Would You Be Free From Your Burden of Sin (There’s Power in the Blood)

Susan Campbell

Susan Campbell (CREDIT CHION WOLF / WNPR)

Susan Campbell (credit, Chion Wolf / WNPR)

I will tell you, before I wind up, that I’m really not that much a public speaker. I’m telling you that so when I’m finished, you don’t have to turn to one another and say, “You know what? She’s not really much of a public speaker.” She knows that already, and she’s made peace with that, and she suggests you do the same. The most I can promise you is a speech mostly devoid of exegesis and/or hermeneutics. You’re welcome.

I am a product of the church – small c – of Christ, where every Sunday school lesson and every sermon I sat through was aimed at teaching me how to be a good wife – a worthy help-meet, a word I will hate until the day I go to my glory. At the Fourth and Forest church of Christ in Joplin, Mo., I had my whole life laid out for me. I would choose for my mate one of the young men in my youth group seated to my left or my right on the pew where I parked myself three times a week – more often, if they’d let me. We would get married in a simple service on a Friday night, go to Branson for our honeymoon, and be back to work by Monday. We would rather quickly be graced with babies, and we would raise up our children in the way they should go so that when they were old, they would not depart from us – that’s Proverbs 22:6 — and I would be accorded a Sunday school class to teach and to shepherd – but not one that included men, because that would be usurping authority over men, which we are forbidden to do in I Timothy 2:12. I would eventually be – through my own stewardship and exalted state of help-meeting — the wife of a deacon, and then my husband would be named an elder, and when it was time to go meet Jesus, I would be laying in my lily-white bed surrounded by my loved ones and I would have a little smile on my face, and someone would say, softly, “Oh, look, she’s talking to Jesus.”

But I would not be talking to Jesus. I would be smiling because finally and at last I could blow this clip joint and leave this circumscribed and ridiculously small existence to go and live with God, to sit right next to Her, right where she’s always intended, and not in a back pew, either. And God would be an African American lesbian with big meaty arms that swung when she threw them open to welcome me.

I hoped so much for that to be the case, knowing full well that a large portion of my friends and some of my family would take one look at such a god, and turn around and go on down to hell. For now, I was seeking to save my own soul in a branch of Christianity that keeps getting rediscovered like it’s something new, like it has something to offer. Historically, in times of strife, evangelical Christianity – and its hard kernel of a sub-group, fundamentalism – sees an influx of members anxious to escape the winds and the storm. Fundamentalism with its list of do’s and don’ts has long been the refuge of people who don’t want to think for themselves, who find modern life too confusing and complicated. I say that with as much love as I possibly can. It is infinitely easier to let someone else do your thinking for you, rather than discern your own righteous way. It was the ‘70s, the Me Decade, and all around me, my friends were succumbing to lust and drugs and such, and I was dating Jesus, where I was safe.

But I wasn’t happy. I read my Sunday school lessons and worked them ahead of time – not in the car on the way to church, as did my brothers. I memorized vast swatches of Scripture from the King James’ version – the way Jesus spoke. (And if you don’t get that joke, I feel a little sorry for you.) I carried my Bible like a sword (that’s Hebrews 4:12: For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.)

I believed, I believed, I believed, and part of that belief meant that I was responsible for my soul, and for yours, as well. And so every Saturday morning was devoted to knocking doors for Jesus, invading the lives of well-meaning residents of Joplin and Webb City, Mo., as I tried to share with them the gospel, the good news.

But I did not feel bloodlust when I knocked doors for Jesus. Instead, I felt sorry for the people on the other side of the door. I knew I had to save their souls – and that we were a peculiar people to be blessed to be in the one-true-church – but I still felt sorry for them because every Saturday morning, I would interrupt their routine by knocking on their door and saying not “Good morning,” but “Where do you want to spend eternity?”

