I am no fan of fire-and-brimstone preaching. In particular, the type of sermon that couches itself in old testament judgements about daily life on one end, followed by a heavy guilt trip about wickedness in the middle, and bookended with passages about the end-of-days truly unnerves me. If this is what makes up the sum total of spirituality, keep it. I’m not interested.
Unfortunately, I experienced just this type of “religious” experience recently at a funeral. I put quotations around the word religious because to me religion is less so when its emphasis is on fear of godly retribution for human wickedness. To me, religion is more “religious” when it positions itself as a spiritual guide to finding and attaining the grace and divinity we have within.
The funeral I recently attended has caused me to reflect on how this very private matter of spirituality also plays out in our public lives and public spaces. For two hours, family members and friends offered stories, songs, poems, and heartfelt goodbyes to the deceased, who was an elderly matriarch of a growing family of grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
The setting was a local Baptist church in a primarily working-class neighborhood in New Orleans. Modest and somewhat showing its age, this small church belongs to a mostly older generation. The deceased was a leader in the church, a long-time volunteer, and a devout christian who accepted Jesus as her spiritual savior. I didn’t know her well enough to know what it meant to her to accept Jesus as her spiritual savior, but I do know that her children honored her by having her return to her place of worship.
In her children’s expressions of gratitude, sadness, and love, they spoke openly about taking different paths towards inner grace and divinity. They shared their alternative approaches to divinity, which did not follow the typical christian paths. Within the very public ceremony in this Baptist church, her children, adult men, didn’t shy from expressing their private spirituality.
Unfortunately, the presiding pastor, an older gentleman, didn’t seem to appreciate this public display of alternative ideas to spirituality. In his closing sermon the pastor began with an admonition that went something like this:
“Let me tell you something. If you want to see your beloved in heaven, you’re going to have to accept Jesus Christ as your lord and savior. You see, she was a member of this church, and she fully accepted Jesus Christ as her lord and savior. So if you want to see her when it’s your time, you’d best give yourselves over to the one true savior, Jesus Christ.”
Oh it was awful, and it only got worse from there, with talk of the one true path and the one true way toward the one true god. It broke my heart to hear this, which I believed did nothing but belittle the heartfelt spiritual sharing the deceased’s sons had offered. Why is it right to think that because an ordained minister who believes in his religious concepts and stories as true, it’s okay to publicly vilify others who don’t believe as he does?
Yes, we were in his church. Yes, the deceased attended and supported that church. And yes, he has every right to publicly share his beliefs in his space as a matter of course for teaching and helping others to find faith. But is it necessary, in such a public moment (or any public moment) to express his beliefs by demeaning others? Is it necessary to express his path to spirituality by demonizing other paths to spirituality? I don’t think this was in any way helpful, particularly when it comes to building community in faith.
I’m no ordained person, and certainly am no scholar of religious education, but I do pay attention a great deal to the messages that shape society in public spaces. I felt that had the pastor simply accepted the deceased’s children’s words without attacking them, he would have done a far greater service to the public space everyone shared by creating a more welcoming environment.
Instead, he chose to let everyone know that his faith was the right faith, his path to spirituality the right path to spirituality. In doing so, the public space within that church, which contained expressions of love and peace until that moment, filled up with fear of not doing it right by his church’s standards, with disdain for other paths to spirituality, and with contempt for bringing alternative viewpoints to a space dedicated to Jesus Christ. How do such dynamics teach people to include others in the public spaces of their lives? How do such teachings spread acceptance of difference in the public spaces making up our society?
If we all engage our public lives with the same disdain for difference this pastor showed in his sermon, how will we ever have faith in the possibilities for public spaces tomorrow in which we can all feel included? Must there always be someone who thinks their way is the best? Can’t we find a way to accommodate difference? I believe we can, and hope you agree. Let me know what you think.