Photo credit: Colin Hattersley
(This post was inspired by the movie Hacksaw Ridge and by some of my favorite colleagues.)
In preparation for the Oscars, I watched every nominated movie I could get my hands on. My favorite of the season was a movie I didn’t expect to love, Hacksaw Ridge. It’s the true story of young man, a Seventh Day Adventist, during WWII, whose religion prevents him from serving in the military in the traditional way. He would not kill another human being, but he also felt a sense of patriotism and wanted to serve his country like his friends and his brother, so he decided to serve as a medic. In his words, “While everybody is taking life I’m going to be saving it." He acted in accordance to his true beliefs, which I’m afraid has become a rarity in this age of politics and the “us vs. them” mentality.
When I reflect on where I was thirteen years ago, I can hardly believe how much I've changed. Thirteen years ago, I was ALL IN – I was total Christian goodness. I went to a Calvary Chapel. I only listened to contemporary Christian music. I drove for miles to see the people who sang about what I believed in. Shaun Groves, Ginny Owens and MercyMe were my people. My 13-year-old daughter and her friends crowd-surfed at Lifefest and went to SuperChick concerts. I raised my hands in church because I felt IT. I taught my children that Jesus was the only way.
But the whole time, my daughter thought she was going to hell. I didn’t know it until she came out to me in her sophomore year of high school. We had been in the church since she was in first or second grade. Things changed a bit when she was in eighth grade, and we moved from Wisconsin to Louisiana. There, we made the switch from a non-denominational “Bible church” to a Methodist church, because that was where I worked. This church was a little more relaxed and less judgmental. They didn’t actively preach against homosexuality and Catholicism like our previous church. Bit by bit, we were moving away from our ultra-religious lifestyle.
A year and another move later, we stopped attending church entirely, because I hadn’t found a church I felt comfortable in. At this point, I was listening to mainstream music and making progressive friends. Church didn’t seem as important to me. My old church home would have said I had “backslid.” But I feel like that was the one of the reasons my daughter felt she could come out to me and show me her true self.
My daughter is a lesbian. And what we had learned in her first home church was that gay people should deny that part of themselves and be, essentially, alone. Alone with Christian friends who will support them in their “walk,” but who won’t be there for them in the lonely times. Christian friends can have a spouse, who is a best friend and a lover. They can adhere to the teachings of the church while still being true to themselves – a luxury not afforded to gay people.
Thus began my process of questioning. Questioning how people who claimed to love and not judge were against gay marriage. And on a larger level, I questioned how a God who loved us could let so many terrible things happen in the world. I struggled with what I used to believe and what I was seeing on the news each night.
The shooting at Sandy Hook was the second turning point in my evolution from devoted, unquestioning Christian to agnostic. I found out about the tragedy while at work, and I refreshed my browser again and again to get the latest news. My heart was broken. I felt despair. I thought I might not be able to get through the day. Would a God who loved us let that happen? Would He let children and parents and communities suffer if he could prevent it? I know these types of atrocities happen all over the world every day, but when it happens in your own backyard, it becomes more real. After Sandy Hook, I basically gave up on the concept of God I had once been so committed to. I felt sorry for the people who followed Him so blindly. I still – and I think I forever will – struggle with what I believe in terms of God.
I have Christian family and friends whom I love dearly, who have only shown my daughter and my family love and acceptance. But after the election of Donald Trump, I was angry at every single one them who voted for this man. I see him as the opposite of everything I value and a complete contradiction to the Word of God. I see their vote as a slap in the face to my daughter’s very existence and to her pursuit of happiness. The “On my way back to the White House” meme with Jesus carrying his luggage that family and friends posted on Facebook made me furious. Is this what Christianity represents? I wondered. A bully? A man who is proud to have sexually assaulted women? A man who has no empathy for the sick and the poor? I spent enough time in the church to know that this is not what Jesus taught.
My daughter is not the only person in my life who this administration threatens. My work and my life have given me friends and colleagues who have a huge stake in the policies of this country, like immigrants, people of color, people who don’t have access to adequate healthcare, and people in higher education. My relationships with my Christian family and friends have been mostly digital in the past few years. Facebook is really our only form of contact, and I although have appreciated the connection, even before the election, my Facebook “friends” have grown fewer and fewer. Some I have unfollowed because I don’t want to hate them for the racist or homophobic memes they share, and some I have simply unfriended because the relationship isn’t important enough to me to salvage.
I started working in higher education at a transformative time in my life, when I was questioning my politics and my religious values. Luckily, I have the privilege of working at a state university in a very red state, which forces me to work with people from all kinds of backgrounds – from liberal to very conservative. Since the election of Donald Trump, I have seen at my university not only the typical liberal reaction, but also the reaction of my Christian colleagues. Some of these people are as angry as I am at the state of this country under the Trump Administration. They see immigrants and international students as real people, with families and goals – people who are trying to better themselves and who should be welcomed into our country. They believe that women should be treated and PAID equally, not harassed and degraded. They know that faiths other than Christianity have a true and loving God, they believe in the rights of our LGBTQ brothers and sisters, they value lives over gun rights, and they love GOD over COUNTRY.
My progressive Christian colleagues have given me a look into Christianity that I never had before and have shown me the true spirit of Jesus. They have shown me, by their words and actions, that I shouldn’t be angry at all Christians. That Christianity CAN be non-judgmental, loving and kind. That Christian people CAN be progressive and accepting, and not just tolerant of people of all faiths, cultures, beliefs, and sexual orientations.
Everyone takes what they want from the Bible. They take the verses that fit their beliefs and use them to guide their values. In my opinion, the people who take and use the verses of love should be the face of Christianity. My hope is that these people have the courage to step forward, to deny the judgmental, fire and brimstone version of Christianity and show the world that Christianity is love. If I had had those kinds of people in my life when I was questioning my faith, I may have never turned away from God.
In the end, I am thankful for it all – for my religious background, my onetime devotion, my eventual change of heart. I’m thankful for my daughter. And I’m thankful for the diverse culture of higher education. My colleagues are curious and thoughtful. They look at the world as a place of love and inclusion. Without even trying, they have opened my eyes to the true value of faith. And I want to thank them for that.