When and if I arrive at heaven’s gates, I will have so many questions prior to entry that I can imagine the other tired and weary souls in line behind me will undoubtedly become irritated. I will ask about the true tenets of godliness, and more importantly, a great deal on what horrible things must have been done that the other souls across the great chasm must now suffer painfully—for eternity. Was it murder? Rape? Another horrific act of blatant defiance? Or was it something much simpler, but just as tragic within the eyes of the fundamentalist church today? Could it be doctrine? Could it be simply shouting to the heavens that you simply don’t know, but are certain that you cannot join in the dehumanization of the marginalized any longer? In a less dramatic context, but equally significant, that is me. And my journey here is a tattered one full of quests down small jagged passes and at last one final leap at the hands of God’s own “authority.”
My leap was a long one. I was part of a team of missionaries that was being sent out by a rather well known evangelical church to go to a Muslim country in Central Asia. I had just graduated from four years of Bible College and was in many ways a poster child to those around me.
I also had many questions. I was not going to be your typical evangelical missionary. I suppose, to use the popular labels, I was an egalitarian inclusivist that did not believe the Bible was inerrant or infallible. I wasn’t going to Central Asia to convert people as much as I was to feed the hungry, liberate women from their slavery, be a hopeful presence, and really just let the people there teach me about God and their world.
My missionary team had talked with me about my beliefs and they knew that I thought differently than them on a number of theological points. It’s important to my story to know that I was more “liberal” than a lot of people who graduated from my Bible College. Being a little more liberal but well-studied, I always wrestled with how much of my theological opinions to disclose with others.
Now, I wish I had been a lot more open about what I thought theologically. It wasn’t that I was being secretive or that I was afraid of conflict or that I didn’t like studying. No, I studied far more than most people and I was always open and more than willing to talk about my theological opinions. But when push came to shove, I thought the biggest issue in life was helping the suffering of the world rather than aligning on every last theological viewpoint.
More than just my theological opinions though, I was with the team and the church that I was because of how much I really cared for the people in both places. Being a single guy, I really poured my life into my teammates and the church sending us out. I served in the Children’s Ministry of that church. Our team’s representative elder from the church had been my mentor for the past 3 years, and I was close to many people in leadership roles at this particular church. I was happy because I was surrounded by people that I cared about, and I really just wanted God to use that community to help me be more like Jesus.
Along with that part of my community, I was also falling in love with a beautiful girl who was also a Bible College student. We too thought differently theologically, but the passion we shared was the same. We both desired more than anything to love the poor and the suffering of the world. That’s what made her beautiful to me. Sure we discussed our differences, but it was always our mutual centering on Jesus and the suffering of the world that attracted us to one another.
Her parents on the other hand, were not as attracted to my heart for the poor when matched up beside my theological stances. I was actually about to get her an engagement ring when her parents had a heart to heart with her and me about my theological views. The ones of concern were mainly egalitarianism (they worried about my view that women and men were equal within marriage) and my belief that the Bible was not inerrant or infallible.
After that heart to heart with them, I remember looking this girl that I loved so much in the eyes and asking her, “promise me you won’t just give up on us?” And of course, she promised.
A week later, without much warning at all, she sat there and told me that she was wrong to ever think anything other than what her father had taught her to think and that she was lying to herself about her feelings for me. Her ‘Heavenly Father’ wanted her to end the relationship with me. So without any further discussion, it was over.
Usually break up stories are sad stories but at least they don’t affect everything else in someone’s life. Well, this one does because the elders of the Church sending us out wanted to know why she had broken up with me, and when they found out my theological differences, mainly my not ascribing to inerrancy and infallibility . . . there were problems.
Basically, the church elders gave me an ultimatum that I would either need to go through some church training to align my thinking with them about the Bible or I would have to leave and go my own way. No one was really interested in finding out why I believed what I believed; they just wanted me to believe what they believed and not cause any trouble along the way. To them my lack of belief in a perfect God-given Bible was damnable, to say the least. I’ll never forget the looks of horror they gave me when they found out what I thought. I can still see that lingering disappointment across all of their faces that told me I was no longer their poster child, but I was something else, something disgraceful. Truthfully, I probably would have been better off as Ted Haggard. He might have had some serious sexual issues, but at least he still believed God wanted to kill all of the Canaanites.
Anyway, my team really wanted me to work through these things with the church. The problem was that I had already poured myself into studying these topics. I did not come across any theological question lightly and I thoroughly contemplated every one of my conclusions. I knew what I thought and though I was willing to change if I was wrong somewhere, time and social pressure weren’t going to do the trick. I hadn’t realized that these theological issues were the keys to life and death, in the minds of the people in my community, but it was beginning to sink in.
