Conversations with a Skeptic: How Can I Be A Christian When Christians Have Done So Much Harm?

Rev. Dr. Carter Lester Avatar

Last week, I began a 4-week preaching series on “Conversations with a Skeptic.”  Each week, we will look at a question posed by skeptics.  The purpose is not to score points in a sharply-pointed counterattack.  The point is to face the questions, and not dismiss them, because they are valid questions.  And if we are to have an examined and deeper faith, rather than a glib and shallow one, then we need not be afraid of wrestling with the questions.  This week, the question is, “How can I be a Christian when Christians have done so much harm?”

I know of a woman who interviewed for a job several years ago.  On a Friday, she interviewed with a senior partner in the firm in the new town where she was planning to live.  Near the end of the interview the senior partner invited her to dinner, one-on-one.  And suggested that there was a way she could be guaranteed of a job offer – with no doubt about what he meant.  She declined, citing “prior plans” with a friend.  On Sunday, she went to a new church for worship, a Presbyterian church.  It was a communion Sunday.  Imagine what she felt when one of the elders serving communion passed the tray to her, his wedding band in clear sight: the senior partner from Friday’s interview.  How can anyone be a Christian when there is so much hypocrisy in the church?

Christopher Hitchens, an outspoken atheist who wrote a book on “why religion poisons everything,” once appeared on a Christian radio broadcast.  The talk show host thought he could trap Hitchens with this question: “Imagine yourself in a strange city as the evening was coming on, and imagine that there was a large group of men coming towards you,” the host said.  Would you feel more or less safe, if you were to learn that these men were just coming from a prayer meeting?” he asked.

Hitchens replied: “Just to stay within the letter, ‘B,’ I have actually had that experience in Belfast, Beirut, Bombay, Belgrade, Bethlehem, and Baghdad.  In each case, I can say that absolutely, and can give my reasons, why I should feel immediately threatened if I thought that the group of men approaching me in the dusk were coming from a religious observance.”1  And that is only the letter, ‘B.’

The atheist Hitchens might well have added, “How can I be a Christian when Christians have done so much harm?”

He has a point.  There is no denying that religious people, have done harm, have even inflicted gravel cruelty in the name of their religion.  And Christians have done their share of harm.  Consider the Crusades, the Inquisition, segregation, apartheid, the treatment of women and the treatment of the LGBTQ population – just to begin the list.  And closer to home, there is no denying that gossiping, backbiting, lying, sexual harassment, and other wrongs are committed by those who claim to be people of faith.  Sadly the words of Blaise Pascal, written in 1670, can still ring all too true:  “men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction.”

Too much wrong and harm have been done by Christians.  We cannot ignore it or rationalize it.  Instead, we must acknowledge it, repudiate it, repent of it, and be humbled by it.  As a wise pastor I know put it, “there is absolutely no place for Christians to feel morally superior to non-Christians.  Christianity is not a club of morally superior people.  Instead, Christian churches are populated, have always been populated – like the Hebrew Temple before them – with sinners.”2

The prophet Isaiah knew it: “Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to strike with a wicked fist!…you serve your own interest…and oppress all your workers.”  Jesus knew it: “you liars, thieves, hypocrites!” 

Ever since the beginning of the church, as was true in ancient Israel, there has been a tendency to bend the Christian faith to fit the prevailing culture, rather than the opposite.  Consider, for example, Martin Luther’s anti-Semitic writings, often cited by the Nazis, or the South African Dutch church’s support of apartheid, or the Russian Orthodox’s church’s endorsement of Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.  That is why Paul wrote to the church in Rome, “Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed.”  And it is why Jesus told his disciples, “Do not judge, so that you may not be judged.  Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye?”

Our Christian faith knows that we are sinful people, prone to do harm.  I am a Christian precisely because the Christian faith knowledges the reality of who we are, of who I am and addresses it.  That is why we just took time to confess our sins, and we do so every week.  As C.S. Lewis once said, to the extent that the church has any advantage over any other body of people it is not that it is morally superior or more loved by God than other people.  No, any advantage it has is that knowing that we are all sinners and live in a broken and sinful world.  We need the love and grace we find in Jesus Christ.  All of us.

“The Christian faith is not about Christians.  We are not called to trust or believe in Christians.  We are called to trust and believe in Jesus Christ.”  In the same way, “we cannot judge the Christian faith by the actions of those who are not living it.  We must judge the Christian faith by the One, the only one, who has lived it: Jesus Christ.”3 And he did no harm.  He spoke truth to power and did not give in to the powers that be or his surrounding culture.  Instead, he lived as one full of grace and love – all the way to the cross. 

No one has ever fully lived the Christian faith – which prompted the British playwright, George Bernhard Shaw to say with his customary wit: “Christianity might be a good thing if anyone ever tried it.”  But some have tried it – and in doing so, have reflected the light of Christ, however feebly, into a dark and broken world.  Hitchens claimed that Christianity, like other religions, has poisoned everything.

But ask the women at Forman Christian College in Lahore, Pakistan if that is true.  In a recent video, distributed by the Presbyterian Foundation, one of those women says, “The world in the college is totally different from the world outside.” Woman after woman, they talked about how Forman, founded by a Presbyterian missionary in 1864, is providing opportunities that these women might not otherwise have.  And please note, that despite its origins and name, the College population is overwhelmingly Muslim.

