Tuesday, May 24, 2011

The Destructiveness of Religious Judgement

Last week, I accompanied my mother to a doctor's appointment. While she was back in the exam room, I hung out in the waiting room. It was a typical doctor's office waiting room and I got bored rather quickly. As I looked around for some magazines to read, a shelf near the check-in counter caught my eye. I walked over and realized it was display of different books you could buy. Most of them were rather small and looked like they had been printed by a local budget publisher. Not poor quality or anything, just plain. These books mainly dealt with medical issues, like healthy meal ideas for diabetics or an exercise guide for people with arthritis. However, on the middle shelf of the display, there was a thin book of inspirational stories.

Just for the record, I usually avoid books like that. While I generally consider myself to be an optimist, I generally find these types of books to be just a little irritating. The stories always seem either too good to be true or totally cheesy and unrealistic. But, since I had nothing better to do, and was suffering from neither diabetes nor arthritis, I grabbed the book (unfortunately, I do not remember the title), opened it to a random story, and began to read. The story I ended up with was about 12 pages long, so I've written out a short synopsis. Before I begin, I want to note that, while the exact Christian denomination the couple in the story belongs too is never disclosed, I think it is safe to assume they were conservative Christians, possibly even fundamentalists. You will see why I believe this as you read my synopsis, but please feel free to disagree with me.
The story begins with a devout Christian couple. This couple had a son who became extremely unhappy and increasingly distant during his teenage years. He rejected his religious upbringing and refused to continue attending church, which greatly upset his parents. As soon as he graduated high school, he left home without reveling where he intended to go.

Over the next few years, they had sparse contact with their son. During his rare phone calls, they attempted to convince their son to come home and return to the church, saying that no matter what his sins were, Jesus would forgive him. Not surprisingly, their son spurned their invitation to return home and declined to give them any information about why he had disappeared or where he was. Soon, the phone calls ceased all together.

Sometime later (I forget exactly how long, but it couldn't have been more than a few years), the phone rang in the middle of the night. It was their son. He confessed to his parents that he was gay and that he was in a hospital in San Francisco, dying of AIDS. He said he wanted to tell them so that they would know what happened to him, but that he did not wish to see them. He had directed the nurses not to allow his parents to enter his room if they appeared at the hospital. He said goodbye and hung up.

Being devout Christians, the parents instantly called their pastor, who agreed to meet them at their church. Once at the church, the parents explained what their son had admitted to them over the phone and asked their pastor what he thought they should do. The pastor told them that they needed to immediately fly out to California and attempt to see their son. He said that their son was still unsaved and that it would be their final chance to preach the Gospel to him and save him from his life of sin.
At this point, I should note that his homosexuality is never explicitly mentioned as being the reason for his "life of sin", but that was the vibe I got from the story. I would not have been surprised if the pastor had interpreted the son's AIDS as a punishment from God for the son's homosexuality.
The parents promptly left for San Francisco, arriving that evening. Once at the hospital, they requested to see their son. A nurse showed them to a waiting area and then departed for the son's room. She returned several minutes later and informed the parents that their son had refused to see them. This news deeply distressed the parents. However, they asked the nurse to tell their son that they would not leave and that if he changed his mind and desired to see them, they would be waiting for him. This entire exchange was overheard by another nurse. She approached the parents and offered to go talk to their son for them. She thought she might be able to convince him to see his parents. Of course the parents were happy to let her try and persuade their son. 

