I wish I had been more of a hippie.
It’s true I was committed to the anti-war movement. I registered for the draft as a religious conscientious objector, opposing all war on the grounds that following Jesus meant loving, not killing, your enemies. From the sidelines of Baltimore lower middle working-class row-home whiteness, I cheered on the civil rights movement. I read Rootsand the Autobiography of Malcolm X. I nodded in agreement when the latter said, “It is impossible for a white person to believe in capitalism and not believe in racism.”
In high school, I tutored inner city kids whose outer ears had been chewed off by rats and who had permeant brain damage from eating lead-based paint chips off widow sills. I saw first hand poverty and racism. Like many teens in the late 1960s, I longed for universal peace and justice.
Politics seemed hopeless. Nixon. War on drugs – really a war on black youth – a scheme to imprison a generation and ensure generational family dysfunction and poverty.
Baltimore became a warzone after Martin Luther King was murdered. 4:00 PM curfew. Armored personnel carriers rolling down our street. Makeshift jails. Sandbag trenches. National guard. Active duty troops. Shoot on sight. This time, the fire.
Black Panthers. Weather Underground. Bombs. Guns. It seemed counterproductive at best – understandable, but deeply contrary to my commitment to the nonviolent way of Jesus.
Then came Timothy Leary. If everyone would just drop acid, the collective human consciousness would expand, universal peace would emerge. On top of that, soon the moon would be in the Seventh House and Jupiter would align with Mars. Love would steer the stars.
I never did any drugs – too afraid of what they’d do to me. My friends who did were not doing them to get high. They were taking LSD to save the world. Yes, we really did believe that.
Before long, however, it became more about trafficking drugs and making money. And the poverty was still there. As was the racism. Rich men kept making wars. Disillusionment. Timothy Leary faded. The Beatles broke up.
Ah, but then came Jesus! Hippies turned Jesus Freaks. The drugs were tossed away – replaced by genuine love, service, and harmony. All I longed for – universal peace, an end to war, an end to racism, genuine community, altruistic love, acceptance, meaning, purpose – it was all either there or promised in Jesus.
Gradually, I lost my way. I never stopped believing. Never stopped trying to follow Jesus. Certainly never stopped loving God.
But our whole movement was coöpted. Like many, I embraced a flattened woodenly literalistic Bible. War and capital punishment became causes to cheer rather than eschew. Poverty was the fault of the poor. America was the greatest nation ever. Native Americans were pagans. The founding fathers were devout Christians. Science was willfully ignorant – the universe popped into existence fully formed during a period of 144 hours 6,000 years ago. AIDS was judgment for sin. Two sins were so hideous, so much more sinful than any others that they were bringing down the world’s last and greatest hope – abortion and homosexuality. (Conveniently, they were two things I was never likely to do.)
Like many who were coöpted, I had no idea that the religious right was born in opposition not to abortion, but to segregated Christian schools losing their tax-exempt status. I had no idea that Republican strategists were purposely wooing white evangelicals, not for their cause, but for their votes.
I drank the Kool-Aid.
Little by little, I awakened, as if from a long coma.
Many of the most spiritual people I’d ever seen were African-American. They voted for Democrats. Were they all deceived?
Why did my so many of my Republican acquaintances care so little about poverty and injustice?
As Christians, how could we justify destroying the environment?
Did God create the world in 6 days but make it look like billions of years to deceive people?
Some of the godliest people I knew were gays and lesbians. They loved Jesus. It seemed like they loved Jesus more than I did.
Why were we supporting a right-wing Israeli government that half the Israelis didn’t support?
Why were we opposing Palestinian Arabs, many of whom are Christian?
Would Jesus cheer for bombings?
Did Jesus have split personality – kind and loving the first time around; a warlord the next?
Did God really order genocide, or is God really like Jesus?
Why was I pretending that there are no contradictions in the Bible?
How had I become so judgmental, angry and hateful?
Why was I listening to arrogant talking heads?
Brilliant Christian biologists fully embrace evolution. Are they deceived?
What happened to the compassion I felt for the poor, the broken, the displaced, the sick, addicted and mentally ill?
I’ve come full circle, back to the Jesus Freaks, back to the lovers of nature, back to the ranks of those opposed to war and longing for justice. I’ve come back to compassion. I’ve come back to Jesus. My first love.
Love to have you join us for our live via Zoom Bible study every Wednesday at 6:30 PM Eastern Time (GMT – 04:00)
There is much talk these days of toxic masculinity, toxic relationships, and toxic workplaces, all of which exist, and all of which create problems and pain. As is the case with any organization, churches can be toxic workplaces where people are manipulated, abused, or disrespected.
