It would be easy for me to write yet another rant about the ungraciousness of the Religious Right. I’ve done it many times before, and will likely do it again. I’m told I do it very well, and it’s pretty much what people expect of me.
But in a piece about gracious Christianity, how gracious would that be? Did Jesus tell us to leave the logs stuck in our own eyes, even as we strain to remove the splinters from those of others? If gracious Christianity were easy, everybody would be practicing it. We wouldn’t even need to practice; we’d be so good at it, we’d be experts.
When I found out that Philip Gulley, author of the “Harmony, Indiana” novels I so love, had written two nonfiction books with his friend James Mulholland, I eagerly bought and read them. If Grace Is True: Why God Will Save Every Person and If God Is Love: Rediscovering Grace in an Ungracious World put forth essentially two theses: that God will ultimately save every person and that the reason so many people are cruel to others is that they believe their victims are eternally damned. Now, I certainly respect these authors’ compassion and generosity, but I find Mr. Gulley’s fiction considerably more credible than the claims made in these books.
My rap against conservative Christians has nothing to do with their theology; I happen to believe the same things about Jesus that they so loudly claim to. I think He said that He and God are One, and I believe His claim to be true. I interpret the entire Bible — Old Testament and New — in the light of what the Gospels record Jesus as having said and done. While I have no special attachment to the doctrine of eternal damnation, Jesus spoke more often about it than did anyone else in Scripture. There is no inconsistency in accepting some of what Jesus said, while rejecting the rest, for those who don’t believe He is God Incarnate, but for those (like me and the evangelicals) who DO believe this, it is “playing pick-and-choose,” and it is hypocrisy.
I’m aware that many Christians interpret the Bible differently than I do. And I respect those who do not believe the same things I do about Christ. Jesus Himself said that those who follow His teaching and example are those who truly belong to Him, and that many who run around all the time crying “Lord, Lord” will hear Him say, on the Day of Judgment, that He never knew them. Many of the best Christians I know are liberal in their theology, while the majority of really disgraceful ones seem to be conservatives. That the Religious Right has dumbed down the concept of sin by making a virtue out of a lucky number in the crapshoot of birth like heterosexuality only underscores how morally-bankrupt they have become. The standard belief among conservative Christians today seems to be that there’s a neat, almost mathematically-certain (or, as Gulley and Mulholland put it, “non-refundable”) formula for salvation. You say a little prayer, “giving your heart to Jesus.” Which evidently means that for the rest of your earthly life, you don’t need to pay attention to a darned thing Jesus ever said. They might as well be telling people salvation is theirs if they click their ruby-slippered heels together and chant, “there’s no place like home.” Or, perhaps, that the hokey-pokey really is what it’s all about.
Mr. Gulley and Mr. Mulholland seem like wonderful human beings. And, given their theology, it is not hard to understand why they believe in universal salvation. By the time I’m in any position either to prove or disprove it, I doubt I’ll have the chance to come back and report my findings. But given my convictions about Who Jesus Is, in the meantime I must respectfully disagree with them.
Of course people should be nicer to these guys. If they’ve written things that others can’t accept, there are certainly better options than sending them hate mail or threatening them with bodily harm. I can even see how this seems to prove their theory (“Looky here: mean people who believe in Hell!”). Though what I think it really proves is that those wish to convince others we’ll face an eternal accounting for how we’ve lived on earth are not credible if they don’t behave as if they believe it, themselves.
Mr. Gulley and Mr. Mulholland seem to suggest that if we simply tweaked this one, particular point of Christian doctrine, everybody would be nice to everybody else. I’m sorry, but I find this absurd. What in the world are we to make of all those horribly nasty people, throughout history, who had no belief in an eternal Hell at all? It makes about as much sense, it seems to me, to blame their cruelty on bad hair. The same Jesus conservatives cite as such an authority on the existence of an eternal Hell also told us His criteria for salvation. Those who treat others with compassion (who are gracious) will be saved, whereas those who treat others as they would never wish to be treated themselves are the ones who’ll be in trouble. I find it hard to fathom how so many Right-Wing Christians can be so butt-ugly to others, yet expect to be taken seriously when they claim a copyright on Jesus. They’ve aren’t ungracious to others because they do believe in damnation, but far more likely because they don’t. What gruesome injury has been inflicted upon the Body of Christ by those so-called believers who treat doctrines (like eternal Hell) as nothing more than a means of pushing around those they don’t like!
