I believe we all basically want the same things, even if we don’t agree about how we might get them. Trying to understand each other, giving each other simple respect as human beings, goes a long way. We all have different experiences which inform how we’ve decided to live our lives. There are many ways to happiness. My way works for me, yours works for you, we can agree to disagree. And if we can, if we can stop trying to tell each other what to do, how to live, if we can be forgiving and generous of spirit, we can be sympathetic, we can hope.
I’m not a religious person. Spiritual, yes, religious no. But even so, through my life I’ve been fascinated with organized religion. I’ve taken classes, studied, and I’ve been exposed to religions of differing kinds through my family and friends. I have seen people, in regards to their religion, be their best selves, and I’ve seen them be their not so best selves.
I never understood, growing up, why my Grandma on my father’s side played favorites with her children and her grandchildren. Her choices seemed arbitrary, nonsensical. There seemed to be no precipitating event or behavior that caused those choices. I was, without a doubt, a favorite. My brother was not. When I was small I didn’t know this, or realize it, but then I grew. I became aware of the behaviors of adults, of the kids around me. I started to notice how my grandmother treated my brother. It wasn’t good. I was all cakes and smiles and praise and good cheer, he was insulted and degraded and made fun of. When I noticed this, I started not wanting to go to grandma’s house anymore. I loved my brother and I knew, innately, that my grandma’s behavior was cruel and mean and not at all acceptable. I couldn’t get past how she could be so nice to me, buying me gifts, playing games, be so loving, and then be so awful to him. He’d done nothing wrong, yet she acted as if his mere existence repulsed her.
My grandma was also very religious. Religious as in talking in tongues, holy rollers, and tent revivals. This never bothered me in and of itself, though it did scare me a lot when I went to church with her and the preacher was screaming and people were falling down in the aisles. When I visited she would sometimes tell me stories from the bible, always choosing Revelations and emphasizing how if people weren’t good they would be branded and burn. Scary stuff for a 7-year-old, but none of that really ever deterred me from seeing her, not even when she took me to a tent revival and had me saved by another screaming man. I started not wanting to go see her on church days, but really I still loved seeing her. Until, that is, I realized how she treated my brother. Once that realization hit I instantly felt an incongruity. I wasn’t more than 9 or 10, but I remember thinking how she was a person who espoused religious beliefs of love and faith and hope, but acted against them. She was a hypocrite. What I felt about religion told me it should be about love and understanding and compassion, not cruelty and judgement and disdain.
The other side of my family, my mom’s, wasn’t religious at all. I found out later my mom’s mom had grown up in a religious household, but events happened that caused her to turn away from organized religion. I think they all went to church as a family, for a time, but eventually that faded out for most of them. When we visited my Mom’s parents religion was never discussed. Instead we were taught to play chess and backgammon. The arts were encouraged, books were encouraged, music was all around. So was laughter and love and a very tight sense of family.
I grew up in a home with an atheist (my step-dad) and an agnostic (my mom). We didn’t talk about religion much in our house, except when my step-dad mocked it, or my mom would explain that she thought, fundamentally, the tenants of organized religions were mostly good (do unto others, kindness, hope, love, compassion) but that organized religion, in the hands of some, seemed to be used to control, conquer, and judge people. My mom, who treats people the best of anyone I’ve ever met, with respect and compassion and kindness, was and continues to be a great role model for me about how to be a wonderful human.
Fast forward several years in my life. I’d taken many courses on religion, read many religious books (large sections of the Bible, the Tao, Buddhist teachings, tenets of Hinduism, parts of the Koran, etc., etc.) and had formed what is the basis of my own spiritual thought. No one religion encompasses what I think and feel, but they all actually have things in common, and have in their own way contributed to my philosophy.
