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This Lent, I’m giving up apologizing for other Christians

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Some of this year’s most popular Lent sacrifices are booze, social media, and — believe it or not — Donald Trump. But I’ve decided to go a different direction and give up saying I’m sorry for all the Christian crap out there.

I was inspired in this decision by Lillian Daniel’s book, “Tired of Apologizing for a Church I Don’t Belong To.” It’s a surprising read because Daniel is a progressive female pastor, so she’s exactly the type of person you would expect to go around making amends for the church’s many sins. She argues, however, that constantly apologizing for the church isn’t helpful in the long run and that believers need to explore better ways to speak of their religious communities.

I diverge with Daniel because I still believe it can be helpful and healing to offer an apology on behalf of one’s community, regardless of who caused the hurt. But I am intrigued enough by the idea to give it a go this Lent season. Here Daniel and I discuss why she believes we need to say “goodbye” to “I’m sorry” when it comes to the church.

RNS: Let’s start with the obvious question: Why are you tired of apologizing for the church? 

LD: Imagine being outside an organization looking in, with genuine curiosity, only to have your polite questions answered by a string of apologies and defensiveness about how lousy the organization is. I’m tired of apologizing because it is neither effective or edifying.

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RNS: You once apologized to a total stranger for the sins of the church. Tell us about that.

LD: I found myself in the checkout line at Marshalls, apologizing to a total stranger in a Sikh turban for every bad thing that had ever been said or done in the name of Christianity. He seemed surprised that I could be responsible for all that.

But that’s how I used to talk about Christianity, constantly apologizing, in advance of anyone even asking, hoping to beat them to the punch. “The Inquisition?” I’d say. “Don’t even raise it, I’ve been mad about it since world history class, that’s how open-minded I am. Salem witch trials? I’m way ahead of you. Super embarrassing. And by the way, is there a gay wedding you need me to perform because my church can do that now, you know!”

RNS: How were you embarrassed by the church this election season?

LD: Ah, let me count the ways … maybe it was Donald Trump saying, “Believe me, if I run and I win, I will be the greatest representative of the Christians they’ve had in a long time.” So much was wrong with that — from Trump appointing himself the judge of his own Christianity to the Christians who didn’t seem to mind him doing it.

Another low point was the pope and everyone else criticizing Trump’s Christianity. Whenever Christians start kicking one another out of the Christian club in public, we look like mean-spirited squabblers.

But the election wasn’t all cringe-worthy. Bernie Sanders broke ground as the first serious candidate to be totally honest about being raised Jewish but having no religion now. Christian voters gave Bernie freedom of religion as well as the space to run his campaign free from religion.

RNS: Some might say that we have to apologize for the church’s misbehavior for the sake of those it hurts. How do you respond?

LD: I hear you. One reason I’m so tired of apologizing to the No Ways is because their grievances with religion can be real and truly heartbreaking. Just picture the people who left church after the sexual abuse scandals. But amazingly, some are willing to try again. I’ve pastored them as they discovered a different kind of church, where they could trust that their deepest values of inclusivity would be upheld by a Jesus-following church that believed Jesus would have included everybody, too.

Until we didn’t, of course. And then we had to apologize.

If only we could kick all the people out of the church, we could really do this Jesus thing. Until then, there will always be more apologizing to do, for the churches we belong to, the churches we leave, the churches we love and the churches we screw up.

RNS: You’re a progressive Christian minister. Do you think that other types of Christians feel as embarrassed by the church as you and your tribe do?

LD: Twenty years ago, no, but today, yes. This election, tons of respected evangelical writers said Trump fits no definition of living an evangelical Christian lifestyle, but their readers voted for him anyway. Which left a lot of evangelicals embarrassed and pouting.

Some of those leaders are now publicly distancing themselves from their own labels, in the same petulant way progressive Christians did in the Reagan years when they didn’t want to be associated with the Moral Majority. We got good at telling people who we were not, but forgot how to talk about Whose we are.

Do we really want to continue the long tradition of “progressive” Christians being embarrassed by “conservative” ones? Those labels have served us so poorly in politics — why would we want to keep using them in churches?

RNS: Instead of apologizing for the church you encourage open conversations about faith that are “reasonable, rigorous and real.” What does this look like on the street-level?

