In elementary school, I once bought a silver one-piece bathing suit. It fit my round little body like most bathings suits do and the first time I wore it, no joke, I thought I looked like hot shit. I still remember the moment at the indoor pool at the local university where my family was swimming when I emerged from the water, wet hair trailing down my neck like Baywatch, and seeing my mom’s horrified face as she rushed over and whispered, “Your bathing suit is see-through.” She quickly enveloped me in a towel and we shuffled toward the locker room so I could change back into clothes that weren’t translucent. I’m fairly certain that we left the new, transparent bathing suit in the trash.
I was hot shit no longer.
In a recent facebook interaction with a straight, white, Christian male re: LGBT+ issues, he denounced everyone on the thread who holds an affirming belief as “false teachers” and then washed his hands of us. It was the white male equivalent of a temper tantrum. In the past, while I wouldn’t have been as vocal as him, I might have been secretly cheering him on.
This was my first time on the other side, where I was being declared a false teacher.
As I read his comment about shaking the dust from his sandals, I sat back in my chair and took note of how I was feeling. I wasn’t mad. I certainly didn’t feel ashamed or like I wanted to change what I believed. I wanted to ask him, “By what authority do you get to declare us false teachers? Who died and made you the judge of everyone? Pro tip: It’s not Jesus.” Clearly, this dude knew EXACTLY what the Bible, an ancient book written by ancient people in ancient languages, meant and anyone who disagrees with him is clearly a sinner. He had become so accustomed to having his opinions be held up as facts that his only way to handle people with differing beliefs was to (pretend to) cast us out of the Body of Christ.
Truthfully, my overwhelming feeling was one of pity. In his response, I saw someone who needed to be right, who needed to be in control, who needed other people to affirm and follow his sense of reality, and I saw someone unable to see that he might not have all the answers, and I sensed his fear.
I’ve been there. Literally. I was camped out there for like 27 years. After all, if you were raised in the evangelical American church like I was, you know that there’s a “right” and “wrong” answer. We spent lots of time talking about behaviors and beliefs that put you “in” and those that can cast you “out”. The faith of my childhood was built on the bedrock of “There’s a right way to do this and I know what it is”.
That certainty can become an idol and it’s an easy one for us to worship because it’s so closely related to security. If we know the right way, if we can control what “the right way” means, then we can be certain that we will be included in the group that’s doing things the right way. The church convinces us that certainty is good and righteous and holy and we buy it because we’re hardwired to want to think that way. We want there to be an “out” group of people who are doing it the wrong way because then we can feel better about ourselves. For a perfectionist like myself, this basically became etched in my DNA. If I’m going to be perfect, I need to know what the right way to do things is.
In many ways, this reminds me of the fable of the Emperor’s New Clothes, wherein a vain political leader is hoodwinked by a swindler posing as a tailor. This swindler dresses the emperor in a “new suit”, which is nothing, but the man is too proud to admit that he can’t see the clothes. He struts around in front of his subjects, who all fawn and preen over their naked leader. It isn’t until a child rightfully points out that he’s naked that the townspeople are freed from their groveling and the king is exposed (literally and figuratively).
In some ways, I think this is what certainty does to us. It convinces us that we have some sort of power over people. Certainty gives us the confidence to confront strangers who disagree with us over an issue that is not cut and dry. Certainty allows us to stand on our soapbox and talk at people instead of with them. Certainty frees us to think that we know people and their stories and that we can judge without ever having to listen.
And if we remain insulated within the walls of a church, then no one will ever point out that we’re naked.
Now that I’m deconstructed and technically on the “outside” of orthodoxy, I see this nakedness so clearly. When that man called us false teachers, I saw clearly that he had no authority to do so. He doesn’t know me. He didn’t want to know how I came to the conclusions that I did. He didn’t want to hear about biblical scholars who have studied the same passages he was copying and pasting and come to vastly different conclusions. He was claiming that he had the authority to declare us as false teachers but he gave that authority to himself, bolstered by a church culture that has sanctioned his brand of certainty. To the rest of us that aren’t in that church culture, he’s naked, but he doesn’t see his own nakedness.
Here’s the thing. As I get older and have a little more life experience under my belt, I think that we’re actually supposed to be naked. I don’t think that we’re supposed to exchange vain self-righteousness for another form of self-righteousness that comes from being more liberal or “open-minded”. In my course correction from being too judgemental and conservative, I swung too far in the other direction and used my newfound “openmindedness” as a way to still have an “in” and “out” group, only now conservative people were out. I exchanged one set of “new clothes” for another.
No, I think that we’re actually supposed to be naked and know that we’re naked. The more I listen and watch and observe, the more I see that humility is the only way forward and humility means we’re saying, “I don’t know” much more.
A decade ago, I was talking to a friend about a mutual friend from high school who had just come out as gay. He asked me point blank if I thought our mutual friend was wrong and a sinner. It had been much easier for me to condemn LGBT people when they were faceless, nameless two-dimensional objects. But, now I was confronted with a dear friend being gay and it changed the game for me. I paused and said, “I don’t know”. I remember our phone conversation ending with my friend saying he was proud of me because I made space for something different. Even just saying, “I don’t know” was a step in the right direction. That praise stuck with me for a long time.
I don’t want power over people. I don’t want to strut around and feel self-righteous any longer. I’m tired of the preening and worrying about controlling what other people think and do. I want to be free to love myself and God and others without trying to sell them on my version of how they should live their lives. I don’t want to feel like I have anything I have to prove. I just want to seek the kingdom and help others find it too. I’m done with spiritual clothing that tricks me into thinking that I have a leg up on someone else.
I was once the emperor with new clothes, and then another set of new clothes, and now I’m naked and I’m gonna be fine.