Building Bridges with Liberal Christians – Can Civil Communication Help Us Save the World Together?

Pastor Sharad Yadav of the Bread and Wine Church Community in Oregon recently wrote the following Facebook post about the benefits of joining a church. His post was shared by one of my friends, a liberal Christian from Australia. After checking Pastor Yadav’s profile and church website, I noted that his religious views seem to be, similarly, liberal – he is not one of those purse-lipped fundamentalists with whom I so often butt heads. Yet the post really troubled me.

Discussing the pastor’s post, my friend and I were dismayed that we interpreted his thoughts entirely differently – my friend, positively, me negatively. I promised to explain my reaction, so I thought it was best to do it here. I wanted to be fair (this is a discussion, not a take-down) so I contacted Pastor Yadav and he has graciously agreed to me publishing both his post and my critique. I’ve promised him a right of reply if he wishes.

Pastor Yadav writes:

As I try to remember why the hell I do this for a living, here is a handful of reasons, dear friends, to consider joining a church:

1. To join a church is to commit to a social circle you do not get to choose and can therefore show you whether your spirituality is bullshit or not.

2. Joining a church is a way of practicing – among a small group of people over a significant period of time – what you’d like the world to be like

3. To join a church is to live in rebellion against the neoliberal and capitalist forces which are brainwashing you into making your consumer desire the center of the world, reducing all your experiences of the world (including all the people in it) to instruments and resources.

4. Joining a church is to organize your life around a time to confess your limitations, culpability and imperfections together with other people so that you can get used to receiving divine forgiveness and hope in response to your honesty.

5. To join a church is to resist all traditional loyalties to state, party, culture, family or affinity in an act of loyalty to a group that transcends all natural categories.

6. Joining a church organizes your financial priorities around supporting an inclusive community for vulnerable people . . . that you actually have to live with.

7. To join a church is to cultivate an environment unlike your home, work or play where your life is not measured according to any other purpose or goal than to discover and enjoy your own humanity.

8. Joining a church is a way of maintaining healthy skepticism about human knowledge and capacities in the language of divine mystery.

9. To join a church is to cultivate an imagination for how your unique talents and creative potential can be offered on purpose for love instead of money.

10. Joining a church is a life lesson in how to deal with assholes without retaliating, dehumanizing or running away (in the desperate hope of not becoming an asshole).

I have enormous respect for my Christian friend. We agree on most things. But, while he drew inspiration from Pastor Yadav’s words, I had to admit that I read most of it with this look on my face:

And I wasn’t the only one. Responding to my friend’s post, other Christians, including a priest, suggested it also gave them a touch of the heebie-jeebies. It seems my friend and others of us in his ‘circle’ understood Pastor Yadav’s post in entirely different ways – leaving us all a bit puzzled.

What follows is an attempt to explain my discomfort. My intention is not to attack Pastor Yadav, but to show how what you write is only one part of the communication equation. How the reader interprets what you’ve written can elicit quite different meanings, and, hopefully, open up new insights and useful channels of communication.

The list starts well – I don’t have any issues with the first two points:

1. To join a church is to commit to a social circle you do not get to choose and can therefore show you whether your spirituality is bullshit or not.

2. Joining a church is a way of practicing – among a small group of people over a significant period of time – what you’d like the world to be like.

Despite my reputation, I’m not anti-religion. I understand that many people find comfort and community in religion. I appreciate that, for some people, the church provides a vessel, a captain and fellow crew members who are intent on sailing forth to change the world in positive ways. I see great common cause between us atheists and liberal Christians. I’ve always tried to work with the leaders and members of these churches, not against them. (If you agree, please follow the Twitter account for A Progressive Christian Voice (Australia)@APCVA.)

Speaking bluntly, I don’t think fundamentalist Christianity can be successfully opposed by atheists alone. It will take mainstream, liberal churches, networking together (with our support) to mount a convincing, alternative Christian narrative to the heresy of American right-wing evangelicals and the Australian Christian Lobby.

Lots of people seek community and, for many, a church is a safe, welcoming place. Not all churches, to be sure. But, I know there are some service clubs and sporting clubs, not to mention atheist groups, that are far more dysfunctional and toxic than many churches. I’ve been in some! Let’s not assume that every church is the same. If people want to join a healthy church with a view to making the world a better place for everyone, then I’m completely on board with that project.

I don’t want to lull Pastor Yadav into a false sense of security, but I’m absolutely in favour of point three.

To join a church is to live in rebellion against the neoliberal and capitalist forces which are brainwashing you into making your consumer desire the center of the world, reducing all your experiences of the world (including all the people in it) to instruments and resources.

I too, live in rebellion against the neoliberal and capitalist forces that seem to value profit above people. We live in a world in which people – even friendships – have become commodified; the multi-level marketing schemes so prevalent in fundamentalist churches is a case in point. The prosperity gospel simply puts a Jesus mask on free-market capitalism.

