Over the years that I have been involved with the blogosphere, I have often jumped to the defence of Christians – especially when when statements begin with “Christians believe…” or “Christians do…”. The last few weeks have given me cause to reflect on why I have jumped to their defence when in hindsight it would have been more prudent to “keep my mouth shut”.
My mother was a devout Christian who believed very much in the Trinity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. She had a very strong moral code, and nothing, absolutely nothing could ever allow her to break that code. I realise now that so much of the criticism of Christians is generalised to include or to imply inclusion of all Christians. And that would include my Mum. And those claims are so much not what my Mum was.
The observant reader will have noticed that in the previous paragraph my mother is referred to in the past tense. She died in the early hours of last Tuesday morning and her funeral was held last Thursday. On Monday my siblings and I, with our partners, will scatter her ashes and those of our father into the Whanganui River from the river bank that adjoined my parents’ home of forty years.
Unlike the rest of the whānau, I feel no sadness or loss at her passing. She was more than half way through her 97th year and had had a very good innings. Her death is as natural as the passing of the seasons and the blooming and fading of a flower. I do have some unease about the morality of the process of dying that modern medicine raises, and her death brought that into focus for me, but that’s a matter for discussion at another time.
I’ll confess that I don’t understand why friends, family, acquaintances, and complete strangers feel sadness or grief at Mum’s passing. What emotions I feel are sympathy for those who are experiencing that grief and not knowing what I can do in the circumstances. I feel somewhat helpless in this regard as I know my putting a rational slant on the event will only make things worse for them.
Getting back to the subject of this post: Generalisations can be both inaccurate and hurtful. “Christians are judgemental”, that’s not my Mum. “Christians think they are somehow better”, that’s not my Mum. “Christians believe homosexuality is a sin”, that’s not my Mum. “Christians proselytize”, that’s not my Mum. “Christians can’t distinguish beliefs from facts”, that’s not my Mum. “Christians believe atheists are unethical or untrustworthy”, that’s not my Mum. “Christians believe it’s okay to shame someone who holds different beliefs”, that’s not my Mum. “Christians believe other faiths are wrong”, that’s not my Mum.
So what was she like? As I mentioned, Mum had strong moral compass, but in all my years, I’d never heard her use the Bible or her religious beliefs as a justification of her views. She may well have got some (perhaps most?) of her values from her religious beliefs, but it was from her that I developed my own philosophy which loosely says “if the Bible is the only source of authority for a particular stance then it’s time to change the stance”.
As the most wayward of us siblings stated during the funeral service, Mum was his confidant, counsellor, adviser, moral guide and friend. Even today if he is unsure of whether he is doing the “right thing”, he considers what Mum might think about it. Of course, knowing what is the “right thing” doesn’t always mean that he will do it.
Mum’s method of guidance was by example. We were never judged, no matter what the transgression. We were encouraged to learn and discover for ourselves what values we should aspire to, even if those values were different from her own. For her, differences in the way we perceive the world were part of the rich tapestry of life.
For Mum, love was never conditional, and even though we were far from being a demonstrative family were all knew and felt that love. Punishment of any kind was virtually unknown. Justice was always restorative, never retributive. We were encouraged to discover for ourselves why something might be right or wrong. But for Mum, knowing the difference was not enough. It’s our duty, as far as we are able, to right wrongs and to fight injustice wherever we find it – even if that meant being on opposite sides from each other.
To me, my Mum exemplified what the Christian message is all about. Although I can’t say that theology was irrelevant to her (she had a firm belief in life after death, and Jesus was her Saviour, for example) it was the spirit, the broad brush strokes, of the message that were important to her.
If I were to believe in a deity, it would be modelled on my Mum and my Dad. Although they were poles apart on religious belief (one being Christian, the other having something close to agnostic atheism), they shared almost identical values and practices. Those values and practices I see as being prevalent in the Christian community here in Aotearoa New Zealand. Sure, there are exceptions, and the Destiny Church and Gloriavale are extreme examples, but on the whole, Christianity here, with varying degrees of success, preaches and practices those values that so clearly shone through my Mum.
