Stupid Religion

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I just had another one of those conversations.  The conversation I seem to have a lot these days with my Christian friends. Gay and straight. About what it means to be a Christian.

Am I still a “good Christian” if I don’t go to church? Am I a good Christian if I cuss, if I have sex with my girlfriend or boyfriend? And of course, that one question that seems to preoccupy the evangelical world right now: Can I be a good Christian if I’m gay?

Franklin Graham, the hostile son of that epitome of Christian kindness Billy Graham, thinks not.  And he’s spouting his morality-driven view of Christianity in all the media.  For him, and for many in the church world, Christianity is defined in terms of do’s and don’ts. Rules. Outward behavior.

And ya know, to some extent, I would agree with that. But only to the extent that “behavior” is defined as how we treat other people.

Christianity, at least for most Protestants, is defined by our faith in Jesus, and then how that faith translates into real life. More than just simple head-knowledge or believing something to be true, it is the transformational power of relationship with the Living God that defines us – proves us – to be true followers of Jesus. In a word, what makes us “good Christians.”

And that’s what I’ve come to conclude, after living my entire life in the church, growing up in a conservative evangelical home, going to an evangelical, charismatic seminary, and wrestling with God to sort out my own relationship with him.

Any so-called religion that does not result in a growing relationship with the Living God is a fake.

And any religion that does not transform you to treat other people around you in a better, more loving way is garbage.

If your religion – even if you can pull up all kinds of Scripture to justify your actions – results in alienating or hurting people, guess what?  You don’t know God, and you are not practicing God’s ways. You are not walking in the way of Jesus.  Period.

Because, at the core of it all, Jesus did not come to give us another book of holy rules to live by.

God is love, and the one who walks in love, lives in God, and God lives in him. … The one who claims to love God but treats his neighbor badly is a liar. – 1 John 4

A friend messaged me today on Facebook, in dismay over the cruel and cutting comments he received in one Facebook Christian group. They were targeted against “the gays,” of course, and our so-called delusion that we were saved.  My friend was puzzled how they could be so mean yet claim to have the truth.  For me, it was the same old, tired, story.  Stupid religion.  Words, Bible-knowledge in the head that never transformed the heart.

And this isn’t just a Christian thing.  Americans in general love to pick on Muslims and claim the actions of the radical fundamentalists are obviously not the actions of a Loving God – it’s a fake religion.  I’d have to agree – not about Islam in general, but about the hateful actions of radical fundamentalists.  And Jews, I’ve seen the reality of throwing stones and cold-hearted shunnings of the ultra-conservative against those who do not dress appropriately or honor the Sabbath as they believe it needs to be.  Even Buddhism, that religion known for its peaceful focus, has militant sects.  And my New Age/New Spirituality friends who have helped me see God in new and expanded ways … I see hearts seeking contact with the Universe, but sometimes in manipulative ways, trying to re-establish links with our own divinity in order to get what we want out of life.  And we Christians are no different. We have our militant sects, our KKKs, our Westboro Baptist Churches, our Franklin Grahams, even our seemingly Biblical messages coming from Assembly of God pulpits promoting a cultural agenda instead of offering the life-giving words of a Loving God.

Where is the personal transformation that comes from the faith? Where is the reflection of the God who sacrificed himself so that he could establish a better connection with humanity?

StupidReligion-274835316_3c95528b66_zI saw just a few days ago another post on Facebook by well-meaning Christians, trying to encourage holiness and morality in our “easy-believism” faith.  They quoted Jesus, “If you love me, keep my commandments.” And their emphasis was on keeping the laws of morality and purity, of “cleaning-up” the life of the Christian.  And my first thought was, “and what were Jesus’s commandments?”  “This is my commandment: that you love one another, as I have loved you.  By this the world will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” (John 13:34-35; 15:12,17)

Funny, Jesus didn’t say the world would know us by our clean-cut looks, our short hair, our modest clothes, or our sexual abstinence. He didn’t say our church attendance was the fulfillment of the law.  He said it was Love.  Period.

