Thursday, August 28, 2008

From Conservative Republican Southern Baptist to Progressive Jesus Radical

This is a bit of a rambling narrative on my thoughts on me going from being a Conservative Republican Southern Baptist to a progressive Jesus radical. Yeah, it is kind of long, but I pose an important question at the end.

I’m on a mission to find where I fit in this great big world of Christianity. Living in the South ( Jesusland) and having attended the same Southern Baptist church from Kindergarten through College, I never really had much choice when it came to what I believed. I grew up in the belly of the Religious Right and Moral Majority, and pretty much all my social and political views came from that understanding. In high school, I started to experiment with other Christian beliefs and denominations. I played guitar and bass with a young man who attended a Pentecostal church. It was so different from my stuffy Southern Baptist church, with a lively praise band and energetic congregation. I honestly didn’t know what to think about all these people being tapped on the forehead and fainting, and I’m still now sure how passing out makes us a better Christian. I’m just glad nobody ever hit me on the forehead. What if I didn’t faint; does that me I’m not a good Christian? I attended some Bible studies in their youth minister’s house, where I was first introduced to speaking and praying in tongues. I wanted to speak in tongues. I tried and tried. And I prayed and prayed. Yet I just couldn’t do it. I went to some Bible studies with some Methodist college students. We had some interesting debates about healing and prosperity Gospel, but it still didn’t seem what Jesus really meant. I went to Christian college and learned a lot of interesting theology and had some lively debates in my Bible classes ranging from the Documentary hypothesis to the Q Gospel to predestination and Calvinism. All the while, I was still attending my home church, but I wasn’t feeling like I was growing spiritually there.

My Southern Baptist church had the same minister from before I was in Kindergarten to while I was in college. When I was in college, our pastor retired and our new pastor was younger and more of an ardent fundamentalist rather than the thoughtful theologian of our retired pastor. This was the riff that eventually drove me away from my church. I can’t point my finger at one instance, but the conservative politics coming from the pulpit were clashing with what I was learning about who Jesus is. My socio-political shift really accelerated when I moved from my small town of a few hundred to Charlotte in 2006. Fresh out of college I took a job working at a call center until something better came along, and it was a horrible company to work for. The workers were treated like little children and constantly walked on by management. These people became my people, and as we worked together to make it through the day I began to see life from a different point of view. In fall of 2006 there was a referendum on the ballot to repeal a ½ cent sales tax that went to fund transit. The conservatives railed against it. “I don’t use transit, why should I pay for it?” I saw every day why we should fund transit; there were single mothers trying to pay their way through college, and guys trying to make a living and support their family on ten dollars an hour. Without transit, many would have no way to get to their jobs, the elderly who couldn't shop for groceries, not to mention the need to reduce the number of poluting cars on the road. I saw their need and became very active in raising support for keeping the half cent sales tax. The transit supporters ended up winning by a two to one margin, and ever since that day I’ve had a new view of what it mean to be political. It was perhaps the first time I’ve supported anything political for the greater good of somebody other than myself. I had stopped voting for me and started voting for us; for what’s best for the people of my community, and eventually the world. "What would Jesus do?" went from bumper sticker slogan to political platform. Maybe this was the point in my life that I became a liberal, though later I would consider myself a radical. My mantra at the time was “The day I became enlightened was the day I stopped thinking of myself as a Christian and an American, and started thinking of myself as a neighbor, and a brother, to the entire world.” I’ve simplified my political view to “vote for whomever will do the most good for the most people though out the world.”

Meanwhile, my church, seemed to be drifting more and more conservative and fundamentalist. The new pastor once said “I think the greatest time for our country was the 1950’s.” My mouth fell open, thinking of how in the 1950’s the south was under the oppression of segregation, Jim Crow laws were still in effect, the “glass ceiling” was as strong as ever. I don’t believe the pastor to be a racist, but I think he’s fallen for such a romanticized idea of the “good ole days” touted by conservative fundamentalists that he is out of touch with the world we live in. The Iraq war in 2003 and subsequent support from churches for an administration who instigated such an immoral and unjust war was the start of my loss of faith in the morality of the church. Richard Land, head of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention said “"I still think Iraq is one of the more noble things we've done.” In my pastor’s sermons gays were frequently the scapegoats for why “family values” were eroding in America. If it wasn’t the gays being blamed, then it was the “liberal media” or Hollywood to blame for corrupting this Christian Nation. But surely God wasn’t taking all this immorality in America lying down. No, he struck back with Hurricane Katrina. Surely this was divine retribution for America’s moral corruption? The idea that Katrina was punishment for the evils of the citizens of New Orleans, and especially gays, had me turning my back and walking out on the church. When I saw images of a desperate, crying mother holding a baby outside the Superdome, and then was smugly told of how this was God’s judgment for America’s immorality, I knew the church no longer served the Jesus of the New Testament. Rev. John Hagee proposed it was retribution for planning a Gay parade. If a God would so devastate the guilty with the innocent, the poor, the disabled, the elderly, the children, then he is truly not a loving God and we need not worship him.

