Last night I heard this phrase again. "I don't really trust organized religion. It's done a lot of bad things." And I listened to a clergy person talk about fundamentalism, which while relevant to the issue, didn't really address it. Because it wasn't just fundamentalism that this person was critiquing. This person was addressing religion as a universal concept. And the comment didn't come from someone who had a lot of personal experience with fundamentalist traditions, this came from somebody raised Episcopalian.
This comment is similar to many comments that I've heard recently, critiques of religion and more specifically of the Church, as many who I hear this from are nominal or former Christians or have mostly interacted with Christians. If you are one of these people, this letter is for you.
Dear Person who feels the pain of religious institutions,
I get it. I really do. People have hurt many in the name of religion. There were the crusades, holy wars, bickering, and battles all done over religious matters. And now today we have groups of terrorists claiming a form of Islam as their reason for destruction. In the United States, people are dying from religion in subtler ways. Children are being kicked out of religious homes for being LGBTQ. Several teenagers have recently committed suicide because their parents refused to believe that God makes some people transgender. People have died and are dying because of religious matters and organized religion.
I can't sugar coat what has happened or what is happening and I can't make it all feel okay. There is pain around the edges of every religious tradition, organization, and institution. I feel it, I see it. I know that not everything's okay.
But I have seen the power for good that comes from organized religion. I have seen groups mobilize to save lives, I have seen the hungry fed and the naked clothed. I have witnessed transformations that are remarkable. Most of them aren't big and flashy, they don't often make the headline news, though sometimes they do. But most importantly they happen. Look around you. Look at what the institutions in your town or city are doing for those around them. It may not be much, but it's happening. When those small efforts are combined with other people's efforts, amazing things happen. Many religious people are absolutely committed to changing the world, one person, one social issue at a time. Sometimes they are Martin Luther King Jr. and sometimes they are Joy, who works at a clothing closet for the homeless. They work diligently, insisting on affirming the dignity of every human life.
With the ability to do great good comes the ability to do great evil. You see both in any organized religion. When evil things happen they can be incredibly painful. When good things happen, there is truly hope for the reformation of the world. People begin to be able to open their imaginations to all the possibilities of what the world could look like. There is inspiration that can only be divinely given. Lives are given over to divinity that is greater than anything imaginable and people begin to work to transform this world from the inside out.
Institutional and organized religion help people imagine and live out a divinely given communal identity. They are grand experiments, workshops for people to learn how to frame their lives around the identity the divine calls us to. Sometimes the people in these experimental communities falter. Sometimes these communities wrap around ideas that close them off from people they are called to care for. Sometimes they work. Enough of these communities have transformed enough lives that they continue to flourish and crop up in new places and have done so for thousands of years. There is something in these traditions and organized religions that make them important and valuable for those who practice them. These things have not changed generation after generation.
The organized religion that I practice, Christianity, is a deep part of who I am as a person. I am learning how to live in a way that is community focused, self giving, and yet full of life. It shapes how I act and how I think. It is a deep part of my identity as a person. I know I do not need to be a Christian in order to be a good person, and I am not Christian because I think it will give me an advantage in the afterlife. What Christianity offers that keeps me going week after week is a relationship with God, who is both relational and wholly other. This is a God who became human so that we might be closer to the divine. This is a God who sees all the faults of the world, all our problems, all the pain, and yet still calls humanity good and seeks to help us become the people we are meant to be. This is a God who triumphs over death and seeks to love those who cause the deepest pains. I would be willing to die for God because God was willing to die for me.
I am a part of the experimental community called the Church. This has taught me about my identity, cultivated it within me, and communally comes together to support each other as we try to live out this identity. The Church is a community that not only seeks to learn about God, but to learn how we are to be in relationship with one another as Christians and with the rest of the world. We are learning how to shape our relational lives together in a way that mirrors how God relates to us. We ask God to help us not fail in our tasks to live as Christian communities. And some communities fail miserably. Sometimes communities wound. But some communities really do come closer to the heart of the Christian faith and the areas around them are transformed. The divine begins to touch all of the humanity in those regions and affirms that they are indeed God's own creation, beloved and good.
I affirm that a lot of bad has been done in the name of religion, but I also invite you to also look into all the good that has been done in the name of religion. I also invite you to be open to those whose lives have been transformed by their faith. You don't have to follow their religion, but allow yourself to be inspired by their faith journeys. Some of them are truly incredible. Organized religion has done a lot of bad things, but it has also done a lot of good. I hope you are able to open yourself up to see that balance.
Thank you for your critical eye, for not taking things at face value. Thank you for questioning motives and holding religious people accountable for their actions. I appreciate your sentiments and I respect them.