I admit it, I get skeeved when I hear people get all excited/passionate/inspired about Jesus. Songs about God, Jesus, bible verses…I get creeped out. Very often when I’m faced with something like this, I try to flip it and look at it from the other perspective. I think about Pagans talking about their faith, about discovering The Goddess, or Pagan musicians singing rapturously about Cernunnos or Inanna or the Elements or whatever deity/spirit they are singing about. And I find that inspiring, even if I have no connection to those deities or spirits.
So…why don’t I get skeeved by that?
I think part of it for me is and the assumption of intolerance. When a Christian is going on about Jesus, when they are singing about God, when they are citing bible verses, I’m pretty sure that they are speaking from a place of “My beliefs are right and yours are wrong.” And with many, it’s not even just, “I believe that I’m right but I can agree to leave you alone with your beliefs,” it’s more like, “I believe you are wrong, and you are evil, and you must convert or you must be excluded from society and you have no value.” Or worse.
When someone talks to me about their love of Jesus Christ, what I instantly hear is, “You don’t value me, my religion, my choices, my beliefs, my experiences. You’re trying to control me.”
Certainly, I realize that many Christians are tolerant and even welcoming. But, my knee-jerk reaction is because so much of my experience has been with the intolerant types of Christians. Within the Pagan community, we have our internal kerfuffles, and we have our, “My tradition is doing it right, yours is wrong” arguments, but overall we generally believe that everyone has a seat at the table. We aren’t generally trying to convert each other, much less believing that someone who doesn’t follow our faith should be harmed.
I think that from a Pagan, I can hear someone’s genuine rapture and exultation and inspiration about their connection to the divine as just that–their experience that they are sharing with me without any expectations. When I hear this from many Christians, I hear the implied judgment that this is the way I’m “supposed” to believe, and that I’m wrong…bad…evil…if I don’t. I also balk at some of the implicit control implied. “You must believe in this dogma, the dogma I am preaching, even if it’s bigoted and hurtful.
Put bluntly, any kind of bigotry pisses me off. Misogyny, racism, homophobia, discriminating against someone because of their religion…I suppose that’s nothing new for me.
I’m struggling with an experience I had back in October. I’ll be really honest; I’m pretty angry about some of my experiences wit/ath my brother’s wedding. Now–here’s the context and the caveats. This has nothing to do with my brother or his lovely wife. Instead, it has everything to do with the Wels Lutheran relatives.
My brother and his new wife have been together for a decade, and her family didn’t at all like my brother. Her family is very Christian, very conservative. Our family’s pretty spiritually open and liberal. At one point her family threatened to disown her if she kept dating my brother. At another point, they insisted that he convert to being a Wels Lutheran in order for them to stay together. And my brother sucked it up and he did it, went to the classes and got baptized. My mom and dad showed up for the baptism, even though they don’t believe in the conservative ideologies of that church. Her parents didn’t show. For that matter, they didn’t show up for my dad’s funeral, either.
Now, I got more wrapped up in the wedding than I had planned to. I had specifically avoided being a bridesmaid because the bride’s sisters and friends are more conservative than I am, and my mom and I were doing our best to not rock the boat. We didn’t want to cause any additional conflicts for my brother and his wife with her side of the family. In fact, my mom basically begged me to not talk to any of them about any of the things that they wouldn’t approve of. Don’t talk about being a Pagan author and teacher, don’t talk about writing romance novels, don’t talk about social justice activism, don’t talk about being in an open relationship. Or anything to imply that I’m “sinning.” In essence, don’t talk about anything that I care about.
I tried to keep away from the bride’s family so I wouldn’t accidentally cause more tension for them. And that became a significant struggle because I took on doing the wedding decorations. I would have loved to have asked the bridesmaids and other friends for help…but I didn’t feel that was a good idea, since the more time I spent with the bride’s side of the family, the more likely I was to say something that caused a rift.
And I wasn’t going to do that to my brother and his wife, because I want them to be happy.
My brother didn’t have much representation in the wedding ceremony itself, largely because none of us are Wels Lutheran or even Christian. I had offered to do a reading of a passage from the Bible. It wouldn’t contradict my ethics to read Song of Songs or the Corinthians passage on love. (Actually, Song of Songs is totally ganked from Sumerian texts about Inanna and Dumuzi, so that would have been perfectly fine!) The bride said she liked the Corinthians passage, and I said that I could read it, or I could even sing it cantillation style.
I understood that I wasn’t going to be asked to offer a blessing in my own faith tradition either at the wedding ceremony, or the reception. And that stung for a moment, but I also recognized that it wasn’t really about me. Yes, I’d like to offer that, partly because I’m a ritualist and travel around the country doing ritual work and I’d have loved to offer that to my brother and his wife. But, 1. They aren’t Pagan, and 2. It would just cause them more grief even if they did want that.