But, fighting back against neoliberalism doesn’t give you a free pass to mine church members for money, nor to exploit workers for their labour. I’ll say more about this when I address points 6 and 8.

So, a provisional high five on point three, Pastor Yadav! Sadly, it’s pretty much downhill from here.

Now, we come to point 4 and my nose starts twitching.

Joining a church is to organize your life around a time to confess your limitations, culpability and imperfections together with other people so that you can get used to receiving divine forgiveness and hope in response to your honesty.

I think there’s a real danger in inviting people into a community and encouraging them to focus on their “limitations, culpability and imperfections.” I am confident that Pastor Yadav didn’t mean it this way, but, too often, focusing on people’s vulnerabilities is a way of breaking them down; making them malleable to adopt beliefs that aren’t necessarily true, and to act in ways that aren’t necessarily good for them.

Choosing a religion (or choosing no religion) is a bit like choosing a spouse. You really don’t want to be doing it when you feel bad about yourself. You especially don’t want to be choosing a spouse who likes to focus on your faults and puts themselves forward as the one who can ‘fix’ you. There’s a huge power disparity in this kind of relationship and, even if the spouse (or church) is well-meaning, I think the temptation to exploit the power dynamic is often too great.

Instead, why not build community based on people’s strengths? Build a community of titans, not lambs. If someone does come into the community feeling unworthy, don’t respond by confirming their low opinion of themselves; focus instead on their strengths, their talents, and their inherent value. Build them up to their strongest and then see if what you have to “sell” will add value to their lives. Let them choose from a position of strength, not vulnerability.

Because I’m a relatively high profile atheist, people who have decided to leave their church occasionally contact me for guidance. My response is always, “This is your journey. Feel free to explore your options. Please don’t think atheist communities are going to be any better/nicer than Christian ones – we’re all just humans. Go at your own pace – and you can go back if you want. I’m here to support you, not deconvert you.”

In contrast, some churches (I’m not suggesting Pastor Yadav’s church here) prey on the vulnerable. They pro-actively zero in on the lost, the broken, the lonely, and the vulnerable and gather them tightly into their fold. It might seem like they’re offering redemption, but, too often, what is offered is love-bombing, brainwashing, then financial and spiritual exploitation.

How much better, stronger, and more principled is the church that says, “No, you’re not weak, you’re strong. You’re not unworthy, you’re terrific – with us or without us. Your value does not depend on your membership. If we can help you on your journey towards confidence and self-love, we’re here to support you, but not to convert you. Decide what you believe when you are whole, not now while you’re in pain.”

You need an army to change the world and, surely, it’s better to build an army with enthusiastic recruits, not bedraggled conscripts who have nowhere else to go.

My objections to Pastor Yadav’s fifth point are similar:

To join a church is to resist all traditional loyalties to state, party, culture, family or affinity in an act of loyalty to a group that transcends all natural categories.

There are often very good reasons to resist loyalties to state, party, culture or family. Nationalism is destroying America. Blind loyalty is never a good thing. And I’m a firm believer that there are often branches of the family tree that should be joyously excised with a chainsaw. What frightens me, is when institutions encourage their members to forego loyalties that aren’t necessarily unhealthy and prioritise group loyalty instead.

When you join a church, you should be adding to your social network; you should be building bridges, not burning them. Joining a church shouldn’t be like boarding the Minnow and setting off for Gilligan’s Island.

To me, encouraging followers to abandon loyalties outside the church and suggesting that the church is the only institution to which they should be loyal reeks of “abusive relationship.” (I’m not saying Pastor Yadav is doing this, only that this is what I read into it, and why I found it triggering.)

If the church is to have real value – for individuals and for society – it should be just one of the social institutions to which its members are loyal – and, of course, that loyalty should never be blind.

By point 6, I’m grimacing so hard you can see my gums.

Joining a church organizes your financial priorities around supporting an inclusive community for vulnerable people . . . that you actually have to live with.

OK. I understand that churches have expenses too, and it’s only fair that the people who derive benefits from them should help to finance them. Helping the poor is a noble calling; but we should talk about how liberal churches using their numbers, power and influence to lobby governments and corporations for systemic change, will do far more for the poor than handouts.

Nevertheless, it’s nice if people who have surplus funds can contributed to causes or individuals who will benefit from their largesse. But the way in which people organise their “financial priorities” should never be something the church tries to influence or direct. Membership of a church should never, ever, involve its members (who may, themselves, be vulnerable) feeling obligated or pressured (even subtly) into making financial contributions.

I’m going to let point 7 slide and go straight to point 8.

Joining a church is a way of maintaining healthy skepticism about human knowledge and capacities in the language of divine mystery”.

As a card-carrying skeptic I get really twitchy when people talk about being skeptical about “human knowledge.” Sure, humans get things wrong – all the time. But we also have brilliant systems – like scientific method, and peer review – to ensure that, on the important things, we’re more often right than wrong.

