Look What They’ve Done to Christianity

            I wrote before that I get a bad feeling when I hear people say “Christian.” 

The Christianity I was taught in Sunday School is nothing like I have seen Christianity being practiced – now or even in history.

            I have been singing, for some reason, “Look What They’ve Done to my Song.” The words are sticking with me: 

Look what they’ve done to my song, ma
Look at what they’ve done to my song, ma
It was the only thing I could do half right
And it’s turning out all wrong, ma, look
What they’ve done to my song

            Those who have been calling themselves “Christian” have for the longest time been assaulting the religion of the Christ. While they brag about being “Christian,” their actions tell of allegiance to a force that has nothing to do with the lessons of Jesus the Christ.

            We had grown used to it in primarily white, conservative, evangelical denominations and congregations, but now those who call themselves “Christian” nationalists have come front and center stage.

These people have a religion – i.e., they have a set of beliefs to which they adhere – and they believe in and worship a superhuman controlling power, as those who practice religion must do. But their “superhuman controlling powers are money and power. They believe in the power of individuals, not communities. They believe in a militant and muscular God, a God who apparently supports the “isms” of this world, including racism and sexism, militarism and materialism and extremism. They believe in and support the “phobias” so many people relate to – including Islamophobia, Transphobia and homophobia. The nationalists are not devoid of beliefs and it is important to note that, but though many worship in church buildings and are in “Christian” denominations, their beliefs bear little resemblance to the religion I have come to know as “Christianity.”

            To be honest, a study of Christianity shows that it has been far away from the fundamental beliefs taught by Jesus for some time. God the parent and Jesus the son were made to be the proponents of conquest and domination, not liberation, justice, and freedom for all whom God created. The religion of Jesus was about community and relationship building between people who would naturally not communicate with each other, but those values were a minimized component of the religion that evolved from Jesus’ time.

            Central to this alternate view of Christianity is the need for violence; this violence has been central to the foundation of Christianity as we know it for thousands of years. The belief is that Christianity was set up as the army of God, sent by God to conquer nations and peoples. Neither the scope nor the depth of the brutality meted out to people seemed to bother those who aligned themselves with the belief that it was God’s will that they dominate all people and all nations. Walter Wink noted that violence “is the first resort in conflicts.” Ironically, he said, “we learned to trust the Bomb to grant us peace.” This violence is good, they believe. It is called “redemptive violence.”

            The ideology of this religion (nationalism) of conquest has been damaging and painful to so many people who have flocked to churches looking for a good, kind, accepting, forgiving God. On the contrary, they have found – in the most devout church-going people – hatred, prejudice, judgment, and a belief in the “rightness” of their tendency to tear people down. In their quest for domination, using violence as a means to get it, they are doing God’s will. All of us have received lessons of the oppressor’s religion; all of us, or maybe many of us, grew up singing, “Onward Christian Soldiers,” and have not given those lyrics a second thought. As long as the masses of people have not thought about the theology they’ve been taught and the implications of it as well as its contradiction of what Jesus taught, they have practiced their religion with little difficulty. It did not, or has not, bothered them that their practice of religion has turned many people off and away from God and from church. Those who continued to go to churches that adhered to this kind of bigoted, violence-based religion, suffered and struggled with their questions; those who did not believe as they did simply stayed away.

            But now there’s a move on for there to be “one religion” for this country – that of the religious nationalists. As they work to erode the rights of nearly everyone, there is little pushback against what they are doing. There is a feeling of self-righteousness as they, for example, push for “prayer” in schools – but what they’re not saying is that it is highly unlikely that the “prayers” of any religion other than that of the nationalists will be acceptable. They have said that there needs to be one religion in this country and that religion is nationalism. (https://www.cnn.com/2021/11/15/politics/michael-flynn-one-religion/index.html)

            The religion of Jesus was one that liberated people, one that taught people that God, their creator, wanted them to be free from laws that were unjust and oppressive and one that taught them that they were loved, regardless of who they were, what they had done, or their social class or race. Jesus’ power was what it was because his religion was one that embraced all people, including “the least of these.” His teachings taught that all whom God created were precious in God’s sight and worthy of being treated as such.

            But the religion of the nationalists, and actually the Christianity that has historically upheld and practiced bigotry, hatred, racism, sexism, and all other forms of judgment against certain people, contradicts what Jesus taught. Nationalists seek power and control, and they worship capitalism more than they honor and respect God. Their greed cancels out their capacity for grace, and their arrogance makes them unable to have “eyes that see” that Jesus said we should all strive to have.

