There was a time when popular Christian voices in our country used the Bible to justify and defend the practice of slavery?
There was a time when many Bible-believing people used piles of Scripture verses to teach the "Biblical principle" of a woman being her husband's property - to defend a man's right to rule, to rape, to retain total control over every aspect of his wife's life?
There was a time, not so long ago, when Christians declared God was on their side in their fight to retain racial segregation in our country?
I didn't know. Not really.
That still, today, Christians invoke the name of God in defense of silencing women from taking on leadership roles, in support of one political candidate over another, in wars and in prayers to find a good parking spot at the mall.
In my own journey of finding a place to breathe and belong within Christianity - very much an ongoing process - this news is both a welcomed relief and a terrible source of grief. On the one hand, it would be comforting to find that these voices were not the majority, or that we could somehow explain away these beliefs and actions with labels like "nominal" or "fanatical." It would be comforting to tell ourselves that these were not real Christians, not people with vibrant, personal relationships with Jesus, not people that attended church regularly or read their Bible daily - not, in other words, the type of Christians many of us presume to be. It would ease some of the grief and discomfort from reading these facts, but it would not be the truth.
The truth is, these were "real" Christians, regular church attenders, the preachers and teachers and leaders of their days. These were people that took their Bibles very seriously, that devoted their lives to teaching others what they understood its message to be. These were believers so convinced of their right-ness, so full of certainty in their truth, that they stood firmly in their message despite opposition. These were the ones many of us would call "sold out" or "on fire" today.
And this is a relief. It's a welcomed relief, in fact, because it reminds me that no one human, no one group, no one church movement has ever had the market on Truth. It reminds me that the Divine has always been a little too confined by strict dogmas and a little too misunderstood by well-meaning people with all the right answers. It reminds me that God is always at work and always doing a new thing, despite our best intentions to keep him locked in a box, acting just the way our doctrinal statements tell him to.
Maybe your own heart is mingled with relief and grief when you read these things. Maybe you, too, have needed something firm to plant your disappointment with today's church in. Maybe you've needed the reminder that God has always been at work, but not always where we expected to find it. Maybe you needed a little nudge to look up from all the answers, and see something Bigger at hand.
Here's how I see it: If we allow our hearts enough space to look honestly into our history, it is hard not to sit down with a great sigh of humility. It is hard not to look at these brothers and sisters from centuries past with a sense of bewilderment, even a sense of shame. And it is hard, in light of all this, not to take a humble step back and reevaluate our own moral certainties. To at least give ourselves enough space to say: There could be more than what I now see or know. To allow ourselves the freedom to let go of our reigns of certainty and control, and to see with humility the evolution of human consciousness that continues to alter what we label as "right" or "wrong."
Because the truth is, what was once so obviously right to many Christians just decades ago, can today be seen as clear moral wrongs. This is not relativism, it is not an "anything goes" license - this is human growth. This is the reality of the learning curve we are all on, and we would do well to humbly admit our place on it.
Author Matthew Paul Turner puts it this way, "And while a Bible-sized God is easy to fit inside purses or tuck beneath armpits, it can also make human relationships with others more difficult, turn regular Joes into pontificating biblical elitists, and make everyday normal molehills into mountains of biblical proportions. Bible-sized God offers people “holy” excuses to rage against other groups. Throughout our Christianish history, Americans have used scripture to marginalize, manipulate, violate, excuse, and disregard other people."
So what do we do with this? Here is what this history means to me: That it's time we look up and see that there is a bigger picture constantly unfolding before us. That we recognize that there came a point when someone laid down their reigns of certainty and control, and looked beyond the assumed beliefs of their day. That there came a point when brave dissenters caught sight of a whole new beautiful, broken world and fought - often with their very lives - to bring that new world into existence, a world we greatly benefit from today. That there came a point when devout believers realized that God was not just alive in an ancient text re-interpreted for them dozens of times over, but that He was alive and act in their very beings, right here, right now.
When I read this history, I have to ask: Could it be that in five years or fifty, we will look at our own lists of "right" and "wrong" and realize we had a few things mislabeled? Could it be that we will see the church's treatment of gays and lesbians with the same sense of bewilderment and grief that today we see racial segregation?
Or could it be that, in our own lives, we will look back and realize that we have cherry-picked verses and overlooked historical context, using Scripture to label and to lecture, rather than to love? Could it be that many of us are in great need of laying down our hefty handfuls of "right" and "wrong," and instead, reaching out a hand and asking our neighbors, "Will you tell me your story?"
Historical background and inspiration for this piece came from Matthew Paul Turner's book, Our Great Big American God.
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