Growing up in the United States of America, you can't help but be exposed to Christianity as a religion and American Christianity as a powerful cultural force. Were you to grow up in another country, other religious traditions would dominate, but we Americans need to figure out our brand of Christianity and how it shapes us. I grew up in the Catholic faith, going through all of the usual rituals- First Communion, Confirmation, Catholic schools, guilt, shame, and being asked for money. For me, it was my introduction into religion, but I quickly outgrew its structured, limited vision of God and humanity.
Once I was an adult, I drifted away from the Catholic Church, even though I was taught that not attending weekly masses was the same as sinning, punishable by all sorts of nasty consequences including hell. And I wasn't alone- church membership has declined in the US from over 70% in 1980 to just 47% in 2020. The Catholic Church has been especially hit hard, with parishes, churches and schools closing all over the country, in part because of scandals involving priests and sexual abuse. The bottom line is that there are now more atheists, agnostics, and unaffiliated people than believers in the US, and churches haven't figured out how to be more relevant in a time of Black Lives Matter, Climate Change, and Covid-19.
Into this void comes writers and pastors like John Pavlovitz, who are trying to make religion and spirituality more fitting for the times that we live in. Pavlovitz, a Unitarian minister and prolific writer, has written his new book, If God is Love, Don't be a Jerk, as a passionate broadside to the narrowness and hypocrisy of American Christianity and a plea for more kindness, humility, and understanding. Pavlovitz is also an activist and blogger (Johnpavlovitz.com) who mixes politics with his religious teachings, because political beliefs are ultimately about values, and your values ultimately come from your religious faith and assumptions about God, humanity, and life. His politics decidedly lean to the left of the political spectrum, but in an era where Christianity has empowered the political right, that makes sense.
This book is a serious look at Christianity today, and it pulls no punches in its accusations of American churches that tolerate or even encourage being a jerk towards your fellow humans, especially if they are different than you. The author claims that humanity has evolved to such a point today that most of the older Christian church teachings and practices no longer fit. The reason that people are leaving churches is that they are feeling a sort of "spiritual claustrophobia", where the same old prayers, bible verses, and sacraments just don't work anymore.
When you think about it, it's a wonder that we've assumed that organized religion could ever capture the mystery and incomprehensibility of God. Our concepts of God are flawed, as are our religious texts, priests, and church buildings. Imperfect as they are, they're better than nothing at all. Now, perhaps is a time to build on the past and emerge onto a higher spiritual plane. And the first commandment of any good religion, as this book presents, is "Thou shalt not be a jerk." The book defines being a jerk as any intentional harm directed at a fellow human for any reason. (That would include any unintentional harm that you are willfully ignorant about.) Any religion that promotes or excuses war, racism, slavery, exploitation, violence, sexism, or out and out meanness has no reason to exist, and any God other than a loving, infinite God is not worth worshipping.
Pavlovitz chastises his fellow Christians for their hypocrisy in claiming to follow Jesus Christ but then not acting according to Christ's teachings in their everyday lives. Put some money in the collection plate and you've got a pass to be nasty until next Sunday. Churches teach that it's okay to be a sinner as long as you have a pipeline of forgiveness, which they gladly provide. Much of modern Christianity is based on fear and anger, and puts at its center a God that randomly judges and condemns large segments of humanity to storms, floods, plagues, persecution and the eternal fires of Hell. Maybe God is a jerk?
God is not a masculine, bearded father figure, because that makes women something lower and separate. God is transgender, because as an immortal spiritual force God has no need for genitalia. God is also not American, though many American Christian churches act as though God favored the USA. God is much bigger than America, and the idea that a spiritual deity would bless one country over the rest of the world is self-serving at best. How we see God is a reflection of how we see ourselves, and we all need to get out of our heads and admit that we really have no idea what God is like. We can only know God by how we act here on earth every single day. As the closing, beautiful lines of Les Miserables state "To love another person is to see the face of God."
Your faith should never make you a jerk. It shouldn't make you feel superior to others and give you license to judge and punish them. That goes for people of different races, sexual identities, occupations, baseball teams or religious traditions. Faith should bring people together, not reinforce tribalism. There are two ways to look at religious faith- either as a guide for proper behavior through the golden rule - or as a belief system to justify jerky behavior because being loving to absolutely everybody is just too hard. (And to be fair, being loving to others, especially those who threaten or oppose you, is extremely hard to do- it's one of the central challenges of humanity.)
Pavlovitz has studied the bible extensively, and he admits that there are conflicting passages that can be interpreted multiple ways. When you have a scripture that includes 66 books written over thousands of years by many authors that's been translated multiple times, you have to expect some amount of confusion and inconsistency. The Old Testament has admonitions to violently kill all sorts of sinners for minor crimes, is full of logical inconsistencies, and has been cherry-picked by all types of Christians and Jews to justify their existing beliefs and behaviors. The New Testament tells the story of Jesus of Nazareth as described by others, but those that cling the tightest and loudest to the name and image of Jesus use it to act like jerks, not loving followers.
The book examines the power of prayer and how it can be used or abused. At its best, prayer is a solemn statement of solidarity and caring that lets people know their community cares about them. But at its worst, prayer is an insincere pipeline to a fickle God who sometimes answers, sometimes doesn't, and apparently plays favorites. How else can you reckon when prayers to save a life go unanswered and a loved one dies, while an professional athlete credits his prayers as the reason his team won and the other one didn't?
The book proposes a new church, The Church of Not Being Horrible. At this church the prime directive of not being a jerk would be the guiding principle, and the emphasis would be on how we treat people, (and animals, and the planet). There would be no easy, comfy answers or assumptions, and everyone from the clergy on down would have to contend with a messy, uncomfortable, and continually unfolding, loving God. If a church isn't making its members be better people, it has no right to exist and it certainly has no right dragging God's name through the mud while doing it. This church would celebrate the goodness of people and be a loving, non-judgmental, spiritual community that honors God and the people in it.
This book fills me with hope that there are a lot of other ex-Christians like me out there. We are yearning for lives of love and meaning, looking for a spiritual center that makes sense to us. The God of hell, damnation, tribalism, judgment, and anger doesn't work for us anymore. We are all of us- Christians, Muslims, Jews, Atheists, Hindus and more- wandering around this planet with imperfect, incomplete knowledge of one of the greatest mysteries of all time- does God exist, and if so, what would it mean? The more we can get past our labels and assumptions and dig deeper into the meaning of that question, the better and more loving we can become.
This book is not for everyone, and is sure to offend those for whom the conservative, Republican, American Father-God still works. But for the rest of us, it gives us spiritual food for thought as we seek out a bigger and more expansive version of God.
(For fellow ex-Catholics out there, there are many alternative churches springing up with this type of theology. I'd like to thank the United Church of Christ for giving me a place to go to practice my eclectic faith and for promoting Pastor Pavlovitz extensively.)