Some years ago, when I was serving my first church, I was waiting to be a witness at a court hearing in Madison, Wisconsin. The case prior to the one I would be involved in concerned a young black woman who was a prison inmate — and pregnant. She was about to be released. In her parting remarks to the judge, the young lady said she would turn her life around because — “I found God.”
I wondered, What would I have said if the judge — learning that I am a minister — had asked me, “What do you think? Will she turn her life around now that she has found God?”
My response would have been: “It depends.”
“Depends on what?”
“It depends on the type of people she goes back to.”
Too easily, we believe that belief in God is a game-changer.
Not all that long ago, Darryl Strawberry got into trouble with drugs. Then he became a born-again Christian. Then he got back into trouble with drugs.
It happens in other religions as well. Mike Tyson went to prison, became a “born-again Muslim” — next thing you know, he’s back in prison for assault and still later is caught with marijuana.
Belief isn’t the game-changer we think it is!
Rather, I think much more influential in a person’s life is — how they were raised and whom they hang out with.
Indeed, the court case that I mentioned where I was a witness — concerned two members of my congregation, one of whom was getting a restraining order against the other. What good was all of that church-going and communion once a month and baptizing their baby? The husband proved to be a brute. I’m convinced it was his upbringing that influenced his chauvinistic and violent behavior than any church-going.
Another thing I have seen over & over — a teenager will belong to a church youth group. Next thing you know he’s arrested for drugs or vandalism or theft. Peer pressure was more of an influence in his life than the church. I have a saying: “Your best friend is more powerful than God.”
Why is it that church-goers in rural areas are typically more conservative than church-goers in urban settings? They’re reading the same Bible — praying to the same God (as Lincoln remarked on the irony of the gulf between church-goers North and South). But it is their environment that is most influential. People in rural areas encounter fewer varieties of people. They tend to resent people who are different. Thus, people in rural churches (or churches of historically rural setting though they may now be suburban) — tend to be anti-gay. They oppose any progress for gays, and have the nerve to base it on their religion, of all things!
LIkewise, the historically rural, less-populated South opposed civil-rights legislation all the while those people were the most frequent church-goers in the country. And then what happened later in supposedly liberal (because more-populated) Northern cities like Boston and Chicago? In these heavily religious settings, racial hatred rose to the surface on issues of integrated housing and schools. The prejudice of family and neighbors was more influential than anything they might have experienced in church.
Similarly, in countries where Islam is the dominant religion, the suppression of women is a cultural phenomenon but religion is used to justify it. The prejudice existed first — THEN the religion. The religion was used to authorize the put-down as divinely ordered.
Dare we go so far as to say: Human factors more than divine decide what people believe and how they act! Opposition to progress for gays in the church is heavily Southern. But believers from the same denomination — in urban settings — are more “liberal” towards gender equality. Why? They may justify progress by quoting the Scriptures, but I think the greatest influence is simply that they encounter more diverse people in an urban setting. It’s primarily by getting to know people that they then go back and look for justification in the Scriptures. That’s another saying I have: “Relationships break down dogma.”
Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter — at the end of his long career — remarked that he would make a decision on a gut feeling, and then would go back and find the legal basis for it. I think people use religion in the same way — for good or bad.
This also explains why there are individuals who are the salt of the earth — kind, thoughtful, with healthy boundaries and happy outlook on life — who do NOT go to church. Their family, their friends, and their own growth in character have been more influential than any church-going they ever did in childhood and have since abandoned.
Now — this may all seem a put-down of religion as irrelevant. But it isn’t. In truth, it’s a highlighting of the teachings of the Old Testament prophets and Jesus. They never separate God and people. In the best examples, devotion to God is exhibited as devotion to people. In the worst examples, however, religious people are more swayed by family and friends and surroundings than they are by their religion. Indeed, their religion becomes the prejudice of the people. In the 19th Century, how many Southern preachers insisted that slavery was part of the natural order established by God? Today, how many preachers (fundamentalists, both Northern and Southern) insist that homosexuality is NOT part of the natural order established by God?
It has taken time for them to be proven wrong (not that they admit it). But it just goes to show how a religion can take on the prejudice of its people rather than doing the reverse — working ON the people to change them for the better.
This is the insight of Jesus and the OT prophets. They know that religion is not about “you and God.” More factors are involved as to what you believe — how you were raised, whom you hang out with, the surroundings that you live in…
The simplicity of your beliefs being just between “you and God” is what televangelists make a big deal out of. “If you just have enough faith, you’ll know the will of God — God will work wonders in your life.”
That is such a simplistic view of life, it is cruelly misleading. All the while these evangelists rake in their wealth. Nothing in life is so simple as just being between “you and God.” You can be the safest person on the road — you can still get killed by a drunk driver.
LIfe is more complex, more interconnected than any notion of a pipeline between one’s self and God. Other things influence us, though we think it’s our faith. People may take as “revelation” or “inspiration” what is actually the prejudice of parents or friends.
Religion can not be separated from the people who surround us. At its worst, religion becomes the “front” for the prejudice we pick up from family and friends. At its best, however, the inability to separate God and people can be a beautiful thing — like the last line from the musical Les Miserables: “to love another person is to see the face of God.”