When Jesus gets attached to systemic injustices and religious abuse, the damage done to the gospel’s witness can certainly last a while. When those injuries are especially severe, people bristle at the mere mention of his name. This was a lesson I learned pretty quickly during my junior year of college. Ten years ago this week I began a four month long semester exchange at the University of Barcelona in Barcelona, Spain. It was my first time outside the United States, and making the transition from life in the rural Shenandoah Valley of Virginia to dwelling in a posh, liberal, European city was, to put it mildly, quite a change.
Within thirty minutes of meeting my Catalan host family those dreaded topics of religion and politics came up. I did not initiate talking about these things but I did my best, nervously articulating myself (in my second language) with as much graciousness as I could muster. Nor was I ignorant of the opinions most Western Europeans had of Americans at that time and it quickly became clear that we looked at the world very differently. Thankfully, my host mom and dad did grow fond of me and I grew to love them too. Yet when it came to matters of faith, that initial awkward meeting would prove to be the first of many eye-opening and heartbreaking conversations about God.
My wonderful host parents and me in October 2005 in Barcelona, Spain
Most Americans I knew who were not Christian usually believed in God, so it was a curious thing to live with people who not only did not believe but wanted absolutely nothing to do with anything resembling Him much less an institution bearing his name. My host parents were atheist existentialist-types who had been scorched by the Church many times, and by default they associated the Christian faith with the corruption and abuse they experienced under Franco. When his 35-year reign finally ended it was as though they and the large majority of the population collectively uttered an emphatic “BASTA!” They had had enough of religion. Years later, in 2005, there I would sit at their dinner table, with only a cursory knowledge of their history, clumsily trying to share the gospel with them, and the misunderstandings would only increase. I had to learn to love and trust that God was still there and still moving, even as I felt spectacularly foolish.
The message of the gospel of Jesus Christ, its truth claims, and its implications have never been and will never be politically correct. Jesus himself was hated and said that those who followed him would have trouble (John 16:33). Yet when the very people and institutions that proclaim Him are the ones who sin against people, and sometimes that sin is indeed very deep, the culture closes itself to the Lord.
Such is the rotten fruit of the religious spirit, a demonic force that inspires men and women to destroy error in people wherever they see it using the name of God to justify their actions, and the more power they can attain to do this the better. This spirit first notices what is wrong with people rather than what is right, and those who partner with this darkness take it upon themselves to issue rigid correctives when they have no place to do so. It substitutes religious practices for the transforming power of the Holy Ghost and the grace of God, and it can never make good on what it promises. Religious spirits also like to control but are themselves powerless to produce anything holy or good. I myself have been guilty of this sin from time to time, and this particular transgression grieves me most because the effects of it are, as I saw firsthand with my host family in Barcelona, the greatest impediment to people expressing openness to know the one whom God sent that we might know Him: Jesus.
I became convinced after that semester that the answer to overcoming this dreadful baggage is to become love. Not just show it, but become it. That takes time and that looks like something. Becoming love will likely entail a few clumsy, awkward-sounding proclamations of the gospel and that has to be ok too, for even if there is misunderstanding or outright rejection, if it was the truth and was shared in love, it will not return void. But deeper than that, it means listening to the heartbreaking stories of those abused by religion (presuming they even want to talk about it), feeling their pain with them, and learning what NOT to say or do. Love and good deeds most effectively challenges the narrative that has calcified in their minds about what following Jesus really looks like. One must trust the Holy Spirit is all over it, doing things in them no eye can see.
And let Him be enough.