If they’d had a lick of sense, they’d have answered, “Anywhere you’re not.” Mostly, they were polite, but if I’m perfectly honest, I can say that in all the years I knocked doors, I bagged only one soul, and he eventually left the church, so that’s a big zero for Susan’s Saved Souls column

I just didn’t have the heart for it. I watched too much television and from over-achieving young people’s conferences I kept getting sent to, I kept meeting people who didn’t look or smell like me having interesting, full lives outside the fort of the church. My best friend Alan was Roman Catholic and I didn’t have the heart to send him to hell. My beloved grandmother attended a Holiness church – more to keep my beloved grandfather from hounding her to do so – and I knew she was a good woman and if God was going to send someone like her to hell simply because she sat in a pew across town every Sunday, well, what kind of God was that?

I started to voice these concerns early on – tepidly, at first, because I knew the role of women in my church was not to speak out, but to provide support to their husbands. I argued about the lack of women preachers. I argued about the restrictions on divorce. I argued that we were the only people who would be admitted to heaven. That seemed entirely capricious and unfair. If my theology was exclusive, my DNA was that you reach out to help others. I was trained from the cradle to watch out for people who couldn’t watch out for themselves, by my war hero father. To think that by virtue of where I landed on a Sunday would mean the difference between eternal bliss and my flesh eternally melting from my bones in the fiery pit of hell made no sense. None. Neither did the notion that my flesh would melt and melt again from my bones in hell. How would that work? Science did not support it.

So I sat in Sunday schools with my hands balled into fists listening to my brothers in Christ tell me I was to hide my light under a bushel and be happy about it. Hiding a light under a bushel ran counter to what we’re taught in Matt. 5:15, and I got really, really good at lobbing three scriptures back for every one quoted to me.

Eventually, something had to give. I saw I was not going to change my church’s culture, but leaving took years. Church was a much a part of me as my green eyes, and when I finally made the break, my older brother, who’d started preaching at age 12, but also left the church, put it succinctly: Fundamentalism was like a sword that broke off in us. Your flesh grows around the sword’s hilt. You want to pull it out, but if you do, you think you’ll die. You learn to adapt. You learn to stop thinking of humanity as flawed, and sinful, and burdened – as went the old groaner of a hymn – by sin.  You come to realize that the notion of sin is a burden, that we’d all best focus on the notion of healing the world, not condemning the sinful – unless, of course, we’re willing to judge ourselves by the same measure that we judge others. You come to the idea that judging is completely beside the point. And it’s a waste of time.

It took a long time, but I finally settled on my own theology, from James 1:27, which I read earlier. It bears repeating: Paraphrased, it says: Pure and undefiled religion is this: Visit the widows and the sick, and keep yourself unspotted from the world. I suppose I am a red-letter Christian. I care about what Jesus said, not the Jesus I dated, but the historic Jesus who may have been no more than a really smart rabbi, and not the son of God. Whatever the man’s station, he made some incredibly prophetic statements about social justice. If you want to see a really good political platform, read the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5-7. I am not denying the divine. I am embracing it in you, the divine you that deserves my respect, and my help, if I can give it. The divine you that carries in you star dust from a time long forgotten, the divine you that reaches for grace that transcends false denominational boundaries that serve only to lash us to the earth. I embrace you because there is much work to do and if we waste our time arguing dogma, that work won’t get done. I embrace you in a wealthy state where we expect children to do homework while living in shelters, where we seem to have accepted that in capitalism, there are winners and there are losers, while we forget that those so-called losers are our brothers and sisters and cousins and friends and sometimes ourselves. I embrace you while we witness a bruising election season that finds itself in a hole and keeps on digging until there isn’t a serious conversation to be had. I embrace you, regardless of whether you embrace me back, because that – and that alone – is my theology, both the easiest and hardest thing ever.

Thank you.

Susan Campbell is the award-winning author of Dating Jesus (Beacon Press) and Tempest-Tossed: The Spirit of Isabella Beecher Hooker (Wesleyan University Press). For more than a quarter-century, she was a columnist at the Hartford Courant, where her work was recognized by the National Women’s Political Caucus, New England Associated Press News Executives, the Society for Professional Journalists, the American Association of Sunday and Feature Editors, the National Society of Newspaper Columnists, and the Sunday Magazine Editors Association. Her column about the shootings at lottery headquarters in March 1998 was part of The Courant’s Pulitzer Prize-winning coverage. She has appeared on CBS’ “Sunday Morning,” the BBC’s “World Have Your Say,” and various radio shows including WNPR. She also co-writes a religion blog, “Hot Dogma!”