The sense of justice and compassion that I learnt from my parents – especially my mother – causes the hair on the back of my neck to raise whenever I hear comments that tar all members of a particular group with a wildly inaccurate generalised brush that at best applies to a very small subgroup. I don’t care whether the group being generalised is religious, atheist, LGBTQ+, ethnic, cultural, or even Morris dancers. Don’t do it.
And when you include all Christians as being a horde of Bible-worshipping, homophobic, fundamentalist, Evangelical bullies, you’re including my Mum. Back off. She, like most Christians in this land, is anything but.
By all means, be critical of religious privilege, or attempts to impose belief on those who do not hold them. Be critical of bigotry and intolerance, be it religious or otherwise, but please don’t claim or imply all when you really mean some or a few.
Finally, if you care to comment on this post, please avoid offering your condolences or expressing sympathy/regret for my loss. I feel no loss, and while it was necessary to hide my irritation at such expressions in the neurotypical world in which I must live, this is my blog, my world, and that requirement does not apply here.
27 Feb, 2017 at 4:34 am
I’m truly sorry for your loss.
I’m dealing with various stripes of American Christianity, where I find myself beset with the extreme examples – churches that are anti-LGBTQ because it’s sin and they have forgotten how to love their neighbor. Churches that are anti-abortion and yet pro-death penalty, because they are “for life” until they aren’t. Churches that are so pro-marriage, that they marginalize the singles; and even then marriage has to be biblical, with men having authority over women and women submitting to men and where women have to cover their heads as a visible sign of that submission to her husband.
If the Christianity that’s being criticized sounds nothing like your mother, then know that your mother isn’t being criticized. If anything, it sounds as if she stood as a true beacon of the kind of the true Christianity we need, a light to guide those who knew her into a safe harbor by her quiet and patient example and loving kindness.
28 Feb, 2017 at 12:01 am
What loss? There’s nothing for you to be sorry about. I specifically asked to avoid making such comments.
I’m only too well aware of, for want of a better phrase, “American Christianity”. Such groups constitute a very small section of the Christian community here, and they seem so alien to us. When we see that politicians need to claim to be Christian in order to get elected we wonder if America is still back in the 19th century, No wait… We had political leaders who were Free Thinkers, atheists and Jews as well as Christians way back in the 1860s. That pushes America even further back. Here, proclaiming one’s religious belief or non-belief is a sure way of not getting elected.
I fail to understand how Christians can support capital punishment. Here they were among the most vocal in supporting the abolition of the death penalty. They have also been strong supporters of socialised health care and other types of social welfare for more than a century. This seems to be the opposite of the situation in the US.
What I wanted to say in that article, but perhaps failed to do very well, was that Mum’s type Christianity is what most Christians in this country aspire to. It doesn’t, as Tildeb says in a comment below, make her “a really bad Catholic, a poor Baptist, a lousy Jehovah’s Witness, and so on“, but precisely the opposite.
28 Feb, 2017 at 3:19 am
The Christians you talk to on the internet are far more likely to be of the American stripe than of New Zealand; our conservative evangelical crowds are extremely vocal. Just the other day, a pastor of the worst church I’d ever seen referred to me by such derogatory language that not even I would use in the most impolite conversation. He brags that sinners of all kinds are not permitted to enter into his church. He claims to be a shepherd of God’s people, he’s racist, sexist, able-ist, and homophobic all dialed up to a ten and wrapped around fear and paranoia topped with a power complex. If that pastor is a good Christian or a great Christian or a wonderful Christian, then it’s high praise indeed to be called a bad Christian, a poor Christian, a lousy Christian. The Churches that I have been to are all the other way around, and when you live in a backwards Christianity, doing everything wrong is doing everything right.
27 Feb, 2017 at 8:06 am
You confuse the religion – and the central tenets that define various denominations – with people like your mom who identify with it. They are not the same. I dislike no Muslims but deplore Islam and can criticize its tenets and pernicious effects on legitimate grounds. Criticizing the latter is not an indictment of the former but it cannot help but contain a link between believer and religious model that needs to be responsibly accepted before legitimate and necessary change can come about.
