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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20 thoughts on “Don’t Throw out Compassion with the Cotton Candy

  1. I’m always confused when people describe opportunities in a less developed, poor community as fewer. For the inventive mind, the opportunity to make less do more is a major way to jump classes eventually- if you can find the way to meet a need in a poor community with few resources, when you expand serving that same need in a rich community you will undercut the competition.

    I believe the same is true of our opportunities for evangelization. What need does a middle class wealthy community have of preaching heterosexual monogamy where it is common and supported by high income jobs?

    It’s when families are threatened on all sides by poverty and a lack of education that our real evangelism efforts can find fertile ground.

    • I’m really troubled by this comment for a lot of reasons. First, I think it’s very incorrect to say that if a person from a lower class background is inventive and imaginative enough, he or she can “jump classes.” That’s essentially saying that people who aren’t middle class or higher are at fault, or at least aren’t inventive or intelligent enough, to become middle class. No matter how creative and driven a person is, you can’t make something out of nothing. If you have lots of financial resources, you’re at more of an advantage to make choices in life. When you don’t have lots of financial resources, you do what you have to do in order to survive. With any energy you have left, you seek opportunities and pursue them with everything you have. But sometimes, what a person has is very little. Another reason this comment troubles me is its implication that “jumping classes” is desirable and preferable. There’s no shame in being poor. There’s now shame in being part of the working poor or lower middle class. Though Lindsey and I now have a combined income that’s nearly double what my parents had when I was growing up, culturally I will never be “middle class,” and I don’t want to be. I value every lesson I learned from my upbringing about what’s important in life and what it means to be hardworking. I have no desire at all to “jump classes,” and I doubt I ever will. -Sarah

      • And yet, almost every person we think of as materially successful grew up with those “reduced opportunities”, and invented opportunity where they found it. Necessity is the mother of invention, and opportunity is just exploiting need. Those in rich communities, have little to no needs; their needs are already fulfilled. It’s the poor communities where working smarter rather than harder can allow somebody to move ahead.

        • Really, now? Nearly every materially successful person? I think that’s a huge stretch. The few people who become wealthy after growing up in poverty are a very slim minority.

          • Yes, but nobody thinks that a rich person who managed to hold on to wealth that was earned by previous generations is successful. Mediocre, possibly, but not successful.

            It is the person who tries and succeeds, not the person whose lifestyle was handed to them on a silver spoon, that is the hero of capitalism.

          • Hi Theodore, I (Lindsey) am going to chime in here.

            You are falsely equating economic assets with class. Capitalism as an economic system works to describe how people acquire assets through time, where entrepreneurial activity is but one mode of acquiring these assets.

            In this post, Sarah is not interested in discussing economic assets. Sarah is discussing how differently classed communities have different experiences of Christianity. Specifically, in our current community, we know many people who have had intellectual awakenings about how their former Christian tradition “got everything wrong.” Such an assertion reeks of an entitlement that says, “If everyone only read everything that we’ve read, everyone would share our same conclusions” while simultaneously looking down on anyone else who disagrees. Classism in many regards looks entirely similar to elitism where the people who have more look down on the people who have less. In the example I just gave, the “more” is “academic study” and has nothing to do with starting a business.

          • Given that, many of the most materially wealthy of us, are of a class that did not have academic success. Bill Gates dropped out of Harvard after all.

            I find that the information age has destroyed the value of the academic community. There is nothing that any so-called “expert” knows that I can’t find with a google search at my local library.

          • Statistically (Pew Research, Moving On Up, 2013), people don’t move up the socioeconomic ladder. The people on the bottom never make it to the top. If you are close enough to the top, you have a shot at making it. However, that is because you are given opportunities which are not there for others, generally. Take Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg, for example. They both were at Ivy League schools (not known for their economic diversity). Sure, they are both very intelligent people who had some great ideas and knew people who were able to make them happen (at least Gates is, know a lot less about Zuckerberg) but they met those people in their comfortable Ivy League dorm room. The money spent on their education and invested in their ideas made things happen.
            Money is a driving force for opportunity. The rich hate to hear that but it is a demonstrable fact. If you can’t afford to live in a good school district, you have less opportunities to learn, and it is all downhill from there.
            Certainly, desire and parents who care make a huge difference, but unless there is money to make it happen, it just won’t.
            Very few people who are rich and successful actually did pull themselves up by their bootstraps. Even those who do probably in some way owe their success to a wealthy patron (scholarships, investors, etc).
            Unfortunately, this line of discussion is distracting us from Sarah’s blog. I feel compelled to comment on the content before submitting this: There definitely needs to be a balanced diet of sweet and sour in Christian sermons.

  2. Breaking up Christianity into “cotton candy Christianity” and “real Christianity” sets up a false dichotomy. Paul wrote that, as Christians, there are those who are new Christians and those who have more fully developed. He talked about those that are only ready for a “milk” message while those that are ready for the advanced “meat” message. We are called to proclaim the Word to both. As I reflect, I have to ask the question why set up another barrier between between one group of siblings and another? Our denominations have done that already. My question is that if the hardcore Christians really want to help, let them remember, and teach the spiritual “children” in the sphere of their influenc,
    so that we all advance toward perfection in the Spirit.

    • What I’m talking about here isn’t milk vs. meat. I’m talking about churches that emphasize God’s love to the point of leaving out the reality of sin, and vice versa. I doubt that even people who prefer cotton candy or all-vitamins-no-carbs messages would contest the point about milk and meat. -Sarah

  3. What a great topic to open up.  From my perspective, there is a particular strain of chosen sacrifice out there that can become an end unto itself and foster a reassuring elitism — a certain comfort in privation.  And that’s all manageable when it’s something one has the luxury of controlling.  I don’t think you exaggerate when you liken it to extreme food/nutrition choices, with the operative word being choices.  The same can apply to taking care of one’s health (don’t even get me started on the privilege of exercise cults).  I am interested to see where you go with the class/LGBT celibacy idea.

