Columns » Autumn Tolbert

Fire with fire

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I'm fired up as I reflect on Easter and the ridiculous displays of piety by our elected officials who spend the rest of their time propping up systems that lead to injustice and suffering for anyone who isn't rich and white.

One close friend and regular reader suggested I mention the hypocrisy of the evangelical support of President Trump's newly designated National Security Advisor John R. Bolton, who pretty much wants to bomb everyone. So I will. It's beyond my comprehension how the same people who go on and on about how Jesus is risen can support an administration set on nuking us all to kingdom come. Maybe that's the whole point.

I was raised in a conservative evangelical church where I was expected to be in the pew twice on Sundays and every Wednesday night. Growing up, I spent enough time reading the red printed words of Jesus in my Bible to know his sentiments were often at odds with what our fire and brimstone preacher told us while stomping his feet and shaking his fists. Jesus brought a message of hope and love and inclusion. All I heard from that pulpit was fear and division and rule after rule about how to act, especially as a woman. By the time I graduated from high school, I'd had my fill of church.

During my college years, I was surprised to find that my religious upbringing served me well in my literature classes. I caught the biblical allusions used by William Faulkner, Maya Angelou and John Steinbeck. I understood why a story about two brothers could never be just a story about two brothers. I discovered the Jefferson Bible, full of those familiar red words. I took a secular Bible class and suddenly many of the inconsistencies I had noted growing up concerning women being quiet in church and about hell were clarified. Religion had been twisted. Small-minded men who put more effort into trying to silence applause during our monthly youth meetings (because heaven forbid the sound of any instrument, including hand clapping, make its way into the Church of Christ) than they did helping the poor had no business wagging their fingers at me. I went from being sick of church to being angry at church.

When I had my own children, I vowed to never subject them to the homophobia, sexism, classism and racism I saw wielded in the name of God. And before you get all worked up about that claim of racism, spend a few minutes researching what some churches, especially in the South, teach about slavery and the curse of Ham, the son of Noah, and his son, Canaan. And if you want to argue with me about classism, turn on Joel Olsteen or another one of his prosperity gospel buddies. It's all there. At the same time I wanted to avoid all of the terrible things about religion, I also wanted my daughters to understand literature and poetry. I wanted them to understand people and their motivations, especially those who would use scripture to try to control them. I decided I would just teach them the Bible stories on my own. Then, of course, as life goes, I never did.

Luckily, I live near one of the most progressive churches in Arkansas and found my way inside where a group of people, believers and nonbelievers, are, when not at church, active in politics. Politics that put more emphasis on feeding the hungry, welcoming the foreign refugee and realizing we live in a world of people who need our help. None of this "America First" nationalism that seems to be popular among so many conservative evangelicals. Speaking out on this topic has resulted in the loss of ties with a few friends and family members. Ronnie Floyd, megapreacher, has blocked me on Twitter. I'm sad to lose touch with the former, but the latter is no big loss. I've also discovered there are many more people like me who want something other than the mean version of Christianity.

I wonder if the Southern Progressive's energy is misplaced. Maybe we don't need to be spending so much time building up the Democrats and other left-leaning parties here in the Bible Belt. Maybe the secret to getting people who aren't being served by the GOP to finally vote in their best interest is to open progressive churches where the focus is on compassion and mercy instead of on fear and the deification of Donald J. Trump. Maybe that is the fastest way to wrench the power away from men like Ronnie Floyd, Franklin Graham and Mike Pence. Maybe that's how we get Arkansans to understand how ridiculous it is that Sen. Tom Cotton, who seems to have made it his personal mission to bring about more suffering in the world through war and draconian immigration policies, is considered by evangelicals as one of the "good guys." Maybe it is as simple as fighting fire with fire.

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