We Need New Lyrics for “They’ll Know We Are Christians”

by Steve Kindle

“They’ll know we are Christians by our love, by our love….”

In our pluralistic times (thankfully), coupled with expansive worldwide media coverage, we have witnessed on a broad scale how people separated by faith traditions and miles reach out to strangers in compassionate service. In India, Sikhs protect Muslims from terroristic beatings. In Vietnam, Buddhist monks shelter Catholic orphans. In the US, Muslims guard recently attacked Jewish synagogues. And in Israel, Jews harbor Palestinians much as Christian Germans harbored them during the holocaust. These incidences of cross-boundary support could be amplified by the thousands, even millions. Only the most jaded would reject the notion that these self-sacrificing acts are acts of love. And they most certainly are.

There is within Christianity a strain identified as “triumphalism.” That is, they see Christianity as the one true religion that must conquer all others. They take the Great Commission as a mandate to defeat any and all religious opposition. Where Jesus would never identify anyone as an enemy, but offer love to all, triumphalists treat non-Christians as enemies. They are in the minority, to be sure; however, we find triumphalism in unexpected places. Places where we are not even aware it exists. Even in our most favorite hymns.

I doubt very much that Peter Scholtes, who provided the lyrics for our title hymn, is a triumphalist or wanted to encourage triumphalism. The sentiment expressed is one that all Christians should embrace. If Christians should be known for anything it is for acts of love. Unfortunately, Christians these days are known for more negative traits and need to take the sentiment of this hymn more seriously. 

However, it betrays (may I say it) a smug attitude. Should someone be seen doing an act of love, that person must be readily identified as a Christian. Not as a Muslim, Sikh, Buddhist, Jew, or pagan. Get my drift? The key is in the phrase, “they’ll know.” It’s an automatic identification as a Christian act. It’s time we recognize that loving acts are the outcome of every religious tradition, and for this simple reason: they all come from the same source, a loving God who is the heart of their faith as well as ours. Ultimately, all the respected religious traditions share one thing in common; they desire their participants to lead loving lives. Not one of them is perfect. They all fall short. Yet, this is what they strive for. In that recognition, I suggest changing the phrase “they’ll know we are Christians by our love,” to “they’ll know we’re God’s children by our love.” The next time you observe someone not in your tribe doing a loving act, welcome a true child of God.

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