Most people would probably consider me to be a religious individual. I believe in God and regularly read the bible and pray and go to church. I involve myself in charity work and generally try to be a not-terrible individual. Some days are better than others as far as that goes. Let's put it this way, sometimes, I totally get why Jean-Paul Sartre would say that "Hell is other people".
So, when I tell you what I consider the worst part of being religious to be, you know that I’m doing it not as somebody throwing rocks at the establishment, but as somebody who cares about it.
The worst part of religion, to me, isn’t the way some people use it to justify violence and other horrendous deeds - such as manipulating people out of their hard earned money - that’s all terrible, of course, and it makes me very sad.
It also isn’t having a bunch of rules I have to follow, which most people think is all about preventing a person from having any fun. When I read the words of Jesus, I definitely don’t get the sense that he’s trying to jam rules down my throat.
To me, the worst part of religion is that it constantly demands I love other people.
It’s horrible. I should know, I am a people.
In fact, I’m a very selfish person who would absolutely prefer to spend all my time thinking about how to make my life convenient and comfortable, and yet the idea of loving others is constantly put in front of my face. And good luck to everyone else who is asked to love me. Because sometimes, I'm just not very lovable.
Let me show you all the examples of loving that I’m supposed to do:
Well duh. Kind of a prerequisite for most religions.
Love your neighbor
In other words, people in my everyday life who I come in contact with, from my co-worker to the lady checking me out at the grocery story to the family reunion to the people who literally live next to me and everywhere else I interact with people who are part of my life on a recurring basis. You've heard the phrase "familiarity breeds contempt", right? But my directive is to lose the contempt and fill that space with love instead.
Love other believers
I know that if you’re on the outside looking in, you probably figure that in a church, everybody is getting along all kumbaya and whatnot. Lemme go ahead and dispel that notion for you right now. You know those hypocritical jerks who you just can’t stand? Where do you think they are on Sunday? Exactly. And yet, I am specifically instructed to love these exact people.
You think you dislike those people from a tiny church in Kansas that go to funeral and hold up signs saying ‘God hates fags’? Imagine knowing that despite all the embarrassment and legitimate anger they cause in you, you’re supposed to love them. Instead of making fun of them as being crazy cultish jerks, you’re supposed to be praying for these people.
There’s an author I like who said that we go to church in order to learn the people we don’t like very much. The struggle is real, y’all. As somebody who has been treated way worse by church going folks on multiple occasions than anyone else, I totally understand why some people say they love God but want nothing to do with church. I just don’t think that have that option if I want to stay in tune with what leads to a spiritually healthy life. Now, at this point, I bet you’re having some level of compassion for me. You’re all like, “Man, it definitely does sound tough to have to do that.” But we’re not even done yet. Like any respectable infomercial...WAIT! THERE’S MORE!
So in the Hebrew scriptures, God repeatedly (like over 30 times repeatedly) tells his people to treat strangers with kindness. He reminds them that people were total jerks to them when they were strangers, and insists they act differently. Something about treating others how you want them to treat you, I guess.
This is people who I don't know, but happen to interact with, such as the people driving on the highway at the same time I am. Did I lose you at loving the people who are clearly trying to murder you with their cars on the highway? Because I would totally agree. Asking me to love these people is a joke. Especially people who pull into an onramp to skip ahead a couple dozen cars. YOU KNOW WHO YOU ARE. Given the choice between loving random other people who happen to be close enough to affect my existence and ripping out my fingernail, I’m probably going to at least try to love that person, but I’m definitely gonna think about it. And some days, I’m gonna grab the pliers instead. But even people who I may never see again in any form or fashion must be treated with love according to my faith.
Now just when you think we've definitely hit the limit of ridiculous expectations and challenges, we push the pedal down even farther.
Love your enemies
Welp, pack it up. I think we’re done here. I mean, come on. All those other people in the world we are loving are at least mostly indifferent to us. But enemies? Now I’m supposed to love people that actively wish me hard and ill? People that, if they could get away with it, would fill my house with bed bugs? Or in the case of something like a terrorist, would kill me until I’m dead? I’m supposed to love these people? This is utterly nuts. And yet, this is what I have willingly assented to.
Some days, I wonder why I do this. I’d much rather just try to grab a little happiness for me and my family and protect it from anyone who want to take it away. But my beliefs tell me that the best way for there to be enough happiness and joy and love to go around is for me (and other religious folks) to give it away. That if we all just try to hold on to the scraps and threads we can find, there will never be enough for anyone.
Now, maybe I’m just a WAY more selfish individual that other people, but based on what I see in our culture and our world, where we can’t even have a conversations these days, but instead just yell at each other; I don’t think I’m the only one who is like this. I’m just willing to engage with a system that points me in a different direction and lets me screw up and fail repeatedly as I try to get a little healthier and be a little more loving as time goes by. And most importantly, tells me that I don’t have to do it on my own. I’ve tried that. It doesn’t end well.
So if you’re interested in a world where things are better than what we see today, I’d love to invite you to join me in trying something different. Something unreasonable: Exploring how faith can transform your life.