            I cannot see where the Jesus of the Bible would condone the hatred and violence, and the elevation of the former president to the status of a god, more important than the lives of the masses of people in this country and their well-being. They should stop using “Christian” to describe their religion, because in principle and by Jesus’ own tenets, their religion is not what Jesus came to earth to bring.

            Better that we are honest and call nationalism what it is: a religion that has as its core beliefs violence, domination, and control. That is not the religion of Jesus the Christ.

© Susan K Smith

Why Hearing the Word “Christian” Makes Me Sick

            Let me begin this piece by saying I love the story of Jesus the Christ. I love what the Jesus of the Gospels stands for. I love it that Jesus reached out to and accepted everyone – from disgraced women to diseased Gentiles. It was Jesus’ capacity to love and accept people, not judge and exclude them that made me love what Jesus stood for, even as a child.

            I grew up believing that we were supposed to love everyone because Jesus did. We didn’t have to like them, but we were obligated to love them. I grew up being taught that we were also to forgive everyone. It was a tough lesson, leading me to write one of my earliest books, Forgive WHO? The Struggle to Obey God’s Awful Command. Jesus’ capacity to say he forgave the people who lied on him and to him, who subjected him to a mock trial and ultimately sentenced him to death, was remarkable to me.

            I grew up believing that I would not be completely successful in trying to do what Jesus said to do – or maybe would not even come close – but I grew up committed to trying. It was my belief in what Jesus taught that made me understand that forgiving even the racists that worked to keep non-white people in spiritual, economic, and social bondage was necessary. And I believe that carrying that mandate within me helped me from becoming bitter about the things that certainly seem unchangeable in American society.

            But I learned that not all people learned the way of Jesus like I did. I learned that pastors in churches taught and preached from the pulpit the “rightness” of segregation and bigotry. I learned that people who said they believed in Jesus would stand in the doorways of their churches to keep non-white people from coming in. Gandhi experienced that and said “I like your Christ. I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.” He made this statement after being prohibited from entering a Christian church in Calcutta by ushers who, as he tried to enter, told him he was not welcome because the church was just for high-caste Indians and white people. He was too brown and too poor.

            How in the world could anyone who professed to love Jesus do anything like that? And yet, it was common practice. Many who call themselves Christian believe that it is God’s will for them to discriminate against people of color. Many fought and still disbelieve in the concept of the necessity for all people to have civil and human rights. 

            I still shake my head when I think of the testimony of the late Sam Bowers, convicted in the murders of James Chaney, Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman and also for the murder of  Vernon Dahmer, a Black man who dared register people to vote. Bowers, who became the Imperial Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, shared that he had been told by God, in a Damascus Road experience (his words) to “save white supremacy.” Whose god is that?

            There are preachers who teach that attention to social justice – i.e., liberty and justice for all – is anti-Biblical, in spite of words in the text that say the opposite. They teach versions of the Great Commandment – that we should love the Lord our God with all our hearts, all our minds, and all our souls, and our neighbors as ourselves that make their students believe that loving and caring for each other is not required by God. I heard one preacher teach that the common understanding of the Parable of the Good Samaritan is wrong, that the lesson is about salvation, about getting right with Jesus, not extending love and assistance to someone, including and especially one whom you might not like or approve of.

            I am no longer puzzled but angry and offended at and by people who call themselves “Christian” but who use the name of the Christ to push and practice bigotry, exclusion, and hatred. I am angry that they are using the word “Christian” to describe actions that are clearly anti-Biblical and in violation of the very spirit of the Christ.

            Louis Gohmert made a statement that the mass shootings would stop if prayer was again required in public schools. (https://africa.businessinsider.com/politics/texas-rep-louie-gohmert-says-more-prayers-could-stop-mass-shootings-as-the-house/jy3bced) I disagree, but my observation is that Gohmert and others believe that the nationalist god and their religion – not Christianity at all – is the god to whom all should pay obeisance, a god who apparently does not care that so many people are suffering at the hands of people who say they despise big government but are advocating huge government to keep everyone under their control.

            My skin crawls when I hear the word “Christian” applied to people who believe in and practice exclusion and bigotry of any sort. I have a violent physical, emotional, and spiritual reaction to those who use the name of the Christ even as they make policies that would take freedom and dignity away from so many people. 

            There is no way I would or could pray to their god. It is not the same God that I worship and follow.

