A couple of months ago I published a post explaining why I changed my mind about walking the Camino de Santiago. In that post I said, “Until recently (the past several months) I didn’t realize I held a resentment towards the religion of my family and ancestors.” That statement was disturbing to some – as I knew it would be – and others were just curious. At the time I wasn’t ready to explain my resentment because frankly, I didn’t understand it. I knew very well what sort of situations triggered my resentment, but where was the resentment coming from? I feel like I’m ready to share my feelings now and it’s important to me that I speak from my heart and my experience without denigrating anyone else and their very personal beliefs. If I share anything in this post that you find offensive, I ask you (those who know me at least) to feel my heart in the words you read. Even if we completely disagree, there is nothing for either of us to defend more than our love and respect for one another.
For as long as I can remember, I’ve had an interest, or more accurately a curiosity, about religions and spiritual beliefs. I was raised in St James Episcopal Church. I was baptized and confirmed at St. James and in my twenties I was confirmed again, at a church in Virginia. At a very young age, Christian teachings made no sense to me. Well, not the teachings per se but more like the behaviors of Christians. I was young and impressionable during the 1960’s and it was difficult for me to understand the inconsistency between my favorite childhood song (I used to sing with a friend while we played on the swing set), “Jesus Loves the Little Children of the World,” and the brutal beatings and hurtful language against people of color that I saw not only on television but in the world around me.
I think the first time I decided that something was really wrong with the world was when Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was murdered. I asked someone – an adult who I admired and respected, “What do you think of Dr. King getting shot?” And I’ve never forgotten her answer…”I won’t answer that because I don’t want to get struck down by lightening!” My perception of that answer was confirmation that she believed he deserved to die. But how could this be? Aside from the fact that killing anyone goes against the Ten Commandments, this man was a Holy man…a pastor. And from what I could determine, his only crime was that God gave him black skin. I was ten years old when Dr. King was murdered and while I had no idea there was a psychological term for what I was feeling, I was painfully aware of the cognitive dissonance I was experiencing.
“The term cognitive dissonance is used to describe the feelings of discomfort that result from holding two conflicting beliefs. When there is a discrepancy between beliefs and behaviors, something must change in order to eliminate or reduce the dissonance.”
My conflicting beliefs were something like this… As a good Christian I know that Jesus loves me, God is good, and I must follow the Ten Commandments. However, people I love and believe are “good Christians” also believe in war (Viet Nam), practice hatred and judgment (white vs. black), and can be really mean to me and others.
I once asked our priest, “What about people in the world who have never heard of Jesus? How can they accept him as savior and more importantly, how can they be punished and sent to hell for not believing in something they know nothing about? I only remember my question – not the answer.
Upon reflection I see that the cognitive dissonance I experienced at ten years old has shaped my entire life. Without realizing it, I spent a lifetime confirming what I found to be true at that early age – not everyone who claims to be Christian is good and most people who claim to be Christian spend more time defending their beliefs and imposing their beliefs on others than they do actually living their so-called Christian beliefs. I need to add here that I find this true of people in general – not just Christians – and I suspect that if I was born into Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, or any other religion, I might have experienced religious cognitive dissonance.
Throughout my life, my experiences with Christians have not been all bad. I was blessed with a Mother who, while not perfect, was the closest I’ve ever experienced to a perfect Christian. My Mother never preached the gospel to anyone, although she was there to love and support everyone she met, regardless of race, religion, and even sexual preference. I say this because when I was 12 years old, my Mother and I visited her niece who had children with a black man, even when the rest of her family disowned the niece. We had conversations about my gay friends when being gay was not as acceptable as it is today. And when I told my Mother that I didn’t believe in God the way she believed, she said, “That’s okay Honey because I know you are a good person and you believe in something bigger than yourself.” My Mother taught Sunday school, cooked for the Episcopalians, Methodists, and Baptists, and until her health became an issue, attended church religiously. Yet when I wrote to her and Daddy to tell them I was on a Buddhist retreat and thanked them for supporting my search for answers, she never spoke an unkind or judgmental word about it. In fact she once told me that she often read my letters over and over because she felt they helped her get to know me.
There are others who were or still are in my life who live their Christian values the way my Mother did. They do not feel threatened by anyone else’s beliefs. They live the best life they can and they live their values through actions – not empty words. They don’t appear to hold themselves above others but rather live a life that reflects the teachings of their beautiful teacher and savior. I don’t understand their beliefs, but I understand that it is their belief and I respect them and love them for their compassion and kindness. We really don’t even need to discuss our religious or spiritual beliefs when we are compassionate and kind to one another – or when we live in a secular democratic society. I believe that in the end we might all be wrong about some things, but the one thing we will never be wrong about is that we are all one with each other and with love.
The simple answer and what I’ve come to realize is that I don’t resent Christianity or Christians in general. I only resent those who continue to hide behind selected Bible verses to defend their own beliefs and oppress/impose upon those who do not agree with them. I’m referring to those Christians who insist that the United States is a Christian country and who also insist that there is a war on Christianity in this country, simply because people of other religions – or non religious people – don’t want pubic dollars or citizen rights to be determined by Christian doctrine and dogma. The Christians I’m talking about are the congregation of Westboro Baptist Church, supporters of Kim Davis, and the people on Facebook (and those who are not on Facebook) who claim to love Jesus and have faith in God while condemning, judging, and denying their own human imperfections; their unwillingness to (among other things) not steal, not commit adultery, not covet anything of their neighbors, or not bare false witness against that neighbor. In other words, those whose actions are not in alignment with their stated values and beliefs, and who focus on the shortcomings of others instead of their own shortcomings.
So what does this resentment have to do with walking the Camino? Aside from the historical atrocities committed in the name of Christianity and my own tendency to question modern day Christianity and its historical roots, absolutely nothing. It’s likely that some day I will walk the Camino. Although I suspect I will walk it with a lot less fanfare and no big announcement a year before my trek. Having never stepped one foot on the Way of St James in France or Spain, I see now that my pilgrimage began when I was baptized as an infant at St James Church, and it was my desire to walk the Way that has given me a new understanding and appreciation for Christianity and my ancestral roots. It was Christianity, friends, family, and Jesus’ teachings that created my discomfort with an unjust world. It was and still is my belief that Jesus taught through his actions that only love, kindness, compassion, non judgment, and forgiveness will relieve us all of suffering. I believe he demonstrated his teachings that any human being has the ability to do what he did if they truly believe what he taught – and what others have taught.
Writing this post I realize I no longer carry the burden of resentment I thought I had. I have clarity regarding the root of what I thought I resented and it’s neither Christians nor Christianity or even religions in general…those are just physical manifestations of what really troubles me. What I now understand is that what I thought was a resentment of those things is much broader and is deeply engrained in my psyche. It’s those things that (in my experience) religions tend to foster. And those things that as a young child and even in adulthood, have made me feel hopeless and ineffective. For one thing, as evidenced by all my negative memories with religion, is my intense aversion and disdain for injustice of any kind and towards any being.
My practice right now is to observe myself when I experience or witness an injustice or an inconsistency in my own or someone else’s stated values and behaviors. I know that it doesn’t serve me to swallow my anger, so can I sit with it? Can I let the anger be there without trying to deny it or distract myself from it? Can I have compassion for myself for judging others? Can I have compassion for those I find myself judging? Can I forgive myself and can I forgive them? By sitting with anger and resentment in this way, will I neutralize it without becoming apathetic to the injustices of our world? This approach has worked for me in other areas of my life so I am definitely willing – and already am – sitting with these questions. And I think Jesus would be okay with that.