I was further saddened by the church’s overall lack of concern for social justice, which was one of Jesus most frequent teachings. I participated in a record-a-thon, recording an entire album of music in the month of February with the sole purpose of raising money for Darfur. I petitioned many, many Christians and friends to contribute to the charity yet received very little response. June was National Torture Awareness Month and I contacted several Christian leaders about recognizing the horrors of torture and abuse that has and is happening in Guantanamo Bay, Abu Ghraib, Burma, and throughout the world by this country and others. Churches nationwide hung banners that stated “Torture is a Moral Issue.” None of the churches of people in my area that I contacted hung banners. Only a local Unitarian Universalist church that I drive by daily had a banner. As I saw it every day that month, I would think “If more churches can’t speak up on moral issues like this, then who will?”

Politicians are not a solution to Jesus’ calls for social justice, nor the government. Lately the Church hasn’t seemed like the solution, either. Especially when I see a homeless man turned away hungry from three well-to-do downtown churches. Especially when we’ve not doing for “the least of these” when we have 37.3 million people living in poverty in this country while we’ve building hundred thousand dollar basketball gyms for our social club churches. Especially when we’re not “loving our enemy” and “turning the other cheek” when our churches support a government that has killed tens of thousands in Iraq and Afghanistan. The church has become too comfortable and lazy in this country. Christian leaders have gotten drunk off the wine of the Empire; off the taste of political power and the money that comes with it. Now the church is more interested in having its policy implemented into law and legislating a false sense of morality on the nation. Christians are more interested in editing our constitution to be in line with their twisted view of fundamentalist morality instead of follow Jesus’ calls to help the less fortunate. They preach that you must say a prayer to be saved, but then what? We’re then supposed to sit around waiting for heaven, while trying to not sin? I’m not one of those people with a dramatic conversion experience. I wasn’t on the road to Damascus when I was blinded by a light. No, I answered God’s call on my heart just before my teenage years, in s still, quiet moment at home. I’ve seen some Billy Graham and other Christian productions where the climax of the story is when the unbelieving person finally breaks down and accepts God’s grace and mercy. I’ve wondered, "what about the rest of us?" Is the climax of the story of our lives over? I found that I could more relate to a movie like “Saved!” I’m just a Christian trying to make it the best I can, and maybe I’m not right on every issue. Maybe I’m a hypocrite a lot more than I would like. The more I learn and grow as a Christian, the more I realize I don’t know. I’ve decided to stop thinking I know all the answers (though I have a lot of opinions) and start trying to live justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with my God.

Time and time again growing up in my rural church I heard sermons on sin and how not to sin and what good Christians are not supposed to be doing. Rarely, if ever, I would hear about what we should be doing. We shouldn’t be sitting around waiting for heaven; Jesus called for us to pray that the Kingdom come, on earth as it is in Heaven. By grace though faith alone we are saved, but faith without works is dead. You can’t have one without the other. Preaching that people need to be converted without following Jesus' example of how to live is just needless grandstanding. The church has gotten it so wrong for so long that maybe what we need is a new Reformation. We have to do away with everything we’re learned and do away with all the religion and get back to the basics of the early church. Jesus isn't in your church's 30,000 dollar multimedia projection system. He's with the hundreds of thousands of people in developing countries blinded by cataracts for lack of simple medical treatment. Jesus isn't found in your church's hundred thousand dollar basketball gymnasium. He's with the 1.3 million children who will be homeless in America at some point this year. Jesus is not with your fountain filled with crystal clear water in your church's lobby. He's with the 1.2 billion people globally lack safe water to consume and 2.6 billion do not have access to adequate sanitation. I’ve decided to get all the church-stuff religion out of my life, and start over by simply reading what Jesus had to say. I’ve never felt such an amazing renewal as I have by freeing the Bible from the worldly church, but now I come to a point where I ask “now what?” Part of me wants to go back to my old church of 20 years and try to enact change, but I worry I would only run into conflict there. I really understand how Barack Obama felt when he spoke of how he couldn’t disavow his Rev. Jeremiah Wright. I feel the same way about my old church home. I could try to find a new church but I don’t know where to look for a progressive church. The Unitarian Universalist church up the street has theology even more loose and liberal than me. I know living as a “lone ranger” Christian isn’t working for me.

A question for progressive Christians and Jesus radicals: change the church or leave the church? Is it truly broken beyond repair? Is there hope for the salvation of the Southern Baptist Convention? The early Protestant leaders initially set out to change the church before leaving it. What’s a “New-Protestant” to do?

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