I resigned from the team, but not because I didn’t love them. I just realized that I had to start facing reality. It was not worth going overseas to be a part of a team that wanted to proselytize their faith when I did not even believe that was necessary. And as much as I thought everyone around me wanted to help the poor and the suffering, I realized it was more my dream than their own.
I then announced to everyone my plans to go to Nursing School in my hometown so that I could learn a trade to be able to help the suffering of the world. And when I told people that, they accused me of abandoning them and they accused me of abandoning authority.
It’s kind of hard to think about how these people did not see what they were saying to me—these people that thought theological opinions were so important, but well studied theological discussions were not at all necessary. Instead, they were telling me that in all of the searching and study that I had done, it was all nothing but falling prey to faithless liberal ideologies that reject truth.
I still remember one of the key individuals sitting in a meeting about me, listening to how I and some other students who graduated from the Bible College had studied a lot of “liberation theology.” He looked at the other leaders in the meeting and almost with tears in his eyes said, “How could this happen?” as if the college had burned to the ground with the students still inside. How in the world my studying about how joining with the poor of the world for their liberation is such a bad thing, I will never know.
This continues to ream my mind. People can become so blind to the words of their own professed savior when he says,
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. (Luke 4:18-19, NRSV)
This should make grown men cry—the hope that is professed throughout the Gospels for those who have no hope. Instead, these men lament it when their youth embrace the gospel that liberates. What would Jesus say to one of his followers if they started crying when he talked about liberating the poor? Probably something like, “Get behind me, Satan.”
When these Christian leaders around me, without discussion, label Liberation Theology just some “liberal” and even “heretical” theology, they’re not only closing the book on someone like me, they’re closing the book on the poor themselves. They would rather pity the poor, throw money and gospel tracts at them, than to give them the voice Jesus gave them. They prefer charity over justice, the hereafter over the here and now.
Sometimes I wish that instead of sitting in silence and absorbing their shaming glances, I would have stood up and thrown over a desk or two. Jesus stormed the temple because it was an institution that promised spiritual healing while reinforcing physical wounds, while perpetuating the economic exploitation of the masses of the poor. To sustain their own view of God they had forsaken the least among them and had built a Temple with the stones of their Doctrines for their own worship. And far from their Temple are the poor’s cries, not even audible from their distant Holy Place. That is a Temple that is full of robbers, who rather than giving voice to the poor, dictate to the poor what they “really” need, in order to maintain their specialized positions as “experts” in knowing God’s will for everybody else. That is a Temple worthy of destruction.
But there I was with these Christian leaders who were saying that although my heart looked like Jesus, it was worthless if I was not going to align with their theology. I was not abandoning any person, but I was abandoning their ideas. And no, I was not abandoning authority, but just their ideas of authority. Yet all of a sudden, I, who longed to be Jesus to the poor, was viewed by these people to be the poor soul who was desperately in need of a Jesus.
Looking back now, I realize that most of this story is my own fault. I should have recognized red flags along the way with the team, the church and the girl. I should have been smarter and followed my intellect more than my heart. I honestly just thought I was following those whom God had in authority over me and I just wanted to love people that were hurting in this world.
Now, I am studying Nursing and I am very glad that I am. I have really examined what it is I think about authority within the Church and even what I think about a God who exerts so much authority over humankind.
I don’t go to church. I don’t really believe in God either. That’s a discussion in itself and I wouldn’t give anyone in the above story credit for my disbelief. I have studied more since then and that has brought me to my theological disbelief. But definitely, each person in this story contributed significantly to my understanding of what some things in the Christian language really meant.
A mentor who prays for you everyday for three years is only as close as the other elders around him tell him he should be. A church that preaches to over 2,000 people a week and sends people to change their minds about what their cultures, communities and families think about God is not willing to question anything they think or believe . . . or allow anyone in their midst who does have questions.
I never really dwell on how “the girl” broke my heart. What I dwell on is how her father captured her own heart and thrust it in front of her as if it was something that had been tainted because she was willing to delve into a mystery of God that he himself was not willing to search out. It has taught me that fathers can be very scary individuals, especially when they deny to their children the ability to think and ponder the greatest questions about the world and God. And no father should have the right to be God, ever.
Most people say I have my doubts now because I am angry. I suppose I am angry in some respects. There were a lot of hurtful things that happened and a lot of people I thought really loved me that did not stand up for me or even beside me. But the only thing I am really angry about is that there are other guys and girls with great hearts out there like me that have questions, but will be stifled in their quests because of the ignorant authoritative communities all around us.
Anyway, my greatest desire was to be Jesus. I hope I look more like Jesus every day because Jesus really did something for the hurting of this world. Maybe some day I will give more credence to God and the Church again. But right now, I still care more about helping people that are hurting than I do about theological beliefs. And, yes, I do realize now that not everyone shares that sentiment.