Despite what many atheists would say, a lot of problems within Christian and other religious groups are mirrored in atheist groups. Both groups claim to be open minded, but there’s a reluctance to explore certain kinds of ideas within each camp. When exploring your beliefs while in a Christian group, they are certain that the answer is somehow always Jesus. Likewise, when questioning your views within an atheist group, the answer always must be god-less.
I’m currently reading Shane Claiborne’s Executing Grace. The book’s subtitle, “How The Death Penalty Killed Jesus And How It’s Killing Us,” sums up the book nicely. I originally bought it because Claiborne’s The Irresistible Revolution completely shattered my life in high school and caused me to more fully consider what my relationship with God was. I actually still have the original receipt for The Irresistible Revolution as a bookmark. It was purchased on November 15, 2009 in a Borders bookstore (which sadly no longer exists) by an atheist friend I still have and cherish. He purchased this book despite not believing himself, and paid $14.99 for the book, plus $3.99 for a children’s book donation, coming to a grand total of $20.31 (after tax).
In Executing Grace, Claiborne is discussing the death penalty, something that has been dear to my heart for a long time. In fact, I’ve had a project in the back of my mind for years regarding capital punishment, but I haven’t pursued it because of my personal wrestling for how to uncover the humanity of those on death row while acknowledging and honoring the pain of their victims—both dead and alive. Because he is a vocal and passionate Christian, his arguments revolve around Jesus. This isn’t a book for non-believers who are against capital punishment. It is more of a plea to Christians to remember that their savior was the victim of a corrupt criminal justice system who found his fate via the death penalty.
I Want What He’s Having
The book is littered with examples of incredible grace and forgiveness. He shares stories likes those of Maria Goretti, a young Italian girl murdered by Alessandro Serenelli. At her death bed, she repeatedly called for forgiveness towards her murderer, and her mother forgave him. Each chapter ends with a long example of radical forgiveness and mercy show to those who have committed what many would regard as unforgivable crimes.
The God he speaks of is a God for whom love always wins. It is a God who wants us to be safe, happy, and holy, but who acknowledges that humanity chooses a different path. It’s a God who wants people to live. This isn’t a God of wrath or vengeance. This isn’t a God of anger. His God is a God that values love, justice, and mercy above all things.
If that’s the God of Christianity, I want a piece of that.
That said, there’s a lot of issues I wrestle with. To quote myself, “wanting these things doesn’t make them real.” I’ve long stated that I miss believing in God. I loved being religious. This book is stirring up a lot of feelings within myself and it would be an injustice to not explore them.
Here’s the thing, though: I don’t feel like there’s a safe place to explore them.
On one side, you have atheists (many of whom are ex-religious folk with their own baggage and resentments toward their former faiths) who will insist that God cannot exist. On the other side, you have Christians who will insist that God must exist and does exist. There seems to be a depressing lack of middle ground for those of us still exploring—or re-exploring, as it were.
I’m depressingly human, I know. I’m going to let emotions sway me.
Another complaint I have with atheists is this worship of logic and reason which pushes them to seemingly deny their human irrationality. I don’t think there is anything more human than being irrational, and I don’t think there’s a human on the planet that is purely rational and logic driven. But how do I balance what I want to be the truth and what is the truth?
Notably, I’m also reading Encountering God by Diana L. Eck. Its subtitle, “A Spiritual Journey from Bozeman to Banaras,” does not sum it up nearly as well. However, it’s about a Methodist woman who travels to Varanasi (Banaras), India and learns how to balance her faith with the faith of those around her. She learns how to see God in everyone, especially due to the inescapable nature of religion in India—even more so in a city like Varanasi.
As a real life and much more personal example, I have my dear friend’s mother—the same dear friend who purchased the revolutionary book in 2009—who is a Methodist minister. To say she’s incredible is an understatement. She has given me so much good advice I’ve ignored through my own ignorance and the incorrigible nature of youth. Her Jesus matches Claiborne’s. Her God is kind and good and loves humanity. She is a living, breathing example of beautiful faith and the courage to make hard choices. I want what she’s having, too.
Similarly, I was dear friends with a pastor and his wife while I lived in Oxford. They lived such kind, selfless lives. The best people I’ve ever known have been deeply religious. Unfortunately, some of the worst people I’ve ever known have also been deeply religious.
The Ugly Side of Faith
I live in the Bible Belt. The average religious person is not markedly different from the average non-religious person. There are a lot of churches and a lot of habits—both good and bad. Mississippi is a hotbed of religion and a hotbed for intolerance. Mississippi prides itself on refusing to bend to modern standards. My state didn’t ratify the 19th amendment (the one giving women the right to vote) until 1984, when we had our first female lieutenant governor. Mississippi didn’t get around to ratifying the 13th amendment (the one outlawing slavery) until 1995—the year after I was born.*
Many Mississippians pride themselves on their religiosity, but if Mississippi is religion expressed at its finest, I want no part of it. I want Claiborne’s Jesus, not Robert Jeffress‘s or Jerry Falwell, Jr.‘s.
That’s the problem I tend to have when exploring faith. I see examples of what I want: the Christianity of Claiborne, of Belinda Rives, of Don Ross, and I want it. I see their Jesus, welcoming me into his arms, and I want that. But I also see the Jesus of abusers and manipulators spurning humanity for a cross that’s strangely shaped like a throne.
If we disregard my problems with scripture—of which there are many—I would still be faced with this troubling dichotomy: The best and the worst of humanity live in religion. Perhaps religion is big enough to house them both. But I don’t buy the argument that the cruel people aren’t truly religious. I don’t think we’re in a place where we get to say one person’s religion is invalid just because it doesn’t look like the religion we want to be true.
So Where Do We Go From Here?
I’m going to honestly explore again. I’m going to finish this beautiful book. I’m probably going to read the Bible again. I’m probably going to read biblical criticisms again. I’m probably going to write a lot of emails to a lot of people.
It would be a disservice to myself to not explore my feelings out of a fear of public reaction. Many in atheist communities will condemn me and say I’m being ignorant for even looking into religion again—even if passively. Many in theist communities will have smug attitudes towards my endeavors, especially if my search ends in me believing in a god. Far too many religious people have been incredibly condescending in relation to my faith journey, insisting that I’ll be back, that my lack of belief is just a phase. It may very well be, but their reaction made me reluctant to even admit that I’m having questions.
More important than all of that, I’m going to work harder on living the kind of life that those people are living—regardless of whether or not I have God in that life. I want to be the person who is selfless, kind, and driven by love either way. I want to be the person who acknowledges injustice and moves to correct it. I want to radically eliminate as much ill-will in my own heart as I possibly can. I want to be good, and I want to make that an active goal again.
Even if there’s no Christ, I want to be Christ-like, at least how those I admire see him.
* Technically, Mississippi didn’t complete the ratification process for the 13th amendment until 2013 because the clerk in charge of mailing the paperwork didn’t finish the task when it was attempted in 1995.