The nurse was gone for quite a while. As the parents waited, they prayed to Jesus for their son's salvation. When the nurse finally reappeared, she told the parents that their son had consented to see them. The parents rapidly made their way to their son's hospital room. When they saw him for the first time in numerous years, they were shocked. He was pale, thin, and appeared incredibly ill. His arms were covered in bruises and needle marks (I believe the point of that observation was to show the reader that the son had been using drugs). Despite this, the parents were overjoyed to be with their son. 
At this point, I would like to note two things. First, while not much is mentioned about the nurse who goes to talk with the son, it is implied that she is a Christian with beliefs similar to those of the parents. Second, I believe the comment about the son's arms was meant to inform the reader that the son was a drug addict, another "sin" on top of his homosexuality. While the bruises and needle marks could have been from medical treatment, the tone of that passage suggested otherwise.
Over the next couple hours, they talked with him. Their son told them that he had left the church because he was gay. He had tried many many times to change, but each time he failed miserably. Because of that, he loathed himself and was tremendously angry at God for creating him this way. He could not go back to the church because he thought Jesus would never accept him, since he had led such a sinful lifestyle.

His mother listened to her son's story with tears running down her cheeks. After he was finished, she told him that it was not too late; Jesus still loved him and would accept him. All he had to do was ask for forgiveness, renounce his former lifestyle, and let Jesus into his heart. Then he could die in peace, knowing he was saved and that he would be granted eternal life in heaven. The son, with his mother's support and encouragement, did just that. He prayed the sinner's prayer and became a Christian in the final hours of his life. He died later that night, happy in the knowledge that he was saved through his faith in Jesus Christ. 
When I finally finished the story, I was in almost a state of shock. This was supposed to be one of those inspirational, feel-good-about-the-world stories. But I didn't feel good at all. Quite the opposite. I felt sick. I felt angry. I wanted to cry. It took every ounce of self-control I had not to chuck the book across the room. My first rational thought was "I hope to God this story isn't true". But I had a nauseating feeling that it was.

Throughout the story, the assumption is that the son was so miserable because he was gay. But I think the real reason he was miserable because he was raised in a religious system which judges homosexuality to be a sin and condemns homosexuals themselves as immoral and depraved. This religious judgement convinced him that God both hated him and was disgusted by him. He was an abomination. Even worse, when he died, God was going to throw him into hell to endure horrendous, conscious torment for all eternity. Of course, if you truly believe that God hates you, you are going to hate yourself. I am sure that is what led to the drug abuse and other problems not mentioned. 

From the story, it is obvious that the parents loved their son very much. I met conservative Christians who, if they found out their son was gay and dying of AIDS, would have just hung up the phone. But these parents did not. They desperately wanted to save their son. Yet they were absolutely clueless it was their own religious beliefs that had done so much damage.

This story breaks my heart so much because those same beliefs, which had produced so much destruction in his life, were being shoved down his throat while he laid on his death bed. What he actually needed to hear was that his homosexuality did not make him evil or wrong, that God loved him completely and unconditionally, and that he had nothing to fear, for God would never abandon him to hell for being gay. Instead, once more he was reminded of how evil and wrong he supposedly was by being told he had to beg God for forgiveness and renounce his former lifestyle in order to be saved. My only hope is that he was able to die peacefully without fear. It was the least he deserved after the hell he lived through on Earth.

This story demonstrates the reason why conservative Christianity's (or any other religion's/denomination's/sect's) beliefs in an eternal hell and an angry, petty, and conditionally loving God makes me so angry and why I am so passionate about universalism and God's unconditional love. Despite the parents best intentions and their substantial love for their son, their conception of God totally destroyed him.

These beliefs must be challenged and changed. Even in the hands of good, loving people, they can cause immense suffering. In the hands of depraved, power-hungry, and manipulative people, they can wreak entire families, tear apart whole communities and utterly devastate an individual's soul. 

People often act like the God they believe in. If their God doesn't love unbelievers and either tortures them forever or annihilates them, why should the believers in that God act any differently? How could it be wrong to harm or kill someone whom God is just going to torment and/or exterminate anyway? Their souls obviously have little value to God, so why should their lives be valuable to other people? But if their God is genuinely a God of unconditional love who will not stop until every single one of His children is saved, everything changes. Suddenly, harming an unbeliever becomes equivalent to harming a believer. Suddenly, life isn't about how many souls you can "save", but about self-sacrifice in service to others. Suddenly, unworthiness and fear are replaced by trust and love. Suddenly, the world becomes a better place for all of us.

