“Three things will last forever—faith, hope, and love—and the greatest of these is love.” 1 Corinthians 13:13 (NLT)
A year and a half ago, I discovered something I had been searching for my entire life without fully realizing.
Growing up, I wasn’t raised with a specific religion or spiritual belief system, and only went to church a handful of times. With or without religion, I still learned from good old television and pop culture that religion and God in general were very one-sided and oppressive. The clichés always played out in one form or another: “God hates fags,” “Sex before marriage is a sin,” “Abortion is murder,” etc. Because of these statements, I internalized, as many probably do, that my spiritual identity—my true self—was wrong, sinful, not worthy or accepted by God or in any church/spiritual type community. All of these ideas morphed into this massive wall of negative self-projection. The thing is, none of these things were a part of my true self—I just thought they were.
I was a late bloomer! Around the age of twenty-one, I started attending church regularly. It was absolutely what I need at the time. But as I grew, and changed, I began to find a more solid identity; my comfort with church and “fit” feeling I initially had diminished.
So, after a very difficult and conscious decision to break away from the only spiritual community I had called home, I managed to keep my head above water long enough to find a new one. To sit in a place on a Sunday afternoon that both welcomes and loves people, good, bad, ugly, ‘n all is rare. This acceptance is so unheard of the greater population might not believe it actually exists! The beautiful thing is that this acceptance and love does exist. Outside of the umbrella of fundamentalist and conservative religious doctrine, there are minority Christian and spiritual groups popping up and growing all across the world.
In my opinion, there are apparent fundamental disparities between the Gospel’s principle and the religious fundamentalist’s idea of morality. I like to call this “sintax.” Sintax is when directly quoted scripture or words based upon scripture are propagated to instill fear or self-correction in people.
Historically, years of harsh judgement and religious oppression through the use of sintax and direct action have only created a marginalized view of God, Jesus, and spirituality in general.
In an effort to open up a more well-rounded view of Christianity and Christians here in Portland—and break down many peoples “gag” reflexes when it comes to God talk—I interviewed several lovely people from my community. Crystal Eddington Neill, Brian Petersen, Mariia J. Stein, Todd Fadel and Jennifer Holloway share some of their thoughtful answers below:
1. To your knowledge, or in general, what assumptions do people make about you when they learn you are Christian?
BP: The thing that I notice, especially with people who don’t know me real well, is that people assume that they have to change the way that they speak or the things that they talk about. Like, maybe they start to watch their mouths and stop cussing. It’s hilarious, really.
On a more serious note, I think that some people assume that since I’m a Christian I don’t have anything significant or meaningful to contribute to important conversations. They assume that I have a set worldview that doesn’t allow for any grey area, and that therefore anything truly progressive or revolutionary is beyond the scope of my belief system.
TF: Most people I meet just want to steer clear from anything evangelical. This is mainly because they assume that people who hold staunch beliefs don’t want to let them be who they are. They are not interested in imposed rigidity, and their concerns always grounded in personal abuse stories, disrespect or disregard happening to them or people they love.
2. How would you define the Christian minority community in Portland, and do you consider yourself a part of it based upon your personal beliefs, or affiliation?
CEN: I think the Christian minority community in Portland, while small, is quite diverse in their living out of who they believe God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit are and who can/cannot be a part of their community/belief structure. Do I consider myself a part of it based upon my personal beliefs or affiliation? That’s a tough one for me to answer. On one hand, sure…on the other, “God hates (fill in the blank with whatever the current trend of what God hates this year),” not at all.
BP: Interesting question. I mean, Christians as a whole are a minority in Portland, but I don’t find myself identifying too closely with the overall Christian culture. There is a definitely feeling among a lot of mainstream evangelical-types in Portland, that they are an oppressed minority set up and against this overwhelming secular culture. I don’t agree with that at all. On the other hand, there is definitely a minority present within the Christian community that is seeking to do things a bit differently. This community is present within all sorts of denominations and traditions, and I have seen it growing over the years. There tend to be a group of like-minded folks who run in a lot of the same circles. That’s true in Portland, but also throughout the country.
3. What have you learned working in a community that appreciates holding a space for individuals otherwise cast out/off-put by more traditional spiritual communities?