I would not be surprised if, on the day all hearts are searched and every soul laid bare, we learn that many of our superstar televangelists are actually atheists. When will people learn that standing before a TV camera, brandishing a Bible and wearing a thousand-dollar suit, is no guarantee of authenticity? Jesus was always taking on the religious phonies of His day, because He understood that there is no better way for greedy, power-hungry con artists to manipulate the masses than to take advantage of their religious fervor. Those who so slavishly follow such hucksters would do well to remember that.
What the Religious Right, on its elephant-rampage through American culture, fails to understand is that it can’t trample other people’s freedoms without at the same time trampling its own. I can only pray they wake up to that fact before those freedoms are nothing more than a bittersweet memory for us all. Now, I enjoy pulling Right-Wing whiskers about as much as anybody. I question the wisdom of using what angers them as a litmus-test upon which to base my own religious beliefs. But the temptation for moderate and liberal Christians to do this can be quite compelling, especially for those of us the Right has most gravely wronged.
See how hard it is to be a gracious Christian? What did I claim, at the beginning of this essay, I was striving to avoid — yet what have I been up to almost ever since? This is exactly my problem with Mr. Gulley and Mr. Mulholland. They seem to be saying, in effect, that because I retain traditional beliefs about salvation, I am an “ungracious” Christian, when actually they’re showing themselves as prone to this failing as anybody else. I can certainly be about as ungracious as the next person, but how gracious are people who write books calling those with convictions they don’t like unkind names?
Many GLBT Christians are still struggling to reconcile their sexuality with their spirituality. They’re suffering deeply from having been rejected by their congregations and denominations. I wonder how wise it is, for those aspiring to minister to them in a healthy and affirming way, to tell them that, should they still accept the doctrine of eternal damnation, they are “ungracious.” It seems to be just this sort of brow-beating that drives some of them back into the closet, or even into abusive “ex-gay” therapies. Furthermore, more than a few straight, doctrinally-conservative Christians have ventured beyond their comfort-zone to accept sexual minorities as equal partners in the faith. Is this not gracious Christianity? Are we now to turn to them and say, “You backward fools, how CAN you believe Hell is eternal?” Instead of burning the bridges that yet exist between our world and theirs, I believe it’s imperative that we build more.
The Christian faith is a torch that has been kept blazing for twenty-one centuries. Now it has been passed to us. Are we to guard it faithfully and move it forward, still shining brightly, or are we to let it sputter and go out? No matter how good it feels to criticize the Right-Wingers who are so often unjust to me, I believe I must be careful not to buy uncritically into every idea they dislike, just because I dislike them. And though I certainly do not mean to imply that every GLBT Christian does this, I very much doubt I’m the only one who’s ever struggled to keep my anger and resentment from coloring my faith. But when we allow our deepest convictions to be shaped out of negative reaction against those we dislike, we are allowing them to control us. Even a broken clock is going to be right twice every day. The odds that the conservatives are wrong about everything aren’t very good. Gracious Christians, it seems to me, are those who listen to each other. And if the Right won’t play fair and listen to us, that is their loss far more than it is ours.
It’s important, I think, to stop and recognize what many people hear Mr. Gulley and Mr. Mulholland to be saying. They seem to be calling any Christian who accepts at face value the teaching authority of Jesus Christ “ungracious.” (After all, I and most others like me believe what we do not because we’re rotten and relish the thought of people going to Hell, but because we believe Jesus warns that there is one.) If this is what the authors are saying, than theirs is a radical step, indeed. Our faith has truly reached a crisis point if anyone who expresses concern about this is shouted down with boos and hisses.
Some of the people who have stood the most steadfastly beside me, since I have come out as a lesbian, have been conservative Christians. And a good many of the “tolerant” and “compassionate” folks who brag about their commitment to gay equality abandoned me just when I needed them most. I think the Religious Right is a cancer in the Body of Christ. My concern for the way it corrupts souls is very, very real. I need all the common ground I can get upon which to meet with them.
