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Travelling along the highway is a funny thing. At its best, the road can be a place for self-discovery and dreaming. As the black tar and white lines replay over and over before you it is easy to get lost in thought. I think about that guy I never had the guts to talk to this past year at school, the paper I should have written, or the club I should have joined. I think about my Grandma and wonder what she thinks of it all.
Sometimes the motion of the road breeds joy; sometimes it brings pain and bad memories. But no matter what, it simply goes on and on until you reach your destination. The road spares all judgment and allows us the freedom to be human: It gives us space to make our own choices.
Occasionally, the self-reflection is snapped without warning by the harsh hand of a startling billboard or sign. Signs along our highways in America, especially in the South, can sometimes be provocative or rude or even hateful.
I saw one such sign traveling through Louisiana the other day on the way to New Orleans to open for Allen Stone on his Radius tour. The sign stated in bold letters: “Go to church or the Devil will get you.”
Such a message outrages and saddens me. Not because I don’t believe or value the Church, but rather because I do. It outrages me because no message could be farther from what Jesus actually taught in his life on earth. It saddens me, because this sign is only one stone in a heap of others promoting bigotry, hatred, and arrogance within modern Christianity.
As a Christian, I have two things to say to the Church at large. My first statement is very simple: Stop. Please stop it. Stop the arguing, fighting, and anger. Stop what you are doing and rethink what you are called to believe. Throughout history and into modern times, those who claim to be Christian have far too often hurt so many people both outside and inside its walls—this pain and enmity is directly counter to the true mission of the Church.
Secondly, we need to go back and read what Jesus actually said and did. Jesus did not exhort his followers to hate and condemn others; instead, Jesus preached a message of love. Jesus never told anyone to go to church to avert the flames of hell. In his sermons, Jesus spoke no threats, but only words of love, especially to those who are downtrodden, struggling, and suffering. For his supposed followers to put out a statement such as the one I saw on the road is utterly contrary to anything Jesus would have said or done. Not only is it inconsistent from a historical perspective and untrue from a theological standpoint, it is deeply offensive to the human spirit.
If the creator of that billboard had meant, “Go to church and only then will you be perfect and God will love you and give you a good life”, I must entirely and passionately disagree. I’ve been going to Church my whole life and I’m certainly not perfect. In fact, going to Church has only shown me how much more I still need to grow as a human, how much more I should love others, how flawed I really am. And it didn’t suddenly make me a good person, but it did provide me with a loving community where I could expose my true self and grow. That is what Jesus intended for the Church.
And if the creator of that billboard wanted to condemn all sinners, I must still disagree, for Jesus always welcomed and loved those who were viewed as sinners. Prostitutes, tax collectors, liars, cheaters, and gluttons—in short, people like me. According to the Gospels, he associated himself so much with these people that he was viewed as a drunkard and a glutton. From my reading of the Gospels, this fallen community of people was the Church.
The only people Jesus ever called out or spoke aggressively to were the religious elite of his day; he called them a “brood of vipers” because they were condemning, hateful, and exclusive to those they deemed sinners. In a modern context, the only people who mirror these Pharisees are those who share the same mindset as the creators of these hurtful billboards. They find pride in their religiosity, and feel the need to strictly enforce it and all its rules upon others. From what we can see of Jesus’ life and message, this is not at all how he would have wanted the leaders of his Church to conduct themselves.
To be fair, I think this billboard represents a very small, albeit loud, voice within Christendom. And too often, the volume of these outrageous people and their outrageous beliefs are drowning out the good in the modern Church.
But there is hope. This past Sunday, I stumbled upon a church, called “The Little Church by the Sea.” It was quietly tucked behind a Hindu temple on Legion Street in a Southern Californian town. The pastor said something remarkably refreshing as he addressed the recent Supreme Court decision: “When we come here and share in the table of love, the world will see and want some.”
His words struck a chord in me. Because no matter how hard we try to deny it, the human heart is aquiver with the hope of finding real love. And so the Church, which is supposed to proclaim a message of love from Jesus, should never feel the need to impose churchgoing, or force Christianity on anyone. It should just love. And those who feel drawn towards it will come.
When love, as described and exhibited by Jesus, is the reality and focus of the modern Church, the hate-filled billboards will be no longer be noticed along the road.
Brynn A. Elliott ’18 is a Crimson editorial writer living in Currier House.
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