I need to ask you not to call me brainless

Let me start by saying I’m not a very confrontational person. I’m not good at thinking on my feet, and don’t defend myself well verbally. If I do find myself in a position where I need to force an issue, I am extremely uncomfortable. So it makes me nervous to engage others in face to face political banter unless I know the person very well. Because I can’t get upset at work (I have a job to do) I tend to ignore the political talk I hear there.
I am not a supporter of Trump, but I work with a very vocal supporter of Trump. It is difficult to listen to at times, because I find myself wanting so badly to insert my thoughts. Usually I don’t, because the backlash from my coworker is so swift and at such a fevered pitch that a second response from me or even a clarification, is often impossible. Occasionally something so fully incorrect or insensitive is said that I feel I must say something. And tonight I felt I couldn’t let it lie. Speaking to another coworker about the election, my coworker who I’ll call Marc, said, “At this point, anyone who votes for Hilary has to be completely and utterly brainless.” Here is the conversation that followed five minutes later in the adjacent room.

“I need to ask you to not call me brainless.” I say.
“What- did I call you brainless?” He says.
“What you said to James? About people voting for Hillary.”
“I didn’t mean you!”
I give him a look.
“You shouldn’t take it personal. (Continues with me, walking into the room I’m also walking into) You should hear the stuff the other side says though.”
“I don’t say those things.” I say quietly.
“Ok, well. I apologize.”
“Thank you. I appreciate that.”
And a few minutes later.
“You know about before, I’m sorry. I won’t do it again. I just get so passionate about this stuff.”
“I know. Rhetoric seems to be getting out of hand everywhere.” I say.
“It’s the election. It’ll be over soon though, alright?”
This guy and I disagree pretty fundamentally on a very lot of things. But otherwise we get along. I don’t find him to be a person that knowingly harms people. I called him out on a personal insult and he stepped back and apologized. I feel angry enough sometimes at Trump voters to call names, but I don’t. I’d like to think that if I fell to personally denigrating others, I’d back off when someone called me out. It’s going to be really important this year to remember that the US is populated by other human beings. We are going to vote as human beings and accept the results as human beings and live together the next four years as human beings. I implore you to remember to treat others as human beings in your words and actions. By all means rail against injustice, despicable policies, or the words of the opposite candidate that you find thoroughly distasteful. Do not call the human beings in your life brainless, asshole, deplorables simply for the way they are voting. We are better than that.

Why we don’t sin

So I want to spend some time talking about why as Christians we choose not to sin. This is partly an expansion of something I mentioned in my review of a church called White Couch and partly a response to a comment I received on that post. The pastor made a remark in church to this effect: “We shouldn’t sin because sin makes Jesus sad.” In that post I said:
“The way Jesus feels about us should be the last reason not to sin. The first reason should be the other person we are hurting and the second reason should be the damage we are doing to ourselves.”

I was (intentionally) implying it is silly to decide not to sin based on how it makes Jesus feel. Jesus and God, and even the Holy Ghost being almighty, can handle themselves, I reasoned. They don’t actually need me to protect their feelings. I got a reply to this post disagreeing with my statement and asserting that we do not sin primarily because sins are against God and therefore the pastor was correct.

Still I find I have to disagree with this line of thinking. I happen to believe we are not following what God says simply because he said it. I believe God is a God of love. I believe he cares about us and wants us happy, contented, and well-taken care of. This being the case, I think God established a set of rules for us NOT because he likes arbitrary rules, but because those rules actually help us all to be happy, contented and well-taken care of. I think sin is not ultimately about disobedience. In my understanding of it, sin is about causing harm to ourselves, another human, or another piece of God’s creation. I think we have the ability to see that it is better for us not to sin, and I honestly think God prefers us to think about why we are doing a thing vs. just doing it OR ELSE.

Another way of looking at this might be to consider what it would look like it we did assume all God’s rules were arbitrary and to be followed without question just because God said so. I read a news story about a man who was drenched by water after being swept away in flooding during Superstorm Sandy. He took refuge in a nearby (evacuated) house. To gain entry he broke in. Once inside he left a note explaining that he took only blankets, was suffering hypothermia, and feared death. In the strictest sense, this man destroyed property and stole. Would this be considered a sin? If obedience to the rules is our means of determining rightness vs sinfulness, I think we have to say yes, this man did sin. I am not comfortable with that and I don’t think I’m alone in my assessment. I contend that when we excuse this behavior we are using our understanding of the reasons not to sin rather than simply seeing sin in terms of obedience to God’s instructions. I’m really on-board with the idea that God gave us brains so we could think, and I’m a fan of doing that. In the end, I just don’t think we avoid sin to please God. I think we avoid sin because it makes things more awesome for everyone and that just makes sense.

