April 14, 2005

In Friendly Territory, Behind Enemy Lines

from - smijer

I promised a report on how my trip went. I guess I came back from the trip with more to think about and discuss than one post will hold, so I'll just hit a couple of high points here, and try to dig in deeper in the days between now and the next COTG.

I'll go ahead and report that I didn't experience a religious ecstasy, nor witness anything that seemed miraculous to me. My philosophical and moral objections to Christianity remain intact. Having that out of the way, I have so much else to add, and I can think of no better place to begin than at the very end.

After my wife picked me up from the church, and we were on the way home, I expressed to her how well I enjoyed myself and how much I liked the people with whom she attends church. I also expressed to her that, evenif she does not ever convert to Unitarianism, at least she can serve to help be a moderating and educational influence on her fellow Church-of-God members, especially concerning their outlook on social issues. And it is true - she takes a larger view of most social issues than her church-mates, and she speaks their language, and that makes her much more effective at helping them to broaden their perspective than a secular Democrat could hope to be.

Mrs. smijer caught me off guard, however, with her rejoinder. She asked me in what ways I could reciprocate. I thought it over, and realized that there are simply not very many important issues about which I would want to and could hope to have a moderating impact on my fellow secularists, Unitarians, or political lefties. So, I muttered to myself for a moment before hitting on an area where I could earnestly help to bridge the gap. It's a simple fact that many of us - myself sometimes included - see the foot-soldiers of the Republican Army as hopelessly reactionary, and incapable of understanding or caring about the problems and needs of others outside their tiny sphere. But the truth isn't so simple. Of course, there are plenty of conservative Christians who are nothing but tools. But, on the other hand, there are plenty who qualify as the "salt of the earth," as well. This I can attest to from personal experience. Of course, I knew this already, from experience with my own friends and family, but I experienced it on a larger scale of magnitude at my weekend encounter. There, I had the opportunity to observe and interact with approximately seventy conservative Christian men.

Here are the positives that really stuck with me. I may spend more time on the negatives (in future posts) than I am doing on the positives now, but let me get right out front and stress that I was much more impressed with the positives of the weekend, by a far cry. So, the positives:

  • Good Intentions: I know, the road to hell is paved with them... but nevertheless, they do get credit for having their heart in the right place. A large part of their ministry is aimed at helping people who have reached a point of desperation begin to turn their lives around. I haven't seen any long-term studies about how much success they have with this effort. I expect that their reliance on case-selective anecdotal evidence may allow them to exaggerate the degree of success they are experiencing. It's possible that they may never become aware of the instances where their ministry's results were the opposite of the intended ones. No matter how productive or counter-productive their ministry, there can be no doubt of their good intentions. That applies to the vast majority of them.
  • Genuine affection and acceptance: Here I was, known by one and all to be a liberal atheist who opposes many or most of the teachings that are dear to the hearts of this group. Yet, I received a genuine outpouring of care, love, and affection from these individuals. Everywhere I turned, there was a smiling face, a touch, and in times that were appropriate, declarations of brotherly love. On the one hand, I was skeptical of these declarations: it is easy to say that you have love, but what does that mean? In this situation, however, there can be no doubt. When my person represents a challenge to their dearest beliefs, and yet they choose to embrace me by expressing love, rather than rejecting or harrying me until I reform my thinking to suit them - that is an act of love. Sure, they hoped to "win" me, and sure religious sentimentality was part of what motivated them, but at the end of the day, when it was completely clear that I was not going to be "won", nothing changed. I continued to receive genuine smiles and invitations to return, come to church, or just call them if I needed anything. Sure, there were degrees of warmth. Sure, some of the guys (I could tell) couldn't care less about me except as a sort of a challenge, and an object of prestige should they manage to win me - but they were a tiny minority.
  • Race: This is not your father's conservative, white, church. Ethnic minorities were underrepresented at the Encounter, but they were present, and no less welcome on account of their race than I was on account of my irreligiosity. The East Ridge Church of God has, for some time now, been making a conscious effort to reach out to a racially diverse group, and members of minority communities are responding. This can only be a step forward in Chattanooga's race relations.
  • Joy: Perhaps one of the most unique attributes of the Church of God experience is the fact that inhibitions have no place there. Men of all ages clapped their hands, sang, and danced. There's no other way to put it than that they were having fun. At times, the seventy men could have been the first ten rows at any rock concert, jumping up and down in unison, to the beat of the music, hands in the air. Young or old, slim or pot-bellied, it didn't matter. No one was paying attention to how they looked to the fellow standing next to him (chances are, the fellow next to him looked just as silly). They just had fun. Good for them. We'd all be better off if we could shake our inhibitions and our silly pride, and just have fun every now and again.
There is a lot more to tell, and a lot of it will be less sunny than the reporting in this post - but I want to get out front and impress upon you that these people, regardless of how mixed up they may be on important social issues, no matter how restricted the dogma of the church leaves their thinking, have their hearts in the right place. They deserve love and respect, even when we disagree witht them. More later...

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Posted by smijer at April 14, 2005 07:56 AM
Comments

I HAVE BEEN BACK IN MY HOMETOWN FOR 4 MONTHS AND IT IS SAD THAT THSE PEOPLE ARE STILL SO RACIST AND JUDGEMENTAL.THE CELEBRATION OF THE 100TH ANNIVERSERY OF THE LIBRARY ONLY REMINDED ME THAT RACISM IS STILL BOOMING!IT WOULD HAVE BEEN NICE TO SEE THEM HAVE A MULTICULTURAL CELEBRATION.I ATTEND THE LIBRARY ON A MORE THAN REGULAR SCHEDULE,MY FAMILY ARE AFRICAN AMERICAN/SPANISH.

univar.jpg Posted by TRUTH 4 REAL on July 13, 2005 12:17 PM
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