Don’t Throw out Compassion with the Cotton Candy

A reflection by Sarah

“Christianity isn’t supposed to be easy. If I wanted light and fluffy pseudo-Christianity, I would’ve stayed in my former denomination.” Rarely does a week pass without my hearing  this at coffee hour on Sunday. In my Christian tradition, particularly in parishes where the majority of members are converts, there’s no shortage of people who view other Christian traditions negatively. Since becoming part of this tradition, I’ve heard much from others about the deficiencies of their former denominations and very little about the positive and formative aspects of their time in those denominations. I can appreciated the stories of folks who have trouble identifying anything good about their prior Christian experiences. That’s not my story, though I do my best to take in other people’s narratives and express empathy. But I’ve noticed that when phrases like “light and fluffy pseudo-Christianity” enter the conversation, anxiety mounts within me. I become tense and have difficultly engaging further beyond, “Yes (nod)…uh-huh (nod)…that sounds like a challenging experience (furrowed brows).”

For a while, I had trouble putting my finger on what was making me so uncomfortable. Last month, it occurred to me that I have a similar response to, “True Christianity has no room for fluff” as I do to the assertion that childhood behavior problems, insufficient work ethic, and even crime would decrease if only people would “hit their children like they used to in the old days.” I hear these opinions expressed, and something inside me hurts. I also become fearful, and from that point on I have trouble imagining myself ever opening up to the other person about the difficult aspects of my own life.

But why is this? Certainly, I agree with the basic idea that Christianity is (or should be) demanding. It should be challenging. Choosing to follow Christ requires far more of us than showing up for an hour or two on Sunday and putting a few dollars into the collection basket. Growing closer to God means examining all our actions and relationships, making sacrifices that come at high costs, and giving up false beliefs that may feel very comforting. I agree with all of this. I’ve also heard my fair share of homilies that have left me feeling as hungry as I’d be after eating cotton candy for dinner — many within the context of my former Christian tradition. I’ve always come away from those disappointed and exasperated. It does me no good to go to church every week and hear only, “God loves you. You’re a good person. We all need to love ourselves more.” However, I reap no greater benefit from being smacked across the face every week with reminders about each item on my very long list of shortcomings, or my pathetic failures at resisting passions.

When Christians react against cotton candy Christianity by emphasizing rigor and the reality of sin, sometimes a danger emerges. It’s akin to taking too many vitamin supplements and avoiding all carbs in an attempt to be extra healthy. Acknowledging and repenting of sin are essential components of the Christian life, but fixating on these and forgetting about compassion also leaves us unhealthy. I’ve see this happening quite a lot in Christian communities that have rejected a steady diet of junk food in favor of, “You’ll eat what the tradition sets before you and be grateful for it.” Unkindness and coldheartedness toward the sufferings of others are far too easy to frame as “challenging them to live more fully into the tradition.” Especially if those others represent life experiences foreign to one’s own — perhaps life experiences that symbolize ideological positions one opposes — it’s less complicated to dismiss them in favor of pat answers containing the correct theological buzzwords. Cue self-righteousness and vainglory.

As I ruminate on this, I keep coming back to the possibility that all-vitamins-no-carbs Christianity is somewhat classist. (Soon, I’ll be writing a piece on LGBT celibacy and socioeconomic status. Stay tuned.) It assumes that everyone lives and has grown up living a comforted, middle class, white, suburban American lifestyle and struggles with a tendency to resist Christianity’s more rigorous demands. It assumes that if given the choice and both options were equally Christian, everyone would naturally gravitate toward parishes and traditions that serve cotton candy because it’s pleasant and requires no sacrifice…thus, the need to reinforce awareness of our failings and our need to overcome passions.

I think the primary reason that rantings against cotton candy Christianity evoke fear in me is my upbringing was very different from that of most people I’ve attended church with as an adult. There was absolutely nothing soft or comforting about the Christianity of my childhood. The majority of my home county’s population was (and still is) part of the working poor, or lower middle class at best. My parents worked their fingers to the bone for every dime my family had. I don’t want to overplay our financial state because many families had only a fraction of what we did, but I can say without hesitation that as a child my opportunities were minimal when compared to what my suburban Midwest and East Coast friends had at their fingertips from birth. It was inconceivable to think that any Christian in my home county viewed Christianity as light and fluffy: there was nothing light and fluffy about life itself. I remember that when talking with other seven-year-olds about God after Sunday school, I heard “God tells me when I’m bad” and “God tells us to give everything up” arising regularly. I can’t imagine my childhood self ever being ignorant of the reality of sin. If a local pastor or priest had offered a homily proclaiming, “God just wants us to love ourselves more,” he would’ve been laughed away from the ambo or shouted down as a heretic. It wasn’t until graduate school that I encountered cotton candy Christianity at all.

Many people who grew up like I did don’t benefit much from reminders about the rigor of true Christianity. I’ve always struggled with scrupulosity and am hard enough on myself that even the most traditional of priests often tell me I should show more compassion to me. I don’t intend to compare my sufferings with those of others, but some of my own difficult life circumstances such as sexual abuse, addiction, eating disorders, depression, and chronic illness have only added to this beat-up-on-myself tendency. My own scrupulosity coupled with my congregation’s clear rejection of fluff regularly leaves me afraid to share my whole self with other Christians. Part of this is my problem, and I hope to continue working on that with God’s help. Still, I think others bear some responsibility. When a person is already well aware of all failings within his or her first thirty years of life, offering a few quips from the Church Fathers about the passions can come off as callous. It can also leave that person feeling unwelcome, unworthy, and unloved. When fighting a particularly tough battle in life, being alone isn’t ideal…but when your brothers and sisters direct their clubs and maces toward you while insisting that it’s the enemy they’re beating, going solo can seem preferable.

“If Christianity is easy, then you’re probably not doing it right.” I heard those words from the local bishop while on a retreat during college, and I believe he was right. But I’d like to suggest that this also applies if your version of Christianity is all sin and no salvation, all fasting and no feasting, all rigor and no compassion. There’s nothing unorthodox about embracing a suffering brother or sister and assuring him or her, “I know what you’re going through is difficult, but I’ll be here for you. I’ll pray for you and help you in whatever way you need. You shouldn’t have to bear this on your own.” Speaking of God’s mercy to a person who needs comfort does not require adding the disclaimer, “but God is wrathful too.” Giving up junk and fluff does not mean filling yourself with vitamins and rejecting every food that has even one common macronutrient with cotton candy.

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