The older I get, the more my heart softens.
If you told a 15-year old me that would happen, I would be horrified. Softness and vulnerability were not things I valued. My Christian high school trained me and my peers to stand firm on our beliefs and refute the beliefs of others. Whenever we learned about other worldviews (including through a class that segmented the complexities of human thinking into either “Christian,” “Humanism,” “New Age,” or “Marxism”), the goal was to understand the enemy. Compassion was not an important piece of that. Pity, yes, that was an acceptable reaction. Mostly, we studied so we could learn how to debate someone and enforce our views.
Compassion and pity are very different.
To me, compassion is empathetic. It’s a desire to understand and alleviate suffering because all people are worthy of dignity and respect, no matter who they are or what they believe. Pity is condescending. It’s something reserved for those who are “less than.” It’s also passive. It doesn’t encourage action on the part of the person who feels pity, or at least not an action where the other person is an equal participant.
In school, I could be good at debates, but only when I suppressed my true emotions. While ‘appeals to emotion’ were valuable in debates, they were very calculated. Their purpose was to manipulate the audience, swaying them to your side. We never really talked about the speaker’s emotions or what they might feel about a topic. I remember feeling satisfied with a presentation if I remained cool and collected. If my heartbeat stayed steady the whole time I presented my case – even if recounting heartbreaking stories – I was winning.
My emotions tended to flare up most when I researched and argued on behalf of an issue that didn’t align with conservative Evangelicalism. I almost always ended up truly believing I was on the right side of the debate and became frustrated when that ultimately didn’t matter. Nearly all these debates were intellectual exercises about real-life issues that affected real people. It didn’t seem like anyone felt more compassionate after the school day ended.
The more I learned about other views on my own without the filter of a teacher’s perspective, the more understanding I became. The black-and-white ‘God-or-Satan’ mentality started to blur.
For anyone who grew up in fundamentalist (or fundamentalist-lite) Christianity, they know just how significant this blurring is. We’re told it’s a sign of spiritual weakness. It’s a sign that we’ve become vulnerable to the influences of Satan and worldliness. Our questioning is often dismissed as just wanting to fit in with a secular crowd. I still had that belief in my mind, so I resisted my heart’s softening. I tried not to think too hard about the beliefs I was espousing because once I did, I knew I would question them. I wouldn’t be able to ignore the paradox of a creed that preaches the concepts of mercy and love, but punishes and exiles anything (and anyone) it perceives as “sinful.”
Eventually, I couldn’t deny the paradox. It took a lot of personal pain and acknowledging the pain of others to realize that “standing your ground” on beliefs can be incredibly destructive. Changing my worldview is one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. Strangely enough, the narrative many churches sell is that sticking to the ‘straight and narrow’ path is what’s truly difficult. Supposedly, only “good Christians” can do it. In my experience, the opposite is true. It’s much easier and more comfortable to walk the same road you’ve always walked, not questioning what you’ve believed your whole life. Taking a step off that path, to walk in someone else’s shoes…that’s hard.
Many Christians consider themselves “good” Christians if they don’t change their mind on issues. They’re admired for their steadfastness and commitment to a very specific set of beliefs. What I see is people who are numb to the experiences of others.
If a Christian truly values love – which is considered greater than both faith and hope – they would be constantly wrestling with their beliefs. They would be acutely sensitive to the pain of others, especially pain inflicted in the name of Jesus. If there’s a hint that a certain belief might be harmful, every Christian should be willing to reconsider their stance.
There are many, many Christians who are wrestling, who are tender, and who are prioritizing compassion over being “correct.” They are often punished for it.
As someone’s beliefs shift, they are often shunned and even threatened by mainstream Christianity. The attacks on Jo Luehmann, a Colombian-American writer, is a horrifying example of Christian-led abuse. Blogger Libby Anne over at “Love, Joy, Feminism” describes what happened in her post “Christian Gatekeeping 2020.”
In June of this year, Jo responded to a hateful comment by a man claiming that colonization was excusable because indigenous people needed Jesus. Jo called that belief out for what it is: white supremacy. In her words, “all hell broke loose.” Christian accounts with big followings – including Adam Ford, founder of Babylon Bee – started mocking Jo, who had a relatively small following. She started to get hundreds of DMs from these accounts’ followers. Most of the messages were abusive. These self-professed Christians also began reporting all of Jo’s social media accounts as “hate speech.” She was locked out of her Twitter and Instagram for a time. I’ve seen some of the comments people are still making. They include death threats. This is how far efforts to squash uncomfortable discussions and beliefs can go. Christians who aren’t willing to entertain the idea that they may be wrong are trying to scare Jo into silence. They’ve not been successful.
Christians like Jo Luehmann, Rachel Held Evans, and Nadia Bolz-Weber are the reason I called myself a “Christian” for so long. Voices like theirs give me hope that the worldview that defined my childhood and teenage years won’t go unchallenged in the future. On my journey, however, I’ve left the label “Christian” behind. I don’t know what I believe about Christ. All I know is that I’m softening. I know a lot of people from my past – the teachers, pastors, and classmates – would look at me and feel pity. They might see me as a cautionary tale. More likely than not, they don’t think about me at all.
Worldview-wise, I don’t know where I’m going. I have one guiding principle: if my beliefs aren’t making me more compassionate to the suffering and experiences of others – especially the most vulnerable and marginalized – I need to question my beliefs.