I grew up in a Christian church. My mom taught Sunday school; my dad played Michelangelo to our pastor’s Pope Julius. I never questioned my faith, nor did I ever really think about it much. Until the day our married pastor’s multiple affairs with female church members was uncovered. He resigned in disgrace; the church was rocked. My dad was really shaken. It was 1986, and it was the first time a fellow Christian challenged my faith.
We didn’t know it then, but our pastor was at the forefront of a national trend there in the late 1980’s: Jimmy Swaggart, Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker, Peter Popoff. Seems like the televangelists just make it harder to be a Christian, much less try to convince others to become one. Every time I feel like I’m making some headway with my agnostic husband, Pat Robertson makes some ridiculous pronouncement about 9/11 being the fault of American homosexuals or the Haiti earthquake being the result of a pact with the devil (CBS News, 1/14/10).
Sadly, I have noticed for several years now that it’s not the “threats” from outside my inherited religion that really make me scratch my head. I have Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist and Unitarian Universalist friends. I have atheist friends. I’m married to an agnostic. I can have wonderful, thoughtful, respectful conversations with them. We do not proselytize or try to convert one another, but what we usually discover is that, despite our different faiths (or lack thereof), we have a lot in common.
On the other hand, the nastiest, most paranoid, angriest conversations I have had about religion have been with people who supposedly share my faith. For example, this semester I had a student who introduced himself to me on the first day as “a very conservative Christian.” I told him we should probably get along well then, for I was a Christian too. But that wasn’t enough for this young man. He wanted to know which church I attended, and when I told him it was an Episopalian church, he made his pronouncement: “Ooooooh, that’s too liberal.” He then spent the rest of the semester spewing his anger, paranoia and hate in every direction: “Buddhists are going to hell.” “I hate those Chinese guys.” “Hindus and Muslims are going to hell.” “I’m ready to fight for my God.” “The Bible says women who cut their hair are going to hell.” That last one he gave me after I told him about two of my girlfriends who did the St. Baldrick’s event, shaving their heads to show their support for their mother who was going through chemotherapy. Such a sweet, sensitive soul, right? I am a professional; I am a Christian. I turned the other cheek and said almost nothing.
Then there was the Christian missionary who cyber-stalked me for a couple weeks, sending me progressively angry e-mails via Facebook because I did not agree with his stance on the healthcare reform bill. “You show me where in the Bible it says I have to pay my taxes to pay other people’s doctor bills.” I guess he had a point. Jesus never mentioned doctor bills in the New Testament. I am pretty sure he did say, “Pay your taxes” (Matthew 22:21) and also “You can’t take it with you” (Matthew 19:23-24). For a missionary to be that angry about his taxes and about helping others really shook me up a bit.
Another regular challenge to my faith comes from a friend of my mother. This woman, whom I will call Louise, is, well, insane. I’m not sure how else to say it. But she is active in her church which is pretty good cover for her instability. In fact, her church probably appreciates it because she’s loaded, having inherited millions from her late husband. Louise can talk at you for an hour without taking a breath. One day when I was visiting my parents, Louise called, and I answered the phone. I said, “Hello,” and then spent the next ten minutes listening to all her theories: Hillary Clinton is a lesbian, Barack Obama was a secret Muslim terrorist, and all the media outlets except Fox are run by Muslims. My mom says I’m hypercritical of Louise because of her right-wing politics, but I’ve assured my mom that if any of my liberal friends ever tells me that Sarah Palin is actually a member of the KKK or Mitt Romney wants to turn all of America into a Mormon theocracy, I’ll tell them they’re insane too.
So today I got a flyer in my mailbox from the local Assembly of God congregation. It invited me to a four-part series called “The Future of America.” The lectures were titled “United We Stand, Divided We Fall: America’s March Toward Socialism,” “The Death of the Dollar: Will the American Economy Recover?” “Homosexuality: Exposing the Truth Behind the Facades,” And “National Security & Islam in the U.S.: Do You Know Your Neighbor?” My first response was laughter, but then I got nervous, and then angry myself. The inflammatory language on this little flyer – “socialism,” “death,” “exposing,” “security”- and the paranoid rhetoric – “Do you know your neighbor?” – made me wonder exactly what the purpose of a Christian church is. This thing was addressed to “Our Neighbor.” They don’t know me. I might be an agnostic, a lost soul or a Christian who has lost her way. What am I going to make of these titles? I have Muslim neighbors; they probably got this unsolicited trash too. Above the title of the lecture on Islam is a picture of fighter planes. Well, I’m sure that makes my Muslim neighbors comfortable. Not to mention the fury that homosexuality title evoked in me, a lifelong Christian who happens to have many dear gay friends who are not scary or dangerous or hiding anything which more than I can say for the BTK killer who was straight, a church member and Scout leader. How’s that for a facade?
Anyway, it’s a worrisome time for Christians, especially those of us who can’t embrace the almighty dollar, don’t despise all politicians or love toting guns and shooting at people who look different from us. I cling to a few of my Christian heroes: my friend Erik, a local pastor, who organizes new churches in inner-city communities. Frank Schaeffer, son of the theologian and missionary Francis Schaeffer. Fr. Jim Martin, who is actually the unofficial chaplain of “The Colbert Report.” And Reverend C. Welton Gaddy, a Baptist minister who heads up the Interfaith Alliance. The good Christians are out there. Sometimes they’re just harder to find because of all the idiots making so much noise. In Jesus’ name. Amen.