A longtime reader wrote to say that he mostly enjoyed my Time essay about why Pope Francis’s apparent laxness will not cause this ex-Catholic to return to Rome. However, he had some criticism of it, and stated it in one of the most extraordinary letters I’ve ever received. What an incredible story. I know the reader’s identity, by the way; if you frequent the comboxes here, you’ve seen his stuff before. I post it with his permission:
But there was a dismissive tone to [your Time essay], to your “Yes, God is love, but…”
And that bothers me. Because it is no small thing to say, “God is love.” Or “God loves you.”
Let me tell you a story. You and I, we are just about the same age. I was raised rootless, however, for the first ten years of my life on military bases across the US (my father was an Army officer) and then for the next ten in one of Southern California’s sprawling suburbs. The closest thing I have to home, aside from my late grandfather’s ranch in the Pacific Northwest (which we would visit every other summer, and where I would work for two summers as a teenager) is the US Army, and that’s only a memory. Being raised in the Army is different than being in it, something I later discovered. And the ranch, well, it’s still there, but my grandparents are long gone, and I don’t really know the people there anymore. So… home is where my wife and I are.
Southern California is not home. I hit the ground and was bullied and abused by teachers and fellow students (in addition to being abused at home) almost from the beginning. It was incessant. I lived with violence (my father was physically violent at times) at home and violence at school. I’m going to ask you to try and imagine what it is like to not be safe at home and not be safe at school. To live with that for several years. To live with being belittled and threatened and beat up and flogged and constantly being told you are stupid (that last bit was something my fifth grade teacher, as close to being a monster as I have ever met; she did worse, and not just to me). I am one of the few people I’ve ever met who actually enjoyed Junior High School, mostly because most of my tormentors went elsewhere, and because I finally fought back against those who still thought I was prey.
But they made an outsider of me, those kids, those teachers, those places. High School wasn’t abusive, but I didn’t have many friends. Truth is, I felt unwanted. Really, truly, horrifically unwanted.
And I was angry. Perhaps you know angry, perhaps you don’t. I don’t know. But given all the violence I found myself receiving, I blamed the world I was in, the people who surrounded me, hypocrites all, believing themselves to be so good and yet being so cruel and so callous. I was lucky, neither of my parents was particularly religious, and so God was never a part of abuse. But the Christians I met, meh, most of them were cruel in one form or another. Being Christian didn’t make them kinder human beings.
It was simple, really, though at the time I could not quite put it into these words — if the people round me didn’t want me, then I was not going to be a part of them.
My anger was able to take some shape the year I started university, in the late 1980s, in the San Francisco Bay Area. I met some Muslims, Palestinians and African Americans, and was impressed. Here are people who live on the bottom, unloved, unwanted, in the shadow of constant violence that calls itself righteous. They lived in what I called the box (I was able to give this thing a name only after reading Alex Haley’s Autobiography of Malcolm X, and the box has three rules: you will always be punished for something you do wrong, you may or may not be rewarded for anything you do right, and you will be punished/abused for random reasons simply because people in power can do that and have decided you have it coming for just being there) and did so with some incredible dignity. And they did so while refusing to accept the moral legitimacy of the box and the things that make it.
Don’t get me wrong, there was a very legitimate and intense religious experience to being Muslim. God met me, really met me there. But they were also the first people who really wanted me, who really accepted me, who really and kindly worked to show me what it was to become part of a community. No one had ever done that before, not the kids, not the adults, not anyone. It was always yelling and slapping and belittling. And yes, it was an outlet and ideological way to channel my anger.
Yes, I was for a time radicalized. I very nearly went to Bosnia in 1994 to fight, and I shudder to think what would have become of me had I done that. I believed in political violence, in Islamic revolution, gave money to it, listened to preachers who preached it. I studied Qutb and Maududi with other Muslims who yearned to fight in the cause of God, and I know some did. My wife, and the Saudi community of the university I transferred to in the mid-1990s (our financial situation kept me out of school for a couple of years) held me to the ground. My wife is the daughter of a pastor in a conservative mainline denomination, and she could never become Muslim. She kept me attached to a kinder world, mostly because had I followed the call no one would have taken care of her. So did the Saudis, who were much more grounded in a real, compassionate meeting your neighbor and caring for your neighbor Islam than were the revolutionaries.
And then I went to work in Dubai, which shook me to the core. The Muslims I had met in America were, I thought, better people. But Dubai taught me they could be just as callous and cruel as anyone else. (My Saudi friends had warned me about this, but I did not listen.) I never really recovered from that.
I found Islamic preaching lacking, with a couple of exceptions. Because it dreamt big, of changing the world, of ending oppression (at least of Muslims), of reworking and reshaping and remaking the world in some great dream of a future Islamic state. Few preachers could tell me how to actually love my neighbor (and yes, the Qur’an calls for that, and can be preached that way), how to be a better and more faithful follower of God. Everywhere I heard about injustice and jihad. There were some exceptions, where I heard at least a little love of God and neighbor.