CEN: I have learned there is space for everyone at “the table.” I have learned loving people is a lot harder than hating people. I have learned that when we force people into a box we deem appropriate for mass consumption, we clip the wings of freedom given to us by God and stunt beauty from being birthed within each individual, as prescribed by God. There is beauty to be found in everyone, grace for everyone, peace and joy for everyone. . .even myself.
TF: I like to treat people like their story is valuable. it’s important to strive to understand a persons approach to living, not to prove them wrong.
MJS: That people can really work together and community can love and work together.
BP: It’s tremendously rewarding and liberating, but at the same time it is challenging because we can have a tendency to develop a sort of elitism. So I’ve had to learn to be willing to engage in dialogue and also to see that there are like-minded people everywhere, even if they don’t fit in with the aesthetic that I’m comfortable with.
At the same time, I’ve realized that aesthetics are important. The way we worship, talk, look, feel, etc says something about the things that we value. There’s a reason that the cast-offs all manage to find each other and gather together as a tribe. So there’s a balance where you have to honor that aesthetic and value it, without becoming a cloistered sort of community.
JH: Yes, the Portland Christian community is a community that loves to shelter those who have been outcast by the rest of society. This is one of my favorite things about living here. Everyone has a place, a home, a friend. Granted, there are still some churches that are closed minded here, but those a few and far between now a days. I think the absolute greatest thing about this close bond with our lost community members, is the ability for US to learn from THEM. They can teach us how to love those who are different, they teach us to be tolerant because their needs as a human being rise above anything in their life that we may not agree on. They teach us humanity, and allow us to learn how to help them find faith, by simply helping them with open arms and not shoving a bible down their throats. These are the people that God works through in quiet ways, without even the Christians who are helping them identifying that.
4. What is your response to the statement “. . .Portland is one of the most unchurched cities in the United States” ?
BP: That was the refrain as I was going through seminary. It was essentially a call to arms. You were given the idea that you were entering hostile territory, and you had better be prepared.
Now, I think it’s more of an opportunity than a challenge. There is a lot of willingness to try new things here, and not a lot of need to hold onto things that become shackles. It’s much harder to break people out of the mold in places that are deeply rooted in tradition. I think a lot of people here have a deep spiritual awareness and a much more integrated way of looking at things, they just reject the idea of “church” because it tends to stifle those things more than helping them.
JH: I would say that is completely not true! I think the outside world may judge us by our non-overbearing approach. The fact is there are churches sprinkled all throughout this city; it would be hard pressed for a person to drive through this city for more than 5 minutes without finding a church. Unfortunately, Christians have to be more low key here, and perhaps thats where they get that statement from. Communities are used to loud mouthed Christians who MAKE themselves known. We have a more humble spirit here, and like to work alongside our friends and neighbors, not over them. Whispers can be hear louder here than yelling. Go ahead and clap in the coffee house where they are snapping to poetry.. you’ll get glared out and shunned faster than you could imagine.
5. Based upon your religious upbringing of the definition of sin, has the meaning changed, and if so, how?
CEN: I don’t think the definition of the word “sin” has changed, my response to it has, for sure.
BP: Well, like most I would say that sin was always something that you needed to avoid in order to be pleasing to God, or acceptable to other people, anyway. It was basically a test that you were set up to fail—everything that you probably really want to do is a sin, so it’s all about forcing yourself to deny every natural urge that comes your way. Salvation through forced asceticism. The sad thing is, that’s what most Christians and also non-Christians still think it is.
Nowadays, I see sin as the failure to be true to the identity I have, which is hidden in God and I am living to discover. So sin is not something that offends or disappoints God because God is some sort of taskmaster. It is more of a lie that I tell myself in order to get further away from God. So in that case, trying to avoid “sin” might be the most sinful thing of all.
MJS: Yes. I still don’t like using the word so much, but it has changed I see sin as something that we all do that it is “missing the mark.” It is no longer condemning to me.
TF: I’ve learned that sin is merely a way of medicating pain. And churches medicate just as much as the general public, if not more so, just in less obviously incriminating ways. Policing medication is a dead end. Getting to the source of the pain and trying to heal that tends to be a better way.
