We were all driving up Paca Street, just about to turn the corner onto Druid Hill Ave. Destination: home. It was a gorgeous, sunny spring day. All the sounds of the city, the klaxons of impatient drivers, the sirens of cops and firefighters rushing off to help victims or put out fires, real, figurative or just perceived. Of course, with me in the car, the topic of religion arose, the context of which I don't remember. What I do recall, as we turned right onto my street, cherry blossoms blowing in the breeze from the trees that lined Paca Street, was the anti-Christian comment from one of my friends; something to the effect of "Christianity has done too much evil, that's why I don't want anything to do with it." "What about Islam?" I asked. "Ok, that too," she responded as others chimed in, agreeing. "OK, what bout the Chinese kings and emporers? Or the pagan Romans who persecuted the Christians? Or the Jews who went after the pagans? Or the pagans who went after the Jews?" Seeming to have made her case for her, she dismissed all of religion as the source of the world's evils. "What about the Soviet Union or China?" I queried. "They have committed numerous heinous acts against humanity and they are anti-religion. Couldn't the problem just be people who corrupt systems, religious or secular, for their own power and purpose and not necessarily the system itself?" I avoided bringing up all of the evil done in the name of "Freedom."
The conversation abruptly ended. It was getting too deep.
We enjoyed the rest of the evening together on my deck talking of nothing important, just laughing and getting along.
Still, the conversation sticks in my mind. It's probably the most commonly held sentiment of people I know and value in my life. I heard my students at Walbrook High express the same anti-religion sentiment because of the pastors in the ghettos who drive nice cars and wear nicer clothes than those kids believe that they will ever see. My own parents weren't fans of religion as I grew up. My dad never spoke of religion that I remember, but my mother sometimes did and usually with what I perceived to be complete animosity towards religion.
Even I had no taste for the religion around me. Early in my childhood, in the formal Roman Catholic church and in the plain Southern Baptist and Church of Christ congregations enough happened to push me away.
I attended mass with my aunt and a childhood friend, but the worship services were completely inaccessible. Why are we standing and kneeling and sitting? What are these prayers about? Why are we going to mass. One time, when I was staying with my aunt in Tennessee while my parents were in Alabama tending to my dying grandfather, we went to mass and not knowing any better I took communion (unbaptized as I was). It tasted horrible, and I commented so. She was appalled. "You took communion?!" she said angrily? "I guess God will forgive you." I remember feeling confused but clearly I knew I had done something wrong. I never really wanted to go back, though I did attend with my friend, and the experiences, while just as confusing, were nicer; especially because we went to an awesome pizza place in Oak Ridge afterward!
I attended Baptist church with a neighbor of mine for a time. His family was very nice and they took me as regularly as I wanted to go. The church was huge. I got lost in it every time I went. I never fit in though. Many of the kids in the Sunday School class were the same children with whom I attended middle school. I wasn't popular in school, if anything the contrary. I still haven't forgotten Chris B. who turned around in Mrs Steed's Tennessee History class one day (with kids who would talk about Jesus and church in the classroom) and said to me, in front of so-called friends and those who didn't like me, "you're a faggot." "What's that?" I asked. Laughter erupted in the classroom. Even my "friends" were laughing. He was glad to explain. I knew there was a name for what I was. I knew it wasn't good to these kids. Life was never the same in school after that. It only got worse really. And so the way I was treated in the church I attended was never really different than in school. I never said anything to the family who took me. They were all very sweet.
The final straw at that church was when the pastor made an analogy between a touch down and salvation. Now, one has to realize that football is religion in East Tennessee. This is telling about my personality, but I hated football. Heck, I hated sports. I hated lifting a finger. Unlike my kid brother, who's first word was "ball," I hated anything that had to do with balls. Ironic, I know, but we're talking sports here. So there's the pastor trying to relate the transformational and healing power of Christ to about a thousand people and he just had to pick the one thing that I couldn't stand. I never went back. I have attended other protestant services, though, and have been all the better for some of those visits. To give the Catholics some credit, it's from them I learned about the Bible and how it wasn't the domain of the fundamentalists.
So, raised in a secular family in a predominately fundamentalist culture and a suitcase full of bad experiences with organized religion and those who claimed to be Christians, one would think that instead of trying to get my friends to see the folly of their prejudicial statements I'd agree wholeheartedly.
Instead, I've been a practicing Quaker for 20 years, and have casually and formally studied religion for nearly 27 of the 37 years I've been around, without exaggeration. While a student of religion can only make one a "professor" of that religion (as in one who professes or talks about it) and not in itself make me a person of faith (one who bears fruit that gives life and is full of love), I see the beauty and value of religion. I've not always been a Christian, having moved away for a while, but I have come back. Nor has it been solely in Quakerism where I've been met by God; I've been inspired and felt a holy presence in Catholic churches, charismatic churches, during a friend's bar mitzvah at his synagogue in Indiana and alone in my living room, for example. Quakerism has been where I've been able to grow and come to the understanding I have.
I understand religion to be the practice of spirituality in a context. The context of my spirituality is Quakerism which is shaped entirely by Christianity, though some within Quakerism and some more orthodox Christians would rather not admit or allow it. It is what it is. And while the "Church" has gone through great lengths to interpret Jesus the Jew's ministry so that it's understandable and palatable, the truth is that at one level Jesus' message can't be understood entirely without understanding that he was a Jew. He was a devout Jew who was living under Roman occupation. Jesus' way was grounded in middle-eastern thought and tradition. It was revolutionary.
