TransChristians

“I identify as…”

It’s the beginning of every conservative’s favorite joke. And only joke. “I identify as an Apache helicopter.” “I identify as a disabled Black woman.” “I identify as a a hawk.”

You see, the joke is on those wacky transgender people, based on the supposed immutability of the genders. You can’t just identify as whatever you want. You are what you are, no matter what you feel you are. “Facts don’t care about your feelings,” as a famous Christian Fascist likes to put it.

Which is genuinely funny (as opposed to conservative joke funny), because anyone can identify as a Christian and it means literally nothing.

What do I mean by that?

There are currently 2.2 billion Christians on the planet, of which almost all fall within the three main branches: Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox. They all identify as Christian, and yet, strictly speaking, each branch believes it represents the only true version of the faith. And then, of course, those branches break down into hundreds of denominations, many of them claiming they have the one and only truth.

I could go on about this for pages, but this classic Emo Philips joke sums it up better than a hundred theologians ever could:

 

Beyond the three branches, Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses also identify as Christians, even though Protestants, Catholics, and Orthodox Christians all reject that claim and dismiss them as cults. But for demographic purposes, Mormons and JWs are counted as part of the 2.2 billion Chrizzos.

Alright, so a bunch of people have differing theological ideas about their religion. Who cares, right? That’s not any great gotcha. It doesn’t undermine the faith. I agree, it doesn’t. I don’t care what a self-proclaimed Christian believes. But shouldn’t Christians?

The Christian Nation

Let’s narrow our focus to America. The United States, as conservative politicians and religious leaders claim again and again, is a “Christian nation.” Founded on Christian values with a predominantly Christian citizenship, it’s totally reasonable for the Ten Commandments to be etched into US government buildings and “In God We Trust” splashed across the currency. So we’re told.

Never mind that the number of Christians in America dropped to an all-time low of 64% in 2020 and is, according to the Pew Research Center, on track to drop below 50% within roughly two decades. America is still a Christian nation. So says a majority of Republicans. So, beat it, Jews and Muslims.

But, here’s the real catch: Among those conservative Christian Nationalists who believe Christianity is the foundational truth of America, there is a growing contingent who don’t believe Jesus was God, which is literally the foundational truth of Christianity.

Don’t just take my word for it. That’s the finding of the most recent biannual State of Theology survey, which is overseen by two Christian organizations, Ligonier Ministries and LifeWay Research. This isn’t a survey of “gotcha” questions from Marxist college eggheads. These are Christian groups looking to understand the American Christian™.

A whopping 38% of self-identified Evangelicals said they “strongly agree” with the statement, “Jesus was a great teacher, but he was not God.” Another 5% somewhat agreed, meaning a full 41% of Evangelical Christians question whether Jesus was God. For those who haven’t been to Bible study in a while, if Jesus isn’t God, there is no Christianity.

If you don’t trust an atheist’s definition of Christianity, how about the National Association of Evangelicals:

Evangelicals take the Bible seriously and believe in Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord. The term “evangelical” comes from the Greek word euangelion, meaning “the good news” or the “gospel.” Thus, the evangelical faith focuses on the “good news” of salvation brought to sinners by Jesus Christ.

So, 41% of Evangelical Christians identify as Evangelical Christians while denying the foundational belief of Evangelical Christianity, namely that Jesus is the Lord.

That should probably raise some holy eyebrows. Evangelicals Protestants, which, for the record, are not a denomination but a subset (there can be Evangelical Baptists and Lutherans; there are even Evangelical Catholics), make up at least 25% of all Christians in America, and growing. 

Let’s do some quick math: There are 330 million people in the US. Since 64% are Christian, that is 212 million (rounding up), which makes 53 million Evangelicals (more than the population of Spain, by the way). And if 41% of those 53 million don’t believe Jesus is God, there are at least 22 million people in the United States who identify as Christian but don’t actually meet the technical definition of Christian.

(For the record Wheaton College estimates 30-35% of the US is Evangelical, which would mean 90-100 million people, with between 37 and 41 million doubting Jesus’ divinity.)

What should we call these millions of people who identify as Christian while denying the central, essential tenet of Christianity? TransChristians? Christian-adjacent? Apache Hell-icopters? (Get it? Because according to their own religion they’re going to Hell.)

I don’t suppose it matters. They identify as Christians, and therefore they are Christians. I have no right to question it, and neither do you. Funny how that works.

The Mary Jacket

Let me tell you a story about a jacket.

It’s not all my story, and in fact, it originates somewhere that I’ve never been: Portland, Oregon.

Before we get there, though, I need to back up to somewhere I’ve spent far too much time: my hometown.

Here I am trying to make my first escape.

We weren’t a happy family; perhaps not an unhappy one. We had our moments, to be sure, a series of explosions – laughter, anger, whichever broke us through. Before I’d even turned eight, we had already fractured once; a few years later, we’d do it all over again. Eventually, the whole damn thing fell apart. And we were fine.

The first fracture came when my oldest brother, Mike, abruptly left home when I was in second grade. The subsequent fracturing event came a few years later with the exit of my second oldest brother, Steve, who left home under acrimonious circumstances when I was maybe nine or ten. To be honest, the timeline of those early years has always been jumbled in my mind. The mixture of my sheltered youth and a familial tendency to talk around the issues has left me spending my adult life indolently piecing together family history, like someone absentmindedly scratching a bug bite.

I suppose it must seem strange that a writer would be this incurious about his own past, but the truth is, it isn’t my past. Everything happened around me; I was a background extra in my own life up until college, and even then, really only a featured player.

So, what I know of Steve’s exit: I was the last one to speak to him before he left the house that final time. There were five kids, so my parents had opted to get us a second landline phone just for us (just for them); it was even listed in the phone book as the separate Teens’ Line. That night, my parents had gone out and gave instructions that Steve was not to use the phone, he being on punishment for one infraction or another. Nothing new there.

