It’s Christmas Day ’08, so I probably should be discussing my son’s reactions to his gifts, like his new basketball hoop, Ben 10 Omnitrix watch or Thomas Trackmaster Canyon Train set. But that would only reveal my understanding of Christmas as a commercial affair, a 150-year-old attempt at spreading cheer through material giving and receiving, not to mention egg nog and hot chocolate. Still, I’m sure my family will enjoy my sweet potato pie, fried chicken, corn bread, and mac & cheese (we’ll see how they’ll feel about the salad).
I’m a Christian. I’ve been one for nearly twenty-five years. I started the search for a savior, any savior, my savior and guide around this time a quarter-century ago. But my kind of Christianity has been an evolving one. It’s both too simple and too complicated a term for me, not to mention loaded for some of you who don’t believe in God or in my understanding of God and Jesus. That’s perfectly fine. There have been plenty of moments where I’ve approached the agnostic myself.
Despite the idiot televangelists like Frederick K.C. Price, Kenneth Copeland, John Hagee, Jimmy Swaggart, the late Jerry Falwell, Oral Roberts, Creflo Dollar, and the granddaddy of them all in two-time (at least) presidential candidate in Pat Robertson, I’ve come to realize over the years that there’s a difference between the proclamation and the practice of Christianity. I’ve learned that there are plenty of people who aren’t obvious Christians — or devout atheists, as it happens — who practice Christianity every day. I also discovered ages ago that there are plenty of Christians who talk all the time about how much they love God, are “all into Jesus,” can quote chapter and verse from Genesis to Psalms, Matthew to the Revelation of John, and put little effort into practicing the simplest of Christian principles, of which there are only two. One is to have no other gods other than God. The other is to “love thy neighbor as you love yourself.”
I’ve come to realize something about the Pharisees and Sadducees of our current age. They’re extremely judgmental, close-minded, xenophobic, as an unloving of self and others as one can be and still call themselves Christians. One of many things I’ve learned over the years is how difficult it can be to love yourself, warts and all, and then exhibit that same kind of tolerance and acceptance toward others. I came to Christianity only about three and half months removed from a jump off a stone bridge on the Mount Vernon-Pelham border on my birthday in December ’83. I had so much work to do to practice love of self and “doing onto others” from the point of my spiritual rebirth to get to where I am now. Hardly perfect, but much better than twenty-five years ago. But I wouldn’t even be half of who I am today if I had followed in the footsteps of conservative, evangelical “the poor will be with us always” and “hate the sin not the sinner” Christianity that has been the American standard since the ’70s.
My mother came to Christianity, as it turned out, two years before I did and seven years before she told me about it. In was in the midst of my mother’s abuse at the hands of my ex-stepfather, her losing her job at Mount Vernon Hospital, and her pregnant with my sister, the third of four kids born to our family in five years. Her Christian walk evolved with the kind of the Christianity that I’d come to dread during the ’80s. By ’89, with my ex-stepfather gone, my mother had emerged as a modern-day Christian, with all of the bells and whistles. She prayed in tongues, in fact, she constantly prayed to and praised God, in front of me and my younger siblings. Imagine my surprise after a semester at Pitt to come home and see my mother walking around the apartment in nothing more than a housecoat singing hymns and speaking in tongues while my younger brothers and sisters are either snickering or pissed off because they can’t turn the TV away from the 700 Club.
I chalked it up to her newness to Christianity until I discovered that my mother had converted to Christianity in the middle of our Hebrew-Israelite years (more about how I felt about that later). That and her anxiousness for the end of days, the Rapture, the four horsemen of the Apocalypse made me nervous about her conversion. But as a relatively new Christian, I also wanted to be as good a Christian as I could, and since I didn’t know a whole lot of good examples at the time, I looked at my mother and what was around me to figure things out.
One of my turning points came in the summer of ’90. My mother had always been a bit of a bigot. She called Jamaicans and other Afro-Caribbeans “West Indians,” Latinos “Spanish people,” Asians “Orientals” or “Chinks,” and so on. Now as a fully-realized Christian, she toed the Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell line, saying that America was headed to “hell in a hand-basket” because of “abortion” and “faggots,” that Israel should use its nukes to begin Armageddon, and that anyone who didn’t speak in tongues wasn’t a real Christian. I never believed any of this, and hearing my mother rant on about these things actually scared me. It was one thing to see the Christian Broadcasting Network and Ever Increasing Faith Ministries on TV and quietly discount much of their un-Christian Christian statements. It was another to hear it coming out of my mother’s mouth, completely unfiltered by her brain and spirit.
You see, I’ve always been a thinking Christian. I go to church, but for most of my twenty-five years, it’s only been on occasion. I’ve never liked the denominational differences that have led to intolerance even among Christians. I’ve prayed at least once a day almost every day for over fifteen years, but have realized that prayer is only one step on the ladder to wisdom, understanding, acceptance and all the other qualities that exemplify Christianity. I never had a particular opinion about abortion or pro-life, gays or the “gay lifestyle,” climate change or “drill, baby, drill” in my first years as a Christian. I had the naive hope that God would somehow swoop into my heart, mind and life and transform it into one that would be easy for me to live, to make me a success, to bring people who loved me into my life and enable me to love myself at the same time. But I came to realize that God or any higher power that one believes in can only help in proportion to the amount of work one does to receive that help. A more complicated take on “God helps those who help themselves.”
As a result of realizing my need to be proactive as a Christian, to seek insight and foresight beyond myself, to find balance between love, forgiveness, toughness, faith, hope, but with a critical mind that allows for doubt, for questions, for tolerance, and for acceptance, even when we think people may be in the wrong. That has allowed my views on any number of social issues to evolve from indifference and apathy to full-blown progressive activism in some cases. I don’t see how it advances us as Christians to condemn the poor, so-called minorities, and “homosexuals” to second-class citizenship merely because someone found a couple of vague quotes in the Old Testament, a book meant for the ancient Hebrews. I don’t see how a mantra of prosperity with emphasis on giving and tithing advances the economic prosperity of the poor when it’s those of us who have who should give more, and the poor who should receive more. And I don’t see how we can advance in love and end our nation’s participation in immoral wars and social policies if we allow other, intolerant Christians to define people like me.
Theirs isn’t my Christianity, and my Christianity cannot be made to fit into something as limited as a Christianity that has no room for anyone who seems different or quirky. Merry Christmas!