Getting the most out of church service- take note(s)

So I realized that I’ve been sitting on something really valuable that I ought to share with my readership. Maybe this is obvious, but I’m going to talk about it anyway. I have gotten way, way better at absorbing the actual content of church sermons since I started taking notes. Things just sink in better if I write them down. The Catholic churches I was brought up in were formal to the point of assuming the ‘tweens and older would sit respectfully still during mass. Babies crying were expected to be rushed out into a hall or nearby room to minimize noise disruptions. This lent an air of not wanting to appear distracted. As such I never felt comfortable taking notes. With the advent of my project I became an observer. It freed me to be able to do things like dress in jeans, leave early, or take notes during a sermon. This has shown itself to be something of an unexpected perk. Because of this project I’m accumulating a much higher volume of information on religious topics. This comes not just from the sermon content but from the readings of scripture and even the songs we sing. There are so many things to notice. And I can write most of them down in my hard copy journal. I’m sure there are others out there not doing this who could benefit from note-taking. We do go to church to learn about God, don’t we? We shouldn’t feel weird about treating the sermons as lessons with the pastor or deacon as the teacher.

Which Christianity?

There is something that’s really beginning to bug me about some Christians. Namely the conflation of all types and flavors of Christianity as the same thing. I will eventually be reviewing a book that has been tending strongly towards this. Speaking broadly, all Christians only have one common feature: they all feel they are following Christ. Traditionally, most Christians have a number of other beliefs in common perhaps best demonstrated by the Nicean Creed. There are various iterations of this creed. Here is one I found from an Episcopal source:

We believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty, maker of heaven and earth,
of all that is, seen and unseen.

We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ,
the only Son of God,
eternally begotten of the Father,
God from God, Light from Light,
true God from true God,
begotten, not made,
of one Being with the Father.
Through him all things were made.
For us and for our salvation
he came down from heaven:
by the power of the Holy Spirit
he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary,
and was made man.
For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate;
he suffered death and was buried.
On the third day he rose again
in accordance with the Scriptures;
he ascended into heaven
and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead,
and his kingdom will have no end.

We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life,
who proceeds from the Father and the Son.
With the Father and the Son he is worshiped and glorified.
He has spoken through the Prophets.
We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church.
We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.
We look for the resurrection of the dead,
and the life of the world to come. Amen.

Many churches use this or a variant of this to describe their beliefs. So all Christians are the same then, right? Sorry, no. Christianity extends beyond just these core beliefs. Take it from someone who’s seen 50+ churches- all the Christianites differ in ways that range from slight to major. Sometimes these additional beliefs remain unspoken, sometimes they are incorporated in the service each week. It’s been my experience that churches and denominations each have their own take on topics like; gay marriage, conversion and outreach, gender roles, environmentalism, the end times, prayer and more I haven’t encountered (or am forgetting). In short, although each church may have a very similar creed, they all have other beliefs too that differ from each other. What’s more, they all claim those other beliefs flow from their Christianity just as much as the creed does.

Because of these many differences, it is silly to make declarative statements like “Christianity promotes peace.” Which Christianity? Whose Christianity? Is that really Christianity’s focus as a whole? Is there anything that can be said to be Christianity’s focus as a whole? Even conversion to Christianity is not a focus for certain groups (in say, the Catholic Church for example). I contend that there is very little (if anything) that can be said of Chistianity as a whole. Anyone saying otherwise is either lying, being vague, or deceiving themselves.