Or, ask the men and women who have experienced natural disasters, if Christianity has poisoned everything.  I will never forget riding on the plane to Gulfport, Mississippi, shortly after Hurricane Katrina, a plane filled with church volunteers from every imaginable denomination and arm of the church.  As a non-church member said to me after another storm disaster, “I don’t know what we would have done without the churches.”

Or ask the people who get free nutritious meals lovingly prepared and served at Daybreak in downtown Allentown, or receive rental assistance and social work counseling through our mission partner, the Lehigh Conference of Churches, so they can stay off the streets.

Or ask the teenager who said “church for all of its faults was the only place outside of my own home where people didn’t gawk at me or make fun of me.”4 Or the couple who were able to put their marriage back together after the husband’s affair.  He was overwhelmed that she didn’t give up on him.  She said, “the desire to find the grace to forgive – that can’t be coming from me,” she says.  “That has to be coming from the Holy Spirit.”

To be sure there is hypocrisy in the church – and a lot of other sins.  We will and do fall short.  Philip Yancey writes, “In an odd way, the very failures of the church prove its doctrine.  Grace, like water, flows to the lowest part.  We in the church have humility and contrition to offer the world, not a formula for success.  Almost alone in our success-oriented society, we admit that we have failed, are failing, and always will fail.”5

Bill A. was our neighbor when we first moved to Pottstown.  A retired AP reporter and editor who had been all over the world, he was cynical, opinionated and argumentative and had a beef with almost every other neighbor.  But he was wonderful with us – I think mainly because he took a shine to our three girls.  I remember once he ranted about the church and said he could never join a church because it was filled with hypocrites.  About the only time I ever heard Bill rendered speechless was when I said in response to him, “Don’t worry Bill, there is always room for one more.”

The love of God as revealed in Jesus Christ is always bigger than we imagine, or expect, or even hope for.  Too often, the church can show a love that is too small, too parochial, too restricted, too empty of grace.  But then at other times, the church and Christians can live with a large love that points the world beyond what the world expects to the gift God gives us in Jesus Christ.

Robert Coles, now 93, is a world-renowned psychiatrist and teacher, a student of children in crisis and a Pulitzer-winning author.  His career and faith were both forever changed by an encounter with a six year-old girl early in his career.

Her name was Ruby Bridges.  In an interview you can still see on YouTube, Coles talks about meeting Ruby.  The year was 1960.  By a federal court order, Ruby, was permitted to attend a former all-white school.  When the school opened in September, she was the only student, and her teacher was the only teacher in the building.  All of the white parents boycotted the school.  Each day she would walk through two lines of screaming adults, accompanied only by federal marshals.  Twice a day, she walked through those adults, morning and afternoon, some of whom were undoubtedly churchgoers.  You can still hear them on newsreel footage yelling at her, using the “N” word, and shouting that they would kill her.  She was a first grader. 

Coles saw the footage of the girl, and as one studying children in crisis, he said to himself, “I would like to know that child.  I would like to know what is happening to her.”  And so he volunteered as a child psychiatrist to meet with Ruby – so he could support her and her parents who were poor and not well-educated themselves.  But they were church-goers and they wanted their daughter to have as good an education as any other child.

Coles met regularly with Ruby for months.  He recalls, “I waited and waited to see symptoms [of distress] from experiencing this living hell.”  But to his amazement, Ruby did not show any.  She remained stoic and strong.  She kept going to school to meet with her teacher.  And she kept learning. 

One day, Ruby’s teacher, who had come to know Coles, told Coles that she saw Ruby stop and say something to herself.  When he later talked with Ruby, he asked: “Who are you talking to?”  Ruby responded: she wasn’t talking to the people; she was talking to God.

Coles then asked her what she was saying to God.  “I was praying for the people,” she responded.  “You were praying for them – why?,” an incredulous Coles remembers asking.  Her eyes grew wide, Coles remembers, and Ruby said, “Don’t you think they need praying for?”

Then Coles asked Ruby what she said in her prayer.  Ruby told him, “I always pray the same prayer?”  “What is that Ruby?” he asked.

“Forgive them God for they don’t know what they are doing.”6

We know who first said those words – and where Ruby heard them.

Friends, the witness of the church in history is mixed.  Sometimes, like those adults lining Ruby’s walk into the school, Christians have done harm, living small lives reflecting their selfishness and prejudices, small lives that obscure the light of Christ.   But sometimes, the church has gotten it right, despite all of its imperfections: helping its members live generous and expansive lives through which the amazing grace and awesome love of Christ shines through like the sun through a freshly cleaned window. 

But ultimately, our faith lies not in the church, or in Christians.  How can we have faith when Christians have done so much wrong in the world?

Because our faith lies in Jesus Christ.  And there is nothing wrong with him.

  1. Christopher Hitchins, God Is Not Great (New York: Atlantic Books, ↩︎
  2. From a sermon by Rev. Kerry Pidcock-Lester which has been a great guide for this sermon. ↩︎
  3. Ibid. ↩︎
  4. Nadia Bolz-Weber, Pastrix (New York: Jericho Books, 2013, 21. ↩︎
  5. Philip Yancey, Reaching for the Invisible God (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2000), 20. ↩︎
  6. ↩︎