I’ve had great experiences with people who are religious as well. Being gay, this is a tough thing as many religious people condemn me for being who I am. But, I have some wonderful people in my life, who are very religious, and have shown me, over and over, what love, truth, kindness, and understanding are. Which is why I want to talk about my friend, Pat. I met him a long time ago, 17 years or so. We worked together, were office partners, and ended up loving each other like brother and sister. He is a super religious guy. Very much a man of his beliefs, very solid, very sure. I respect him immensely for that. As you can tell, I’m not a Christian person, and I’m gay, so our deep and abiding friendship was somewhat of a surprise to both of us. And yet, it continues. I have deep love for him, and I know he shares the same feelings for me. He has been, at times, a youth pastor, a regular guest preacher, and very involved with whatever church he has belonged to over the years since I’ve known him. He’s moved a bit so has had to change churches more than once, always finding a church home and always getting very involved with it when he does. I also respect him for that. He’s a man of faith, and his faith is strong.
Pat and I once had a very long very heartfelt conversation about my being gay, what he thought of it, and what he thinks the bible thinks of it as well. At the time we had this conversation, which was several years ago now, he was not pro gay marriage. He is a religious guy and he felt (and probably still feels) that a traditional marriage ceremony is inherently a religious ceremony. I, who am now legally married to my partner of over 13 years, obviously disagrees with him on this point, but that’s OK, he doesn’t argue it with me. We agree to disagree, which is OK too. What he said to me that day, about my being gay, was beautiful. He said that nowhere in his bible (and he knows it exceptionally well) does he interpret that people should be judged by anyone but God. He said God teaches judge not lest ye be judged. Judging, in and of itself, is a sin as great as any other. He said it wasn’t his place to judge me. He said it’s his place to love me, be kind to me, be accepting, and let God do what he will. He believes that man is not God, and therefore shouldn’t think that he/she has the right to act as if they are acting for God. I love Pat. His beliefs are strong, and they don’t allow him to condemn me. He would never do that. He has often said he wants to bring me to his church and talk to the congregation about love, about our relationship, about how two very different people can form beautiful bonds with each other and how that’s what it should be all about.
This country, that I happen to love, was formed largely by people fleeing religious persecution. People who weren’t able to worship and believe as they wished without consequence from their government, fled to a place where they could worship and believe as they wished. We’ve somehow forgotten that. If a person is not a Christian, in my experience, many Christians now seem to believe they have the right to tell that non-christian person they are somehow less than, and that they should, in essence, be cast out. When did it become OK to judge? When did it become OK to feel that because you believe a certain way you have the right to tell everyone else how to believe, how to be, what to do? When did it become OK, with total arrogance, to feel that condemnation was a right anyone could have. I don’t tell anyone what they should believe. My feeling is that what works for you, as a person, as far as your belief system goes, is yours. Your relationship with God, however you see him/her, is your business, your right. I will not interfere with that, and I expect not to be interfered with.
I also expect that your religious beliefs, whatever they are, stay out of my government. There was a reason for separation of church and state. It was meant to protect us from any one group, who might gain power, from asserting its beliefs and wishes on to the rest of us, who could be in danger of experiencing consequences for not going along.
I know a lot of Christians now believe they are being persecuted. I don’t see that, but I’m not them. For all I know, it could be happening. But here’s the thing, persecution because of religion has been going on for centuries. Since the beginning of religion. Perpetuated both by and against people of varying religious beliefs. I don’t think any one group, whoever you are, has the right to tell another group what to believe, how to live based on those beliefs. Nobody should be discriminated against because of their beliefs, whatever they are. If you have a set of rules, morals, tenants you live by based on your religion, more power to you. I have mine, and they are no less real or valuable than yours. As long as your beliefs aren’t hurting anyone, believe what you will. We fear what we don’t understand. When we fear we sometimes strike out. When we fear we don’t always act as our better selves. When we fear we create division and anger and hopelessness. All things contrary to what I believe is the most important part of any religion and/or belief system… love.
I know there’s no answer, and I know some people will disagree with me, may even become incensed or angered by something I’ve said here. And I guess that’s OK. You are entitled to your opinion, to your feelings. As I am. But if you do get angry, remember this… I’m not angry with you. I just want us to talk to each other. To realize we are all just trying to get through it the best we can, with the most dignity, compassion, and love in our lives as possible. I think, ultimately, most of us want the same things. To be respected as human beings, to be allowed to believe as we wish without repercussions from our government or our fellow humans, and to live the happiest of lives possible. If we can just meet at that place, with that realization, maybe there’s hope for us after all.