Human knowledge isn’t static and that makes people who like the certainty of religion very uncomfortable. Yes! What we know about the world changes according to new discoveries and changing circumstances. But, just because what we know changes, doesn’t mean that what we know is wrong. For example, Charles Darwin was right about evolution but wrong about some things concerning evolution. What we’ve learned since 1859 is that while Darwin got some of the detail wrong, his general hypothesis was still right.

If point 7 is telling us that, when the Bible or your own intuition (or “common-sense”) is at odds with the consensus of human knowledge, you should “go with your gut”, then it’s sending a really dangerous message. Neither the Bible or “your gut” is a reliable replacement for knowledge accrued through academic or scientific discipline. This is the kind of wrong-thinking that has Christians claiming that Jesus is their vaccine and that their natural immunity will save them from COVID.

Skepticism is a good thing, but the extent to which one is skeptical must be measured by the level of certainty expressed by people who are experts in the field, and a scrupulously honest assessment about how your expertise compares to theirs. Believing in God doesn’t make you (or even Jesus) an epidemiologist and no church should be suggesting that it does.

In comparison with the other points, point 8 only makes me squirm slightly:

To join a church is to cultivate an imagination for how your unique talents and creative potential can be offered on purpose for love instead of money.

Volunteering can certainly help vulnerable individuals and groups in the community and it can be personally rewarding. But, too often, it’s taken for granted that people with valuable skills and knowledge should provide their services for free. Women and people with disabilities, in particular, are frequently asked to “volunteer” their services, even when men around them are being paid.

Similar to my point about financial support, nobody should ever feel obliged to volunteer. These days, churches are businesses – often wealthy ones – and pastors (generally) don’t work as volunteers. Why? Because (generally) they have mortgages to pay and families to feed. Congregation members, similarly, need to pay the bills. Time spent volunteering may take away from time spent doing paid work. It isn’t a sin to prioritise paying your utility bills or your kids’ school fees over saving the world!

Many churches have accumulated their wealth by exploiting their congregations for volunteer labour. Hillsong is a case in point. I’m as committed as the next person to making the world a better place, but I don’t (generally) volunteer my services as a researcher. I work with people who lobby professionally and they pay me a fair (but not exorbitant) sum to assist. I know from personal experience that it’s possible to “save the world” and pay the bills at the same time.

If churches need human labour to do their work, they should (generally) be offering some kind of payment – in cash or in kind – with no expectation that people should work for free in order to buy their way into heaven.

Finally, point 10:

Joining a church is a life lesson in how to deal with assholes without retaliating, dehumanizing or running away (in the desperate hope of not becoming an asshole).

OK. Now I’m back to the full lips-turned-inside-out grimace. It’s really, really dangerous to tell people they have to learn to live with assholes without retaliating or running away. I realise Pastor Yadav is probably thinking of eccentric members of his congregation whose behaviour elicits Angela Merkel level eye-rolls. But, when we start telling women, in particular, that it’s a good thing to learn to live with an asshole, we end up with dead women.

Not all assholes are harmless. I’d venture to say that most aren’t. Assholes tend to be either psychologically or physically abusive, or both. We should be running away from the assholes in our lives at great speed. We should be encouraging and supporting legal retaliation where appropriate. And, while I’m generally opposed to dehumanising anyone, it’s a fact that some of the worst assholes (I’m talking narcissists and psychopaths here) are really just empty human shells who walk like aliens among us.

I think it’s incredibly healthy – often life-saving – to recognise that some people just aren’t functionally human. This was a hard and painful lesson for me. But, understanding this brutal fact is crucial for processing how and why you, or someone you love, has been abused. And running away – ceasing all contact if at all possible – is absolutely the best method for dealing with such people in a way that doesn’t compromise your own humanity.

When someone writes the kind of list composed by Pastor Yadav, what they meant, and what someone reads into it may be two very different things. I’ve obviously read the pastor’s post in a way he didn’t mean for it to be interpreted. I’m very grateful that he has allowed me to voice my contrarian thoughts. My Christian friend clearly wasn’t triggered by the pastor’s words in the same way that I was. It’s really important to understand that I haven’t written this as a criticism of Pastor Yadav, or my friend, but with a desire to explore how meaning is created in the space between writer and reader.

In my (admittedly atheist) view, when the church is envisaged as an institution that is an island or a refuge, it is burning bridges, not building them. You can’t change the world from a desert island. Strong people don’t live in conclaves.

It seems to me that, effective, liberal, world-changing churches emerge when they exist as a part of a wider, diverse network of individuals and institutions who are trying to make the world better – even if, sometimes, they look at the world (or Facebook posts) very differently. I want to be a part of that kind of network.

Chrys Stevenson

Comments on this blog are moderated. You’re welcome to comment on the issues discussed in this post, but if there are any comments which personally attack Pastor Yadav will not be approved. This is a discussion, not an inquisition.

1 thought on “Building Bridges with Liberal Christians – Can Civil Communication Help Us Save the World Together?

  1. Francine OBrien

    I am so grateful there are people such as you, Chrys, who can put into words so succinctly, what I cannot. Thank you.

    Reply

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