T-SHIRT BAN

Tourists look at T-shirts on the Mall and near the Vietnam Memorial in Washington. Norris Burkes writes that Christians should be careful about wearing their faith on shirts, jewelry or bumper stickers if they don't represent their actions.

Earlier this month, I met a man wearing a shirt from Belgium.

Since I’d returned from Europe recently, I asked if he’d ever been to Belgium.

“Never,” he said. “My sister was there and bought this shirt for me.”

“What a poser,” I thought.

There ought to be a law that prevents people from wearing event T-shirts or tourist T-shirts if they haven’t actually “been there, done that and then bought the T-shirt.”

I’d be glad to apply the law to people who wear faith-based clothing, too. You know the kind I’m talking about. I affectionately call the shirts “fish shirts.” They’re imprinted with the stick figure of a fish, reminiscent of Jesus’ encouragement that Christians would become “Fishers of Men.”

Modern marketers have shaped faith symbols into every conceivable product. I’ve seen T-shirts that pun popular advertising campaigns. I’ve even seen cross-shaped candy on a stick. (I hope that doesn’t imply that faith is for suckers.)

We display our faith on gaudy jewelry that seems contradictory to the poverty in which Jesus lived. The popular “Jesus” bracelets beg the question: Would Jesus spend $29.95 on a gold-plated wristband?

Others display their faith on their car with praying Precious Moments characters, or pithy bumper stickers, or fish-shaped outlines. My only concern is that I’m fairly sure God isn’t looking to publicize his views on a gas-guzzling Hummer or a speeding Prius.

Don’t get me wrong, I’ve got a few “fish shirts” myself, but the problem arises when they don’t reconcile with how I’m living. For instance, if I wear a “Jesus Loves You” shirt but lose my temper with a sales clerk, the T-shirt message is muted. Or in the words of the Apostle Paul, “Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I have become sounding brass or a clanging cymbal.”

The other problem with these commercial displays of faith is that sooner or later someone feels the necessity to express their counterpoint in the same way. For instance, have you seen the little Darwin fish symbols that eat the Christian fish?

In the 2012 election campaign, the American Atheist group put up billboards calling God “sadistic” and Jesus “useless” (portraying his image on toast). They did this because they believed that Christians have been intrusive with their faith for centuries and turnabout was fair play.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was an early 20th-century German theologian who warned against the cheapening of grace, so I think it’s worth reposing the argument: Do we cheapen and discount our faith when we become a sloganeer? Do we subject faith to ridicule when we plaster it on cars and shirts?

I’m not saying it’s not OK to occasionally don a shirt that tells people whose side you are on. No. My biggest fear in public displays of faith is that we become like those people who wear shirts from places they’ve never been as we proclaim our faith by wearing crosses we’ve yet to bear.

It’s easy to confuse what we display externally with what we have internally. If we possess something, then we will always do whatever we want with it: sell it, alter it, display it and even hide it.

But if we have the kind of faith that possesses us, then faith becomes something we are, not something we wear. And that is always a game-changer.

Contact Norris at comment@thechaplain.net, @chaplain or 843-608-9715.