I'm usually a happy Agnostic with Christian leanings. I celebrate Christmas, I celebrate Easter. I listen to Palestrina's and Bach's sacred masses on my iTunes and I am a sucker for Gregorian chant. I pray sometimes. I love old churches and cathedrals, especially getting to sit inside something so majestic and massive. And sometimes I hate the entire thing.
It's not even that I came from a bad religious background. Nothing about my indoctrination into the Church was in any way traumatic. My parents baptized me Anglican, but I was mostly raised in the United Church of Canada, an extremely liberal sect of the Protestant Church. Though at the time they were quite a bit more traditional, the United Church's present mandate is that they are welcoming AND affirming. I have found it interesting over the years that in the face of the Catholic and Southern Evangelical Churches strongly resisting welcoming people from all walks of life and orientations to worship, the United Church has been the one church that has maintained a strong and clear stance. You are welcome here. God welcomes you here.
So what reason at all would I have to hate the entire thing? It's not the United Church. It's not my parents, who raised me to be open, strong, and accepting in my faith. It's the fact that while I was raised in a loving environment, I was not raised to handle the open hatred of many within the Christian sect. Together, though they shouldn't have been able to pierce my faith-forged armour, they contrived to take me down and grind me under their heel. And they very nearly succeeded.
First of all: the "they" I refer to are people who would tell you that they don't have any specific denomination they belong to. They are God's children and that's all that matters. And really, it doesn't matter what denomination they belong to, or what they really believe. One of the main tenets Jesus taught was to love thy neighbour as thyself. And they don't. They still don't, to this day.
I've said before that if you need to "love the sinner, but hate the sin," you're actually just being hateful. At the time, I had not come out as bisexual, but I knew there was something different about me, something that I perceived as dark and shameful, mostly from hanging around these people. But because they didn't know it, they couldn't drive me away using the "sin" of being gay. Instead, they decided to attack my knowledge of religion, my clear and innocent (at the time) faith, and through much twisting of Scripture and "Jesus-speak," the special vocabulary some churches must go out of their way to teach their members from infancy, they told me I wasn't good enough. Would NEVER be good enough.
And that's where I started to hate the great and powerful institution of the Church.
One little pinprick feels like nothing at all. But days of pinpricks, of twits and laughter at your clothes and jewelry, of the sharp intake of breath when you walk into a room, of little knots of people standing in hallways, waiting for you to come closer -- it starts to pierce through any self-preservation you might have. It starts to hurt and sting. Eventually, you start to bleed. And they slowly wear you down.
"You're standing on the fence between heaven and hell. I think you're probably going to fall straight into hell."
"That's a demonic symbol you're wearing. God sure isn't looking down kindly on you."
"Why are you talking to that gay kid? Being gay is a sin. You need to witness to him and tell him where he's going wrong. A good Christian would . . . aren't you a good Christian?"
They would line up, lie in wait, start to carefully turn the conversation around to their agenda of trying to convert me -- or because I wasn't good enough, and never would be good enough for their perfect society, maybe they were trying to just put me in my place. I eventually decided that a God of a religion like this was not a God I wanted to believe in. I didn't want any part of their religious bullying. I didn't want to call myself a Christian.
I struggled for years with this. I had such a clear, pure faith in God. I genuinely loved going to church. I spent a retreat right before Confirmation completely communing with the Holy Spirit, or so I thought. And then this happened.
I tried to convince myself that God was testing my faith. Surely, He didn't really want his followers to be like this. He wanted me to ignore their poison and strengthen myself. And I tried -- I really tried. I would pray, hours lying in bed in my room, asking Him why. I would ask for help, for strength. And in the end, I would ask, in barely a whisper, for Him to renew my faith in Him because I was losing it.
I did lose it. I lost it completely.
Because it didn't stop. I stood in front of the entire group one day and "witnessed" to them. Witnessed my pain, my shame, my uncertainty. I told them that I didn't understand this kind of Christianity. There were tears and there were hugs. How could they have done this to one of their own? And then the next day, it began again.
It took me years to accept that what had been done to me was bullying. It wasn't couched that way and it certainly didn't start out that way. Those people were friends . . . right? Fellow Christians, people who believed in God, people who wanted to love their neighbors as they loved themselves. Right?
I flirted with the Catholic Church after I turned 18 and had made a fairly thorough study of the main world religions over about three years. With my knowledge, my hatred grew and hardened. Soon, the armour of faith I though I had was replaced with a thick skin of hatred. In response to their bullying, I would taunt them back. The disappointed looks became like candy to me -- who could I make cry today? I took great pleasure in my hatred -- and then walked into one of the most majestic, beautiful, and restrictive Churches on the planet and decided to make my faith home there.
It's now eleven years later. I am no longer part of any church. I don't want to be. I don't know what I believe, and I'm okay with that. I'm okay with believing in a faceless higher power, for now. I'm okay with celebrating traditional Christian festivals and holidays, because I grew up with them and I love tradition. I'm okay with people believing what they want, no matter what, without fear, shame, or hatred.
Here's what I'm not okay with. I'm not okay with excluding people because they have a different color of skin, sexual orientation, or faith than you. I'm also not okay with my residual hatred -- or the pain that I caused the people who caused me pain. An eye for an eye leaves the entire world blind. And what I did was as bad as what they did to me. What I did was not more honourable or right. And my thoughts -- almost automatic now -- towards ultra-Conservative people, or highly religious people, or people who offer hatred to me first are not okay either. It's not okay for me to hate because I was hated. It's not okay for me to oppress back.
This is the hardest part of being okay with my faith journey so far. I am still hurt. I'm hurt every time someone states that the way that I was born is sinful and worth going to hell. I detest the phrase "hate the sin, not the sinner." It's hard for me to wrap my mind around taking away people's human rights in the name of God. It's hard for me to imagine killing someone because they don't believe the same thing as you. It's hard. And the hurt I carry in my heart rears up and wants to overwhelm it all like a spreading fire. I want to scream and bully and take pleasure in it, the way I did when I was 17-years-old and trying to make sense of why someone would do that to me.
But hating them doesn't change the institution. It doesn't change the oppression -- it just makes it more widespread. Jesus may have had a table-flipping moment of righteousness, but that wasn't His usual MO, and I know it.
I'm not looking to be a good Christian. I'm looking to be a good person. In order to repair what has been done to me, I need to start within and look at where I'm going blind. That's been the hardest part of all of this -- because what I miss most about the religion I grew up in was the tenet to love thy neighbour as thyself.
I'm just not capable of that anymore . . . and I want to change it.
Follow Elizabeth Hawksworth on Twitter: www.twitter.com/@liz_hawksworth