Response to “The Ugly in Christianity” at the Huffington Post

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There is an article floating around on the Huffington post that has caused a bit of a stir among Church of Christ members because it is about the ugly side of Christianity and by that the author means the ugly side of the Church of Christ which is, in her experience, the vast majority of people in Churches of Christ are lacking in love, spiteful, and disrespectful.

At least that is how I read it.

I came to this article as I come to anyone who is disgruntled about faith. I came listening. I came to empathize. I came to learn. Defensiveness and posturing are precisely the wrong response because it only builds walls that make the assumptions of the disgruntled higher, not lower and the conversation stops dead in its tracks…impossible to get any traction.

I heard hurt. That was clear. It is sad to read experiences like that. It really is. It is unfortunate. It shouldn’t be excused but I believe it should be put in perspective, while learning what we can and not giving ourselves an automatic pass in the process.

I enjoy talking about faith with people. Sometimes I talk faith with other Christians. Sometimes with atheists and agnostics. There is something that I notice over and over again that this article reminded me of because I have heard this before. When people raise these sorts of objections about Christianity they are raising objections about people being stupid or being unkind…in other words…the complaint has nothing to do with the Church of Christ. It has everything to do with people being sinful who happen to be Christians or attend this or that church.

Let me give an example. If an atheist says Christians are horrible because of the Crusades or because Hitler used the scriptures to justify himself my reply is “but that has nothing to do with the actual teachings of Christianity nor would any actual Christian be actually living out the actual Christian faith by acting in such a manner.” Acting like that would be condemned by any Christian worth their salt. I wanted to say that throughout reading her article…any Christian worth their salt would agree with you that people shouldn’t treat others that way or speak or act that way. Christianity agrees with you that being mean spirited is wrong and that being belligerent or unkind is equally wrong. The problem is with a human being human not with something inherent in the Christian faith itself. I believe this article has very little to do with Churches of Christ and a whole lot to do with people acting in a way very much not in line with the core tenants of the faith they profess.

The second thing I want to address about the article is the approach. I hope this comes across as kindly as I know how to say it. Hypertext doesn’t give you that umph of warm fuzzies like sitting across from someone does. I was really hoping to read the article in not find sweeping generalizations. But there they were. I was hoping not to find general assumptions and extrapolations of isolated experiences treated as universal fact. But there it was. I was really hoping that the trajectory of the post wouldn’t be the old “what I have experienced in my limited experience should be considered normative of all people in all places” but that is exactly what I found. I have heard all of these things many times before. They aren’t surprising and they shouldn’t make us anxious but again…we should listen and learn what we can along the way because if she feels this way, a lot of people feel this way and that is important in its own right.

What I found in this article is what I find in most conversations that I have with people who are angry at God or angry at Christians or even angry at the Church of Christ. What people are angry at is not about Church or Jesus. It is about people doing stupid things. My rebuttal in these situations is usually something like, “You are angry at that person or that church of Christianity as a whole but the thing you are so mad about was exactly someone NOT living up to the standard they profess…it wasn’t Christian of them to act that way!” In other words, this isn’t actually a problem with Christianity because if you lived by the principles of the Christian faith it would totally prevent and disarm the problems addressed in the article. I don’t know any official teaching of the Churches of Christ that say we must be rude, obnoxious people. That doesn’t mean rude, obnoxious people aren’t in Churches of Christ. I know because like the author I have met a few and I have even been one myself in my worst of moments and I am sure she has been that way herself a few times. Again, this isn’t a Church of Christ thing just as much as it isn’t a “people who don’t like the Church of Christ” thing. It happens in Baptist churches and Methodist churches and Catholic churches…among atheists and agnostics…why? Because they/we are all people and we all very talented at goofing things up even on our best days.

On the flip side the vast, vast majority of people I have met in Churches of Christ are sweet, lovely people. I could flip her numbers around and make the same sweeping generalization in reverse based on my limited experience and be just as wrong about it as she was. Just because we have a lot of sweet, kind, people doesn’t mean everyone is that way.

We do have room to grow. So it is good to read articles like these. We should listen and we shouldn’t be anxious about it. So I hope this response doesn’t sound dismissive. That isn’t my point. I am listening but what I am hearing is all too familiar and it isn’t a “Church of Christ” thing. These arguments have nothing to do with the actual teaching of our faith…it is people doing sinful, stupid things that hurts people who then get angry with whatever type of church it was where this happened and that is then chalked up to “see how bad that church is” or “see how crazy Christians are.” I know I am biased but I don’t think that holds water.

