Dear Persons Who've Had Bad Experiences with Religious People,
I know sometimes you're confused. You come across people who say one thing and do another. In one breath, they talk about how much they love God, and then they go and do or say something even the vilest sinner would be embarrassed to admit. It's sad, but we're not all like that. Seriously. We're not.
Much of who I am can be attributed to not only my family but to the people at the church I grew up in. While there is a strange one or two among the group, much of my spiritual foundation was laid within the oak-lined walls of the small church with the cranberry red carpet that sits just a few blocks away from the campus of Mississippi State University's entrance: First Church of Christ (Holiness).
In the summers, we would have vacation Bible school, like most churches. Children from across the city would come, and we'd sit and hear stories about Jesus.
"You mean to tell me when they took the woman who cheated on her husband to Jesus, all Jesus said to the crowd was if you've never sinned, be the first to throw a stone at her?" we marveled.
"Five thousand people?! He fed 5,000 people with two fish and five loads of bread for real?"
The list of lessons we learned goes on and on, and at the end of our time together, we'd usually go on a trip. Six Flags in Atlanta was always our preference, but sometimes we'd end up at Libertyland in Memphis. Those were the times, looking back, when I see how important it is to give and it shall be given.
I realize now that many of the people I grew up with were poor. Most had less than the little I now realize my family had, but when it was time to do or go or learn, we were all right there together. The people at church made sure of it.
That's what Christianity looks like. At least it should, I think. That's how Islam, Judaism, Buddhism and the list goes on should look, too. But I know they don't always.
One of the scariest things to me, just like for you, I'm sure, is people who use their faith or a higher power to justify crimes against humanity. Honestly, I don't understand it, and it embarrasses me. You can't show someone light when you're harming him, casting a shadow of darkness on him. That's not how it works. I know that, and there are plenty more people like me who know it.
Increasingly, I find myself referring to myself as a Christ follower, not a Christian. Those two should be the same thing, but in today's society, they're not quite. These so-called "Christians" include the pastor who wanted to have a "Burn the Quran Day," jerks that kill doctors who perform abortions, and there are even more egregious examples.
Christ followers, however, can say: "I disagree with you, and here's why. But even though I disagree, I'm interested to know the reasons you believe what you believe."
It is, after all, the Lord who said in Isaiah—the Old Testament, no less—"Come, let us reason together."
As I've gotten older, I've come to be known at church as one who asks a lot of questions. I'm not content to sit and swallow things just because you feed them to me. I want to know the how, the why and for how long. I don't ask questions to put leaders on the spot or to cause dissent; I do it because I want to understand. They say that's half the battle.
One of the things I understand is that it's not God who does ridiculous and hurtful things. It's humans.
For all the times some religious person dismissed you because you were different (poor, homosexual, brown-skinned or white) or whatever they decided your ailment was, I apologize.
I apologize for the wounds they caused you. I'm sorry for their misrepresentation of God, and I hate they chose not to see you through God's eyes rather than their own. I know it hurts. They've hurt me, too. But what I want you and people who think like you to understand is that God—if you still believe in one—didn't like that they hurt you, either.
The purest expressions of God's love I've ever seen never had his (or her, if that makes you more comfortable) name attached to them. It was people doing the right thing because it was the right thing to do, but there was no doubt their actions were God inspired. That's how it was when I was growing up at my church back in Starkville. The Sunday-school teacher, the pastor, my grandmother, the neighbors didn't say, "I'm going to help you because God told me to."
Be wary, by the way, of people who inject this phrase in sentences like that. I am.
This is all to say: Don't give up on God. Look for him in the little things, and I promise he'll be there: a warm greeting, a stranger's help, a word of encouragement when you need it and least expect it. God's in there. And when you're curious to know more, ask a sane religious person to tell you more. We'll probably be the ones not wearing the WWJD bracelets.
I loved this column, Natalie. I agree with so much of it. You better watch those Christians they will take all the land one group has or shares, enslave another group to work it, hide the weapons used to take it, protect and fail to share the wealth derived, and pronounce it all God's plan. Someone told me once that Ghandi said he would have converted to Christianity had he met one person doing all those things in the Bible.
Christians are giving Jesus a bad name.