As best I can remember, my first publication was in the high school paper. It was an editorial, of course, and it was funny and mean and wrongheaded. I’ve put words into the public domain for 23 years since that day. I’ve been wrong a lot, and I’ve picked a lot of fights. At times I’ve stepped into a fight without meaning to. I’ve provoked angry responses from breathless Democrats and stiff-necked Republicans, student-government busybodies, college administrators, anarchists, fascists, communists, libertarians, union members, people opposed to spanking, gender theorists, feminists, masculinists, Francophiles, Viggo Mortensen fans, Nazis, Klansmen, and cat lovers. Sometimes a productive discussion has ensued, other times, not so much. The detractors who have been most unkind, however, and least susceptible to reason or goodwill, are people who call themselves evangelical Christians.
I’ve been thinking these past few days about why that is. It’s certainly not inherent to Christianity, because I have also received the greatest mercy and love from Christians, starting with my wife and working down to lesser beings. On the other hand, maybe my wife isn’t Evangelical. Maybe Evangelical is like Libertarian now, in that the capitalization somehow lends itself to stridency, insular community, and intolerance of dissent. I don’t know. I only know that for some reason it sits in my gut and makes my stomach hurt. I read some of the responses to things I have written, things I thought were well-intentioned and fair-minded, and I think: No wonder people reject the church. It’s filled with people like that. Then I feel especially bad, because I used to be someone like that myself.
Maybe what saved me from pharisaism is sin itself. Once you’ve done terrible things, once you realize that Grace extends to all who beg for it, even someone like yourself, it’s hard to deny it to someone else. I wonder sometimes if the people so intent on scrutinizing whose toes are over the boundaries of the law have ever peered into their own dark hearts. I wonder if they’ve given a moment’s thought that the warning about being forgiven as we forgive was uttered for them.
I wonder why their opprobrium puts me in a funk and makes me so sad. Surely that’s an indication of something wrong in my head. It makes me sad and then I get angry, and I think that I can forgive anyone but a pharisee, which makes no sense at all, to withhold forgiveness for someone’s lack of forgiveness. Maybe it’s because a pharisee is a bully. In the old days, they would stone you to death. Nowadays they pronounce judgment on your doctrine, having not the slightest sense from whence doctrine emerged, and draw lines separating their true, genuine faith from the rest of us. If they had their druthers, they’d stand at Heaven’s gate and make sure no undesirables got in. Maybe that will be their job in Heaven doorkeepers only instead of deciding who gets in, they have to humbly receive our tickets and watch us file past, all we sinners and liberals and non-capital-E evangelicals, not to mention Episcopalians and Orthodoxers and Catholics and Democrats and Mexicans.
Assuming they get in at all.
It puts me in mind of Graham Greene’s whiskey priest, pondering whether a self-righteous woman will ever make it to Heaven:
“God might forgive cowardice and passion, but was it possible to forgive the habit of piety? . . . salvation could strike like lightning at the evil heart, but the habit of piety excluded everything but the evening prayer and the Guild meeting . . .”
Of course Greene was a Catholic and an adulterer, so what did he know, right? If only one of those sweating, angry, ecclesiastically unbound Evangelical preachers would take on the habit of piety, maybe we’d make some headway. But they’re too busy railing about gays and which version of the Bible is the most inspired to be troubled by something so venal, so intractable. Far easier to throw stones at the scapegoats than examine ourselves, I imagine. What bothers me the most is that I am left with this sadness, and this anger, and now this burden to forgive these unforgiving people.
And so I do. I forgive each one of you, not because I am commanded to, because I’m not a good enough Christian to let that suffice. I forgive you because I used to be just like you, and now I am not, and because I am filled with sadness at what you are and what awaits you.