“The problem with faith ... is it kind of screws up your priorities. Your priorities shouldn’t be about saving your own (butt), which is the focus of Christianity.” So says Bill (Religulous) Maher in a recent edition of Newsweek magazine. Is he right?
Of course we Christians do want our souls saved so we can spend eternity in heaven. The concept Maher ignores, however, is that we save ourselves by losing ourselves. It’s a fundamental biblical principle that we’re all called to love both God and each other. And love by its very nature is other-centered, not self-centered.
Christians live out the self-emptying, sacrificial nature of love every day in countless ways. As the host of the “Christopher Closeup” radio show and podcast, I’m often inspired and amazed by the examples I hear. Two in particular came to mind when I read Maher’s statement.
Many know the story of Immaculée Ilibagiza, the Rwandan Catholic who escaped certain death during the 1994 genocide by hiding in a pastor’s tiny bathroom along with seven other women for 91 days. The most incredible part of Immaculée’s story occurred after she was safe.
Understandably, Immaculée initially harbored hatred toward the people who slaughtered her family. But, through prayer and meditation about the life of Christ, she changed. “My anger [was] not helping to change anything,” she told me during our interview. “Forgiving (wasn’t) condoning the wrongdoing, but in my mind and my heart, I knew that the evil being done was separate from the person that was doing it. And that same person can change anytime; can choose to love more than hate.” (She wrote about her experiences in her 2006 book Left to Tell.)
When Immaculée became aware that the man who had killed her mother and brother was in prison, she decided to forgive him in person. Initially, he faced her without remorse. Then, in tears, she reached out to him and said, “I forgive you.” Humbled and clearly sorrowful, the man covered his eyes with his hand.
The chain of forgiveness didn’t end there. A prison guard who had lost his wife and children in the genocide witnessed this scene and grew angry at Immaculée. When she saw the guard again a year later, he thanked her for the example she’d set.
Another example of selfless love came from the story of Tisha Young, Tami Gappa and her son Sam Gappa. Tami, a member of St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic Church in Dallas, recounted how, at 9 months of age, Sam was diagnosed with cancer. The treatment called for several rounds of chemotherapy and numerous surgeries, which resulted in him needing a kidney transplant.
Enter Tisha, the wife of a Protestant pastor from a nearby town. Her sister worked with Tami’s husband. Though she had never met Sam or his parents, Tisha explained that, having young children herself, the Gappa family’s plight really “hit home.” She donated one of her kidneys to Sam.
Both women told me they credited their faith and families as sources of strength, and said the journey only deepened their respective relationships with God. Tisha, who spent several nights on her knees in prayer, said overall the choice was easy, seeing God’s hand in her decision. “This,” she said, “is what he wanted me to do.”
Hearing stories like these as often as I do, I just shake my head at how off-base are the views of Bill Maher on Christianity. If he were the only person holding them, it would be unfortunate. But, given his popularity, it’s clear that he speaks for a lot of people.
Of course, it’s true that some who call themselves Christian do reprehensible things and express no remorse. As Jesus proclaimed, “Not everyone who says to me ‘Lord, Lord’ will enter the Kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father.”
And all of us sin (see Romans 3:23). It should be clear, though, that while individual Christians often fall short of the ideal, the Christian faith has it exactly right. In Christianity, as in a court of law, intent matters. “I’m going to do something for you because I want something from you” doesn’t cut it.
God can read our hearts. He is not, as someone put it, a vending machine in which we can put in a dollar and get a favor. He calls us to a sincere conversion and surrender to his will motivated by love, not eternal self-preservation.
Why can’t the Bill Mahers of the world see that?
In his book No One Sees God, Michael Novak recalls viewing an Italian fresco of an elephant represented as a heavy horse with floppy ears and a long nose. The painter had obviously never seen an elephant. He relied on someone else’s description of one.
It seems the same can be said of Bill Maher. He promotes stereotypes of Christians because, evidently, he doesn’t much associate with real, flesh-and-blood Christians. Whatever his priorities, he can surely use our prayers that, one day, he will get to know some Christians of the caliber I encounter all the time.
Tony Rossi is radio host and
producer for The Christophers.