The public face of Christianity is undergoing a complete makeover as the 21st century begins. Pope John Paul II is dead. Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell and James Dobson of the American Christian Right are in their 70s. The leadership of America's struggling Christian left is typified by William Sloane Coffin, who battles to speak out against the war in Iraq even as his health fails. By the end of this decade, the faces that come to mind when we think of Christianity will have changed.
What will these new visages look like? Will they all be white or will the church's new centers of growth in the Third World be represented? Will there be female faces among them as there were women in prominent positions in Jesus' entourage? Will gay and lesbian faces, always a part of Christianity, be found among them?
Perhaps more important than the color, gender or sexual orientation of Christianity's new faces will be the beliefs, emotions and ethical values that shape their expressions and give light and life to their eyes. During the final decades of the 20th century and sputtering into the 21st, Christianity has often appeared to the world as frightened, angry, stubborn and judgmental: John Paul's jaw set against women's ordination or the use of birth control; Falwell decreeing that America deserved 9/11 because of its failure to follow his moral prescriptions; Dobson inciting fear of Sponge Bob. Especially in the US, it was this very unattractive face that filtered down to the rank and file Christian who often appeared as the vicious protester at the abortion clinic or the Terri Schiavo circus or the dour voter standing in line to cast a ballot for "family values."
There is little family resemblance between the Christian faces of this generation and those of earlier times. The Church has taken Isaiah's servant of the Lord whose "face like flint" was set against power and privilege and traded it in for the smarmy countenance of Ralph Reed, K Street servant for hire. It has lost that powerful expression, born of patience and hope, that was seen on the faces of the Selma marchers even as they were attacked. Most tragically, the faith has discarded the loving visage of Jesus seeking out the unsought to heal, free or encourage them.
Though not impossible, it is unlikely that a reborn face of Christianity, once again faithful to the calls of Amos and Jeremiah and Jesus to peace and justice, will come from a college of cardinals or a Southern Baptist convention or even the more liberal mainline bureaucracies.
In the past, those most clearly bearing the likeness of God have hailed the obscurity of Nazareth or the hinterlands of Wittenberg, and have been recognized by the religious establishment only as a threat. If the prophetic discernment of Second Isaiah was on track, we should not expect the authentic face of the Church to satisfy modern tastes for beauty and celebrity either. Instead, a true servant of the Lord may have no outward beauty or majesty to attract the crowd, nothing in physical appearance to draw us.
What dare we hope for in the new face of Christianity already being revealed? We might pray that the pursed, haughty lips of self-righteousness be replaced by a smile born of mercy and humility. We could ask the Almighty to provide us with those whose eyes are not darkened by a lust for wealth and power but instead shine with a steadfast commitment to free the oppressed and feed the hungry. What the world needs in the 21st century is a Church that demands peace rather than offers excuses for war, one that calls political and business leaders to account who fail to care for the most in need rather than soothing those in poverty with promises of pie in the sky.
Above all, we need a Christianity represented by new faces that remind us of the strong, loving face of Jesus.
Rev. Allen H. Brill is a Lutheran pastor (ELCA) and member of the bar in South Carolina, and co-founder of "Why Not, South Carolina?", an organization supporting the work of South Carolina progressives. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.