Sunday, July 31, 2011
Excerpt from RELIGION GONE BAD by Mel White
“For the past fifteen years, I have been asked that question by lesbian and gay people who approach me cautiously, their eyes turned downward, their voices low. With their dignity and self-esteem battered by religion, they whisper the question, afraid to even say it aloud. They have been so abused by false teachings, so overwhelmed by the false rhetoric, so terrified by the promise of eternal damnation that accepting their sexual orientation as a gift from God seems almost incomprehensible.
“Their question can’t be answered by a review of the latest scientific, psychological, historical, personal, or even biblical data. That comes later. These are victims of fundamentalist Christianity. They grew up singing, ‘Jesus loves me. This I know. For the Bible tells me so.’ Now, to make it simple, they’re afraid Jesus doesn’t love them anymore. The only way to answer their question is to help them see Jesus in a new light.
“Fundamentalist Christians have emasculated Jesus. They have broken his new covenant of love and grace and tacked up in its place the old covenant of law and order. They aren’t singing about ‘the love that will not let me go.’ Instead, they are chanting verses from Leviticus and looking for someone to punish. They are obsessed with Jesus’ death on the cross and overlook his life and teachings almost entirely. All too often, they forget that he was flesh and blood and lived among us. He showed us that God knows our failures and loves us anyway. Therefore, the best way to answer that young lesbian’s question--‘How can you be sure that God loves you, too?’--is to let Jesus speak for himself.
“When a Pharisee asked Jesus which of their 613 laws was ‘the great commandment,’ Jesus answered, ‘Love God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength, and love your neighbor as you would yourself.’ On the night he died, Jesus boiled it down to what he called a ‘new commandment.’ ‘Love one another as I have loved you.’ It wasn’t new at all. He just wanted to be sure his slow-witted disciples (then and now) would remember that love was at the very heart of his life and ministry.
“It is almost incomprehensible that the followers of Jesus--entrusted with the task of bringing a new kind of love into the world--have instead caused so many people to ask ‘How can I be sure God loves me, too?’ Instead of feeling love from their Christian families and their Christian churches, they are treated as outcasts. Fortunately, the story of Jesus assures us that God loves outcasts best.
“You don’t have to be gay or lesbian to feel like an outcast. Fundamentalist Christians have made people outcast by the color of their skin, by their race and religion, by their sex, their sexual orientation, and their gender identity. When I was a child my home church made outcasts out of smokers, drinkers, dancers, rock-and-roll listeners, moviegoers, television watchers, longhairs, hippies, divorcees, unmarried bachelors and spinsters, Roman Catholics, liberal Protestants, pagans, atheists, and agnostics. Even those families who missed church by spending an occasional weekend at their mountain cabin were made to feel like outcasts when they returned the following Sunday.
“Fundamentalists of the twenty-first century are the equivalent of the first-century Pharisees, who knew the law by heart but had forgotten that love is the heart of the law. From the very first sermon he preached, Jesus condemned the Pharisees as he would contemporary fundamentalist Christians for their success at legalism and their failure to love. From the beginning, he ignored all the fundamentalists’ precious rules and it drove them crazy.
“‘You eat food that is not pure,’ they charged him. ‘It’s not what enters into the mouth which defiles a person,’ Jesus replied, ‘but that which comes out of it.’
“‘You disregard the traditions of the elders,’ they accused. ‘For the sake of your tradition,’ Jesus answered, ‘you have rendered useless the word of God.’
“‘You disobey God’s law,’ they warned. ‘And you honor God with your lips,’ he said, ‘but your hearts are far from him.’
“If a fundamentalist in your life makes you feel like an outcast, tell him or her to read Jesus’ story again from the top.
“I think God was trying to make a point when Jesus was born by human standards an ‘illegitimate’ baby, delivered without a doctor or midwife to an unwed teenage mother, not in a mansion, but in a barn, wrapped in rags and placed in a hayloft surrounded by bleating animals and the stench of urine and manure.
“I think God was trying to make a point when Jesus was born a person of color, to a conquered people in a backwater, third-world nation; that he was adopted and knew from infancy what it meant to be poor and homeless, an illegal alien, a war refugee living with other refugees in an Egyptian refugee camp.
“I think God was trying to make a point when at twelve years old Jesus was headstrong and disobedient, already arguing with the male elders; that he was baptized in a muddy little river by a renegade who wore leather; that he was an apprentice to his father’s carpentry shop with no official record that he ever graduated high school, let alone college; that he studied theology in the desert, where he argued not with esteemed professors from many different academic fields but with the devil himself.
