A man was walking across a bridge one day, and saw another man standing on the edge, about to jump off. The first man immediately ran over and said “Stop! Don’t do it!”
“Why shouldn’t I?” he said.
The man said, “Well, there’s so much to live for!”
“Well … are you religious or atheist?”
“Me, too! Are you Christian or Jewish?”
“Me, too! Are you Catholic or Protestant?”
“Me, too! Are you Episcopalian or Baptist?”
“Wow! Me too! Are you Baptist Church of God or Baptist Church of the Lord?”
“Baptist Church of God.”
“Me, too! Are you Original Baptist Church of God, or are you Reformed Baptist Church of God?”
“Reformed Baptist Church of God.”
“Me, too! Are you Reformed Baptist Church of God, reformation of 1879, or Reformed Baptist Church of God, reformation of 1915?”
“Reformed Baptist Church of God, reformation of 1915!”
To which the man said, “Die, heretic scum!” and pushed him off the bridge.
Now, that joke may be a bit extreme, but I don’t think it’s far off from how many religious folks in our society act. If you’re of the right denomination, if your doctrines smell right, if your list of moral and immoral things is right, and you hold your mouth just so – then you’re a good Christian bound for eternal reward. Our community routinely fails the test. Perhaps we’re not holding our mouths right, but I suspect the reasons why we’re treated so roughly by most religious folk has very little to do with us in particular, and points more to what’s gone wrong with religion in general. Religion has become mean-spirited, catty, critical, a clique where one must walk in lock step to the doctrine, dogma and yes, the political tenets, or one is certainly bound for a fiery afterlife.
Religion in our society has become ungracious. Examples are easy to come by. Just this week, using the language of religion to make its argument, South Carolina legislators passed an ungracious measure that would amend our state constitution to prohibit same-gender marriages.
Lexington County’s Senator Jake Knotts even used the “God made Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve” cliché to back up why he supports discriminating against gays and lesbians in marriage. Sen. Knotts and others, in their paralyzing fear of change, are falling back on their Bibles to defend discrimination against an entire class of people.
They’re certainly not setting a precedent. Those who owned slaves did the same thing. Those who wanted to keep women repressed did the same thing. Those who wanted to continue to discriminate against African-Americans did the same thing. They have a lot of ungracious religious company to keep them from getting lonely as they while away their time on the wrong side of history.
Other examples of ungracious religion come to mind. Pope John Paul II was venerated by TV commentators and religious leaders alike as a great man who did great things for the Catholicism. He certainly did do many good things, but he was ungracious to gays and lesbians – calling our love disordered, and writing that gay marriage was “a new ideology of evil.” TV networks rejected an ad by the UCC that depicted ungracious religion in action as bouncers turned away gays, the disabled and ethnic minorities from churches while letting in the lily white straight family. Our lawmakers propose budgets that cut social programs to the poor, the elderly and others on the lowest rungs of society all while championing a so-called culture of life based on religious belief – an ungracious religious belief. Perhaps the most ungracious religious belief of all – we actually seem to believe that war will bring us peace.
Of course, my favorite example of ungracious religion dates back to 1618 to an episode known as the Defenestration of Prague. Defenestration, for those who haven’t heard of this incident, is the act of throwing someone out a window. The Defenestration of Prague was a central event that led to the beginning of the Thirty Years’ War. A group of Protestants, upset that Roman Catholic officials had ordered construction of some Protestant chapels to cease, tried two Imperial governors for violating the right to religious freedom and threw them, along with their scribe out of the high castle window. All three survived. The Roman Catholic officials said it was because angels carried the three safely to the ground. The Protestants said the officials survived because they landed in horse manure. All in all, it’s a pretty good example of the kind of crap that happens when religion becomes ungracious.
Ungracious religion is arrogant. It condemns anyone who doesn’t follow its rules. It seeks to win at all costs. It willingly leaves behind the poor, the weak, the defenseless and the marginalized. When most people think of church these days, that’s the image they have – judgmental people who will condemn those with which it disagrees, and possibly push them from a bridge or toss them out a window.
