I used to hate Sundays, but I love ’em now. No fuss, no muss, get up when you like, putter around in the kitchen, make coffee, read news at a leisurely pace, catch up with my phone games, write, watch movies, do fun consenting-adult stuff if possible.. it’s a nice day for me. I tend not to get anything major done on Sundays specifically because I love having a true day of rest–unlike what Sundays were for me once. Sorry, but any day where I have to get up before I’m fully rested, get dressed up, and have to go somewhere and sit still for hours and hours on end every week like it’s a job while I’m hungry and tired just isn’t a day of rest for me. Never was, not until I finally just left the religion behind and discovered what a real day of rest actually looks like. But that’s what grace is all about, isn’t it? It’s all about that break, that feeling like you got something you shouldn’t have. I was thinking about that as I began this piece–since it was Sunday morning when I finally toddled into the computer room and started my day.
We’re going to talk about grace today. It’s one of the most important concepts in Christianity, but one of its least understood and rarest-displayed traits. We’re going to look at where it’s missing and check out some folks and groups who are maybe finding out what grace looks like in practice. And I’ll make some unsolicited suggestions for Christians who are wondering why their evangelism is failing so hard in today’s society (spoiler: it’s got something to do with today’s topic). So strap yourselves in and keep your hands in the car at all times, at least till we get to the top of the roller coaster, because I’m feeling like talking today.
The definition of grace that I myself tried to live under, while Christian, was the one found here: “Grace is God’s unmerited favor. It is kindness from God we don’t deserve.”
Grace is about not seeking punishment or retribution. It’s about letting go of the need to exact a penalty. It’s about showing love and affection to someone who’s done something that really doesn’t rate either one. It’s about giving a helping hand to someone who’s just gotten done abusing you or yours. It’s about sharing with someone who tried to take from you. There are so many concepts bound up in this one single word, but to me, grace is about acceptance and mercy. Grace is one of the hardest things we, as humans, can show to anybody.
The concept of grace isn’t unique to Christianity. Buddhists have a version of it, as do Jews, in their way. The idea that goodness could befall someone who doesn’t really deserve it flies against our ideas about justice, but somewhere in the back of our minds we’re aware that sometimes justice can be very cold indeed. As the old saying goes, most of us say we want justice, but we really don’t–especially not when the beacon shines upon us. At such a terrifying time, we actually want mercy. And most religions have a place for mercy. So grace isn’t a Christian concept; it’s a human ideal.
But somehow Christians have claimed a monopoly on this very human ideal. And somehow this usurpation happened without much of a challenge. I certainly didn’t question the idea that grace was something Christianity owned.
The concept formed the very cornerstone of my belief back then. Everything we had, as Christians, came from our god, and every bit of it was undeserved. Every moment of attention we thought we were getting was completely unearned and, indeed, incapable of being earned. Compared to our omnipotent, omni-benevolent, omniscient, omnipresent master/father/owner/bridegroom, we were worms and worse than worms, because at least worms did some kind of good for soil and fed other animals, while he had no use whatsoever for humanity–depending on your theology, of course; some Christians think he needs humans to blow sunshine up his butt and praise him, while others think he uses Christians as foot-soldiers in his massive war against Satan, but it’s always an uneasy sort of question to wonder about, just why an omnimax god needs piddling little humans for anything.
God needs a starship. Obviously.
I was also made very uncomfortable when I realized that my god was actually a rather abusive mate–telling a victim that s/he’ll never, ever be worth the abuser’s love and that the abuser is deigning to lavish him/her with undeserved attention. That pattern of abuse is part and parcel of destroying all resistance in that person, and indeed this exact emotional abuse was something I was experiencing in my marriage to my Godly Christian Husband™ at the time, so maybe that’s how I noticed it in the first place. I’m hardly the first person to note how similar the fundamentalist conceptualization of religion is to a really abusive relationship.
You would think that living under this kind of emotional torture would make Christians far more likely to extend a little slack to those around them, but it just seems to make them more judgmental and cruel to those they’ve marginalized, and far quicker to call their god’s wrath upon those who dissent against them. As one Christian author, Philip Yancey, said a while ago as he criticized the growing politicization of right-wing Christianity,
We spend too much time criticizing people because they differ with us on abortion, homosexuality and other political and social issues. We don’t practice what we do best – showing God’s grace.