Dispatches from the Culture War, 2015

Culture WarI’m wrestling this morning with two conflicting impulses in me. They arise in response to the American culture war, in response to deep divisions in the country over sexual orientation, gender identity, reproductive rights, sexuality education, marriage, guns, end of life issues, family values, and the age-old and still raging debate between science and religion. While the media often portrays the culture war as between religious people on one side and secular people on the other, it’s rarely that simple. Liberal religious people often line up against conservative religious people in the culture war. It is at once an inter-religions struggle—meaning between religions—and an intra-religious struggle—meaning it plays out within some religions. My conflicting impulses have to do with how I, as a liberal religious person, relate to people on the conservative side of the culture war.

One impulse is to approach such people with openness, curiosity, friendliness. This impulse emerges from a desire to learn, to find common ground, to achieve interfaith understanding, to build community. The other impulse is pugnacious and looking for a fight. This impulse emerges from moral anger and what I call “soul sadness.” For example, I am angry at people whose religion—often in combination with short-sighted and selfish political and economic interests—leads them time and time again to ignore, deny or denounce the findings of science, as if science is a liberal conspiracy, a tool of elitist subterfuge, an enemy. And, yes, I experience a profound, soul-sadness not only because so many people seem to react to science in this way, but because the consequences of such reactions are so destructive for the earth.

Last week I ran into an old acquaintance, someone with whom I had interacted at the edges of the first congregation I served. He attended worship there occasionally. He wondered if I remembered him. Of course I did. I’d eaten a few meals at his home where we used to debate evolution and creationism or “intelligent design,” which was in vogue at that time. When I saw him last week I said I remembered the articles on intelligent design he used to share with me and that I have always appreciated his willingness to be in conversation around what is still a highly divisive topic. He said, “But you’re an evolutionist.” I said, “Yes, I am. And I try to remain open-minded about other ways of understanding reality. I try to remain curious. ” That’s my friendly, learning-oriented, community-building impulse at work. In a religiously pluralistic society it is essential that we nurture and act on this impulse. In the midst of interfaith dialogue—especially dialogue across culture war lines—we grow more knowledgeable, more accepting, more peaceful. In learning another’s point of view, we develop and sharpen our own.

But then my blood boils when people of faith not only refuse to be in dialogue, but ignore, deny or denounce firmly established scientific consensus. One such consensus is that human activity—specifically the burning of fossil fuels—is a significant driver of climate change. More than 13,000 peer-reviewed scientific papers published in over 80 countries since 1991 have confirmed this position. That’s 97 percent of all formal scientific papers published on the topic.[1] Many religions embrace this consensus. On April 29th the Pontifical Academies of Sciences and Social Sciences together issued a report entitled “Climate Change and the Common Good.” The statement affirms that “Today, human activities, involving the unsustainable exploitation of fossil fuels and other forms of natural capital, are having a decisive and unmistakable impact on the planet. The aggressive exploitation of fossil fuels and other natural resources has damaged the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the land we inhabit…. Some 1000 billion tons of carbon dioxide and other climatically-important ‘greenhouse’ gases have already been accumulated in the atmosphere…. [and] now exceeds the highest levels in at least the last million years.”[2]

In the face of this global scientific consensus, on January 21st of this year, 49 United States Senators, as part of an effort to pass a bill authorizing construction of the Keystone XL pipeline, voted against an amendment to the bill that said human activity is a significant contributor to climate change.[3] 49 United States senators proclaimed that the firmly established global scientific consensus is incorrect! A number of them cried foul, saying the amendment was a political stunt. They may be right, but a U.S. Senator’s ability to discern fact from fiction matters when the fate of the planet is at stake. The Senate has the power to shape energy and environmental policy in ways that ensure a sustainable future. It is infuriating every time that strange coalition of hyper-conservative faith, business and political interests drives a large segment of our national leadership to ignore science. In my view such willful ignorance is a sinful evasion of responsibility that demands a fighting response from all people of faith who take science seriously. Two conflicting impulses.

