I am a theologically conservative, politically liberal, Masters degree-holding, Christian, African-American woman.
I have endured the scorn of the theologically liberal for being too conservative. I’ve received the reproach of the politically conservative for being a heretic. I’ve experienced the distrust of the uneducated for being elite. I’ve been accused by nonbelievers of being a bigot. I’ve been dismissed by whites for feigning victimization and making everything about race and by men for playing the woman card. I have, at one time or another, sat in silence being shamed by all these groups. Despite all your claims to be tolerant, you have all, at one point or another, required that I suppress, disavow or deny parts of who I am because of your discomfort with them. I know well the shame of a dissenting opinion and the bite of the tolerant.
When I was in graduate school in Seattle, one of my professors said to me, “I hate Christians.”
Her daughter’s classmate had told her she was going to hell if she wasn’t a Christian and her daughter had been having nightmares ever since. My professor added that she would hate Christians until this girl or her mother apologized.
When it came time to learn about Christian missionaries abroad, this teacher had not a single positive thing to say about them. Having been a missionary myself and read missionaries’ accounts of their work, I now got to see the other perspective. In the most negative of terms, she painted a picture of them as being financially-motivated, dishonest, culture-destroying monsters. I didn’t doubt some of what she said was true and some was spin, but enough was true that, to her, I could say nothing in their defense.
Often, I’d sit in other classes before they started and classmates would bash Christians. I didn’t say anything. I’d just sit there taking it in, feeling uncomfortable in my seat. I wanted my classmates to respect my intelligence so I didn’t stand up to defend myself. It got old quick and felt like a nonstop assault on the most important part of who I was. It didn’t stop me from learning though.
Before I’d moved to Seattle, even though I was liberal, I hated the term progressive. It seemed to imply that everything else was regressive and backwards, not just different. I don’t see Christian values as regressive, I just see them as Christian. Even though I was liberal, I recognized that liberal tolerance was smoke and mirrors. Liberals only had tolerance for people who agreed with them, but, then again, I could understand why it seemed that that was also true of Christians as well. I agreed with liberals on many areas of policy (though I found many shared principles with Christians as well), but disagreed on enough issues to know when I’d found myself indisputably out of bounds.
After Seattle, I took a job overseas where I agreed to not attend church for a year. My new employers were suspicious of me because I’d been a missionary before. In fact, my second interview was almost exclusively dedicated to their concerns about this. They didn’t want my association with Christians to hurt the relationships they’d built. Missionaries had left a bad impression on local communities. Given how my professor had painted missionaries in class, I could respect that they considered that a risk. I’m not angry with them for their request and given the nature of their work I did not find it to be unreasonable. The Sunday before I left, I sat in the pew at church crying, nervous about how my faith would survive under these new conditions.
I agreed to limit my public activities, but for several months once a week I fasted for my coworkers and sent a letter to friends asking for them to pray for them as well. I did Bible studies with my sisters over Skype when the internet worked and even though the public expression of it was limited, it did not extinguish my faith.
I’ve spent enough time in some of the bluest parts of America—Cambridge and Seattle—to say that I understand well the frustrations liberals have with Christians. Christians have earned a reputation for being anti-science, for believing in traditions that seem to subjugate women under men, to be anti-gay, to only advocate for the rights of the unborn and their own religion. I’m well versed in liberal anti-Christian sentiment because for four years it swirled around me at work and school. I understand why Christians see the democratic platform as an existential threat even as I feel the republican one an existential threat to blacks and other people of color. I know that neither of these things is entirely true. But I have also learned that how you speak of people affects your ability to speak to people and rhetoric can ruin others’ willingness to listen—even if what you are saying is right. You can’t deafen people with insults then wonder why they can’t hear you.
During my time as a missionary where it was not legal to be one, I got firsthand experience seeing what a persecuted Church actually looks like. One of the most powerful experiences I ever had was at a conference in Thailand. I sang in the worship choir and from my vantage point on stage I was able to look out on an audience of Christians who were able to worship freely for the first time in their lives. With their arms raised above their heads, their voices no longer muted for fear of being overheard, and streams and streams of tears falling down their jubilant faces they participated in full-bodied, unbridled worship to the lover of their souls. I could barely get words out it was such a powerful thing to witness.
