Walls and Judges

Oh, Starbucks, you are always there for me.

Earlier this week, while making a quick pit stop at Starbucks, and putting a couple packets of artificial sweetener into my tall americano, I got to overhear part of a conversation with two young women. I am paraphrasing, but I think what I’m about to write is mostly close.

Girl 1: I was at this interview, and I don’t want to say too much, because I know it’s an interview, but I also want to be honest, so I say, ‘I am having a really rough time with a lot of things, and I can’t wait to get out of high school and leave.’
Girl 2: I know.
Girl 1: I am really struggling and I just really feel like God is testing me right now.

First of all, I don’t know what this interview was about — a job, a newspaper, a college application? No idea. Still, I don’t know that telling someone I barely know that “I am having a really rough time with a lot of things” is something I would share. I cannot fathom how this would be appropriate.

As the young woman feels like God is testing her, I think this conversation is testing me. The way my brain is wired, I immediately feel a moment of revulsion. Does she really feel like God is testing her, or is this just a phrase people use? Does she really believe in a third-party, omnipotent actor, who is manipulating the strings of life all around? What is it about the daily routine struggles of life that leads her to believe that God is testing this woman?

I share my eavesdropping with my wife, and this kicks off one of my favorite conversations I have ever had with her in the 5+ years that I have known her.

The conversation starts with a rejection. Both Angela and I oppose the third-party actor theology. While, on the surface, it can get you through some tough moments, it is not sustainable. When I hear the words, “God is testing me,” the connections in my brain quickly go to, “I do not have control over the events unfolding in my life.” No one should expect to have complete control with every nuance of one’s life.

This is not a test. This is life. We control the things we can, and we work through the things we can’t. On our way to becoming an empowered person, we do not gain more control of more things. Instead, we get better at adapting — at accepting our emotional selves in the sea of uncontrollable circumstances. Agency is learning to change the situation or find peace in your place.

Do not take away someone else’s meaning

We are all trying to figure out our way through life. That is just as true for me as it is for my wife, my children, my family, and my neighbors. It is not my place to rip apart that meaning. I am not a counselor or therapist. Except for my immediate family, counselor, rabbi, and a few people in my community, I usually do not see people on a regular basis. What good do I do by telling someone their theology is disabling or uneducated?

Do not knock down someone’s walls unless you plan on helping them build new ones.

Angela and I both agree: bad theology leads to many bad outcomes. Bad theology leads people to oppress themselves and others. Bad theology drives people away from introspection and reflection. Bad theology tells people there is only one correct answer. Bad theology tells people to not fix the broken relationships in their lives. Bad theology tells people to embrace suffering.

But, theology, bad or otherwise, is a foundational stone for most people’s lives. You do not pull away that foundation without being prepared to put in the work to replace it.

Except for my children, where I am expected to help shape their faith, I cannot think of any situation where this would apply to me. This probably means that I need to keep my mouth shut more often than I choose to.

If we are to judge, then we must judge actions

When we judge others, we are really comparing them — to others, to an ideal in our heads, to whatever. Of course we are told we shouldn’t judge, but we do it anyway. We decide the types of people we like. We decide who we want to connect with on Facebook. We decide what we want to read or watch on television. We judge.

Or, perhaps more to the point, I judge.

If Kim Davis wants to believe that marriage is only between one man and one woman, then we have to accept that is her belief. No amount of internet yelling is going to change that. When she refuses to do her job of issuing marriage licenses, now we can judge her actions. Her role, as clerk of the county, is to uphold the laws of her county and to issue marriage licenses to those who are allowed to have them, regardless of her deeply held religious beliefs.

When religious beliefs evolve into denying civil rights, allowing discrimination, supporting political bigots like Ted Cruz or Rick Santorum, or promoting violence and extremism, you can expect to be judged.

I must remember to judge the actions for what they are, and not belittle the underlying faith of the human being performing the actions. At a personal level, I really do believe people are doing the best they can, assimilating the new information in their world with their prior knowledge. It is not the faith at fault, but the lack of evolution of that faith — a closed world view that believes God is static, revelation is completed, and we have no influence on the world to come. Fear is not an uncommon reaction to the unknown.

We are going to have disagreements. We believe we are assigned the task of perfecting the world, but we disagree in what that means. We are all searching for our place. There are many paths to love. Will ours be a place of peace or a place of violence?