We need to be challenged by scripture to live into the truths found there not because of this article but because that is our calling. The result will be a disarmament of this sort of experience because Christians shouldn’t be acting the way she describes and it is a real shame that they do at times act that way…starting with me. But that isn’t a problem with Christianity or the Church of Christ. That is a human problem.

29 Responses

  1. I wonder if too many times we’ve said, “But that’s not how *real* Christians are supposed to be,” as a defense of our communities failing others. Of course Jesus doesn’t teach racism or sexism, but that doesn’t do anything to assuage the hurt of those who have been taught by racist and sexist church leaders.

    It may be unfair to expect people to give churches the benefit of the doubt when their overall encounters are negative and damaging. She cites the Church of Christ because that is her context, and while she is generalizing, don’t we all? I don’t know if we should react with frustration, as much as we need to examine our hearts and search for truth in her words. There may be none, or she could be hitting close to home. We all need to figure that out.

    I grieve that this is her experience, but I also grieve for her as she reads the comments on her post. Arguments about whether or not illegal immigrants need to be deported and whether or not she’s fallen away or is forever lost, do nothing to change her mind.

    I love my church family. I love the Church of Christ. But there is a reality that many have been deeply hurt and many have left. Christianity in general has had that problem, and as long as we are Christians, we’ve got to own up to it.

    Just my thoughts…

  2. Ferguson simply called out and exposed that side of the Church of Christ that has been protected too long under the guise of “Unity”. So, those who see themselves as “progressive” have a decision to make; either to disavow and leave behind those attitudes she correctly describes, or continue to hold back, trying to drag up to the present those who hold them, which will continue to bring about articles such as the one in the HP. An article is unfair when it engages in lies; not when it hurts our feelings and pricks our sense of accomplishment and importance.

    1. So, those who are not as guilty of the things the author’s article charges should disavow and separate from those who are, in our judgment, more guilty of them? Is that what Christ meant by “that they may all be one” or what Paul meant by “Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you”?

    2. An example of which I speak is seeing and reading of CoC celebrities holding up a Bible in one hand and a gun in the other, and making statements that they, who happen to be white, know that African Americans were happier before the Civil Rights Movement, attitudes still largely held by a segment of the church, yet still being commended, even by so called progressives, on what fine Christians they are; while those of the left are largely ignored, maybe, at best, receiving a polite nod and “honorable mention” from time to time.

    3. Even among “progressives” within the CoC, Christians who are too far to the Right are considered more inherently righteous than those too far to the Left. Criticism of liberals is tolerated, accepted as defending Biblical principals; while criticism of conservatives is considered unkind, even unloving, by those who, for the most part, fear that “too much love” gives license to sin.

    4. There’s an eventual point when unity says “I can no longer tolerate this.” I don’t presume to know where that point is, but I can guarantee it comes close to the point where racism, misogyny, and xenophobia are thriving. It’s one thing to be surrounded by people who are flawed, it’s another to be ensconced in a system that contributes to the subjugation of the “other.”

  3. Matt, I hope your response makes it to the eyes of the lady who is hurting and wrote the article and I hope it helps her.

    The story she tells are of people who need their actions brought to their attention so they can consider their actions, and be given the opportunity to repent and ask forgiveness of those offended and of God.

    We will never change something if we are unaware we are doing it.

    If this was not done they may have no idea how negatively they are affecting others which, is why it is so important to go to our brother or sister in Christ when you have a problem with them.

    Matthew 18:15-17

    1. There is still a power structure in churches of Christ. Going to a brother or sister may work for lower people but does not work with higher-ups and leadership. I found them to not want to rock the boat by talking to someone.

