CC image courtesy of Flickr, Ryan Hyde.
Kathryn Elizabeth blogs at The Life and Opinions of Kathryn Elizabeth, Person.
I don’t have a single lightbulb moment, my views gradually changed over time as I read and paid attention to the world around me. Although they certainly wouldn’t agree with all of the conclusions I’ve reached, I have to give part of the credit for my belief system to my professors at Covenant College, who taught me to question and who emphasized the importance of doing justice and loving mercy to thinking Christianly about the world. There are two moments in my life, however, that stick in my head as sign posts, moments, coincidentally, that have converged again over these last weeks with the renewed confederate flag debate and the marriage equality ruling.
The first sign post memory was the debate over the old Georgia state flag—the banner that flew as a memorial to the confederacy and an emblem of Georgia’s fight against integration and civil rights. Growing up as I did in the part of Florida that’s more north than south, and so attending college in north Georgia during that time was a real eye-opener to me.
I couldn’t understand why the topic was so hotly debated in campus discussion boards at my Christian college and why so many Christians were turning a blind eye to the messages this symbol of bigotry and discrimination was sending to our African American brothers and sisters.
Watching the Georgia Republican party line up and support the confederate flag was the first time I realized that whatever political affiliation I might have at home in Florida, I couldn’t justify registering as one if I stayed in Georgia. That’s when I started questioning my political affiliations and whether the accusations of racism levied against the party were correct, because here was this issue that seemed like a no-brainer, and yet here these people who were part of the same party lining up to support something so noxious.
To make matters worse, the state representative from my district in Georgia, Rep. Brian Joyce, was a member of the PCA church down the road from Covenant, the church just before the point that African American students were warned not to venture beyond, for their own safety. Brian Joyce, the good Christian PCA member, who was supposed to have all of the right doctrine, was busy pandering to his district in support of the flag, going on about heritage not hate in a district that everyone knew was overrun with the Klan. There was no way you could pretend it wasn’t anything other than a heritage of hate in Dade County, GA, and yet here was this supposedly godly man insisting just that. Whether because of political expedience or because he was part of the racist streak that still hasn’t been fully rooted out of the PCA, that episode cost me respect both for him and the church leaders who should have stopped it and didn’t.
Any idealism I still had left was gone by the time the flag fight was over.
My second signpost memory comes from my time working in Vietnam. By that point my politics had shifted more, and I was supporting Barack Obama in the 2008 presidential race. As an aside, there are few moments in my life more surreal than teaching my classroom full of foreign relations students that morning the election results were announced. Anyway, like a lot of other Americans, my elation at President Obama’s election was tempered both by California passing Prop 8 and my home state of Florida passing a similar constitutional ban on same-sex marriage.
That made the email the pastor of the international church in Hanoi sent out to the entire congregation a few weeks after the inauguration all the more frustrating. In the email the pastor, a Chinese-South African gentleman—or in other words, not an American—told the congregation that we needed to pray for the coming persecution of American Christians, and be prepared to take in Americans fleeing the inevitable crackdown lest they be thrown into camps. The evidence of this coming persecution that would be so bad Christian Americans would have to flee to whatever places in the developing world would take them? Barack Obama’s election and the backlash against Prop 8.
That email broke something in me.
There I was, halfway around the world, in a country whose relationship with non-Catholic Christians was rocky, to say the least, where I was supposed to be thankful that I even had a church to worship in. Here the pastor was proclaiming that the president I campaigned for and the backlash to the ballot measure I opposed were proof that my homeland was going to start persecuting me. No sense of proportionality whatsoever.
I’d expected the American religious right to flip out, but I didn’t expect a message like that to be sent to a congregation filled with people from around the globe. Not when many of them were from countries where Christians really do face government persecution. I certainly didn’t expect it from a pastor who had spoken about his church bravely standing up against the Apartheid South African government. How are people getting angry about their rights being voted away and picketing corporations that funded the measure even in the same ballpark as Apartheid or actual persecution of Christians?
And yet somehow, the American religious right managed to export their paranoia about non-existent persecution to Christians halfway around the world.
I suppose the moral of this story is that everyone is good for something, even a bad example, and both the fight to keep the confederate flag and the imagined persecution over an election are examples of a Christianity so myopically focused on narrow political debates that it misses the big picture. If your version of Christianity leaves nothing but distasteful memories of racial division or persecution fantasies, is it really God who you’re honoring or is it yourself and your own worst impulses?