I was watching TV in the living room when I heard the kids’ line ringing in the den. Since the phone was never for me, I instinctively ignored it until I remembered my parents’ instructions. I rushed to the den just in time to find Steve answering the phone.

“You’re not supposed to use the phone,” I dutifully bleated.

“I know!” Steve snapped back. “No one else was answering it!”

That was it. I skulked back to the living room, then, some minutes later, I heard  Steve leaving out the garage and that was the last I would see of him for years.

Kids Christmas
My siblings. Probably.

That could all be wrong. I don’t trust the details of my memory; I tend to conflate different events, sometimes years apart. It’s immaterial; this is how I remember it. The great irony – and power – of our past is that perception shapes memory, which then shapes perception. We’re all living a lie we told ourselves. This is mine.

My next memory of seeing Steve in person came many months later. He was standing on our porch, saying hello to my tearful mother who was welcoming him back home to Lawrence. He’d gotten heroin thin – emaciated, really – and was covered with piercings, a safety pin pincushion. 

I don’t remember if Steve was wearing the jacket, though I suspect not. This jacket, which came to represent all the mysteries and allure of my brother’s time away from home, was a plain brown, polyester gas station attendant’s jacket, an ugly thing made all the more unsightly by large rips and frayed edges. Like Steve’s eyebrows, the thing was pierced through with a phalanx of safety pins, some of them functional, most just for aesthetics. I thought it was the coolest thing I’d ever seen.

After leaving home, but before meeting up with Mike in Flagstaff, Arizona, Steve spent time in Portland, Oregon, living in a shithole (probably) and working in the kitchen of an Italian restaurant. Other than learning the basics of cooking from the restaurant’s chef, Steve’s main pastimes in Portland were poetry and drugs (I won’t pretend to know which ones; all of them?).

In Portland, where by law gas station attendants still pump your gas, Steve picked up the jacket. What really made this unassuming article of clothing pop, at least for me, was the one piece of personalization that my brother had attached: a yellow and orange fabric patch with the name “Mary” sewn in green letters over an orange heart. I had no idea who Mary was, but she was clearly perfect.

In fact, Mary was no one, but everyone. As Steve later explained, “Mary” was the stand-in name he used in his poetry when he was writing about a woman but didn’t want to use her real name. She was the all-encompassing focus of love and lust, hate and sorrow; she was all womankind.

So she came to represent to me.

My parents were permitting my brother to store some of his belongings at the family house, which is how I came to stumble across the Mary Jacket hanging up in a hallway closet. For a time, I would take it out just to put it on, and then slip it back on its hanger. As the months passed, though, and Steve made no indication that he intended to take it back, I began to wear the jacket out of the house, to my mother’s chagrin.

Steve didn’t mind me wearing it, but there was always an understanding that someday I’d return it to him. That never happened.

The jacket engulfed me. It must have been huge on Steve when he was at his thinnest, which is why I doubt he was actually wearing it that day he showed up on our porch. It didn’t matter, I loved it and wore it constantly. After losing a great deal of weight in a very short time as a teenager, I was slow to update my wardrobe so most of my clothes were baggy on me. The jacket fit my style (a term I use loosely).

People asked all the time who Mary was, or, sometimes with confusion regarding my long, feminine blond hair, if I was Mary. Some kids took to calling me Mary, presumably as an insult, but if it bothered me, it didn’t stop me from wearing the jacket every damn day.

Whatever reason Steve had for choosing Mary as his female catch-all, the name had an extra level of resonance for his youngest brother, a kid named Joseph who had been brought up in the Jesus in Wonderland orthodoxy of Evangelical Pentecostals. Everything was filtered through Bible stories and purported prophecy. Mary didn’t just represent some unknown love interest, she came to represent the unseen woman, the one that completed the equation: Joseph and Mary.

Perhaps I have a genetic predisposition to symbolism, or it’s just a product of my religious upbringing, but early on I developed an obsession with poetic symmetry in life, always looking for surreptitious indicators of deeper meaning or direction in the innocuous happenstance of life: a song playing on the radio with an oddly fitting lyric; the crash of thunder in a moment of doubt; a girl named Mary.

I wanted – needed – there to be signs of something grand ahead, because in the now, life was pretty miserable. Certainly, I was.

As high school ceded to college, I left much of my old life behind, including church friends and my faith, but the Mary Jacket stayed with me. From wear, the tears had grown into fluttering gashes with loose threads hanging from the edges that I routinely had to cut off. I’d repurposed some of the extra safety pins to hold the entire left side together, which otherwise flung open like a gaping mouth.

If the jacket had arrived in Kansas looking like a holdover from the 80s hardcore scene, I had managed to turn it into a homemade Halloween costume assembled by a disinterested stepmother. It had long ago ceased to be a jacket in any functional sense, more of a rag to throw over my shoulders like a cape. So be it, it was my cape.

When I packed up everything I owned for the move to Charlotte that would launch 10 Cities/10 Years, I stuffed the Mary Jacket in my boxes. Eventually, I gained enough sense to stop wearing the thing, but for sentimental purposes, the jacket remained with me for many moves. After a few years, realizing that sentiment wasn’t worth the extra money and effort it required to move every year, I unceremoniously discarded the jacket along with many other artifacts of a life I no longer lived.

Before I tossed the jacket –there was no hope of donating it, the thing was mostly safety pins by that point – I removed the Mary patch. That I still have.

Cropped
No words.

Symbolism

Writers love symbols. Fiction, in particular, is buoyed by their potential. Properly deployed, one symbol can say more than ten pages of exposition; even poor writing can be given the façade of depth with some hasty symbolism. Then there are the great writers, like Fitzgerald, whose symbolism could captivate so thoroughly, he redefined the prosaic truth of the image itself. A green light is never just a green light.

