It’s been awhile since I’ve stopped telling people I’m “religious.” More recently, I began to simply respond that I love Jesus when someone asks if I’m a Christian. If another self-identified Christian starts talking enthusiastically about their church activities or their theological beliefs, I try to steer the conversation away from programs and precepts and toward talking about God himself. And if I can’t, I quietly change the subject. You see, my love for God is something that consumes my life. When I won’t shut up about Jesus on a first date, my dates often wonder why I didn’t identify myself as Christian in my online profile… God is an all-day-every-day-of-the-week presence in my life. But I’m not religious.
There’s the obvious reason, the one that seems to be getting clearer by the day: the politics, of course. I have more and more trouble identifying myself as part of a subculture that publicly promotes things that churn my stomach. Yes, we need to come alongside one another with grace toward each other’s faults. Yes, I believe in actively engaging with the church to try to produce change instead of dusting my hands off over every offense. But a church that denies assylum for the oppressed or that promotes “redemption” as a tool for elevating oppressors leaves very little space for grace to operate within its walls.
I used to think those kinds of problems were a few very vocal exceptions. That it was not a pervasive problem. I used to hear the horror stories like that and think, “Okay, but those aren’t the Christians I know. Those aren’t most of us. That’s just a few bad apples.” Then a few years ago, I began to change my mind. Or rather, God began to work on my heart. It started with reading the Cross in the Closet five years ago. The author—a product of conservative American evangelical culture—posed as gay for a year and wrote about his experience. Say what you will about Kurek’s means for getting the material for his book, reading that book opened my eyes. I began to understand that I couldn’t dismiss the bad experiences of my gay and lesbian brothers and sisters as exceptions. I began to see the hurtful things that had come out of my own mouth for what they were. And from that point, I started to look at my dearly held beliefs a little differently. With a problem that prevalent, it was harder to dismiss the growing concern in my mind that there was a deep and fatal flaw in my beliefs.
And then I got divorced, placing me firmly in another population of people who are routinely marginalized and harrassed by good, church-going “Christians”. I count myself blessed that I’ve experienced very little of that first-hand. At worst, for me there was an expectation on me to fix problems that weren’t really mine at a high cost to me personally in favor of the marriage. I lost a relationship with some of my in-laws. But it put me in a position to hear about much worse treatment other people have endured. Here’s one lovely story: a friend divorced her drug-addicted, abusive husband after years of helping him against resistance very strong pressure from her “god-fearing” in-laws to overlook the problems. One even told her, ““we all know what single moms do for money” and refused to help her one bit. I’ve long ago lost track fo the number of women I know personally who were told to try harder in abusive relationships because divorce is wrong, or who were otherwise judged or ostracized when they should have been helped.
Hearing stories like that over and over is enough to make anyone deeply cynical. I am no longer surprised by the news that 71% of evangelical Christians are happy with the job that president Trump is doing, or that some are vocally backing a pimp for political office. It’s harder than it was five years ago to dismiss what’s happening as a “few bad apples.”
The point I’ve come to is that Christianity doesn’t work as a belief system.
Yes, you read that right. I love Jesus, I love the Bible, but I don’t think Christianity works as a belief system. In fact, I think it may be one of the worst out there.
You see, any belief can become oppressive when it is elevated over a person or people. Think about it. This is true on a small scale and on large scales, from momentary selfishness to systematic tyranny. If my belief that divorce is wrong is stronger than my heart for that person, then it is easy to justify saying nasty things to bring them back in line (or, in the specific case I mentioned, to tell that person’s kids that someday you’ll explain to them the nasty truth about their mother). If WHAT I believe is more important than people, it is easier to justify (for instance) supporting inhumane immigration policies because I believe their obedience to the immigration laws is more important to me than their humane treatment. You may be able to balance the two, but when you come to the inevitable point where you have to pick principles or people, elevating principles will almost always take you somewhere bad.
Like I said, I think this is true of any belief system. To pick on something easy, there are a lot of things that are compelling about communism. Redistributing wealth so that everyone has what they need? I get that. But if the idea is more important than the people, you end up with the bloodbaths of the Russian and Chinese revolutions… you get the idea. Yes, sometimes it is simply despotic opportunitists (a few bad apples) hijacking beliefs in a volatile situation. Yes, sometimes the truths driving the action are inherently wrong (saying a certain race is inferior). But sometimes it’s simply good beliefs elevated above people. Dogma and despotism are not far apart.