    • That is a very good point.

      Quite some time ago, an ex priest who left the clergy to get married, and who grew up in Ireland in the middle of the last century *before* the green tiger got out of its cage, told me that poverty is only a blessed situation when it is voluntary.

      I only partially believe him, because I think the Information Age is beginning to change that. For $300 in the third world, a smart and literate man can now transform his whole neighborhood culture. And many are. As one conservative commentator said recently, Library Cards are Free. But first you have to WANT to learn.

      I’ve got my own ideas on LGBT and class (especially on toleration and class) so I’m also eager to see where Sarah/Lindsay go with that.

    • I’ll be writing that one in a couple of weeks, and I’ll be interested to see your thoughts on the topic. :). -Sarah

  4. I was raised in a Unitarian Universalist tradition. We were so liberal all the hymns changed words like mankind to humankind and brothers to sisters, so as to avoid sexism.

    *pausing for laughs*

    Yes, yes. Laugh at the cotton candy Christians, right? But one of the earliest services I remember from my childhood was a play put on by the children- all older than me, so I must have been only 3 or 4- about the Civil Rights Movement and the UUs role in it. Our minister was proud to say that he had marched with MLK and had been beaten and arrested in Civil Rights era protests.

    I mention it because, although there is clearly a huge cultural divide within the Christian faith, I don’t believe that the stereotypes each side has of the other tend to be that accurate. I was brought up in a very demanding moral code, one which proclaimed that evil was very real and could be found within each one of us, and that to spend ones life doing anything other than opposing that evil was weak, lazy, and selfish. The evils I was taught to recognize, in myself and in society, were things like racism, sexism, and economic injustice- but this was no lax, easygoing, casual belief system that demanded nothing and offered ease and comfort.

    Some who read this might be tempted to dismiss the evils I was taught about as silly or nonexistent. But to do so will miss my point entirely, because I was taught to do the same thing with traditional beliefs! I was taught to see the values of those “other” people of faith as silly, irrelevant, wrongheaded (and as often as not contributing to the “real” problems). I think that in many ways we miss most of the meat of one another’s belief systems by taking their most central beliefs, dismissing them as silly and wrong, and assuming that this means that believers in other traditions are somehow less serious, less committed, or less sincere than we are.

    • You make great points here. When I think of cotton candy Christianity, I don’t think of specific denominations or traditions. I think about specific faith communities where the realities of evil and sin aren’t addressed at all. I have no doubt that there are kids who grow up in very liberal Christianity and also have a great awareness of these things. I also have no doubt that there are kids who grow up in conservative denominations who are fully aware that God is loving. My point in this reflection was not to degrade anyone’s denomination, but to say that messages at both extremes can be harmful if the faith community only hears such messages without any reference to the other aspects of Christian faith. -Sarah

      • I completely agree with you there- that there are particular faith communities which don’t really deal in things like sin or evil, and that a religion which promises everything and asks nothing misses the point badly. But, I do think that there’s an assumption out there, by some people, that very liberal denominations are unserious and full of hippies who go around giving each other back rubs, without realizing that many of us who grew up in very liberal traditions were given an extremely strong moral message. It just so happens that the messages I got had very little overlap with the strong moral messages that conservative kids grow up with, but they were still very strong and focused on things like self-sacrifice and each person’s responsibility to do good in the world. (Which isn’t to say I think my upbringing got everything right- I was barely taught about prayer at all, for instance, which is one of several reasons why I’m no longer a UU).

        • Such assumptions about the sum total of particular traditions have always frustrated me. Parishes would be stronger if we could learn from each other’s strengths and weaknesses. When I’ve been in parishes where most people are very conservative, I’ve found myself appalled at the lack of concern about poverty, racism, etc. And when I’ve been in parishes where most people hold liberal views, I’ve been equally appalled when folks have laughed at me for valuing traditional prayers and devotions. -Sarah

          • People at my liberal parish often laugh at my attempt to tie poverty, racism, war, the death penalty, euthanasia, procreation and abortion into one seamless garment of life from conception until natural death. Oddly enough, my reading this blog is part of my attempt to understand why the blind spots on both sides exist.

          • Not to open a huuuge can of worms, but the inconsistencies in the way our “liberal” and “conservative” views break down have always irked me.

            Although I’m pro-choice in the current system, if we had a political side which supported women and children throughout their lives, supporting things like excellence in the educational system regardless of class or geography, providing for women and children’s health, supplying daycare or making it affordable for working women of all classes, etc, then I’d be fully with that side even if it opposed legal abortion.

            I think a great many abortions could be prevented by improving the circumstances of poor mothers, and the rights of the remaining women to terminate their pregnancies don’t strike me as so overwhelmingly important, weighed against the potential human lives their fetuses represent, that I would feel the need to continue to support those rights in a political climate which was kinder to poor women and children.

          • I can agree with that as far as it goes. I’m 100% pro-life, but one mistake the pro-choice side has made is failing to respect conscience protection for doctors and the simple duty of triage in the emergency room. I do not want to see the pro-life side making exactly the same mistake- and I have seen a few in the personhood movement oppose triage rights for doctors.

            Beyond that, I see it as being pro-life to provide simple justice in first and second Maslow needs; this is demanded by any religion that understands the concept of Imago Dei. Those who are against simple economic justice that supports the right to life, I have a hard time believing they are pro-life.

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