Faith that is tattooed and pierced...
There was an article in yesterday’s New York Times magazine about the son of Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker’s son, Jay. Tattooed and pierced, with a ring in his lip and surrounded by dozens of people who look a lot like him, he is building a new kind of church. The truth is that he might take offense to me referring to Revolution, his ministry, as a church. After all, he knows first hand what churches and Christians can do when one falls from grace. After his father was convicted and sent to jail for various forms of fraud and theft, Jay, his sister, and their famously mascara-wearing mother were left to fend for themselves. The Christian community they had been so heavily involved with for years would have nothing to do with them, except to criticize and belittle them. Jay became an alcoholic and drug addict, joined and performed with various punk rock groups, and even had a brief stint at a school for aspiring pastors. After a few painful months there, he was invited to join “an alternative ministry among the skateboarders and punk rockers of Phoenix,” and he jumped at the chance. He knew the angst of rejection. He knew the pain of addiction. And he knew that there was something special about that punk rock, outcast community, a closeness and camaraderie that outsiders simply didn’t understand. It was in that setting that Jay found his true calling. Go to where the needy are and tell them how their needs can be met. Without judgment, without condemnation, without demanding attendance at established churches wearing the right clothes, he and a few of his friends have begun a quiet revolution of faith. Forget church and religion, he says. Accept the grace of Jesus. One woman who came to Revolution in 2002 said, “The teaching never strayed far from this core idea of grace. We hear that a lot, it’s really repetitive, but I need to hear it every single week.”
Grace. Acceptance. Embracing the inherent value of every person no matter their background. Tattoos welcome. Piercings welcome. No one to check the length of your skirt or the style of shoe. No demerits for black eyeliner. No bandwagons to climb onto or off of. Loving and accepting people without an agenda. What a concept.
There are many who would say that there must be standards. There must be boundaries. How could anyone seriously think that faith can be built in a bar? Revolution meets at various bars and clubs in the Atlanta area with cocktail waitresses and a full bar open to all who come. These Revolutionaries even smoke during their meetings. Gasp! Shock! Someone has to make sure that these people are giving up their wicked lifestyles, their smoking and drinking, their homosexuality, and their promiscuity. Someone must hold them accountable. Jay’s response is this: “God’s called us to love people no matter who they are or what they’ve done. You can’t change people. You can for a little while, but eventually they’ll rebel or be hurt or realize what’s going on. I’m not in that rat race. I’m just in the game to say, ‘This is who Jesus is; he loves you for who you are and hopefully you see that in my life and you see the positive things that are coming from it.’”
The sad truth is that many people I know who aren’t interested in the faith I profess express the same sentiments that Jay is responding to. So many people want nothing to do with Christians or Christianity because they have been repeatedly criticized, demeaned, and rejected for their questions, their doubts, and their lifestyle choices. To wonder aloud about issues like injustice, the obscene wealth of some in comparison to the abject poverty of others, homosexuality, abortion, war, the peace movement, incest, abuse, and the apparent selective silence on these issues in the Christian church is tantamount to heresy and is usually met with angry condemnation and the questioning of one’s salvation.
I myself have felt the icy stares of many, endured the painful criticism of others, and basked in the warm embrace of friends outside my faith who are willing to discuss these thorny issues with candor and openness. One friend who rejects the idea of ever putting a foot inside of a Christian church - other than the Quaker meeting house - often asks me how I cope with the contradictions between Christ’s teachings on love and forgiveness and mercy and the blatant lack thereof within the walls of so many so-called Christian communities. When I think of her, my Buddhist friends, my Hindu friends, my non-religious friends, and most of all the ones who believe in God, who want to follow Him and His ways, but know beyond a shadow of a doubt that the established church with all its rituals and standards and measuring rods (that quickly become chastening rods) has no room for their doubts and inquiries, I am moved to tears by their inability to see God’s love in those of us who claim to know Him.
Ryan Dobson, described in this article as “the heavily tattooed son of James Dobson, founder of the conservative group Focus on the Family,” makes a good point in his observation about “the Christian tendency to shoot our wounded.” Had an abortion? Are you a homosexual? Have you shacked up with somebody? Committed adultery? Slept with your boyfriend or girlfriend before or outside of marriage? Been divorced? Been addicted to alcohol or drugs? Dyed your hair, pierced or stretched some undeserving body part, or otherwise strayed from the carefully laid out laws of looking good and living right? You are on your own. Don’t call me until all that gets straightened out.
Not long ago, I accompanied a friend to an AA meeting where she received her chip for a year of sobriety. I was struck by the youth of most of the folks at the meeting. As an older gentleman told the story of his alcoholism and how he has overcome so many obstacles, I watched in amazement as the heads in the room bobbed up and down at his dismal and desperate descriptions of drunken blackouts and job losses. One after the other, those amazingly brave young people introduced themselves by name and followed with that simple but profound admission: “I’m an alcoholic.” There I sat on a Friday night in the basement of a church surrounded by handsome young men and beautiful young women who were telling their stories of addiction and suffering and redemption and falling down over and over again. They held hands at the end of the meeting, prayed together, repeated the AA statement of faith, and then when it was over, they rushed outside to light up cigarettes and have a smoke.
And I wondered – why can’t we be that open, vulnerable, and honest in the sanctuaries of our churches? Why are confessions of failings and misgivings relegated to Friday night sessions in basements where no one says their last names? What if we all felt safe to say who we really are, to show off our tattooed and pierced places in our Sunday school classes? How many of our church members attend AA meetings across town from where they live and attend church because they do not feel safe to be who they really are where they really are? How many women in our congregations would never admit to having had an abortion ot seek support after having had one because they have seen the foam that forms in the corners of the mouths of those who object to abortion so vehemently? How many of our young people sneak off to clinics across town because they fear that no one in their homes or congregations is capable of handling their requests for birth control with grace and mercy? Where do our gay teenagers find solace if they don’t feel safe or accepted or even tolerated in our churches?
Is it possible to establish a new kind of radically accepting, merciful, non-judgmental, agenda-free Christianity? Jay Bakker thinks so. I hope so.