If what you say about your Mom is truly reflective, then it sounds to me like she was a really bad Catholic, a poor Baptist, a lousy Jehovah’s Witness, and so on. How did Christianity qua Christianity inform and guide her life if it was indeed synonymous with her as a person… as you seem to imply in order to then say all these other criticisms about pernicious Christianity didn’t apply to her? You can’t have it both ways, Barry.
27 Feb, 2017 at 10:20 pm
Do you know how often I come across statements similar to “Christians are a horde of Bible-worshipping, homophobic, fundamentalist, Evangelical bullies”? Come on. How does that not include my Mum, and the many congregations who quite clearly do not exhibit those traits? My Mum was a Christian and there is nothing in that statement to imply my Mum and those with similar beliefs are exempt. It’s stating all people who claim to be Christian (including my Mum) are Bible worshippers, homophobic, fundamentalists, evangelists and bullies. She was none of those things. It’s attacking the believers, not the beliefs. I seem to recall having a discussion with you over something similar where you believed the character of all atheists was being maligned.
Clearly you and my mother have very different ideas of what Christianity is all about. Here, Mum was considered a model Christian – the ideal to aspire to. If that made her a bad Baptist/Catholic/whatever in your part of the world, so be it. It didn’t make her a bad Christian here. Denominations are very fluid (except for what I would label Bible worshippers, who are on the fringes of Christianity anyway). People move between denominations as often as they change powercos (electricity providers) or telcos (teleophone/internet providers). Many congregations consist of multiple denominations with rotating clergy. No big deal. The congregation is more important than the denomination.
I follow a number of blogs by atheists and Christian deconvertees and I wonder what century they have come from. That they fear “coming out” over their lack of belief, I and every Kiwi I know find absolutely astounding. What is the big deal? My whānau which is a fairly typical NZ family, consists of about equal numbers of Christians (of assorted denominations) and atheists/non-theists, a smattering of Buddhists, Moslems, Wiccan and a few that incorporate aspects of Shintoism and traditional Māori beliefs. Almost without exception, no one believes that those who hold a different belief or non-belief are “wrong” or “damned” because of that belief.
Look, 40% of Methodists in NZ don’t believe in God. Does that make them poor Methodists or does that simply make them Methodists who are non-theists? In my own faith group, I doubt that anyone believes in deities. Does that make them bad Quakers?
So what are the characteristics I gave my Mum that you believe make her a poor Christian? What pernicious effects do you believe Christianity requires?
And please don’t call my Mum “your mom”. she’s either “your mother” or “your mum”.
27 Feb, 2017 at 8:52 am
OK, I will not condole: be delighted with the life of your Mum, which came to a natural end. I felt similarly about my father.
27 Feb, 2017 at 9:54 am
Thank you Clare. Her entire life was a celebration.
27 Feb, 2017 at 7:06 pm
This is not the place to start a religious discussion. Your mum lived a good and long life, something which many hope for and never achieve.
27 Feb, 2017 at 10:51 pm
What better place to start a religious discussion? As I said, I’m not in mourning, I don’t feel any loss. I get irritated when people over generalise. That’s why I wrote this article.
I’m not a Christian, she was. She exemplified what I believe a good person should be. She modelled her life on the teachings of Jesus as she understood them. Clearly for some people this makes her a bad person, or at least a person with some bad traits. According to some anti-theists, these bad traits always accompany someone who becomes a Christian, or indeed takes up any religion. These traits are a necessary part of being religious. I don’t agree. Religions can be harmful, as can any ideology, but they don’t have to be.
I recall you once telling me that you liked me but disliked my religion. You never did expand on what it was you disliked. Perhaps that might be a good place to start. I’m not going to be offended. My beliefs suit me. It’s not necessary that they suit anyone else. However, they are not set in stone, and I’d change them in an instant if I was persuaded they were wrong or harmful.
28 Feb, 2017 at 1:16 am
Barry, I totally understood that you feel no loss. And I am sorry if my comment portrayed anything like that. By saying this is not the place to start a religious discussion, I only meant to say that we can celebrate her life without having to make this a religious debate.
