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Does Organized Religion Divide Us Instead Of Bring Us Together?
May 30, 1996

As a gay man active in the HIV/AIDS community, I look on organized religion from something of an "outsider view." The church I attended as a child, back home in Connecticut, just recently voted to be "open and affirming" toward gay and lesbian members. But I still can't help but think that organized religions, even as manifested in the most generous congregations, by their very makeup involve walls and boundaries and us-them thinking. We believe this, you don't. We'll be nice and kind and loving to you, but still, we believe this about the Universe and you don't. When I try to conduct business or personal relationships with committed Christians (i.e., those who are Christian beyond just being born to it), I often feel at a remove, and I feel it comes from them just as much from me --- a distrust, a reserve. It may be their general policy to have a generous and loving attitude, so why do I feel they're holding so much in reserve? Can they just not communicate fully with someone who does not have the same basic spiritual beliefs?

Response from Rev. Pieters

You make many good points. It is true that organized religion can be divisive, and you are certainly not the first to observe that Christians can be less than open, generous and loving in dealing with non-Christians, or lesbians and gay men, or any number of people who are different. Does this live up to the role model we try to follow in Jesus Christ? Of course not. I've often heard that more wars have been fought, and people killed, in the name of religion than probably for any other cause. Certainly organized religion has divided people throughout history. By their very nature, most organized religions define themselves according to what they believe, and that sets up an "us-them" dynamic. Your perspective is accurate in my opinion. Think about how you respond when you encounter Christians who are not as you believe they should be, who may have a wall up. First of all, are your expectations realistic? Are you allowing Christians to be human, or are you holding us to some super-human standard that we are bound to fail? Do you further the divisions through defensiveness or even through a verbal challenge? Can you respond lovingly, and set the example of how you would like to be treated? Can you forgive Christians for being less than Christian? Many of us in communities of faith face disillusionment with our churches when they disappoint us, or don't live up to our expectations. As a Christian, I have certainly been through this. I have experienced profound disappointment in the church. I find that I gain much more when I decide to stay with it, and change things lovingly and constructively from within, rather than just walking away angry. Like you, I am a gay man active in the HIV/AIDS community. I am also involved in organized religion. I have frequently run into people who treat me with skepticism, if not contempt or ridicule, because of my commitment to Christianity. I'd like to think that I've always responded with love and understanding, but I have at times responded defensively. I have frequently found these encounters painful, because there has always been great difficulty in resolving our differences, or in reaching an agreement to disagree. And so I sometimes experience a reserve, such as you talk about, when I talk with people who are disdainful of organized religion. I can't seem to help but take it personally. So I've no doubt that your perception is accurate, that you have encountered a distrust and a reserve in your encounters with "committed Christians." Perhaps I've been one of those you've encountered. I hope that you can forgive me, and other Christians who may have responded the same way. I hope you will try to understand my perspective, as I try to understand yours. Many gay men and lesbians have been so badly damaged by religious leaders, that there is a total distrust of all organized religion. But is that really fair to throw out all of organized religion because of past hurts from specific churches? If you went to a poorly run school, or had an inadequate teacher in junior high, would you declare the whole academic world a failure? The fact is that there is a great deal of diversity in the religious world, and there are increasing numbers of churches which are "open and affirming" to lesbians and gay men, as your home church has voted to be. This doesn't mean that your home church or any other church will be instantly hospitable after centuries of inhospitality. Even after I decided to come out, I still had to work through much of my homophobia. Churches do, too, and that can be complicated. Sure, organized religion has divided people for centuries, and will probably continue to do so. Faith is one of the most individual, personal and passionately felt facets of our make-up as individuals. There is an incredible amount of diversity in how people believe. And human beings seem to have this desire to want everyone to be just like them, and woe to those who are different! I like the old advice, that if someone draws a circle which excludes you, then draw a larger circle which includes you both. For further discussion of disillusionment with the church, see my column #7, "Finding Hope in Community."

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