Appalachia Needs a Reformation
Jesus wouldn’t recognize the brand of fundamentalist Christianity being practiced today in a whole lot of Appalachian churches.
Growing up, I didn’t know there was an alternative to the fundamentalist Southern Baptist Church. I spent Sundays and most Wednesday evenings inside little white churches that I would come to realize later were fully devoid of grace. I didn’t really know what grace was until I was 31 years old. I heard plenty of sermons about it growing up, I sang about it, and I developed what I thought was a working understanding of it, but I realized one day that the definition of “grace” that had been beaten into my head for most of my life was wrong.
This week marks the 500th anniversary of the beginning of the Protestant Reformation. On October 31, 1517, Martin Luther marched up to the doors of the church in Wittenburg and nailed a document to the door. That document, titled the 95 Theses, outlined Luther’s complaints against a Catholic Church that he viewed as corrupt and out of touch with the needs of its parishioners.
Though I am no Martin Luther, I think the time has come for those of us who understand the absence of grace in so many Appalachian churches to stand up and nail our complaints to the proverbial church door. Too many of our neighbors continue to suffer and be subjected to shame, humiliation, and rejection, all in the name of Christ. Knowing that, we cannot remain silent.
My own faith journey lead me at age 31 from the fundamentalist and closed-minded Southern Baptist Church to the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA). In my hometown, there are over 100 Baptist churches, but only one Lutheran congregation. Given the ever-present nature of the Baptist Church, my long family history with fundamentalist Christianity, and the small number of Lutherans in Appalachia, my conversion was unlikely at best. However, the Spirit was indeed at work in my journey from scared and shameful Baptist to boldly-sinning Lutheran.
While most fundamentalist Baptists are quick to say that God is love, the sermons spouted from their pulpits on Sunday mornings are pretty solid evidence that they don’t really believe this. Or, if they do, they believe God’s love is reserved only for a select few who adhere, usually through a combination of fear and shame, to the preferred social views and norms of church leaders. Jesus loves you, but only if you don’t drink beer, you aren’t gay, your gender matches your genitals, you don’t dance, you abstain from premarital sex, and, well, the list could go on for pages. Where’s the grace in that?
I still remember the day I left the Baptist Church. It was Easter Sunday, and the local Director of Missions (sort of the Baptist equivalent of a Bishop, though their ecclesiastical structure doesn’t recognize this title and they’d say it sounds way too Catholic) was preaching at the church where I grew up. I had recently rejoined that little church after having moved back to my hometown after a decade living away. I had been questioning my own faith for many years, and I thought that re-joining the church where I grew up might help me to finally grow some spiritual roots.
Church on Easter morning should be pretty straightforward, really. With a packed church, half of whom do not attend regularly and perhaps a quarter of whom have never darkened the doors of a church before, it would seem obvious what the message should be. However, this particular Easter morning, said the preacher, God had laid something special on his heart. He wanted to talk about alcohol and gay marriage.
He ranted and raved about the upcoming election. Our county was (finally – this was 2012, not 1921) voting on the sale of alcohol, and in North Carolina, Amendment One, which sought to prohibit same-sex marriage, was on the ballot. I was pretty pissed off that he chose Easter morning to get political, and the more I thought about it while he marched around and hollered and slung sweat, the angrier I got. Easter is about love and grace and resurrection. It isn’t about some closed-minded asshole ranting and raving about politics and disguising it as the Gospel.
I gritted my teeth as the service wound down. I walked out of that church, the church two branches of my family started two generations before I was born, and I decided that I would probably never go back. By the time I got home, my anger had transformed into heartbreak. I grieved for all the people there that morning who had never been to church and those there who hadn’t ever heard about Christ’s love. What did they get from the service? God hates booze and homosexuals. Where’s that in the Resurrection Sunday text, preacher?
Just as I had begun coming to terms with the faith that I had been questioning for the better part of a decade, I was knocked flat by a preacher spewing hate in the name of Christ. I could easily have lost my faith, and I probably should have, really. However, I decided that there must be something else, and oddly enough, I knew exactly where I’d turn to find it.