            This betrayal of the Gospel and the slander of Jesus’ name is not new; it has been a part of the American political and religious landscape since the time of this nation’s inception. I agree with Frederick Douglass, who said that Christian ministers …” strip the love of God of its beauty, and leave the throng of religion for the oppressors, tyrants, man-stealers, and thugs. It is not that pure and undefiled religion that is from above

            I don’t want any part of their god or their bible, both of which they have compromised to fit their racist, sexist, political, and ethnoreligious ideologies. They might be religious, but they are not Christian. At best they are religionists who have grabbed hold of the word “Christian” because they realize that Jesus the Christ did spread a message of empowerment that encouraged and strengthened all those who were left behind and left out. Their religion is based on dominating others and has done too much damage to too many people to allow it to be called Christianity or for them to call themselves Christian.

            They are imposters of the great religion and they defile the name and the work of the Christ.

            Jesus deserves better.

A candid observation …

My Struggle with the Bullied God

            It is not a wise thing to share struggles one has with one’s religion or one’s God, especially if one is an ordained minister, and yet, that is where I am.

            My stomach turns when I hear people say, “The Bible says…” or “Scripture says…” I find myself scowling and thinking, “Which Bible are you speaking of?” I have watched throughout my life people quoting scripture and at the same time showing hatred and disrespect for fellow human beings. It has always made my blood boil, but more now.

            I was repulsed when people who stormed the United States Capitol on January 6, 2021, stopped to pray, lift up holy hands, and call on “the Lord Jesus.” Again, the question for me was, “whose Jesus?” Certainly not the Jesus of the Gospel, the Jesus who taught that we should love our neighbors as ourselves, the Jesus who reached out to include the marginalized and ignored. So, to whom, exactly, were they referring?

            It was probably the same Jesus that Sam Bowers, who was the co-founder and the first Imperial Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan worshiped. Bowers shared that he had a Damascus Road experience where God told him to save white supremacy. That was to be his ministry. Bowers was a church-going man who gathered murderers-in-training for prayer and fasting before they would go on their sprees to intimidate, terrorize, and murder Black people, Jews, and those whom he believed were Communists.

Bowers was convicted and sentenced to life in prison for murdering Vernon Dahmer, a Black man who registered Black people to vote, but before that, he had spent six years in federal prison for the murders of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner. He apparently loved “the Lord Jesus.”

            God, it seems, has been remarkably amenable to being manipulated. White nationalists manipulate the deity, as do members of other dominant groups, and God seemingly is OK with it. There is no one group of people that is less likely to manipulate God. It seems that the powerful are the ones who not only define society, its rules, mores, and customs, but also God and what is required to be “holy” in the sight of their God. They make their power their god.

            The subjugation of people is not unique or new; white nationalists are part of a bloodline of those who oppress people, using violence, in order to hold onto power. Walter Wink notes in Engaging the Powers: “The Romans subjugated the Jews and attempted to destroy the Christian church. In the Middle Ages, the Catholic church fought and subjugated the Gnostics, inquisitors subjugated witches, the Germans murdered the Jews and the Jews, who suffered so hideously at the hands of Hitler, now subjugate and murder the Palestinians.” That’s not a popular thing to say, but it is true.  Again according to Wink, Marc Ellis, a Jewish writer, wrote, “The tragedy of the Holocaust is indelibly ingrained in our consciousness. Contemporary Jewish theology helps us to come to grips with our suffering; it hardly recognizes that today we are powerful. It holds in tension Holocaust and the need for empowerment. Consequently, it speaks eloquently for the victims of Treblinka and Auschwitz yet can ignore Sabra and Shatila.” (pp. 200-201)

            What we worship is power and money, not God; that means that money and power are, for us, God. And it is maddening. It seems that those with power and money bully God into submission, and God acquiesces! God, the Creator of all, is silent in the face of horrendous suffering. Those who worship money and power credit God for the murderous actions they take against people who threaten or challenge them; they say God is the source of the suffering of human beings who are accosted, afflicted, and assaulted by, again, human beings. God brought Hurricane Katrina, they say, to punish members of the LGBTQIA community; God is the force behind the abject poverty of Haiti because its Black leaders dared to fight against white oppression and win. God is the author of segregation and not only created but approved of slavery. The power people say all of that and more and God, the bullied God, says and does nothing.

            The God of the powerful is not a deity that believes in mercy and love and forgiveness. No, their God is one who sanctions those who judge others based on human definitions of wickedness and sin. The Jesus of the Gospel, who said to the woman caught in the act of adultery “Go and sin no more” is absent for the powerbrokers. That Jesus is not the Jesus people in power refer to or respect. 

