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Religulous

It was a cold day in January, that time of year when the warmth of summer seems a distant memory and spring is an eternity away.  Everything feels bleak.  The days are grey, lifeless, uninviting.  Even the sun doesn’t feel welcome and retreats before 6 pm.

This particular day, I had collected the mail and in it was a hand-written letter from my parents.  This is unusual.  My parents typically call me if there’s anything they want to say.

I opened the letter and read it.

There were accusations.  Manipulative language.  Bible verses pulled out of context and weaponized to agree with their beliefs.  The main point of all of it, though, was this: since I had voiced an opinion that was different than theirs about how to interpret The Bible regarding a particular subject, they claimed that I “wasn’t taking Biblical truth seriously” and hence said that they could no longer have relationship with me.

Myriad emotions washed over me in that moment; surprise, anger, disorientation, disbelief.  However, one thought stood out above the rest: My parents choosing to no longer have relationship with me because I have a different theological belief than them is absolutely and utterly ridiculous.

There’s this common idea in the church that Christians should try to be like Jesus.  While this is often presented as loving the things Jesus loved (treating others with kindness, taking care of the poor, showing humility, etc so forth), there is a whole other side to this: are you also bothered by the same things that bother Jesus?  Think about that, can you truly be like someone if you only love the things they love but aren’t likewise bothered by the things that bother them?

If there is one thing that that seems to bother Jesus more than anything else, it is when religion is used to mistreat people.  If you do even a casual reading of The Gospels, you will notice that the only hostile confrontations Jesus has are not with the stereotypical “sinners” (tax collectors, prostitutes, drunkards, etc), but rather, with the religious leaders about their religiousness.

Mark 3:1-6 illustrates this perfectly.  It says:

Another time Jesus went into the synagogue, and a man with a shriveled hand was there. Some of them were looking for a reason to accuse Jesus, so they watched him closely to see if he would heal him on the Sabbath. Jesus said to the man with the shriveled hand, “Stand up in front of everyone.”

Then Jesus asked them, “Which is lawful on the Sabbath: to do good or to do evil, to save life or to kill?” But they remained silent.

He looked around at them in anger and, deeply distressed at their stubborn hearts, said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” He stretched it out, and his hand was completely restored. Then the Pharisees went out and began to plot with the Herodians how they might kill Jesus.

A couple of observations about this passage: First, notice that both the religious leaders and Jesus are aware that it would be viewed as unlawful to heal on the Sabbath.  Second, Jesus decides to publicly confront the religious leaders about this notion by asking the man to stand up in front of everyone.  Third, Jesus asks a brilliant rhetorical question that gets to the real heart of the law: is this application of the law bringing about good or evil? Fourth, notice how their religiousness makes Jesus angry because of the harm it is causing.  Fifth, Jesus heals the man to intentionally demonstrate how absurd their notion is.  Lastly, notice how Jesus confronting their religious ridiculousness causes them to begin plotting how to kill him.

How crazy is that?!  Jesus confronting their religious ridiculousness leads to them plotting how to kill him?!  Sounds like they take their religiousness very seriously.  However, Jesus sees it for what it is: religious ridiculousness that is causing harm to people.

Ultimately, why does Jesus heal the man on the Sabbath?

Because the notion that healing on the Sabbath is wrong is religulous.

Let me say that again: the belief the Pharisees held that somehow, healing someone on the Sabbath is wrong, is absolutely and utterly religulous.

Yes, I just created a new word for this, so let’s get a definition for it:

Religulous: (adjective) – ridiculous or absurd religious beliefs that are harmful or oppressive to people

Jesus does not take kindly to this oppressive use of religion.  In fact, this is but one of many other examples where Jesus’ hostile confrontations or strong rebukes are about the religulous behavior of the religious leaders:

This last one is particularly stunning as Jesus spends almost an entire chapter calling out the religulous behavior of the scribes & Pharisees!  Not only that, he does it publicly as at the beginning of Matthew 23 it says “then Jesus said to the crowds and his disciples”.

Think about that for a second.  Imagine if you went to church on Sunday and the sermon was simply a list of seven things pastors do that are religiously ridiculous.  Yet that’s exactly what Jesus does!  Jesus gives a sermon about the things they are doing that are religiously ridiculous and consequently oppressive and harmful to people.

The magnitude of this cannot be understated.  According to Hebrews 1:3, Jesus is the “radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his nature” so whatever we see Jesus doing represents how God feels about the subject.  What do we see Jesus getting deeply bothered about?  Is it drunkenness? Sloth? Gluttony? Lust?

Every hostile confrontation Jesus has in the Gospels is with religious leaders about their religiousness.

This leads to a very important question: why are Jesus’ only hostile confrontations with the religious leaders about their religiousness?

Because their religiousness was causing incredible amounts of harm to people.

The thing that my dad and I disagreed on was whether or not homosexuality was a sin.  Being straight, it was something I simply grew up being taught was wrong and never really questioned.  However, several years ago, a couple of experiences brought to light the enormous suffering of the LGBT community at the hands of religious people due to religious beliefs.

I was so moved with compassion for the suffering of this people group that I found myself willing to ask a very humbling question: have I gotten this wrong for the last 32 years?  I did a ton of research and talked to several people including a very wise pastor whom I trust a great deal.  After all of that, I found I could simply no longer believe that homosexuality is wrong.  The reason I came to that conclusion is because after all the research and all the people I talked to, I realized that the idea that homosexuality is wrong simply because people are pulling a couple Bible verses out of context is religulous.