Even though I no longer believe in higher powers or spiritual intercession in the natural world, I’m still taken with the way coincidences can imbue day-to-day life with literary flair. From time to time, it’s fun to indulge a flight of fancy, to impose meaning on the meaningless. It’s utter rubbish, but what isn’t? A writer has to think in symbols.

Names will always hold deeper meaning, like how hearing a particular name brings a rush of memories about an ex or a friend I haven’t thought of in years. I’m always tickled by couples with famous name pairings or when someone’s moniker takes on an ironic double meaning. To this day, “Mary” is freighted with unrealistic meaning. It’s a connection to a past that’s mostly been forgotten or blurred into unreliable memory, and yet also a suggestion of a future that could have been, probably never will. I hear the name, it triggers visions of a specific type of life with a wife and a house, a family, a place; stability.

Before anyone thinks, “Awwww,” I haven’t lost anything, only come to understand myself better. Like that shredded gas attendant’s jacket, that existence wouldn’t fit me now. It’d only split and unravel. I held onto that vision of my future for a lot longer than I should have because I wanted so much for there to be a plan, a destination. Not anymore. I don’t need a prophecy to tell me about my future; I make my own.

Traveling has stripped me of much of my sentimentality. I’ve gotten much better at letting go of my relics. On the verge of another major move, my biggest yet, I’m examining my possessions with a plan to unload it all. Holding on to mementos from the past doesn’t actually prolong the past. Baggage is a burden, and a crutch. Minimalism is both a necessity and incredibly freeing.

Still, I like to imagine someone found that old jacket in the trash, took it home, and sewed it back together. Wouldn’t it be nice if all the things we abandoned came to have a second life with someone else? Well, the past is always being written and rewritten. May all we leave behind be remembered as fondly as a ripped polyester jacket.

A photo of Brooklyn Bridge in black and white

The Art of Jumping

X

[Names are whatever I want them to be]

I spent much of my youth with a group of boys, which explains why I was such a surly kid. Following church one Sunday afternoon, where the message had been “Good Ideas vs. God Ideas” (your wisdom or God’s wisdom), a group of us gathered at a buddy’s place to hang out and be teenage boys.

From a tall tree in that friend’s backyard, a zip line had been attached that shot across the yard to a patch of grass a dozen or so yards off. This bright summer day, the boys were taking turns riding, but there was a hold out: Dylan. No matter how much the other boys badgered him, Dylan wouldn’t ride the line.

“I don’t think it’s safe,” he protested.

“Well, maybe that’s a good idea,” a kid named Chet intoned, “but is it a God idea?”

It says something about Christian youth that, even as a joke, that line still worked: Dylan climbed the tree. I surmise the jumping off spot for the zip line must have been roughly three stories, though details are fuzzy: let’s say at least 25 feet. By the point Dylan was stepping up to the ledge, at least four or five other boys had already ridden the line.

Effectively goaded, Dylan stepped out of the tree, putting all of his faith in the strength of the line, and immediately dropped. The line snapped. He hit the ground like a rock.

There is an art to jumping out of a tree, and Dylan apparently had forgotten it: Instead of bending his legs and rolling with the momentum, he locked his knees and came straight down on his feet. Following that fall, Dylan spent the next few weeks in a wheelchair, though nothing was broken, only bruised.

When Dylan hit the ground, he went fetal, writhing in pain. The rest of us were frozen in a mixture of shock and awe until Chet broke the silence with the soundest theological statement I’ve ever heard:

“Maybe it was a God idea.”

Meet Cute

I met Sophie the way all New Yorkers meet: outside a Williamsburg coffee shop after attending an independent movie premiere. This short film, about the Manson Family, had been created by a friend and his theater troupe. At 30 minutes, it was an artfully shot re-enactment of rape and murder, a feel good romp if ever there was one.

Sophie, not part of the troupe but involved in theater, had a role in the film. The post-screening party was being hosted at a nearby Starbucks that also served alcohol. When the only two people I knew were otherwise engaged, I wound up outside conversing with a group that included Sophie and another woman, Amy.

With the party unwinding, Sophie, Amy, and I, joined by some guy named Stan, continued our night at Rosemary’s around the corner. As tends to happen with the male of the species, once in a booth, Stan brashly hijacked the conversation and soon the ladies and I were communicating telepathically to make our escape.

After telling Stan we were calling it a night, the three of us regrouped outside and Sophie suggested that we prolong the night back at her Greenpoint apartment. Though late, her place was just past McCarren Park, so we hoofed it. Along the way, spurred by the admission of my Kansas youth, we turned to the topic of climbing trees, as you do.

“Everyone climbs trees in Kansas,” I probably said, because this is factually accurate.

“I never have,” Sophie admitted. Since alcohol was involved, her confession became a challenge.

The London Planetrees lining the park weren’t as sturdy as the cottonwoods I had grown up with, but they’d do. Showing surprising dexterity, I scurried up one and straddled the lowest hanging limb. Proud that I could still get up a tree in my 30s, I jumped out with ease, a height of maybe eight feet. It was Sophie’s turn, now.

We selected a suitable option and with a little assistance from Amy and I, Sophie scampered up the tree’s white tree trunk. As she settled into the nook between its three branching limbs, her expression was a mixture of relief and mild terror.

Reveling in the glorious absurdity of our endeavor, I neglected to mention the most important part of climbing a tree: the dismount. Leaving Sophie in her perch, Amy and I chatted a few feet away when, in our peripheral, we saw Sophie come sailing down.