“But we do love you,” many Christians say. “That’s why we are trying to get you to stop living your sinful lifestyle.”  Or, in other words, “we love you, sinner, but we hate your sin.”   Haven’t we debunked that view enough already?  You cannot truly love someone while you are throwing stones at them. That’s not the life Jesus demonstrated for us.

If your religion is not transforming you to love your neighbor – to treat your neighbor as you want to be treated – then you are deceiving yourself. The truth is not in you. And you do not know the God you claim.

It’s really that simple.  “Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and yet do not do the things I say?” Jesus asked.

My friend today did not know how to respond to those harsh words wielded by “good Christians.”  Honestly, he didn’t need to respond. Sometimes battling words accomplishes nothing. No one listens. No one is changed. But for his own reassurance, I suggested this.

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It really is that simple.

Love God. Love your neighbor.

And that “love neighbor” stuff isn’t just some vague, undefined feeling: “oh, yes, we love those sinners.” It’s your heart transformed by the power of God into loving action. It’s how you treat them. It’s what you say to them.

All the rest, all the verses from the Bible you can quote and hurl at people to prove your point that what they’re doing or how they’re living is wrong – all that is just religious technicalities. It is law. It is death. There is no life in it.

Without real love, all you have is a stupid religion.

 

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photo credits:
Angry God, Matt Katzenberger – flickrcc
Church Rules, Debby and Gary – flickr, cc

 

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STEVE SCHMIDT serves on the pastoral staff of Expressions Church in Oklahoma City. He is a graduate of the seminary at Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, OK, and holds two masters degrees in Biblical Literature and Divinity. He did his doctoral research at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in New York.

He blogs here on IMPACT Magazine’s Cafe Inspirado column, and you can always find him skulking on Facebook.

 
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What Kind of Love is That?

California Vacation-Salvation MountainWe need more.

The Christian world (in America, at least) has gone through some painful experiences the past week or so. And honestly, I’m grateful to World Vision for opening up this can of worms.  More evangelicals have posted and written and blogged apologies for their hostile brethren, they’ve searched their hearts and seen how they’ve been guilty of applying a double-standard of Christian love to their LGBT “brothers and sisters.”

And yet, even when I think I’ve moved on, when I think “great, this has all been an eye-opener for the world,” I got hit with a new feeling.  Being patronized.

I just read a blog that was well-circulated on Facebook. The writer talked about how her heart was torn when she read the piece by “Registered Runaway” about being done with evangelicalism, about being so wounded that he just gave up on the Church. She talked about how this issue has really polarized American Christianity, and that it’s become bitter and ugly and unlike the character of the Lord we all profess.  And she talked about how she wanted to keep her views to herself so as not to be another bullet in somebody’s gun fired at the other side.  And the comments by straight Christians were almost touching, “wow, she really nailed that one”, “I couldn’t have said it better myself”, “Lord, help me to live this out in your love.”  All very nice. Even touching.

Except she then stated her position. It was kindly worded, but contained those words we LGBT Christians have grown to hate. “Sin” and “not God’s best.”  “Yes, we truly love gay people, and Jesus loves them too. And yes, we even believe that they will share in eternal heaven with us.”  … BUT … “it’s not God’s best”, “God didn’t design us to live and love that way.”

And I wonder if I really want her loving support after all.

Jesus-Stones-HomosIt is really, really nice to have one less person lined up to actually throw a stone at me and my friends.  I thank God for his mercy in moving their hearts so they at least do not want me jailed or executed for loving someone of the same gender. That is progress.  That is a huge blessing, especially compared to that church in NYC whose marquis read that Jesus would endorse my stoning.  Or those in the militant camp exporting their religious purity to countries like Uganda, Russia, Peru, Nigeria, and others, who now believe that by murdering gay men in the street, by publicly stripping them and setting them on fire, they are reclaiming their country for God.

My gay friends in Asia tell me repeatedly that we have it so much easier in America – our government isn’t actively persecuting us, and even our churches don’t hate us that much.