Because of that experience, I find American Christians’ agenda to protect their own religious freedom at everyone else’s expense so pernicious and unpalatable. First, it endangers the freedoms of Christians abroad in countries where they are currently persecuted. If America does not allow religious liberty for all here, it hardly has a leg to stand on in advocating for it globally. A convincing case for not mistreating religious minorities is not mistreating religious minorities. Second, as someone who takes seriously the call to love my neighbor as myself, I have been without religious freedom and would not wish that for anyone else. And lastly, having seen the persecution of Christians overseas, the treatment of Christians in the US can hardly be considered as such, de-privileging may be a better word. Carrying the burden of the global church and thinking about our national and international witness may mean parting with some of our luxuries and assuming a little risk.
Don’t get me wrong. One of my favorite things to do after returning to the US from long stints abroad is to worship in a big church with big sound. Even now, I sometimes close my eyes, stop singing, and let the sound of religious freedom wash over me during worship at church in gratitude. Because I want it so badly for myself, I have to want that for my neighbors as well. That’s how you love your neighbor as yourself.
As a black woman, I’ve seen time and again white Christians throw their sympathy behind aggressors of unjust violence against blacks. I’ve seen them deny implicit bias and be consummately uninterested in learning about or recognizing that systemic racism exists either. I’ve seen them promote policies I believe further disadvantage people of color. I understand why people of color are angry. I’ve seen the system give white criminals shorter sentences or none at all. I’ve seen cops get off for shooting black men, women, and children. I’ve seen the term radicalize used only for Muslims and not for white Christians plotting to blow up a mosque. I’ve seen white killers be murderers and brown killers terrorists. I’ve watched sons cry for lost fathers. I’ve seen my pregnant sister hope for a little girl. I wonder about my nephew’s future.
I’ve gotten to see both sides. So don’t assume that because I’m liberal I don’t know the fear and the feeling of being under attack that my fellow Christians have. I’ve felt that too. It’s not lost on me.
I wish SNL would do a Christian Jeopardy segment like they did with their election edition of Black Jeopardy that featured two black women and a white Trump supporter. In this version, there’d be two white Christians and one liberal POC, lets say a gay Muslim. There’s a Son of Baldwin quote that says, “We can disagree and still love each other unless your disagreement is rooted in my oppression and denial of my humanity and right to exist.”
I can see both sides, screaming, “YES! I’ve been saying this for years!” I could also see both sides rallying behind separating the individual from their group and not wanting to be seen through the lens of a statistic. While it may be a new concern for the two white contestants suddenly lumped together with the actual racists who voted for Trump, this is certain to resonate with our liberal POC’s long history with this as well.
I can understand the Christian’s fear and the fear of people of color.
The one thing I cannot understand, however, is Christians being so allergic to suffering and what we sacrifice to avoid it.
John 16:33 I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.
1 John 3:13, 14 Do not be surprised, my brothers and sisters, if the world hates you. We know that we have passed from death to life, because we love each other.
Matthew 27:39, 42 Those who passed by hurled insults at [Jesus], shaking their heads and saying, “You who are going to destroy the temple and build it in three days, save yourself! Come down from the cross, if you are the Son of God! He saved others,“ they said, “but he can’t save himself! He’s the king of Israel! Let him come down now from the cross, and we will believe in him.”
Philippians 2: 5-8 In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:
Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing
by taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
by becoming obedient to death—
even death on a cross!
“If I forget that the way of the cross leads to the cross and not to a bank of flowers; if I regulate my life on these lines or even unconsciously my thinking so that I am surprised when the way is rough and think it strange, though the word is “think it not strange,” “count it all joy,” then I know nothing of Calvary love. “ – Amy Carmichael
Be a republican. Be a democrat. I don’t care. Political diversity in the church is good. But Christians, please stop saying this is existential. No one can destroy the church. That’s not false optimism, that’s God’s promise.
Matthew 16:18 And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.
2 Corinthians 4: 8, 9 We are pressed on every side by troubles, but we are not crushed. We are perplexed, but not driven to despair. We are hunted down, but never abandoned by God. We get knocked down, but we are not destroyed.
To the Christian worried about the damage to the witness of the church (that’s me), even the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.
To the Christian worried about having to abandon their beliefs or practice your faith in secret, we are never abandoned by God.
My prayer and my hope is for a vibrant, Jesus-loving, gospel-centered church to thrive in the United States. But, I would rather see the true Church resilient in the face of real persecution than a sell-my-soul-to-keep-my-power farce living in comfort with its witness in shambles around its feet.