I really want to stay quiet about this, because I know there are some of my friends who are, quite frankly part of the problem. I also know there are some of them who are trying really hard to work within a corrupt and toxic system to make a difference in the world. Some are even trying to do so the only way it is possible: one life at a time.
Let me start nearly three decades ago: the first time I stopped categorizing myself as a Christian. I was in Christian high school, a place where I was taught about the gospel and the clear defining line between the Church with a capital “C” and the World. The World was a place filled with evil and sin: the church was a beacon and a light.
Except it wasn’t, and I knew it despite my pastor’s and teacher’s protests that it was. Under the gospel of love the Bible taught was a sea of churning hatred and fear, things that were supposed to be of the devil. They were present every time we talked about a couple being “unequally yoked” in some way, whether that be racially, religiously, or even by levels of spiritual maturity.
This was a vague concept, but it seemed to mean that dating or heaven forbid and hell rejoice marrying someone who did not share your core beliefs and then some was dooming your relationship (and perhaps your very soul) to failure. Racially mixed couples were also a similar abomination, pulled from the Old Testament principle that the Jews were not to intermarry with the nations around them to keep the bloodlines pure.
Sound familiar? Isn’t this the same doctrine embraced by Aryans and white supremacists? This is an old, fundamentalist Christian principle taken to an extreme. It was not birthed in Germany by Hitler and his minions but was adopted from an American sub-culture, one created by the church.
The God of love seemed pretty damn angry to me, and perhaps that fueled my own rage and caused me to excuse it. Most of the time I did not pray: who wanted to talk to a guy who was watching every step I took, just waiting to squash me and damn my soul to hell if I made a misstep? We were taught that God was not an ATM or giant Santa Clause in the sky: if you wanted him to hear and grant your prayers, you had to be “right” with him and free of sin. Prayer was always supposed to be a formula that started with confession first—because we all sinned and fell short every day.
We were not equals though. There was such a thing as good, better, and best Christians. And if you died when you had unconfessed sin in your heart, especially if it was willful or habitual? The fate of your soul was in question, but not because you could lose your salvation. No, we were of the once saved forever saved faith. That kind of sin might mean you were never saved in the first place. How would someone who had been made a “new creature in Christ” do such things? You wouldn’t, not if you loved the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and mind. Doubting your own salvation was essential to keep you on the straight and narrow path to heaven that God carefully hid, and the devil tried to steer you away from.
We were of the once saved forever saved faith. That kind of sin might mean you were never saved in the first place.
Perfection was the standard. I learned hypocrisy early on: even if everything was not fine, you sure as hell (and hell was sure, make no mistake) pretended that it was. Especially on Sunday morning, Sunday night, and Wednesday night, when you attended service. If you were a really dedicated servant, you also participated in “visitation” on Thursday nights, a Mormon missionary style door to door, gospel spreading, fire insurance selling exercise.
When I went and worked in the world, though, I found something odd. These horrible sinners did not judge my every mistake as a possible stone on the path to hell. In fact, they told me that everyone made mistakes, and had their own areas of weakness.
Even if everything was not fine, you sure as hell (and hell was sure, make no mistake) pretended that it was.
They were not evil: in fact, they were kinder than my “Christian” friends and church, and certainly less judgmental. They were also more honest: when they were struggling, you knew it, and it felt safe to save my struggles with them. There was a security in their friendships I had rarely felt in Christian school or church. Most of the time, everyone was simply accepted for who they were regardless of who they might be.
Some were overweight. Some were sexually active with more than one partner, and very open about it. A few were even (gasp) lesbians or homosexuals. If I needed something, they gave it to me, but when I said the word “Christian” they scoffed, often asking me if I was one of those judgmental, hateful assholes.
I told them I wasn’t. I lied, because that was what I had been taught to do to fit in. Eventually, I stopped calling myself a Christian and mumbled whenever anyone asked where I went to school. Once I graduated high school I grew my hair out and pierced my ears, trying to look like anything but a Christian. I hated that heritage.
I still carried baggage though. I still judged others by their “sins”, and always justified my own by saying things like “at least I am not as bad as [insert name here] or at least I don’t [insert sin here]. God forgive me, I was a hypocrite to the church and a sudden non-believer in jeopardy of hell, and a hypocrite to my non-Christian friends at work. My life was a web of carefully crafted lies and masks, ones I was taught to tell, masks the church itself fashioned for me.
