Thursday, November 5, 2015

When Christians Say "We're Sorry"

Image source.

So back in college when I was "on fire for God", my campus Christian group held the "We're Sorry" campaign, which was an attempt to acknowledge and apologize for the ways that Christians have hurt people.

However, to me it was nothing more than a gimmick to get people to listen to "the gospel."

I haven't blogged about this before, because I don't want to accuse the other members of the leadership team of having that same dishonest, get-people-to-listen-to-"the-gospel"-at-any-cost view. Actually, throughout this story, there's clear evidence that others did not see it this way.

The "We're Sorry" campaign was born from the idea that yes, Christians have done bad things to people. From my point of view, I saw it as people having legitimate complaints about Christianity/Christians, and these things were blocking them from believing the correct things about God and getting saved- which, of course, is The Most Important Thing Ever, the only real need that any human being has. We would address those problems and the way people had been hurt, in the hopes that it would bring them one step closer to "getting saved."

Perhaps other members of the group saw it as "the church has done bad things, and people deserve an apology for that. As representatives of Christianity, we will do what we can for them, and we have a responsibility to make the church less awful in the future." I don't know. It never would have occurred to me to see it that way. For me, every "outreach event" we did had to be for the purpose of "sharing the gospel" and trying to get people to become Christians. Otherwise, what was the point? And when you believe all non-Christians automatically go to hell (and you care), it has to be this way- where every friendship, every kind thing you do is a means to an end.

So yes, for me it was "one reason some people aren't Christians is that the church has hurt them, so we need to get rid of that objection." It was "what can we possibly say that might push people closer to becoming Christians?" I really hope other people saw it more as "people deserve to be respected and cared about" but I don't know. At the time, it never would have occurred to me to think of it that way.

So anyway. We put up our fliers. They said things like "We're sorry for being judgmental" and "We're sorry for our hypocrisy" and "We're sorry that our sins have kept you from seeing Jesus." And actually, it felt really weird and humbling for me, walking to class and seeing all these fliers where we have confessed our sins (very, uh, vaguely).

Unfortunately, members of the general public didn't see it that way. Some people said the fliers came across as passive-aggressive or sarcastic. Those of us who were on the planning committee were shocked by this. I remember one of my friends writing a really long facebook post explaining to everyone what we meant, trying to correct the misunderstandings. (I also heard the criticism that "The reason we're not Christians isn't because Christians aren't good people- it's because we just don't believe it. It's not about you.")

We went out and "started conversations" with people between classes, you know, telling them about the "we're sorry" campaign and seeing what they thought. (Of course, for me, this was an attempt to "share the gospel" or get people to come to our big event at the end of the week, where of course there would be a "gospel presentation.")

I remember talking about it with one guy, let's call him Frank. He was an acquaintance of mine- when I first met him, he was a Christian, but a year or so later I found out he had become an atheist. I'm not sure what point he was at when I randomly came up and told him about the "we're sorry" campaign, but I know I assumed he was a Christian and "on my team."

The really weird thing about my conversation with Frank was, I asked him something to the effect of "do you think it will work?" and he said "if people really sincerely are sorry, and in the future they change their behavior." And I was startled, because he seemed to be answering the question "do you think this will help Christians become less hurtful toward others?" but the question I was asking was "do you think this will get people to quit being mad at the church?"

Because for me, it wasn't about being sorry at all. It was about trying to get people to get over their issues with the church so they could "get saved". (And yeah, maybe people did have legitimate grievances, but when heaven and hell hang in the balance, we don't really have time to respect that and give them the space they need to heal on their own terms.)

Yeah, sure, I did feel sorry, to some extent. I felt bad because yeah, I'd been judgmental and all that stuff. But I felt sorry in the same way that Christians always make themselves feel sorry for their sins. You know, the whole, "Jesus died for me... I'm so unworthy... ohhhhhh I'm such a terrible sinner I don't deserve God's love..." You know, just feeling really bad about yourself, but with no concrete examples in mind, and no plans to try and be less terrible in the future.

