In Ursula K. Le Guin’s classic short story “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas,” all seems well in the bright city of Omelas, where peace and prosperity are every person’s birthright, and where the citizens live in comfortable harmony with each other. As the story progresses, though, the reader reaches the unsettling revelation that the stability of Omelas depends on each citizen’s knowledge of, and acceptance of, the existence of a hungry, naked child imprisoned in a dark room within the city. The child is a kind of scapegoat who unwillingly experiences pain, deprivation, and isolation so that the citizens of Omelas don’t have to.
Omelas is united by its communal condoning of this injustice. As each citizen grows up, they learn of the child’s existence, and then they are faced with a choice. All that is required in order to continue to enjoy the placid plenty of Omelas is silence, a tacit participation in the mistreatment of the naked child. It’s simple to conform, and it’s safe to stay within Omelas, existing in peace like a stagnant pond and harmony like a droning monotone.
But there are always a few who walk away from Omelas.
For many who are raised within Christian traditions, the church comes to seem like Omelas. They might start off seeing only the utopian unity, peace, and affirmation within a particular church community or denomination. But over time, they begin to encounter unsettling hints at injustices underpinning their church community or the institutional church. Maybe it’s the long history of the Christian church’s use as a political tool for colonization and oppression. Maybe it’s the exposure of the corruption of certain church leaders. Maybe it’s the systemic subjugation of women within some Christian traditions. Maybe it’s any of the other numerous injustices that have been or are being condoned by the church, now or in the past. It’s no surprise that, seeing this, there are those who walk away.
And with that framing of Christianity as inseparable from injustice (a framing that’s encouraged by the too-frequent rhetoric within some churches that says that the only way to stay is simply to accept this or that troubling injustice as integral to Christianity), that’s surely a moral thing to do.
So those of you who were raised within Christian traditions and have now left them, as well as those of you who always saw the church as an oppressive institution, may wonder why I choose to claim a Christian identity.
I can do so because I don’t see Christianity as monolithic or the church as a unitary institution. To me, Christianity isn’t the same as the extremely flawed systems and organizations that have often accompanied it. The church isn’t just one system or organization, either. It’s composed of individuals, each attempting to follow Christ as best they can. To my eyes, there’s a difference between a Christian person and any of the various institutions and systems of theology that exist in connection with Christianity.
To me, Christianity isn’t Omelas; instead, the turn away from Omelas characterizes Christianity.
As I see it, Christianity is all about liberation and love.
Christ isn’t about accepting injustice or condoning oppression. Christ turns away from comfort to enter the wilderness (and he takes us there too, to kenotic emptiness and uncertainty). But Christ doesn’t just set his face against injustice.
He liberates. He frees the captives and feeds the hungry. Christ breaks chains, heals wounds, turns tables, harrows hell. Christ accepts women, embraces outcasts, bursts through boundaries (and he takes us there, too, beyond the static comfort of our social walls).
There is a kind of scapegoat at the center of Christianity, but it’s a sacrifice of a different sort. Christ’s incarnation, suffering, and death doesn’t serve as a monument to pain or as an injustice that we must simply accept. Christ didn’t become a naked, hungry Child so that we can be united in a complacent hammering of nails into his hands; he’s not an unwilling prisoner who suffers so that we don’t have to. Instead, the sacrifice, the miracle, is that God saw us, the naked, hungry children, and willingly became one of us.
Christ shares in our pain, in all the terror and grit of humanity. He is the hungry and the thirsty. He enters into the sorrows of the outcast and the griefs of the broken city of humanity (and he takes us there, too, to the realization that the pain of the other is the pain of the self).
And the reason for this is love. As a friend of mine says, “love is the core.” Christianity is about a God who so loved the world that they didn’t turn away from its suffering, but joined it. Christianity is about a Christ who breaks himself open to become bread and wine for the hungry. It’s about a God who is love.
Because of love, Christ shares in our pain, in the million daily sorrows of the hurts we deal to each other, in our deaths. Because of love, Christ shares with us his comfort, his joy, his resurrection. Because of love, Christ enters into communion with the oppressed and the oppressor, the weak and the powerful, the lost and the found. And he takes us there, too, into a communion that lives in the powerful peace of a rushing river and the chaotic harmony of a many-voiced choir.
That’s what Christianity is about to me. I want to follow the Christ of love and liberation (though I know I do so very imperfectly), and so I claim the term “Christian.”
Not every Christian will define themselves the same way I do. But most who claim Christianity would say that they are attempting to follow Christ. So am I.
I used to know much more about Christianity. I used to know its precise borders and limitations. I once knew the exact mechanisms of soteriology and hamartiology, the precise processes of biblical inspiration and interpretation, and the obligatory details of creation and of eschatology. I could once unfurl each petal of the Calvinist tulip with certainty. I don’t have all the facts anymore. These and other theological areas are important, and I want to study about them, but I’m going to ask questions while doing so (and I’m going to think that it’s all right not to come up with the answers right away, or at all).
I know embarrassingly little now. But I know this: God is love and love is the core. For me, Christ’s love is at the center of Christianity, and that’s enough reason for me to be a follower of Christ.
I decided to give this short (and partial) explanation of why I claim the term “Christian” because talking about some of my own labels of identity seemed to follow logically from talking about the importance of labels. In the next two Sunday posts, I’ll deal with “why ‘feminist’?” and “why ‘pansexual’?”
Also, sorry that this is another late post—traveling back to London from Seoul left me more exhausted than I had hoped. But it was worth it for the experience of fall leaves, tourist sites, and cat cafes that I had with my sister in South Korea.