We all like to think of ourselves as open-minded people, tolerant of others who look different than us or have different beliefs. We want to be more enlightened thank many of the close-minded who have gone before us. Yet most of us have histories that shape the way we view people and people groups that leave lingering feelings of resentment, suspicion or judgement. Sometimes this can be warranted- someone breaks trust by doing or saying something really hurtful which makes us likely to not trust the next person who comes along who is also a member of the intergalactic cat-lovers society or the Girl Scouts.
I’ve chosen to associate myself group of people that has been earned a particularly bad rep in society; evangelical Christians. There has been actual data done on what jerks we are and have been. In the book UnChristian
David Kinnaman details the common perceptions of Christians in society today found in the in depth research he did with the Barna group. The chapter headings detail the bulk of the findings; Christians are: Hypocritical, judgmental, too political, anti-homosexual, sheltered, and too concerned with getting people’s souls saved. Sadly, I have to agree with many of his findings and even more sadly am guilty of some of these things.
This was why my conversations with Alex at Burning Man were so significant. When you’re part of a group that has earned a bad rep people typically assume that “you’re just like the rest of them.” I can’t tell you how many times my gut squirms when I tell people what I do. It’s not because I’m embarrassed or ashamed to be a “consultant for college students in Christian leadership development” (evangelist or even campus pastor seems to weird people out waaaaay too much). It’s because that it has been all too common for me to see people’s eyes glaze over, stop talking to me or make passive aggressive jokes along the lines of “you’re not going to preach at me now/thump me over the head with your bible/tell me I’m going to hell? are you?” And say this all within the first two minutes that we’re talking to each other. It sucks to have people stereotype you. And sucks even more that evangelical Christians have brought this warranted judgement on themselves.
Alex, a friend of Nicole’s who had come on the trip wasn’t one of these people whose eyes glazed over, shut down or made jokes about jerky Christians. Over a cup of dusty coffee outside of our RV, Alex dressed in low-key burning man garb- a tank-top, khakis and a simple yellow flower hanging on a cord around his neck talked with me about significant areas of our lives- families, work, dreams for our future-he without being suspicious I would bust out some bible verses and me without any sort of agenda other than making a new friend and learning about his life.
Towards the end of our conversation he shared about how suspicious he had been of Christians. “I thought that anything nice they would do was because they were trying to convert me or lure me into their religion” Alex mused, taking a swig of his now cold coffee. “I realize how wrong it’s been of me to stereotype Christians.” I let that sink in a little. I have never, ever heard a person who isn’t a Christian apologize for the ways they have wrongly stereotyped us. I was also filled with gratitude because that was part of the whole reason we went to Burning Man- to help dispel stereotypes of what Christians are about and who Jesus is.
He continued to share as I listened intently, leaning forward in the cheap red folding camp chair, watching the dust storm swirl behind him in the distance. “I don’t need to be afraid to be friends with people who have a different system of belief. If I don’t want to convert, then I don’t have to think that being friends with them will somehow force me into believing what they do.” At this point I was elated both for the opportunity to hang out with a really cool person, to have the space to talk about significant things and that he was willing to be so vulnerable with me about his negative past with Christians. I thanked Alex for sharing with me and how meaningful his apology was. It was one of the highlights of my time at Burning Man and made me want to go back again because I felt so included in who I am and what I bring into the crazy mix there.
I asked Alex if I could blog about our conversation & he blessed me with this encouragement “of course you have my permission and blessing to spread the good word of connection understanding reconciliation and tolerance! So yeah, go ahead and let people know there are some good atheist/agnostics/pagan/hippies out there, and I’ll let my people know there are good Christians!” Thank you Alex for making Burning Man a place even “an evangelical” can be accepted an invited to participate and offer my gifts of faith to the community 🙂
Back in non-burning man world, conversations with Alex compel me not to go to church, but to be the church. It’s easy to leave the church or Christianity because you’re so pissed that so many people or institutions do fulfill these stereotypes. Most recently, Ann Rice got fed up and left. There have been many times in my adult life that I’ve wanted to walk away from all of it, sat in church angry and jaded, depressed and sad that a book like UnChristian can even be written. However I have to believe that it (church, Christians, evangelicalism) can change, needs to change and will change through a crazy, radical lifestyle of love that comes from Jesus when his people get down to living out this life rather than just talking about it and judging others.