Letter from the Dean

By Gregory E. Sterling, Dean of Yale Divinity School

Last year I had two related conversations that were unsettling. The first took place after I read Phil Gorski’s and Sam Perry’s The Flag + the Cross before hearing Phil speak (see the interview with him in this issue). After Phil summarized the book and accepted questions, I asked him: “Has Christianity become a dirty word in American society?” He answered: “As dean of a divinity school, you are right to be concerned.” About a month later, I had lunch with Steve Bauman ’79 M.Div. who has spent his career leading and building a mainline church in Manhattan. When I told him about this exchange, he said: “I have quit using the word ‘Christian’ in the pulpit and use follower of Jesus. It is too problematic.”

The concern that Phil, a sociologist of religion, and Steve, an ordained minister, shared was that “Christian” has become a political moniker rather than a term that marked someone with a faith commitment to Jesus Christ. It has become identified—in too many circles—with individuals who have narrow understandings of women’s rights, immigration, and LBGTQ+ rights—to mention only the most obvious. Paradoxically, these same individuals support politicians who appear to have thrown away a moral compass for the sake of political ideology. The people who support these politicians do not necessarily approve of the personal behavior of those elected officials, but in an exercise of cognitive dissonance support them because they champion key social issues. The result is that many Americans who are not part of this movement understand Christianity to represent a stance in which personal moral values are irrelevant and social values are understood in support of traditional white privilege/supremacy. Several authors in this issue express the same concern about how Christianity is perceived, e.g., William Bell, Brandon Nappi, and Amy Carr and Christine Helmer).

This is not the first time in history that the term Christian has been understood disparagingly. It likely began long ago when outsiders applied it to those who followed Christ by adding a Latin suffix to a Greek word and calling those who followed Christ Christianoi (see Acts 11:26). We have a trio of early Roman authors who used the term—all with a very negative understanding. Tacitus (ca. 56/58–ca. 118 CE), who wrote two histories that covered Rome from 14-96 CE, explained that, in Nero’s effort to remove the rumor that he had started the fire that devastated Rome in 64—preserved in the famous image of Nero playing his fiddle while the city burned—the emperor shifted the blame: “Therefore in order to abolish the rumor, Nero substituted culprits and imposed the most torturous punishments on those viewed askance because of their scandalous conduct whom the populace called Christians” (Annals 15.44). He went on to call it a “deadly superstition.” Tacitus’s friend, Pliny the Younger, who was the governor of Bithynia under Trajan (111-113 CE), similarly labeled it “a perverse and unrestrained superstition” (Epistle 10. 96.8). Finally, one of Pliny’s traveling companions, Suetonius, a famous Roman biographer, described Nero’s efforts to impose order on asocial groups like chariot drivers, pantomimes, and “Christians, a group of people devoted to a new and wicked superstition” (Nero 16.2). In other words, Christians were morally and socially unacceptable.

How did ancient Christians overcome this negative perception? Justin Martyr made a simple wordplay in his First Apology that helps us to understand their strategy. There was some confusion about how to spell the name Christ: was it Christos or Chrestos? Justin played with the two spellings in the following way. He wrote: “We are accused of being Christians (Christianoi). But it is not just to hate the excellent (to chreston). If someone of the accused is a denier of the name, you release him since you have nothing with which to accuse him as a wrong-doer. But if someone confesses that they are (a Christian), you punish them because of the confession.” Justin challenged such a practice: “It is necessary to examine the life of the one who confesses and the life of the one who denies so that through their actions the type of person they are will become apparent” (1 Apol. 4). For Justin and for other early Christians, what mattered was how someone lived. If someone lived an excellent or kind life (chrestos), they should not be condemned because they are a christianos.

Christianity may have become a dirty word in some circles in the U.S. and in other parts of the world, but we should not despair. The best way that we can respond is to live excellent lives: lives that reflect both a personal and a social moral compass. I was recently asked to give the commencement sermon for Chung Chi Divinity School in the Chinese University of Hong Kong. I elected to speak about moral leadership. 

Why? We now face a crisis in which people do not trust leaders or institutions that shape and lead our society. The Edelman Trust Barometer has measured trust in our society for more than 20 years. In its 2022 report, it surveyed more than 36,000 people in 28 countries. The most discouraging result of the survey was that nearly six in ten people said that distrust is their default response: they only trust someone or something after there is evidence that the person or the institution is trustworthy. The problem this hermeneutics of suspicion creates is that it becomes impossible to have a dialogue with someone who is not from your immediate circle. If you do not trust someone, you do not give what they say any credibility, which means that the conversation is over before it begins.

Churches today face serious challenges. One of them is that Christianity has become a dirty word for too many. We need to offer moral leadership in our churches and in our society—moral leadership that is both personal and social. I found the essays in this issue of Reflections inspired hope within me. They inspired hope because they were written by people who have a moral compass and are living lives of moral excellence. Early Christians changed their world through the quality of their lives. We need to do the same.

Gregory E. Sterling is The Reverend Henry L. Slack Dean and Lillian Claus Professor of New Testament at Yale Divinity School.