The gospel of love had been crucified. Nailed upon the cross of looking good in the eyes of others at the same time the quoted scripture was that “man looked on the outward appearance, but God looked on the heart.” The opinion of others mattered. After all, we might be the only Jesus those people would ever see. I often wondered if Jesus was as hateful, sexist, and racist as many of the people I knew in the church?
If those were Jesus followers, if they were “little Christs” like the meaning of the word Christian, I wanted nothing to do with them or him. In the Bible he seemed like a great guy I could really hang out with, like the fishermen, publicans, tax collectors, and sinners of his day did. But his followers? No way. I wondered, and sometimes asked, about the disconnect. I was warned not to ask too many deep questions.
I wandered in and out of the church most of my adult life, thinking I might somehow make a difference by working from the inside. Each time, I was burned. Sometimes it was by my own hypocrisy, my life steeped in a lie as I taught others things I myself did not believe or live by.
Other times, I was scorched by the hypocrisy of others. Each time, the church felt like hell. The very burning of eternal fire they taught me to fear after death seemed to inhabit the lives of those who called themselves followers of Christ in this world. I was confused, angry, and rebellious. I wanted nothing to do with this toxic God who would pit brother against brother in a battle for the kingdom of God.
What happened to love? What happened to “for God so loved the world”? Who was this world God loved so much he sacrificed his only son for? We were taught it was everyone by the words the church spoke, be we were shown by action that the “world” was made up of a select few: those in our denomination chief among them, with a few exceptions at “that other church down the street.” Certainly not the LGBTQ community. Not those liberals who wanted to redistribute wealth, even though it was easier to qualify for food stamp programs than to get help from the church, especially if you were a non-believer.
We didn’t even love other churches, other Christians who did not exactly share our interpretation of the Holy Bible, let alone love the world. We were taught from the Psalms to “not sit in the seat of the scornful or walk in the way of sinners.” How were we to evangelize this world with the gospel of love if we could not eat with sinners like Christ did, or draw water from the well for the woman who was living in sin? We were being taught two very different and conflicting messages.
True, there were churches that rebelled against this. Non-denominational community churches and those who taught the prosperity gospel were among them. These churches were way too soft on doctrine for those I grew up around. Sure, they brought more people in the doors, but that was due to the “watered down gospel” they offered, and that is why they grew. You could wear almost anything there on Sunday morning. They taught more about the love of Christ and the love Christians were to have for one another than hell and sin. Blasphemy!
In the fundamental Christian world, the gospel of love was dying, and it now seems dead here in the United States. The church, in the name of making a stand for doctrine, is repelling the very souls it means to save. The liberal media, the school system, the government, everyone else is to blame. The church itself is simply following God’s command. Or is it?
The Golden Rule. Kindness. Love. Forgiveness. Grace. Peace. Where are they? The Eastern religions demand less fearful God-worship and allow us more freedom to just be good people. Young people flee the church in droves, not only not wanting to be called Christians, but embracing the opposite. Is it any wonder they reject this angry, bigotry advocating God of hate they are being presented? No!
The gospel of love has suffered a death at the hands of partisan politicking form the pulpit, discrimination, a hatred of both the sinner and the sin, as if anyone is purer than their neighbor. And loving your neighbor? Only under certain prescribed conditions, and certainly not if they are different than you in some essential way.
loving your neighbor? Only under certain prescribed conditions, and certainly not if they are different than you in some essential way.
Pardon me. That’s bullshit, and the whole world can see through it. Me? I’ll take the love of true friends, grace, forgiveness, and peace over a church any day of the week. Even Sunday.
I would not be embarrassed or shamed to call myself a Christian if that meant that I loved my fellow man, and wanted to live in peace with him, leading the way to goodness and light. But that’s not what it means anymore, and people run from the name like it is a plague they might catch, a disease that would turn them into a spiteful hypocrite living in fear.
Perhaps the analogy is best put this way: this gospel of fear and hate is Barabbas, the thief and murderer that Pilate offered the crowds in place of Jesus. “Give us Barabbas!” they cried. Then they took the innocent, the representation of love incarnate, and hung him on a cross.
The church itself has crucified the gospel of love. Unlike Christ, it may never rise from the grave again, not unless there is a radical shift back to the teachings of Christ and away from the judgement that exists today.