I grew up going to church every Sunday morning, to church camp every summer, and Bible study every Wednesday evening. It was a protestant sect that had during the 1930’s broken away from The Disciples of Christ (founded by Thomas Campbell), which I didn’t join until my late thirties, having, in my late teens, left the other, more rigid, independent church of my childhood and youth after some huge, ideological battles with my parents and our rather fundamentalist minister, who also happened to be my uncle (husband of my mother’s younger sister). Going back to the Disciples church was a wonderful thing for my life, considering especially what I had endured as a teen in the church of which my uncle was pastor.
As a child I didn’t have the verbal acuity to express my growing suspicions about sermons and other teaching that seemed centered mostly upon the “evils” of this world and the gift of “salvation” from a man who suffered and died for our sins. Such rhetoric is very difficult for a child (and I dare say, most adults), when the word “sin” becomes the center of every admonition, every lesson, and every conclusion. Anything outside the pleasant safety of our church services and pot luck suppers was, it seemed, “evil” in one way or another. “Those people” became a phrase referring to folks in the outside world who weren’t members of our congregation. By the time I reached age ten, my fears became more vivid that heaven would be a small realm, with no room for my Catholic, Jewish, and unaffiliated friends. The absurdity of this notion increased as I began to reason that people would not go to hell (if there was even such a place) just because they had not been baptized by immersion, or because they didn’t observe the Eucharist (Holy Communion) every Sunday. As religion became more and more about following the rules of ritual but less and less about Christ’s message of mercy, compassion, charity, forgiveness, and inclusion, I knew it served no purpose, except to give people the comforting illusion of being God’s chosen, despite their condemnation of a world I knew contained non-church people, who practiced far better the message that Jesus taught. It showed me that the frameworks of belief we have that make us feel safe or superior are not always true, good or necessary. This is so in society and government as well.
Reading or memorizing Bible verses doesn’t make us good Christians any more than reading and memorizing the Dow stock report makes us wealthy investors. The backlash of my religious training is that, though I still believe in God, I have a much broader, more forgiving view of people than I did as a child. Perhaps that’s true of everyone. I don’t know, but this point brings me to some recent social and political backlashes in our nation.
Last winter in Indiana, for example, there was the legalization of gay marriage. It seemed that just minutes later the Religious Freedom Act was passed, giving carte blanche to anyone claiming to be “religious” to deny service from his or her business to any gay person. This was like an angry reprimand or retaliation against uppity people who demanded basic human rights that should always have been theirs anyway. In fact, I don’t believe that The Religious Freedom Act had anything to do with religious conviction or faith. Religion can be, as it often is, a mask to cover the personal fears, misgivings, and actual hatred of anything or anyone that is not understood or that some people don’t want to understand. It’s an old country club value of “We’re better than you.” It’s the same reluctance to enlightenment that existed before and even after the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863. Treatment of Negroes as slaves was, according to the establishment of the time, “God’s will” and it was condoned from pulpits all over our country. Most of us now look back in horror at the assumption that some human beings could be considered inferior enough to be owned as property. That was only 150 years ago. Perhaps in another 150 years people will look back at our own time with abhorrence at the snide, detestable way gays and lesbians were treated circa 2015 by zealots hiding behind religion, even though gays have come a long way in the past fifty years. Really, it’s the same old saga involving one group of people claiming to be, in one way or another, intellectually, morally, or anthropologically superior to another group or race, subjugating them, usually in the name of God. The British, the French, and Americans have all used God as an excuse to treat others badly, only on a somewhat grander scale.
The twist for me comes from the use of martyrdom by many fundamentalist Christian groups recently, as though they, not gays, are the ones being oppressed. Is this based upon the vain assumption that there aren’t or can’t be any gay Christians? This makes me wonder what the bottom line is in defining what a Christian really is. I’m weary of the tired message, however it may be disguised or reworded, “We don’t hate them. We just don’t want to have anything to do with them, or allow them to participate in American life as we think it should be lived.” The backward hypocrisy of that thinking takes us back to the 19th Century, or even before. It’s that “us against them” mentality that continues to grate against good will.
“Onward Christian Soldiers” was, when I was a child, a favorite hymn of mine. However, its meaning for me has become embarrassingly exclusive and unloving, even a battle against other Christians as we become a nation of gated factions, one against the other. For many, the terror that America may no longer be a Norman Rockwell painting is too much to bear. In that way, maybe gays and lesbians are seen as invaders, unless we can have the courage, the imagination, and the loving spirit, not just to honor the past but also to create new, inclusive, loving “paintings,” done sometimes in Rockwell’s style, and in a spirit of which Jesus himself would approve. Let the next backlash be one of acceptance, tolerance, forgiveness, and hope for a better future, not just for some but for everyone.