This is a bit of a departure from my normal feminist musings…. and it also isn’t a departure at all. This story has shaped me into the feminist I am today… this is the story of my experience with Christianity….
I grew up in the midwest in a family and religious community that believed and practiced what I now understand to be a fairly common midwestern and conservative form of Christianity. I’m told that I prayed the prayer to “ask Jesus into my heart” when I was 5 (but I don’t actually remember that event). I was baptized when I was nine (and like a good Baptist, I do remember that). Throughout my childhood, all of my friends were Christians, and all of my family members were Christians. The Christianity I was taught was my truth. I went to church at least 3 times per week. I could recite the books of the Bible in order. I went to a Christian college, thinking that I wanted to be a pastor. At one point, I had memorized the Sermon on the Mount. You get it.
When I was about 14, I began to feel uneasy about the Christian beliefs I was being taught. I felt like I had to judge/admonish/discipline people who were doing things that didn’t match up with teachings that I had been absorbing. People who believed in evolution needed to be corrected. People who drank or had sex needed to be disciplined. Gay people needed to change. Women needed to be submissive. Everyone needed to forgive, constantly, without fail, even when they were being exploited or abused. In high school, these social aspects of “Christianity” really bothered me.
When I started taking theology and philosophy classes in college, my uneasiness gained new depth, and I learned to articulate new questions. If Jesus preached about God’s forgiveness (aka not requiring reparation/repayment for a wrong), why did God require Jesus’s death as repayment for human sin? That isn’t forgiveness; that is someone paying your bills for you (even a mob boss would let someone do that). If God is all powerful, either God allows evil to happen and doesn’t try to stop it or God purposefully harms people…. and either one makes God into a sadist. If the Bible is supposed to be God’s word and God is supposed to love everyone equally, how can the Bible endorse the mistreatment or inequality of women, slaves, and homosexual people? Unacceptable. Over time, I could no longer ignore those questions. And the only answers I could find made God look like a big jerk…. a selfish, tyrannical, fear-mongering, dictator…. someone I wanted nothing to do with.
In 2005, when I moved across the country to start grad school (aka seminary), someone asked me if I was a Christian. I’m not sure that anyone had ever actually asked me that before, because everyone already knew/assumed that I was one. But I remember this specific conversation very well. We were at “John’s Incredible Pizza” standing by the bumper cars, and this person asked me, and I said no. My answer actually surprised me. I didn’t know that I didn’t think I was a Christian until my mouth had said it, but when I heard the words, they felt accurate….and liberating. Once I moved across the country, I no longer had to identify myself as an insider to the religion I found so harmful.
So, I went through a period of Christianity-hating. I hated everything about Christianity. I thought it, and religion in general, was all that was wrong with the world. I really thought that the world would be a better place if everyone gave up on religion entirely.
But over time, I realized that Christianity didn’t have to be as harmful and hurtful as I originally thought. After years of study, I concluded that there are no compelling reasons for Christians to think that slavery is acceptable, that the Earth was created in six 24 hour days, that homosexuality is a sin, that women can’t be religious (or any kind of) leaders, that Jesus was forced by God to pay the price for humanity’s sins, or that there is a literal hell of any kind. Those are all interpretive moves that occurred in certain historical and political contexts, and there is no reason whatsoever for Christians today to hold on to them. There are, however, many compelling reasons for Christians to oppose slavery, human trafficking, and exploitation of any kind. There are many compelling reasons for Christians to support science, medical research, and technological advancements. There are many compelling reasons for Christians to support gay rights. There are many compelling reasons for Christians to work to empower women. There are many compelling reasons for Christians to enact Jesus’s example of loving community. And there are many compelling reasons to work to ensure that “The Kingdom of God” (re: dignity, love, and respect for all) is enacted on Earth now, today.
Happily, throughout grad school, I encountered many wonderful self-identified Christian people who don’t believe in substitutionary atonement, who embrace and find beautiful the love and sexuality of LGBT individuals, who accept evolution, global warming, and modern science, who don’t read the Bible literally, and who find feminist interpretations of text and tradition meaningful and long overdue. These people are Christians who live love instead of judgement and who live thoughtfulness instead of blindness/ignorance. In summary, these Christians demonstrated that Christianity didn’t have to hurt all the time.
And if I’d known that type of Christians existed when I was 16-21 , I might not have had to go through the painful experience of leaving the only worldview and only community I’d ever known.
I am writing this story to be of some use to you, whether you are a religious leader, a religious practitioner, or a member of the human race in general. Maybe this story is useful for reminding you about the harm that can come at the hands of religion. Maybe this story can encourage you to combat those harms as zealously as you can. Maybe this story can encourage you to participate in reforming Christianity. If you experienced something similar, maybe this story can show you that you aren’t alone. Or if you’ve been hurt by it, maybe this story can remind you that Christianity can be beautiful and empowering. Maybe this story can remind you that Christians can be loving and supportive and that religion can bring something useful to the world. Or maybe this story has some other meaning for you….
I’d love to hear from any of you. Thoughts? Responses? Questions?