To Right-Wingers, every innovation in doctrine gets lumped together into one huge, gooey, scary mess. Sort of like the monster in that cheesy Fifties thriller, The Blob. They seem to have no sense of discernment about which changes might actually be in tune with Scripture and which would lead to corruption and doom, so we have to help them, not make it even worse. “Gay rights…AND universal salvation?” I can hear them scream as they abandon their cars, head for the woods and pray for the Rapture. “Oh, horrors…it’s ALIIIIIIVE!!!”
I can’t bring myself to believe Jesus wants the Church to split into two totally separate churches. Neither of which can even talk to the other, because we no longer speak the same faith-language. Anything that would so deeply divide us, in the very name of “graciousness,” itself, is dangerous. It is the very reactionary nature of some on the Left that makes those conservatives who are generally thoughtful and fair-minded so afraid.
Of course we can’t forget that a large segment of the Christian population fears any new idea will be the death-knell for the faith. For example, pick loose the thread of the neatly-woven tapestry that supposedly condemns same-sex love and WHOOPS! Pretty soon, we’ll all be out there having orgies with boa constrictors and teaching our children to wrestle nude in chocolate pudding. It’s easy to lampoon these people, because for all their noisily-professed faith, they give the Holy Spirit credit for being able to accomplish almost nothing without vigilant help from them. Were they to miss even one donation to The 700 Club, their God would be picked up, like the tiny, rodent-like being “He” evidently is, and chucked out of America by the scruff of the neck.
When they’re being silly, we must exercise tough love and tell them so. But when they make sense, we need to have the good grace to listen to them. (See how hard this gracious Christianity stuff can be?) And we really ought to make up our minds whether the sin for which we criticize the Right lies in those stinky, outmoded doctrines of theirs, or whether their doctrines are okay and they’re just being hypocrites for not following them. I think I’ve already pretty clearly cast my vote for the latter.
Our best hope for being able to reach our adversaries is to tell them what I have been saying, consistently, for years. Which is that they have completely lost their heads on some social issues (like gay rights) and that, in their obsession over the Hebrew Holiness Code, they are ignoring many of the things Jesus said. They are ignoring the very way He lived His life, though He made clear that His way is the one all who would follow Him must emulate. I truly believe they are imperiling their own salvation, and I don’t think this makes me mean. In the name of “following Jesus,” they are crucifying them all over again, and it is incumbent upon us to tell them so.
They won’t listen to those who say they’re “ungracious” because they believe Hell is eternal. They will think this is politically-correct baby talk, and even more than a few GLBT Christians will think they’re right. We don’t all have to agree on everything. But if the Left can’t be any bigger than the Right is about this, then what hope is there for any of us?
Graciousness is a crucial concept in Christianity, and it always has been. I hate to see the word degraded to the point where it means the exact opposite of what it once did — no matter how many people have misunderstood it over the centuries. Especially when the importance of Christians practicing grace with one another is as urgent as it is today. It is by the ungraciousness with which they treat those who disagree with them that conservative Christians are destroying the credibility of the very things they hold dear. Never have they needed to hear this more than now.
Again, I respect the beliefs of Christians who are more liberal than me. There is nothing about being openly gay that is quite as annoying as the constant lecturing we get, from nearly every quarter, about what we “must” or “must not” believe. But gracious Christianity, it seems to me, weighs each separate issue on its own merits, rather than seeing it all as a grand platform upon which we, like members of rival political parties, must “choose sides.” The only thing Jesus requires is that we be on His side. And He assures us that those who are not against Him are for Him.
We in the Center and Left “factions” of Christianity may need to be the ones who step up and fill the growing breach between believers. It doesn’t look, on the main, as if the Right is big enough to do it. But there remain many individual people on the Right who are fair and — yes – gracious enough to consider the best interests of all human beings in the light of God’s love. We need to be making friends out of folks like these, not enemies.
In the meantime, I want to keep those bridges between me and my self-appointed enemies in good working order. I may have to draw them up sometimes, to save myself from the alligators they’d set loose on me. But I resolve never to give them reason to confuse me with The Blob.
A self-described “Libertarian Episcopalian lesbian,” freelance writer and the author of Good Clowns, a young adult novel published in 2018, Lori Heine published a blog called “Born on 9-11” and was a frequent contributor to the website Liberty Unbound. A native of Phoenix, Ariz., she graduated from Grand Canyon University in 1988 and spent much of her life in the insurance industry before turning full-time to writing as a freelancer, blogger and author.