The art of jumping out of a tree is best learned when you’re a child and your body is made out of rubber. You might start by cautiously sliding your ass along the trunk until you’re on the ground with a scratched up back, or maybe you just take a haphazard leap and limp off the impact. Eventually, having done it enough times, you develop a second nature for it.

Having never climbed a tree in her youth, Sophie wasn’t practiced in this particular skill. Landing firmly on her ankles, she crumbled to the ground. Amy and I raced to her side and helped her up. Attempting to put weight on her right foot, Sophie yelped in pain.

“I think I broke my foot,” she fretted.

Imbued with the confidence of manhood and alcohol, I replied, “I doubt it. You probably just bruised your ankle.”

Though she was in evident pain – just how much, I didn’t realize at the time – we continued walking to Sophie’s apartment, she directing from the rear. Once there, we poured more drinks while Sophie elevated her leg. Removing her boot proved a struggle as her foot had ballooned inside. Now a discolored rainbow, I nonetheless surmised with my expert medical opinion that it was a minor injury. With enough ice, she’d be fine in a day or two.

A little later, I passed out on the couch while the two women talked. In the morning, Amy urged Sophie to see a doctor, but she was reluctant and I was still confident that it was unnecessary. However, since Sophie was struggling to walk and Amy had to go to work, I volunteered to hang out for the day. It was Friday morning, I didn’t work again until Saturday afternoon.

We whiled away the hours conversing and watching television on her couch. We ordered Chinese food for lunch. When the dog needed to go out, I walked him. There was such an easy, natural tempo to our conversation that we never hit a lull, whether we talked family, politics, or art. We delved into our pasts, those dark passages that few others ever saw. The sun rose and fell across her apartment’s bay windows.

It was almost dusk and the progression of the day had brought us together, our legs touching as I argued with myself whether or not I should kiss her. It seemed a foregone conclusion, but I’d been wrong before.

Glancing at me sideways, Sophie inquired, “So… is it wrong to fuck a cripple?”

I laughed.

Friday became Saturday. I made a few half-hearted efforts to exit throughout the morning, eventually leaving some time after noon to return to my Bed-Stuy apartment and get ready for work.

In my absence, a worried Amy returned and brought Sophie to urgent care. That night at work, I received a text:

My foot is broken.

I’d been in Brooklyn for eight months.

Jay Street Train

Flashback

New York City couldn’t possibly live up to my fantasies, to the extended nine year tease I had put myself through; and yet, in many ways, it somehow did. Every free afternoon, I walked the borough, barely scratching Brooklyn’s 97 square miles. There was art and music and the quintessential melting pot of diverse residents. My first full weekend in the city, I saw Spoon play a rollicking concert in Central Park while the sun set over the treetops. Purely cinematic.

Shortly after my arrival, I attended a rooftop party at my apartment and met a young French photographer studying in the city for the semester. We had a brief, caustic affair and then she returned to Paris. Meanwhile, I served tables in Park Slope, one of the many neighborhoods in Brooklyn where the locals will proudly tell you how it had once been a much different, rougher neighborhood. Now, their dog walkers make six figures a year.

Naturally, New York tried to kick my ass. That’s what it does. It’s impatient and unkind, expensive and exclusive, unimpressed by anything you’ve ever done. The city doesn’t need you or want you, thank you very much; although, it’ll gladly have another meal.

And this is the easy version of New York City. Most everyone will report with nostalgia how much harder – and better – this city used to be. Nothing will ever be greater than the past.

Montage

Sophie’s broken foot complicated matters. She could no longer continue her theater internship, her main reason for being in the city. A job was out of the question and she was essentially immobile, Brooklyn being hostile to the hobbled. When not working, I was invariably with her.

After a few weeks, we attempted a visit to my apartment, a fourth floor walk-up. Our collective restiveness induced Sophie to push herself – and her foot – sooner than she should have. Every time Sophie thought her cast could come off, a new complication extended her recovery. As the weeks turned into months, my guilt grew exponentially, her every grimace a reminder that I had played an active role in her agony.

Sophie was immensely frustrated by her lack of mobility and her inability to take advantage of New York City’s lucrative theater network. She sought other avenues for pursuing her artistic ambitions. Having no great affinity for the city, no reason to chain herself to New York, she figured “why not?” and applied to numerous graduate schools, most of them in England where she had spent much of her childhood.

Though we were simpatico on most every level, our nights occasionally flipped from romantic to adversarial seemingly on a dime. We shared ideals, but some conversational tangents could splinter us, as tends to happen with any two headstrong people. Scotch might have been a factor.

Everything between us felt emotionally charged, whether discussing our pasts or our ill-defined futures, during physical intimacy or a heated argument. She challenged me, as a writer, as a thinker, as a man. She could infuriate me – and I her – but conversations with her never ended without me questioning my assumptions, and that’s a rare talent.

She was just as talented as a writer. Every grad school she applied to, most of them prestigious, accepted her. She had her pick of the litter. She was to be in England by September.

At the end of July, not even three months after we met, and less than a week after having her cast removed, Sophie flew to Washington to spend time with family before her next journey.

I don’t suppose either one of us thought we were built for the long-term. We’d both been nomads. So much of the fire between us was in the immediacy, the sense that neither one of us had ever known permanence – maybe we never would – but at least for a few hours together the outside world’s beckoning wasn’t so loud.

I would have taken more time with her, but she couldn’t stay. New York City wasn’t where she belonged; it wasn’t where she was going to make her mark. And she’ll make her mark. She’s a resolute woman, audacious in her convictions. She was always going to jump; I can’t wait to see her land.

Like few others, Sophie’s voice continues to ring in my ears. It’s the voice of my conflicting internal monologue, challenging my opinions and making me step back from my preconceptions. It’s telling me to listen more, speak less. I’m still debating with Sophie in my head, and she’s still winning.