LD: Someone moves in next door and says, “I miss my old church, and I can’t even find a new dry cleaner.” The Mainline Protestant responds, “I can recommend an excellent dry cleaner!” They’ll tell Facebook friends how they voted but not that they go to church. Evangelicals, on the other hand, are good at inviting but their certainty on salvation can be off-putting.

On the street-level, “rigorous, reasonable and real” would be: “I disagree with my church. No women pastors, yet. … But the Mass, shaped over centuries, keeps me steady in mind, body and spirit in ways I can’t explain but have come to trust.”

Don’t simplify it with pat answers. Acknowledge the ambiguity and complexity. And please, respect the other person’s honest questions by giving them a real answer.

RNS: Let’s say my friend was shamed by her congregation for getting divorced. Do you think her fellow congregant should apologize on their behalf?

RNS: No, unless her fellow congregant was the one doing the shaming. Which raises a question within your question. How does a “congregation” shun someone?

In my experience, people shun people, to varying degrees. So was it the pastor? Then the pastor should apologize. Did the members do it because the pastor told them to? Then the members should apologize too, each one of them.

Sometimes, we use the word “church” like it’s some entity way over yonder, as in “It wasn’t me, it was the church/the pastor/the board.”

But it’s always an “us” when we like what it is doing, and a “them” when we don’t.

RNS: Confession, apology and repentance are important in the Christian faith. How do these fit into your “no apology” plan?

LD: Apologizing to strangers for the Salem witch trials is easy when you didn’t actually burn any witches. There’s no humility in that, especially when you’re doing it to make yourself look better in comparison! Confession is admitting something you actually did and may be still doing.

For example, an easy apology for me would be “As a pastor, I apologize for other churches that would not do your gay wedding.” But an honest confession would be: “I’m sorry my own church, that prides itself on being welcoming, has actually been so poor at reaching out that you haven’t even heard that we exist. I’m sorry we find it easier to criticize other people’s theology than to offer anything life-giving of our own. I’m sorry we were so afraid of being associated with the Christians we were apologizing for that we acted like Jesus didn’t matter to us, when he really does.”

About the author

Jonathan Merritt

Jonathan Merritt is senior columnist for Religion News Service and a contributing writer for The Atlantic. He has published more than 2500 articles in outlets like USA Today, The Week, Buzzfeed and National Journal. Jonathan is author of "Jesus is Better Than You Imagined" and "A Faith of Our Own: Following Jesus Beyond the Culture Wars." He resides in Brooklyn, NY.

37 Comments

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  • “Whenever Christians start kicking one another out of the Christian club in public, we look like mean-spirited squabblers.”

    Why, welcome ot the comments section of RNS, where every True Christian (TM) flings his AND her Theo-Poo (TM) at other Christians for not being the Right Sort (TM) of Christian, where slandering and reviling others is the True Christian (TM) way to show who is a True Christian (TM).

    It’s one of many reasons why I am an atheist. The god of the True Christians (TM), who made the entire infinite universe, is just too small for my universe.

  • A universe where you have been known to slander and revile people who fail to go along with your atheist religion and your gay religion.

    (And occasionally you even do your S and R jobs on God Himself!)

    So you’ve got your own brand of Theo-Poo, but you seem unable to smell it.

  • Poor, poor, poor widdle victim of that big bad mean gay goliath atheist.

    When you slander and revile gay people, other Christians, atheists, or anyone else, you’re just exercising religious freedom. When you lie about gay people, you’re just being a Good Christian (TM).

    when we call you on it, according to you, we’re being no better than you are. Well, they are not really quite the same thing, are they?

    As for theo poo, being an atheist, I really just don’t have any. And as for your Big guy, apparently, he can’t handle it.

  • BTW, doc.
    I’m always the one calling you so-called Christians on flinging your theopoo at other Christians for not being the right sort of Christian.
    but then, I’m an atheist, and insist on treating people decently.

  • Oh yes, when accidentally cornered on things, just remind everybody that you’re an atheist and therefore magically entitled to do the unethical behaviors that you accuse and revile Christians of doing.

    Apparently hypocrisy is condoned in the atheist religion, unlike Christianity.

