What it’s all about in 10 words or less

May 19, 2012

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So what would Jesus say?

I mean about this debate on T-shirts that bear his name, and freedom of expression and religious tolerance and these sort of very Canadian things.

The opinions have arrived in a crazy roll, thanks to the Grade 12 Nova Scotian suspended, then returned, then pulled from his school by his father, all because of his bold T-shirt that says “Life is wasted without Jesus.”

I was barely back in the country from Africa when I learned about it. In fact I was in a Waterdown garage, this newspaper’s story about it there on a table, when I saw a large man enter, wearing his own Jesus shirt. With a cross on front, it said, “This shirt would be illegal in 53 countries.”

It’s something we easily forget: how good we have it here. This is what the man told me.

I’ve travelled. I agree. Still, I wonder if Jesus would say something more, that it’s also too easy for many of us — religious and irreligious alike — to behave like bastards while sorting out our differences.

Three stories explain.

Story One. It’s from Yemen, the cradle of Islam, a place where the Gideon Society doesn’t really leave Bibles in hotel rooms. It’s my first day in a Yemeni newsroom.

To my dismay, I’m peppered with questions. So what do Christians believe about women’s rights? What about abortion? And homosexuality? What about suicide? And so on, as if I’m the authoritative voice of a monolithic view held by Christians worldwide.

Next, my Muslim colleagues are on the Internet listening to Coloured People by the Christian rock band DC Talk. “Mister Thomas, come and tell us what this song means.” I walk through the words with them.

But who says I’m Christian at all? Why would any Yemeni even assume it? Because I’m from Canada and most Yemenis believe Canadians are all Christians. How’s that for a cultural assumption that’s off?

Story Two. It’s very recent, from Uganda where I’ve lived and worked since those Yemen years. A phone call: “Mister Thomas, get me from jail!” It’s Moses, a Ugandan family friend. His crime? He wore jeans and little artistic hair braids while visiting a Christian university. Casual attire — might get too skimpy, you see — apparently violates that school’s dress code.

“What crime did he commit?” my wife and I asked at the campus police post. “He’s wearing ‘women’s hair,” a guard told us.

I can’t make this stuff up. It’s just too far removed from my own culture’s experience.

Which leads to Story Three and the bastards among us. It’s about two friends, one agnostic, the other not, driving from some place to another. The agnostic, a crusty newspaper editor named P.D. East, says, “Tell me what it’s about. In 10 words or less, what’s the Christian message? Let me have it. Ten words.” His friend thinks and replies. “We’re all bastards but God loves us anyway.”

Silence. Because, unknown to East’s friend, East was a so-called illegitimate child who had been called a bastard for years. His friend’s remark was profoundly personal. And a sharp theological truth.

This is why Jesus, I believe, wouldn’t hesitate to call any one of us a bastard. Certainly it’s what he repeatedly called the religious leaders of his day. Which is why they killed him. But he knew what they needed, what we all need, to be adopted into the sort of divine home that goes far past our earthly thinking.

Is this offensive? Maybe. Nobody, myself included, likes to be called a bastard. But regardless of where we live, if we are fully alive, none of us will get far down the road without offending someone somewhere. Even in an age of fast $200 divorces, we’ll just have to learn to live with each other.

Canada’s laws, after all, protect both freedom of religion and freedom of expression. They don’t protect anyone from being offended. They don’t protect anyone’s thin skin.

No, there are worse things in life than offending someone. One is being quiet when you have something thoughtful to say.

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May 19, 2012 • Posted in ,
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