Stan and Sue McMillen inspired my reflections on this topic. They purchased a sermon at last year’s goods and services auction. This is their sermon. Stan suggested a couple of possibilities. First he said, “I have been increasingly concerned that religion continues to divide rather than unite us in justice work.” He’s right. Religious differences drive the culture war, and we need that first impulse—curiosity, openness—to bridge our divides. But then he said “There is another disturbing thread that concerns me: the disparagement of science by religion.” Because that ongoing disparagement will have catastrophic consequences for the planet if allowed to persist without opposition, we also need to cultivate that second impulse, a willingness to fight without apology for a sustainable future.

I’ve been wondering about how one decides which impulse to pursue in any given encounter across culture war lines. I’ve been wondering about how I decide, since I make the decision often, but don’t always stop to think about it—which is why I’m using the word impulse. Here’s my best thinking about when and why to follow either of these impulses.

At the beginning of any encounter with a person of another faith—and I suppose at the beginning of any encounter with any human being—approach them with openness, curiosity, friendliness. Assume common ground exists. Assume the other wants a peaceful, prosperous community, a just and fair society, the best possible future for their children and grandchildren. Assume the other cares about the earth. It won’t always be an accurate assumption, but it is much easier to build a relationship if you begin with the assumption that relationship is possible.

Then look for the common ground. Ask, inquire, explore, listen, learn. Stan expresses a concern that religion continues to divide rather than unite us in justice work. Religion is less likely to divide us if we find our common ground. I have been attending a series of meetings at the Catholic Archdiocese of Hartford to work on passage of a bill of rights for domestic workers—people who work in other peoples’ homes providing health care, childcare, eldercare and cleaning services. Because domestic workers aren’t included in the Fair Labor Relations Act and many other national labor laws, they are easily and often exploited with few if any avenues for legal recourse. Passage of a Domestic Worker’s Bill of Rights would begin to create a more just domestic work place in Connecticut. In the meeting at the Archdiocese there are Catholics, Pentecostals, Lutherans, UCCs, UUs and labor union. It would be so easy to say “No, I won’t work with the Catholic Church.” UUs and Catholics are diametrically opposed on many culture war issues: marriage equality, transgender civil rights, and most recently aid-in-dying for terminally ill patients. These divisions have been present in these meeting. The Catholics keep talking about aid in dying, in part because they’ve all been working together to defeat it. Most of them didn’t realize I’ve been working in support of it. Those who did were genuinely concerned I would feel alienated. The meeting organizer finally asked if I would share my thoughts about it. I did. But I made it clear that I would never want our disagreement on this or any other issue to prevent us from achieving our mutual goal of a more just work conditions for domestic workers. As much as Catholics and UUs have disagreed over the years, we’ve always shared the common ground of economic justice.

Nevertheless, division is sometimes inevitable. There are moments when we can’t find common ground and the impulse to fight or struggle takes over. Before that happens, it’s important to me to make sure I’m fighting for the right reasons. For me, a difference in theology or belief is never a reason to fight. That is, if someone believes in God and I don’t, that’s not worth fighting over. If someone believes the Koran is God’s final revelation and I believe all sacred scriptures are human inventions, that’s not worth fighting over. If someone accepts Jesus Christ as their savior and I find salvation in the natural world, that’s not worth fighting over. Differences in theology, tradition, practice—these are opportunities for the first impulse—curiosity, learning. But when someone else’s beliefs manifest in the world in ways that cause suffering, exploitation, oppression, in ways that destroy and kills, then it’s time to take a stand, to struggle, to organize, to fight.

I’ve preached about such moments many times. I am mindful that I typically frame fights between people of faith—whether over gay rights or global warming—as fights ultimately between religious liberalism and religious fundamentalism. I name fundamentalism as the problem. Well, I’ve had an evolution in my thinking, and I want to name it now, even though I haven’t fully worked through its meaning. When we fight for something we believe in—really fight, really struggle—we actually take on characteristics of the fundamentalists we oppose. We appear to them as they appear to us: unbending, unyielding, uncompromising—at least that’s the risk. I’m not a religious fundamentalist, but I’ll own that I’m a marriage equality fundamentalist. I’ll own that I’m a reproductive choice fundamentalist, an economic justice fundamentalist, a Black Lives Matter fundamentalist, a path-to-citizenship- for-undocumented immigrants-fundamentalist, an end-the-war-on-drugs fundamentalist. And I’m a climate-change-is-real-and-caused-by-humans-and-must-be-addressed-now-with-the-largest- mobilization-of-people-and-resources-the-world-has-ever-seen” fundamentalist. I’m owning my fundamentalisms. And I know when I move to that place of utter conviction it has the potential to silence conversation, to alienate people who might not completely agree with me, to damage relationships, to poison otherwise common ground. It can keep the culture war going. Thus I know I must pause at times to critique my fundamentalisms, to assure myself that the rationale behind them is still solid, to assure myself that they are and I am still spiritually and theologically grounded. When I move to that place of utter conviction, I better have solid evidence. 