I tried to figure out why that irked me, so I flipped it around. If I were getting married, and a close friend who is a devout Christian wanted to offer a blessing or reading from the bible, would I be ok with that? And I suppose the answer was, yes–so long as it wasn’t intended as an attempt to convert or shame, just an expression of spiritual connection and love. So long as that was offered in the spirit of tolerance, I’d be fine with that, because it meant something to them.
But, since that wasn’t the case here, and it would have caused significant problems, I was happy to do a reading (or sing about) love.Of course, the pastor objected because I’m not a Wels Lutheran. The pastor’s email was condescending at best, and rolled out a lot of dogma that made me itch. Again, I was trying to not take any personal offense at this because it’s about the bride and the groom and their lives and what they want.
I managed to bite my tongue when I heard about the experiences my brother and sister-in-law had during the required pre-marital counseling. The wedding ceremony itself, however, enraged me completely. And I’ll be honest, I don’t remember half of it because I was seeing red. There were two pastors; one was the bride’s uncle, the other his son. The passages they read from the bible, and the wedding vows, and a few other things they said were all geared to frame how women are subservient to men…it felt like shackles and control. You can only be good by agreeing to this dogma, by doing things our way.
The elder pastor went into a sermon that was almost entirely directed at my brother and trying–in a sly way–to point out my brother’s flaws. And sure, my brother’s not perfect. He and I share some of the same issues with anxiety and depression, and it plays out in our lives different ways, but he was being cleverly and subtly raked over the coals.
I’ll be honest, I don’t remember most of what he said, I was too upset, but the pastor basically was talking about all the things that are important in a marriage, and specifically pointing out things that that side of the family doesn’t like about my brother. He’s a clever enough public speaker that he made it sound like a general sermon geared at the whole congregation, but many of us knew that it was a veiled barb at my brother.
I had brought my new boyfriend as my +1 to the wedding. During the ceremony, he touched my arm and asked me if I was ok. I think he knew how close I was to launching off the pew and decking the pastor. For context, my boyfriend got himself banned from his Catholic church as a teenager for yelling at the priest after the priest was shaming a young mother for letting her baby cry in the church…so he knew that look in my eye.
But I didn’t, because I figured, if my little brother could put up with ten years of this crap, if my brother could stand up there and take all that to marry the woman he loved, then I could shut my mouth.
I wish they could have had a beautiful, uplifting wedding. I wish my brother and his wife didn’t need to live in fear of the pastor calling things off because they were “living in sin” before the wedding. I wish my brother and his wife could have had a joyful service that reflected their love for one another instead of cramming down patriarchy and misogyny and a little side-slice into my brother for not being a cookie-cutter conservative Christian.
My last post here was about me wrestling with religious intolerance and bigotry, and I’m still wrestling with it. I’m trying to wrap my brain around why I have this knee-jerk reaction to Christian religious language that I don’t have when Pagans talk about their faith.
Do I believe that Christians have the same types of divine-communion experiences that Pagans have? Sure. I suppose what it keeps coming back to is the dogma, the shackles of control, the “You must do it my way or you’re going to hell.” The “You don’t deserve to live if you believe differently.” The “Only men should have positions of power in the church.” The “Gays are sinful.” The “Sex is bad unless you belong to this man and then it’s ok.”
I realize that what I’m struggling with is that line of discernment; I absolutely don’t want to be bigoted against all Christians, because that isn’t at all in alignment with my values. But I absolutely will stand against bigotry and sexism and misogyny, against the idea that only that particular religion’s “one true way” is the right way. I’m going to try and be less skeeved out by Jesus-talk. But I’m also going to be aware of when I come up against the “My way is the only way!” perspective.
And I’m going to continue to turn that around and apply it to myself. Whenever I get bent out of shape about something–like intolerance–I try to make sure I’m not being a hypocrite. It’s part of shadow work; so often the things that frustrate us about others are the things we ourselves are doing. I’m going to try to use this as a lens to ensure that I can discern between when I’m standing up against bigotry and religious intolerance, and when I’m engaging in that religious intolerance myself. Tough work, but worth doing, because this cycle must stop. The “My way is the only way” is what leads us to violence.
My dad died in 2011, so I don’t know what his response to that wedding service would have been. My dad and I are both pretty outspoken people, insistent on living our values, but my dad had a lot less tact than I and I’m not sure that Dad would have been able to hold his tongue.
I have more thoughts on some of my dad’s spiritual experiences and how those are deeply relevant to tolerance and intolerance, but I’ll have to muse on that for my next Seeking the Grail post.