When Religion Goes Bad. Or, When Religious People Do (A Terrying Video Symbolizes a Very Real Issue)

But, sadly, we tend to sometimes forget what great religious teachers like Jesus actually said and did, and we sometimes reduce religion down to a dualistic set of rule following. These rules tend to describe a kind of fundamental dualism that this kind of religion offers up as explanation for the the very nature of existence. In this way of thinking, this kind of religion, life is always easy to explain, because it can always be reduced to one of two choices:

Right-Wrong
Good-Evil
Holy-Profane
Spiritual-Physical
Soul-Body
Saved-Sinner

Pretty much all the rule-based religions exist and grow by emphasizing these kinds of dualisms, and dozens more like them. Basically, this is the heart of “religious fundamentalism” in all its forms.

I was thinking about all this some months back, when I first saw the video clip below, from the FOX TV Show “Trading Spouses.” As a disclaimer, I have never seen this show. I did not see the episode that this particular clip was taken from. (Nor have I ever watched an entire episode of any of these “spouse swapping shows” that seem to be popular today…) I only ran across this clip on the web.

There is something about this clip that is profoundly disturbing, but also profoundly instructive if we let it be. It’s a clip that shows a mother named Margaret. And the scene it shows is the moment when she returns to her family after being away with another family (for a week? a month? I really don’t know…).

Take a look at it….
ThumbnailServer-724200

Click here
(Scroll down, until you get to “Trading Spouses” entry…then choose the Quicktime or Windows Media version)

The first time I saw this video, I laughed through most of it. Maybe you did too just now. It’s an easy enough reaction to have to this woman
…grossly overweight
…bad teeth
…bad grammar.
Perhaps the word “white trash” springs to mind.

But then, I watched it again. And I watched for not only her reaction, but the reaction of her children and husband. And you can see the palpable sadness on their faces. You can see how disturbed they are. Here, they’ve been missing their mother all week and, when she comes in the door, she’s out-of-control with anger, rage, paranoia, blaming, and general religious blathering. Her husband’s face, almost seems to say, “Dear God, not again.” The older children seem crushed at how their mother acts…as if all they want to do is to tell her how much they’ve missed her and maybe get a hug. The youngest child seems frozen in fear on the couch.

The mother seems oblivious to all of this, and to their pleadings to her, because she is so rapt and obsessed with “the other.” The “other” in this case seems to be the other mother and the other family. It’s very clear that Margaret has ascribed every negative emotion, every negative spiritual value, to them. It’s as if they represent some form of pure evil to her. In fact, she continually refers to them as “dark sided.” A term that I cannot seem to find anywhere in the Bible, but that does seem to come from a modern cultural reference….Star Wars, I suppose….

As an aside, I should say that I don’t know the other family in question. As I said before, I’ve never seen this show. But I DO know that they can’t possibly be all-evil and all-sinister.

You see, some folks use their religion as a way of transferring every negative emotion and feeling inside themselves onto other people. They can’t imagine that they themselves have imperfection, “sin,” or evil lurking inside of them –even though the Bible clearly says that everyone does— and so as a coping mechanism, they “transfer” all those unreconciled feelings and emotions onto an “other.”

A professor of mine once called these kinds of Christians “Ark Christians.” They see the world as inherently sinful, and perhaps even irredeemable. They believe that the purpose of life is to segregate themselves –create a kind of spiritual and cultural apartheid– from the rest of sinful humanity. As such, they listen only to “Christian radio,” they do business with “Christian businesses” (that they find in the Christian Yellow Pages). They only vacation and go to movies that are approved as “safe” for Christians. And, over time, they create for themselves a kind of Christian cocoon….a place that they believe safe from the evils the lurk around every corner, in every molecule of air. You get the feeling that this is the kind of world that Margaret lives in.

Paradoxically, however, this is also the world of Osama Bin Laden. Muslims find themselves face-to-face with extremists who see the “West” as the source of all evil and danger. Radical Islamists have also posited the great struggles of our time as dualistic fights between those who are all-good, and those who are all-evil. Like Margaret, there seems to be no middle ground for these folks. The “other” they posit (Western Civilization) is all-evil, and the only solution is to eliminate it, much as Margaret wants to eliminate the memory of this “other” family.

This kind of fundamentalism is a trans-religious phenomenon. Like crazy cousins, everyone’s got them. Muslims have Osama. We’ve got Pat Robertson, and poor, misguided souls like Margaret. Their existence doesn’t mean that religion is inherently flawed anymore than Senators like Jesse Helms have meant the Constitution is inherently flawed. It just means, as I said at the start, that some folks find a way to USE religion for their own purposes…to reinforce their own values and judgments about the world….to shield themselves away from the “evils” lurking out there.

So, IS there another way?

Of course there is. And Jesus himself, and the stories about him, point us in the right direction. One time, Jesus tells a parable about the “wheat” and the “weeds.” The point of the parable seems to be that, this side of paradise, there is NO WAY to isolate oneself from the world…there is NO WAY to create a perfect “heaven on earth.” Life itself is inherently messy. Good will grow right alongside evil. Even the “perfect” first garden already has a talking snake in it.