It’s a hell of an idea, isn’t it? Showing love and mercy to those who you don’t think deserve it. It’s kinda admirable, actually. It’s good enough to base a religion off of, if done right.
But I don’t see many Christians taking the idea to heart. Mr. Yancy said that quote up there danged over 15 years ago, in 1997, and absolutely nothing has changed–unless you mean Christians just got progressively even more judgmental and critical of others. The Barna Group, a large religious polling organization, discovered that Christians of all stripes tend to be really un-Christ-like, and after seeing their writeup of that survey, you can really understand a little more when you hear the frequent criticisms leveled at Christians (the link goes to a Christian site, but I think it’s spot-on as I’ve experienced and heard about friends experiencing every single one of the things it talks about). And you start to understand why the vast majority of non-believers have such a poor opinion of Christianity, especially evangelical Christianity.
I’ve heard all sorts of excuses from Christians about why they’d rather show condemnation than grace to those they don’t approve of.
First and foremost, Christians are positive that if they don’t show their condemnation and disapproval of a secular world’s excesses, then the rest of us are liable to start screwing children and dogs if left to our own devices. Christians need to tell everybody how to live moral lives, because we just couldn’t figure that out by ourselves since we don’t have the author of all morality living inside us. Remember that Christian blog we talked about recently where the writer was absolutely convinced that an atheist husband just couldn’t possibly be a good person because he’d thrown his Jesus-morality away? It’s like that. Christians are the “salt of the earth” and “light of the world,” which means the rest of us are unsalted nuts and dark dank corners, and without them showing the way, the way simply wouldn’t be shown. Talk about elitism! It’s terribly frustrating for non-believers, who tend to just want to be left alone, but it’s like Christians just can’t stop themselves from trying to control and condemn others.
This idea is just ridiculous, especially if one considers that secular nations, as well as secular states in the good ol’ US of A, tend to be way more law-abiding than those filled with religious people. There are a lot more Christians in prisons, proportionally, than even exist in the general population at this point. And Christians themselves abuse the vulnerable all the time too–the religion lends itself to dominating and controlling people, and children make the easiest target there is. Worst of all, the practice is losing members like crazy–Christian condemnation and judgmentalism is a big part of why young people are being turned off from the religion and is often cited as a reason for deconversion.
Clearly the long-cherished Christian tradition of showing disapproval and condemnation of other people’s private lives isn’t actually “convicting” the people Christians want most to reach. But do Christians–who know perfectly well that their bigotry and shaking fingers are turning hordes of people off–even consider changing their tune? Oh no, of course not. Given a choice between showing grace and expressing disapproval, right-wing Christians know what they’ll pick every single time. They can’t just “let go and let God,” no matter how many bumper stickers are floating around with that slogan on them. They may talk about how powerful and loving their god is, but when push comes to shove, they have to get involved and help their god out because clearly he needs the assist.
I find the whole thing just shockingly disrespectful to other people. This attitude reveals a really awful view of humanity that just isn’t true, but it also says a lot about the person evincing that attitude that the only thing holding them back from doing those same foul deeds is religion. Yikes! I don’t need a god to tell me that sex with kids and animals is totally off-limits or that stealing and killing people is really bad! What kind of absolute reprobate needs a god to tell him or her that?!?
I’m trying to think of a single person who converted because of condemnation and judgment from a disapproving Christian, but I honestly can’t. It’s probably happened–humanity’s pretty wacky–but I totally can’t remember any cases of it from my own Christian days. The closest I can think of is “logical Christians,” who are naturally very judgmental and condemning people. They manage to concoct or contort themselves into accepting the right philosophical argument to let themselves buy into a religion that, shockingly, doesn’t ask them to change in the very least and will happily let them judge and condemn others to their hearts’ content. Generally, such behavior not only drives people out of the religion but may push mildly-agnostic people into a far more activist and atheistic mindset (in the same way that the Republican Party’s excessive and outrageous misogyny pushed me into becoming an every-single-time, educated, informed, and active voter).
We’ll ignore those verses about leaving judgment up to the Bible’s god, since Christians themselves routinely ignore those verses in their rush to judge others. We’ll also ignore all those verses about what love actually is; Christians use the “love chapter” for their wedding readings, and then promptly forget all about it. But don’t you wonder what they think will happen if they quit acting like horses’ asses and trying to dominate others?
