by Dave B
Elephantitis is a description of how I learned that Christianity does not mean Republican
|“Bob Dole is just more Christian than Bill Clinton,” the 12-year old me said glibly in the pre-election dry-heaving that comes before the vomiting that is national elections. The year is 1996.
I stood resolutely near the blue faux-marble countertops within my church narthex, a small room that was not nearly large enough for the over 400 members that squeezed by into the vacuous sanctuary. On the countertops laid all the obligatory evangelical literature: poorly produced tracts (I like to call these “de-tracts,” because honestly, they do more harm than good, using the vinegar of an eternity in hell to draw people closer to the love of Jesus. You got me started, you shouldn’t have done that this early), a smattering of Christian magazines, and a “voter’s guide” that went through each electoral race and compared each candidate’s views on “Christian” issues (read abortion and homosexuality). These guides left no ambiguity as to who the more Christian of the two candidates were, so I could say with little doubt or hesitation that Senator Dole was Christ-like while President Clinton could quite possibly usher in Armageddon (I mean, if Al Gore could invent the internet, computer chips to install in our foreheads or wrists couldn’t be too far off, could they?). From an early age, there was no doubt in my mind which party represented Christianity.
Right after the declarative statement left my mouth I heard a thin, high-pitched voice behind me challenge, “There is no way you can know that young man.” I turned to see an older lady behind me dressed in her usual long wool skirt, collared blouse, and tie who appeared to be somewhat agitated by my comments.
“You can’t know the hearts of either of these men. Why do you think you can judge which one is more Christian?” Not wanting to be seen being berated by a middle-aged woman, I quickly made a hasty retreat throwing behind me a quick and meaningless apology. As I sat smoldering, I quickly reminded myself that this was a woman who was single, older, had a mullet, and wore a tie; all circumstantial evidence led to one conclusion: lesbian. Which explains everything, because of course she wouldn’t see things my way, she was living her life in sin. My fundamentalist worldview would survive its first encounter.
To be honest, my worldview was not shaken after that point for many years. I grew up in a church full of Pentecostal Fundamental Evangelicals (Or Pentamenticals, as I like to call us). In the parking lot of this Pentamentical church, the cars would be filled with bumper stickers such as: “Marriage=Man + Woman” or “God Bless the USA,” or “Vote for [fill in Republican candidate for basically any office]”. It was an unspoken rule that you voted for Republicans, and the preacher would many times get up before elections and urge us to vote for the candidate that valued life and stood up for Christians in the ongoing culture wars. I truly believed that all Christians listened to Rush Limbaugh on their days off during the week and a “liberal Christian” was fundamentally an oxymoron, because you couldn’t be both.
As I left for college for a Bible school in Ecuador, South America, I was a fire-breathing conservative ready to destroy heretical liberal arguments with my molten breath of righteousness. I was the official Republican Pentecostal at the school and would do my best to uphold this banner of truth and light for all the students to see and bow down to in turn. No one stood a chance in ethics class against my rapier intellect and wit passed down from the religious hierarchies of James Dobson, Pat Robertson, et al. But something would put a chink in the conservative armor I had worn so proudly over the years: Ecuadorian children.
Ecuadorian children, almost as an unbreakable rule are the most beautiful children you will lay eyes on (and adults for some reason, not so). When I was studying down there, we had the opportunity to work with a group called Youth World in putting on a Christmas dinner/party in the town dump of Zambiza. As I walked off the bus, I looked down the lines of hundreds of people, mainly children, waiting for the 9 AM start, while I attempted to keep my breakfast down as the olfactory part of my brain ran to the toilet (located near the cerebellum if you were wondering) vomiting because of the stench. Yet, here were people waiting to get into a place that I would run from if given the opportunity.
That day, I played with adorable children that lived in the dump and survived off the waste of other people. Over 2,000 people were served a meal of chicken and rice with a piece of bread and a juice bag. I was in charge of the juice bags. These juice bags each had a character associated with the flavor like, “Manuel Manzana” and “Benjamin Banana.” As I passed out the juice, Manuel decided to piss on my arm repeatedly, and Benjamin joined in with a few sucrose-filled phlegm balls on the forearm until my arm was artificially colored and flavored with a sticky, globulin mess. As each adult passed through the line, they also received a grocery bag of food, mostly the basics such as flour and rice. One older woman took the bag and related to the volunteer that this bag had fed her family for a month last year.