Saturday, May 7, 2011


The past month or so I was using Disqus for the comments on my blog. Unfortunately, it was giving me more problems and limitations than benefits. Also, I have gotten some e-mails expressing concern about how Disqus' handles private information. So, I've decided to just revert back to Blogger's built-in comment system.

I was able to import all of the comments submitted to Disqus for this blog in the past month and submit them through Blogger, so no comments were lost. However, I did lose all the date and time information from those comments. So, if you happen to see a comment of yours you wrote a couple of days ago to about a month ago, but it is dated May 7th, don't worry.

I hope this switch does not inconvenience anyone. Please feel free to e-mail me any questions and/or concerns. 

Friday, May 6, 2011

The Death of Osama bin Laden

It's been four days since President Obama announced the death of the most wanted man in the world. Many of the bloggers I follow have already posted their thoughts and feelings. I have delayed discussing Osama bin Laden's death because, honestly, my feelings were extremely mixed. It has taken me several days to sort them out.

My first reaction, upon seeing the headline on the Yahoo homepage about ten minutes after the President's speech (I had been on the phone with my boyfriend, so I missed the live announcement) was shock. After ten long years, I had become skeptical that we would ever find bin Laden. Once the information sunk in though, I was unsure of what to feel.

Part of me wanted to be happy, to celebrate like those gathered outside the White House or at Ground Zero. I was merely 12 on 9/11, a child just out of elementary school. Osama bin Laden took away much of my innocence that day. Before that, major news stories meant little to me, the same as most children. But, even at my age, I knew instantly that 9/11 was different. I knew things would never be the same. For weeks, I watched the news with my parents and saw images of utter destruction and grieving families. Even today, the memory of those images brings up an intense anger at this man.

Osama bin Laden is one of those rare people who go beyond normal "badness". He's not grouped with the everyday bad guys. He's grouped with Hitler, Stalin, Lenin, and Pol Pot. He was a mass murder who spilled the blood of tens of thousands of innocent men, women, and children.

Despite all that, I cannot forgot that Osama bin Laden was also a human being. He was a human being with thoughts and feelings, likes and dislikes, strengths and weaknesses, secrets and regrets, dreams and fears. He was a human being just like I am a human being. Just like you are a human being. I cannot forget this fact because, at the very core of my soul, I know it is wrong to rejoice in the death of another human being. 

In calling myself a universalist, I am saying that I deeply desire the redemption of all human beings and believe that a God who is love will eventually accomplish this task. One of the unexpected side-effects of my "conversion" was that I began to see people in a different light. Growing up in fundamentalist Christianity, I was taught that all people fit into one of two categories: the saved or the damned. The saved are good and the damned are bad. But when you begin to believe that all are saved, you cannot help to begin to see the good in every person.

Universalism has shown me that no person is entirely evil. There is always something worth saving in every soul, so every soul is worth saving. Even Hitler's. And even Osama bin Laden's.

I know there are many out there who would disagree with me. Some might even be disgusted that I would say such things about Hitler and Osama bin Laden, assuming it means that I am not sickened by their acts. Nothing could be further from the truth. I am not trying to white-wash these men and others like them. They are mass murders. But they are also human. They are children of a God who is love. Just like me. Just like you. Just like all of us.

Yes, my feelings are mixed. Part of me still wants to celebrate. I cannot deny that. But that part is small in comparison to the part of me that grieves for a fellow human who became so twisted that he believed God wanted him to kill thousands of innocent people.

Osama bin Laden and those like him are far beyond the help of any other person. But I pray for their souls because I know they are not beyond the help of God. I don't know how long it will take or how it will be done, but I believe, at the very core of my soul, that the God who is love can, and will, save every last one of His children, including Osama bin Laden.