Author Archives: Frank Fredericks

Our Beloved Samaritans: A Vision for Evangelicalism in the 21st Century

“Frank, there’s something I wanted to tell you tonight.  I’m gay.”

Sitting across the table from my friend Bart, I quickly glanced from my food to his face, almost as if by reflex.  “What?” I uttered without thought.

“This last year has been really hard for me.  After having my first experience with a guy, as confusing and heartwrenching as that was, I’ve realized that I am attracted to men.  I broke up with Sarah a few weeks ago.”

“Are you sure it’s not just a phase?” dark words I still wish I could take back.

“Truthfully, I don’t know.”  As we paused a moment to let both our meals and thoughts digest, I realized that Bart has just become the first of what would be several of my friends to come out me.

Bart and I were no strangers.  While he eventually became one of my groomsmen, we met when we both were voted to freshman hall council, him vice president and me president.  Even in the most stressful situations, he’s a guy who can’t lose his cool, and his integrity never falters.  Also, I owe my penchant for solid-color fitted dress shirts to him (see any picture of me…ever).

What’s so pivotal of this experience isn’t how this experience impacted how I saw Bart, but how I saw the LGBT movement at large.  My understanding was largely built on awkward exchanges with strangers, marriage law debates, and some absurd notion of “the gay agenda.”  It wasn’t my moral opinion on the issue that was troubling, it was my complete lack of empathy and humanization.  And this is of not much surprise if you take into account where I came from.

I grew up outside of a small town north of Portland, Oregon, called Battle Ground.  Our idea of religious diversity in the area was the one catholic church and one mormon church in the entire northern half of the county.  As a young evangelical, I attended Portland Christian High School, where I was given more apologetics than critical thought, and even less empathy.  Only years later did I discover the irony of finding how unJesus-like the place was, considering it was named after the guy.  Instead of loving as Jesus loved, I carried with me a judgment of those different myself.

I feel this otherism has plagued the Christian community on all sides.  To this day, evangelical leaders throw the word “atheist” around like an epithet, nomenclature of shame for the morally void.  Whether it’s the presumption that morality is only possible with faith, or the mad assertion that God punishes cities of “heathens” with natural disasters, too many voices seem content to pin with prejudice all wrong among the non-religious.

And yet it gets worse still.  If “gays have an agenda” and atheists are pissing off God, Muslims are vehemently despised compoundedly so, like a gay Darwin in a kafiya.  This has been especially true in the post 9/11 era, as we’ve seen in the Park51 debate, the Murfreesboro mosque protests, and the Burn the Quran Day.

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And yet, throughout all of this, the clear example of Jesus is missing.  While diversity may feel “new” in America, the Gospels are littered with examples of how Jesus engaged with people different than Himself. It wasn’t just lived out in His actions, but a central component of His teaching.  None was more quoted than the Parable of the Good Samaritan.

As a brief recap, this parable told in Luke (10:29-37) talks of a man who is beaten and robbed, and left for dead in the road.  A priest, then a Levite (also a religious leader), simply walked around the man and continued on their way.  It was a Samaritan, a sect seen as apostates by the Jewish community, who stopped to take care of the man.  The two who walked by could have used religious law to justify their inaction, as touching an injured or possibly dead person would be seen as “unclean.”  But Jesus didn’t praise them.  Rather, he focused on the one who took care of someone, putting a stranger’s need above their own.  Jesus finished the parable by saying, “go and do likewise.”

Most important to the parable, is that Jesus made the good person a Samaritan, not a Jew or Christian (or one of his followers, since ”Christianity” didn’t exist yet).  But why would Jesus do that?  It illuminates a question for us in our own time.  Who are the Samaritans of today?  Could a Muslim show me how to live more Christ-like?  Can I learn how to be a better spouse to my wife from Bart?  If the answer isn’t a resounding yes, then we really need to check our prejudice.  It should bother us how easy it is for Evangelical leaders in the media to dismiss our modern day Samaritans with such disdain.

It’s pretty hard to learn from someone if we only see them by their external identity.  Bart isn’t my gay friend, he’s my friend who just happens to be gay.  Without this level of humanization, we’ll never have a chance to build community with others, learn from them, and be able to be Christ-like examples in their lives or our own.

So here is our dilemma.  If we define ourselves through diminishing the humanity of others, not only are we damning Christianity to become a relic of times past, but we’ve unequivocally failed to follow Christ’s example.  Rather than a sect defined by opposition, we can become a community embraced as benevolent.

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Who Would Jesus Hate?

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Lately I have been hearing some rather outrageous assertions made on the behalf of God from supposed “Christian” leaders. Pat Robertson called the Haitian earthquake God’s judgment on the nation he claimed “made a pact with the Devil.” Most recently, the Christian Right’s favored child Glenn Beck instructed Christians to abandon congregations that encourage “social justice” as a part of their teachings. While many Christians have out against them, I think there may be a bigger picture not being seen.

These men represent only the most recent string of extreme statements by Christian leaders that appear to conflict with the core tenets of Christianity itself. Quite often, however, these statements are widely embraced, especially by followers of the Evangelical orientation. As a person who comes from that tradition, having attended Christian high school and Evangelical services, I often got the idea that Jesus was most angry with the gays, the godless liberals, and the Lady Gagas.

I know how I felt about such ideas, seeing them as hateful, unproductive, and un-Jesus-like. However, I felt that in order to properly address such concerns, I had to explore them in theological terms. So I asked myself, who would Jesus judge? Who would He hate?

It’s interesting to note who Jesus didn’t judge: first, Jesus did not judge the woman caught in bed with a man who was not her husband (John 8:1-11), but rather chose this opportunity to teach us the association of judgment and hypocrisy.

