Well, I have pagan tendencies. But when it comes to organized religion, I have none. That wasn’t always true. I spent about seven years inside a very tight evangelical Christian bubble, which is a topic for a whole other time.
In spite of my lack of belief in higher powers (or rather, that any existing higher power would give a rat’s ass about us), I do believe that faith and religion have a place in our world. That they ought to make people kinder, gentler, more generous.
Historically, however, that’s not been the case. Currently the religious right in my country is taking the sides only of the wealthy white men in our society. I’ve lost count of how many states have strangled women’s reproductive rights in the past few months. One look at the demographics in the last presidential election shows that this strategy isn’t exactly working, but that point’s moot.
If you’re familiar with the Bible at all, you’ll know that a lot of editions put Jesus’ words in red. If you are a Christ follower (a Christian), I’d like to think that the words straight out of the horse’s mouth would be the ones you’d want to pay the most attention to. But in my experience in the very conservative evangelical bubble, those are the words most likely to be ignored. Because Jesus said some things that make American Republicans very, very uncomfortable.
Like that it’s easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter heaven. That if you really want to follow Jesus, you ought to sell all your possessions and give to the poor. He said nothing about homosexuality. (That was Paul, who in my opinion was a legalistic sycophant when he was a Pharisee and never changed his ways after converting to Christianity.) Jesus protected adulterers. Prostitutes. Tax collectors. Ray Stevens (who is a Tea Party member and sometime Branson performer with a lot of beliefs I disagree with — but occasionally says something really quite insightful) had a song called “Would Jesus Wear A Rolex?”
The whole point of the song was to ask what Jesus would do if he came back tomorrow. The chorus is something like, “Would he wear a pinky ring? Would he drive a fancy car? Would his wife wear furs and diamonds? Would his dressing room have a star? If he came back tomorrow, there’s something I’d like to know — can you tell me, would Jesus wear a Rolex on his television show?”
And that’s a good question. If you look at the Bible, Jesus cleansed the Temple when the Pharisees used it for moneymaking and stomping on the downtrodden. I think if he came back tomorrow, he’d take one look at America’s churches and do the same damn thing.
With this rather cynical view of Christianity that I’ve taken (or rather, had ground into me over the course of about 13 years by the harsh wheel of experience), there are a few things that have popped up in the past few days that have given me some hope for the state of the dominant faith in this country.
First of all, this new pope.
Most Christians on this planet are Catholic, and this guy is the head of all of them. And he’s…well…surprising. I saw a news story today where he was quoted as saying “Who am I to judge [gay people]?” He’s known for his humility. He’s known for washing the feet of prisoners, the elderly, the ill, newborns, pregnant women (foot washing is one of the most symbolic acts in the Christian faith).
Here’s a quote from a 2011 book of discussions with a prominent rabbi about interfaith relations:
Dialogue is born from an attitude of respect for the other person, from a conviction that the other person has something good to say. It assumes that there is room in the heart for the person’s point of view, opinion, and proposal. To dialogue entails a cordial reception, not a prior condemnation. In order to dialogue it is necessary to know how to lower the defenses, open the doors of the house, and offer human warmth.
Pretty sure just about anyone can get behind that.
And from a papal address in March:
“[W]e also sense our closeness to all those men and women who, although not identifying themselves as followers of any religious tradition, are nonetheless searching for truth, goodness and beauty, the truth, goodness and beauty of God. They are our valued allies in the commitment to defending human dignity, in building a peaceful coexistence between peoples and in safeguarding and caring for creation.”
Defending human dignity. That’s something else I can get behind. Safeguarding and caring for creation? Peaceful coexistence? Downright utopic.
He doesn’t live in the Papal residence. He’s been the first pope to include women in the foot washing ritual of inmates. He has begun to speak out about the role of women in the Catholic church. Basically, this guy is championing just about everyone his church has marginalized for centuries. He’s passionate about the plight of the poor. In short, he’s acting more like Jesus than just about any other pope I’ve ever heard of. As far as popes go, this is encouraging to me. He’s not perfect, of course. No one is. But this is a church steeped in tradition (not all of it logical or good), and he’s shaking people up.
The second thing is a personal experience that happened yesterday.
I was at work, and there was a moment where we went from deadeningly slow to really busy in about five minutes. I had a full section and was hustling to keep up with all my tables. I had this quiet, nice couple at one of my tables. The woman had short brown hair and was wearing pretty enamel jewelry. The man had a big goatee tied with a rubber band. They were unassuming and kind throughout the meal, and when I dropped off their check, I immediately ran out to the patio to check on my outside tables as this table started shuffling cash around to pay.
When I came back in, they were already standing, the check book on the table. They thanked me and slinked out the door. I picked up the book, assuming they didn’t need change if they were leaving. And when I opened it, I saw this:
Their check was $30.65. They left three twenties.
In case Monday is mashing your math skills, that’s a 100% tip.
They left me $30. Okay, $29.35. But still.
This little incident, aside from making this Grinch’s heart grow three sizes yesterday, made me ponder.
Religion and faith, to me, ought to make folks more kind, giving, generous, loving. More likely to help someone in need. More likely to comfort someone in pain. Instead, the images I see so often in this country are messages of bigotry and hatred. From horrific comments on what makes “legitimate rape” to using faith as a means to invade people’s bodies and bedrooms while (hypocritically) preaching about how government has no right to interfere in the lives of citizens.
So yesterday? Those people are doing it right. To them, exercising their faith means surprising a frazzled server with 100% tip. It means giving back what they’ve been given. They didn’t appear to be wealthy. They looked like normal people. But they felt compelled to share with someone they didn’t know at all. I didn’t see the mention of John 3:16 as them pushing their religion on me, merely as an explanation for why they behaved as they did. It was not intrusive, non-judgmental, and really, without assumption or presumption. They were just being very kind. And because of them, we were able to pay our health insurance last night. If they’d left me a perfectly friendly 18 or 20%, we wouldn’t have been able to.
I think we can all learn just a bit about random acts of kindness from this rather fascinating pope and these two folks who just came to have dinner.