Why are they worried about what non-Christians will do, for that matter? Are they worried that we’ll hurt them, when the opposite seems to be what really happens even now? Are they scared of living in a non-Christian country or state, when non-Christian countries and states enjoy much safer, higher-standard ways of life than zealot-ridden ones do? Doesn’t perfect love cast out fear, “because fear has to do with punishment”? Seems peculiar that so many Christians are not only so gung-ho about punishment (a strikingly large percentage are all for the death penalty), but also seem to live in terror of non-believers. If they really loved us, maybe they wouldn’t be so scared. Maybe a little grace would be useful here.
Second, Christians seem to think that forcing people to act Christian is just as good as converting them. Now, obviously if you ask one of them if good works get you to Heaven, most Christians would say no, only grace does, which means humans can’t earn their way to Heaven. It’s a gift, one that no human could ever earn no matter how “good” or how charitable one ever was. Though most denominations try to find some kind of balance between works and grace, most will end up closer to the “grace, but works are what manifest in a believer when grace is present” end of the works/grace scale like my churches tended to land.
So if I, a non-Christian who was once a fervent and dedicated Christian but who renounced that nonsense and has categorically rejected every single Christian doctrine there is and doesn’t even think there was a “real” Jesus, am forced to live just like a Christian does, exactly what is this going to accomplish?
Is forcing me to live like a Christian going to magically make me sympathetic to Christianity’s claims? Or is it going to make me even more firmly dislike Christianity?
Is compelling me to go through the motions of a repressed, oppressed Christian woman’s life going to magically earn me a ticket to Heaven? Or is it going to make me work even harder to ensure that people hear about and understand how evil right-wing Christianity can be?
Is making me toil in the same traces a Christian does going to make me love Jesus? Or make me even less likely to convert to his religion?
Does condemning and judging me make me feel loved? Or hated?
I am hard-pressed to see how forcing me to live like a Christian helps Christianity. About all I can see it doing is making poor widdle persecuted Christians feel more comfy as they go about their lives, serene in clawed-back dominance and not challenged by anything around them. Christians do seem to love their Christo-Bubbles–they don’t tend to like seeing people living lives not focused on Jesus. They don’t tend to like seeing people “sin.” They especially don’t like seeing people object to their religion or dissent from it.
But apparently my theoretical lost soul doesn’t matter if Julie & Johnny Christian feel more comfy-comfy in their happy Christian bubble. That Christians’ efforts to re-dominate society have produced an entire generation or two of people who absolutely despise and deeply distrust their religion doesn’t seem to matter at all. They genuinely seem to think that the problem is that they’re not doing enough to regain dominance–that once they’ve got everybody totally under their thumbs, it’ll all be wonderful again!
And obviously, that’s nuts–not only is it totally not how humans work, but that’s demonstrably not what’s happening in society today, as people recoil harder and harder away from Christian zealotry’s abuses and predations.
Third, a big chunk of Christianity seems totally convinced that if they don’t dominate everybody into acting Christian whether they like it or not, that some terrible thing will happen to everybody, including themselves. This one really baffles me. I’m not kidding. When I was Christian, I was afraid of being “left behind” in the Rapture; eventually, though, I realized that the Bible never promises that believers will have a nice easy life. It actually talks a lot about enduring a lot of trouble in Jesus’ name. Christians act desperate to avert this horrible catastrophe that their god is promising if we don’t clean up our act and kowtow again, and all it does is make me think their god sounds like a major dick to be threatening this unless they somehow force others to live a certain way whether they like it or not.
If to avoid a meteor impact we have to (re)subjugate an entire swathe of people and deny them civil rights, then maybe we deserve to be hit by a meteor, is my opinion. A god who demands horrific treatment of others or the removal of rights from people or else he’ll do something absolutely ghastly to everybody, whether all of his helpless victims obeyed him or not, is not a god we should be negotiating with (and yes, I used that phrasing very deliberately).
It’s just a little suspicious to me that Christians who use threats of natural disasters like this are always advocating a course of action to be forced upon the rest of us that fits perfectly into their own bigotries and fears. You never see Pat Robertson getting a “divine word from GAWD” about either giving people worldwide full, free, and unfettered ownership of their bodies or else he’s going to thwack a plague on Europe. No, instead this delusional misogynist and bigot says that if gay people get civil rights to full and equal marriage, his god’s going to play T-ball with the Earth. It’s the weirdest thing: if we don’t do what Pat Robertson himself thinks is best, his schoolyard-bully of an abusive god is going to hurt us.
