I’ve never felt comfortable as a Christian in the south. Wearing Jesus like a badge you slip on and off when you need it. Oh, it’s Sunday? Where are my Jesus credentials? Oh, this client or friend or whatever is a Christian? Just one second while I put on my Jesus gear.
I’ve never been comfortable with an on again, off again relationship with God. That’s why I wasn’t baptized until I was 22. Even though in my Christian circle, the unbaptized went directly to hell. Every member of my family sat me down at some point during my teenage years. They begged me. Sometimes in tears. Please, get baptized. I thanked them for their concern. But I couldn’t.
I wasn’t committed. I wasn’t all in. And somehow I knew that an infinite, all-powerful Creator didn’t care for half-hearted, inauthentic commitment. A willy-nilly devotion to the God of the Stars would make me miserable. One foot in, one foot out. If the God tucked between the pages of Genesis and Revelation was and is the actual God, he deserved my full devotion, my entire heart and mind and soul. And until I was prepared to give it all to him, I would stay on the sidelines. I would – and this sound ludicrous – rather flirt with the gates of hell rather than flippantly follow Christ, which is, in a sense, to flirt with the gates of hell.
Flannery O’Connor, one of the greatest prophets of our time, once wrote that while the South is hardly Christ-centered, it is Christ-haunted.
When I read that for the first time, I was struck.
WHAT IT MEANS TO FOLLOW JESUS IN THE SOUTH
Following Jesus in the South isn’t the same thing as following Jesus in the Scriptures. To follow Jesus in the South means you vote a certain way. It means you’re generally a nice person. You say yes ma’am and no ma’am. It means you follow the rules. You don’t lie and cheat and steal.
Following Jesus in the South is about image management. The most important thing is to appear self-sufficient, to make everyone think you have it together and your kids have it together, that they’re polite, smart, rule followers. Look at my family, all buttoned up and successful. Thank you, Jesus. And my marriage? Rock solid. #Blessed.
Who cares what’s actually going on underneath the hood. It’s all about how you appear, how your neighbors perceive you.
At my church, almost every Sunday the same lady goes forward and every Sunday I sigh and think why does she ask for prayers every week? No one needs that many prayers. I’ve never gone forward to ask for prayers, I think to myself, as if that’s a mark of Christian maturity.
It’s not, in case you’re wondering.
Maybe this lady has it figured out. I think she does. She’s not enslaved to a false notion of self-sufficiency. She’s not wearing Christ like a badge. She NEEDS him. I need to make everyone believe I have it together.
In the South, your relationship with God is judged by external metrics. How much you do for the kingdom. Checked boxes. It’s not about the condition of your heart. It’s not about integrity. You can be a terrible human and a faithful Christian in the South. You can hate black people and immigrants and abuse your spouse as long as you know the Scriptures and pray and show up for church every week.
CHRIST-HAUNTED, NOT CHRIST-CENTERED
If you live in the South, the ghost of Christ hovers around, though. The real Christ, one who challenged a rich, young man to sell all his possessions. The Christ who bumped elbows with the kinds of people our suburban neighborhoods try to keep away. The Christ who said that God would one day separate people into sheep and goats (followers and fakers) and he would do this based on who fed the poor and cared for the sick and things like that. I don’t feed the poor or care for the sick. Am I a goat? I think so.
I’m uneasy being a Christian in the south. The uneasiness is the ghost of Christ, nagging me, haunting me, refusing to allow me to settle into comfort.
The ghost of Christ is that feeling you get, the one that arises every now and then, and asks you to step out of your comfort zone, to re-examine your worldview.
The ghost of Christ is that feeling that shows up when you try to pass off church attendance for actual faith, when you leave the building and think there must be more to following Jesus than walking inside four walls for an hour.
The ghost of Christ is the emptiness you feel after you buy that new car or purchase that larger house, thinking either or both will make you happy.
The ghost of Christ is that voice you hear when you’re so busy you can’t breathe and you wonder if there’s something more, different, better, than a hurried existence.
The ghost of Christ is the gut punch you feel when you assume you have God locked neatly into a box and life throws you a curve ball. Oh, you don’t think you’re privileged? You think everything you have is because of your hard work? What if you wake up one day and, in the prime of your life – Poof! – your health packs its bags and goes MIA?
Yes, that happened to me.
The ghost of Christ is the homeless man you pass on the way to wherever you’re going and you wonder if maybe this man has something to teach you, a lesson you need to learn, that he’s not a stench to society, but the presence of God.
The ghost of Christ is the reckoning of injustice in our land, the kicking over of the rock to expose the myriad of ways we’ve mistaken Southern ideals for Christian virtues. And how those ideals have wounded actual people. And how our churches love progress as much as they love people. Maybe more.
THE RELENTLESS GHOST OF CHRIST
The ghost of Christ haunts this land.
Most Southerners know how to ignore this ghost. I do. Construct our personal gods – success, comfort, busyness and so on – so large that Christ has no room to penetrate.
But ghosts don’t easily give up. They follow us, waiting for an opening, a crack in the ivory tower.
When the ghost of Christ penetrates, I’m haunted by the pain and loss around me, and I can’t imagine how the world can continue with business as usual. Look. Right there. An elephant. In this very space. Don’t you see it? The elephant is the status quo, the risen Christ turned into a trophy, something we can worship rather than follow. It’s right there, clear as day. You see it, right?
I tap person after person on the shoulder. You see it? You see it? You see it? No one sees it. I feel alone. People look at me like I’m crazy. When I walk over to tap the trophy, though, everyone becomes angry. They do, in fact, see it.
No one wants me to remove the trophy, this hollow, lifeless replica of Christ. They like the trophy. It asks nothing from them. They can worship it when they want, then leave it right there and go home and live however they want. Everyone sees the elephant, and they’re just fine with it.
After a while, tempted by the crowd, I fall in line. I return to business as usual. I worship the trophy too.
Meanwhile, the ghost of Christ hovers. May the hovering never cease. May the ghost of Christ haunt us day and night, until we wake up and begin to see the world as God sees it.
Until we become a land that doesn’t need the ghost of Christ because we’ve resuscitated the real thing, we’ve brought Immanuel back to life through our thoughts and words and deeds.
I’ve never felt comfortable as a Christian in the South. And I pray I never do.