  4. I read the article. I too grew up in the cofC and heard too frequently, “but we don’t believe/do that.” That was a defense of those people who acted in an unchristian manner while never saying the person was wrong. I never heard much condemnation of unchristian behavior provided certain people did it. I saw an inter-generational fight where the sins of the elderly (gossip, bearing false witness, etc.) were acceptable but the sins of the young (rock music, normal human sexual desire, etc) were one way tickets to hell. I never understood why the older, powerful people in the cofC could/would not settle down those ministers whose sermons railed against young Christians or ignored them entirely. I quietly presumed that they condoned it or just did not want to start a fight over it. Every sermon started in the Pauline Epistles and used proof-texts. Even on Palm Sunday and Easter, the triumphal entry to Jerusalem and the resurrection account would not be read, but no one seemed to care. I became envious of those Christians in other denominations who got to hear the Gospel accounts of both and would quietly record on a VCR a Methodist service and watch it late at night to get to hear a moderate sermon and the Gospel read. The “sweet, lovely people” may exist, but they did not speak up. For all the sermons on having and choosing elders, they were self-perpetuating and listened to no one but their friends and did not care about the entire congregation.

  5. I can believe the episode about Ted Kennedy really occurred. I was in the 5th grade when President Kennedy was killed and I was happy that he had died. I had been taught to think of him not as the leader of our country but as an evil Catholic who would try to turn us all into Papists. In much the same way that President Obama is vilified now by many members of the church, President Kennedy, and all Catholics, were vilified by members of the church in the 1960s.

    The author of the original article wrote, “I loved that Church dearly. I truly did. But at some point, I learned that the love of the Church only extended to the end of its borders, to the end of the doors. Outside those doors, there was very little love to give.” That feeling still exists. We teach that we are the only ones going to heaven and that Baptists, Methodists and Presbyterians are no better than Hindus. I have seen my own congregation refuse to do benevolence work with a local Presbyterian congregation because they taught doctrinal error and we couldn’t associate with them. A CoC congregation in a nearby town is condemned because it is too liberal but no one can give me specifics as to what their liberal beliefs are (they still use only IM and women are silent).

    With our wide range of doctrine from conservative to progressive congregations and our lack of cooperation, even with our own congregations, it is no wonder that people can experience one bad congregation and condemn our entire non-denominational denomination.

    1. To you last line…we don’t do that with race do we? It is not socially acceptable to stereotype like that and yet here we go. In no other context would that sort of generalization be condoned. In fact it would be condemned. That doesn’t mean I don’t empathize with her about her experience while disagreeing with her conclusion based on her individual experience.

  6. I don’t think it’s fair to call her out for generalizing. We do that all. the. time. I’ve been a member in enough congregations (over 12) to know that many Churches of Christ resemble the one in her article. Are we better? Yes. Do we still have a long way to go? Absolutely. We should not be offended by her words at all, but use them to discern the prevailing attitudes in our own congregations.

    1. Would it be fair if this was about how someone if a particular race or gender treated her and then she had the same experience many more times and made the same argument entitling it The Ugliness of (fill in the blank)? That is just making broad generalizations because we all do it, right? That wouldn’t fly and it shouldn’t.

    2. That’s apples and oranges. There’s a difference disparaging someone’s ideologies and disparaging someone’s race. Do you see that difference? The church can and should be open to such criticisms. Jesus himself painted the Pharisees with a wide brush. Not because of who they were intrinsically, but because of what they taught and believed. i find it frustrating that we don’t get angry at articles making generalizations about the Catholic church or Islamic mosques. Her experience mirrors a lot of experiences. We can’t deny that just because it doesn’t match up with ours. It’s not sinful to generalize, but it is to refrain from speaking out against racism and sexism. Let’s do that as a Body, and I can guarantee we will find a lot of people returning.

    3. The object of the generalizations in my example vs what she has selected to generalize are apples and oranges, yes but the process is the same. I am being critical of her approach, even her mindset in labeling a group based on her limited experience. Havent’ we learned better than to do this by now? Those who have been on the receiving end should be the first to stand up and be critical of this sort of thing because it is wrong no matter who the “target” of it is. It really isn’t right or fair. I say that non-defensively. She doesn’t upset me nor am I upset with her. I just disagree with her approach and believe she is stereotyping a group based on the people she knows.

      Are you saying her approach and even conclusion about the Church of Christ is fair? If so, what other groups would she be correct in doing this too? Who makes the list? If I say I have had conversations about God with dozens of atheists about God and the vast majority, say 9 out of 10 of them are belligerent and dishonest so that pretty must is true of the whole bunch. Would I be justified to say that?

      I can listen to her, be sad about her experience, and even empathize with her but that doesn’t force me to check my thinking cap at the door and take it all hook, line and sinker without question. Her mindset is creating and furthering a stereotype that is not accurate, fair or helpful.

