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.
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!”