Author Philip Yancey in his book “What’s So Amazing About Grace?” tells the story of a prostitute who told him that she had become so desperate for money she was renting out her six year old daughter to men interested in kinky sex. She said she had to do it to support her drug habit. Yancey asked her if she ever considered going to church. “Church!” she cried. “Why would I ever go there? I was already feeling terrible about myself. They’d just make me feel worse!”
Isn’t that the truth? Isn’t that why some of us avoided going back to church for so long? Why would we want to go some place where we’d be made to feel worse, like we’re lower than dirt? The church is not known as the place to come for grace – it’s known as the place to come for condemnation and judgment.
What we need then is a gracious Christianity – a religion built on what Yancey calls, “grace on tap” – where we can feel loved, accepted and valued just as we are. Quaker ministers Philip Gulley and James Mulholland in their book “If God is Love” write extensively about what gracious Christianity would look like:
“Gracious religion will be gentle, because creating a new world is delicate work. It will be humble, since our visions of this new world will often differ. It will be open, seeking common ground, even as it explores our diversity. Finally gracious religion will be compassionate, unwilling to leave anyone behind.” (p.142)
Let’s look more closely at these characteristics. Gracious religion will be gentle. You cannot force anyone to believe in God. Certainly you can threaten someone to the point that they’ll say they believe in God to get out of the situation, but you can’t make someone believe what they don’t want to believe. Religion that insists on belief, or tries to scare you into believing, is not gentle. Those who tell us we must believe this doctrine or that dogma or else we’re not Christians or are bound for hell are not being gentle. Gracious Christianity is not impatient or intrusive. It will allow a person to grow at their own pace – to fully experience God in their lives on their own terms and then to come into belief as they are ready.
Bringing up believers is a bit like bringing up a garden. Plants grow and bloom at their own pace, and we can’t rush it. Indeed, we’d better not rush it. If you try to get a plant to bloom before it’s ready, you destroy the plant. Being rough with believers, insisting on growth before its time, often destroys faith. Faith must bloom in its own time and a gracious religion makes room for growth. As Gulley and Mulholland write: “This is what it means to love others as God loves them, to be willing to patiently and gently await that day, in this life or the next, when grace is triumphant.”
Gracious religion is humble – it does not arrogantly assert that it knows what is best for everyone, and those who don’t follow will face eternal damnation. A couple of years ago I presented a workshop at a conference in Philadelphia. This conference attracted ungracious Christians in the form of picketers. A few hours before my presentation, as Wanda and I walked to our room, we passed a man preaching loudly against homosexuality. As we passed by I began to chant, “Jesus loves me! Jesus loves me!” The man, hearing my chant, yelled, “You don’t know what love is!” I thought to myself, “Well, now that may be true, but what I do know about love is that it does not shout angrily at people from street corners.”
What I know about gracious religion is that it is humble – it does not scream or threaten to get its way. Instead, as Gulley and Mulholland point out, gracious religion can say with humility, “I know, but I could be wrong.” Now, that may seem a bit contradictory, but think for a moment about your friends. I think I can safely say that you don’t agree with everything your friends might believe – but that doesn’t mean you become arrogant, insisting they believe as you do. I have some great friends, right here in this congregation, with whom I strongly disagree on some matters. However, we love each other, we are gentle with each other because, even though we know what we believe, we are humble enough to say, “I know, but I could be wrong.” If new information, or a new insight, comes along we’re gracious enough to modify our positions and grow in our beliefs. Gracious religion also works this way. It is always open to learning, growing, changing and evolving into a new place of understanding.
Gracious religion seeks common ground. I’ll be honest and tell you that this is probably the hardest point for me to embrace. I’ve previously admitted to this congregation my addiction to Yahoo message boards. This is where I go to practice my gracious Christianity – and it is the place where I encounter some of my most dismal failures. When faced with fundamentalist Christians and their maddening insistence that they are right and I am wrong, all thought of common ground goes out the window. Instead, I fall right into the trap of ungraciousness. Witness just this snippet from a recent give and take between me and another poster. We had been arguing at length about scripture, of course. He was telling me how wrong I was, and I was telling him how wrong he was. This is what he said to me:
Message board poster: “There is only one correct meaning to scripture.”
