I Was Once a Christian Like Mike (And it wasn't fake)
There’s a scene at the end of the movie, A Beautiful Mind, where John Nash, having found a way to deal with the people his mind has created, looks across the street to see his self-made characters casually, if sheepishly, following him. They no longer have the influence they once had, but they are still present, smiling knowingly at him. These characters know him because, as it turns out, they are extensions of his mind.
I wrote here a few years ago that I do not miss god because the deity I worshipped, obeyed, and lived for was me all along. The “god” I believed in grew and transformed as I grew and transformed. My parents and church raised me as a conservative, fundamentalist, bigoted, narrow-minded evangelical. Yeah, redundant, but "evangelical" was the noun I landed on. The “god” I believed in was all these horrible things. When camp speakers told us gay people wanted to destroy us and brainwash us to join their “depraved” lifestyles, “god” was there nodding. “God” told me things like having sex before marriage, drinking alcohol, smoking marijuana, and listening to the Rolling Stones were sins that could send us to hell. And I believed him. I was a christian with all my heart and all my mind, small as it was.
As life experiences piled up and added to my understanding of life, faith, and the world, I realized “god” didn’t really believe these things. When I believed all that nonsense, it felt incredibly real. My faith was bolstered by catchy worship songs, sermons, group-think, and identity in church community. “God” was intertwined in all those things, and I was always certain I had it right. Until I didn’t and altered my faith accordingly.
Vice President Mike Pence has been criticized by moderate and progressive Christians with the hashtag #fakechristian. I hear my parents and Christian friends describe Trump supporters as not really Christian. And I can’t help but laugh. Most Christians are so confident in their faith that their notion of god is the one true version of god. I remember thinking like this. I guess I never noticed the few hundred denominations out there.
Those KKK Christians weren’t “real” Christians. Those Catholics who “worship ancestors” weren’t “real” Christians. Those weirdos speaking in tongues were fake! The crusaders against the Moors weren’t real Christians! And on and on. It was as exhausting as it was ridiculous. Hundreds of millions of Christians on the planet with hundreds of millions of gods and Jesuses. If I had to pick a Jesus right now, I’d be torn between Black Liberation Jesus and Korean Jesus. Mostly for style points.
Progressive Christians today hear Mike Pence talk about his faith, and they want to puke. “Pence is not a real Christian! He’s so sexist and bigoted!” And yet, there are verses in the bible to support Pence’s faith. Lots of them. On the other side, conservative Christians hear progressive ones talk about postcolonial or liberation theology as they apply to immigration or LGBTQ issues, and they are beside themselves in righteous indignation and/or indigestion. Could be both. Hard to tell the symptoms apart.
Obviously, Pence's side of things ignore some pretty big tenets of Jesus' teaching, not to mention Old Testament commandments about guests and travelers. But! So do progressive Christians. Jesus was adamantly against saving money, divorce, and fig trees that didn't have figs.
Even when I was fully Christian, I understood that the arguments for progressive Christian faith in things like LGBTQ “issues” took an Ocean’s 11-level of execution using linguistics, theology, history, anthropology, and caffeine to explain to people. And what I learned teaching English at APU was that simple words like “abomination” in a list of things no one follows generally trumps intellectual, theological gymnastics used to explain how “love” is the greatest commandment, and this means god loves everyone.
And then I realized, despite the overwrought mental machinations I had faithfully executed, that I was really just the other side of the christian coin. No matter the effort made to understand the faith, it was, in the end, still just a matter of faith. Their faith, my faith, it was all just faith centered on a really confusing, unreliable collection of texts mixed with one's assumptions and intuitions on any given day.
The irony is not lost on me that I have spent a couple of pages of mental wrangling to simply make the argument that Mike Pence is just as “Christian” as anyone who would grip a bible and either hit immigrants over the head with it or serve a sumptuous meal to them on it. I guess it would be a light snack if it wasn’t one of those huge bibles. But still…
Hold my beer, John Nash. I walk through life with a trail of a dozen gods who once knew me completely. I sometimes look back at them and nod as I recognize situations in which they might have given comfort or assurance. Most times, I look back and curse at them, the back of my hand poised menacingly, as I recognize situations in which they would have commanded me to be a complete fucking asshole. I am so sorry to people who have been the recipient of my unkind, judgmental, willfully ignorant words. Much as I’d like to blame one of those fuckers following me around, I have to, in the end, admit it was me all along.
They all were. One of them, from my childhood, is eerily similar to the one horrible god of Mike Pence (I don't think christians like him ever evolve, hence the one god). Was I not a Christian when I was 12? That 12 year-old asshole, Scott Okamoto, was doing his gosh darn bestest to be a follower of Jesus and live a good Christian life. Barring any assumptions about what his intentions were, we have to allow for that kid to have his faith and his claim to being a Christian. The fact that that kid started to expand his views of people and love and life very soon after that may not speak well of the intellect and values of an old guy like Mike Pence, but that is not the point. Or it is the point. Mike Pence is not a fake Christian. He may be an asshole, but he is also a Christian. The two identities are not mutually exclusive. (if you go to church, you just now thought of at least a dozen people)
And I guess the main point of all of this is that Christians don’t get to just wash their hands of the Mike Pence’s in their pews. In fact, by my count, the Mike Pence’s outnumber the Christians who care about immigrants, the LGBTQ community, poor people. You may not like the other inhabitants in your house, but you are, in a way, responsible for them. You’re all Christians. Instead of playing god and deciding who is christian and who isn't, maybe it’s time to clean house and #emptythepews! (nod to Chrissy Stroop)
I’ll be over here yelling at my old gods while you sort it all out.
And here's a song for the post:
“I don’t believe destiny or the guiding hand of fate.
I don’t believe in forever or love as a mystical state.
I don’t believe in the stars or the planets
Or angels watching from above.
But I believe there’s a ghost of a chance
We can find someone to love.
And make it last.”