    Meanwbile, various topics, such as the clear existence of the Gay Goliath (just consult the Disney gang or Barack Obama!), are here to stay. (Indeed, this “progressive” pastor is clearly doing Goliath a favor by supporting gay marriage.)

    It isn’t a lie, a slander, nor even a “revile”, to say that these things are indeed wrong and to be resisted by Christians.

  • You’ve only got 40 days. Better get crackin’, cause lucy, you got a lot of apologizin’ to do.

  • I cannot believe the arrogance of those who have replied to your article. I think it was well-written and was prepared to break through he usual chains that encircle us and stop us from examining what we truly believe. Love your work, Jonathan. You are honest and take the risk to confront us and that’s what we need….

  • In some instances, despite what I would consider carefully nuanced and reasoned statements on this site, I have been verbally assaulted quite viciously by any number of atheists. I only comment because I sensed that you implied that atheism and treating people decently are an obvious congruence; or am I drawing an inaccurate inference from your statement?

  • Atheism is just like religion in one sense, Edward. It doesn’t make you – generic you, not you personally– a better person simply because you are an atheist, any more than it makes the religious bigots who post here regularly better people because they lovelovelovelove Jesus. Their faith doesn’t make them more Christian in the best sense of the word. It just gives them an excuse– not that they need one– to behave badly.

    Whited sepulchers come to mind.

  • Ben, I have no hatred of you. I don’t even like getting into intense exchanges with you. My preference is to respond to the actual points given in the RNS article.

    But I will tell you now — you have some “behaving badly” tactics that I am quite okay with candidly responding to. Your initial post in this thread, for example.

    You’re not actually responding to the article’s points — instead you are essentially exploiting the article to do yet another attack on some of the Christians here.

    Well, you have the right to do that, and I didn’t even respond immediately (you see that 19 hours passed). I try to think about things (a little) before replying.
    But a reply was warranted, and to do so “straight-on”, (to quote Matt Dillon), in “a language you can understand” (to quote Malcolm X).

    Yet I have no hate, no diss, no arrogance, against you. (No joke). Just know that THIS “whited sepulcher” (me) is capable of responding to you, straight-on.

  • “Ben, I have no hatred of you.” Somehow, I don’t believe you. My marriage is evil, gay people are evil, and one who supports gay people is evil. Nope, no hate there. Maybe it’s just despite. Maybe its just your wholly imaginary superiority as an alleged heterosexual, a Christian, and a human being. Who knows? Certainly not YOU.

    I remember quite well your use of a long list of unsubstantiated allegations to prove that gay people were violent and a danger to good people everywhere. Your constant comments on the “gay goliath” is just more of the same.

    ” instead you are essentially exploiting the article to do yet another attack on some of the Christians here.” Not an attack, just pointing out the obvious. As for attacking some of the Christians here, I’ll leave that to you and Sandimonious and quite a few others, who do it constantly.

    “No hate, no diss, no arrogance.” Someone needs a mirror, and badly. Or at least, to understand what the word “joke” means.

  • I do remember being asked (or challenged),

    …to document the astonishing vandalism, violent anger, and wide-open threats that the GAY activists and gay people were unashamedly doing against churches (both Christian and Mormon) and against individuals in the streets, following the voter passage of California’s “Proposition 8” (which banned gay marriage in California.)

    So I researched it, and I provided the list of media-documented, multi-state craziness that took place. I did not hate on anybody, nor look down on them. I just provided the list of mess, that was asked of me.

    A black gay man, who tried to march in solidarity with his white gay colleagues, reported a direct racial threat from his fellow white gay marchers, (they were very angry because of black voters who supported Proposition 8), and yes the N-word was used as well.
    Think about it, folks.
    But that’s all I did. Provided a list.

  • “So I researched it, and I provided the list of media-documented, multi-state craziness that took place.” You didn’t research a thing. You came up with a list of allegations put out by antigays. The list had been around for quite a while. First lie.

    “to document the astonishing vandalism, violent anger, and wide-open threats that the GAY activists and gay people were unashamedly doing against churches (both Christian and Mormon) and against individuals in the streets, following the voter passage of California’s “Proposition 8” (which banned gay marriage in California.) There were some incidents of violence, absolutely. Widespread? No.

