Name calling is rude. I’ve been taught that ever since I thought “poo-face” and “fart-bum” were hilarious and original insults (which I still do, by the way).
Shame Christians don’t always practice what we preach.
If you don’t call yourself a Christian, do you know the names we call you? Some are more fashionable than others, some a little outdated now. While “the damned” might only still be used in particularly Calvinist branches of fundamentalist Christianity, names like “the lost” are prevalent in the songs, prayers and sermons of evangelical churches up and down the country.
We mean well, most of the time. “The last, the least and the lost” is a phrase that crops up regularly, in the mission statements of organisations, and songs like Reliant K’s of that name and one by Rex Allchurch called “To love the lost”. While “the lost” sounds like a patronising term for a group who are a bit pathetic and in need of help, “the cursed” is far more sinister sounding. If Adam and Eve’s sin caused a curse in Genesis 3, and Jesus takes the curse for people who believe in him, we’re told to see all those who don’t believe in Jesus as still cursed. It’s an unbelievably grating phrase to use about people who don’t believe the same as us.
But why? After all, it’s not like these words aren’t Biblical. As I’ve said, the language of curse comes from Genesis 3, although it’s actually only the serpent who is cursed, along with the ground – so it’s misleading that we label the whole passage in that way. It crops up again in Deuteronomy 21:23, “for anyone hung on a tree is under God’s curse”, which is picked up in the New Testament image of Jesus hung on a tree, the cross, to become that curse (Galatians 3:13). “Lost” features on the lips of Jesus a number of times – he says he’s come for the “lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matt 15:24), he came “to seek and to save the lost” (Luke 19:10) and the lost sheep, coin and son are each the stars of the famous parables of Luke 15.
If Jesus was okay talking about “the lost”, why does it make me so uncomfortable?
There’s something powerful about the language we use to describe and label people, and its effects on the way we think about each other. As soon as I lump together everyone who doesn’t fit my definition of Christian, whatever that might be, as “the lost”, or something worse, I am declaring my judgement that those people are in need, and I am not. They need what I have. I am in a superior position (well done me), and they should be grateful that I’m telling them how to become un-lost. Now that might not be my conscious thought. I know we try to mean it in the sense of “one beggar telling another beggar where to find bread” (D.T. Niles). But I’m sure it has a subtle effect on the way we think.
As soon as I tell a friend that I’m bringing “a non-Christian” to CU, or to Church, or even to lunch, I’m implying something by labelling them that way. Perhaps that my friend needs to change the way they speak or act, because they’re about to interact with a lost person.
Perhaps I mean that they should make the most of an opportunity to share the gospel with my non-Christian friend, or that they should be careful to act in a more loving way so as to make the gospel attractive. Or maybe I want them to be aware of saying or doing anything hypocritical in front of the non-Christian. Or that they should be careful, lest they be tempted or contaminated by an unbeliever. Again, I might not mean all of those things consciously, but as soon as I label them as “non-Christian”, in whatever language I use to do it, I put them in this whole category of people who are different to me and need this particular treatment.
But people are not as simple as two black and white categories, are they?
I know people who have been going to Church for years, for the friends and community they find there rather than all the God-stuff. I know people who have never set foot in a Church but have a deep respect for Jesus and want to live more like him. I know people who have Christian families, people who have walked away from faith, people whose understanding of God has dramatically changed since their childhood, people who are reconstructing a new faith of their own. I know people who reject the word ‘Christian’ but follow Jesus better than most others I’ve seen, people who are exploring for the first time, people who are ready to give up searching for God, people who are not ready to start.
The cliché is right. We are all on a journey. Sometimes we come together and involve each other in those journeys, sometimes we talk about Jesus, about faith, about trying to follow, about working things out, about doubts, about walking away, about coming back. We ask each other questions, we allow each other in, we encourage, we learn, we feel challenged. We look for directions together. It’s good that this journeying is a group activity! But I can’t see that it’s helped by drawing a line between us, and insisting that some of us have all the answers, which the lost back there need.
Can we not just all be ‘people’?
What if I were to tell you I was bringing a friend to Church, with no reference to whether or not I consider them to be a Christian? What if the way I speak or act towards other people wasn’t affected by whether they are one of ‘us’ or one of ‘them’? What if there was no category of people who have all the directions, and no category of people who are totally clueless and need to be shown everything? What if we got better at learning from each other, whether or not we call ourselves Christians? What if your experience of Church was just as important as mine, or if I could be as challenged by your response to the Bible as I think you should be by mine?
What would become of that Biblical ‘lost’ language then? I think there’s a place for it. It’s language of testimony. As we look back on that journey we’re making and see how God has directed and led us, we can say of ourselves, “I am that sheep. I am that coin. I am that son.”
And we can say to God, “You are that shepherd. You are that woman. You are that father.”
The richness of those parables about being lost and found doesn’t come from labelling others and setting ourselves up as the map-readers. It comes from using them to express the way we experience God pursuing and seeking us, the way he carves out paths for us, and the way he gives us travelling companions for the road.