At their best, Christians -- and adherents of all major world religions, for that matter -- are caught up in a love story. They are caught up in a love meant to break down walls between nations and languages, ages and people, human and divine.
At their worst, practitioners use religion to demean and divide. They leave in their wake unattractive and sometimes violent worldviews rife with overly zealous attempts to separate the wheat from the chaff.
I assume this mode of thinking was the source of many Catholics' suspicion surrounding Pope Francis' comment that atheists can be redeemed. As Stephen Colbert joked, "I'm a Catholic because I can be redeemed. It's like the Admirals Club of Christianity, you know? If atheists can be redeemed, who's next? Lutherans?"
Those of us who follow a particular religion do not always limit this dichotomous perspective to comparisons with people outside our church. We occasionally turn the judgment inward.
Christians love a good conversion story. Peter's denial of Jesus before he led the early Christians. Pre-Paul Saul on the road to Damascus. Dorothy Day's abortion before founding the Catholic Worker Movement. Thomas Merton's dalliances before joining the Trappists.
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These stories can serve the admirable purpose of reminding us, as Paul wrote to the Romans, that "neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor present things, nor future things, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord." Nothing precludes us from the love story, not even our own weaknesses. The party is for everyone.
I wonder, however, if in our effort to make that point, we do not sometimes overemphasize the difference between the pre- and post-transformation life. I wonder if we do not go too far to stress the so-called waywardness before the shift and the supposed sanctity after it.
People tend to join a religion with the idea that it will instigate a degree of change in their lives. If this were not the case, why bother enlisting?
Ideally, this change will be positive, in ways both large and small. When we successfully live out the higher values to which our faith tradition calls us, we naturally feel pleased. As Abraham Lincoln said, "When I do good, I feel good. When I do bad, I feel bad. That's my religion."
If we are not careful, however, these good vibrations can lead to sanctimonious pontification about our religions or, even worse, ourselves. Veneration for the types of lives to which Peter, Paul, Day, Merton or even you and I turned can easily devolve into harsh finger-pointing at the kinds of lives from which they and we turned.
Why is this problematic? For starters, it is abounding with the kind of judgmental moralizing about which Jesus essentially said, "Don't!" It is also the source of much of the aforementioned ugliness in religion.
Less obviously, it sets us up for disappointment.
No matter how radical our sea change or beautiful our commitment to our beliefs, we will continue to be deeply flawed because we will continue to be human. We may go to confession and sincerely resolve "to sin no more and avoid whatever leads [us] to sin," but sin we will. As Paul wrote further along in his letter to the Romans, "I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do."
The more self-righteously we promote our religions and the lives we lead as a result, the more bitter we seem to feel when we fall short and do those things we "hate to do." John Lennon once said, "Part of me suspects that I'm a loser, and the other part of me thinks I'm God Almighty." I imagine this idea is familiar to many of us. Some days, I act like I am Jesus Harper; others, I feel like Brian Iscariot.
So which am I?
Neither. Just like everyone.
I hope Catholicism has helped me to become a better person, but if it has, I must remember that this does not make me better than anyone else.
I hate to join the bandwagon of people hijacking Pope Francis' comments for their own purposes, but this is what I took from his comments about redemption. No single church or individual has a monopoly on what it means to carry out the brand of goodness and kindness Jesus lived. Many people do so without thinking much about Jesus at all. "Just do good," Francis urged, "and we'll find a meeting point."
Similarly, my frailties and shortcomings, though unique to me, do not make me any worse than others because everyone is swimming in their own septic soup. Put more simply in Paul McCartney and Stevie Wonder's "Ebony and Ivory," "There is good and bad in everyone."
This realization can be disconcerting -- particularly the part about being no holier than anybody else -- but ultimately, the renowned Jesuit priest Anthony de Mello wrote, it is freeing.
"Hey, wake up!" de Mello charged. "It's liberating. It's wonderful! Are you feeling depressed? Maybe you are. Isn't it wonderful to realize you're no better than anybody else in this world?"
It is wonderful. It is wonderful because it reinforces all that stuff about being in this together. It is wonderful because it means less insufferable sermonizing. But most of all, it is wonderful because it helps cut out all religion's nonsense that distracts us imperfect beings from that which brought us to the story in the first place: the perfect One who loved us at the beginning of it all.
[Brian Harper is a writer, musician and community outreach coordinator for a small business. His work is available at www.brianharper.net.]
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