    Documented? Hardly. The list was challenged with citations, including the fact that there were simply allegations without any factual basis behind them, and were thrown out of court every time they were brought up. and you said, basically, “I DON”T CARE BECAUSE OF THE EVIL GAYS.”

    “A black gay man, who tried to march in solidarity with his white gay colleagues, reported a direct racial threat from his fellow white gay marchers.” Great citation. so that proves that all gay white men are violent racists.

    you just did it again.

    You’re so used to lying, to despising gay people and anyone not your sort of Christian, that the truth no longer concerns you.

    Remember the Watts riots? They just prove that all black people are violent racists. That’s YOUR logic, in a nutshell.

    Hypocrisy is the homage that vice pays to virtue.

  • “As a pastor, I apologize for other churches that would not do your gay wedding.” So you are so superior to Jesus that you need to apologize for what He taught? Homosexuality is a sin.

  • “Evangelicals… certainty on salvation can be off-putting”.

    Ah, a Roman, now I understand. One who has a view of salvation based on a synergistic model probably does not have assurance of their salvation.

  • Floyd is an unrepentant religious bigot with a special venom for gay people. I wouldn’t pay too much attention to him. It only feeds his beast.

  • Yes, it’s true. There’s a very real gay belief system, definite tenets of faith, that you are expected to agree with. If you say you’re gay, you are expected to keep on confessing ’em (keep on “coming out”, they say). So it’s a religion.

    Otherwise you may find yourself (at minimum), being kept at arms’ length by fellow members & supporters of the gay religion. You’re not going to be trusted to speak at the Pride Week panel discussions, nor preach next Sunday’s sermons at the MCC or the UCC, if you agree with the clear biblical teachings against homosexual behavior & gay marriage. You better not agree that Christ DID wash & remove that sin from the ancient Corinthians who came to Him (1 Cor. 6:9-11).

    You must insist you’re a True Believer, even if you *accidentally* change and enjoy total Hetero Bizness. Notice how desperately this one lesbian tries to affirm all her ‘gay-self-identity’ tenets, despite completely falling in love with a man:

    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/i-came-out-as-a-lesbian-and-then-fell-in-love-with-a-man_us_58ac91bce4b02eb3a982dea3

  • Stuart, you asked me a legitimate question, and I offer you my reply. Whether you personally agree or disagree with my views, there are NO gatekeepers around here whose orders you must obey.

    Just thought you’d want to know.

  • I do feel that I should apologize to my LBGT friends for the way that the UMC treats and discriminates people who are not heterosexual. I am 80, and thus remember my African American friends being relegated to the Central Jurisdiction, even if their churches were in my area of New Jersey, where I lived at the time.
    I may not live to see this, but one day our LBGTQAI+ friends and relatives will be accepted into full inclusion in the UMC and be able to marry the person whom they love in a UMC and be ordained in the UMC, any UMC!

  • Floydlee reminds me of the old adage. “Attending church does not make one a good christian, any more that standing in a garage makes one a car.”

  • Sandi, Jesus did not even mention homosexuality. Homosexuality is interpreted by some, but not all theologians, from an obscure passage in the Hebrew Scriptures, that most modern theologians interpret as an issue with hospitality. Ask a minister who has graduated from a three to four year progressive seminary, not some pastor with a six week lay preacher course.

  • As I said, he is an unrepentant bigot, first hating gays, then having enough venom left over for Christians not of his sort.

    What’s really funny is that he is black, and likes to parrot the very arguments used against the full participation of blacks people in society.

  • Christ spoke about homosexuality in the OT. Jesus in the gospels spoke about homosexuality. Jesus in the Book of Revelation spoke about homosexuality. Jesus spoke through Paul about homosexuality, Judge.

  • John 8:58 – English Standard Version

    Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I am.”

  • Just one quick question, Judge: Do you have permission from other Methodists (for example, the Wesleyan Covenant Association) to apologize for them?

  • Jesus certainly did speak against homosexuality in Mark 7:20-21 where He uses the word “unchastity”, “immorality” and “fornications which includes adultery, incest, premarital infidelity, homosexuality, beastiality and any other sexual conduct condemned in the OT.

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