Me and my ‘toxic faith.’

People get funny if you question religion or politics. They make assumptions about you that aren’t even remotely true. Most every day, I’m accused of being someone “who likes to argue” or someone who enjoys spreading division and strife. Some people insist on their labels and there is no convincing them otherwise. No matter how much you engage with them, they refuse to see you as more than one dimensional. And if you don’t fit an understood category, then they don’t have much use for you or your perspective. This leads to a religious and political perspective that is tightly controlled with prescribed parameters and void of enchantment, adventure, or discovery. When I reflect on Jesus, he was anything but predictable and boring. He constantly asked questions, and stirred folks up wherever he went, with a special gift for unsettling those religiously and politically connected in the community. By way of contrast, much of what we call faith in this American setting is little more than toxic examples of personality cults, that have been conflated with Nationalism and Right wing politics. To echo a friend, too many have confused The GOP for GOD.

I revisited an old book entitled Toxic Faith today. My feeling is that most of us can relate to “Toxic Faith” from a fundamentalist/conservative perspective, but what about toxic beliefs from progressive/pluralistic perspectives? I’ve often thought about and have observed a pendulum swing of sorts, it seems that many people, in my experience who once embraced ultra conservative views “swing” to the other extreme and end up condemning the very thing they once were and now are again, just at the other end of an extreme spectrum. To whatever extreme, toxicity abounds.

The book list twenty one indications of a “Toxic Faith” I’ll list them here: 

  1. God’s love and favor depend on my behavior. 
  2. When tragedy strikes, true believers should have a real peace about it. 
  3. If you have real faith, God will heal you or someone you are praying for. 
  4. All ministers are men and women of God and can be trusted. 
  5. Material blessings are a sign of spiritual strength. 
  6. The more money you give to God, the more money He will give you. 
  7. I can work my way to heaven. 
  8. Problems in our life result from some particular sin. 
  9. I must not stop meeting others’ needs. 
  10. I must always submit to authority. 
  11. God uses only spiritual giants. 
  12. Having true faith means waiting for God to help me and doing nothing until He does. 
  13. It it’s not in the Bible, it isn’t relevant. 
  14. God will find me a perfect mate. 
  15. Everything that happens to me is good. 
  16. A strong faith will protect me from problems and pain. 
  17. God hates sinners, is angry with me, and wants to punish me. 
  18. Christ was merely a great teacher. 
  19. God is too big to care about me. 
  20. More than anything else, God wants me to be happy. 
  21. You can become God. 

I think many people have become disillusioned with church and religion because they hear these messages or variations of these messages in American churches today. It appears that difficult times can make marginal toxic churches evolve into even more dangerous iterations of religion. I’m guessing that I have held tightly to many of these toxic beliefs and that at many times in my life my faith has indeed manifested itself as a “Toxic Faith”. 

I am far from perfect. The older I get the more of a hypocrite I become. I never get it right. I used to be so secure in my self-righteousness. Quick to judge and reluctant to forgive. I literally became my own version of God, dispensing with those who I deemed sinful, and favoring those I deemed good. Not only was my perspective of God wrong, way wrong, so was my understanding of the gospel.

As writer Robert Capon has observed, “Grace doesn’t make demands. It just gives. And from our vantage point, it always gives to the wrong person. We see this over and over again in the Gospels: Jesus is always giving to the wrong people—prostitutes, tax collectors, half-breeds. The most extravagant sinners of Jesus’s day receive his most compassionate welcome. Grace is a divine vulgarity that stands caution on its head. It refuses to play it safe and lay it up. Grace is recklessly generous, uncomfortably promiscuous. It doesn’t use sticks, carrots, or time cards. It doesn’t keep score. Grace works without requiring anything on our part. It’s not expensive. It’s not even cheap. It’s free. It refuses to be controlled by our innate sense of fairness, reciprocity, and evenhandedness. It defies logic. It has nothing to do with earning, merit, or deservedness. It is opposed to what is owed. It doesn’t expect a return on investments. It is a liberating contradiction between what we deserve and what we get. Grace is unconditional acceptance given to an undeserving person by an unobligated giver.”

Maybe the older I get the wiser I become. If not, my prayer is that at the very least I will become less toxic.