And I am grateful.  I am grateful to live in a time like this when at least the Church is actively talking about the issue, and more and more people of God are embracing gay and lesbian believers as full brothers and sisters in Christ. (Transgender folks, well, we’ve still got a ways to go before the Church embraces you for who you really are.)

But the question keeps going through my head.
What kind of love is that?

These well-intentioned Christian bloggers have made progress in their own spiritual and cultural journeys. They’ve been touched in a new way by the heart of God. They join Jesus in not being the first to cast the stone.

homosexuality-sinBut I’m still the disgusting Samaritan.

Okay, maybe not completely disgusting. Just fallen. Broken. Second class in God’s eyes. Sinner.

The eyes still have blind spots.  We can now, thankfully, fully embrace our divorced brothers and sisters. They can even be ordained into church leadership in many denominations.  They are no longer shunned, even in congregations that don’t theologically approve of divorce. I haven’t heard the words “sinner” or “not God’s best” applied to them in decades.

But LGBT believers, we’re still “not as God designed.”

I want to scream at them. Did God design us to wear clothes? (Clothes were a result of the Fall, remember?) Are you “not God’s best” because you wear glasses? Surely, God did not design us to need those.  What about single men or women, saints who live their whole lives unmarried.  This was definitely not how God intended us to live – at least if you’re using Eden as the rule.  Or honoring the Sabbath — something rooted in the Garden as part of God’s design for all humanity, yet Christians don’t bat an eye at completely ignoring this integral component of life.  I won’t even venture into other areas where we are not in full alignment with the paradise of Eden – all you have to do is compare your vision of Adam and Eve side-by-side with your own life.  How close are you to that “original design”?

“God’s best” is best left between God and the individual — not an outsider judging someone else’s life based on their own interpretation of God’s original design and purposes.

Fred Phelps, Westboro Baptist Church, and this World Vision debacle have opened the eyes of many Christians to the ugliness of hate within our sanctuaries. And many have taken steps to resist that kind of unChristian behavior. And that’s great.

But we need more. And not just we LGBT believers. You straight believers need to do better, need to walk in a more perfect love.

Because all you’ve done is find a kinder, gentler way
of saying “love the sinner, hate the sin.”
And we’ve had enough of that.

Our job as the people of God is to love. As simple as that. Love God, love our neighbor. And that doesn’t include calling someone else a “sinner.” Or “not God’s best.” Ever.

The Church will never come into complete agreement on any issue, let alone one as culturally upsetting as this one. And, speaking for many of my gay and lesbian brothers and sisters, we thank you sincerely for making progress, for stretching, for being willing to discuss matters of sexuality and identity. Believe me, we know that is a huge step for a big segment of American Christianity. And as much as we’d like you to see things our way, we know some of you never will.  It’s just not realistic. We can handle that.

But for those who truly want to act in love, please, take the next step.  Go beyond merely not throwing a stone at us. Accept us. Don’t refer to us as second-best, as sinners.  “Accept one another as Christ has accepted you,” the Apostle Paul tells us (Rom 15:7).  Even when you disagree with us, follow the example of Jesus in his dealings with Samaritans. He didn’t agree theologically with them, but he loved them, he hung out with them, he stayed in their villages. He did not make them feel second-class: he was their savior as well as the messiah of the Jews.

We appreciate the strides you’ve made, but we need more.  It would be nice to be seen as beloved children of God, as brothers and sisters sharing in a glorious inheritance, as equals and joint heirs, rather than being labeled as “that sin”. Or as “not God’s best.” It’s nice not to have one more person throwing the stones, but that’s not the same as acceptance. We can feel the difference.  And it still hurts.
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photo credit: “God is Love,” MythicSeabass via photopin cc

 

[box type=”bio”]
STEVE SCHMIDT serves on the pastoral staff of Expressions Church in Oklahoma City. He is a graduate of the seminary at Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, OK, and holds two masters degrees in Biblical Literature and Divinity. He did his doctoral research at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in New York. He blogs at CafeInspirado.com, and you can always find him skulking on Facebook.
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