Much of my extended family at one time or another identified as “tee-totalers,” or folks who abstain from alcohol consumption of any kind for religious (read: Baptist) reasons. So, it was rather surprising when I happened across an almost empty handle of gin under the kitchen sink while cleaning out my tee-totaling great-aunt’s rancher following her death. By comparison, this seemed like a rather tame discovery compared to the eulogy delivered a day earlier by her Baptist pastor (and friend) who spun a few yarns about driving his own mother and my great-aunt to the casino one state over on the weekends when they were younger.
The shocking thing here wasn’t necessarily my great-aunt’s wild side, but that everyone handled it so well, like they had known for years. As I later came to find out, they had, and it floored me. It wasn’t that my thoroughly modern sensibilities were especially unnerved by the drinking and slot playing (I grew up watching “The Real World”), but because I had actually believed her when she talked to me about God’s judgment and the dangers of alcohol. I came to realize that the reason everyone seemed totally fine about this sort of hidden inconsistency in the life of my saintly great-aunt, was because they had all grown up Baptist in East Tennessee:
where disavowed dichotomy between one’s life and faith is our religious mother tongue.
Perhaps you’re familiar with the more serious examples of this whole “don’t let your left hand know what your right hand is doing” sort of logic in my Baptist upbringing:
Where our left hands are going on domestic and foreign mission trips, feeding homeless folks, ordaining women in our church, collecting money for any and every ill besieging our global and local community, praying for the souls and lives of people in crisis, and (in the case of my home church) starting an inter-denominational food and clothing distribution center for struggling families in our area.
While our right hands vociferously support legislation removing necessary infrastructure and financial support from the families we serve, refuse (politely) to actually hire any of the women we ordain, slander those seeking crisis services, pull our kids out of public schools in the wake of community transition, silence questions about race and inequality, and shake in anger at anyone identifying as a Christian who calls into question these incongruent postures towards the universe.
Growing up Caucasian, middle class and Baptist in East Tennessee was (and is) an effort in constantly splitting oneself in two over, and over, and over again in the name of the Lord.
With each passing year it becomes more and more obvious that not naming reality as it’s actually happening is a deeply-held spiritual practice in the Baptist tradition. No matter the cultural winds and waves besieging their boat, Baptists possess this stalwart, unwavering commitment to interpreting and reading the Bible with great conviction in the midst of any and every cultural and actual storm.
They should be commended for their steely-eyed faithfulness.
However, this stalwart, unwavering commitment oftentimes means eliminating from view any of the ways the biblical text might challenge how our right hands are voting, spending, speaking and living. Which means, if you’re Baptist in the Southeast you probably haven’t heard your pastor speak glowingly of January’s Women’s March, or mention that Black Lives Matter, or question the current administration’s posture towards an increasingly diverse world, or point out that Jesus of Nazareth grew up the son of Middle Eastern refugees fleeing political unrest and genocide following his birth that we celebrated just a few months ago.
Despite the fact that all of these beliefs are ardently held by people of deep Christian conviction, many of whom are paid by your church to pray and deliver sermons.
Pastors and church leaders across the country seem continually flabbergasted by their (almost entirely Caucasian and Evangelical) congregations who, as recently as this week, gave the current administration a 75 percent approval rating. This is especially confusing when compared to a letter signed by 500 major Evangelical leaders (i.e., pastors) from all 50 states critical of the Trump administration’s executive order on immigration.
For those of us who grew up Baptist in the Southeast, this disavowed dichotomy between our faith and our political life isn’t a recent aberration brought starkly into view by Donald Trump. Instead, it’s the manifestation of a longstanding unwillingness to unite these two parts of our souls out of both the practice of let’s-all-get-along Caucasian Southern politeness, and the misguided application of the inherently Baptist belief in the separation of church and state. Which is why, in times like these, Baptist pastors remain warmly vague and intentionally circumspect in their sermons, while fuming indignantly about their congregations’ politics behind closed doors.
As a Baptist kid in East Tennessee, one of the passages I grew up hearing often was the 48th verse from Matthew, chapter 5:
“Be perfect, therefore, as your Heavenly Father is perfect.”
This verse encapsulates the whole of what it means to be a practicing Baptist Christian in America: that being — the pursuit of socially acceptable moral perfection at all costs (including, but not limited to the binding and gagging of all the unsavory parts of your life in the trunk of your soul).
Enter my big-hearted, faithful, slot-playing, gin-drinking, Bible-thumping, teal-sweatsuit-wearing, tee-totaling great-aunt. A woman who worked at the local health department for over 30 years tirelessly delivering medical services for indigent clients, while also bemoaning the “welfare state” that allowed her to retire at 65 with a pension and access to healthcare, because “God helps those who help themselves, Eric.”
While growing up Caucasian, middle class and Baptist in East Tennessee instilled in me a love for the biblical text, faithfully serving my community, the nuances of St. Paul’s missionary journeys, and the Welch’s Grape Juice flowing through the veins of my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ once a quarter, one thing it never taught me was how to be OK with my own and the world’s rather profound inconsistencies.
Luckily, a few years ago a friend of mine reminded me that thankfully the Bible wasn’t originally written in the King’s English. Which means, in Matthew 5:48, the word “perfect,” is actually the Greek word “teleios,” and generally translated means “the end of something” or carries with it the idea of “completion or finishing.” A better translation (put forth by both Greek philosophers and early Christians) might read: “Be complete, therefore, as your Heavenly Father is complete.” The word for “perfect” in Hebrew, Jesus’ religious mother tongue, is the word “shalom,” which loosely translated connotes this same sense of peace, completeness, rocking-chair-on-the-porch-with-a-glass-of-sweet-tea sorts of at-home-ness with the world.
Be complete, be at home, be at peace with a complicated world, therefore, as your Heavenly Father is complete, at home, and at peace with a complicated world.
Which makes sense in light of this verse’s location in a much larger passage about making space for our enemies at our own tables, welcoming and loving people who can’t actually pay us back for that love, and continuing to live in solidarity with a complex and sometimes violent world even if it kills us in the process.
As one verse from earlier in Matthew 5 reminds us:
“[God] makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.”
When I remember my great-aunt, it isn’t the schizophrenic religiosity, or the fact that she stubbornly called wasps “waspers” that dominates my memories; it’s that she possessed this tee-totaling faith in me, a cynical, acne-prone, and sullen adolescent boy from a divorced family trying (often unsuccessfully) to find his groove in the world. She never let me believe that my limping imperfections, near-constant self-doubt, and exhausting cynicism were anything but a gift and a welcome friend to the divine (even though she would never have said something weird like “the divine”).
Despite what she may have believed about God’s preferences for how people spend their food stamps, or how the world began, or how it will end, or to which political party God always sends tax-deductible donations, none of that mattered when she picked me up from school, and listened to me complain about how alone I often felt. She was simply there, idling in her green Buick regal, always on time, always fully present, sweat-suit and all.
In the face of inconsistency (both theological and existential), her love made her perfect, complete, congruent, and I hope one day love will do the same to me. As St. Paul and John Lennon sort of put it, in the end all we have (or need) is love, not right beliefs, not moral perfection, not political power, nor even the rhetorical high-ground — nothing but love makes it out of this thing alive.
As Ash Wednesday reminds us, everything else is just dust and air.