My Cynical Christian Reality Check
Headline after headline, story after story, we read about how Pope Francis is doing things differently. Eschewing the pomp and traditional trappings of the papacy, he refused the fur-trimmed half-cloak and golden cross in favor of a plain white vestments and a cross made of iron. He declined the official papal car and rode the bus with the cardinals that elected him. In his most astonishing departure from tradition, Pope Francis washed the feet of two women prisoners, one of whom was Muslim. Last week, he announced that instead of giving bonuses to Vatican employees, the money would go to charity.
Pope Francis is different from his predecessors, and everyone has taken notice—laity and leaders, Catholics and non-Catholics. (As an evangelical, I closely followed these stories because of the tremendous influence of the papacy, and despite the theological differences between Catholics and evangelicals, I believe we're called to a certain degree of unity through Christ.)
The former Argentinean archbishop is a humble, simple man, exactly the kind of man needed to tackle the financial and sex abuse scandals engulfing the Catholic Church. Here was a pope for the people, a pope that did not seem altogether different from his followers. Here was a pope who understood and embraced for himself a lifestyle of poverty. President Obama called him a "champion of the poor and the most vulnerable among us." United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon praised Pope Francis as a "voice for the voiceless … he has a deep sense of humility."
And yet, something about our praiseworthy reactions to this new pope concerned me. Why were we so surprised, so encouraged that a Christian leader lived out these Christian values? I realized, although Pope Francis is different from his papal predecessors, contrary to public perception, he's not so different from believers in general.
Given today's negative perceptions about Christians, our faith struggles with a substantial public relations problem. In their book, UnChristian, Gabe Lyons and David Kinnaman unpack a few of these perceptions. According to their research, people think Christians are hypocritical, anti-homosexual, sheltered, too political, judgmental, and too concerned with getting people "saved" rather than building relationships and meeting felt needs. It's not just non-Christians that have this view; Christians do too, especially young Christians.
In some ways, we're our own worst enemy. Christians loudly protest what's wrong with other Christians and quickly point out what's wrong with certain Christian leaders and bloggers and headline-makers, but we very rarely celebrate the mighty things God is doing in our midst. When we fail to recognize the faithful, charitable Christians among us, it becomes easy to see humble, faithful Pope Francis as the exception. I'm guilty too—as I followed the coverage of the new pope, I realized I wasn't comparing him to the Christians I know personally, but to a cynical stereotype of Christians in general.
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