The Final Reel

Emily in SilhouetteFor the final week of 10 Cities/10 Years, as my first year in New York City came to an end, I hit the road with Emily. She was moving back west, from Boston to Los Angeles, after graduating from nursing school. Our route this time took us through Kansas where we spent a night with my family before continuing to see her brother in Flagstaff and on to Long Beach.

I stayed with Emily’s family for a couple days and revisited Costa Mesa where I met up with Selene who’d recently moved back home. After all the cities, all my experiences over the past decade, it felt like the pieces were being reset with the project’s conclusion. Maybe there would be nothing to show for the effort. No matter, that’s life.

On the last Saturday of August, I returned to New York to be alone.

There’s one detail I left out of Dylan’s story. Another kid didn’t ride the zip line that day: Me. I was just as scared as he was; more so, because not even God could get me up that tree. No one ever called me a particularly adventurous child, which is why I’m sure it surprised more than a few people when I embarked on this journey.

Ten years of constant uncertain, of impending financial ruin and personal angst – of being out on a limb – and I am no less afraid than when I set out. Anxiety still roils my gut when I enter an unfamiliar social situation, whether it be a new job or a packed bar. The self-doubts, the fear, it never abates.

I live with that fear every day, and I always will. It’s my main reason for climbing trees: so I’ll have to jump.

Read from the beginning

Christianity and Gun Ownership

The picture below popped up in my Facebook newsfeed, which bothered me for multiple reasons, and, as I showered in the morning, I couldn’t help but stew over everything that was wrong and ignorant about it.

Guns and God

Let me start with this picture’s basic assertion. It is, essentially, just a more topical version of the old, patently false axiom, “There are no atheists in foxholes.” This isn’t just a condescending dismissal of atheism, but also of the pantywaist belief that maybe guns aren’t the solution to every problem. You can claim not to believe in the value of guns or God, it says, but in moments of trouble you’ll turn to both. Because godless liberals are all just raging, gutless hypocrites, doncha know?

Well, speaking from personal experience as a cowardly heathen, I can say this is false. My apartment was robbed on New Years Eve. It sucked, and while the robber(s) didn’t take as much as they could have (thankfully they got scared off in the middle of unplugging my computer), it was still an infuriating and disheartening invasion of my and my roommate’s private space. Not so private, it seems. Yes, my roommate called the police, not to protect us but so we could file an official report with the infinitesimal hope of maybe recovering some of the lost items. (We never did.)

I don’t claim to speak for my roommates. Maybe they’d like to have a gun in the house. It’s an option. I understand the desire for increased security, and I certainly don’t want us getting robbed a second time. Personally, though, I’d rather invest in better bars on the windows and a security system that can protect our place when we’re not here rather than a gun that a) would have been useless in this particular scenario (no one was home) and b) would pose a statistically greater risk to us than to any potential, future robbers.

I’ve never taken any training in shooting a gun (though I have gone shooting) and if I go my whole life without that particular skill, that strikes me as a win. While I’m sure that makes me less of a man in the eyes of many people, I have a hard time understanding why living my life free of fear represents a shortcoming. We live in the least violent period in all of human history, I don’t have any delusions of being a vigilante. It’s possible that a crazed gunman could kill me at some point (and if so, shucks), but living my life with a fear of it is beyond pointless.

So, I don’t believe in gods or guns. Why this offends the sensibilities of a large portion of America I’ll never understand. But, rest assured, in times of trouble, I don’t suddenly start praying for a .45.

Christianity and Guns

Now, let’s reverse the equation. To me, the most revealing aspect of that picture above is not what it says about atheists (nothing) or people who don’t like guns (again, nothing) or even what it says about what Christians/gun owners think about atheists/gun non-owners (nothing new). No, what it really reveals is the bizarre mindset of Christians who, despite professing belief in a loving, all-powerful, prayer-answering, omniscient God, still put their faith in a gun.

A gun, which is a weapon for the purpose of killing (Exodus 20:13); a gun, which is used to protect your material possessions (Matthew 6:19-21); a gun, which is meant to keep someone else from taking from you and punish them if they do (Matthew 5:39-41); a gun, which is your protection against enemies (Psalm 20:6-8).

A gun, which is about as appropriate in the hands of a Christian as a meat tenderizer is in the hands of a vegan.

(I want to be clear that I’m not saying American citizens shouldn’t have the right to own guns. While I am in support of intelligent gun control, I have never advocated for stripping Americans of their guns. Unfortunately, as soon as your lips start to form the words “gun control” you immediately get shouted down for trying to “trample on the 2nd Amendment” and no conversation can even be had. So fine, I don’t care. Keep killing yourselves, America.)

I believe this: A Christian who needs a gun is no Christian at all (I’m not referring to guns for the purpose of hunting, because, whatever). I’ve said it before, and I’ll repeat it: There’s no such thing as an American Christian. It’s an oxymoron. The gun ownership debate makes it pretty plain why: Whereas Jesus preached a message of peace, forgiveness, rejection of material possessions and a dedication to God that would require a person to abandon one’s family, the American life (the American Dream, in fact) is all about building up treasure on earth and guarding it like a rabid dog with special affection for vengeance and retribution.

I see nothing inherently wrong with the American life, other than that it flies in the face of basically every single one of Jesus’ teachings. Reconciling the two diametrically opposed worldviews of American Capitalism and Biblical Christianity is a feat of such gymnastic contortion, even a yoga master would pull a muscle.

If you want to own a gun, go for it. It actually is the rational choice for someone who has no belief in a higher power, and if I lived in a constant state of fear I might just be so inclined.

However, a Christian who condescendingly suggests everybody needs a gun is admitting one of two things: Either their faith isn’t very strong, or their god isn’t.

