I’ve written here in the past about my family–my mother’s family in specific. I have avoided spending time with them for years due, in large part, to how I feel when I leave their company. A certain feeling of social exclusion and judgment permeate all their gatherings, and I eventually decided that I was, to quote Danny Glover from “Lethal Weapon”, too old for that shit.
I am not trying to pick on conservative, Evangelical Christians here because the behaviors of a small group of people do not often accurately describe the group as a whole. I grew up within white, conservative, Evangelical Christian circles–Southern white, neo-conservative Pentacostalism at my father’s house, Orthodox Lutheranism at my mother’s house, and Evangelical Lutheranism at my grandparent’s house. All the while, I was a Jew hiding my identity at the desperate insistence of my Jewish grandmother. It was a very weird way to grow up. The problem for me, however, is that what I experienced this week with a member of my family does indeed accurately describe 21st c. Evangelicalism as a whole as I have experienced it over the years, and I am extremely troubled by it.
So, what happened?
I have successfully kept my separation of a year and pending divorce under wraps. Few people actually know about it–only the people I have wanted to know. No one in my extended family knows. Not even my mother! What a coup. I have also successfully avoided seeing anyone in my family for over five years. That, too, has been quite the coup. Why would I do that?
The last family member I interacted with told me that my daughter’s schizophrenia diagnosis was from God. And, then he quoted Romans 8:28 at me. Ah yes, such words of comfort.
This is not a worldview I share nor is it a worldview I want my daughter around. The last thing she needed to hear was that God gave her schizophrenia, and in his great sovereignty he knew what was best for her as she suffered through treatment after treatment, losing white matter in her brain. As a 12 year-old.
I did, however, decide that perhaps I ought to finally bite the bullet and meet my cousin for lunch. Perhaps I have been unfair and was viewing her through a filter of past woundedness. I was completely willing to begin anew with humility.
How did it go, you ask?
Well, it was interesting. Here is a snippet of our lunchtime conversation:
Me: “Here is a picture of the girls from Passover.” ::shows picture::
Cousin: “What does that mean? Passover. What kind of church do you go to?”
Me: “I go to synagogue.”
Cousin: (stammering) “Synagogue? What are you…a Jew?”
Cousin: (staring at me with rising hostility) “I didn’t know that about you.”
Me: “Well, I am. Have been all my life.”
Cousin: (setting her jaw) “Those people don’t believe that Jesus is the messiah.”
Me: “Unless a Jew is a messianic Jew, then, no, Jews do not believe that the messiah has come yet. That’s correct.”
Cousin: (leaning across the table with an accusatory expression) “Do you? Because I’ve known you to believe that. You need to set those Jews straight.”
This is a stunning example of bigotry and anti-Semitism in action, and it is very common in not only churches but in society at large. “Those people…” and “What are you..a Jew?” are both examples of an us vs. them mentality. Couple that with the conviction and hubris to take the position over another belief system that it must be “set straight” and you set the foundation for potential and real acts of violence against not only Jews but other groups who are different from the accepted majority. People will naturally be suspicious of those who are different, but what was displayed in this conversation is under no circumstances acceptable.
We were in an upscale French restaurant. During lunch, she reached across the table and said, “I need to pray for you,” and she then lifted her hand to the ceiling and began pleading the blood of Jesus over me rather loudly. She did not ask if I wanted prayer. She did not ask if I wanted my arm to be manhandled. I even asked her not to pray for me. I understand what that is. It’s an expression of American Evangelical culture. Not Christianity. American Evangelicals often pray for people in public settings. I’ve witnessed it many times. I know other North American Christians who would never dream of doing that as it would be considered a boundary violation of the other people sitting nearby. A cafe or restaurant isn’t a church and, therefore, there is no tacit consent to be around overt public prayer. This isn’t about God. This is about respect, and loving your neighbor is all about respecting them.