I was tasked with creating some kind of display where members of our group would talk with random passersby about how sorry we all were. I prepared a big piece of posterboard, a permanent marker, and stickers. The idea was, people would come along and write whatever grievance they had with Christianity- or perhaps put a sticker if they agreed with something that had already been written. Then one of us manning the table would talk to them about it and apologize, and maybe, maybe, maybe- if we were lucky- we would get to "share the gospel" with them.

But that's the part I struggled with. How do we go from "yes, that was a terrible thing that happened to you, I'm really sorry" to "you are a sinner and you need to accept Jesus"? How do we go from acknowledging people's pain to sharing the gospel?

Stop right there.

"How do we go from acknowledging people's pain to sharing the gospel?" Anyone who asks this question does not understand the gospel at all.

I thought "the gospel" was "You are a sinner, and your sin separates you from God, and the long-term result of that is hell. But God loves us so much, he sent his son Jesus, who was fully God and fully human, and he died to take the punishment for us. [here you could mention the resurrection but if time is short you can leave it out without really losing anything] So we can be forgiven and have a relationship with God. So now you have to make a choice: accept Jesus, or not."

 I can draw a bridge diagram like nobody's business.  But that's not the gospel at all.

"How do we go from acknowledging people's pain to sharing the gospel?" Seriously? How could "the gospel" be anything other than "God cares about you so much, and God knows that those things were very wrong"? How could "the gospel" be anything other than "Jesus understands pain- he suffered too"? How could "the gospel" be anything other than "you deserve to be loved and accepted, and you deserve healing, and you have every right to decide you will never go to church again, and that is totally okay- God understands that you need to heal in the way that is best for you"?

I'll tell you how. It's because I believed in hell.

And if hell is infinite, and all non-Christians go there, and I don't want them to, then hell is the most important thing in the world. And all this stuff about "we're sorry" and the way people have been hurt by Christianity is just a side issue, and I just need to come up with something to say to get people to GET OVER IT and trust Christians again.

In this ideology, the only thing that matters in someone's entire life is whether they repented of their sin and "accepted Jesus." That's "the gospel." That was the message I wanted to share with every student at my university.

Hell was all that mattered. And to save people from hell, first you had to get them to realize they were terrible sinners that needed saving.

I didn't know what "good news" would even look like for a victim. (See also this post about how we did an event about human trafficking and could not figure out how on earth to relate it to "the gospel.")

So I tried my best to answer the question, how do we go from apologizing to someone to claiming that we have the right to tell them what to do? And I couldn't figure it out. I concluded, no, it just doesn't work that way. We would apologize, and that would be all we could do. And maybe it would help them feel better, and maybe, someday, far in the future, they would somehow come to Jesus. (Like I said, "coming to Jesus" is all that matters.)

This would not be one of those times I used someone's politeness against them, forced them to listen to the bridge diagram, and then praised God for "giving me an opportunity to share the gospel."

Anyway, so that was my plan for our little display in the student center. People could tell us their painful experiences, we would apologize, not force a gospel presentation, and probably invite them to our big event in the evening.

At the planning meeting when I explained to everyone how to man the table with the display, one of my friends was not happy about it at all. "You're trivializing people's experiences," she said. "How can you say, 'here, put a sticker on the way you've been hurt'?!"

And I told her, yeah, I'm concerned about that too, and I really don't want it to come across that way. Because really, I was concerned. You guys, I cared about people so much, and the doctrine of hell twisted my compassion into something that could not be recognized as compassion.

I believed everyone needs to believe in Jesus, or else they'll go to hell after they die, and even now on earth their life will be awful too. You take someone who truly cares about people, and get them to believe that... they're going to go out and treat people this way. They will treat people like projects, they will befriend you with the intention of someday helping you to become a Christian, they will start awkward conversations and ask you awkward personal questions about your religion.

It is impossible to believe non-Christians go to hell, care about them, be logically consistent, and NOT treat people in a dishonest and disrespectful way while attempting to force them to believe in Jesus. Respect and honesty are nothing compared to hell.

I want you guys to understand how hard it was to be a loving person who's committed her life to an unloving theology. I want you guys to understand the tension of trying to live out "hate the sin, love the sinner" and "the most loving thing we can do is warn people about hell." Realizing that those things are bullshit is one of the best things that's ever happened to me.

