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A person who thinks only about building walls, wherever they may be, and not building bridges, is not Christian. This is not in the gospel. — Pope Francis on proposals to completely seal the U.S. southern border.

This statement raised eyebrows in some quarters and incited a riot in the Twitterverse. For many folks, I hope, it also raised the important question: What is a Christian?

The Pope’s comments suggest that a Christian is known by how well their thoughts, words, and deeds align with the Gospel of Christ. The response from those offended by the Pope’s remarks suggest that a Christian is someone who says they are a Christian, regardless of their actual attitudes and behaviors.

I think readers will agree that the final authority on that question is Christ himself:

Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father in heaven. — Matthew 7:21

That seems pretty clear: Just calling Jesus “Lord” isn’t a key to the Kingdom—acting on God’s will is. But this single verse forms part of a larger context; Jesus goes on:

Many will say to Me in that day, ‘Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in Your name, cast out demons in Your name, and done many wonders in Your name?’ And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness!’ Therefore whoever hears these sayings of Mine, and does them, I will liken him to a wise man who built his house on the rock: … But everyone who hears these sayings of Mine, and does not do them, will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand… – Matthew 7:22-27

Here, Christ brings the answer to the question into the material world and gives us a benchmark for a believer’s behavior. This is one of several passages in which Christ links hearing his word with doing it, as in John 14:23: “If anyone loves me, he will obey my teaching.” 

In Christ’s estimation, a true Christian hears his words and acts on them. One question logically follows: What teaching does Christ expect believers to put into action?  

To determine which principles Christ considered most important, we need only ask where he placed emphasis. Consider this dialogue:

One of the teachers of the law … asked him, “Of all the commandments, which is the most important?”  “The most important one,” answered Jesus, “is this: ‘Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength. The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these. – Mark 12:28-30 

Christ expects his followers to possess certain qualities: to love their neighbors as they love themselves and treat others as they would be treated. They do this because this behavior is called for by commandments Christ, himself, placed above all others.

This raised another question in the mind of the lawyer with whom Christ was speaking: Who is my neighbor?

Christ responded with the Parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37). A Jew was attacked by thieves and left for dead. A Jewish priest came along and passed by without helping, as did a Levite. The poor man was finally helped by a Samaritan, who took him to an inn and tended to him, then paid the innkeeper to care for him until he was well.

Jesus asked the lawyer, “So which of these three do you think was neighbor to him who fell among the thieves?” And he said, “He who showed mercy on him.” Then Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.” 

i-was-a-stranger

This particular illustration has great significance because the Samaritans and Jews were on opposing sides of a divide that went back centuries. Religious leaders of both groups insisted it was an offense to have contact with the other or cross into their territory. The Romans didn’t understand this ethnic nuance, and crammed the two groups together with disastrous results. At the time of Christ, violence between Samaritans and Jews wasn’t uncommon.

Christ’s illustration makes points about racial and religious harmony and the breaking down of manmade barriers, in both a material and spiritual sense. Jesus chose the perfect example to illustrate his point—our neighbors are not just those who are like us or whom we like; our neighbors are the people we loathe in perpetuity, the strangers, the foreigners.

Lest anyone think this is only true if those strangers are nice to us, Christ pushes the envelope further with these words:

But I say to you who hear: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, and pray for those who spitefully use you. To him who strikes you on the one cheek, offer the other also. … Give to everyone who asks of you. And from him who takes away your goods do not ask them back. And just as you want men to do to you, you also do to them likewise. But if you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. …But love your enemies, do good, and lend, hoping for nothing in return; and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High.—Luke 6: 27-35.

So: What is a Christian? Obviously, a Christian is one who hears Christ’s words, and does them. Christ emphasized doing—the emphasis of every great religion.

This leads full circle to the question the Pope addresses: What ”fruits” should a Christian produce—that is, what do Christian virtues look like in practice … according to Christ?

In that context, read the Pope’s words again: “A person who thinks only about building walls, wherever they may be, and not building bridges, is not Christian. This is not in the gospel.”