South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham said something about this back on January 21st when the Senate took that vote on climate change. He voted for the amendment saying he’s now comfortable with climate science. But then he said something that at first seemed silly, but the more I think about it, it’s not. He said, “I think that people on my side”—meaning conservatives—“are really reluctant to embrace how much human activity is causing climate change because our friends on the other side”—meaning liberals—“have made it a religion.”[4]

It’s an interesting use of the word religion. He doesn’t mean religion in the liberal sense where we’re on a journey and our credo is always changing. He means something unchanging. He means fundamentalism. He’s saying “I experience you liberals as Climate Change fundamentalists.” He’s asking for compromise. He’s trying to respond to the first impulse. He’s looking for common ground. But fundamentalism of any sort isn’t interested in common ground. It’s interested in prevailing. And given what climate science is saying, given the great global disruption the models are forecasting, we’re long past time for compromise. Graham is right: those of us who take the science seriously have made it a “religion.” And we need to prevail.

The philosopher of religion Loyal Rue once wrote, “The most profound insight in the history of humankind is that we should seek to live in accord with reality. Indeed, living in harmony with reality may be accepted as a formal definition of wisdom. If we live at odds with reality (foolishly), then we will be doomed, but if we live in right relationship with reality (wisely), then we shall be saved. Humans everywhere, and at all times, have had at least a tacit understanding of this fundamental principle.”[5] I take science seriously, because it is our best guide to understanding reality—not the only guide, to be sure, but the best. And when I say we are justified in fighting against unnecessary suffering, exploitation, oppression, and the destruction of the earth, I understand each of these things as failures of right relationship to reality. I am hopeful that in any sojourn we may take into “fundamentalism,” it is for the sake of restoring right relationship to reality, it is the path of wisdom, and it will save us.

Amen and Blessed Be.

[1] “The 97% Consensus on Global Warming” at Skeptical Science: https://www.skepticalscience.com/global-warming-scientific-consensus-advanced.htm.

[2] Dasgupta, P., Ramanathan, V., Raven, P., Sanchez Sorondo, M., et al, “Climate Change and the Common Good: A Statement Of the Problem And the Demand For Transformative Solutions,” published April 29, 2015 by the Pontifical Academies of Science and Social Science. See: http://www.casinapioiv.va/content/dam/accademia/pdf/protect/climate_change_common_good.pdf.

[3]  Kollipara, Puneet and Malakoff, David, “For the first time in years, the U.S. Senate voted on climate change. Did anybody win?” Science Insider, January 29, 2015.See: http://news.sciencemag.org/climate/2015/01/first-time-years-u-s-senate-voted-climate-change-did-anybody-win.

[4] Kollipara, Puneet and Malakoff, David, “For the first time in years, the U.S. Senate voted on climate change. Did anybody win?” Science Insider, January 29, 2015.See: http://news.sciencemag.org/climate/2015/01/first-time-years-u-s-senate-voted-climate-change-did-anybody-win. Also see: http://www.eenews.net/stories/1060012413.

[5] This quote is taken from Loyal Rue’s Religion is Not About God: How Spiritual Traditions Nurture our Biological Nature and What to Expect When They Fail (Piscataway, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2005). It appeared in Dowd, Michael, “The Evolutionary Significance of Religion: Multi-Level Selection,” Metanexus, February 10, 2012. See: http://metanexus.net/blog/evolutionary-significance-religion-multi-level-selection?utm_source=2012.02.28&utm_campaign=2012.02.28&utm_medium=email.