Jesus and Guns

Fear Itself

“The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” ~ Franklin Delano Roosevelt

Some words are so profound and relevant in their uttering that they almost immediately lose meaning by their dissemination. Nothing is more detrimental to truth than putting it in the hands of the masses for the purposes of easy digestion.

Franklin D. Roosevelt’s exhortation to not fear is, unfortunately, just such a truth. It’s almost banal to quote it these days, but it still rings with wisdom.

There were many influential speeches in the 20th century, words of such utter brilliance that they have resonated generations later and even brought about national (perhaps global) change. No question, Roosevelt’s first inaugural address is easily one of the greatest presidential speeches in American history, and by modern eyes it can’t help but appear eerily relevant to our own times and problems. Unemployment, taxation, debt, these are all topics that are touched upon in FDR’s address.

But the details are not as important as the gist of his message. The quote above is undeniably a gem of rhetorical power, but to take it out of context is to strip it of its practical punch:

“This great Nation will endure as it has endured, will revive and will prosper. So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.”

We need our president to say this. Obama, Romney, whoever, this is the message that needs to be spoken by our leaders.

Fear is the message of the campaigns. Four more years of Obama will bankrupt this nation and send it down a hole we can not recover from, or so we are told. Elect Romney and the rich and powerful will grow so much more rich and powerful that the American Dream will die.

Whichever brand of political fearmongering you subscribe to, probably one of these two dystopian scenarios sounds at least faintly plausible.

This great nation built on years of hardwork, struggle, war, strife and pure resilience is, apparently, so weak that the single term of a president will decimate it. Prepare the banners:

R.I.P. The United States of America 1776-2012

I do not understand this fear.

I understand those who use fear as a tool of manipulation. Of all emotions, fear is probably the easiest to produce while also providing the strongest motivation. Using fear to control is nothing new, a tool as old as religion itself. There will always be someone ready to guide us by our fears.

What I don’t understand is those who allow themselves to be a servant to fear.

I can’t go a day without seeing someone post a video or an article detailing why we should be afraid. If it’s not a political video explaining why the Left or the Right will destroy us, it’s a religious warning about the threat of another faith or the totalitarianism that will soon abolish all acts of faith. Or else I’m being told to fear my food, fear my water, fear my doctor, fear the police, fear the teachers, fear the scientists, fear until fear is all I can feel and every person I meet is a potential enemy.

Who’s Afraid of Glenn Beck?

It seems to me everyone these days is afraid.  And they’re so afraid that they’re building bomb shelters, stocking up canned goods and converting their money into gold bars… or, they’re just posting horrific links on Facebook before going about their day as if nothing is different.

That is the rub of this crusade of fear. There are those out there in this world who are generally afraid, the kind of people who watch the Glenn Becks or [Fill-In-The-Blank Leftists Equivalent] and actually hunker down and prepare for the worst. I don’t envy or respect these people, but at least I can concede their consistency. They are genuinely afraid and they act on those fears while seeking out those who will feed their fears with a sort of sympathetic authority.

The other half of these fear crusaders are infinitely more loathsome in my book. They preach a gospel of fear, post page upon page, video upon video of dire warnings and inevitable consequences if we do not change our course. Then they turn off their computers and watch American Idol. Like the end time prophets who foresee an apocalypse around every corner, these doomsayers are time and time again proven wrong, but they just shrug, reload and say, “Next time…”

I’m perhaps most amused by the Christians who in one breath can tell me how deprived and sad my life is without faith, and then turn around and expound on how terrible America has become for Christians and how the world is spiraling downward. If that’s the kind of “joy and peace” that comes with faith, may I politely say, “No thanks.”

The part that makes this sort of fearmongering so frustrating is that it belittles the real horrors in this world. I’m not talking about First World Problems vs. Third World Problems. I mean that there are really Christians in this world being persecuted for their faith, and there are really warlords and dictators and horrific crimes against humanity. Things that people truly have to fear. And they aren’t happening here, they aren’t happening to you.

Spreading fear while painting yourself as a victim is dishonest and discourteous to those who face true oppression and conflict. What does it accomplish, anyway?

Optimism?

I’m not what you might normally consider an optimist. I like to think of myself as a realist. Bad things happen, good things happen, sometimes chance unfairly weights the scales one way or the other for some people, but the law of averages brings everything back to around the middle.* That said, I am generally optimistic about the world at large. Tragedies will occur, setbacks will pop up, 50 Shades of Gray will become a success, but the progressive march of time is moving us towards a better world, not a worse one.

My two favorite, living non-fiction authors/thinkers are Steven Johnson and Fareed Zakaria. These are two very different authors who deal with two very different areas of expertise, yet both authors use their insights to examine the future (technological, economic, political, what have you) and in doing so, they both write from a point of optimism. They acknowledge the hardships ahead, the possible detours that could cause devastation, but they both tend to take the view that solutions to our problems are available and we will find them.

(Coincidentally, the late Carl Sagan is another author whose genuine hope and wonder mixed with pragmatism always lifts my spirit.)

When I read these authors, I feel good. When I read the posts of my fearmongering friends and acquaintances, I feel lousy. Not because I am filled with fear, because I certainly am not. No, I feel worse because I know there are people out there living with useless fear, spreading terror through a susceptible populace and arguing that compromise and goodwill will only keep us on the path to destruction. There is no middle ground, no path of peace. It’s fight or flight, never ‘Stand and rationally discuss.’

Do not succumb to fear, or to the easy tactic of fearmongering. If you have a belief, if you have a cause, find a way to share it without stooping to the basest emotion.

A Pledge

Commit to a pledge of rational discourse and human decency.

Say it with me:

I refuse to be manipulated by fear. I refuse to let the cowards who let fear rule their lives have any say on my life or my choices.

I refuse to make decisions based on believing in the worst.

I will not fear the Right.

I will not fear the Left.