We each need to do our own math on this one, with a clear idea of what the Gospel actually says. Think of it as a reasoned exercise in independent investigation of truth, which, according to the Baha’i teachings, underpins the essence of justice:

O Son of Spirit! The best beloved of all things in My sight is Justice; turn not away therefrom if thou desirest Me, and neglect it not that I may confide in thee. By its aid thou shalt see with thine own eyes and not through the eyes of others, and shalt know of thine own knowledge and not through the knowledge of thy neighbor. Ponder this in thy heart; how it behooveth thee to be. Verily justice is My gift to thee and the sign of My loving-kindness. Set it then before thine eyes. — Baha’u’llah, The Hidden Words, pp. 3-4.

Listen to Jeff and Maya Bohnhoff’s new song on this subject.

13 Comments

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  • May 04, 2016
    @Mark David Vinzens, re: ET and science
    I often write about first contact with other races of people from other worlds. I wasn't completely certain that such people existed until I became a Bahá'í and read what Bahá'u'lláh had to say about it: " The learned men, that have fixed at several thousand years the life of this earth, have failed, throughout the long period of their observation, to consider either the number or the age of the other planets. Consider, moreover, the manifold divergencies that have resulted from the theories propounded by these men. Know thou that every fixed ...star hath its own planets, and every planet its own creatures, whose number no man can compute." — Gleanings LXXXII
    In the Bahá'í Faith, science, which leads us to such knowledge as the age of the earth or the nature of life upon it, is a force whose principles should be understood and appreciated by all, not just career scientists—hence the importance of Bahá'u'lláh's' teachings on universal education and the independent investigation of reality.
    Of on this subject, Abdu'l-Bahá wrote: “God has created man and endowed him with the power of reason whereby he may arrive at valid conclusions. Therefore, man must endeavor in all things to investigate the fundamental reality. If he does not independently investigate, he has failed to utilize the talent God has bestowed upon him.” — Abdu’l-Bahá, Promulgation of Universal Peace, p 313
    Of science, specifically, he wrote that: “Scientific knowledge is the highest attainment upon the human plane, for science is the discoverer of realities. It is of two kinds: material and spiritual. Material science is the investigation of natural phenomena; divine science is the discovery and realization of spiritual verities. The world of humanity must acquire both. A bird has two wings; it cannot fly with one. Material and spiritual science are the two wings of human uplift and attainment. Both are necessary...” — Abdu’l-Bahá, Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 138 (23 May 1912, Cambridge, MA)
    As you suggest, religion, like science, must adapt to reality—or rather our understanding of it must adapt.
    "Religion must be living, vitalized, moving and progressive. If it be non-progressive it is dead. The divine institutes are evolutionary; therefore [their] revelation must be progressive and continuous." — Abdu'l-Bahá, Foundations of World Unity
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  • Apr 13, 2016
    Neisan, you wrote "to see by faith is to close the eye of reason"
    I appreciate that you have apparently suffered at the hands of religionists, and I am sorry for that. I've been the victim of unreasoning religious intolerance myself. But your words are neither true nor helpful.
    Faith and reason are not at odds and never have been, unless that faith is blind. Such blind faith is criticized in the scriptures of the Bahá'í Faith and earlier revelations as well. Christ's words about the use of reason are well-known (if sometimes ignored).
    But blind faith is not ...the sole province of religion. People of any philosophy—including staunch atheists—can exhibit irrationality, prejudice, bias, and blind faith.
    The great Teachers of religion inarguably exhorted their followers to use reason in making life decisions. This is especially true of the Bahá'í Faith, in which the sheer volume of passages that deal with the subject of reason are eloquent testimony to its importance. Our scriptures laud science as the greatest attainment in the human world and call upon every believer to investigate reality for themselves and to apply reason in matters of faith.
    Abdu'l-Bahá wrote: "The failure of human beings to independently investigate the truth is the foremost among those ills that currently ravage society. For without such an impartial investigation, it is impossible for civilization to progress beyond the prejudices and passions that contribute to the disintegration of the social order.” —Abdu’l-Bahá, Promulgation of Universal Peace, p 313
    The Bahá'í writings refer to reason as humanity's "first faculty"—an essential gift from God. Faith, to a Bahá'í, is supposed to be a reasoned response to our assumptions about the world we live in. Everyone has faith—whether that is faith in God, or faith in the loyalty of a friend, the love of a family member, or the rotation of the planet. Science is based on faith—the faith that the universe can be known through observation and reason and that laws operate in ways that can be trusted.