As I sat tired and sticky, I looked to the end of the line where the children were opening their Christmas presents provided by Samaritan’s Purse. Now, I had seen what were in these shoeboxes. Most of the toys were cheap and would be scoffed at in the United States unless they were an addition to a Happy Meal or in the free box at a rummage sale. However, the children’s faces lit up with joy as they tore open the boxes to uncover the “treasures” inside. This vision brought me to my own Christmases as a child, surrounded by the multi-colored remnants of our present-opening orgy. Many times I was disappointed for not receiving that one present I truly wanted like a Playstation 2 or a shotgun (If I would have got one, they would have had to pry it from my cold, dead hands, right Charlton?). Yet here were children that should be severely pissed off by their crappy presents with a smile on their face reminiscent of George W. watching a Swift Boat ad. Maybe consumerism wasn’t what it was cracked up to be? When I returned to the US over Christmas break, I remember walking into the mall and seeing the decorations and the lights beckoning like blonde, cheerleading sirens to a sexually-frustrated high school boy demanding money be spent in order to make Christmas memorable. It was when I realized American consumerism and the “American Dream” was a trap; a joyless, endless struggle to achieve something that cannot be achieved. Joy was not a result of money.
It was also painful to watch these same children opening their presents while knowing that they would almost assuredly stay in this impoverished situation until adulthood at which point they would try to construct a piecemeal life on unstable foundations. Without direct intervention, these children were going to have a rough life, and it wasn’t their fault! I saw then that my notion of “pulling yourself up by the bootstraps,” was fundamentally flawed. Some people did not own boots (and, really, pulling yourself up by your leg hairs would hurt. On top of that, they would probably rip out before any true progress was made). Had all my white middle-class Pentamentical assumptions of prosperity and financial stability been inherently defective?
Again I found a scapegoat in the form of government corruption. The Ecuadorian government was taking so many under-the-table deals and kickbacks; they didn’t truly care about their people. If the Ecuadorian government would straighten up, it would give the people of Ecuador the chance to succeed. Therefore, I took my individual model of work ethic and gumption as a means of success and transferred it to the national level to explain away issues of economic failure. Once again, by the tiniest of margins, my conservative outlook on life, perhaps adjusted, remained secure.
I arrived in Chicago to attend North Park University thinking that a good Christian school would uphold the conservative values of my Christianity. In the first year, I remember attending a service in which a lesbian was asked to recite an original poem about the hypocrisy and judgmental attitudes of conservative Christians while two other people smoke and drank beside her. The sermon was on striving to become less judgmental. What I saw was a den of iniquity (I’m a slow learner). I look back on my journal entries from the first two years and see pious remarks calling myself to be “a light in the darkness.” I also asserted that maybe I was called to North Park for “such a time as this” to transform the “false teachings” of North Park. I prayed earnestly that God would “draw them [North Park] back to His Truth.” How arrogant to think that I alone thought the same thoughts as God, and I alone held the knowledge of truth.
I saw the election of 2004 as vindication of my Christianity. I prayed beforehand that God would “have His will in the upcoming election,” while adding comments such as, “but you know who I want to win,” or “but we both know who values life more.” I cheered on that cold November day as George W. Bush won a second term in office while most of the faculty at my school the next day looked as if Hitler was amassing troops on the Canadian border for a US blitzkrieg. It was around this time that my Conservative façade began to crumble.
I still cannot point to a specific place-in-time when I shed my scaly conservative exoskeleton. As with all change, it was a process not a formula. To me, the change did have a beginning. It was the day that I cautiously walked into African History II with Professor Theodora Ayot. Dressed in her traditional African clothing as she was every day, Professor Ayot was an interesting dichotomy of both a commanding presence and a loving spirit that somehow managed to coexist within her. She can be both fierce and gracious in the same instance, a quality of which I had never experienced. When she talked, she exuded passion for issues of justice within Africa.
One day during class, she insisted that we all must see “Hotel Rwanda” in the theater as part of our class grade. On the appointed day, we filed into a 12-passenger van and headed to the local mall to view this movie. The movie is based on the real life story of Paul Rusesabagina, a hotel manager who risks his life to safe three thousand people during the Rwandan genocide of 1994 that killed between 800,000-1,000,000 people. We sat horrified, each of us covering part of our faces in hopes of blocking the pain that was being emitted from the screen; blocking the guilt that we all felt as Western troops stayed only long enough to evacuate Western citizens and then abandoned Rwandans to a situation that the West had created. Most shocking of all, I had never heard of the Rwandan genocide before. Three thousand people died on September 11th, and I forever have it burned into my memory, yet one million people died in April of 1994, and I hadn’t even heard of it. Was it because they were African? Did an African life not count as much as an upper-class New Yorker’s? These questions began to burn in me as we drove home in an uneasy silence of shame and sadness.