Just a few weeks before, I had met the pastor of the local Lutheran congregation. We frequented the same coffee shop, and a mutual friend introduced us. My first reaction, as a good Baptist, was to run away from this lady-pastor person, because of course, God don’t call no women to preach. However, she and I sat down for a cup of coffee, and she challenged my faith in a way I didn’t expect. I was armed for a theological argument in the way only those just finding or re-finding their faith might be. I was totally out of my league.
The first time we had a serious conversation about faith, she approached it in a way that disarmed me. Most of the pastors I had encountered in my life had one goal: conversion. For the Baptist preachers, just being Christian wasn’t good enough. You had to be a Baptist. I expected the same from this Lutheran lady-pastor. I didn’t get it. As we began talking about faith and conversions and such, I asked her what someone had to do in her faith tradition to “get saved.” What, I asked, was the minimum amount of action one had to take to become a Christian? Sinner’s prayer? Profession of faith? Baptism? Her response that day remains one of the most important moments in my own personal faith journey.
That day, Pastor Rosemary replied to my question not with an answer, but with another question. She asked me what anyone possibly could do, either through thought, word, or deed, to earn salvation. All the sudden, my Baptist vacation Bible school training kicked in, and I quoted a lot of scripture from Romans. There is none worthy, no not one, and so forth. Then my mind wandered to Ephesians. By grace through faith, and such. It hit me like a ton of bricks. There isn’t a damned thing in the world I could think or do to earn salvation. It’s a gift. Free for the taking. I’m not worthy of it, and that’s the whole point. All the words I had been spouting off my whole life were thrown right back at me, debunking what I thought I believed, and the words came right out of my own mouth.
It took only seconds for me to realize that those formulaic “sinners’ prayers” were garbage, not worth the cheap tracts on which they were printed. I realized that “asking Jesus into my heart” was an idiotic and meaningless concept invented by people who spouted “by grace, through faith,” but insisted on those seeking to become Christian – to get “saved” – utter some magic words before being declared redeemed. Jesus did the work we aren’t capable of doing. I wondered how I could have missed that all those years. It was that conversation, I suppose, that set me up to be so pissed off a few weeks later when that hateful preacher spouted ignorant political talking points, disguised as Gospel, from the pulpit of the little church I so loved.
The Sunday following Easter, I attended service at Pastor Rosemary’s congregation, Shepherd of the Hills Lutheran Church, and I knew right away I had found my place. As I continued to think and pray and read, I realized that some part of me had been Lutheran my whole life. The theology resonated with me not just emotionally but intellectually. I finally understood that faith did not have to mean a rejection of science or reason or critical thinking.
As an unmarried man, I was essentially prohibited from many forms of service at the church where I grew up. I felt called to actively serve the church in a leadership role, but only married men were allowed to become deacons. I could teach Sunday School to the youth, but I wasn’t interested in that. It isn’t my gift. At Shepherd of the Hills, they welcomed me just as I was, and they put me right to work doing what I am called to do. Incidentally, when I met Betsy, the woman who would become my wife, they welcomed her, too, though she was not a prerequisite for my serving in leadership roles. I have taught Sunday School, assisted in worship, and served on Church Council, including as President.
The amazing people at our little Lutheran church have taught me what it means to be a Christian. It isn’t about magic words or fear or shame or hell or even about heaven alone. It is about being Christ’s hands on earth. It’s about welcoming and loving everyone who comes through the door, just as they are, no matter their gender, socioeconomic status, religion, recovery status, sin history, or sexual orientation. My experiences at Shepherd of the Hills are what lead me to know, in the depths of my heart, that we must reform the Church in Appalachia.
When I decided to become a Lutheran, I began reading the works of Martin Luther. Perhaps the most meaningful part of Luther’s work, for me, is his explanation of the human condition: simul justus et peccator. Simultaneously saint and sinner. Holy shit. Those words, when I first heard them, helped me to understand the world around me for the first time in my life. (They also helped me understand, by the way, that I could follow up the remarkable words of an historic pastor and Church leader with profanity.)
