I should probably turn in my goodness card. I blew up — via email — at a well-meaning Christian who wrote to tell me that all I needed was prayer to find the Holy Spirit. This happened about a week ago. I’ve been mulling over the incident ever since and have realized that I need to make a confession: I have a Christianity problem.
To be specific, I’m rather famous among my friends for responding with an instantly arched back, flattened ears, puffed up fur, bared fangs and a loud, prolonged hiss to any mention of Jesus, Christ, The Bible or traditional churches. Like a tabby that turns a corner to unexpectedly bump into a pit bull, I find myself thrown into battle mode.
This is decidedly odd given that some of my best friends are Christians. I’m not joking. Two of them are even ministers. I vacation with them, laugh, debate and explore spirituality with them. These two aren’t mere acquaintances. They’re call-in-the-middle-of-the-night-when-I’m-desperate friends.
I attend services every Sunday at a Unity Church, a denomination that until recently billed itself as “practical Christianity.” My personal creed is best described as Buddhist/New Age/Spiritual. Nothing in it demands a rejection of other religions, and I serve on the church’s board. Many members of this close-knit spiritual community are Christians. We get along well.
My hostile reaction to Christianity is personally puzzling, but it’s also an issue for the Goodness Project. If nothing else, I doubt whether I can find or even understand goodness if I’m eaten up with hate for a portion of humanity.
So, what gives?
I suspect that my reaction grows from many seeds, but I didn’t see what may be the biggest source until this week. To explain, I must digress and tell a story. This tale has nothing to do with Christianity and everything to do with anger.
From 1979 to 1985, I studied karate with the Feminist Self Defense and Karate Association. About a quarter of our work focused on self-defense. On this particular day in a World War I-era gym at Michigan State University, we were learning to defend against club-wielding attackers. The technique is simple. When an attacker runs at you with the intent of clubbing you on the head, you step to the side at the precise moment he swings. If done correctly, your side step leaves only air for the attacker to hit.
The trick is in the timing. Move too early, and the attacker adjusts his swing and hits you. Move too late, and the result is equally painful. The only way to practice timing is to do it, so we were to divide into groups of two, and arm ourselves with rolled-up newspapers.
On this day, a new student had arrived at my nearly all-female school. This guy was about 6 feet tall and muscular in a hulking, steroid-enhanced, wrestler kind of way. His gi (those white pajama thingies martial artists wear) barely contained his body. He wore a white belt, designating that he was a beginner, and he terrified me. He chatted politely with other students and smiled, but the mere fact he was in the room scared me.
That’s because of my father. Dad taught me many things: to take pride in my work, always strive for excellence and to know terror. He abused me to the point where I alternated between wanting to die, and believing that I was going to any minute. On the day of this karate class, I didn’t want to be put in a self-defense situation with any man, particularly a big one. As our teacher, Joan Nelson, paired up the students, I silently chanted “don’t put me with that guy, don’t put me with that guy.”
She put me with that guy.
Nelson lined us up in two rows, facing each other. I got the rolled-up newspaper and was to play the role of attacker first. At the teacher’s command, the other attackers and I were supposed to yell, raise the newspapers over our heads, run at the defenders and try to hit them. We were supposed to make it realistic.
My teacher gave the command. On both sides of me, students shouted and dashed good-naturedly at the defenders.
The moment I raised my newspaper, I was enraged. There was no logic to it; all I was doing was feeling. I bellowed and ran at this man as fast as I could. I wanted nothing less than to kill that bastard. Once, twice I ran at him, swung the bludgeon and hit only air, getting more furious by the minute. On the third pass, I swung as hard as I could as he started to step to the side. I hit him solidly on the shoulder.
He flexed it and smiled sheepishly.
My fury drained away. I blinked. Like a blurry film jerking into focus, this fearsome creature suddenly shrank from hulking to slender. He wasn’t half as big as I had thought. “Sorry I hit you so hard,” I said.
“You are really fast,” he said.
After that, we completed the exercise in the same friendly manner as everyone else, and I learned something far more important than a self-defense technique: I feel enraged when I feel powerless. Like a surprised tabby cat bumping into a dog, I use anger to puff myself up when I think I’m in a hopeless battle. Once I hit my practice partner and knew I wasn’t helpless against him, my anger dissipated.
Here’s what this story has to do with my feelings about Christianity: Christians terrify me. I am strong and capable, but part of me feels like a powerless child who can’t withstand the Christian onslaught. I’m a 10-pound cat facing a 120-pound pit bull and the snarling beast is frothing at the mouth.
I’m an out lesbian and a non-Christian living in nation where more than 75 percent of the people are Christian. A healthy chunk of those folks are fundamentalists, Mormons and conservative Catholics who expend enormous effort and money to limit my legal rights and hurt my family. A tiny portion of those people, like my neighbor the Rev. Fred Phelps, believe I should be put to death for no other reason than who I am.
Preachers and priests rail against me from the pulpit. Churches and Christian organizations campaign against my family. In the process, they stereotype me as a vicious sexual predator or a sex addict. (A homosexual will have 10,000 sexual partners, and they’re always looking for new victims, claims the pastor of a church in suburban Kansas City. I haven’t had even 5 sexual partners in my life, let along 10,000. I don’t even know how you would do that. When would you buy groceries, do laundry, go to work?) I joke about this minister’s outrageous claim, but I also worry about how many of the 4,000 members of his congregation believe him. How many of them would deny me work, or beat me up because he has convinced them I’m a threat? When I’m not being pilloried by Christians for being queer, I’m being exhorted to ignore my own experiences and my own spiritual journey and accept “Jesus Christ as my Savior.”
So, this is my Christianity problem: Some Christians have hurt me, and continue to want to hurt me and the people I hold most dear. I’m having a horrible time figuring out how to handle my feelings about that fact.
Intellectually, I know every Christian isn’t antigay or disrespectful of other people’s religious beliefs, but my little girl self doesn’t live in the land of logic. My little girl self wants to hurt them as much as they’ve hurt me. I can be the closest of friends with Christians if I know they don’t seek my destruction. I can accept their theology, and support their worship. However, I also feel powerless to withstand what feels like a continuous assault from a portion of Christianity. My smallest, most frightened self is too scared to wait to determine if an individual Christian is friend or foe; I just want to verbally attack the instant I meet one.
But here’s a fact about powerlessness that’s surprising. I learned two lessons that day in karate. I learned that my anger is fueled by feelings of helplessness, but I also learned that my feelings distort my perception. My hapless practice partner was much smaller than I could see at first. What am I missing in my great tussle with Christians? What am I unable to see about them?
I’ve read that some Christians are just as frightened of me as I am of them. They think I want to destroy their way of life, take their Bibles, or close their churches. (I don’t.) I think they’re the pit bull, and I’m the helpless tabby. Do they think I’m the attack dog, and they’re the cat?
I refuse to be governed by fear. I refuse to be fueled by hate and a thirst for revenge, and I refuse to add to the demonize-the-opposition poison that is sickening our society. I want to let go of my anger at Christians.
I have no instant cure for the dilemma of my feelings. I won’t deny the real pain some Christians have inflicted on me. But I suspect that I’m not as powerless as I fear. Once I can understand — right down to my socks — that I frighten some of them as much as they scare me, then perhaps, just perhaps, I can finally let go and see every Christian as an individual. Maybe someday I won’t feel the need to strike out at them. Maybe someday I can learn to give all Christians the benefit of the doubt. I’d certainly like them to do that for me.