Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Choosing My Religion

Religion has been an intense topic for me for as long as I've been aware of it.  It wouldn't be fair to say I was "raised atheist" (which is what people assume when I say I was raised in a secular household).  My father was confident in his un-belief, and my mother somewhat insecure in her agnosticism; it was clear to me that both of them had been burned pretty hard by organized religion. However, neither of them assumed I would believe as they did, and offered several times to take me to church if I wanted to.  

I grew up in a very Christian town, and a very conservative, evangelical Christian town at that.  Kindergarten was the first time a classmate told me my family would burn in hell, and things just kind of went downhill from there.  I never got any sense of community from religion in my hometown, and was mostly angry at the hypocrisy I saw (I remember one instant of a friend in high school telling me that her mother told her she didn't have to invite me to anything since I wasn't Christian).  

Let me take a moment to say that I do not need anybody to tell me that this is #notallChristians, or, even worse, that these were not "true Christians."  Christianity, as with any community, is a diverse  culture.  While I understand now that their are loving, accepting Christians, it disappoints me when they don't take ownership of the less savory parts of their community.  Never once did a "true Christian" stand up for me or my family, in the entirety of my memory. 

I present all of this to provide some background for the position I found myself in a few years ago, and why I made the choices I made.  About three or four years ago, I realized I wanted a sense of community and a home for spiritual reflection and guidance (because sometimes meditating in the woods and reading Kahlil Gibran just doesn't cut it).  

The truth is, I wasn't looking so much for a conversion, sign, awakening, or whatever; I was balancing a lot of factors in my mind and heart in order to make a conscious decision about which faith community to join.  Basically, my requirements were that the community reflect my authentic values, and that the religion be non-appropriative.  I was pretty open to the idea of attending any kind of service, especially since I hadn't even thought of "converting" to anything.   I was, however, continually wary of Christian communities, both because of my past, and because of Christianity's history.  

Christianity and race in the United States are complicated.  For starters, Christianity and colonialism are so intertwined that they have their own joint wikipedia page.   When I studied abroad in Mexico, every trip to a cathedral or mission was accompanied by a bloody history of subsuming and oppressing local people and religions; it speaks to the strength and vibrance of those indigenous spiritual traditions and practitioners that they found ways to endure within the framework of Catholicism, in many cases.  

However, in the United States, Christianity has also been a movement of social justice and freedom.  Indeed, the religion of Black Americans "from the period of slavery through the era of segregation provided theological resources that motivated and sustained preachers and parishioners battling racial oppression."   

In my own personal experience, I found the only form of Christianity that resonated with me was the version I saw reflected in the African American Civil Rights Movement and its subsequent tradition.  I felt like this would violate my "non-appropriative" requirement.  Additionally, I was still uncomfortable with actually identifying as Christian, despite what the community may have to offer me.  This is similar to how I felt about Buddhism.

It's important to say that I believe that white folks in the U.S. are capable of practicing Buddhism, or becoming a part of a predominantly African American Christian tradition, without being appropriative.  I ALSO believe that it is the white person's responsibility to ensure that they are not being appropriative.  Since our cultural default is that white folks can help themselves to whatever inaccurate version of other cultures that we like--including holy beliefs--simply ignoring this risk is tantamount to participating in that appropriation.  At that point in my life, the result of this conviction led me to avoid identifying as Christian or Buddhist. 

So I looked for services in my area.  I found the names of some Christian churches that I thought would be nice to attend (as a guest), and similarly a Buddhist temple.  I started out, though, by going to a Quaker meeting.  One of the reasons I chose the Religious Society of Friends was because I felt like I had ownership of it: I'm Pennsylvanian born and bred, and my great-great-greats were Quakers.  I also knew that Quaker services consisted of silent worship (1), which appealed to me at a time when I was seeking both internal and external stillness.  

I found out that Quakers similarly have no clergy, and indeed, no hierarchy (though there is deference to older members or "weighty Friends").  Historically, Quakers were on the forefront of social justice issues like prison reform and women's rights, and look to nonviolence in all solutions.  In the United States, they were well-known as abolitionists.  Additionally, Quakers did not name themselves: folks subscribing to the tradition described themselves as Friends of the Truth or Friends of the Light (hence "Religious Society of Friends.")  This was, in part, because they sought to break down barriers of sect that separated people, because they believe that ALL people carry the light of the divine in equal measure, regardless of their chosen or inherited faith. 

I realized that this history was as important to me as any prescribed dogma (of which the RSF has relatively little.)  I could be proud of a history of social progressivism, and a tradition of encouraging dissent within the community.  I could take ownership of a tradition--a tradition that was started by Anglo whites but included people of color from the very beginning--that refused to turn a blind eye during slavery (2).  

In other words, it was a religion where I felt like I could be white, but not fixate on white supremacy.  I had the space to work out what my history meant to me.  

I have since gone through the process of becoming a Quaker.  My meeting has given me the strength to participate in civil disobedience, and the curiosity to learn more about my own nation.  Importantly, it has given me a framework with which to examine my whiteness: a framework that does not rely on guilt, but does not flinch away from responsibility and self-examination. 


(1) I have since learned that silent worship--or unprogrammed meetings--are somewhat rare within the worldwide population of Quakers.  This is in part due to a split within Quakers during the U.S. religious revival during the mid- to late-1800s, when some Quakers wanted a more...lively service and took to hiring clergy and including sermons.  This is the sect of Quakers who then went on to evangelize worldwide; as such, the old-fashioned unprogrammed meetings are more common in the United States.

(2)I'm certainly not denying that some Quakers owned slaves; William Penn was one of them.  But I'm used to white supremacy getting all over the things I love; this, at least, I could work with.

Note: This post is a tiny piece of my spiritual journey and its intersection with race.  Please feel free to share similarly; however, posts asking for further justification of my religious choices or attempts at conversion will be deleted.  Additionally, "corrections" about how I identify--as a non-Christian Quaker--will be deleted. 

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