I read an article on CNN this morning about a father and son who are ministers, and who have had their own crises — in particular, familial crises, along the way. It’s a story of how painful love can be, both the love of family members and the love as we understand it of God. But it’s also a story of forgiveness. And it set me to thinking a bit.
Although Mondoville College is affiliated with a Lutheran denomination, the Lutherans among our students are far outnumbered by Southern Baptists — which isn’t surprising, given our location in the buckle of the Bible Belt. We’re the tiny speck of orange in the sea of red that is South Carolina.
And having grown up in Baptist country as a Presbyterian, I’ll confess to having formed stereotypes — not necessarily about individuals, but about the denomination at large. As I think about it, they were based in many ways on a guy I knew growing up. He was married to a woman who had been widowed with two children. He was also an abusive bully, particularly toward the kids, and so certain of his own righteousness that he would gag a Pharisee. He would take the kids’ Social Security benefits and buy wonderful toys for himself and his wife, while his teenaged son came to our house because he was hungry. But the man was in church every time the doors opened, and was constantly asserting some sort of Baptist-Uber-Alles position in conversation, which combined with his habit of being usually wrong but never uncertain, led to some interesting moments.
An illustration: On forms where one could check off religious affiliation, he would skip over Catholic and Protestant, tick off “Other”, and write in “Baptist.” Once, he was boastfully talking about that to my parents. My dad said, “Well, if your church stems from the Catholic faith, but isn’t Catholic, it’s Protestant.”
The man replied, “We don’t stem from the Catholics — we stem from John the Baptist.”
Dad said, “Oh! You’re Jewish.” Thus ended the conversation.
So the guy was a creep, and a hypocrite, and he colored my perception of his church. And while he was an extreme example, I saw far too much of him in too many of the Baptists with whom I grew up. As I’m older and (I hope) wiser, I realize that all churches have their share of creeps and self-righteous hypocrites, as do my local grocery and bookstore, and that indeed I have had my own moments of creepiness and self-righteous hypocrisy (the duration of which may depend on who you ask), and I return to the idea that we “know not what [we] do,” or at least that we rationalize our way into the illusion of not knowing. And I understand the friends of mine who find the whole enterprise of religion off-putting, even worthy of their scorn. In all likelihood, they got there honestly.
But that doesn’t make them right, any more than my experiences with creeps made me right about their professed faiths. At the end of each day, people remain flawed to greater or lesser extents. At the end of each day, we remain people. We misuse and abuse the gifts God has given us — faith among them. But we may still hold to the idea that God will understand that we know not what we do.