“What religion are you?”
That’s a question I’ve been asked more times than I can count. And I’ve asked it myself once or twice as well. Sometimes, among Christians, we ask each other “What denomination are you?” as though by naming the particular historical group in which you find yourself, you are naming something deeply true about your identity.
I’ve answered this question many times. I tell people that I’m a “Christian” (and I tell other Christians that I’m a “Mennonite”). But more often than not, it feels like a lie. Because there are a lot of ways I don’t feel at home in a “Christian” identity.
I much prefer the question, “What religion do you struggle with?” To that, I can unequivocally respond, “Christianity.”
There is some gravity to Christianity that I can’t ignore. Sometimes I hate it and sometimes I love it. I was born in a Christian family. I attended church, and Sunday school, and church camps, and conventions, and youth group meetings. At times in my life when my belief system would best be described as “Agnostic” or “Atheist,” I still took comfort in Christian rituals and hymns and traditions. Sometimes I attended church just to be around warm, caring people. Even when I had left Christianity behind, I still remained in its orbit.
Since then, I’ve made the return trip to Christianity. And sometimes I really miss the warm nostalgia I experienced in my agnostic days. There are times when I can’t stand church and church people. There are days when I want to wash my hands of organized religion altogether. Jesus and I can go off to our own private island, just the two of us. But I know it doesn’t work that way.
When I believe in God, I am also placing my belief in the church. I’m placing my belief in the idea that complex, messy people from all stations in life can come together and follow Jesus by making positive change in the world. So to believe in God also means to hope. But hope comes with the risk of vulnerability. To hope means to look at the world as it is and imagine what it could be. But the churches I’ve known have rarely lived up to the dream that hope has given me the power to imagine. And when that happens, it is a powerful reminder that the dominant social order is often more powerful than our ability to imagine a better world.
One such moment was last summer, when my denomination voted to make permanent a temporary agreement that aimed at excluding LGBTQ people, as well as silence all dialogue on the issue for four more years. As a gay Mennonite, I have often struggled over questions about whether I can be loved and welcomed by the religious community that raised me. To be honest, I still don’t know the answer. After that vote, I thought that I may have lost the strength to remain in a religious community.
What is the virtue of daring to hope? Of loving something so much that you are willing to struggle against it? For me, giving up on Christianity is the same thing as giving up on hope. And for some reason, God will not let me give up on hope. The Bible is filled with stories of hopelessness. Of marginalized people who see no way out of an oppressive social order. Then God intervenes. God breaks the rules. God tells the truth. God delivers hope in the midst of hopelessness. God is a God of hope.
I can’t give up on Christianity because I need to help move it (and I need it to help move me) toward a better reality. A reality of love, and of liberation, and of hope. There are days when I’m not sure I can call myself a “Christian.” But I can always honestly say that “Christianity” is the thing I choose to struggle with.