June 06, 2021
I grew up with a very specific image of God. It would pop into my head any time I heard God’s name, so it was especially prevalent during church worship services. If you were raised Christian, you may have had a similar image — a mountainous-sized being who resides far above the clouds. Masculine in form, with his flowing gray beard and muscular arms that proved his strength and power. There was no mistaking that this vision of God was white, depicted with gleaming, sometimes even glimmering skin.
It never occurred to me that this was not the image embraced by everyone else throughout the world. My religious indoctrination that deemed all other religions and beliefs as wrong and sinful led to a lack of awareness and understanding which continued through early adulthood.
Moving away from my hometown to study and work allowed me to see that humanity was much more diverse than I had realized. These people awakened in me a desire to understand more about their life experiences and belief systems. This was the catalyst for significant life changes that put me on the path to one day seek ordination as an interfaith/interspiritual minister.
I recall the first time I had met an openly gay person: a young man who lived his truth with confidence that reflected his family’s support for who he was. He and I worked closely and would often lunch together. I’ll always remember one particularly poignant moment when he was sharing the challenges of being gay in high school and his concern for pre-teens and teens navigating life in a world that can be “enthusiastically cruel.”*
Afterward, he turned to me and asked about my high school and its acceptance of the LGBTQIA+ community. I ignorantly replied, “We didn’t have any gay students in high school.” I realized how naive those words sounded as soon as they left my mouth. Recalling one of my high school teachers making a similar statement during biology, I realized I was parroting her words that had no basis in fact. This teacher had quickly glossed over the section on homosexuality because, “In her 25 years of teaching, she had never had a gay student in her classroom.”
Sitting there with a person who had just shared his own torment in high school, I realized how my lack of awareness would have been as equally cruel to my fellow students fighting the same battles as I was, yet with the added challenge of hiding their true selves for fear of rejection and bullying.
In the short span of time that I responded to his question, I had worked all of this out in my head and was waiting to be called out for my ignorance. His response could have been rebuking, but that would have betrayed the kind person he was. Instead, he simply said, “You mean no one in your high school felt safe enough to reveal they were gay.”
That is exactly what I meant -- my indoctrination into white, cishetero privilege simply had trained me to detach from reality and paint with broad brushstrokes a narrative that erased outliers and dismissed their humanity. I wondered how many times that teacher had by-passed the importance of human biology with similar statements, and how many gay students had sat in her classroom listening to her marginalize their existence.
While blatant bullying of LGBTQIA+ teens remains a problem, these comments, which seemed innocuous to some of us, must have felt like piercing daggers to those rejected by an adult in charge of their education.
While there may have been other times that I was deconstructing from my limited worldview and preconceived beliefs, none stick out as a stronger paradigm shift for me than this casual weekday lunch with a dear friend who offered me another view of life. It truly shook me, but I now know that I was ready to be shaken -- ready to deconstruct.
I’ve heard it said that you often do not know where you are going until you are further down the path, and you can look back and see where you’ve been. That is true for me and my journey to release God from the image of my childhood into an expansive, universal Divine mystery that is ageless, formless, genderless -- and certainly not white.
As rattled as I was that day, I came face-to-face with my implicit bias. Looking back, I realize that shift had been years in the making. I pushed back on the literal interpretation of scriptures that had been used to reinforce a vengeful, angry God who roamed the earth, demanding repentance for our -- well -- everything. The indoctrination into fear-based theology is only successful when followers believe that they’ll never be worthy of God’s love. It is only through God’s grace we are “saved.”
That just never sat right with me. I could never reconcile the angry God with the Jesus I met in the same scriptures. But oh did I try, diving into volunteering, leading, serving and studying because I often believed that my questions originated from my lack of faith. This led to my being twice baptized and many outward signs of repentance in a desperate attempt to be released from this questioning mind and doubting heart.
Now I know that my questioning mind and doubting heart were pointing to my authentic self. My religious indoctrination muted outliers with the same broad brushstrokes as my educational indoctrination. Who I was meant to be had always been crying out for release from a system that forced God into a box that was too small…
and made God’s skin too white.
I no longer believe in a physical manifestation of God, nor do I believe in a God who actively works in a world to help your sports team win, assist you in finding a parking space, or cures you of cancer while leaving a child to die from the same disease. My years of study and prayer, and the humans I’ve met along the way have helped me release this version of God, replacing those beliefs with an expansiveness that has more questions than it will ever have answers.
Yet, there is something comforting in knowing that I will never fully comprehend this Divine mystery.
From here to make God white is to make God human to feed human biases.From here God….just….is.
*Thank you to the inimitable and loving light that is http://www.jeffreymarsh.com/ for this phrase that heartbreakingly captures the mind of those who bully.
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