Since nobody’s ever demonstrated that we have something to fear from “disobeying” extremist Christians’ wackadoodle interpretation of the Bible, and since every single other doomsday prophecy threatened by religious nuts has failed to happen, I’m going to file that one under “L” for “Sheerest Blithering Lunacy” and move on.
Last, Christians really think that their opinion is either needed or requested by the rest of us in how we should live our lives. I really think this is the one that is most relevant, which is why it went last. In my own private life, I do stuff that hurts absolutely nobody and is done only with other fully consenting adults, but which would make most fundamentalists (especially fundie men) simply twitch. Except for the fact that I’m married and straight, my life is one big raised middle finger to fundagelical Christianity.
But here’s the thing. I don’t really care what they think of my life. If I want their opinion about some personal decision I’m making, I’ll ask. If I don’t ask, then I’m not interested in their opinion. If you’re here and you’re Christian, that’s a tacit and implicit statement that you’re interested in mine. I assume if you don’t want to hear what I have to say, you’re capable of reading someone else’s blog. If I want to hear a Christian’s opinion, I engage him or her on it. If I’m not engaging one in similar manner, then I’m not interested in that person’s opinion. All I want in return is the same courtesy.
In the same way, gay people don’t really care what Pat Robertson thinks of their lives. They certainly don’t spend time thinking of him doing the Horizontal Mambo with whoever is unfortunate enough to share his bed. They just want the same courtesy in return from him and his followers.
Christians like these long for the “good old days” when their voices dominated clearly over the rest of the riff-raff. When they could voice an opinion and everybody would listen and nod sagely and agree with them. When their preferences and desires set the tone for everybody else. And those days are long, long gone–and they are not missed by anybody except those toxic Christians. I’ve actually had Christians (men, almost exclusively, weirdly enough) tell me explicitly that they think they should have some kind of a say in somebody else’s private life and decisions–and they don’t even realize how little grace and love they’re showing by grabbing for such unmitigated, undeserved power over another human being. I might add that nobody but Christians themselves are fooled by their sanctimonious insistence that they just want what’s best for everybody else.
I don’t really care how much a Christian is persuaded that he or she knows better than I do how I should live my own private life and what decisions I should be making. And the more control Christians try to seize over me, the more I realize how fake and harmful and toxic their religion really is. But… they’ve got to try something, don’t they? Just as my incredibly abusive preacher ex-husband discovered when I deconverted, reasoning with us doesn’t work. Pleading with us doesn’t work. Leaving us alone doesn’t work. Being super-duper-extra-dextra nice to us doesn’t work. So they resort to control, manipulation, and emotional violence (threats, abuse, nasty Facebook posts, etc) to try to convert us. Those have even less of a chance of reaching anybody than any other tactic, but it’s the last weapon they have–because obviously grace just isn’t enough by itself.
And by ignoring grace, they spell their religion’s death.
In the end, grace is about love, and it’s about the only way that Christianity can hope to survive its current trials. On that note, I wanted to talk a little about some Christians who seem to “get it” about grace (in addition to Mr. Yancey, quoted above).
First, we have one of my favorite Christian movements, the Unfundamentalists. Their slogan says it all: “Above all, love.” They reject Biblical inerrancy and pretty much every single toxic platform that fundagelicals embrace so hard, right up to and including how fundies treat non-believers. I’ve never once had one of them treat with me with anything but grace and love–and it really is an inspiration to me to see how they engage with those who want them to become more hateful, cruel, divisive, and mean-spirited–to become more like those trying to get them to act that way! It really says something about the state of modern Christianity when a group like this seems like such a breath of fresh air, doesn’t it?
The Unfundamentalists have the same attitude I have: that what matters is how we treat each other, not what we believe or whose ass we kiss. So if you’re really burned out on Christians and need to see some good ones, feel free to go head over to their blog. (As with every single group or product I mention on this blog, unless I say otherwise, I have no formal relationship with these good folks.)
