Viewpoint by Leonard Pitts Jr.: Politics, actins skewer true meaning of Christian

June 20, 2002

"Lord, I want to be a Christian in my heart" — Negro spiritual

Lord, help me. I'm about to do what smart people never do - talk religion in public.

I do this because of a woman in Russia and a man in Pennsylvania. More about her in a moment. As for him, he stood up from the audience during a Q&A that followed a speech I gave at a university some months back. I'm usually pretty relaxed during those sessions. I've done them enough that I'm seldom surprised by any question.

Then this guy stood up and asked, "Are you a Christian?"

There was perhaps a half-second pause between his question and my saying yes. I hesitated because I wasn't sure — I mean this in a literal sense — exactly what I was being asked. Did he want to know whether I trust in the divinity of Jesus and struggle to understand and live by His teachings? That's how I decided to interpret it. But he could just as easily have been asking me about politics or scandal.


Because "Christian" seldom means simply Christian these days. A minister friend and I were talking about this the other day as we chewed over the way the Catholic Church has handled the problem of pedophiliac priests. With all its evasions and denials, all its weasel-words and blame-shifting, I complained, the church seems more like a subsidiary of Enron than an earthly representative of the Almighty.

It's not the sort of behavior I want to be associated with. Or judged by.

But it's not just the Catholic Church. In the larger scope, it's the fact that, over the past 20 years, Christianity in America has been co-opted by one side of the political spectrum to such a degree that it has become an accepted code for opposition to gun control, gay rights, feminism, the First Amendment.

Hence, the half-second of hesitation. Because by that standard, I'm probably not much of a Christian at all. But there is, thankfully, another standard.

Which brings me to the Russian woman, Tatyana Sapunova, 27 years old. Two weeks ago, she was driving with her mother near Moscow when she saw a sign planted by the side of the road. "Death To Yids," it said. She stopped and attempted to tear it down.

That's when the explosive device rigged to the sign exploded. The blast tore through her face, hands and legs. She is reported to have lost sight in one eye. Sapunova, for the record, is not Jewish. In fact, she was baptized a Christian. I have no way of knowing if she still follows that faith or, indeed, any faith.

I do know this: What she did speaks directly to what faith is supposed to be about — and too seldom is. These days, religion is a story of scandal or of somebody jockeying for political advantage. A story of warfare over land or the rationalization of suicide bombings. But for some reason, it's seldom a story like this, seldom a story of someone motivated to stand with the outcasts like Christ among the lepers — a person compelled to do the right thing because it is the right thing.

How many "Christians" do you suppose roared past that sign without stopping? Not that Christianity is the brand name of all that is good. How many people of whatever faith and for that matter, how many of no faith at all who are nevertheless pleased to consider themselves moral and decent also did not stop? Why is it this expression of hate did not trouble them enough to take a stand? And what is it about Tatyana Sapunova that it troubled her beyond abiding?

"Are you a Christian?" the man asks. And in the width of a half-second's pause fall years of frustration with Jim Bakker's lies and Tammy Faye's tears, with Jerry Falwell's bigotry and Oral Roberts' hucksterism, with holier-than-thou secrets and righteous lies and with predation that hides behind a clerical collar. You want to know that saying yes can be about something better than that, that it can denote something higher, humbler, more challenging and more hope-filled.

Then you consider Tatyana Sapunova and you are reminded that it can. So there's no need to hesitate. And indeed, there never was.

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