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.


  1. A very moving post, Sammy. And I totally agree: "People often act like the God they believe in." I have a different solution. I think that universal recognition of the common humanity of all of us, recognizing the basic equal standing in nature we all have as humans, would render inhumanity unacceptable. We don't know anything about a supernatural God, but it is undeniable that humans exist and we are they.

  2. Hi Sammy, that is such an awful story. The stereotype of a gay drug addict dying of aids (most gay men I know are neither drug addicts nor engage in unsafe promiscuous sex) and the seeming concern of the parents masks the fact that the parent/child relationship was so bad the son preferred to cut off all contact rather than try to tell his parents he was gay. While I tend towards universalism myself, and don't think the Bible's condemnation of homesexuality is particularly strong or clear, you don't need to hold either of these views to do better than this. For instance, you could understand that God's grace is greater than any sin, no matter how bad, and that Christians are called to love all people whatever their crimes. Or the parents could reflect on jesus advice to take the log from your own eye (often interpreted as self-righteousness) before they try to take the speck from their son's. Or perhaps a simple sense of persepctive would do the trick. On a scale of evil from one to ten, where committing mass acts of terrorism is ten and (for arguments sake) sexual abuse of children by clergy or teachers is nine, being gay would be what?

  3. Wow. I don't know how I came across this blog, but it is incredible! Oh, yes, that's right--I googled the latin word for an all-loving God, and got one of your blogs with "omnibeneficial" defined. Thank you for your refreshing and thought-provoking musings, Sammy. I will be following this one from now on.
    This particular blog caught my attention, because I have been that parent. None of my children are gay (that I know of) but it isn't homosexuality at issue here. It's the sin concept, the judgementalism, the condemnation, and the tendency we all seem to have of limiting and labeling and boxing up God to suit our own subconscious agenda. The older I get, the clearer I see this in my self and the dear bretheren in my church family. Don't get me wrong--I think "religion" can serve a very healthy purpose, but in reality, we are each a tiny church unto ourselves, and that is the primordial material God works with. Communally, we try to find ways of making our own individual concept and relationship with God work harmoniously with the rest of humanity--makes me laugh sometimes, the comic results--makes me wee pmore often, the tragic and sometimes terroristic results. All of humanity is a work in progress, and each one of us is the tiny part of the whole.
    Going back to your story, I see God at work in these paretns--the son died with some peace of mind, and god used the very methods that caused so much pain and damage in his life to help bring him relief and healing from the self loathing religion had inflicted on him, and he could die at peace. And when he opened his spiritual eyes after he breathed his last, can you honestly conceive of a God who wouldn't embrace this dear child, regardless of whether he had prayed the sinner's prayer or not? That kind of God is just oo much like the rest of us, quick to condemn and destroy. I can't honestly carry a concept of this kind of God--I've experienced the love He??She??It?? has for me, and there is a universality to it that boggles the imagination. If God created all of us because He loved the idea of each one so much He was compelled to give expression to it by creating us, how could He create the majority of humanity to be out of compliance with the ideas of the rest, and therefore created just to be destroyed? This is the logical conclusion of the many doctrinal strictures thrown around by most organized religions, and I just don't buy it. Can't. My experience of God throughout my life has proven to be that God is nothing like this. Just sayin'! Thank you for posting this discussion. It's a pleasure.

  4. @Anonymous- Thank you very much for the comment. It meant a lot to me. I'm very glad you like the blog.

    I did not initially see this story through the lens of God working through the parents in order to bring the son peace before he died, probably because of how angry I was after I read it, but now that I think about it, I quite agree.

    I also cannot conceive of a God that would reject any of His children, no matter what their "sins" might have been in life (not that homosexuality is a sin). The God I believed in as a child reminded me of my step-dad: angry, judgmental, and often cruel. And, like my step-dad, I was terrified of Him. But the God I have come to know as an adult is one of Love beyond comprehension and imagination. The God I know would have never created a single individual, let alone a majority of humanity, solely to reject, torture, and/or destroy that person. That's like defining a good mother as one who has ten children, but disowns, abuses, and kills nine of them because they didn't choose the right religion or didn't live perfectly by an impossible (and irrational) code of morality.

    Much of organized religion is built around the principle that God will only accept a certain subset of humanity. You must either believe something and/or do something extremely specific or else God will reject, torture, and/or kill you forever. Yet, at the same time, some of these religions claim that this same God is all-loving and all-forgiving. Can you say cognitive dissonance?

    I can't buy it either. While I believe that religion can be used for good, I think that too often it is used to exclude and abuse. I cannot be a part of it, especially Christianity.

    Like you, the God I have come to know is the polar opposite of the God I learned about in church as a child. The God I know will never give up on and/or abandon any of His children; He will wait for all eternity if He has too. The God I know is absolute and unconditional acceptance, forgiveness, and love.

  5. Love that one sentence--says it so perfectly! "Can you say cognitive dissonance?" Yes indeed--some of the craziness we try to foist off on one another in the name of religion is predominantly cognitively dissonant!
    Strangely enough, the God of my understanding has led me to "bloom where I am planted". That spiritual place is my home church; while I am not always in full accord with everything I see and hear, I can always recognize that it is being filtered through another human being, who is just as confused as I am at times. I like the idea we share that this God is unconditionally loving. It has been my experience through life. There are some other things I have seen in my spiritual journey: Even the most horrendous things can be fertilizer for immense growth and expansion of conscious contact with God. All my relationships smack of God--because God is present in all His (for lack of a more accurate personal term)in all His children, and teaches us about himself through them as well as through the natural world we see around us. I am in awe and joyful wonder most of the time, finding myself very grateful for the circumstances of this life--finding your blog seems to be one of those. Blessings.

  6. It's interesting how the story validates a judgmental attitude towards homosexuality. After all, the son needs to be forgiven for it.