I also saw this interview over at Religion News Service with Billy Graham’s grandson, William Graham Tullian Tchividjian, the other day that’s been on my mind. Something he said struck a chord in me:
The underlying fear is that unconditional grace leads to licentiousness. . . We’ve concluded that grace just doesn’t possess the teeth to scare us into changing. . . A steady diet of “do more, try harder” sermons doesn’t cause people to do more or try harder…it makes them give up. Legalism produces lawlessness 10 times out of 10.
That really made me start to think about my objections to being forced to live as a Christian even when I’m not a Christian.
And the big problem? I think he’s nailed it on the head, though he doesn’t explicitly say so that I could see: even Christians can’t live the way they want to force the rest of us to live. They say they want lifelong marriages and refuse rights to others to “protect traditional marriage,” but they get divorced and cheat on their spouses as much as anybody else. They say they cherish “life,” by which they mean they oppose women’s access to abortion and favor forced gestation, but they get abortions too–and they hold a number of opinions regarding war, the death penalty, charity, and social justice that are antithetical to life. They want to limit people’s sexual freedom, ignoring that they have sex before marriage exactly as much as non-Christians do and illicitly enjoy the same sort of acts they think are immoral in others. They say they are better people because of Jesus, but they commit crimes and act as bad as they imagine atheists act (without any justification, I tartly add). This mechanistic, judgmental, controlling, completely ungracious treatment of others does them as little good as it does the rest of us; all it does is torture us with the same whip they use on themselves.
I don’t really care what fundagelical Christians think “love” is. I don’t think they even know anymore. They’ve redefined that word so much they don’t even know what end of it’s up. I, however, do know what it is. It’s grace. It’s not judgment and condemnation. It’s not control. It’s not unwarranted dominance and authoritarianism. Those things are the dead opposite of grace.
And I know that toxic Christians’ constant attempts to force others into submission are the opposite of grace–because grace knows that nobody’s superior to anybody else. Grace lets people handle their own lives themselves, and offers help only when it’s requested. Grace knows that people have rights and it refuses to push itself on those who don’t want it.
Love is acceptance. It looks at another human being and says, “Just as you are, just in what you’re wearing, whether you deserve it or not, I hold my hand out to you.” And that is exactly what it does: it holds out a hand, where condemnation points a finger. Love does not ask that other person to change. It does not demand that person conform. It does not insist that person behave in or talk a certain way to be found worthy enough. It does not force, or strong-arm, or manipulate, or dominate. It is cooperative, not mean-spirited. There is no fear in real love and grace. It attracts people, where judgmentalism pushes them away. It seeks to approach people on a level field, where condemnation pushes others lower and vaunts itself.
You know what actually makes most other people convert to religions? Love. Grace. Those things confuse people. Hate and condemnation we know very well, and we’re adept at dealing with them. But love and grace? Those are much harder to dismiss or counter. So I admit, I’m completely baffled here about why Christians can’t get past their overwhelming need to judge non-Christians.
It’s almost as if they’d rather feel smug and superior than go to Heaven. Maybe they even know it’s not true deep down, who knows. It’s hard to take their claims seriously when they themselves can’t even manage the very first commandments Jesus issued.
In the end, I’d gently suggest to Christians that they let their god handle the rest of us. If he’s real, then surely he’s up to the task. Surely nothing can happen that is not his will, if he’s a real god, right? Treat us like adults who own our bodies, don’t need your approval or input, and have the right to live our lives the way we want to live them. And if you must quake in terror at the meteors that are surely coming from your cruel and evil despot of a tyrant-god if you do decide to treat others with respect, courtesy, love, and grace, then do it on your own time.
The most terrifying thing about letting go of the need to control other people is seeing how very little one’s efforts to control and dominate really helped one’s cause. I wonder if there’ll come a time when Christians, as a group, look back at these past 50 years and just shake their heads at how foolish and off-course they got, at how badly they missed the mark, at how totally wrong they got this whole “grace” thing. I wouldn’t mind if more Christians woke up to what they’re doing to those around them–I’ve got no objection to good, kind folks of any religion. I hope they get it worked out before they damage too many more people’s lives with their cruelty.
Holy cow, this was long. Thanks for sticking with me all the way through. We’re going to talk next time about how tribalism and rigid authoritarianism encourages abuse of those perceived as lesser–there’ll be wife spanking, wild-sounding psychology experiments, and a lot of church scandals. I hope you’ll join me.