This movie drove me to research genocide and find out how a terrible atrocity could be committed in a world committed to “never again.” As I studied, I learned that Sudan was also in the midst of a terrible genocide in the Darfur region that has taken 500,000 lives, yet once again the Western world waits while a problem that they helped create through imperialism (this time British) engulfed Darfur. I also learned that we continued to use Sudan as a source of intelligence in the “War on Terror,” thus propping up a terrorist regime (The ole’ “using terrorism to beat terrorism” ploy).
I could not rectify this new image of the West with my worldview. Weren’t we the light that the darkness could not overcome, as George Bush had asserted? Weren’t we beacons of freedom that would stand in opposition to evil? Was it possible that sometimes we were beacons of freedom while other times we were the blinding light of imperialism (Maybe a little over-dramatic and possibly a cliché, but what the heck)?
To be honest, I didn’t want to deal with the ramifications of these truths. I tried to use every manner of logical gymnastics to make this new information fit into my political and social schema, it just wouldn’t. It was like trying to fit a few more pairs of pants in an already bloated suitcase. Just when you think you finally have everything you need for the trip, you notice all your toiletries lying on the bed. The suitcase already looks like the dress that fat Anna Nichole Smith wedged her way into, and you want to avoid that heart-stopping trepidation that comes when you have stood in an airport check-in line for an hour and are about to place that bag on the scale. The chance for an overcharge is there, and you hold your breath while sticking every other piece of luggage on with your heavy bag hoping the lady with the huge bangs and the lipstick on her teeth won’t take the time to weigh them individually. As you pack, you realize that everything just will not fit. Part of you just wants to say, “Screw it. I just won’t brush my teeth, put on deodorant, or use soap this week.” But the other part of you knows that this is not a viable option. It’s time to unpack and re-pack.
So, I slowly unpacked my political baggage one piece at a time, holding it up to the light, turning it in my hands, trying to see who packed it. Was this packed by my parents? Did this piece get thrown in while I wasn’t looking by my church or Focus on the Family? Is this piece essential to my faith? Would Jesus wear this political idea? If it was certainly packed by Jesus, I left it in. If it was packed by my parents, my church, or anyone else but Jesus, I decided I had to chuck it. I might come back and re-pack it, but for the time being, I had to start from scratch.
I began re-reading the Bible in this context, and I found many new insights as I read with fresh lenses. For instance, I now see that justice in all forms of the word is an idea central to the message of Christianity. “What does the Lord require of you? But to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8). What Jesus requires is justice and mercy, hand in hand. As Frank Sinatra sang, “You can’t have one without the other.” How many times do we see justice solely as vengeance? You bombed us so now we are going to “stick a boot up your ass, it’s the American way.” But how many times is justice brought together with mercy in the United States? Is it possible a “War on Poverty” would do more to stop violence than our current “War on Terror” by taking people out of a situation that is so bleak that they actually believe extremism is a viable option? Maybe that would be justice blended with mercy.
Other messages from the Bible hit me even harder. The prophet Amos exclaimed, “I can't stand your religious meetings. I'm fed up with your conferences and conventions. I want nothing to do with your religion projects, your pretentious slogans and goals. I'm sick of your fund-raising schemes, your public relations and image making. I've had all I can take of your noisy ego-music. When was the last time you sang to me? Do you know what I want? I want justice—oceans of it. I want fairness—rivers of it. That's what I want. That's all I want” (Amos 5:21-24). You see, I have lived my life going from conference to conference, worship experience to worship experience, listening to ways in which I can grow spiritually through fasting, praying, etc., which are all necessary in the Christian walk. However, this verse asserts that all of these actions are null and void without justice--without fairness. I no longer want to sing “noisy ego-music.” I have decided that justice and mercy will be a key piece in my new suitcase.
Frankly, I haven’t decided who this new person will be when the suitcase is finally packed, and I have only added my first piece. I believe it will be a more compassionate person that will seek to live out mercy and justice. It will probably be someone who feels more and judges less. I believe it will be someone that seeks harder to be like Christ than to be like a church. I am just not sure who I am anymore, and I think that’s a pretty good place to be.