Published in the Washington Post, August 27, 2012
This is the story of a fundamentalist Christian, turned decidedly … unfundamentalist.
For a long time, the “certainties” of religious texts were a cornerstone of my life. But my entry points to organized religion couldn’t be more different: On the one hand, I was involved in the Charismatic Movement, with its emphasis on salvation and ecstatic experiences of religion. On the other, being a South African in the 1970s, there were my anti-apartheid activist friends, who rooted their faith in a God of inclusive love and justice. These two powerful forces would ultimately compete for my attention, and the choice would be one of living with a guarded heart, or a heart of compassion.
But I didn’t make that choice until a conversation with my maternal grandmother, Masha. (Also known as Granny – well, to me anyway.) On my return visits home to Cape Town from college, our chats always circled back to the question of whether in heaven she would see my grandfather and her first-born child, who had died in infancy. I responded with: “Only if they are born again.”
It was a cruel pronouncement. One in which I presumed to be judge and guardian of truth.
My answer was born out of the story of Nicodemus, who approached Jesus eager for answers in his search for truth. I had memorized the incorrect translation of the answer Nicodemus received, to be “born again.” Words that have been the rallying cry for religious executioners of the human spirit. Not surprisingly, Granny would cry at my certainty, seeing as how I just pronounced eternal separation from those she loved.
Inside, I was struggling too. In the homophobia that was part of the apartheid oppressiveness, I couldn’t tell Granny about my struggle with my sexuality as a gay man, or the harsh judgments that I believed were the consequences of being gay. The shroud of fear about my own truth lived alongside my belief that apartheid had to be overturned.
The irony is that the apartheid system was enforced with a dubious theology, claiming that scripture justified its violent attempts at dehumanizing people based on race. I was gladly claiming my voice of opposition to proof texts used to propel an ideology of exclusion, death and judgment based on race. I believed that the proof text justifications of apartheid were spurious at best, and an affront to spiritual notions of love, mercy, justice and kindness.
And yet? A small part of me hung onto that dubious theology. You can understand the problematic contradiction this set up.
But at the funeral of the black South African leader Steve Biko in 1977, I received a life-altering challenge. Desmond Tutu invited the mourners to be partners in the enterprise of love for all. Not simply straight people. Or white people. Or those “born again” (whatever that meant). All.
I began understanding intuitively that the texts of judgment and exclusion that marred the human spirit were not the only path. As I scoured the texts of my own Christian tradition with Tutu’s ever-present invitation, the insistent urging to a love that trumped all other questions was striking. Christian mystics like Julian of Norwich and Hildegard of Bingen reinforced that revelation.
Soon, I discovered mystics of the Jewish tradition too, along with their Sufi counterparts. They all pointed to a spirituality of generous love and joy that stood in stark contrast to the dour joyless judgment of text abuse that I had hurled at Granny. I began a lifelong discovery to a place beyond religion, and rather to a field of spiritual aliveness: one that invited me into the happiness that the Buddhist tradition pointed to, as well as the peace that Jesus spoke of from his Hebrew grounding.
In a transformative moment of grace, I discovered that the proof text about being “born again” was correctly translated as “born anew.” The landscape of my spirituality and life were radically shifted by the correct translation, and I suspect it might be for others as well. Nicodemus was not sent away to be damned, but to discover transformative love in the reality of his life story and the world around him.
Now, I had to face the truth that the text with which I had condemned myself and others was a tool for reinforcing religious control by those who presumed to be mediators of the sacred. The discovery of the correct translation beckoned me to replace damnation with a generous hearted and compassionate way of being in the complex muddle and joy of being human.
And what was the first thing I did? Apologize to Granny, of course.
When I stopped clutching to those proof texts of long ago, we embraced and cried together. And then, as if to reinforce the truth of those sacred texts of love and acceptance, she held me and said, “I love you, Robert.”
The battles of orthodoxy to control and mediate who is included or excluded continue to be played out in many religions – we still see it all the time today, and I have no doubt we’ll see it in this upcoming presidential election. But the invitation to the spiritual quest of unconditional love is arrestingly different. There is a joyfulness revealed in its expressions of mercy, justice and kindness. I’ll choose the grace of an unguarded heart of compassion any day.
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