By their fruits you shall know them

When I was a seminary student, Dr. David Steinmetz shed light on the practice of executing heretics. If you really believe in hell, he said, and if you believe that people who believe incorrectly will go there, then if someone is leading people astray, then aren’t you justified in ending that person’s earthly life, in order to save countless people’s eternal lives? If the wages of sin are (eternal) death, then the stakes are high, and the use of battle language in a more than metaphorical way is justified.

This perspective unsettled a number of my peers. They believed in hell, and yet were convinced that Lutherans executing Mennonites, or Presbyterians executing Quakers, etc etc, was unconscionable. Were there certain doctrines that they were not taking seriously enough? Maybe there were certain doctrines that were once taken too seriously. But how far could you take it? If a very convincing atheist were turning erstwhile Christians against the church and God, would they kill them? No, not even the atheist, even though they felt such beliefs led straight to hell. But Steinmetz had them wondering, at least for a few days, if they weren’t perhaps being inconsistent. A straight line could be drawn between certain beliefs – beliefs my classmates held – and certain actions – actions they were sure were not “What Jesus Would Do.”

Dr. J. Kameron Carter has argued persuasively that we ought to be suspicious of a theology that allows – or perhaps even requires, if practiced consistently – actions that are clearly repugnant and counter to the message of the Gospel. His particular concern is racism/slavery/genocide as practiced by devout individuals with the blessing of the church, beginning in the late middle ages, but he can find plenty of other examples of problematic theology being revealed in problematic practice. If pressed to encapsulate his theological project in a single verse of scripture, I would make the case for Matthew 7:16 – “You will know them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thorns, or figs from thistles?” (Full passage here, with parallels here and here.)

I thought about Dr. Carter a lot as I read the second half of Jesus Land. (See my review of Part One of that book here.)  Escuela Caribe is a sufficient critique of a certain brand of evangelicalism. It cannot be written off as the nightmare of a single crazy individual, as they seemed to have no problem finding “Christian” staff to keep the place going. The abuse and dehumanization was seemingly endless. The staff did all they could to “break down” the miscreant students, and to discourage community. Instead, they cultivated an atmosphere of dishonesty and mistrust — a competitive, rather than cooperative system. They justified all of this because they were, in their minds, saving the souls of the teenagers who were sent to them. But instead, they were turning them from Christ, and damaging their ability to form healthy relationships with other people.

Julia Scheeres was not in the business of writing a theological critique of her time at this school in the Dominican Republic. However, I found myself asking, What was wrong with the theology of those who founded and ran the school that allowed them to treat these teenagers so abysmally? Was it their emphasis on individual salvation – on Christianity as an individual decision for Christ rather than a community practice? Or was it a failure in their understanding of love – that loving entails knowing another, understanding another – and that means first listening to and attending to the other? Did they view forgiveness as conditional on our repentance, as opposed to something that is freely available to all? Perhaps all of these things and more.

Scheeres writes in the epilogue of a return visit she made to the school:
“‘What’s the most important lesson you learned at Escuela Caribe?’ one of [the staff] asked me with a smug smile.
“‘Not to trust people,’ I answered without hesitation.”

What’s the most important lesson that others will learn from us?

While there are many who bemoan that Christians are still so divided (and I have been known to be among them), the seemingly small details that divide us are not always indifferent matters. There are some beliefs that make all the difference in the fruit that we bear – the witness that we bear in the world.

… and do not hinder them

In the first pages of Julia Scheeres’ Jesus Land, she and her brother David ride their bikes to a graveyard. She explains that their fascination with these gardens of the dead as born of the language of their fundamentalist upbringing – with the obsession with death and what comes after, with heaven and hell. But having just read the first half of the book on a rainy afternoon, I’d say that an obsession with death is a symptom of depression, and they had plenty to be depressed about.

Adolescence is the worst of times for children in loveless homes. 13 years of abuse is worse than 12, 14 worse than 13, 15 worse than 14. The cumulative effect, combined with the tantalizingly close but ever receding horizon of 18, is maddening. And then there is the increased ability and opportunity to make their own bad choices, without having been given much of a toolkit for making good ones.

It has been said that “storm and stress” does not describe the average person’s teenage years. Which is an assertion of great annoyance to those for whom the arrival to adulthood was never certain, to those who know some who were lost and others who barely made it, who know what a sizable minority these “storm and stress” teens are, and how they were kept in that place in part, oftentimes, by some of their placidly untroubled peers. To say that they are not the majority in a country ruled by the majority is almost to say that their suffering does not matter, or that they are somehow suspect for being different. What a strange and contradictory country we live in, where plurality is protected, but majority rules.

I don’t know if children raised in fundamentalist homes are disproportionately subject to abuse. I would like to think that instead, fundamentalists ab/use scripture to justify their latent abusive tendencies. The twin paddles labelled “Spare the Rod” and “Spoil the Child” point to how religion and abuse were intertwined in Julia’s family, but what are the roots of Julia’s mother’s inability to hug or touch her children, or tell them that she loves them? We don’t know.

Julia’s mother seems upset simply by seeing Julia and her brother have fun, squirting one another with a garden hose. How stifling to grow up in a house where you are not allowed to laugh. And how unChristian. What did she make of the assertion that God is love, or that the kingdom of God belongs to little children, or that David leaped and danced before the tabernacle of God?

Having visited her website, I know that Julia grew up to reject Christianity, and it is no wonder. There is nothing of the Christ I know in her parents.

When children raised in “Christian” homes reject Christ, what they are rejecting is their upbringing. Even the most religious go to church only a few hours a week – the rest of their Christian education is accomplished in church run/sponsored schools (for a few), and at home. Sometimes the forces outside the home are enough to keep the child in the faith against the inclinations arising from their upbringing, and sometimes forces outside the home push the child away – but usually not for long, for as my father is still fond of quoting: “Train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it.” (Proverbs 22:6, KJV) And then he adds, “but note that it doesn’t say what they will do in the meantime.”

“Let the children come to me,” Jesus said, “and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of God.” (Luke 18:16, RSV) How do we bring children to Jesus, the one who was God incarnate, the one who was “Love Divine, All Loves Excelling, Joy of Heaven to Earth Come Down”? By loving them in the name of Christ. How do we hinder them? By failing to love them, all the time invoking Christ. Those who eschew Christianity so often do so for the very best reasons – Julia renounces evil, just as we are called to do in our baptism. The difference is that, for Julia, the evil she knew was labelled “Christianity.”