That “simultaneously saint and sinner” business is at the heart of why we must reform again. For far too long, the churches in Appalachia have focused too much on the sinner part while neglecting or ignoring the saint part. In the church where I grew up, one was one or the other, not both simultaneously. We were either in the favor of the preacher and church leaders, and consequently living within the will of God, or we were backsliding sinners who needed to march down the aisle to repent in front of everyone and confess our sins.
In my church experiences prior to the Lutheran Church, we were considered truly secure in our faith only when we were appearing to adhere to all the church’s seemingly arbitrary and overly legalistic rules. Sure, most (though not all) Baptists purport to believe once-saved-always-saved, but the reality is that most will also question the salvation of individuals they deem to be living outside the church’s social and cultural norms. I know at least a half a dozen people who have lived their lives so paralyzed by the fear of sin that they have been “saved” and baptized more than once. Again, where’s the grace in that?
At the beginning of this essay, I said that I do not believe Jesus would recognize this brand of Christianity. When we begin to consider Jesus’s ministry and his philosophy, it becomes apparent that many fundamentalist churches in Appalachia have become so obsessed with Paul’s legalistic writings that they neglect the words of Christ himself.
If I were to characterize my experiences growing up in the fundamentalist Baptist Church, they would revolve around one word: fear. I remember being twelve years old and going to church three times a week. My grandfather was the preacher. He was obsessed with Revelation, and he was convinced that the world would be ending soon with the Rapture. I would come to realize as an adult that “the rapture” is an utterly bullshit story invented in the 1830s by a crackpot amateur theologian named John Darby. However, at 12, I was scared shitless that the rapture would happen and I’d be left behind. I laid awake in bed every night convinced that I was about to bust the gates of hell wide open at any minute. Even after I said the magic words and got baptized, I was still convinced that some random sin was going to jeopardize my soul.
Today, when I think about Jesus, I think not about fear but about love. I think about service, sacrifice, and kindness. The Christ I have come to know is a warrior, but we are not the targets. Evil and injustice are Christ’s targets. We are the beneficiaries. Christ’s sacrifice is not reserved only for those who say the right magic words, or only those who belong to the right church, or only those who are straight, or only those who manage to avoid craft beer and bourbon their entire lives. No, Christ’s sacrifice is for everyone. Like it or not, accept it or not, Christ died for you. Period.
In 2013, the year after I became a Lutheran, the ELCA elected Elizabeth Eaton as the church’s Presiding Bishop. Though I have never met her, words alone are not enough to express how much I appreciate her leadership of our church. Earlier this year, in an interview with the Chicago Sun-Times, Bp. Eaton said that if hell is a literal place, then it is empty. That’s the thing about the resurrection. That’s the thing that should have been made so abundantly clear on that Easter morning when I left the Baptist Church. Death has been defeated. Past tense. Christ’s love was, and IS, powerful enough and sufficient enough. Present tense. Every Christian I know will say this is true. When will we start believing it?
If we believe in a resurrected Christ, we also have to understand that Christ is at work and at large in the world today. That’s another thing I like about the ELCA. I’m normally skeptical of slogans, but the ELCA has a good one: “God’s work, our hands.” The first time I heard it, I had another “holy shit” moment. Turns out, I wasn’t the only one to be struck by this idea. In the sixteenth century, Teresa of Avila wrote:
Christ has no body but yours, No hands, no feet on earth but yours, Yours are the eyes with which he looks Compassion on this world, Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good, Yours are the hands, with which he blesses all the world. Yours are the hands, yours are the feet, Yours are the eyes, you are his body. Christ has no body now but yours, No hands, no feet on earth but yours, Yours are the eyes with which he looks compassion on this world. Christ has no body now on earth but yours.
If we are Christ’s body, what are we doing about it? The idea of being Christ’s body, I think, calls us to consider the proper role of the Church (capital “C” – as in, all Christians). What does it mean to be a Christian? Does it mean going to church every time the doors open, or does it call us to something more? So far as I know, Jesus sang zero Southern Gospel songs and attended zero covered dish dinners. Yet, that’s sort of how we “do” church in Appalachia. There’s the singing and the eating, and the fear and the shame.
