EDITOR’S NOTE: Throughout July, we’re engaging in an online book study of Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove’s Reconstructing the Gospel: Finding Freedom from Slaveholder Religion. Each Friday, we’ll offer a guest reflection based on our readings and discussion. Follow along as we reflect on Chapters 3 & 4 of the book this week.
We were in a dimly lit worship center. I was one of many college-age counselors for the weekend’s youth retreat. The pastor, whose voice sounded raspy and convicted, read from Matthew 7:24-27:
Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock. And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not do them will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell, and great was the fall of it.
“And so, who is the man whose house is built on the rock? And how do we become him?” he prompted, not rhetorically.
The room, filled with rolled t-shirt sleeves and sugar-highs, stared blankly back at him.
“The obedient,” the pastor said finally. “The one who hears God’s words and does them. The one who keeps their way pure, holds their communities accountable, and is able to approach the throne without blemish when the day of judgement comes because his life’s foundation was the rock—our Lord Jesus Christ.”
I remember well how eye-opening this felt to me, this epiphany I was receiving about a passage that had otherwise seemed obscure. To be wise, to have Jesus as our foundation, we were to be obedient and to promote obedience. The fire of my fundamentalist rule-following and promoting was stoked.
I would go on to live my life throughout a good portion of the next decade in such a way that I would have much for which to repent by the time I hit my 30s — wielding the Bible and my interpretation of it in a way that would not, could not, sound like Good News to a number of people whose lifestyles, DNA, backgrounds, cultures, and experience of the Divine were just simply different from mine.
And this is what we’ve been discussing in the second week of our online book study of Reconstructing the Gospel: Finding Freedom from Slaveholder Religion. Within chapters three and four, Jonathan writes, “Christians support and participate in atrocious evil not because we choose to do wrong but because we think we’re doing the right thing—the righteous thing even.” I will have not made it to the end of my journey having escaped being among them.
It haunts our history, this doing-good that’s done so much harm.
That’s driven LGBTQ+ teens out of their homes and into suicide . . .
That’s caused black mothers to fear for their children who walk our sidewalks or to hesitate when buying a house in a certain neighborhood . . .
That’s demonized single mothers and their pro-choice options without offering them any alternative support, without eradicating the systems that abandon them, while turning a blind eye to rape culture . . .
That’s wielded the Bible to shut the mouths of women, and conquer stolen land, and deny hospitality to the stranger, and excuse politicians who threaten the common good . . .
“My problem as a white man,” the author says, “is that I didn’t know how to live in skin.” Slaveholder religion disconnects us from our bodies and the bodies of others. Slaveholder religion infects us with the ability to disassociate obedience from grace. Slaveholder religion is charged with power and privilege, detachment and abuse. It is infused with inconsistencies, devoid of mercy.
More than 100 people are reading these chapters together and engaging in our Facebook group about what we have recognized in our communities and — God forgive us — in ourselves. So much of these injustices, we see in the resounding comments, has been the byproduct of people who so wish to do right for God, regardless of who is left wounded in their (our) paths. It is healing me to read the words of others, to connect with the sentiments and the convictions and the divided theology that got us here at this time.
“Judge not, that you be not judged. For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and with the measure you use it will be measured to you,” the seventh chapter of Matthew begins. Had I ever started there when I read it? Had the pastor, that night in the dimly lit room?
It goes on: “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will recognize them by their fruits” and “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.”
The Father in Heaven who sent the Son in a body to live among bodies, to feed the hungry bodies, to invite the rejected bodies, to heal the sick bodies, to free the captive bodies. To teach us how to do the same.
God, as we are learning, show us where we have disconnected our bodies from our salvation and our salvation from our brother and sister’s well-being. Forgive us, we pray.