6. How do you combat specific oppressive statements/actions/doctrines within the religious community in or out of dialogue? Specifically, those foundational arguments that being gay is a sin, women (biblically), aren’t called to be in a pastoral/leading role, immigration laws, etc.?
CEN: Two quotes came to mind immediately when I read this question:
1) “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”
– Martin Luther King, Jr.
2) “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.”
-Bishop Desmond Tutu
We combat oppression, whether it happens via social networking, passive comments, aggressive actions, leaders within “the church” taking stands or making statements that oppress others, by speaking out against it. Educating ourselves on what IS the truth. Speaking up when it could mean you are at risk. LIVING out what you believe, with integrity and without apology. Unabashedly having benevolence for one another.
7. What are your views on the movement of Christian Anarchism? How do you think this or other minor religious/spiritual groups benefit the larger portland community spiritual and non alike?
BP: I have been conversant with the Christian Anarchist community for many years, and I think it’s a great thing. Radical movements have always existed throughout the history of the church and they have served a very important purpose of calling the church to accountability. It’s especially relevant in Portland because we have such a large activist community here, and it’s great to see people who are not afraid to engage this community on a similar level, finding common ground. If I had one bit of critique of the movement, it would be that I’d like to run into more revolutionaries out there putting things into action. Theory and praxis need to have a closer relationship. That’s not to say that they aren’t trying, but if we could see even more Christian Anarchists being vocally involved in movements and demonstrating love in action, we would be taken even more seriously.
MJS: I think that this is just another way of refining and changing a system that needs to be changed it fits with modern times and fits in Portland atmosphere as we, as Philly, and across the nation. i think it’s a trend (religiously and politically).
8. In ten years, do you think the spiritual dynamic in Portland will change drastically or not?
TF: Unless church goers are willing to listen to other peoples stories and look at relating to the most overlooked peoples, very few changes will be made.
CEN: I think it can change. If we (“we” being like-hearted Christ-followers) begin restoring our own selves back to God’s original ecosystem He/She first created within us, live out the restored ecosystem and create sacred spaces for others where grace abides, absolutely. If we continue to use God’s name to hate others who are diverse from us (diverse as in, sex, sexual orientation, belief system, background, culture heritage, likes/dislikes, etc.) then absolutely not—where there is hate, there is no Light. God’s ecosystem was created for everyone—there should not be a “them and us,” like my friend, Ken Loyd says. There should only be “us.” When we start loving people because they exist and for nothing else, that is when we will see a shift in the spiritual dynamics…of all of us.
FROM THE LOVE CHAPTER: 1 Corinthians 13:1-13 (NLT)
“If I could speak all the languages of earth and of angels, but didn’t love others, I would only be a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.
2 If I had the gift of prophecy, and if I understood all of God’s secret plans and possessed all knowledge, and if I had such faith that I could move mountains, but didn’t love others, I would be nothing.
3 If I gave everything I have to the poor and even sacrificed my body, I could boast about it; but if I didn’t love others, I would have gained nothing.
4 Love is patient and kind. Love is not jealous or boastful or proud
5 or rude. It does not demand its own way. It is not irritable, and it keeps no record of being wronged.
6 It does not rejoice about injustice but rejoices whenever the truth wins out.
7 Love never gives up, never loses faith, is always hopeful, and endures through every circumstance.
8 Prophecy and speaking in unknown languages and special knowledge will become useless. But love will last forever!
9 Now our knowledge is partial and incomplete, and even the gift of prophecy reveals only part of the whole picture!
10 But when the time of perfection comes, these partial things will become useless.
11 When I was a child, I spoke and thought and reasoned as a child. But when I grew up, I put away childish things.
12 Now we see things imperfectly, like puzzling reflections in a mirror, but then we will see everything with perfect clarity. All that I know now is partial and incomplete, but then I will know everything completely, just as God now knows me completely.
13 Three things will last forever—faith, hope, and love—and the greatest of these is love.
CHECK OUT THESE LINKS AS WELL:
OUR HOUSE TRAILER:
WIKIPEDIA ENTRY ON CHRISTIAN ANARCHISM.
CIARON O’REILLY is a dedicated member of the Catholic Worker Movement, Christian Anarchist subscriber, and active in social justice issues.
You can also read the full interview HERE.