Tuesday, September 9, 2008


"Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world." (James 1:27)

This post is in reaction to a scene I witnessed a couple weeks ago. I was at Berkeley, visiting friends, and on the way to lunch we saw a crowd gathered around two incensed figures. One, a red-faced man who looked to be in his late 50s, was gripping a leather-covered Bible and flourishing it in the air as he spoke. The other, unkempt and quintessentially Berkeley, was wearing a shirt that read "Adults are stupid," though he clearly fell into that very category at least by age. He slumped with his hands in the pockets of his baggy jeans, leering, while the Bible-waver proclaimed The Truth (his terminology, not mine, thank you). The Bible-waver's proclamations included the following: masturbation leads to homosexuality; all gays and masturbators will go to hell; the earth was created in 6 days; Catholics aren't saved because they "aren't born again"; evolution is a fiction; Muslims are going to hell; hell is eternal burning and pain; etc., etc.

It was bad enough hearing him condemn people right and left, and make patently false claims ("masturbation => homosexuality"??), as well as theologically questionable claims ("Hell = literal fire"??), especially as he was waving a Bible. But what truly frustrated me was that he intermingled with his wrathful blather some nuggets of the gospel: We are all condemned to die because of our sins, but God out of his mercy and grace wants to pluck us out of damnation and grant us salvation, and sent his Son to suffer the punishment we deserved. I believe this too, and it is one of my most precious tenets. To hear it lumped in with the garbage this man was spouting was like finding a favorite dress in the box of rags, or my favorite book shelved with a bunch of trashy romances...

The "lumping" of messages resulted partly from their being said all together by one man, and partly from their being received/interpreted as one whole by the crowd of amused and enraged college students surrounding the drama--and by Bible-Waver's opponent, Mr. Unkempt. Mr. Unkempt would interject sexual commentary ("But it's so fun!") or purely obnoxious quips ("The Bible doesn't say anything. The Bible doesn't talk."). When Bible-Waver paused for breath or asked a question, Mr. Unkempt would straighten up, pull out his hands, and direct his response to the surrounding students. He used a variety of rhetorical strategies, actually: accusing Bible-Waver of being proven wrong by science, promoting the "fun" of "jerking off" &c., attacking the Bible itself ("The big shots at Constantinople just picked the books that they liked."), mocking the views the other man expressed, mocking the man himself ("He is so red in the face. I don't know how he does it. Is my face getting red yet?").

Watching this shouting and insult-trading, I couldn't help voicing out some of the things running through my mind. "What about 'speaking the truth in love'?" about all Bible Waver's condemnations. "What about the unity of the body of Christ?" about his reviling of Catholics. "The Bible doesn't mention the word masturbation" to his insistence on that topic. I really wanted to ask him what on earth he thinks he can accomplish by showing up on one of the nation's most liberal campuses and telling people they are going to hell. Honestly, whose heart was ever changed by such a circus act? He didn't understand that the students around him were not hearing his message, only his anger, and that they weren't even taking that seriously. I wanted to tell him to go read the Gospels again, to look at how Jesus dealt with the woman caught in adultery, the despised tax-collectors, the Samaritan at the well. Jesus acted with power, with authority, yes, but with love and gentleness. Religion that God accepts as pure is . . . I want him to go read Isaiah, Jeremiah, their scathing rebukes of the merely religious, whose hearts were not set on God. Love, for the day is near. . .

Of course, Mr. Unkempt frustrated me, too, mainly because everyone agreed with him. But he wasn't claiming to represent anyone besides himself, whereas, to my mind, Bible-Waver was claiming to represent Christ himself, and failing miserable. I was embarrassed to be associated with him, and furious.

But what does that fury make me? A hypocrite. I'd like to think I do a lot better than Bible-Waver, but in the scheme of things, I really can't judge that. God being infinitely good, anything imperfect is so much less, so bad, relative to him, that all comparisons here pale. What does it say about me that my immediate response to this man who is supposed to be my brother in Christ was not to pray for him, but to condemn him in my mind? not to point out where he was right, but to distance myself from him in my friends' eyes? not to see him with God's eyes of mercy, but to be repulsed by him? (Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner. Lord, have mercy on him, a sinner.)

I'm not saying, however, that I was wrong to be deeply frustrated by this encounter. I hate that God gets misrepresented. I wish more Christians knew James 1:27, and acted like it. If they did, I bet a lot fewer Berkeley students would support Mr. Unkempt. We are called to be a revolution in the world, and instead we are waving signs and shouting at drug addicts. (Lord, have mercy on your broken people.)

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