There's this churchspeak phrase, “to be convicted of sin”. Having heard it used mainly by the young conservative evangelicals who remain my primary experience of churchspeakers, I always assumed it meant some combination of low self-esteem and guilt over personal failure to conform to the exacting standards of “traditional morality” – that is to say, the sense of shame with which a religious upbringing garnishes a little alone time with safe search off and non-dominant hand doing the pointing and clicking. As a committed non-subscriber to “traditional morality”, I have devoted the last few years of my life to not experiencing this.
Now, though, I think I'm beginning to understand what it means to be convicted of sin, and it has nothing to do with Madam Palm and her five lovely daughters (or Lady Lilac and her two AA batteries). To understand it, I've had to reframe my entire conception of sin.
Believe it or not, the strict behavioral prescriptions laid down by traditional Christian moralists aren't a bit Christian. They aren't even Pauline, and we all know how much the conservatives love ole Saul of Tarsus and his Romans 1:26 (per their interpretation, the only explicit prohibition of lesbianism in the Bible, though I'm pretty sure it's not contrary to my nature). The current conservative pet causes of abortion and homosexuality are mentioned, respectively, 0 and 3 times in the whole Bible (and it's only that many if you're wearing your right-tinted spectacles when you read it). You know who doesn't think abortion and homosexuality are Very Important Issues For Every Christian? Jesus. You know what he does think is a Very Important Issue For Every Christian? Loving your neighbor.
Both Jesus and Paul make it abundantly clear that the whole entire deal with being a Christian is that you don't have strict behavioral prescriptions to follow. It's literally the central message of Christianity that you don't have a rulebook. You love and trust in God; because you love and trust in God, you spend time with God and with God's people; through these times of prayer and fellowship, your heart is transformed into a heart of love, which manifests itself as good works. I am convinced that these good works comprise one thing and one thing only: helping those in need.
I recently read The Irresistible Revolution by Shane Claiborne. It's an amazing book that I'd definitely recommend to anyone that doubts whether the mainstream church is doing it right (and anyone that doesn't; it might change your mind!). Shane chronicles his life as an “ordinary radical”, living a life of true Christian love and service in accordance with the teachings and example of Jesus himself. The people of his community have renounced the lip-service Christianity that conforms itself to the easy self-centered capitalist lifestyle; their love of neighbors doesn't give some money to charity and carry on as before, but transforms their lives into something that more closely resembles the passage in Acts so beloved of us leftists. Shane and his people are definitely doing Christianity right.
I've also just finished reading a commentary on the book of James. James is awesome. Whereas Paul, God love him, confuses everyone – not least the church leadership – with his philosophical waxings of an ex-Pharisee and his culturally-specific admonishments to an emerging church, James cuts to the practical chase. He has a lot of very strong words about the importance of helping those in need: without that, faith is literally worthless. First-world Christian communities like to make excuses when it comes to money, about which the Bible is far less equivocal than about (say) teh gays, but the vision I'm getting from my current reading and thinking is uncompromising: Christians get out there and forge human connections with those in need. Diggers dig, teachers teach, Christians hang out with needy people. If you ain't fulfilling the job description, you ain't a Christian, no matter what you call yourself.
And that's what I'm convicted of. I feel the call in my heart, stronger every day, to reject the comfort Christianity of the mainstream and to put myself out there where my fellow humans need me – on the fringes, where my lord Jesus Christ lived his life. Exactly what this will look like, I've yet to find out, but I'm certain that God has major upheavals in store for me – and a transatlantic move is only the beginning.