He announced, “He that is without sin among you, let him cast the first stone.” Thus, in an opportunity of condemnation, Jesus chose to love. His expression of love occurs while acknowledging her wrongdoing but choosing forgiveness. Jesus makes a pattern of this. Another example of this is when He met the Samaritan woman at the well, who was divorced and living with a man (John 4:7-28). What is so telling about this verse is that Jesus bestowed love to one who was not a Jew but a Samaritan, someone from a religious community considered apostates. (The Samaritans were formerly enslaved by the Persians, taken from Israel at the end of Hoshea’s rule in 722 BC [2 Kings 17:1-2].) So who is Jesus judging?

According to the Gospels, Jesus did not refrain from judging, but he chose two distinct groups of people to target with his judgment: religious leaders who were hypocrites, and those who profited off the sacred.

Jesus really had it out for the Pharisees, whom he admonished for judging others, giving false teachings, and acting in pride. He reserved such phrases for them as “hypocrites,” and “den of vipers”! Pretty strong language for the Prince of Peace. Jesus also grew furious at the sight of the money changers at the Temple for their attempt to profit off of the religious observance of others.

So who are the Pharisees today, and who are the moneychangers? I would argue that religious leaders who abuse their pulpits for political propaganda, promote violence, or push a hateful agenda fit the Pharisee profile. Also, those who take the cross as a sign of salvation and cash it in as a merchandising opportunity are our contemporary moneychangers. Our concern should be with forked tongues of false teachers like Robertson, and our conflict with Christian consumerism, trading prophets for profits.

Similarly, who are the forgiven sinners? Who are the Samaritans? If Jesus forgave those acting outside of marriage, why can’t we embrace our brothers and sisters from among the LGBT community? Disagreement of lifestyle does not need to transcend into ostracizing loved ones or lobbying against civil rights. Likewise, the antagonistic language towards Islam, Judaism, Catholicism, or even atheism obstructs us from learning from our fellow Americans as modern day Good Samaritans.

This notion turns a lot of the beliefs of the Christian community in America on their head. Perhaps if the Second Coming were today, it is Pat Robertson who’d get the cosmic ass-kicking, not Perez Hilton.

This piece originally appeared here in Huffington Post Religion
.

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The Selfishness of Salvation

N_Train_Enters_30th_Avenue_StationThis is a rant mostly relevant to my fellow Christians. Anyone else is welcome to come along for the ride though.

Recently, I saw a young man loudly shouting to the captive audience during the rush hour on the N train. Specifically, he was passionately pontificating on the certain damnation that awaited those who strayed from the Way of the one Jesus Christ, complete with the vivid imagery of fire and brimstone. But the reward if we choose wisely is an eternity with riches in heaven. Accustomed to any and all forms of absurdity, the mix of tired businessmen and women, several young Latina mothers an Orthodox Jewish man and an old Chinese woman with a pushcart of the wares she was vending, seemed rather unimpressed. Afterall, if you ride the subway in Queens, you’ve probably seen it all.

That’s when it struck me. I was quite familiar with the story, as I myself am an evangelical Christian, and remembering being sent to the streets of Portland in middle school to evangelize, complete with a small paper track that described the four-step path to salvation. Granted, our approach was much kinder than the hell and damnation talk we were witnessing this late spring afternoon, when the newly arrived humidity finds itself into the bowels of the city, and into the traincars struggling to air-condition the smell away.

But I was also struck with another thought, a new, perplexing, troubling, thought. Something about the reward of salvation made the whole thing feel a bit self-centered. Salvation was at the center of all Christian theology I was taught. The single most important thing in life was my status as “saved.” The only other thing that mattered was convincing more people to adopt said “saved” status.

While I still identify as an evangelical, my tendency to question has allowed me to grow theologically beyond some of the more common peripheral beliefs of the evangelical movement. It has given the opportunity to hear this language with fresh ears. Upon doing so, salvation-focused theology poses two issues to me.

The first issue dived into the very basis of our morality. As Christians we’re called to live a moral life. Without going into the much larger (and warranted) debate on the nature or morality, morality is most commonly seen as the way one should act to be a good, selfless person. Putting ethical standards above our own wants and needs. However, are we truly selfless in our actions if we are seeking a reward? If I help someone with no desire for a return, then we would assume that’s moral. But if I help someone because I believe next year they’ll give back to be tenfold? It sounds like an investment.

Here lies the challenge of spiritual investment: If we are are only being honest, faithful, loyal and humble for the payment of an eternal mansion in the sky, then are we really being “good people”? If we allow salvation to be our true motive in living moral lives, then I can’t see how we’re not self-serving in the process. Do good, or else.

Which brings me to the second issue, the else. Just as heaven makes a compelling incentive for upright living, hell sure sounds like a scary place. And we can work our way backwards. If my main reason for serving God and living righteously is out of fear of eternal damnation, then how authentic is my devotion?

This is a line of logic that you can take into very murky territory. Is there any good you could do worth risking of your salvation? Today, like everyday, 16,000 children will die of hunger-related causes. Would you risk your salvation to keep them alive? If God would punish you for taking such a risk, is a God worthy of worship? Would you embrace eternal damnation upon yourself to end all human suffering? These hypotheticals should challenge us to ask if we’re really selfless in our daily lives, or just following the rules for the rewards.

This isn’t an argument about how we should look at the concepts of heaven and hell. It’s about motivation. If we let go of whether or not we are saved, or other people are saved, and love as Jesus instructed, perhaps the rest can work itself out. Maybe if we focused on making sacrifice, actual sacrifice from our own comfort for the glory of God in selfless service, rather than shouting at crowd of commuters on the N train, people may actually take notice.

This piece originally appeared here in Huffington Post Religion.

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