Sunday, January 16, 2011

Beautiful World

I was brought up to believe that we couldn't expect for this world to be perfect, because we were fallen... that mankind's sin had caused the fall of all creation, and that the best one could hope for in this world was to find peace with God through giving one's life to Christ and allowing the Holy Spirit to guide your heart and mind to do God's will.

Sometimes, I'm grateful that I was raised this way, because when I hear about human cruelty, environmental disasters, economic and political turmoil, it's not like I'm disillusioned or that my bubble has been burst. My foundation, my center, isn't shaken. I wasn't raised to put my hope in those things. I was raised to put my hope in Christ.

But by some fluke of my nature, I've always wanted to look for proof of the opposite. I guess it started with my demanding my mother teach me to read when I was 3 or so. I was a kid that really wanted to find out what there was to *know*. I no longer remember exactly why... maybe to get attention. Maybe because I saw my Dad reading so I wanted to read. But the thing about learning is that the more you learn, the more wonder you see in the world... the more amazed you become by the beauty that persists despite all the cruelty and poverty and ugliness. I know the beauty isn't all there is, but it's still there, you know?

I liked fiction as a kid and I liked the advice columns in the paper. My Mom has a picture of me reading the paper when I was four years old. You can see from the photo that it was the Extra section --aka the fluffy section of the paper-- and I'm pretty positive I was reading the advice columns or the child psychology column or the comics because that's what I always read. I liked to read about people. I wanted to know how people ticked. I wanted to know if people were aware they had souls. I wanted to know how adults interpreted the world around them.

However, I was often amazed by how dull and unspiritual the adults depicted in media were. TV, movies, radio, the paper, books I checked out from the library... nobody talked about God in any of these media forms. They didn't know they had spirits? They didn't know about God? Why?? Why was there so much stuff about sex? Why did anyone watch cop shows? Knight Rider I understood. The car talked. A show that starred a talking inanimate object dovetailed nicely with my belief that my stuffed animals were somehow real. But shows where people were murdered? Why would anyone want to watch that? *Shows* about sex? But sex is between *people*. It's like watching a show of people cooking dinner or walking or just sitting around talking... why would you *watch* that on *television* instead of living it in your life?

This was before reality TV, of course. We've had shows now for many years that feature people cooking dinner or just sitting around talking... and of course I've never owned a TV, because I guess my questions haven't changed.

My central question has persisted: why aren't people aware of their spiritual selves? Why don't they just talk to God? I've had this explained to me multiple times: Amy, not everyone was raised in the church. Amy, some people have had very bad experiences with religion. Amy, faith is just *hard* for some people.

But that doesn't answer my question... why don't people just *talk* to God? Yes, churches often suck. They're not God. They almost never say that they are God. Churches are churches and they're made up of people. God doesn't need them. I'm not saying that He's not a fan of them, but scripture tells us that the very rocks would cry out in praise of Him if we were to stop... so why in the world should the church have any influence over our desire and need to praise the God who has created us? Why should it stand between us and an awareness of and hunger for God?

This morning, I led a service at Church of the Common Table where we read the entirety of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s Letter from a Birmingham Jail out loud. One person remarked afterwards that it felt like reading a book of the Bible. King believed passionately that pursuing justice and equal rights was the role of the church. He believed that pursuing justice and equality glorified God. I believe that King was Spirit-filled (not perfect, though) and that his work was from God. He was a gifted voice giving a public platform for a much larger cloud of witnesses who had done a lot of work and made a lot of sacrifices to overcome a great injustice... the rendering of the Body of Christ along racial lines and the daily denial of basic civil rights based solely on skin color. I was born only 6 years after he was assassinated, and the active, violent racism that passed for status quo then nauseates me. One generation. That is a heck of a lot of change in a very short time.

But then tonight I watched "Milk", a film about Harvey Milk, a gay rights activist and the first openly gay man to be elected to public office. They use a lot of old footage from news interviews of Anita Bryant in the film. I remember seeing comics about Anita Bryant in my parents' old copies of Mad Magazine (yes, I really read anything I could find as a kid), but I didn't really know much about her. I didn't know she used Christianity as a public platform to deny civil rights to gay people. I didn't know she mobilized the church for this purpose. At one point, they show footage of Anita Bryant stating that the Christian church had rarely been involved in politics until this point, but that now they were very involved in the movement to ensure that homosexuals could be fired from their jobs simply for being homosexual.

A reporter and camerawoman from Voice of America came to report on the service at Common Table this morning, along with a reporter from a Swedish radio station. I'm not making this up... it's one of the weird things about living near DC. They both asked me if I thought the Emergent church was appealing to people because of the political nature of the American church, and I said that yes, the Christian Right was a real presence for me growing up but that the larger issue for me was *church* politics, not church people being involved in politics.

