and simple dignity to Blacks, these same rights which had been given to others without question?”
In Montgomery, we visited the Legacy Museum and Memorial, where the story of the enslavement of millions of Africans, the impact of segregation and incarceration, and the bloody history of lynching is told. It is a powerful experience, walking through rooms that connect all these things, and knowing that the expression of Christianity in the “New World” and the United States was one of devastation and dehumanization.
The Presbyterian Church was directly involved in enslaving people on the basis of the color of their skin, creating theologies that devalued other humans in order to build wealth through exploited labor. “In Presbyterian congregations, conversations, and history books, one encounters tremendous sadness over ecclesial divisions that lasted over one hundred years. Yet one struggles to find the requisite anger over the pain and torture that millions of enslaved persons suffered from white Presbyterian enslavers, supporters of Black enslavement, and guilty bystanders who chose to be complicit through inaction and indecision.”
Given the history Yoo traces through written accounts, minutes of Presbytery and General Assembly meetings, and published sources, he arrives at this conclusion, “While ‘the wrong kind of Christianity’ is the most obvious answer to Cannon’s question, this book maintains that a more historically precise and honest answer is ‘the Presbyterian kind of Christianity.’”
I want to be a part of changing that narrative for our church. I want to be part of a kind of Christianity that understands loving God, neighbor, and self to mean tangible, reality-altering, justice-oriented work. I want to be part of a kind of Christianity that is fully committed to dismantling structural racism, eradicating systemic poverty, and fighting for the rights of LGBTQIA+ beloved siblings. I want to be part of a kind of Christianity where Jesus is not just praised by followed fervently into the public square through acts of compassion and community-focused service, where salvation is experienced in this life, not just in the life to come.