    4. One more thing. My example wasn’t just about race or gender. It was about generalizing evil to a whole group based on limited experience with a few. If someone was the victim of a crime perpetrated by an African American and then thought the whole race was evil and lived in fear of them none of us would agree that their bad experience should be generalized to the whole…not even if this happened another 8-9 times to the person. It just isn’t reasonable. I think we are bigger than that.

    5. Here’s what I think is fair:

      These are just some of the comments on her post. Read and see if it is fair for her to generalize. And when does a “limited experience” become a widespread one? If two people say it? 20? 200? 2000?

      I don’t think you would be “putting away your thinking cap” to evaluate the stereotype for any truth. And yes, stereotyping is wrong. But she’s saying there is ugliness in the Chirches of Christ. Would you or would you not agree? She’s not talking about other churches because she’s never been to other churches. Again, there is a HUGE difference between generalizing an institution and generalizing a specific people.

      What kind of approach and conclusion would be fair? A chi square? This is a narrative that she’s sharing–what would be a better way for her to share it? What would be a better way for her to share her criticism? To say her stereotype is not “accurate,fair, or helpful” indicates that you think there is an accurate, fair, and helpful way to share her thoughts. How should she have done this? Because saying it’s not accurate is an opinion on your part, developed from your own experiences.

      I feel like the first thing we should do, before criticizing her approach, is condemn the words of the people she’s been hurt by. That would lead to greater reconciliation.

    6. If there are s mean spirited people in Churches of Christ there are mean spirited people in Churches of Christ. It isn’t our official position to be mean spirited. It is a human problem and humans attend Churches of Christ, therefore it happens there just like it happens in every other place humans live and interact.

      I am not even going to begin to say how she should have said how she felt. I am not elitist enough to pretend to think I know how to do that. All I know is her situation was/is a sad one. I wish it had gone better. I don’t tolerate people stereotyping others, even those I disagree with. If you make anti-atheist comments like she made I will tell you that you are wrong.

      When I talk about my own experiences there are a few things I try to do, especially if it involves being critical of someone else along the way: 1) I take whatever blame for the situation on myself that I can find because blame is rarely 1 sided, 2) I try to speak in specifics and not generalities, and 3) I try to compliment what I can. That is my approach. I don’t require it of anyone but it is a more helpful way to speak than the opposite, IMO which would be 1) blame everyone else without thinking about my own role in it, 2) generalize my limited experience to millions of people and 3) refuse to find anything positive to point out along the way.

    7. But again, you are talking about a race vs. an institution. Intrinsic personhood vs. behavior. It would be absolutely wrong for me to generalize a whole race or sex or heritage based on my limited experiences. But she’s not talking about people’s intrinsic value; she’s talking about the church’s lack of advocacy and empathy for the “least of these.” And if we disagree with her, we have to prove her wrong. Not by saying her thinking is wrong, but by acting boldly in the Kingdom and rejecting this kind of ideology.

    8. Fortunately, she is proven wrong in her conclusion every single day by people we have never heard of and by some we have. Again, I don’t say that in a mean spirited way. I say that as a matter of fact.

    9. I just want to say how much I appreciate you Kaitlin. You sharpen me and I really love your heart. Thank you for the engaging conversation. It is important. Very important!

    10. I will say, too, that I am absolutely APPALLED at what I read on the Free Republic, as well as the comments on her HuffPost page. If Christians are wondering why people generalize, it’s because these types of people are given a voice and we, as a majority, do nothing to condemn it.

  7. Matt, I read your long article and then read the other short posting – Both interesting – She used her own statement that nine out of ten Church of Christ members would find joy at by dancing on a dead man’s grave to prove a point she began with against Donald Trump – That is not unusual – If someone believes what she says about the church – They will also believe what she says about Trump – Or if they believe what she says about Trump – They will also believe what she says about the Church of Christ – As a 76 year old member having lived in many U.S. States and a few Countries it is strange I have not observed the same hostilities. Could this just be part of the development her Masters Degree Theses?

    1. For some reason, i have found that the observations of the older generations are not like those of the younger generations even in the same congregation. I still wonder what causes the younger to see things that others don’t. Ageism? Are older people more well liked in churches than younger? Were you married with children? I know that can have an effect on how well one is received.

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