But watching "Milk" I drew a line in my head... from Martin Luther King, Jr. mobilizing the church towards a vision of Christ's kingdom including all people of faith regardless of skin color; to Anita Bryant, mobilizing the church towards a vision of denying homosexuals their right to employment and exclusion from society (until... until what? Until they stopped being gay?); to a darkness on the soul of the American church that threatens to extinguish it. And I realized that my answer to the reporter was honest, but maybe a little stupid.

I think that what I saw in the media when I was growing up in the 80s and 90s was partially the fallout of what the church had become under the influence of folks like Anita Bryant. Large groups of people turned away from the church, nauseated, and America kind of lost its soul. Media wasn't just shallow because of the "liberal culture". It was shallow because the "liberal culture" saw the church at its most fearful, powerful, and least Christ-like point, and they concluded (wrongly) that praying, church-going people were hateful.

It was 10 and half years between King's assassination and the assassination of Harvey Milk. Today, most American Christians get that the color of a person's skin is not a barrier to Christ's love of them. Most white American Christians are a little embarrassed at racism in the church's history. But most American Christians think that those who feel a natural sexual attraction to those of the same gender and choose to practice according to that (as any of the rest of us can and do) are beyond Christ's love... unless they repent, which is basically like asking a black person to repent of being black.

I know it's scary to people in the church, but my question is how long until we admit we're wrong on this, too. I wonder how often the large numbers of folk who base their arguments on 7 or 8 scripture passages "proving" God's unwavering judgement on those of homosexual orientation can really picture Christ pushing homosexuals away from Him. So much scripture was used in the defense of racism and is used in the defense of sexism, and the exegetical techniques used were much the same... take passages of Levitical law (dodge the question about how much Levitical law we currently practice), take passages of Paul's letters completely out of context, take things Christ said that were about something totally different, and build your case from that. It was crappy exegesis then, and it's crappy exegesis now. But it's still working, I think because people are scared that their churches will be taken over by guys in chaps and dog collars.

More than one person has said it, but I'll say it again: with all the B.S. that gay people have to put up with, why in the world would they CHOOSE to be gay? If you can't imagine being attracted to someone of the same gender, then all that says is that you're not attracted to people of the same gender. Of COURSE you can't imagine it. Of COURSE it doesn't seem *normal*. Suggesting that being of homosexual orientation means that you're a pervert a) denies the reality of how many perverts are heterosexual and b) begs a weight of evidence that doesn't exist. Homosexuality does NOT equal promiscuity or AIDS or child molestation. Promiscuity is a *social* problem, not a homosexual one. AIDS is spread in Africa largely by promiscuous heterosexual men. Child molestation happens regardless of sexual orientation (As an aside on this topic, the church's aversion to homosexual marriage literally makes NO sense to me. If what's nauseating to you is sexual promiscuity in the homosexual community, then why in the WORLD would you protest their settling down and getting married?).

The fear of the gay community is based in overblown stereotypes and a lot of fear. Christ calls us to something higher. King got that, and he showed the best of the Church by preaching that without wavering, and reluctantly the American church has largely gotten that with regards to race. Kids 10-20 years younger than me seem to intuitively get that race shouldn't be a barrier to friendship or fellowship. For that to happen so quickly in a society is a *spiritual* change, not just a social one.

How long before the Christian church gets that denying acceptance to someone based on an identity marker --be it race, ethnicity, sexuality, body type, hair color, preferred music-- is a sin? How long before we get that Christ wouldn't have done that?

I was raised to believe that the world was busted up and broken, and that part of me knows that pretty much no one I know that disagrees with me on this topic is going to change their mind in this life (and certainly not because of a blog post I wrote). But my gut still drives me to hope that the church will change, to look for a beautiful world beneath the broken one where we let our disgust ride roughshod over our mercy. My gut wants me to follow the Christ that dined with prostitutes and tax collectors. My gut, and the Scripture, tells me that the outcasts will have the prime seats at the table.

Be careful whom you deem to be outside of God's grace and Christ's love and acceptance. Christ wasn't a big fan of people who spent a lot of time and energy drawing those kinds of lines.


Mike Stavlund said...

Thanks for writing this, Amy, and thanks for posting it. Especially this line:
"But my gut still drives me to hope that the church will change, to look for a beautiful world beneath the broken one where we let our disgust ride roughshod over our mercy."

Five times. I read that five times (and the last time aloud), because it is so beautiful and hopes for so much. Thanks for writing it, and for stirring my soul.

Allie said...

Clap, clap, clap, clap, clap. *Stand* Clap, clap, clap, clap, clap.

Craig Frogale said...

I'm with you on this. Keep doing what you are doing.