Behind and under much of the toxicity are toxic ideas, beliefs, or dogma. White supremacy is a toxic philosophy. Jingoism is a toxic ideology that leads to xenophobia.
I was not raised with a church background.
When I was 17, or thereabouts, I cried out in desperation into the unknown, only hoping that there was an Intelligence in the universe that would hear me. God flooded me with light and love. Jesus became my Lord and King.
For a couple of years, it was kind of just Jesus and me. I happily read books (including the Bible), took every religiously oriented class I could find in college, joyfully engaged in mentoring inner-city kids, and went through my days in running conversation with God.
I got married at a very young age and by the time I was 20, had a son. That’s when I started going to church, and from there, I was introduced to home Bible studies, prayer meetings, and a gamut of large charismatic meetings. (Those were the days of the Jesus Movement.) Much of that was glorious – enthusiasm, heart-pumping songs of joy and praise, prayers for healing, inspiring messages, a huge ecumenical community of faith. I loved it.
But danger crouched at the door. Imperceptibly, toxic theology crept in. It was toxic because it produced poison Kool-Aid. I drank heartedly.
My Kool-Aid was a mixed drink, consisting of:
- Wooden literalism.I was taught a flat Bible, by which I mean every verse was seen as dictated directly by God, without mistakes or errors of any kind, and carrying equal weight with every other verse. One could then overlook the Sermon on the Mount by quoting something out of 1 Kings. (It turns out, there is nothing at all wrong with the Bible – only with the way we were interpreting it.)
- Young Earth Creationism. Wooden literalism led us to throw science out the window and promote nonsense. We became like those who insisted, based on scripture, that the earth was flat. Educated people laughed.
- Patriarchy.The Bible was interpreted to keep men, especially white men, squarely in control, bosses of their families, churches, businesses, and countries.
- Racism. Not the blatant overt racism of the KKK, but a subtler ignoring of voices of color.
- Nationalism. One of my primary Bible teachers made of point of telling us that Native Americans were savage pagans. Their genocide and stolen land was God’s judgment. They were like the Amalekites of old. America was the new Israel. God took the land from the pagans and gave it to “his people” – white, “Christian,” Europeans.
- Christendom.Church and state wed; the church serves as chaplain to empires that do what empires always do – brutalize and dominate. The cross and basin were replaced by the flag and a gun.
- Militarism. Somewhere along the line, everything Jesus taught about turning the other cheek and loving your enemies was tossed out the proverbial window and replaced with the glories of war and the virtues of killing. Christian military generals were given standing ovations as worship bands played war anthems.
- Zionism. Based on faulty eschatology, I came to support ultra-right-wing militaristic Israeli governments that most Israelis did not support, and reject and condemn Palestinians, many of whom are Christian.
- Pretribulation rapture. We true believers would soon be snatched away. The earth was destined to burn. Unbelievers were destined to torture and death and hell. No need to save the planet. Environmentalism was a waste of time and energy. The only thing that mattered was “getting people saved.” We were escapist.
- Eschatology. The apocalyptic portions of scripture (much of Daniel, some of Ezekiel, some of Isaiah, Zechariah, the Olivet Discourse, and Revelation) were interpreted to reinforce militarism, divine judgment, eternal torture, national exceptionalism, anti-environmentalism, and escapism. Apocalyptic portions of the Bible were used to feed conspiracy theories. The world was going to end in 1980, 1988, and 2000. Donald Trump incarnates Cyrus the Great.
- Infernalism. An overly literalistic interpretation of the Bible led me to believe that the God who is Perfect Love planned to eternally torture the majority of humankind in everlasting fire. I was mostly fine with that.
- Prosperity. Other portions of scripture were twisted to promote opulence, income disparity, and hedonism.
- Homophobia. The Bible was regularly used to bludgeon and condemn the LGBTQ community.
- A Truncated Pro-lifeview became associated only with anti-abortion. One could be “pro-life,” yet support capital punishment, war, anti-immigration policies, and police brutality.
- Theocracy. The task at hand for American Christians became political power that could then be used to impose a particular understanding of ethics and morality on the general public. “Christian” became identified with ultra-conservative Republican. Christians could wholeheartedly support the most immoral and dishonest president in the history of the United States.
Having drunk deeply of the Kool-Aid, I woke up one day and found myself a racist, homophobic, nationalist, flag-waving, violence-promoting, misogynist ordained pastor-teacher.
Then, I took along, hard look at Jesus. With God’s help, I came back to my first love, to the Prince of peace who embodies perfect, self-sacrificial, cruciform, loving service to the marginalized.