Same-sex attraction- Catholic edition

I want to talk once again about the Catholic Church’s view on same-sex attraction. This is their terminology. In some of the literature they do not seem to recognize the term gay because it implies legitimacy. The idea here (which I don’t agree with) is attraction to your own gender is harmful because sex with your own gender is a sin.* The solution offered is a chaste lifestyle. I am thinking about all this because posted in this Sunday’s bulletin is a spot which reads as follows:

COURAGE: A support group for person(s) with same-sex attraction striving to follow the teaching of the Church, and EnCourage for parents & families of loved ones with same-sex attraction. For confidential inquiries, phone XXX XXXX

I didn’t include the phone number. You can easily find a public website describing the principles of Courage, but you don’t have to since I did it for you.
Courage

As I’ve stated before I do not hold with the idea that sex between same gender is sinful. Still what Courage is trying to do isn’t all bad. The idea seems to be for the individual ‘struggling’ to fill his or her life up with so much spirituality and so many good works, so as to push out all the sexuality. There are monks and nuns who manage to achieve this, assuming they weren’t simply asexual to begin with. Take a look at the five goals of Courage:

To live chaste lives in accordance with the Roman Catholic Church’s teaching on homosexuality. ( Chastity )

To dedicate our entire lives to Christ through service to others, spiritual reading, prayer, meditation, individual spiritual direction, frequent attendance at Mass, and the frequent reception of the sacraments of Reconciliation and Holy Eucharist. (Prayer and Dedication)

To foster a spirit of fellowship in which we may share with one another our thoughts and experiences, and so ensure that no one will have to face the problems of homosexuality alone. (Fellowship)

To be mindful of the truth that chaste friendships are not only possible but necessary in a chaste Christian life; and to encourage one another in forming and sustaining these friendships. (Support)

To live lives that may serve as good examples to others. (Good Example/Role Model)

I have no problem at all with goals 2, 4, and 5. Even the ideas of chastity and fellowship do not bother me. It’s this one-size-fits-all approach that I don’t like. It’s unhealthy to force someone into a mold that doesn’t fit them. Admittedly I don’t know everything about human sexuality, but I think individuals should get to make their own choices about sexual activities within the context of safety and consent. People with opposite-sex attraction can decide to be chaste or not as they please. It really seems hugely unfair to insist upon chastity for anyone with same-sex attraction, because what- otherwise they might find someone else with same-sex attraction to have a relationship with? I really don’t see that as a problem.

To the Catholic a Church’s credit, they seem to allow a separation between thoughts that come to us unbidden and thoughts we actively embrace and seek after. (And I’m talking about thoughts in general now.) This has benefits over churches with more evangelical leanings for two reasons. First it dispenses with the devil-blaming which, as far as I can tell, does nothing productive and can often lead those actually harming others to claim it’s really the devil’s fault. Second, it allows adherents to Catholicism to excuse themselves for problematic thoughts that they do not intend to carry out. For example: I may be super pissed off at my sister and imagine myself striking her. After the thought occurs to me I immediately decide this is a bad idea that I’d never really do and also don’t want to do. I find this type of of mini-conversation perfectly healthy- much better than becoming guilt-ridden over each small stray thought that may be negative.

I guess I’m saying the Catholic Church takes a more nuanced approach than I was expecting, but there are still problems.

*Yes, I’m conflating ‘sex’ and ‘gender’ a bit to make the sentences more readable. Apologies.

Reasons not to sin

So if you remember, one of the things I complained about White Couch was the idea that sin makes Jesus sad. I’m seeing a really interesting parallel point in the recent Christianity Today debacle. So, to give a long story a brief treatment, Christianity Today ran a story last week about a youth pastor who sexually abused a youth under his leadership. Many people complained (rightly) that the article was incredibly problematic, riddled with language that seemed to remove the abuser from responsibility and make the focus all about how terrible the sin had made his life. After much uproar the article was (again rightly) taken down.

I think there is something really interesting going on here and it has to do with how different Christians and Christian groups view sin. I generally equate ‘sin’ with ‘wrong’. I see sin as the harmful things humans do. I’ve really been wondering lately if that’s backwards from the rest of Christianity. There have been more than a few sermons and books and blog posts that suggest sin is more like breaking a contract you made with God. This would mean the only problem with sinning is that it violates the promise you made. In my view of sin, I’m concerned with who or what is being hurt. In this alternate view of sin there is no need to be concerned with anything outside the sinner and God. I think that’s a problem. And I think that exact problem is why Christianity Today could run an article and not be aware of its offensiveness.

The way I see it, sin as “hurtful to God” or “makes Jesus sad” -is incomplete. If Christians stop there, it misses the impact sin has on others and the world. As Christians we need to not be missing that. I’m not even sure how asking God to forgive our sins can ever be complete if we ignore the harm our sins do outside of ourselves. Sin should never be just about God’s disappointment with us. For me Christianity has always been about paying attention to others. The impact we have on others needs to be a part of the conversation when we discuss sin. Period.