            The Bible doesn’t help. The Bible was written by men in power, and in this so-called sacred text, we see misogyny, sexism, toxic masculinity, racism, classism, and far too much violence. And while so many refer to the Bible as the go-to text for all they say and do, it is a tainted text that has been manipulated to support power. The Negro Bible, also called The Slave Bible was written by white people who wanted to keep enslaved Black people in their place and not get the idea that God was a deity who supported their quest for freedom and equity. Whole books of the Bible were taken out of this special text created especially for the enslaved.

            And so I struggle. The god of white nationalists is not the God of the Bible, but the Bible isn’t all that sacred, seeing as how people have willfully distorted, changed, and manipulated the words contained within its pages at will. There is a flagrant and blatant disregard of the Great Commandment – that we love the Lord our God with all our hearts, all our minds, and all our souls, and our neighbors as ourselves – and there is little fear that ignoring that command will result in any consequences.  The bullied God says and does nothing, and the powers and principalities continue doing exactly what they want.

            In 1953, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King warned against the “false God of nationalism.” It is that god that is running the politics of this country, or that is at least being quiet as this country continues to run roughshod over “the least of these.” 

            “The least of these” need some victories, victories that cannot and will not be overturned by political operatives, including the US Supreme Court. Even as human beings deride, disrespect, and disregard the rights and needs of so many people, the Creator God of us all really needs to stand up and stay up and fight the good fight against those who have made bullying God their favorite pastime.

On Being a Sunday School Kind of Girl

When You’re a Sunday School Kind of Girl

            When I was a child, I loved Sunday School. I loved hearing about Jesus and how Jesus loved everybody and talked to everybody and healed so many people. Had Jesus not been the son of God, I probably would have said, when adults asked, as they always did, what I wanted to be when I grew up, “I want to be Jesus.”

            What I would have meant was, “I want to be like Jesus. I thought it was remarkable that Jesus cared for people that nobody else cared for, and, being a Black child in a white world, I was slowly learning what it was like to be despised, disrespected, and shunned because of who you were. 

            Even as a child, that surprised me, because so many of the white kids I knew went to Sunday School, too, and while some of them were nice, there were others who were just mean. One of my “friends” told me on a summer day when we were both playing on the monkey bars that her mother had told her she couldn’t play with me anymore because I was Black.

            “You’re Black,” she said. “Plain, old, ugly Black.”

            I wrote a children’s book about that experience, and for sure I, as have all Black people, have had my share of race-based experiences. But I confess that I am confused as to why this is the case, seeing as how there was but one Jesus and there is but one Bible that contains the teachings of Jesus.  

            That feeling of confusion arose in me again when the people who were storming the Capitol building on January 6, 2021, stopped to pray. They called on the name of Jesus. What Jesus was that? It was a Jesus with whom I have become familiar, because of all of the racism in this country, but it wasn’t my Sunday School Jesus. This Jesus was the same one who was OK with people burning crosses in the name of white supremacy, the same Jesus who seemed not to care that really religious people saw nothing wrong with praying and fasting before going out to lynch a Black person. This Jesus was one who did not care about social justice; indeed, if the Rev. John McArthur is to be believed, “social justice is nowhere included in the Bible.” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_ix_eHfGYuA)

            While the Jesus of my Sunday School lessons clearly had Jesus tending to “the least of these,” i.e., those who had been marginalized by society, the Jesus of McArthur and many who call themselves followers of the Christ stands for no such thing. McArthur suggested that the marginalized have made themselves victims; in the victim group, he includes women, the poor, ethnic groups, and the “sexually deviant” – his term, not mine. But …in my Sunday School lessons, Jesus attended precisely to those whom McArthur has labeled victims. 

            According to McArthur, the Gospel is the stumbling block of victims – because, he said, “victims hate the Gospel.” And, he said in the sermon cited above, “if you acknowledge that something bad has happened in history, you’ve indicted God.” 

            I keep thinking that white people are from Venus and Black people are from Mars, that there is no way there will ever be a spiritually safe intersection between those whose Sunday School lessons were apparently radically different from mine, and people like me. What did Jesus do, what did Jesus stand for, if it wasn’t for fairness and equity and dignity of all people? Apparently, there are at least two schools of thought.

            We are in the season of Lent, where we are supposed to be working on repentance – i.e., moving closer to God, but there is a problem. It seems that white and Black people are moving toward – if they are doing that at all – two different Gods. 

            And if that is the case, I shudder to think about what’s ahead for all of us.

