Thursday, July 12, 2018

When I was a conservative Evangelical Christian, I went along with the party line (on any number of issues) because I was constantly given a very warped picture of the world. It was inculcated in me that the "other"--be they liberals or Democrats or academics or people from other cultures or people who practiced different religions or people who were in other ways different--were hopelessly (and Satanically) misguided at best and intentionally nefarious at worst. Thus, there was a constant undercurrent of fear and paranoia and defensiveness about living in the world surrounded by those misguided and/or wicked liberals/Democrats/gays/professors/abortionists/Muslims/Buddhists/Mormons/Wiccans/foreigners/feminists/scientists/secular humanists, etc., etc. I recall being in a Christian rock band and we sang a song with a chorus that went "Foolish hearts, blackened foolish hearts, are destined to die." Yikes. 

In our fundamentalist culture, the turning was always inward, always exclusionary (while we simultaneously spoke and sang about how Jesus loves everyone--except, I guess, for those foolish blackened hearts destined to die, which meant pretty much everyone who didn't believe as we did).   The solution was to get everyone to believe the way we believed or, failing that, to at least get them to behave the way we thought they should behave.  That was the criteria of any outreach (I recall, a few years ago, I mentioned on Facebook that I was going to hear a Muslim Imam give a speech at a church on the topic of Muslim-Christian dialogue, and an old friend from my fundamentalist days responded by asking if I was going in order to try to convert the Imam--and if I wasn't going to attempt to convert him then I had no business going).   

The thing we were conditioned to fear most was turning outward toward openness and inclusivity. Acceptance of "the other" (without condition) and learning to listen to and appreciate the viewpoints and experiences of "the other" were considered dangerous propositions because doing so would weaken the walls of our fundamentalist ghetto and dilute our scrupulous doctrinal purity. We had to be vigilant about not allowing "sin in the camp." The senior pastor of a megachurch I attended for several years referred to seminary (in other words, rigorous theological education) as "cemetery" (meaning that learning too much would kill our fundamentalist faith). The prioritization of purity and separateness took precedence over empathy and compassion--although we couldn't see it (which, I now suspect, is why Jesus called the Pharisees "blind").

I've been out of that conservative, fundamentalist, Evangelical Christian bubble for a number of years now, but current events cause me to reflect.  If I were still ensconced in that environment, I would probably be a Fox News and conservative talk radio devotee. I would, quite possibly, support Donald Trump (in part out of hope that he would appoint conservative Supreme Court justices who could roll-back Roe v. Wade and gay marriage).   I would more readily imbibe conspiracy theories and the sketchy claims of flim-flam men.  I would tend toward inwardly-focused protectionist/isolationist ideologies and policies. I would see the larger world as filled with scary ideas and scary people intent on destroying my godly and "right" little world--a world in which the lines were clear and the explanations were simple.

A couple of years ago my wife and I were on vacation and were doing a little shopping in a neat little "old town" area. We came upon a store selling Buddhist, Hindu and "metaphysical" goods. We went inside and had an enjoyable browse. The proprietor behind the cash register, it turned out, was a recent immigrant from Tibet. We had a lovely chat, including some talk about spiritual things. But the thought never crossed our minds to try to convert him, nor--apparently--he to convert us. It was genuinely interesting to hear his perspective and he appeared equally interested to hear ours. As we left the store, my wife remarked to me, "You know, for so many years, I would have been afraid to go into a store like that or to have an agendaless conversation with a person like that. It's nice to be free."

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