It had to happen. I knew it would. But knowing on an intellectual level didn’t prepare me for it emotionally.
Yesterday, a childhood friend who grew up with me in fanatically evangelical churches told me that I was being “deceived by the devil”—that because I don’t read the Bible literally, my soul is in danger. This wouldn’t have been surprising—but for the fact that she majored in a science-related field in college and spent her whole career in a lab and her personal life in a home with someone of the same sex.
And though I believe with all my heart that God is full of grace, “slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love,” as the psalmist sings, it took me hours to remind myself after my conversation with her that when I commune with the Spirit, I feel no trace of that ugly and vengeful God that some of my childhood friends believe in so fervently.
This friend told me that she believes that we’re “living in the end times.” She said that St. Malachy—though she seemed confused about the connection or lack of one between the Irish saint and the Old Testament Malachi—had accurately predicted the popes up to now and that, if the pope who is named at the end of the month takes the name Peter, he will fulfill the prophecy and be the last pope, who will rule over the end of the world. She says the list he predicted is locked up somewhere in the Vatican, and when I asked how, then, anyone knows whether the names on the list match the names since the time of Malachy, she couldn’t give me an answer.
I had never heard this theory, though when I did a web search, I discovered that she is by no means the only one who believes she knows with some degree of accuracy when the world will end. As I listened, I felt I had entered the Twilight Zone. The last time I saw this friend, more than 20 years ago, she seemed balanced and reasonable. But yesterday, this woman who has lived with a partner who she now swears is only a companion told me that she believes unequivocally that homosexuality is an abomination. And when I asked whether she believed the Old Testament command to stone a woman for adultery was acceptable, her answer was, “In some parts of the world, they still stone women.” By this point in the conversation, I was so exhausted that I didn’t have the strength to ask, “Yeah, but are you saying that’s okay?”
Most of my friends have laughed dismissively today when I’ve told this story. “Crazy!” most of them say—not worth a single moment of thought.
But I still find my friend’s lack of logic scary. And what I find even more scary is that almost all the educated, reasonable people I know label people like her as crazy and refuse to take them seriously enough to challenge them. They have their right to religious freedom, we think, and so we allow them to perpetuate these beliefs and to strong-arm their children and their loved ones into adhering to their rigid biblical interpretation of the world.
And friends who are more conservative than I, but still logical and thinking people, tell me that people like my friend are stock-piling weapons and artillery for the battle they believe is coming. Yet still we liberals try to respect their freedom of religion and their right to bear arms. And I worry that this must be the same way reasonable people in Salem regarded the witch-hunters, the way reasonable people in the North regarded Southern slave-owners who swore that the Bible justified slavery, the way reasonable people in Germany regarded Hitler, the way reasonable people in the Middle East regarded the Taliban.
So how do we uphold the values on which our nation was founded but resist the rigidity that leads to intolerance and oppression? How do we follow the example of Christ—who wasn’t afraid to question the religious people of his time who thought they knew the mind of God?
How do we respectfully challenge religious people who purport to have all the answers? My friend may be too far gone to hear anyone who doesn’t confirm her narrow view of God. But how do we speak to those who are where she was 20 years ago, when she was willing to hear reason from those who disagreed? How do we fight for a future where freedom of religion means freedom from being labeled as an agent of evil?