Like a lot of kids in the Midwest, I grew up going to church. My parents prayed over my younger brother and me every night before bed, read us stories from the Bible, and explained Jesus in a simplified way we could understand. This was a big part of my childhood, but it never felt like an overly religious household. And by all accounts, it wasn’t. There were no shame tactics, unattainable moral standards, or religious checklists to complete as the entry fee into Heaven. I didn’t have designated church dresses or know how to pray the rosary. All I knew is: God loves you. Jesus saved you. End of story.
The safest I ever felt was when my parents tucked me into bed and prayed for our health and safety. (When they closed their eyes, I usually looked up at the ceiling. I couldn’t be sure where God was hanging out since I couldn’t see him after all. I imagined Heaven must be something like Disney World in the sky).
“It’s in Jesus’ name we pray. We love you forever. Amen.”
For a child like I was—the timid, anxious kind—there is something magical and comforting about the existence of a supernatural being who’s looking out for you. Believing in God felt like believing in eternal safety and protection. This was indeed an appealing idea.
When my anxiety reached its peak in fourth grade, I’d excuse myself from class and scurry down the hallway to the bathroom. I sat in the middle stall and did the only thing I knew how to do to feel better: pray. And it worked. Every time. I learned when I asked God to show up, He did. Peace always arrived by the time I returned to the classroom.
As I got older, finding peace wouldn’t always be in the ways I expected or even wanted. I was no longer a worried child in a bathroom stall. I was becoming an adult who believed her ideas for the future were far better than whatever this God of Peace had in mind. My personal freedom was far too important to abandon in pursuit of a “religious identity” as I saw it. I was turned off by the so-called Bible thumpers on my college campus. They seemed self-righteous and judgmental and fun-sucking. Some were. Some weren’t. But who was I to judge their hangover-free Sunday mornings? We grew up in the same churches, didn’t we?
Just make me feel safe, God, that’s all I need from you right now. I got the rest covered.
And from the outside, it sure looked like I did. But on the inside, deep within my gut, I was restless and uncertain, never fully attaining the peace I so desperately craved. The general sense that “there has to be more than this” incessantly filled my mind. My prayers were full of requests and void of listening. I thought if I kept searching on my own I would eventually find “it”. Whatever “it” is. But all I ever found was a need to do more searching.
While I lived in Austin, this internal conflict became overwhelming. I began to operate from a social justice lens; the counselor-in-training part of me was acutely aware of the ways Christianity had wronged and shamed so many. I was increasingly disillusioned by what I saw as a religion that justified homophobia, misogyny, and other forms of oppression.
If Christians weren’t actively using division as a tactic, they were certainly silent when others were. Although I never abandoned my belief in the existence of God, the belief was undoubtedly strained. I stood on shaky ground, easily swayed by the slightest gust of doubt.
Frustration arose with the type of empty faith that runs on checklists, keeping score, and talking points without action. There were so many issues I couldn’t seem to reconcile. People close to me shared stories of being rejected by the Church and, subsequently, their own family for being gay. For being born how God created them. How could I defend an institution that used God as a veil to speak against equal human rights? How could they look at gay children and tell them we “love but don’t affirm you”? In no way could I picture Jesus treating people the way some religious leaders treated their congregations.
I noticed the many ways believers stayed silent so as not to rock the boat during instances of injustice. Very few of the Christians I knew were part of the conversations about racial discrimination in America. Why isn’t there more outrage at the police killings of unarmed Black men? Why aren’t there more people of color in our pews? How can we stand by politicians who spew hate, incite fear, and celebrate division while our pastors preach love and acceptance?
Why do religious leaders go on international mission trips but avoid addressing the poverty in their own cities? Why do so many pro-life advocates stay silent—and, in some cases, justify—when women and children who cross our southern border are separated and forced into detention camps? Why is the focus more on banning abortion than it is on the lives of the children who already struggle to survive in our communities? More on ensuring birth than ensuring equal access to contraceptives?
One afternoon, I’m sitting in a graduate school seminar. A classmate shares a story of overhearing a preacher angrily calling for damnation to hell for sexual sinners. Other classmates shake their heads, displaying a spectrum of anger and sadness.
“This is why Christianity is so dangerous,” someone says.
“It’s no wonder people don’t feel safe in churches,” another responds. “They’re full of outdated, discriminatory beliefs and practices.”
Before I can stop the words from exiting my mouth, I hear my own voice echo across the room. “But that’s not God.”
The room falls silent. I gulp, momentarily considering an exit strategy. Too late. Eyes are on me.
“That’s not God,” I repeat. “I know what it’s like to be frustrated—even outraged—by the Church as an institution. I know because I grew up in it. But thankfully, I had parents who encouraged me to ask hard questions. They were so confident that the answers would always point back to love and acceptance, not discrimination and fear. There were no shame or fear tactics. But I know that’s not universal, and it breaks my heart it’s not. It should be. Religion can be used for hate. But that’s because of hateful people. That’s not because of God.”
I’m met with some sympathetic looks. I don’t know where the words come from; I have no intention to speak up. But in this moment, it’s clear: I can’t base the validity of God’s existence on the actions (or inactions) of the people who claim to believe in God. That logic doesn’t add up. I’m spending so much time judging people who misread, misinterpret, and mistreat. But if I can find the Christians who don’t lead from love, surely I can find the ones who do. If my gut tells me what is wrong, surely it can also point to what is right. Instead of nodding along fervently at the criticisms of when Christians get it wrong, maybe I can look for the ways they are getting it right.
Political bias finds its way into our interpretation of God. None of us is an exception. Imperfect humans with imperfect agendas are destined to fail. And sometimes people even use religion to propel their own hateful ideologies. But that’s not a testament to God. That’s a testament to human bias, brokenness, and sometimes evil.
As I neared the end of graduate school, the ground on which I stood that had necessarily been shaken to its core began to solidify again. I understood that the true Jesus isn’t passive nor discriminatory. His life is defined by healing the hurt, sitting at the feet of the most marginalized and desecrated in society, and actively speaking out against all forms of injustice and evil. What breaks his heart should break mine. He cannot possibly side wholly with either conservatives or liberals. No party or belief structure has a monopoly on God; He transcends our broken, binary systems. He represents both unconditional love and restorative (not simply punitive) justice.
My heart inevitably softened for those who are well-intentioned but still get it wrong. If I want to receive grace when I slip up, I must learn how to give grace to others. If I’m calling for compassion for the oppressed, I must work toward compassion for the oppressor, whom too often has little to no awareness of the role they play in perpetuating shame. Although I may never find all the answers to all my questions (that’s why it’s called faith, after all), I did discover two that answer a lot of them.
Lead with love. Not doctrine.
Follow God. Not his followers.
This is not an easy pill to swallow. And it’s not a suggestion to sit back in silence and enable dangerous people to maintain power. If we listen well enough, God reveals to us when to act and when to be still. But fighting against blame and division with weapons of blame and division is not productive. As Audre Lorde so eloquently wrote, “For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us temporarily to beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change.”
We cannot simply hand our LGBTQ+ children a Bible after they share their stories of shame, rejection, and violence. We must listen. We cannot simply pray for racial healing as a hall pass out of tangible action. We must have hard conversations. The God I’ve come to know calls us to love even the ones with whom we vehemently disagree while standing up for what is right. Love is what is right. Always. I’d venture to say we all need more of it.