Saturday, September 29, 2012

Religion Hurts

If you consider yourself religious, or a person of faith, I'd like to take time in this column to remind you that all our religious traditions have an immense propensity to harm rather than help. We tend to dwell on the positive goods of our religious traditions, and this often blinds us to the shadow side of religion. It is human nature to use religion to cover over and justify all kinds of ugly behavior--judgmentalism, hate, disgust, dislike, exclusion, distaste. Often religion is used as a way to simply turn up the volume on whatever we personally believe, regardless of its faithfulness to the actual core of our tradition.

I know this mostly because I have friends who have been hurt, horribly hurt, by their churches or faith communities. They have been kicked out of churches, snubbed by fellow students at private Christian schools, disowned by family based on differences of religious conviction or sexual orientation. When they tell their story, I regularly learn how deeply it hurts for communities, who supposedly subscribe to a doctrine of grace and a commitment to love God and neighbor, suddenly turn on them and exhibit all the opposite patterns, glossed over with justifications from religion or scripture.

Hate with a bible bullet behind it is still hate, and it hurts all the more. And those who have been hurt in this way find it very, very difficult to trust other religious communities in the future. The betrayal they have experienced is so deep. It's the kind of thing Jesus likely had in mind when he said, with only a hint of hyperbole, "If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea" (Mark 9:42).

I've wrestled over the years with what to do about this, how to help. I can't really apologize for the actions of others. I don't always know the other side of the story. I can't play judge, even in those instances where I'd quite like to judge.

What I do know I can do, something I've learned from my own faith tradition, is that I can confess. I can begin the process of healing by naming my own complicity, admitting to my own wrongdoing. So, here we go. I'm going to apologize. To all those who have been hurt by a church, or a religious person, or a religious community, I say, "I'm sorry, and I'd like to be there for you. I acknowledge my own complicity in the wrongdoing of my community. I'm sorry for the ways I have used my religiosity as a cover for my inhumanity. I'd like to formally apologize, inasmuch as a clergy person can apologize in a public column, not for the wrongs of anyone else, but for the various ways my religious commitments have contributed to inhumane treatment of others. Please forgive me."

I think being truly human means beginning from this posture of confession. True community happens when we find ways to be reconciled, and we can't be reconciled if we don't acknowledge what divides us. I'm not at all interested in being religious if it doesn't unite me with others, heal our relationships, and make us better people, better individually and together. I want to practice religion in a way that makes me more human, and more humane. I'm really not interested in any kind of faith that elevates me over others, or separates me from them. I'm especially interested in a faith that draws me more and more deeply into the common humanity I share with all people, and the common createdness I share with the world.

Jesus didn't simply "become" human. From a biblical and creedal perspective, he was the first fully human one. As such, you could say Jesus never was that religious. He was faithful, incredibly faithful, to his Father and to all those he named brother and sister. If it weren't for his example, I doubt I'd be religious at all. But Jesus in his full humanity makes a rather compelling case.

[simultaneously published in the Northwest Arkansas Times]


  1. You write: "True community happens when we find ways to be reconciled, and we can't be reconciled if we don't acknowledge what divides us." This is true.

    You are from Arkansas -- I have lived in the Chicago area, Boston and Miami, so I have no first-hand experience of your region. I have attended 2 Catholic universities.

    I can honestly say -- in over 40 years of being very active in both Lutheran and Catholic churches in the areas I mentioned, I have never, never seen anyone treated in a hateful way. Also, I have and have had many friends and family members who consider themselves gay, who have never been treated hatefully by a church or a religious organization -- or discriminated against in any way because of religion.

    A few weeks ago, at mass in my very large church here in Miami, two men seated about 4 rows back from the altar, were hugging each other during mass. No one said a thing. The men quietly left. There was no disrespect towards them at all. They were completely welcome and would be welcome if they came back -- in spite of behavior that would be considered questionable even if a married man and woman had done it.

    You are a scholar and a very intelligent man. You know the Scripture and Theology. The case can be made -- starting with Abraham and Sarah -- that marriage is between a man and a woman: the "Holy Family" so to speak, consists of a man, a woman and a child. This is not a "stumbling block" -- it is Scripture. Jesus spoke of Sodom, and Saint Paul, writing in the Holy Spirit, could not have been more clear. It will be very hard for the ELCA -- or any other religion -- to change this. We can all see what is happening as it tries.

  2. I attended a Lutheran university where I struggled to fit in. I have served in multiple Lutheran congregations where I found myself at the wrong side of internal church politics. I have been judged for the way I looked and, at one Lutheran church, for being "too spiritual" (because, as a youth minister, I always included Bible study along with social activities like bowling or volleyball). Of course, that particular congregation also considered L.Y.E. to be too spiritual as well. Now, as non-affiliated Christian, I find myself judged, condemned and cut-off from fellow Christians because I cannot align my worldview with that of the Republican party. I know what it feels like to be an outcast, and I know quite a few outcasts who feel very unwelcome in "the church" but have no problem with Jesus Christ.

  3. Kathy, you were very lucky. I'm glad you avoided those kinds of situations over such a long period of time. Consider yourself blessed.

    Pastor Z, thank you for your testimony.