Why would I hate your religion when you are not a christian or a Muslim and live almost by the same philosophy as I do; that is not living our lives based on a single book among others.
And you and I agree that any ideology blindly followed can and has always led to untold bloodletting in times past.
28 Feb, 2017 at 2:55 am
Mak, but the purpose of the post was to raise the issue of over generalisation. My Mum was simply the brush I used to illustrate the issue. Perhaps poorly. If the purpose of the post was to celebrate her life, then I would most definitely not have used the blog title I did.
You ask why would you hate my religion when I am not a Christian or a Moslem. I really don’t know. Perhaps at the time you thought I was Christian.
You say that I live by almost the same philosophy as you do. I learnt that philosophy from my Mum. That philosophy doesn’t require a deity, even though my Mum believed a deity valued that very same philosophy. She believed the Bible to be to be God’s word as imperfectly interpreted by those who wrote it, and, as we imperfectly interpret it when reading, it cannot be relied on as the sole source of religious truth. She also knew that a story doesn’t have to be factually true to tell a religious truth.
She also agreed that an ideology blindly followed can and has led to bloodletting in the past. And she was sufficiently aware of human nature to believe that it will almost certainly occur in the future and that Trump could well be the next direct or indirect cause of such an event.
Apart from the fact that she believed a deity exists and I believe one doesn’t, our philosophies are almost identical.
As all my values and philosophy of life came from my parents, and particularly my Mum, I guess you would probably have liked her too. She would say that her religion (Christianity) and her values and life philosophy were the one and the same thing. Yet because her religion was Christian, you say you don’t like it. So let me rephrase my original question: What is it that you don’t like about my Mum’s religion?
28 Feb, 2017 at 8:21 pm
This post highlights a very difficult quagmire of thoughts that I deal with here in the States. It kind of goes back to the discussion we had a long time ago about accountability for Christian beliefs and people who accept the label of Christian. The terms “Christian” and “Christianity” are very fluid, and they can take on different connotations at different times.
What I personally find difficult to accept is that there are people out there who will simultaneously identify a common cause with your mother because of the label “Christian” while denigrating the beliefs she stood for. Nominally they both are Christians, but the specifics bear out a different matter entirely. Why should people who would conceptually put down your mother be allowed to reap the good will she has sown?
I have known too many Christians who are happy with benefiting from the hard work of good Christians while disavowing any heretical beliefs they might have. It feels like cheating. These people want “Christian” to mean anything which will give them a benefit, and not some concrete term. They profit off of every good and decent Christian I have ever met.
So long as people try to benefit from a broad, monolithic view of Christianity, these broad brushes will exist. I’m not saying it’s right or it’s preferable; it is just an unintended consequence of how things are.
28 Feb, 2017 at 9:44 pm
Thank you for your thoughtful reply SB. The reason I don’t self identify as Christian is for the very reason you describe so well. However there are many Christians here who are comfortable to accept my beliefs as falling within their understanding of being a Christian. From my perspective, the form of Christianity that seems to be so common in the US is a relatively new arrival here. Its association with the forms of Christianity I am familiar with are tenuous at best.
28 Feb, 2017 at 8:40 pm
Barry, you and I agree that what is true of the group might not be true of the individual. That there are exceptions is not in doubt and this applies to any large group of individuals. And I will take your word for it that your mum was a great personality despite her Christianity.
I don’t know what a religious truth is.
Having read what you have written about religion in NZ, I am at a loss why you’d think it is only your mum’s religion that informed her philosophy and ignore the effect of the cultural environment she lived in, a culture that seems to allow free inquiry among others.
To put your question differently, are you asking what I have against Christianity as practiced by your mum or in general?
The reason this is important is because Christianity as I know it and is practiced in my neighborhood is at variance with some of the beliefs held by your mum. In fact, it is hard to tell what is the simple message of Christianity. Where is it to be sought?
