Lauren is a high school student in my congregation. As you will read, she is a dedicated Christ-follower, insightful, articulate, and passionate. I am thrilled to share her essay here as an exemplar of the depth of Christianity found in our youth that can be so easily dismissed or derided. I am humbled to call her my friend, and grateful for the many ways she contributes to our church, The Church, and the Kingdom of God.
I commend this to you for your consideration, not as an endorsement of all her views, but simply with the intent to kindle engagement, dialogue, discussion, education, learning, and understanding. (Bold items are my personal highlights.)
Thank you, Lauren, for allowing me to share!
Not Losing My Religion
Can Equality and Christianity Coexist?
I am sixteen years old. I go to an academically rigorous college preparatory school where I receive hours of homework each night in honors and AP classes that can make my head spin with their complexity. And I can say – without a doubt – that being a Christian in the liberal San Francisco Bay Area, the West of the West, is the most grueling mental challenge I have encountered in my life. Because contrary to popular belief, faith requires a lot of intellectual engagement beyond rule-based religiosity.
Ehrlich Bachman, a character on HBO’s Silicon Valley, once said “Christianity is borderline illegal in Northern California.” While this is a fairly extreme statement, I have indeed felt weary, chained to silence for fear of offending someone or inciting any kind of dissent surrounding issues of Christianity’s conflict with this tech hub’s devotion to equality and science. And while it’s true that many religions are far more targeted by Western culture than Christianity (for example, Islam), Christianity is still on the decline in the United States and I face numerous religious dilemmas on a daily basis, dilemmas that started as early as age eleven.
As a student at a secular independent school: Do I believe my sixth grade science teacher when she tells me the world actually took billions of years to form, not seven days? Do I accept that evolution happened and dinosaurs existed?
As a social media-using teen: Can I “like” this Facebook post celebrating the recent Supreme Court ruling mandating the legalization of same-sex marriage? What if someone from my church sees that I “liked” it? Should I go to the San Francisco Pride Parade when I see everyone’s photos of that lively celebration of equality?
As a member, and soon, president of the Gender Equality Matters Club: Would it be heinously sinful of me to attend a pro-choice movie night? Can I even advertise for it in good conscience? What do I even think about abortion in light of my faith?
And out of all my questions, the most glaringly uncomfortable was this: Can science / LGBTQ rights / feminism coexist with Christianity? In other words, would I eventually have to choose? I often felt like a fraud, a double agent: abandoning my religious beliefs at the door of my school, while checking my school-taught propensity to question teachings at the door of my church. Two integral parts of my identity seemed to be at stake: a staunch belief in human equality and an unwavering faith in Jesus Christ. How could I give up either one?
I know I’m not the only teenager who has felt this way. Others have also attempted to reconcile feminism with Christianity, grappled with support for LGBTQ rights in an ever-progressive nation, and confronted science that most believe factually denies the existence of God. We constantly receive digital messages that secular liberalism is the only ethically sound ideology – and subsequently, many feel they must distance themselves from the Church in order to support equality. This distance breeds disengagement, which often leads to leaving Christianity entirely. Lack of a large, diverse new generation of Christians willing to ask tough questions leaves little room for the evolution of Christianity.
But it doesn’t have to be this way. I want to call Christians to become leaders by addressing these conversations, albeit difficult, because they are necessary. If Christianity does not engage respectfully and informedly in the 21st century, we will neither retain nor create new disciples of Jesus.
Too frequently – take Caitlyn Jenner’s recent Vanity Fair cover or last week’s Supreme Court ruling justifying same-sex marriage – I see two opposite reactions from Christians reverberating across the Internet. We are caught in a pendulum swing oscillating from angry pandemonium to fearful, judgmental silence. Rarely do I observe a platform in that happy medium in between: uncorrupted by hateful noise yet savvy in its capacity to dynamically and boldly navigate the debate.
In a contemporary online society that largely paints Christianity as an evil diametric opposite to equality, young people must be engaged in tough conversations by the Church via channels other than inflammatory posts. Millennials and their younger counterpart, Generation Z, live in a world fueled by chatter generated on social media platforms like Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. But this chatter is transient: Christians, especially prominent leaders, must cut through the digital buzz and engage in real, long-lasting dialogue that will surely span the rest of Christianity’s existence. Much nuance is lost in cyberspace, so we must approach the Internet and social media with appropriate caution, while not falling into a hesitant, tense silence.
Why do this? In a newly open-information world, people question religion, government, and many other long-established institutions. Organized religion, which is a historically closed-circuit and closed-information institution, must evolve to become open-dialogue. That means we have to get comfortable getting uncomfortable, starting quite some time ago.
So who does this disconcerting task befall? I believe it is the responsibility of Christian adults and church leaders to respectfully engage their own congregation and non-Christians in dialogue on matters of LGBTQ rights, abortion, and evolution, among other issues.