“I think God was trying to make a point when Jesus’ first miracle was changing water into wine at a wedding party after the guests had finished off their hosts supply. The evening was young. This was a celebration of eros at work in the lives of two young people, and God was there in the midst of this sensual, joyous occasion and didn’t want the party to end.
“I think God was trying to make a point when Jesus didn’t choose one clergy-type to be his disciple; that he was known for the bad company he kept: Jews who collected taxes for the Romans, women of ill-repute, foreigners, half-breeds, children; and that Jesus had one special friend among the disciples, the one they say he ‘loved,’ who after supper lay against Jesus’ chest and that the one Jesus loved was the only disciple at the foot of the cross when he died.
“I think God was trying to make a point when Jesus would not conform to religious norms but confronted Pharisees and the other religious fundamentalists on a regular basis with very tough language: ‘fools and blind,’ ‘hypocrites,’ ‘serpents and vipers,’ ‘clean bowls on the outside filled with extortion and excess,’ ‘magnificent looking graves filled with dead men’s bones.’
“I think God was trying to make a point when Jesus, though innocent, was tried, convicted, and put to death by officials from both church and state for demanding justice and mercy instead of business as usual; that Jesus was condemned by the crowd, tortured by sneering soldiers, executed between two felons, and buried in a borrowed tomb; that one of the twelve betrayed him and the others slept through his agony, then denied and deserted him; that on the cross Jesus felt abandoned even by his Creator when he cried out, ‘Father, why have you also forsaken me?’
“What is the point? If there’s any one message the Bible delivers, it is the message that God loves outcasts and that Jesus was born into the world an outcast to rescue and renew outcasts from religion gone bad. He was born poor and died poor, yet the legacy of love that he left us, the legacy of inclusion and acceptance and understanding, will endure forever.
“If you’re still not convinced, look closely at the miracle stories. Jesus’ love for the outcast leper caused him to hug the ‘untouchable’ even before healing him. Jesus’ love the for the outcast Samaritan caused him to share a drink of water with a woman despised even before he sent her on her way rejoicing. Jesus’ love for the woman with the flow of blood considered ‘unclean’ by the religious leaders…Jesus’ love for the outcast prostitute caught in the act of adultery…Jesus’ love for the man considered sinful since he was blind from birth…Jesus’ love for the lunatic rejected by his family living in a graveyard…Jesus’ love of the widow whose child lay dead at his feet…Jesus’ love for his friend Lazarus…Jesus’ love for every outcast that crossed his path. What will it take to help lesbian and gay people realize that they, too, are loved unconditionally and that the fundamentalists are the ones who should be asking the question ‘How can I be sure God loves me, too?’
“Needless to say, my favorite miracle is the healing of the outcast Roman centurion’s ‘special servant.’ It is well known that the wives and lovers of Roman centurions were allowed to accompany them on their journeys. A Gentile and a member of the occupying force, the centurion was an outcast in Jerusalem, and his ‘special servant,’ almost certainly gay, was an outcast for a whole other set of reasons, yet when the centurion cried out to Jesus to heal his young lover, Jesus said, ‘Right. Take me to him.’ The centurion, knowing that the pictures on the desk might give them away, responded, ‘Could you heal him long distance?’
“Jesus must have smiled to himself knowing that the centurion and his lover had no reason to be embarrassed or ashamed. He knew why they hid their loving relationship from the local religious authorities and the gossips on the street, but they had no reason to hide their relationship from God, who created them and loved them exactly as they were. Instead of taking that risk, Jesus healed the outcast lover on the spot. I wish I could have witnessed that moment when Jesus looked into the eyes of the centurion and without a word passing between them said, ‘Now, friend, let your own guilt and fear be healed as well.’
“Love is God’s gift demonstrated by Jesus in an unloving world. When that legacy of love is discovered by the young lesbian at Texas A&M who had been brainwashed by her Baptist church and rejected by her Christian parents, she will never need to ask the question again ‘How do I know that God loves me, too?’ Because God proved through Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection that God loves outcasts best. When you stand with the outcasts, you stand with Jesus, and when you despise the outcast, you despise Jesus as well.
“Once you realize that you are loved, that the fundamentalist Christians are entirely wrong about you, that you are not ‘sick’ or ‘sinful’ but in fact a child of the Creator who loves you exactly as you are, then (and only then) can you start putting that love into action on behalf of other outcasts who still feel unloved. Becoming an activist is simply a matter of putting love into action. For activists, love is something you do, not something you just talk about, and that’s when the fun begins.”
Religion Gone Bad by Mel White at Amazon