(And overall, I think my non-Christian friends back then did see me as a compassionate person. I was sneaky enough in my evangelism that they didn't know I really believed everything important in their lives was meaningless because they didn't "know Jesus.")

Anyway, we went ahead and set up our little table with our "we're sorry" poster. I stood around with a few other group members and talked to the random students who came by and wrote stuff on our board.

What happened next was, for me, the most important moment of the entire "we're sorry" campaign.

A girl came up to us, took the permanent marker, and wrote "I am a lesbian and every day my life is subject to debate by evangelicals." I was shocked and had no idea what to say, and she just walked away without talking to us.

I was overwhelmed, just trying to even imagine how hard it must be for her. I wished I could help her, but what could I possibly say or do? Yes, back then of course I believed it was a sin to act on same-sex attraction. So what good news could I possibly offer her? It didn't matter, she was already gone, but wow... I just wished so bad that I could help her.

The whole "we're sorry" thing had just been some abstract "yeah the church has done bad stuff, I guess" propaganda tool for me. But at that moment, when I actually encountered someone who was continually hurt, over and over, by things that I actually believed... I was sorry. I really was sorry. And I was humbled by how obvious it was that I had no idea what she was going through. I have no idea what it's like to be a lesbian. All I knew was what Christians had taught me- that it's fine to "struggle with same-sex attraction" but it's not okay to act on it or identify as LGB- but that was just some faraway, theoretical idea. But for someone who actually is a lesbian, that's her reality. And I knew I shouldn't say anything because I wouldn't have a clue what I was talking about.

I just wished so bad that I could help her, and that she didn't have to experience that kind of hurt. It would be several years before I quit believing that God was anti-LGBT. But maybe this moment inspired me to start reading more and trying to figure out how Christians can love LGBT people. (Note: I'd like to point out that LGBT Christians exist, so framing it as "how Christians can love LGBT people" is inaccurate.)

So. Moving on. We had our big event at the end of the week. We brought in a speaker who gave a talk about this one bible passage where someone is asking Jesus to heal them, and other people are judging them for it. At the end, he asked for a response from us- for those of us who are Christians, he asked us to look at the ways we judge people and hinder them from getting to Jesus, and stop doing that. And for non-Christians, he did an altar call and then a less intense altar call for people who wanted to "find out more" about Jesus but not necessarily become a Christian.

I remember during the event, as one of the student leaders in our Christian fellowship was introducing it, she made some remark about "those of us on the leadership team really are sorry" and it really surprised me, because in my mind, the point of this wasn't about us actually being sorry- it was a gimmick to get people to come listen to "the gospel." Yes, for over a week we had been spreading our "we're sorry" message all over campus, and I totally had not realized that I was actually supposed to be sorry.

Well, that's the whole story. And you know, every now and then I see stories online about a group of Christians going to some kind of LGBT pride parade or whatever and telling everyone "we're sorry." So let's talk about that.

I think most of the time, it doesn't come across well. People see it as just a PR move- and yeah, that's exactly what it was for me, back then. Also, if you say "we're sorry" but you keep believing and doing exactly the things that hurt people in the first place, then the "sorry" is meaningless. And don't try to say "oh we're not like those anti-gay Christians who are really mean about it" if you still believe same-sex relationships are not okay. Your apology is meaningless if you still want to deny people's identity and their rights- it doesn't matter how "loving" you think you're being about it.

If Christians want to really apologize, it has to come with the acknowledgement that because Christianity has hurt this person, Christians never again have the right to tell them what to do.

Let me say that again: If Christians really are sorry, then it means recognizing that the victim's pain and anger are legitimate. It's not something you just "get over." It's something that actually matters.

If Christians really are sorry, they know that people need to heal on their own terms.

But of course, like I said earlier, believing in hell screws this all up. Because how sorry can you really be, and how much freedom can you really allow a victim to have, when you believe in a God who won't care about that on judgment day? When you believe in a God who doesn't care that church people hurt this person, and for their own mental and emotional health, they never went to church again... when you believe in a God who says you're out if you don't believe these specific doctrines about Jesus- no excuses.

How sorry can you really be when you worship a God who puts "the gospel" above caring for victims?

How sorry can you really be if you still believe you have all the right answers and everybody better listen to you?

No comments:

Post a Comment