And for this thought and tradition he had nothing but love. I've had Jewish friends of mine jokingly call him a turn coat or a loon. I guess because I'm a liberal they never thought I might take offense (I didn't, but I thought the comments ignorant). Nice to know that prejudice and ignorance have no boundaries, eh? Jesus wasn't a betrayer of his faith. He died for it. It wasn't until later that Jews who followed Jesus' Way decided with the pagans who also followed "the Way" to separate from Judaism. Jesus never made that decision, his followers did. Maybe he was a loon. Prophets usually are deemed so; especially ones who say things which are completely counter-cultural! Jesus' basic message was of love. It wasn't a love that necessarily comes easily, though it's available to us all. Jesus seemed to have found that love within himself, a gift from God. He challenged the oppressive leadership of his own Jewish community and was therefore a political threat. He used symbolism that was interpreted by Roman authorities as subversive. He went against custom, healing on Sabbath and talking to those deemed unclean and unworthy. He was a radical person. He was revolutionary.
Now, perhaps I could just stop there and say, "and so that's it. Jesus was a great guy, and I like his teachings." I think most of my friends would probably look at the above analysis and agree, and then not see how on earth I'd still want to be a religionist.
This is why: both in my experience and in my years of study, I have seen the great good that has come from those who follow Jesus (as well as from those of other religions). I have seen the truth of what Jesus is quoted as saying in the New Testament, that not all who call him "lord" are of him, and that we will know who is of him by the fruits that they bear. As the apostle Paul would later write to the Corinthians, no matter what gifts people have, if they have not love, those gifts are nothing, if not a hindrance to faith. There are millions of so-called Christians, Jews, Muslims and pagans who, like some of the Jewish lawyers of Jesus' time, follow the moral codes of their religion or their culture's interpretation of the religion and use the right words to explain their beliefs, but whose lives betray them. They have no love in their hearts no matter what they say or do. Theirs is a religion of the letter, of the code, of the doctrine, of the "right way." Then there are the Christians, Jews, Muslims and others who truly have a relationship with their Creator, or as I would say with God. They, through their tradition, have found a deep, abiding love for themselves, for the Mystery within them and beyond them that I call God, and for Creation and their fellow people. They have been social reformers who call for justice, who seek to clothe and feed the needy. They welcome into their congregations those who may not be otherwise welcome in other houses of worship. They seek to not take credit for any good that they do, as if they were the source of Goodness, but instead reject such self-centered claims and leave the glory to the source of love itself. They don't do good works for praise or credit, but for the salvation that comes from such a relationship with God. Such goodness is self-evident and it serves as an example of what is right. Even an atheist or someone who has no clue what they believe will seek to emulate such behavior because it's the right way.
So, if even an atheist could emulate it, why then do I bother with organized religion?
Because organized religion is based in community. Being in a community challenges me. Simply hanging out with my friends and engaging my family isn't enough. The risks of such an intentional community and the support available therein offer so much more than if I just do what comes easily or go along with what exists around me. I'm challenged in community. I'm held accountable. And while it could be said that I could get this out of a gay rights group, or being part of an ethical society, the truth is that in a religious community, we all seek to go much deeper than the psychological or emotional levels. We seek to understand that Mystery -- God. We seek to understand that transformative and healing power that comes from that Mystery. For me specifically, Jesus seems to be God made flesh. That is, a definitive manifestation of God in humanity. On one hand, God is complete fantasy, and if real, unknowable. However, Jesus had a great affect on those who knew him. His message still does. He inspires people to the core to be better people, to open their hearts. True, much of what is attributed to him may indeed not be what he said. I don't care. There were those who heard him first hand and recorded as best they could the gist of what he said. And also there were those who were influenced by his followers' interpretations of what he said and themselves went on to preach the "good news." It all was grounded in one theme: love, love, love. Jesus represented god's love for us.
So in my Quaker community I have found this love. I've found it in our meetings for worship and in our business together.Yes, we argue. We argue over stupid things such as how to arrange the benches or what color the carpet is. Yes, we defer to each other sometimes based on personality rather than on merit. Yes, we can become so heady and overly educated that we make ourselves inaccessible to "real people" (these are, of course, my judgments). We could improve and, eventually, some of us realize our faults and we work on them. Or, if we don't, the branches wither and die and are replaced. Still, I stick with my Quaker faith and family because there I grow. There I find salvation, though how seems to elude my friends.
I'm the last person to tell my friends what they should do. But, I will say this: I am a better person for sticking with this Way that Jesus showed the world, the way that Quakers and other Christians imperfectly seek to continue. I'm sure other religionists feel the same about their paths. I can't tell you about their faiths. I also won't condemn them. I can't tell you what God can do, only what's been done for, to and through me. If my life doesn't speak as a witness, then this whole essay is crap anyway.
When I have a chance to hear my friends talk of why they won't give religion a chance, I confess to a certain sadness. Sadness at what hypocrisy has done not only to religion, but to the world through religion. And yet, I know from experience, that great good has also come from religion. Religion doesn't make the cherry trees bloom, but it can teach about the mystery of their life and beauty, showing us the way to become like the blossom; inspiring others to wonder about life, to admire beauty and to love, even if also occasionally making people sneeze along the way.