5 Mar, 2017 at 1:49 pm
Let’s start with the last part of your comment: “Christianity as I know it and is practiced in my neighborhood is at variance with some of the beliefs held by your mum”. Your neighbourhood, not that of my Mum. Her beliefs and values were not a variance with the religious community that she was part of. My Mum has no time for fundamentalists, not because of what they believe, but because how they express and practice that belief. I dare say she would not have been able to be part of the Christian Community in many areas of the USA, and I presume parts of Africa because of the bigotry and intolerance they express and the expectation that one should obey the rules and regulations set down by religious leaders. The Idea that one shouldn’t question, and develop one’s own religious understanding was an anathema to her, as it would be for the majority of Christians here.
Mak, if the Presbyterian Church here in Aotearoa New Zealand could allow the principal of their religious college to remain at his post and continue being an ordained minister after he declared (back in the 1960s) that there was no resurrection and that there is no God, you’ll have to admit we are a somewhat liberal bunch. The official proclamation by the Church at that time was that the teaching was a variance but not contrary to the teaching of the Church. Most other mainstream churches here would have a similar stance. We’ve become a lot more liberal since then.
My Mum would argue she was the way she was because of her religious convictions. They happen to match closely with the Christian community she knew, so she might well claim she had those convictions because of Christianity.
What is “religious truth? Another way of presenting it might be “the existential and practical meaningfulness (significance) of religion” To quote J Hicks: “Nowadays the truth of religion is eagerly understood existentially in a way which goes beyond the historical and doctrinal dimensions of religion. Truth of religion is seen in the intimate personal confrontation with the sacred and in all-embracing commitment of the person to the sphere of the sacrum. Although religion has a descriptive dimension this is not so important for a believer as the fact that religion orientates the person’s life towards the “ultimate reality” from which he expects salvation. People do not become religious because religion supplies them with true statements about the world but because it promises eternal happiness. An important criterion for the value of religious traditions and belief systems is their truthfulness in producing morally and spiritually recognizable saints”.
With regard to free enquiry. our culture not only allows it, it positively encourages it. Our society was formed by Free Thinkers, Socialists, and other radicals, both religious and non-religious, at the tail end of the Enlightenment. And although there has been a swing towards a more conservative and less inquisitive society over recent decades, we are are by world standards a very liberal, secular nation, prone to social experiments that other nations seldom have the courage to try.
The entire purpose of the post was to point out that by saying “Christians are/do/believe [criticism of choice]” you are creating a falsehood. There is plenty to criticise about various aspects of Christianity – even that followed by my mother, but please be specific about the religious group you are referring to. By making statements such as “Christians hate homosexuals” or “Christians believe the Bible to be true” you are repeating an untruth. They are about as inaccurate as the claims made by many Christian fundamentalists about atheists or those belonging to another religion or denomination.
6 Mar, 2017 at 6:35 pm
Barry, they say it is fallacious to say what is true of a group is true of the individual. In this case, christianity broadly treated, would have some adherents like your mum. If we are to argue meaningfully about the effects of religion in society, exceptions, in this case the example of your mum wouldn’t get us anywhere. Besides, you are aware there is no one agreed description of who a christian is.
IN another place and another time, that good principle would have had a day with the stake. Yours is a truly liberal society in so many ways and many people should aspire to it.
Good morning and good week
6 Mar, 2017 at 9:46 pm
Indeed there is no agreed description of who a Christian is. For that reason alone, generalisations about Christians or Christianity are inaccurate and potentially hurtful.
I can’t speak about Christianity in other parts of the world, only about the forms of Christianity I encounter here in Aotearoa New Zealand. They range from those I feel comfortable with, such as the Religious Society Of Friends who have no creed and are dogmatic about not having a dogma and who regard the Bible as a collection of ancient texts that were written for a different place and time, and other liberal and post modern Christian communities where it’s okay to be a non-theist, all the way through to that small sector that believes the Bible is the inspired, inerrant and infallable word of an omnipotent, omniscient deity named Yahweh. Apart from having a common ancestry (and therefore a historical claim to the name “Christian”), there is almost nothing they have in common.
6 Mar, 2017 at 9:47 pm
I think we are in agreement
11 Jul, 2017 at 12:23 am
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