I will not fear an opposition.

I will not fear the future.

Nor will I spread fear, because fear leads to inaction and hatred. It traps us behind invisible walls.

I will not fear.

There is nothing to fear.

*I acknowledge that historically, the world favors bad over good, but with each passing generation, we are moving towards a world where the poor, diseased and/or starving masses can rise up out of that oppression.

“i need a good argument on being against gay marriage”

“i need a good argument on being against gay marriage” was a search term that led someone to my blog.  It must have led him (her?) to one of two of my blog posts in which I present those arguments they’re searching for and then refute them, exposing them for the thinly-veiled bigotry that they are.

When someone types in the phrase “arguments against gay marriage,” I imagine that searcher must be too dumb to think of a logical reason for their prejudice and they’re hoping someone else has come up with a nice sounding rationalization so they can pretend to base their arguments on intelligence.

Still, it’s a rare gem when I see a search term so blatantly admitting that the searcher doesn’t actually have a good argument for their view, they’re just holding to it.

And this is what bothers me so much about the apparently thousands of people lining up for tasteless chicken sandwiches at Chick-Fil-A in order to show support for “Traditional Marriage.”  Most of these people believe they are nobly standing up for their faith, but really they’re just blindly condoning prejudice.  And no, I don’t mean Chick-Fil-A’s prejudice, I mean their own.

In my original post on the topic, I concluded that there was no good logical argument against legalizing Same Sex Marriage, and thus one could only claim faith-based reasoning (an oxymoron if there ever was one) or just admit that they didn’t like homosexuals.  Pure and simple prejudice.  I ended up writing an Addendum piece because I had been confronted with an interesting counterargument that claimed to be based on facts, not faith.  I’m not going to accurately convey the argument here, nor will I  be able to sufficiently sum up my rebuttal (read the original post), but needless to say I was not convinced.  There is no evidence that Same Sex Marriage in any way hurts society, despite the dire warnings of the prejudiced.

I know plenty of decent, Christian people who oppose Same Sex Marriage as a matter of faith, and I’ve always tried to remain open-minded and believe that, yes, you can oppose this form of equality and not be homophobic or prejudiced.  It’s the whole, “Love the Sinner, not the sin,” thing.  And while I’ve never really found that aphorism very compelling, I’ve tried to give the benefit of the doubt (because, when I was a Christian, I surely threw that phrase around some).

But I’ve been having this niggling doubt in the back of my head, a kind of cognitive dissonance that always makes me instinctively twitch when people make claims reconciling the obstruction of rights with ‘Christian love.’

Let’s put aside the question of whether America, a secular nation, should base laws on faith.  Whether we should or not (not), as long as we have this many Christians in the country, it’s going to happen, at least in part.

I only want to focus on the justifications that each individual Christian must go through to stand against Same Sex Marriage.  I’m ignoring the obvious, hate-filled pussbags like Fred Phelps; this is for the Christians who I believe are generally good, loving people.  Help me understand my confusion.

The Bible on Homosexuality

Let’s say you’re an intelligent, educated Christian.  Most of my friends would fall into this category to some degree or another.  As such, you’ve read the Bible (hopefully) and you’ve found that homosexual acts are condemned in various Bible verses in the New Testament, so despite Christ bringing the “New Covenant,” the Old Testament prohibition against it still stands (even though most of the other Old Testament prohibitions don’t). 

The reason an intelligent Christian doesn’t pay much heed to Old Testament prohibitions on homosexuality is because if they do they have to explain why they don’t follow the other rules in there, and many of those rules are bizarre if not flat out impossible to maintain in this modern society (there are a lot of acts punishable by death).

The New Testament verses that explicitly mention homosexuality (homosexual acts) are few:

Romans 1:27 – In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed shameful acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their error.

1 Timothy 1:9-11 – We also know that the law is made not for the righteous but for lawbreakers and rebels, the ungodly and sinful, the unholy and irreligious, for those who kill their fathers or mothers, for murderers, 10 for the sexually immoral, for those practicing homosexuality, for slave traders and liars and perjurers—and for whatever else is contrary to the sound doctrine 11 that conforms to the gospel concerning the glory of the blessed God, which he entrusted to me.

1 Corinthians 6:9-10 – Or do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor men who have sex with men 10 nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God.

I’m open to correction, but I do believe those are the only New Testament verses that use the term homosexual or explicitly describe a same-sex act.  Other verses that are sometimes lumped into this discussion talk about sexual immorality or depravity, which can be any number of sexual acts (especially considering the Old Testament’s obsession with the subject).

In these passages that mention homosexuality, the author always discusses other sins, too.  Liars and perjurers, drunks and slanderers, the greedy and swindlers (there goes Wall Street), and in the fuller passage of the Romans verse above (1 Romans:22-31), gossips, those disobedient of their parents, arrogant people and slanderers (again; must be especially hated by God) are all mentioned in the same breath as homosexuals.

Where are the chicken chains coming out against gossips?  I’ve never met a Christian who didn’t enjoy a juicy piece of gossip (because I’ve never met any person who didn’t).  And slanderers?  In two separate passages, it is placed on par with homosexuality.  In fact, bearing false witness against your neighbor (slander) is prohibited in the Ten Commandments.  Homosexuality doesn’t justify a mention there.

On a base, human level, I’m bothered by any Christian who spends time pointing out the splinter in the eyes of homosexuals while ignoring the logs of gossip, slander, greed, thievery and other repugnant acts in their own.  Take care of your own house, Church, before you come into someone else’s and start rearranging the furniture.  I spent years in the church and I can assure you, every single one of those prohibited acts occurs among God’s People (even murder; what is a child’s suicide because of intolerance and mockery if not murder?).