            What all of the political and spiritual chaos has cemented in me is my resolve to remain a Sunday School kind of girl – but I also now realize that all Sunday School lessons are not the same.

            That is disturbing, as we confess that there is one Lord one faith, one baptism.

            Apparently, not so much.

A candid observation…

In Search of the “Sound of the Genuine”

 The celebration of the birthday of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King has come and gone, and what is troubling is that so many who are working against everything he stood for had the audacity to give tributes to the man and to his work.

 It was a sham of epic proportions. Even as the possibility of voting rights legislation being passed hangs by a thread, those who have said publicly that allowing it to pass would be a violation of the Constitution praised Dr. King, who wrote in 1965 in aNew York Times article, “Civil Right No. 1: The Right to Vote. “

 The words of these people, coupled with effusive praise of Dr. King given by corporations that are funding Republicans who are supporting the making and passage of voter suppression laws is all the evidence that one needs to understand that there was and is nothing genuine in their words.

 Howard Thurman, inThe Luminous Darkness, wrote about the “sound of the genuine” that we listen for in others. Specifically, he wrote, “There is some region in every man that listens for the sound of the genuine in other men.” When there is no fellowship between persons, however, Thurman says the “sound will not come through and the will to listen to it is not manifest.”

 There is no fellowship between “us” and “them,” teams that have been a part of the American infrastructure since the beginning of this country. There have been times, notes Thurman, when there was a sort of fellowship between Black and white people in the South, but under the terms determined and dictated by whites. As long as Black people stayed in their lane, and understood their place, the two races could communicate. But the fellowship was false because there was no agreed-upon foundation for that relationship. Black people could not offer or ask for what they needed in order to feel validated and affirmed as human beings.

 It seems that we search for the “sound of the genuine” not only in our relationships with people of other races, religions, and ethnicities but often in our relationships with each other. We know when something is amiss in our conversation with another person, someone we purport to know. Our spirits tell us. We become uneasy, and very often, we will back away from those relationships rather than do the work required to create an honest and authentic relationship, where there is, in fact, genuine caring and concern for, and understanding of, the other person.

 Searching for the sound of the genuine is difficult work in any relationship-building, but more so when it comes to the relationships between Blacks and whites in this country. Our relationship broke down hundreds of years ago – based on the acceptance of a faulty belief in white supremacy, causing the white race to believe in its superiority over Black people. The human spirit – that which is in every one of us – rejects that type of denigration, even as it struggles to find its place within it. Whites and Black people have made each other an “it” as opposed to a “thou,” and in so doing, have decreased if not eliminated the possibility for genuine fellowship and thus, a sharing of the “sound of the genuine” in each other. If we juxtapose that against the words of Jesus, who believed in and taught the Great Commandment – that we love our neighbor as ourselves, we find ourselves in a difficult position. The command of Jesus seems as unattainable as it is undesirable. We do not want a relationship with the “its” in our lives. We are content to stay far away and not even think about looking for or expecting the sound of the genuine in them. They have already shown us who they are, and, as Maya Angelou advised us, we have chosen to believe them.

 What do we do, then, when we are spiritually and morally offended by the type of dishonest “honoring” of one who worked until he died for a “beloved community,” including in it even those whom we doubt have the capacity for genuine love within them? We have to step back, away from our raw anger, bitterness, and resentment – which Thurman says becomes a residue in us that becomes “hate.” Some kind of way we have to inhale the spirit of God which says that God is greater than the hypocrisy and hatred and determination to destroy the quest for freedom of Black people and all others who are oppressed in this country. Our relationship with God has to come front and center and move us to understand that within everyone, even those whom we despise, there is a place that is human and not political, and that place can be reached but only when we are committed to the truth that God is greater than any foolish, painful, and destructive “ism” that works to destroy others.

 What words do we whisper when our very souls are cringing with resentment? What do we do when we remember the words of the Great Commandment, or the words of Jesus that we are to love those who persecute us, or worse, love our enemies? Maybe just this: that God is truth. Octavia Butler famously said “All that you touch, you change. All that you change changes you. The only lasting truth is change. God is change.”

 In search of the sound of the genuine, those of us who have the strength to push forward and work to “touch” the evil that hurts so bad must do it, and in so doing, show the rest of us how to move. It is only God who can water the dried-out spirits that are so dry that their capacity to release their “genuine” parts is badly limited. Maybe we who are able can work to touch those dried-out spirits, first in ourselves and then in those with whom we would rather not, for the sake of building of the Beloved Community here on earth.

 Amen and amen.