To all of my heterosexual readers out there, imagine for a second what it would be like if you lived in a world where there was some sacred religious text that is interpreted (cannot emphasize that word enough) to say that attraction to the opposite gender is wrong.  Religious leaders were constantly saying that you are “living in sin” or that your relationship with your significant other or spouse is “an abomination to God”.  Perhaps you took their words seriously and tried everything you could to “get in line with God’s word”.  You tried healing prayer, you tried conversion therapy, you tried everything you could but no matter what, you just couldn’t shake your attraction to the opposite gender.

Then, you tried reasoning with the religious leaders, you asked them: “What harm are my significant other and I causing by being together?  We love each other, we’re committed to each other, we have a healthy sexual relationship with each other.  How is that causing harm?”  However, the religious leaders refused to listen to you because of, well, religiousness.  So you and your significant other are then ostracized from your community of faith and your family of origin simply because you were born being attracted to the opposite gender and the religious leaders of your community interpreted (again, cannot emphasize that word enough) the sacred religious texts to say that is somehow wrong.

How do you think that would make you feel?  Would you feel loved by the those religious communities and leaders?  Would you think they are displaying the love of God for you and your significant other?  I’m going to take a wild guess and say “no”.  In addition, I suspect that you would feel angry, hurt, frustrated, and rejected.  What’s more, I suspect you would find yourself thinking that your religious community ostracizing and shaming you and your significant other due to your attraction to the opposite gender is religulous.

And you would be exactly right.

Perhaps for you it’s not the issue of homosexuality but instead how religion has treated women.  The notion that women can’t be allowed to be pastors, teachers, or “hold authority over a man” bothers you greatly because it is a clear example of the active oppression of women disguised under a religious veil.  Those who promulgate this view base their position on just a handful of verses ripped out of context while completely ignoring other sections of the Bible, like Judges chapter 4.  There, Deborah (a woman) is leading the entire nation of Israel (Judges 4:4 Now Deborah, a prophet, the wife of Lappidoth, was leading Israel at that time.) and what’s more, was having authority over men like Barak! (Judges 4:6: She sent for Barak son of Abinoamfrom Kedesh in Naphtali and said to him, “The Lord, the God of Israel, commands you: ‘Go, take with you ten thousand men of Naphtali and Zebulun and lead them up to Mount Tabor.”)  Oh my, what blasphemy!  Or, there is a much simpler explanation – the notion that women can’t have authority over men, can’t be pastors, or can’t be leaders is religulous.

Or perhaps for you it’s this concept that God is sending all these people to hell who have never heard of him.  What kind of God would do that?  God is described to be a good father, yet this behavior hardly seems to fit what a good dad would do.  Think about it.  Imagine a dad who said to his kid “Unless you say these right magic words in this certain window of time, I’m going to throw you into eternal conscious torment”.  We would have that father locked up for child abuse!  Yet this exact methodology gets ascribed to God and yet somehow it’s still good?

If God is a good dad, no, the best dad, wouldn’t he want all his children to be reconciled to him?  Wouldn’t he give endless opportunities for them to come home to him, always waiting for them with open arms like in the parable of the prodigal son (which Jesus begins by saying “this is what the father is like”)?  Why would it matter whether that reconciliation took place in this life or the next?  Not to mention that the Bible is replete with passages that say or imply all.  Like Colossians 1:20, which says “and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven” or 2 Corinthians 5:19, which says “that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them”.  Notice there is no asterisk beside these verses saying “only if you’re a Christian” or “only if you say the right magic words before you die”.  Perhaps this is because the concept that God would send loads of people to eternal conscious torment for a temporal amount of misbehavior simply because they didn’t say the right magic words in a certain window of time is religulous.

It’s been over two years since I got the letter from my parents that signaled the end of our relationship.  Effectively, what they are doing is trying to use the pain of rejection as a form of control to get me to conform to what they believe about homosexuality.  While it has been intensely painful to lose my relationship with my parents, their actions have had the exact opposite effect of what they intended – I have often found myself thinking “Is this what it’s felt like for members of the LGBTQ+ community for the last several thousand years of human history?  Is this the kind of pain they have felt when they have been rejected by their families of origin?”  If my pain is only an ounce of an iota of the ocean of pain experienced by the LGBTQ+ community, then it fills me with even more compassion for them and further cements that standing up for this people group, even at the cost of the relationship with my parents, is the right thing to do.

As a result of the fallout with my parents, I have often found myself rather disgusted with religion.  In fact, I have been so disgusted with religion that I in effect gave up writing because my writing has always been faith-based and oftentimes it has felt hard to separate religion from relationship with God (even though I think those two things are profoundly different).

However, the more I have thought about it the more I have been able to differentiate religiousness from relationship with God.  Those two things are not only profoundly different, but I think often even mutually exclusive.  I suspect that those who have deep relationship with God often keep finding themselves discarding their own former elements of religiousness and conversely, those who keep becoming more and more religious are moving further and further from really knowing God.

The thing I find most encouraging in this, though, is that in the same way that Jesus was bothered by religiousness, so am I.  

Maybe you’re someone who has found yourself on the fringes of faith or who has dismissed it completely because of the ways you see religiousness harming people.  However, what if it’s God’s very compassion for people living in you that is making you so bothered with how religion has mistreated people?  How wild would that be?

Maybe you’re not as much of a stranger to faith as you think because the things you are bothered by are, in fact, religulous.

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