My model for this behavior is my pastor. In the moral dilemma ensuing the announcement of the previously mentioned pro-choice movie night hosted by my Gender Equality Matters (GEM) Club, I knew I needed somewhere to turn, as it triggered a host of uncomfortable questions that required answers. These questions felt so taboo that I had avoided them thus far in my two-year career as a feminist with concurrent Christianity. No one seemed to bring it up, either, and I certainly didn’t want to be the first. “Is it a sin to believe that a woman should have jurisdiction over her own body?” I thought silently – and feared the answer from fellow Christians. Likewise, I had long heard the pro-choice chorus from the Internet and from my fellow members of GEM Club, and I assumed they expected any feminist in his or her right mind to echo the same pro-choice beliefs. I could have asked – but I feared the answer from fellow feminists, too.
I finally mustered up the courage to meet with my pastor and pour out all my concerns to her. And the results were transformative: she validated my concerns, assured me that I could be a feminist and a Christian, and spoke with me, not to me. With generosity, experience, and knowledge as a pastor and as a woman, she lit the path to greater confidence in professing my faith and my opinions at that pro-choice movie night rather than remaining silent. It was truly a feeling of reconciliation, and I know I would never have encountered peace like this within my comfort zone. I had to leap out and unearth tough questions in order to establish certainty in my identity as a Christian and a feminist. And of course, I could not have done it alone.
However, I do not claim to have since achieved pure, unadulterated comfort in all realms of social issues. In fact, during that very screening of pro-choice movie Obvious Child, I walked out of the room as the main character walked into the doctor’s office for her abortion. I knew the outcome, but stood outside praying and naively hoping that our fictional heroine would keep that little life. At that moment, I respected her right to that decision and that procedure – but I still wrestled.
So please, if you are in a position to do so, give your time and thoughtful attention to issues of equality as my pastor did. Because of her, I realized that I need not “lose my religion for equality,” as former President Jimmy Carter wrote in his piece for The Age. Equality and Christianity are not mutually exclusive; in fact, they can not only coexist but even complement each other and together, elevate human consciousness like I never anticipated.
Even if you’re not a pastor, be a parent, mentor, friend, or community member who upholds the same commitment to religious truth-seeking. I’m lucky to have felt close enough with my pastor to initiate this conversation, but plenty of other teens born in Christian households – feeling pulled right by their faith, left by everyone else – do not feel comfortable raising controversial questions within their families or churches. They must be sought out and listened to by Christians willing to take risks.
To prominent Christian leaders, remember that effective leaders give answers but also ask questions; seeking not only to teach but also to learn. And learn we will: from other Christians, from gay people, from transgender people, from pro-choice feminists, and from evolutionary biologists. To all Christians – consider making friends, or at least acquaintances, with atheists and gay people, learning more about arguments for evolution and abortion, asking questions that do not aggress, and building bridges to reconcile currently opposing groups. Possibly the worst thing for Christianity is our propensity to fall into blissfully ignorant complacency stacked on precarious piles of long-debated scripture. Christianity, at least in the United States, is kept alive, pulsating, vigorous because it is voluntary and (comparatively) disconnected from the government. We must continue to grow and evolve, looking outside ourselves to be transformed by God: he is indeed our anchor, but also our sail. Let’s leave the safe harbor and explore the future’s uncharted waters.
As Christians, we face many challenges in this day – but we are also presented with numerous opportunities: opportunities to speak life, share love, and allow Christianity to evolve as it has for hundreds of years. According to theologian Phyllis Tickle, every 500 years the Church undergoes a massive internal struggle that transforms Christianity, without abandoning our core beliefs. And if God is in the Church guiding us all, He has a plan and will steer us in the right direction over time. Questions of LGBTQ rights, feminism, and science are not roadblocks to be removed; rather, they are keeping us alive and not complacent, continually questioning and unfolding some purpose we do not yet know. Ultimately, God will show us “why” in a world that can, though deftly, only answer “what.”
Undoubtedly, the world is chock-full of bad news, and it’s true that some bad news does stem from Christians. However, it is critical for all humans to remember that Christians make up nearly one third of over seven billion people in the world, while the oft-mentioned Westboro Baptist Church has a grand total of 39 members. It is endlessly important to recognize that the Church is, in fact, the largest and longest-running charitable organization in the world – not individual voices spewing hate in 140 characters. Christians, by embarking on missions trips, fundraising for humanitarian efforts, caring for the sick or feeding the hungry, create conditions for often-overlooked good news while simultaneously professing what we believe to be the Good News of Jesus Christ. One example of this is Dr. Tom Catena, whom Nicholas Kristof recently highlighted as the only permanently-based doctor in the Nuba Mountains of Sudan. He serves more than half a million people amidst daily bombings, citing his Christian faith as his drive for doing so. As Dr. Catena demonstrates, Christians are so much more than loud opinions on select hot-button issues. In this day and age, I believe humans need both good news and the capital-G Good News more than ever.
If we believe in love, redemption, and reconciliation, we owe all our brothers and sisters this educated and respectful dialogue. More than a religion, Christianity is a relationship with God; a two-way street where communication goes both up and down, and where questions should be raised among the congregation. So please – don’t let young people fall away from the Church unnecessarily. Despite a lack of concrete answers, offering up our many questions is an excellent place to start. And if we believe God is great, then He can handle our questions. I won’t be afraid to ask them, and I won’t lose my religion.
1 Corinthians 13:1-2
If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.