Looking at Appalachian society, it is pretty clear that Jesus wouldn’t be hanging out eating fried chicken and banana pudding with the preacher and his family. The churchy among us have become modern-day Pharisees. Judging by Jesus’s actions in the Gospels, he would be at the local drug recover center working through a 12-step meeting with recovering addicts, telling them that they are not alone in their journey. He would be eating soup at the homeless shelter, comforting the hungry and chiding those of us who have plenty for not giving enough to those who have nothing. He’d be standing on the corner with the women who are selling their bodies to buy Oxycontin, telling them that they are worthy and that they are loved. He would be sitting on the bed of a nasty apartment beside an overdosing heroin addict, holding her hand as she ascends to a world where there is no more pain. He would also be a comforting presence to her children when they walk into the room to find her cold and lifeless body. He would be shivering beside freezing and hungry children in dilapidated trailers, and he would be sitting in local government meetings demanding clean water for those who have no access to it. He would be heartbroken as he watched corporate raiders destroy God’s creation in the name of greed. He would be comforting those who can’t find work, not blaming them for their plight or pledging to cut their SNAP and unemployment benefits.
In reality, we shouldn’t write about these things as hypotheticals. Christ, resurrected and at large in the world, IS in these places. Jesus is looking to the outcast, the broken, and the shamed, and seeing not sinners, but saints. We should be, too.
However, these broken people are the ones we often shame the most. We shame them when they don’t come to church, then when they do work up the courage to come, we shame them because of their sins and brokenness or because they don’t wear the right clothes or because they have too many tattoos or piercings. We scare them into submission, threatening them with hell.
We tell them that if they remain broken, it must be because they are living outside of God’s will. We tell them that if they would only love God enough, they’d be free from pain and suffering. Of course, this idea doesn’t hold water theologically, but we focus so much on legalism that we blame the victims for their own brokenness rather than realizing that our own unwillingness to reach out to them in radical love and inclusion is itself a form of sinful brokenness.
When we go back and read the Gospels again and understand the way Jesus ministered and the people to whom he ministered, we realize that loving Christ and being Christ-like isn’t about spouting hate from the pulpit. It isn’t about finding some sort of obscure scriptural justification for our own social biases, and it isn’t about controlling people with fear or uncertainty. Jesus sums up the Christian life in two commandments: love God, and love one another. When we understand that all humans, even the ones we don’t like – even the assholes – are created in the image of God, how can we continue to justify spreading fear and hatred? How can we continue to act self-righteously when we see suffering all around us? How can we be content with our covered dish dinners and special Gospel singings when right outside our doors are people who are suffering and in dire need of love? How can we proclaim to be Christ’s hands on earth when we realize that those who suffer the most often feel the most unwelcomed inside our churches?
If we are Christ’s hands on earth, we are doing a pretty terrible job of it. That’s why it is time for a new Reformation. It is time that we reach out to our neighbors not with shame but with love. It is time we start loving our neighbors who are suffering, whether they come to church or not. It’s time to get our asses out of the pews and into the parts of our communities where we dare not tread. It is time we call out the hatemongering preachers who are paralyzing the poor and the broken with fear. It’s time for an Appalachian Reformation. It’s time we become a Church that Jesus might recognize when he returns.
(Special thanks to Western Carolina University creative writing professor Pam Duncan. I wrote the poem above, "Country Church," in Pam's Introduction to Creative Writing class in 2013. I was a 32-year-old college sophomore struggling to find my place in the world while wrestling with the crisis in faith I describe in this essay. Pam empowered me to write about it even though I hadn't ever written about my emotions before. If there's anything good at all in me as a creative writer, it comes in large part from Pam's kind and gentle instruction. I am a better writer, and a better human, for having been her student. She was also kind enough to find this poem for me last week when I decided I wanted to use it for this essay but realized I had lost track of my copy.)