Growing up in the New York metropolitan area provided an introduction to the diversity of the world. It seemed, at least from my juvenile perspective, that people just sort of understood there were differences, but no one was pushing their way as the only way.
In elementary school we all decided the Protestant kids had the easiest time of it. While the Catholic kids left school early on Wednesday to take a bus to Catechism downtown, and we Jewish kids were taken by our parents to once a week Hebrew School, the other kids just sort of grinned and enjoyed their week day freedom after school.
I moved to Nashville in 1975. This is the buckle of the Bible Belt and it was a cultural shock to me in many ways. Besides learning that the only way to eat green beans was after they had been simmered with raw bacon for at least two hours, I also quickly learned that it was a welcoming question to include, with “what’s your name” the query “what church do you belong to?”
While I first interpreted it as a way to invite me, I gradually understood it was a way to identify the tribe. Who was in and who was out.
These were very very real experiences I had:
“My church is the only CHRISTIAN church because it is the XYZ Christian Church. The others are not Christians. They are Baptists or Methodists, not Christians.” (my supervisor, mid-30s)
“My church is the only RIGHT church. All the others are wrong.” (14-year-old in the boy choir who belonged to a congregation of 50 people.)
“You MUST take Christ as your Savior! You could have died and been in Hell for eternity.” (after I had recovered from bacterial meningitis, a 45-year-old wife beating neighbor)
“We can’t have THOSE people teaching our children at Sunday School.” (same supervisor, discussing that the only volunteers to respond to the call to fill a vacancy, a homosexual couple.)
“Jesus was a Christian” (10-year-old who attended a fundamentalist church).
When I got into discussion with people who I now understand were Episcopalian, they cautioned me that no one is perfect. That acceptance of all people also includes acceptance of their flaws.
That is a truism, but I need not follow the advice of people I feel do not align with me on ethical and moral terms.
I started going to church with Graham 12 years ago. I told him I would attend as long as I was respected and he said the very right thing: “If they don’t, we are in the wrong place.” So, until we came to the McMinnville Cooperative Ministry, we attended Episcopal churches in Pueblo, Colorado and Huntington, West Virginia. We also started here in Mac at St. B’s but did not feel the community connection we both enjoy. Jeanne Rahier invited us to sit with her one Sunday at the Coop and after the Christmas music program at St. B’s fell way short of what Graham enjoyed for celebration, we decided to make the switch.
I think most of the pastors have enjoyed my questions and my comments. Certainly, the members did as I was often asked to be part of a study group because they knew my perspective would allow for more interesting discussion. I participated in the “Inquirer’s class” and the Priest completely misunderstood and told me I could be baptized afterwards. When I told her it was not my goal she was surprised I was “merely” interested in learning.
So, why am I not jumping over after 12 years of exposure to Christianity, especially when I no longer actively go to Temple any longer?
Two main reasons:
- To keep my mom’s voice out of my head, I have been focusing on the similarities. I think that was one reason the Episcopal church was comfortable. It has a great deal of ritual. It took me a few Sundays to see the “game plan” so to speak, and once I did, I recognized the patterns. In a way, I understood the root of the practices in a way most of the regular people in the congregation did not. I knew the Church had developed from the Jewish faith and while practices vary from denomination to denomination, there are clear signs of the origin of most practices being from Judaism. I will say that the Episcopal church never considered me a member while the Coop has. And that makes me feel that the energy I put in to being part of the community is accepted and appreciated and I feel included.
- I just don’t understand and can not accept on faith two big doctrines of Christianity: that we are born with “original sin” and that once we accept Christ, we “live forever”. These issues are, I believe, part of the root of the problem with the fundamental branches. Original sin is the stick to demand behavior compliance and the carrot is baptism. As I was told in Nashville by more than one poor excuse for a proselytizer, they “had their ‘get out of jail free card’ already.” I don’t expect people to be perfect, but I don’t expect people who think they have the ONLY right pathway to be SO damn flawed.
I believe EVERY religion’s fundamental branch has this problem; that they believe in a very narrow and strict interpretation and anyone who questions it is considered to be on the outside and not worth being a part of their community. In our fear and concern about fundamentalist Islam, we have been quick to be concerned about sharia law. And yet EVERY fundamental branch of every religion has similar rules controlling behavior.
And many rules relate to controlling women. Have you noticed that ALL religions have long had a tradition of covering women’s hair? Pretty sexy stuff, hair. Or women and men pray apart? Or clothes must provide certain coverage and women must appear modest. The common theme is men have problems concentrating on the spiritual realm when women are around.
Women, including women in the South, have long adapted to restrictions on behavior. Many are broken down and fall into line, often being the most vocal and angry that other women disagree. And there are many who disagree, but they remain quiet, in order to keep a “happy home”. And a few, thank goodness, still have a backbone and a voice, but like all protesters everywhere, their plight is not easy.
My first job out of college was for the Tennessee Supreme Court. In 1975 the Old South was still very strong in those halls. All the justices were men. White men goes without saying but is important to say. As a recent grad, I was the flunky, but I was able to take on the tasks they assigned me well and a new project related to upgrading the system how to count court cases was given to me. The opportunity to attend a conference in San Jose, California was offered by my supervisor but had to be approved by the Big Boss. I was 23-years-old, living on my own 1000 miles away from my parents, but he was not happy with the idea of a young woman travelling across state lines on her own. He actually mentioned the Mann Act. So, as I had learned in the 2 years I already had lived there, I knew the game I needed to play. I connected with a friend of a friend who lived in California. They offered to pick me up at the airport and have me over for dinner one evening. And so, the Big Boss felt better since I had “family” there. I never saw them again, but I did get an amazing recipe for the pasta sauce they served me. The big take-away, however, was I learned in this instance to act like a Southern woman. All smiles and all duplicitous behavior.
There is an amazing pathway to enlightenment that is not difficult. It requires each person to have the desire and freedom to learn and reason through things. To be permitted to question and gently guided to better understanding through neutral discussion of alternative options. There are ALWAYS more than one way to solve a problem. Without that inherent capability, people become sheep to be lead.
Sheep are herd animals, generally perceived not to be smart because they follow enmasse what the leader directs. I personally do not understand why the Christian Church preaches that good believers are good sheep. I do understand the symbolism of Christ as the Shepherd, but I see that in any choice with farming, there is a wide range of farming styles and management. And some of the preachers and pastors and priests and rabbis and imams are very rigid in how they control their flock.
Why am I not going to Temple any longer? A number of issues, least among them the distance to the closest one. I was a teenager when I was told after I asked a question that I “should know the answer already.” That was poor management of this growing soul. And later, when I turned to the Temple I WAS attending regularly for help through a crisis, I was ignored. That is not my community.
And so it goes for many people in the United States. Probably we Baby Boomers were introduced to religion before we could walk much more than current children and so we learned our baby Bible stories. But somewhere along the way, we slipped off and few every have examined their faith with adult questions. And many found the setting too restrictive. And so, we have many who state they are Christian but behave in a way that would cause Jesus to weep.