After I explained the nature of the domestic violence in my marriage, she asked me if I was going to reconcile with my ex-husband. I wasn’t too surprised. In a survey cited by Denise George in her book What Women Wish Pastors Knew: Understanding the Hopes, Hurts, Needs, and Dreams of Women in the Church, six thousand conservative Protestant pastors were surveyed as to how they would counsel women who came to them for help with domestic violence. Twenty-six percent would counsel them to continue to “submit” to her husband, no matter what. Twenty-five percent told wives that the abuse was their own fault—for failing to submit in the first place. Astonishingly, 50% said women should be willing to “tolerate some level of violence” because it is better than divorce. In my synagogue, there is a sign in the women’s bathroom for a local women’s shelter and a hotline number to call in case there is violence in the home and help is needed. My cousin’s view lines up with the Protestant pastors’ views.
What can I say? My mother’s family are paragons of Christian values and virtues to everyone who knows them, and I don’t say that sarcastically. They are well-known the Western Christian world over having golfed with Tim LaHaye, rubbed shoulders with Michael W. Smith at the Dove Awards, and published Christian books internationally; and yet they tell jokes like this: “What’s the first thing a battered women does when she gets home from the women’s shelter? The dishes if she knows what’s good for her.”
So, what’s my point? My point is that this double standard in terms of who gets treated well and who gets shunned, insulted, belittled, and ignored is the standard in American and Western Evangelical Christianity today. I’ve observed and experienced this for almost 40 years, and it’s why I ultimately left the church. I did some serious soul searching in terms of my own Jewishness. Could I find a rewarding faith practice in a Christian faith tradition while practicing Judaism at home as I had always done? No. The reason? This double standard as well as clashing doctrinal beliefs.
A 1926 review by the Reverend W.P. King (then pastor of the First Methodist Church of Gainesville, Georgia) of E. Stanley Jones’s The Christ of the Indian Road (published in 1925 by The Abington Press, New York City) succinctly illustrates my point:
Dr. Jones says that the greatest hindrance to the Christian gospel in India is a dislike for western domination, western snobbery, the western theological system, western militarism and western race prejudice. Gandhi, the great prophet of India, said, “I love your Christ, but I dislike your Christianity.” The embarrassing fact is that India judges us by our own professed standard. In reply to a question of Dr. Jones as to how it would be possible to bring India to Christ, Gandhi replied: First, I would suggest that all of you Christians live more like Jesus Christ. Second, I would suggest that you practice your Christianity without adulterating it. The anomalous situation is that most of us would be equally shocked to see Christianity doubted or put into practice. Third, I would suggest that you put more emphasis on love, for love is the soul and center of Christianity. Fourth, I would suggest that you study the non-Christian religions more sympathetically in order to find the good that is in them, so that you might have a more sympathetic approach to the people.
Dr. Jones’ statement that India is essentially holding Western Christianity to its own standard and, embarrassingly, it only finds itself under its own judgment seems accurate. There is no adequate justification for what is passed off by many people today as “Christian” but is really just plain old racism, bigotry, and hatred.
I realize that there are many people who in no way identify with what I’m describing and who are, at the same time, practicing Christians. They are hurt and rightfully offended by what is passed off as “Christian”. They might struggle and feel angry when other people accuse them for associating with what they perceive to be a bigoted and largely unkind religious practice. Keep in mind, however, that the aforementioned quote was issued almost 100 years ago. The Inquisition was led by Christians and lasted from the 13th c. until the 18th: “An estimated 31,912 heretics were burned at the stake, 17,659 were burned in effigy and 291,450 made reconciliations in the Spanish Inquisition. In Portugal, about 40,000 cases were tried, although only 1,800 were burned, the rest made penance.”
Or, consider this:
“My feelings as a Christian points me to my Lord and Savior as a fighter. It points me to the man who once in loneliness, surrounded by a few followers…was greatest not as a sufferer but as a fighter. In boundless love as a Christian and as a man I read through the passage which tells us how the Lord at last rose in His might and seized the scourge to drive out of the Temple the brood of vipers and adders. …Today, after two thousand years, with deepest emotion I recognize more profoundly than ever before the fact that it was for this that He had to shed his blood upon the Cross.”