If you went to Chick-Fil-A to show support for ‘Traditional Marriage,’ shame on you.  I don’t care if someone eats there.  I don’t care if you’re indifferent to the whole subject and you just want your bland fried fa(s)t food to stuff into your lard-excreting gut.  But if you went on Wednesday to show appreciation for a chain because of their stance on one (and only one) type of sin, you are deplorable.

Now, most of my Christian friends probably didn’t go (though I know at least a couple did, or tried).  Most of my Christian friends who believe homosexuality is a sin and homosexuals should not get married aren’t interested in the petty social battle.  They will not vote to allow Same Sex Marriage and they will stand up for their beliefs, but they don’t feel the need to join a herd of sheep for crap food.

Good for you, if you’re one of those.  But here is where the conversation turns on you.

Theology

As a God-fearing, engaged Christian, you obviously care about studying your Bible.  Not just the words in your modern translation, but the words that were actually written.  After all, you know that Paul and the others weren’t writing in English. 

It would be naive for you to believe that any language can be translated word for word into another.  Language translation is never a ‘1 for 1’ proposition.  Interpreters take context and concepts and craft a translation that as faithfully as possible represents the meaning the original author intended.

Any person who tries to take a theological stand based on the English translation of the Bible is standing on sand instead of the firm rock.

So, you, the smart, intelligent, well-read and pure of heart Christian know that to understand, Biblically, a contentious issue such as homosexuality, one cannot settle for the shallow English reading of the Bible but must delve into the deep, original texts.  Now, I’m not saying one must be able to read Greek and Hebrew to be a true Christian.  There are scholars in those languages that can offer you their insights.

So, on the issue of homosexuality, what do those scholars say?

Well, for one, it’s well-established that the term ‘homosexual’ has no exact corollary in Greek or Hebrew.  The term ‘Homosexual’ is a compound word taken from Greek and Latin roots, firmly English while being neither Greek nor Latin.

So, any English version of the Bible that uses the term is already committing the sin of shoveling modern bias on ancient texts.  Why use the term when it couldn’t possibly have been the author’s exact intent?  If you faithfully want to represent the Word of God (and not just your own personal prejudice), shouldn’t you seek the most accurate translation, not the For Dummies version?

The Original Greek: Malokai and Arsenokaites

So, what is the word used in Paul’s original text?  Well, there are two, the first being ‘Malokai’ which means ‘soft’ or, essentially, effeminate.  The other, more pertinent word is ‘Arsenokoitēs’ (literally male-bedder or male-situater).  It’s a word Paul apparently made up, so it doesn’t have an accurate translation.  This makes it difficult to know what Paul’s meaning was, precisely. 

More importantly, it’s worth noting that the Greeks did have a word for a man who sleeps with another male, it was ‘Paiderasste’.  Let’s be clear, this word means sex between a man and a boy.  It is not meant to indicate homosexual in the broad way we mean the term.  So, does that mean arsenokoitēs was Paul’s attempt to coin a broader term such as homosexual?

I wouldn’t deny that it’s a possibility, but we also have to consider the cultural context.  Our idea of a homosexual, a man or woman who exclusively has sex with someone of their own sex, is new.  Bisexuality was not uncommon among the Romans and the dichotomy of lesbians and gay males did not exist.  Considering that we can’t possibly know Paul’s exact meaning (not helped by him being the Stephen Colbert of his time and coining phrases left and right), this whole issue tends to just go in circles.

In fact, the whole conversation is an unending, raging debate, something that tends to happen when arguing the meaning of 2,000-year-old texts in which we don’t even have third or fourth generation copies, let alone originals.  Depending on your personal persuasion (you might even say, orientation) you are going to take one side (Paul meant ‘homosexual’ as we know it) or the other (Paul’s meaning is unclear but it seems unlikely he meant ‘homosexual’ in the English sense).

You

So, here is where I come at you, my intelligent Christian friend.  Why have you chosen your side?  Why are you siding with those who argue that homosexuality is a sin, thus requiring you to take a stand against Same Sex Marriage and the happiness of millions of people?

There are intelligent, educated people on both sides of the debate.  Maybe you don’t find the argument of the ‘Paul didn’t mean homosexual’ camp particularly compelling.  Ask yourself, why?  Are you actually taking a stand in this matter because of reasoned, learned interpretations of the Bible, or are you taking the stance that feels most comfortable, perhaps because you were already biased to find homosexuality abhorrent? 

How do you know that your principled stance in the face of social pressure is really all that principled?  Principles have to be based on something, or they aren’t really principles at all.  You are standing up for a Biblical principle, but whose translation of the Bible?  Why have you sided with the people who hate homosexuals if you, as you claim, don’t hate homosexuals?  Look into yourself and ask why you would want to take any stand at all on something that doesn’t affect you and doesn’t cause any proven economic, social or political detriment.

If you’re a Christian, and you believe God wants you to vote against Same Sex Marriage, explain why.  Not to me, to yourself.

Are you really so sure you aren’t the same as the guy who typed in “i need a good argument on being against gay marriage?”  Are you biased because of your justifications, or are you justifying your biases?

Don’t stand for hate.  Don’t stand for Bible verses that can’t be interpreted with any certainty.  Stand for love.  Stand for unified families.  Stand for the Bible verses that offer no confusion: Love they neighbor.

And if you’re standing up for Chick-Fil-A, maybe take a few laps around the track while you’re at it.

I’m not pulling my information out of thin air.  Some of my references:

Meanings of the Greek word “arsenokoitai”

“Malakoi and Arsenokaitai” from Dirt, Greed, & Sex: Sexual Ethics in the New Testament and Their Implications for Today by L. William Countryman

Boswell & Lexicons: Email exchange

Interpretation by Religious Liberals

The Bible, Christianity and Homosexuality

Original Greek translation of 1 Timothy