_______ please stand up?
Back in my childhood, I remember watching the television show, To Tell the Truth. An individual with an unusual occupation or experience would be joined by two impostors and a panel of celebrities would question them and try to decide who was the real person. For some time I've struggled with the question, Would the real Baptists please stand up? or, Would the real Christians please stand up? And recently, Would the real Muslims please stand up? How do we decide who is the real thing? Who gets to define the term?
Let me give some examples. Early Baptists had four commitments that distinguished them from other Christian groups. They believed in soul liberty (an individual is responsible for his or her own faith), church freedom (no outside body can tell a church what its ministry must look like), freedom of the Bible (the scriptures speak for themselves and nobody can assign an official interpretation), and the separation of church and state(much more complicated than many people think, but that is another post). Those four commitments led to a wide variety of theological stances from fundamentalist to Unitarian but all stood within the tradition. Few Baptists today are willing to live with the implications of that freedom - think especially of the Southern Baptist Convention. Are they still Baptists?
How about Christianity in general? All Christians would presumably say they are trying to follow Jesus but their understanding of who Jesus is would differ to the point that, at least in some cases, they clearly are not talking about the same person. Let me give an example that is close to my heart and about which I'm willing to live with significant differences... but it is a real difference. The early Christians were pacifists. They followed the teachings of Jesus and understood the things he said about enemies as absolutely prohibiting participation in the military or acting in violence under any circumstances. Rather than take up arms against enemies, they chose to watch as loved ones were tortured and killed and to endure the same. Most in the Anabaptist traditions in the Church continue to understand the teachings of Jesus that way. Beginning with Constantine, Christianity began to identify more and more with the empire of the day and military service was seen as a appropriate way to express one's faith. There are movements in the US military today that absolutely identify themselves as followers of Jesus even as they launch missiles against Libya or attack enemies in Afghanistan. It is difficult to imagine a more different understanding of how to follow Jesus. Are they both Christian? Who decides and how? What does the term mean?
More recently there has been a great deal of discussions about the nature of Islam. We often hear statements like, "For Muhammad, religion and politics were one and the same so any Muslim is automatically against separation of religion and government and is out to impose Sharia law on the entire world. Convert or kill is the mandate." Whether or not that was Muhammad's original understanding is another discussion but it clearly is the understanding of some visible Muslims today. It also clearly is not the understanding of the overwhelming majority. Indeed, all of the Muslims I know are absolutely committed to freedom of religion and to a more peaceful expression of their faith. So, who gets to define the term?
I don't have any good answers. I find myself wanting to define the terms as I prefer they be used. Of course, that may or may not coincide with how you prefer they be defined or how the general population understands them. A good friend of mine was involved in a Black Muslim organization back in the 60's where they had a saying - "he who talks loudest gets over." Often these terms are defined by the most visible or most vocal groups... Do we allow the crazies (or at least the folk who don't think like us as they might define me as a crazy) to own the terms or do we keep trying to re-frame the discussions and redefine the terms? I have to admit that I'm growing tired of those battles... but they still feel worthwhile to me.