It sounds very vehement, heartfelt, and devout, doesn’t it? Do you know who said this? Adolf Hitler. In a speech on April 12, 1922. Those vipers and adders he’s referring to are the Jews, and I have read many Christian books and articles that echo that sentiment. My cousin’s attitudes are, in fact, fairly representative of American Christianity in terms of the bell curve. She isn’t an outlier. Her attitudes and views are relatively normative, and this hasn’t changed much over the centuries apparently.
Do you know how my lunch ended? Our server happened to overhear my cousin’s anti-Jewish remarks towards me when he was passing our table. He stopped in his tracks and returned to our table. He began asking me random questions in order to attempt to interrupt the conversation.
“Do you need a new napkin? Do you need more coffee? I think you need a new knife. Can I get you anything? Anything at all?”
He hovered. He stayed close by. He heard her remarks on domestic violence, too, and he stood at a close distance and made empathetic eye contact with me. He was Muslim. So, there we all were. The three behemoth monotheistic world religions having lunch together in such a strange way–Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. She was attacking me for being Jewish and judging me for leaving my abusive husband because that wasn’t submissive. He tried, within his limited capacity, to protect me. And, it looked like one big hypocritical circus when she insisted on praying for me in public. I looked at him. He looked at me.
This is not how it is supposed to be, but this is how it has historically played out between The Big Three. So, what can be done then?
Follow Gandhi’s advice because it’s good advice. And, the plain fact is that Christians have major reconciliation efforts to engage in. Unapologetically. There is no getting around the historical and present day facts. Case in point:
“We don’t hate people because of their race. We are a Christian organization,” Frank Ancona, the imperial wizard of the Traditional American Knights of the KKK…”Because of the acts of a few rogue Klansmen, all Klansmen are supposed to be murderers, and wanting to lynch black people and we’re supposed to be terrorists. That’s a complete falsehood.”“We want to keep our race the white race,” said Ancona. “We want to stay white. It’s not a hateful thing to want to maintain white supremacy.”Earlier this week on Twitter, while talking to a user who expressed interest in joining, Ancona described the KKK as a group that’s “not about hate.” And asserted that the groups is “about love for God, race and nation.” He also claimed that Jesus was not a Jew, and said the crowd only “called him a Jew to mock him,” adding, “the Jews killed Christ.”On his LinkedIn page, Ancona summarizes the work of his organization as striving “to increase awareness of the destruction of our constitutional rights and the plight of the white race in America. We teach traditional American values and keep alive our heritage and culture as Americans.”Ancona lists the American Civil Liberties Union, which has represented the KKK legally from time-to-time, and church ministry and church leadership among his affiliations. He describes his interests as “history, heritage, restoring our republic and Constitution as originally written. … Educating the true chosen children of God, shining the light of Christ to dispel darkness, ingnorance [sic] and gloom.” (online source)
“Because salvation is by grace through faith, I believe that among the countless number of people standing in front of the throne and in front of the Lamb, dressed in white robes and holding palms in their hands (see Revelation 7:9), I shall see the prostitute from the Kit-Kat Ranch in Carson City, Nevada, who tearfully told me that she could find no other employment to support her two-year-old son. I shall see the woman who had an abortion and is haunted by guilt and remorse but did the best she could faced with grueling alternatives; the businessman besieged with debt who sold his integrity in a series of desperate transactions; the insecure clergyman addicted to being liked, who never challenged his people from the pulpit and longed for unconditional love; the sexually abused teen molested by his father and now selling his body on the street, who, as he falls asleep each night after his last “trick”, whispers the name of the unknown God he learned about in Sunday school.“But how?” we ask.
Then the voice says, “They have washed their robes and have made them white in the blood of the Lamb.” There they are. There we are – the multitude who so wanted to be faithful, who at times got defeated, soiled by life, and bested by trials, wearing the bloodied garments of life’s tribulations, but through it all clung to faith. My friends, if this is not good news to you, you have never understood the gospel of grace.” The Ragamuffin Gospel