Recently, my friend the Anarchist Reverend asked and answered a basic question on his blog: why are you a Christian? It’s a question I’ve been asking myself for a while now – certainly since I started seminary – but I’d never given myself the space to chase down an answer. And as the Anarchist Reverend says, “These aren’t doctrinal statements, these are the core of my heart.”
It’s not as if I’ve had an easy Christian path. I’m a preacher’s kid, a PK, and while PKs are notorious for rebellion, it took me a long time to rebel in the ways I needed to. What was dangerous for me was the internalization of the pervasive Christian ideal of not getting angry, of being meek and automatically forgiving and not making trouble. I was not raised in a tradition of resistance and rule-breaking. Even my parents couldn’t get me to disobey their teaching. Not that I was a perfect child, but when it came to religious commandments, I was terrified of disobedience. For instance, when I was six, and had just started first grade, I reported to my parents that a boy had flipped up my skirt. My dad – most uncharacteristically – told me to slap the boy if he ever did that again. But my parents had succeeded in making me a pacifist, even by that early age, and I knew I couldn’t strike this boy.
When I was twelve and at a Baptist summer camp, I found myself with a stalker, an older boy who eventually progressed to harassment and molestation. When I complained to the camp pastor, he told me I was asking for it, since I’d let the boy give me a back rub on the second night of camp. So I continued to suffer in silence. The boy was eventually expelled from camp three years later, when he assaulted a younger camper.
I learned to internalize anger. I couldn’t accept my anger when people mistreated me, nor could I stand up for myself, and this is perhaps the worst aspect of spiritual abuse: it makes your victimization your fault. If you cannot forgive immediately, if you dare to try to put a stop to abuse, if you try to name the powers of death that are warping life, then you are likely to be named a sinner. You are to carry others’ burdens, not make others carry your own. You are to be meek and Christ-like, never mind the harsh words Jesus (or the prophets) had for those who cause others pain. The bible is full of cries against abuse, and yet the church successfully makes so many of us believe that to cry against abuse is wrong, prideful, “wrathful,” unchristian.
But beyond what I have experienced myself, there’s what others have suffered at the hands of the church and those who claim to do the church’s work. Pogroms and crusades, lynchings and tortures. I read of widespread incest and other forms of abuse in certain Amish and Mennonite sects, I see pictures of signs that say “God hates fags,” I hear of the psychological abuse of women going to reproductive health clinics, and my heart goes out. Most of all, I read of those the church has taught to hate themselves, to harm themselves, and my heart goes out.
There have been times I’ve tried to leave Christianity, thinking it was too corrupted to be part of anymore. I want no part of an organization that has caused such suffering. But I can’t leave. I can’t stop believing. I’m not done with Christianity, and Christianity’s not done with me.
I am a Christian because of bodies: my body, yours, your cat’s, a black bear’s. I am a Christian because Christianity, its warped history to the contrary, is about bodies. Bodies that hunger and thirst, bodies that get sick, that heal, that die. Bodies that love, bodies that give birth and nurse, bodies that carry and nurture other bodies. Bodies that are made whole. My God is a God so much a part of the world as to take the form of a creature, to unify nature and divinity. They are so interwoven now that they will never be separated. They are so interwoven that nothing even the church does can separate them.
I am a Christian because of scars and wounds. I carry both the physical and the emotional kind. I know that what has been broken is, contrary to popular slogans, not necessarily the strongest part. Many wounds remain tender and painful, but they can remind us to be tender with each other. They can be wounds we lick in secret, or Jesus can transform them into sources of compassion. I am a Christian not because suffering is good or noble or a sign of virtue, but because Christ is with us in our suffering. Because God knows our pain.
I am a Christian because of Jesus. Because if I want to stand against the religious hypocrisy and brutality of our day, Jesus is the best person to stand beside. This is the man who overturned the moneychangers’ tables. This is the man who touched and was touched by women, and by those sick and shunned by society. This is the man who called worthless our attempts to pander to the rich, and called us instead to invite the outcast to our tables. This is the man who was strong, who out of his strength loved when it would have been easy to do violence, or to hate. I love this man, this divine man, and no amount of evil perpetrated by his so-called followers will ever make me love him less.
I am a Christian because I need forgiveness. Because I need God’s forgiveness and that of others. Because I need to forgive. It doesn’t mean I can’t be angry, it doesn’t mean I can’t resist evil; in fact, it means I should be angry, I should resist evil wherever I encounter it. Even in myself. But it also means I need to remember and cherish each person’s dignity, and see God in them. It means I must never dehumanize those I disagree with or believe are hurtful.
I am a Christian because life is not easy, though I would often like to make it so. I would like to close my ears and take back my heart and sort of mosey along through life without a lot of disturbance. I’d like to avoid conflict wherever possible. But Jesus calls me to a much larger life, a more disturbed and challenging life. God calls me to open my eyes and unstop my ears and love the world. As James Baldwin wrote, “Love takes off the masks that we fear we cannot live without and know we cannot live within. I use the word ‘love’ here not merely in the personal sense but as state of being, or a state of grace. . . ” This love is God. And God is all love. I am a Christian because the God of love calls me to a vulnerability and a strength I cannot achieve on my own.
I am a Christian, not because I choose to be, but because God is not finished with me. I suspect God will never be finished with me.
May the God who made heaven and earth, whom death could not contain, who lives to disturb and heal us, bless you with power to go forth and proclaim the gospel. And the grace of God be with you all, now and always.
(Prayer by Janet Morley.)