To which I replied: “And you’re arrogant enough to believe that you have it. Shut down the seminaries! Fire the theologians! Shut down the publishing houses, no more books need to be written, you have it all nailed down for us! All hail to you, infallible interpreter of scripture.”
I was tempted to put in more of that exchange, but I think you get the point. Being a gracious Christian is hard work! Certainly this poster is not interested in finding common ground with me – he’s said as much in his posts. He simply wants to be right. But guess what? So do I! When I get caught up in wanting to be right I’m no longer gentle. I’m no longer humble. I’m no longer seeking common ground. I’m seeking to be right, to feel vindicated and justified.
But, if we are to be gracious Christians, we must look for common ground with even our most bitter opponents. As those great theologians, the Indigo Girls, have written, “every devil I meet is a friend of mine.” We must be committed to relationship and reconciliation with even those we may at first consider devils, because they can teach us a lot about ourselves and the world if only we’ll let them. We must always be open to true dialogue. Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hahn says in true dialogue, “both sides are willing to change.
We have to believe that by engaging in dialogue with other persons, we have the possibility of making a change within ourselves, that we can become deeper.” We can’t do that if we insist on being right all the time. For those who don’t want dialogue – who only insist on being right, a better course of action is to wish them God’s peace and be on your way, lest you be tempted, like me to be ungracious.
Finally, gracious religion is compassionate, unwilling to leave anyone behind. The best example of this characteristic of gracious Christianity is our reading from Acts. In fact, this passage shows that the early church contained all of the characteristics of gracious religion as the members were all gentle and humble, seeking common ground and most importantly refusing to leave anyone behind.
Our text tells us that they “had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need” (Acts 2:44-45). Now, many people get nervous when they hear this passage. Do we need to sell our personal property and hold all things in common to be a gracious church? No, I don’t think that’s what we’re being called to do. The important point of this passage is that the church members gave from their surplus when anyone was in need. They would sell their possessions and goods and distribute them to the needy. They refused to leave anyone behind. This should be our mission as the church – to make sure the needs of our community are met, whether they are members of this church or not. What is demanded of us is to make sure there is equity – not just in our church but in the world. As gracious Christians we are to seek the good of all and refuse to leave anyone behind.
God calls all of us to be gracious – to be gentle, to be humble, to seek common ground and to ensure no one is left behind. It’s a big bill to fill, but the good news is that, I believe our church is well on the way to becoming a gracious church. When Wanda and I came to South Carolina we wanted to be in a gracious community where we could grow, where we could find compassion and grace. When we set foot in the door on our first visit here, we knew we had found such a place – it was that feeling of grace that made us return.
Our church’s mission statement is full of the markings of a gracious religion:
“We exist to share this sanctuary of love, warmth, and laughter by providing Spirit-filled worship, music, and an open-communion.
All who enter can experience the radically inclusive love of Christ and take with them the unquestionable knowledge that God truly loves all creation. We exist:
– to Multiply God’s disciples,
– to Celebrate Christ’s goodness,
– to Create Spiritual community,
– and to Care for God’s people and God’s world.”
You can hear in that mission statement a church that is gentle, humble, seeking common ground, concerned that no one be left behind. We must seek to live up to that mission, even when it’s so tempting to be ungracious – to lash out, to give as good as we get, to push the heretic off the bridge, or toss the offenders from the window. Gulley and Mulholland remind us that as Christians, we are “responsible to the principles of Jesus – to love neighbor and enemy, to seek justice and equality, to live graciously in an ungracious world.”
Whosoever founder and Editor Emeritus Rev. Candace Chellew (she/her) is the author of Bulletproof Faith: A Spiritual Survival Guide for Gay and Lesbian Christians. She earned her masters of theological studies at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology, was ordained by Gentle Spirit Christian Church in December 2003, and trained as a spiritual director through the Omega Point program of the Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta. She serves as the spiritual director of Jubilee! Circle in Columbia, S.C., and blogs at Motley Mystic.