It can be difficult to tell the truth in church – or, to be honest, to religious people. We are just like non-church folks – believing in God is not a guarantee of perfect love. In fact, being religious often leads to bigger problems. So let’s be honest – we can be frustrating people to deal with. When we have no Holy Book to contend with, we have less ammo to use against people who are different from us. Again – this can be good or bad, it really depends on the issue. It is one thing to believe that hurting children is wrong because they are loved and blessed by God – it is a totally different issue to believe that someone is condemned because he or she wears clothing of mixed fibers.
Religious institutions have come under fire in recent decades because some have allowed horrific things to happen in the name of God. Some of these tragedies have been codified in Scripture, while others have been sources of shame that have been hidden from view. Regardless of the source, evil done in the name of God is still evil, and has nothing to do with God. I am not saying that we must be searching for perfection – just attempting to live good lives.
In 1984 I was in the midst of seminary (and the ordination process) when I was appointed to serve a small church not far from where I grew up. The United Methodist General Conference was producing the every four year Book of Discipline, and, for the first time, language was included to keep LGBT people (and anyone else) from being ordained if they were not celibate in singleness. A couple of us from Drew Theological Seminary agreed that, if asked, we would claim to be “self-avowed, practicing homosexuals” in solidarity with our LGBT friends. While none of us were asked, it was an important statement to make. We wanted people to know that, as allies, we stood with them. Many are doing the same with Muslims now. Oppression will do that.
One of the things that drew me to the United Church of Christ was the possibility of openness and equality. This is not, to be honest, a reality in most of our congregations, but at least we have the option. When my congregation voted to officially join the ranks of the Open & Affirming congregations, I was very proud. This doesn’t mean we are better than other congregations – it just means that we recognize our hypocrisy and are trying to remedy it.
If people of faith continue to use God to justify their hate, they are in deep trouble with the very God they claim to adore. We cannot stand up and sing about how magnificent God is while hating people based on their culture, their faith, their marital status, their sexual orientation, or anything else that does not cause injury to others. There are good people everywhere who are loving, caring, faithful, and good – but they are also bigots. I like to say that all of us are sinners, and we need to work every day at not being hypocrites. You can say you love God all you want, but if you hate God’s creations, you are a hypocrite. Sinners make mistakes, confess, and are forgiven. Hypocrites justify their mistakes by using God.
My Wesleyan roots are still strong within me, and I believe in the idea that if you aren’t moving forward, they you are sliding back. My sense of being saved is not static – it isn’t a once and done deal. If I fall away from God, I can lose my salvation – it isn’t a guarantee or life-time appointment. Faith is a lot like AA – you take it one day at a time. It is a destination AND a journey, and to believe you have made it without any expectations is to prove you are not there at all. I have a lot of work to do in my own life – I think most of us do. I hope we can agree to take that journey together. Peace!
(The Rev. Dr. Steve Ohnsman, PhD, has been the pastor of Calvary UCC in Reading, PA since 1999.)