If you fought against your sexual urges, I struggled with violence. With morally justifying violence. I remember a day, once, watching the Columbine massacre on CNN, surrounded by people expressing their horror, knowing I couldn’t say what was on my mind. Knowing I couldn’t cheer, “Good! They are going after the bad guys!” when CNN erroneously reported the two shooters were specifically targeting athletes and popular kids. Knowing that when someone asks “how can this happen?” I couldn’t say “how come it doesn’t happen more often?”
Because I knew no one would understand.
I got a Masters Degree in Middle East studies in Washington, DC, worked there and in New York as a journalist for a while, covered the UN and financial markets. I was there, in NYC, on September 11, 2001, across the street from the WTC, and I spent much of that morning staring up at the North Tower. When the second plane hit, we all evacuated the building I was in and then I spent more time, in a huge crowd, in front of the New York Mercantile Exchange, waiting for a ferry to cross the New Jersey, staring up at the towers belching fire, and paper, and smoke, watching people die. That day was powerful. There are so many quranic images of the judgement, the yaum al-qiyama in Arabic, the “day of standing,” many vivid images — all of humanity gathered, no one who can testify for another, the sky darkened with smoke that will not cool.
It was in the midst of that crowd, in the midst of the terror, the death, the destruction, that I heard, not in the way you would hear a voice, but inside my head, “My love is all that matters. And this is who I am.”
I’ve had God in my head before, twice during times of solitary prayer in masjids, and it is terrifying, overwhelming, engulfing.
I almost never say this publicly, because there are so few people I share this story with. I feel grateful that I was there, at the WTC on that day. I lived in a world where I could have flown an airplane into a tall building and called it righteousness. I was that angry. And there I was, in the midst of someone else’s violent vengeance fantasy, being forced to look hard into the very face of the kinds of things I used the believe. I don’t mean Islam here. I mean vengeance. Revolutionary violence as a cover for simply wanting to inflict upon the world the kind of pain you’ve suffered.
It wasn’t until later, until I found a group of very liberal Christians from one of those dying mainline denominations (I know, you don’t like us) who helped me understand who it was who spoke to me that day — it was Jesus. Who understand that God of love. Who spoke to me, in the midst of the fire and death. “My love is all that matters.” Such Christians would come to see “pastor” in me, and help me see it in myself.
The second part, “this is who I am,” I would not fully hear for years, until one day as a pastor at a small mission outreach church in a poor neighborhood, in the midst of the drunks, the junkies, the mentally ill, the homeless, the shiftless and the desperately poor.
“My love is all that matters. And this is who I am.”
I appreciate that you want something more, that you want to know what it is God expects of you. I am still learning to preach to such people, people whose lives and calls to follow Jesus have been quieter and less brutal than mine.
But you know what? It is no small thing to hear, and to say, in a violent and brutal world, in a world where many easily use others for pleasure and profit, “God is love.” When there has been no real love in your life — and my wife has another such story, for being a pastor’s daughter means little — then the most important question you will ever ask, and you will ever want answered, is “will someone ever love me?” It may be tawdry and sentimental and demand little from far too many comfortable folks who fill churches (though to be honest, so does supporting the troops and opposing abortion and loving Israel, mostly because such things as political postures require little discipline or sacrifice, and they don’t really form people in the image of Christ — and this is true also of mistaking the welfare state for the Kingdom), in many of the churches I have been in — in rough places, hard places, places full of broken, unwanted people — there is nothing more important than to grab hold of that love and know that despite all the world does and has done, that love is yours.
It is no small thing.
It is no small thing to love those who come to you so broken by violence and hedonism. To truly love them. It is no small thing to say, love your neighbor. and then actually love your neighbor as Jesus loves. No small thing.
Yes, part of that means speaking the judgment of God. But on this side of the world’s order, inside the box, you already know what judgment looks and feels like. The church has spoken it, the world has spoken it, you have been broken by it, time and time again, made to feel as if you are nothing, ground down until all there is left is despair or the urge to lash out. But God’s judgement is not punishment, and God’s judgment is never the final word. There is always the promise — redemption, resurrection, eternal life. For many of the people I have pastored, and for myself, it is enough, living in the light of this love, this promise. It is enough, in a world where there seems to be so little love.
Yes, you are right, this language can empower the world’s worst impulses and its nastiest desires. The liberal church has problems with virtue, having socialized the whole concept of sin. But so can the language of order. Or the language of law. And it may be that this word of love was not enough for you, given what you struggled with. And I accept that too. But yours is not the only experience, the only struggle with sin. It is certainly far more ordinary than mine. (Thankfully, I no longer live in a world where flying an airplane into a tall building makes sense to me, or is something I could do. But I remember that world, and I know it is still full of people.) But there are people, really, who have felt the judgment of the world fall on them so hard they feel squished flat. A word of love means everything. Changes everything.
Because it is no small thing.
I am blessed by having amazing readers like this man. He has given me so much to think about in this letter. You too, maybe.