If being a Christian is entirely (or even mostly) about holding, spreading, and enforcing specific beliefs, it’s not a huge leap to the place where I have to make choices between people and abstractions. It’s not a much bigger step beyond that to taking my beliefs and using them to protect my own insecurities and vulnerabilities. It’s just a few steps farther to where I use ideas as a hammer to try to get other people to do what I think is right at the expense of relationship and compassion, all in the name of Truth.
But why would I say Christianity is the worst belief system out there? Because of the demands its laws make. They are not just demands of behavior, but of the heart. Look at the ten commandments: Worship God. Don’t Covet. Don’t Lie. If you dip into the New Testament, love becomes an explicit requirement. These go well beyond reasonable social contracts. In fact, I think if you tried to really enforce them, the social situation becomes untenable. If Christianity is what we know about God and His universe, if it is about getting closer and helping one another obtain knowledge of an objective Truth, if one of the foundations for believing God’s laws in the Bible are superior because they are the best foundation for social contract—we are all screwed. (Jesus’ disciples got this. See Matthew 19:10)
“But, Amy,” you say. “But, Amy, we (Christians) have Jesus!” Yes, we do. “We have Jesus who died for our sins so we don’t have to live up to those rules.” Yes, also true. But I am not convinced that we Christians fully embrace that any more. Listen the next time you hear the gospel preached—it so often stops at “Jesus came to save us from our sins” without adding the absolutely critical, life-altering “SO THAT He could be with us. SO THAT we can have eternal life united with Him.” The cut-off version of the gospel runs a significant risk of telling us God saved us so that we can live better lives. If improved morality is the end point, salvation is an event that simply enables us to live the life we ought to. It does not relieve us of the burden of dogma and despotism, it (supposedly) zaps us with the power to meet their requirements. We still end up judging one another and ourselves when we fail. Eternal life becomes a reward rather than a restoration of the state we’re meant to live with God. We are left scrambling after a goal that is still unachievable (just maybe a little less so).
Do you see why I’m not at all surprised any more that the same culture that produced the Moral Majority in the 70s helped elect Donald Trump? It may seem inconsistent, but that is where elevating dogma over relationship—where believing that Jesus’ atonement zaps us with special powers to do good—will get us.
Some people see this as a reason to abandon Christianity entirely. If a religion doesn’t work as a belief system, what good is it? For my part, I have learned something different over the last few years. I’m learning to discard faith in beliefs for faith in a Person. I’m learning to read the Bible to help me recognize Him acting in my life rather than looking for truths that I could explain and validate. It’s the difference between knowing ABOUT someone and knowing someone personally. It’s the difference between an abstraction and a life lived alongside a Person.
Religion as we typically think of it today is about a What. About a truth understood in my head. About a way of living that serves as a solid social contract. It’s about a better life lived through precepts. I do not consider myself religious because I have faith in a God who claimed that a Person is The Truth, a Person is the Way, a Person is the Life. For me, loving God isn’t the What but the Who. Instead of dogmatically explaining all of the things I think I know about Him and what He wants by hanging the ten commandments in the courtroom or pointing out the specifics of all of the ways people have broken God’s laws, I can point the people I love to a Person who loves them, who wants to know and be known. I can set judgment aside because the One who has a right to judge died for them and for me. I don’t need to use beliefs as a hammer to show people God’s ways and get them to act right because they have their own path to experiencing the Way themselves.
I’m not religious because I believe in Christ. Christianity may very well be the worst religion possible. To try to follow its laws is to set yourself up to fail. To insist that others do it is oppressive. I believe in a Person who uses those laws to remind us that we need Him, as a persistent call to relationship rather than a hammer to enforce behavior. Who called us closer as He delivered those laws and who ultimately suffered and died for the sake of being able to know us as we are. Religion elevates a way of life as practice. It shows us what is required of us for a good life. Jesus fulfilled those requirements (and paid the price that failing to meet them exacts) so that He could be WITH us. If I’m a Christian, a “little Christ,” I have to constantly ask myself if I’m doing the same. And right now that means not being religious.