And, in another place, Jesus seems to indicate that there’s no way for folks to know if we are the “wheat”or the “weeds.” The quest for absolute certainty, then, is the opposite of true religion. In fact, the quest for certainty is really a form of idolatry, if you think about it….if you can pin God down, write down all the rules, concretize your concepts of God completely…then you have probably reduced God to something LESS than the real God. You’ve probably created an idol.

Our President sometimes falls into this trap too sometimes, when he talks about eliminating the “evildoers.” Just after September 11th, I was so proud of him when he made it clear that the fight against Al-Quiada was not a fight against all Islam, and that Islam is a religion of peace. But almost ever since, he’s drawn the conflict into much more sharp, and much more dualistic categories. This is not to say that we should pursue those who do evil. But the idea that we could ever “pre-emptively” stop all future evil is sorely misguided. Even Jesus knew this.

What God seems to want most from us are values like: Compassion, Love, Caring, Empathy. These are high-level spiritual values. They are the core values of almost every great religion. And, just as much as good national security strategy, they will be the keys to our future safety. It is only through seeing the “other” has a human being…with human wants, needs, desires, that we can truly transform them, or transform ourselves. In the final analysis, it’s a spiritual process.

And my fear is that, in our world today, we’re actually heading in the opposite direction. Our judgments with each other are getting shorter and shorter. Our ability to have empathy for others is getting less and less. I mean, dear holy God, if Margaret sees this “other” America family as so totally evil and irredeemable, what would she think about Muslims? (Any Muslims) Or Jews? Or Asians? Or Hispanics? Or Hindus? You get the idea…

Our religions ought to make us more compassionate and tolerant, because its the way our great religious teachers always lived. Jesus spent much of his time with the folks who were the outcasts of his day. And, interestingly, the Margarets of his day screamed at him about it, mercilessly. They accused him of soiling himself…of sullying the name of “true” religion.

Sound familiar? Yes, it’s one of the great struggles of our time too.

Finally, I keep going back to Margaret’s poor children. In mind over-active imagination, I think those are the kinds of folks who end up joining cults, or dropping out of religion all-together.

And I cant’ help but wonder, what if Margaret had been able to come home and say something totally different to her family? What if she had had a totally different reaction?

What if she had told them:
“I am so glad to be back here with you. I am so happy to see each of you, the ones I love so dearly. You mean the world to me. There are a lot of things out there that I cannot explain to you, and that you may find confusing. But we will always be safe within our family. The bonds of love between us can never be broken, and NOTHING can separate us…nothing can tear us apart….nothing can destroy our love.”

If you think about it, this is not only what Margaret might have said to her children, it’s also what God says to each of us too.

In a world filled with folks who are different than we are, in a world filled with things that cause all of us to fear now and then, I hope we can hear it.

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Eric Folkerth is a minister, musician, author and blogger. He has been Senior Pastor of Northaven United Methodist Church in Dallas, Texas since 2001. During his tenure, church membership has grown almost 30 percent, and a completely new church facility (sanctuary and education building) has been constructed. Northaven is a leading progressive Christian congregation in the Southwest. Northaven is an eclectic collection of gay and straight families, artists, musicians, theater folks, academic theologians, lawyers and judges (go figure), socially conscious community activists, people who don't "check their brain at the door," and a wide array of others who either see it as their "last chance" inside the "institutional church," or their first trip back in decades. Eric is an avid blogger and published author.  Eric is also an award-winning singer-songwriter, who performs throughout Texas and the Southwest. He's an engaging live performer whose first CD was released in 2000. His songs have won honorable mention in both the Billboard and Great American song contests; and he's been a finalist in the 5th Street Festival and South Florida Folk Festival songwriter competitions. Eric is also a leader of Connections, a unique band comprised of United Methodist clergy and layfolk from throughout North Texas. Connections performs "cover shows" of artists like Dan Fogelberg, Chicago, Eagles, Doobie Brothers, Billy Joel, Stevie Wonder, James Taylor and others. Their shows draw crowds of between 300 and 1,000 fans, and they have raised more than $240,000 dollars for worthy charities. Eric has led or co-led hundreds of persons on mission trips around the globe, to places such as Mexico, Haiti, Russia, and Nepal. He has worked with lay persons to build ten homes, and one Community Center, in partnership with Habitat for Humanity of Dallas. He's a popular preacher, and often tackles challenging issues of social justice in his writings and sermons. His wife, Judge Dennise Garcia, is a State District Judge for Dallas, County. As judge of the 303rd Family District Court, she consistently gets high ratings from area lawyers, and was named "best judge" by The Dallas Observer. First elected in 2004, she was the first Latina ever elected to a county-wide bench in Dallas County. She was re-elected for a third term in 2010. They have the world's best daughter, Maria, and an incredible dog, Daisy. (As always, if you like this post, then "like" this on Facebook by clicking the box below, so others can see too...)

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