Note: The following essay was intended as a commentary for my student anthropology class and makes reference to the documentary film The New Black: LGBT Rights and African American Communities & a locally progressive church called Neighborhood Church. I share no affiliation with either source and share these words because I found them to offer a unique perspective to my Christian faith in a world of other religions and philosophies.
I was baptized in a Presbyterian Church after my father who was baptized in a similar church thirty years prior. His church was in the heart of the south, Montgomery, Alabama. After college my father moved to Atlanta where he and my mother joined a new Presbyterian congregation, the metropolitan equivalence of their former Alabamian ministry.
Just last weekend I was sojourning at grandma’s for Valentine’s, and we visited my father’s former church for a customary Sunday service. Grandpa noted the dwindling numbers of “old-croakers,” as he referenced the ever-aging congregation. Grandpa is a faithful atheist who enjoys telling stories of the many fissures of his church. “In the sixties,” he’ll say, “the church split over blacks.” Then he’ll pause to look for offended bystanders. When he finds one, he continues twice as loud, “. . . and then in the nineties the church split again over gay marriage because a Presbyterian minister in Tennessee supported it.” Today there’s nothing left but the remains of two fledgling churches that never learned to fly. Controversy always follows my grandfather’s opinions, and so there you’ll find me too, listening and laughing. Meanwhile, grandma remains optimistically Christian because the fables of the bible portray positive morality. Between the three of us, you can find grandpa and me giggling at the heresy within the sermon, while grandma sings in a shrill falsetto higher than God Himself.
Church is really no laughing matter, though. Jesus is life. It just so happened, the name of this Sunday’s service was Choose Life (queue my rolling eyes). An elder, white man rose from the first pew and nearly tumbled his way to the altar. There was a jeweled-signet of Christ pinned to the man’s left lapel. Then there was a clearing of catarrh in the man’s throat followed by the reading of the day’s scripture from Matthew 5:27–29,
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell.”
Grandpa and I were left smirking among the many others who were left discerning, dismissing, piecemealing, or whatever else dutiful Christians do in the presence of their judgement. Because that’s what the above excerpt is. It’s judgement. And the ultimate judgement is to be condemned to eternal hellfire. There’s a lot, if not too much, to be said of religion, its veracity, morality, sensibility, and even heresy. Presenting an idea opposite to one’s faith is near futility. A faith is a sort of blinding, and even that is a slant easily dismissed by those implicated, hence the blinding. For this reason I shall not intend to convince or argue in favor of a mere commentary.
I’ve found religion to be sin, and sin to be suffering. Religion propagates itself in the same way a parasite or charlatan feeds on the weakness of its host for survival, proposing remedies to cure its own misdealings, which, of course, furthers the need for remedy and proves an inescapable feedback. I’ve not known a single Christian to find peace without requiring salvation or salvation’s prospect, nor known a Christian who doesn’t require the help of the church and God for personal equanimity. It seems a contradiction, but does the Christian ever consider their ability to act like Jesus without requiring Jesus’ help? Or does the bible exhaust its message that humans are broken people who require the aid of God to do God’s work? Christianity, among many other religions, asks its followers to believe in their flaws and to lean on their faith as a kind of external lifeline and eternal nurse to guarantee a forever dependent and longing nation. To save yourself is seen to Christians as profane or sacrilegious because this contradicts the belief that only God can save. Yet, here are churches like Neighborhood Church, and politicians and community leaders like those in The New Black who’ve decided for themselves to save themselves.
Religion does not need to save you, nor must you require religion to be saved. In 2013, when Christian churches vehemently opposed gay marriage — as their bible emphatically says they should — the people took it upon themselves to solve their dilemmas without the church. My favorite line in A New Black comes when Ben Jealous, the former president of NAACP, says, “We at the NAACP . . . will not tolerate discrimination, in any form: as a race, as a gender, as a sexual orientation. Two people love each other. The state has no right, getting in the way (Richen, Welbon, & Tucker, 2013, 0:43:38).” The founding fathers of America wanted a separation of church and state. So too did Jesus when he said in Matthew 12:17, “Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s,” responding to the Pharisees asking if Christians should respect the image of Caesar on their goods and coins.
We’re a modern people, now. We no longer require fabricated cosmologies, prophets, and dogma to define and enlighten our ignorance. We have science, and math, and instantaneous access to every mind on the planet. Though centuries of religious philosophy may do well to inform our daily practices, we now share the perspective of a global community and should feel remiss to discount foreign practices in favor of a singular faith. Today churches like Neighborhood Church follow a core theology, and follow religious scripture as metaphor, versus an alternatively fixed and invariable doctrine. Neighborhood Church intends to survive so they can continue to do good and be a resource for their world. Modernity is slowly out-witting prejudice, condemnation, and fear, and if religion is to have a future it best consider these new modern values and relinquish its own prejudices, judgements, and fears. Else, religion hasn’t a prayer.
Richen, Y., Welbon Y., & Tucker, A. (Producers), & Richen, Y. (Director). (2013). The New Black: LGBT Rights and African American Communities [Motion Picture]. United States: California Newsreel.
Title Photo by Iwona Pytlowska