It seems that a Christian relief worker in the Middle East was approached by four young men who asked for the opportunity of a private conversation. “We want to become Christians,” they said when alone. “Why do you want to become Christians?” the relief worker asked. “Because we want to be able to sleep with the women and drink alcohol, the way Christians do,” they responded.
I was told this story by a former missionary recently in response to a question that I had asked, “I hear that there are numbers of people coming to Christ in Muslim-majority countries; is this because of the violence that they see in Islam?” I have no way to vouch for the truth of the story he told, but I am afraid that the story doesn’t need to be true to represent accurately the appeal that Christianity has for many people.
When I was growing up in Mexico, we Protestant Christians had a similar view of Catholicism: that in Catholicism you could live any way you wanted to during the week and then go to confession on Sunday and have all your behavior excused. I do not know that our prejudice was justified, but in the 1970’s in Mexico, the motivation to be a Protestant was NOT “grace is so infinite that it will excuse all your sin, so you can live any way you want to.” Instead, we viewed ourselves, and others viewed us, as living lives that were different and more moral than most of society around us.
In the language school where I teach, it is the Muslims who live that kind of life, different and more moral than the lives of the students from “Christian” countries.
In the denomination in which I serve, “virtue” is now equated with “social justice.” The fight for morality is a fight for non-discrimination, universal health care, income redistribution, environmental protection, and resistance to oppression generally. In terms of personal conduct, however, the watchwords are “tolerance”, “diversity”, and “grace.” A lot is said about social justice, very little is said about personal righteousness.
The problem, of course, is that without personal righteousness, community becomes unsustainable on any basis but that of the narrowest family or tribal identity. Look through the list of qualities that Paul offers above. I can imagine the people there described as protesting, standing against injustice, expressing their opinions with great skill and forcefulness. I cannot imagine them able to build community, for that would require letting go of self-expression and self-indulgence for the sake of peace, harmony, and the good of all.
In the short run, a religion that offers grace as permissiveness may indeed grow. Over the long run, however, the longing for community will consign such religion to failure. If the competition between Christianity and Islam is a competition between Unlimited Personal Freedom and an Orderly Community, Islam will win.
Biblical Christianity, however, is not either personal righteousness or social justice—it is both. Biblical Christianity offers tolerance to people but not to all behavior, celebrates a diversity of backgrounds but seeks a community of purpose, offers a grace that does not excuse all personal behavior but brings about repentance from all kinds of sin—both personal and social.