    It serves no one to reduce faith to a pejorative.
    On spirituality and religion—yes, they are different, I think. I think of spirituality as the individual's response to the Divine—their inner life—and religion as a community response to the teachings of the Divine. To be sure, sometimes our responses are irrational, self-serving and contradict those teachings.
    And that was really the point of my article.
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  • Neisan
    Apr 11, 2016
    The Pope also promotes hateful discrimination against gay people.
    He also demanded that bishops don't report sexual child abuse to authorities....Vatican's good is historically outweighed by the bad.
    Good intentions, and political correctness, are no match for the horrific teachings promoted in the less popular pages of all Abrahamic religions.
    • Apr 13, 2016
      This pope has gone a long way toward reversing those wrongs, including encouraging new attitudes towards gays and ferreting out those who covered up child abuse. But, as it happens, whatever the faults of the historical church, the pope's words as quoted are correct.
      Ironically, you seem to have completely missed the point of the article—that regardless of what Christians profess, what Christ taught militates against the sort of behavior you find hateful. The point remains that if Christians (or members of any faith) followed the prescriptive teachings of their Prophet, the behavior you abhor would never have happened ...in the first place.
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  • Mark David Vinzens
    Apr 06, 2016
    The spirit of christ (or love/the holy spirit) transcends all religions and manmade limitations. If God is Love, then Love is the only reality. Everything else is illusion. Or in other words: the physical world is illusionary and the world of spirit is the only reality; and there is no separation and only oneness. There is no world outside of consciousness, but infinite frequencies of consciousness coexist as planes of existance. And we can choose our frequencie.
    • Neisan
      Apr 11, 2016
      God is the illusion.
      to see by faith is to close the eye of reason
  • Mark David Vinzens
    Apr 06, 2016
    A true Christian is a follower of Christ, who is the embodiment of perfect love and a heavenly way of thinking ............*Nothing is sweeter than love, nothing stronger or higher or wider, nothing is more pleasant, nothing fuller, and nothing better in heaven or on earth, for love is born of God and cannot rest except in God, Who is created above all things.
    Thomas à Kempis, The Imitation of Christ
  • Apr 06, 2016
    Thank you for this well-structured and thoughtful article.
    My evangelical background immediately wanted to answer the title question with the classic “statements of faith” I’ve read so often at churches: We believe in one God, the trinity, Christ is fully God, the Bible is the only authoritative word of God, Christ was resurrected bodily, salvation from sin is only through Christ.
    I find the beautiful Gospel quotes in this article so much simpler to understand (although not easy to practice every day). The referenced verses and the quote from Pope Francis more closely fit my conception of Christ.
    Of course, ...I’m always conscious of Abdu’l-Baha’s statement: “To be a Bahá’í simply means to love all the world; to love humanity and try to serve it; to work for universal peace and universal brotherhood.” Once again, simple to understand, but requiring a lifetime of practice. Thanks again.
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    • Neisan
      Apr 11, 2016
      spirituality, in its most useful forms of self-expression is independent of, and pre-dates religion by thousands of years.
      any adult who is unable to separate the two, is often a victim of childhood indoctrination
    • Mark David Vinzens
      Apr 07, 2016
      p.s. … I differentiate the thought system of the ego (duality) and the thought system of the holy spirit (nonduality). From the perspective of the ego it is a narrow (or impossible) way, but from the perspective of the holy spirit it is THE (only possible) way in alignment with the true nature of reality.
      Buddhists call Buddha the „Reality of Awakeness, which is the True Self, the True Life, the True Nature of each being.“ (http://dharmafield.org/resources/texts/you-are-buddha/) the same can we say about every „manifestation of god“. Jesus Christ is the personification of this True Self, True Life, ...True Nature of each being. He is a perfect mirror of true beingness.
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    • Mark David Vinzens
      Apr 07, 2016
      „The love and reciprocity we are to show our fellow human beings IS the narrow way that leads to life.“
      Yes.... from the perspective of the ego it is a very narrow way :) The way of divine love is narrow (or impossible) in the terms of the ego thought-system of narrow-mindedness.