I’ve had a long and stormy relationship with religion, Christianity in particular. Often, the biggest problems I’ve had are when people and organizations that identify themselves with Christianity act…well, unChristian.
My first real objection was over a sweatshirt. We were going to Saturday evening services, and I had been playing outside. It was dusty, but not nasty. My mother insisted that I change before church.
“Why?” I asked. “If God can see who we really are, why does it matter how we dress?”
That did not go over well.
It did not take me long to notice that there was a status aspect to attending church. We had two churches (same denomination) literally within a hundred yards of each other. Yet they were divided by social class – and then the people within each group were divided and segregated by clothes, where they lived, and prestige.
It is unsurprising that I became disillusioned.
I came back after a long period of strong agnosticism. It was largely due to _The Last Temptation of Christ_ (the book, thanks) and _Jesus Christ Superstar_. Both articulated many of the questions I had about the whole mythology. Both highlight the fallacy of the simple black/white moral arithmetic, and illustrate a more graduated moral calculus. I also had a son who started asking questions – and found myself unable to articulate the oversimplified building blocks needed to teach him.
I – luckily – encountered a group of people who were both tolerant and ferverent, who exalted community and caring over all. Later, I would find that much like the community I experienced as a wierdo in my youth, this one would fragment shortly after my departure. (Both instances were due to other central figures leaving the area who kept everyone together.)
I tried to bring that same community here. We had problems at first; whether it was through places hung up on visible status or just simply being boring, we couldn’t find anywhere. When we thought we had found someplace, the status markers were still there… we just weren’t attuned to them. If anything, the internal politics and status were stronger and more viciously defended than I’d encountered before.
This really shook me; within six months I went from religiously (ha!) attending services to avoiding them completely. My problems with faith – with religion – have not been with the generalizable metaphysics, but with the people who claim to represent them. This last disillusionment allowed me to look around, and see exactly how hypocritical most so-called Christians are.
I am not talking about stupid issues of dogma. I don’t mean saints, or the eucharist, or transubstantiation, or the Pope, or any of those issues. I’m talking about the acutal, espoused morals of both individual Christians, and the official organized groups that Christians hold up as exemplars.
Sure, everyone fails to live up to their morals in their personal lives. We are all (including myself, yes) personally hypocritical at some point. Yet when entire organizations not only fail to live up to their ideals, but espouse the opposite of such… well, that’s a good reason to run away.
My first marriage – according to my church – never happened. It wasn’t a sacrament, because it was a civil wedding. Period. Legal and religious definitions of the same word can be very different.
Yet my church – or at least, many of it’s minions like the Knights of Columbus – have made it their mission to keep homosexuals from having civil marriages.
I simply don’t understand. Were it a fight to force religions to recognize it, then I would get their point. But as it is, especially in our faith tradition, there is a clear distinction between a civil marriage and the sacrament of marriage.
Somehow, I don’t think this would have been Jesus’ biggest priority. Somehow, I think he would have been more concerned with helping the sick, feeding the poor, and generally being kind and loving to other people. The people he showed anger to were not the people who were already outside of society – he upset those who already benefitted from the status quo. In the Temple, he raged against those who preyed upon the poor, not against those who sinned. No, really. You had to have blemish-free animals to sacrifice at the Temple, and those who were too poor to have such or to transport them to Jerusalem ended up having to buy them at marked up prices. Sort of lke payday lenders, except religious – and paying a cut to the priests. Hence Jesus’ anger.
It’s only in the people that come after Jesus – that we start to see intolerance creep back in. The man himself, however, simply showed love and kindess to the weak and powerless. He tried to steer them back to goodness through his example, not his condemnation. Those he condemned, those he upset, were the comfortable people. The people who held power, who helped themselves and forced their rules and laws on others without considering mercy and kindness. (Remember the adulteress? Hm?)
There are exceptions. Jim Wallis and the Sojourners crew are definitely exemplars of what all Christians – regardless of denomination – should be. I know it can happen, and that these people exist “out there”.
But the people around me? The churchgoers I see in my neighborhood, at the churches I supposedly belong to? The people I am supposed to tithe to, pay dues to, and worship with? They keep reminding me that they are Christianity’s Pharisees and Saducees. They are the ones who would silence “radical” voices calling for tolerance and kindess towards those different than themselves. They would shun someone crying out that caring for others, not rules in any book, holds priority. Those exceptions are just that – they are the kind exceptions to the massively overwhelming surge of
Perhaps they will realize their error – individually or collectively. Perhaps they will find their way back to the values of kindess and empathy. Perhaps they will remember to speak for the marginalized – regardless of the reason for their marginalization – instead of advancing their own agenda. Perhaps they will remember that simply wanting to care for each other’s families was the reason they were created, not to make religious dogma into political tenets. (Yes, I’m looking at you, Knights of Columbus.) Until the intolerance is the exception, until the kindness and caring is the norm, I have a huge problem supporting them.
I am a deeply flawed person. I am well aware of this.
But I can recognize intolerance and hatred, even if it claims that it does so in the name of love.
For a long time, my relationship with religion – and especially with Christianity – can be characterized by “Jesus, save me from your followers.”
I can’t ignore those followers if they won’t let me.
When the organized religions – especially the one that I nominally follow – gets its values of compassion, caring, and humanity back in line with its practices, then maybe I’ll start listening to them again. Until then, I think I’ll ignore their shouting hypocrisy, and listen for a quiet voice on the wind.