Not Quite a Perfect Fit

[Prism, September-October, 1994]

It was November 1988, election day, and my husband was miserable. He’d been a Democrat, or further left, forever: in 1964, when his precinct went 12 to 1 for Goldwater, Gary was county chair of Teens for Johnson. He participated in teach-ins, marches, and rallies, and worked two simultaneous jobs in the old War on Poverty. We first met at a steelworkers’ strike, and were married in the woods, flowers in my hair and a vegetarian spread on the reception table.

But over the years, as our commitment to the Lord Jesus Christ had grown, we had become increasingly persuaded that abortion was wrong. We had opposed so many forms of violence and injustice; eventually we had to admit that, no matter how difficult pregnancy made a woman’s life, dismembering her child was a violent and unjust solution. The realization that 4500 children were dying every day forced this issue to the top of our list. No other social evil had such a bloody toll.

November 1988, Dukakis and Bush. Gary knew what he had to do: vote Republican for the first time. He was not happy. He walked down to the polling site at the elementary school, taking our 7-year-old along.

When Gary returned he had a resolute, dignified air, as if honor had been snatched at the last moment from the flames. Holding up his palms, he said to me, “These hands are still unsullied.” In the polling booth he had lifted up our son and said, “You see that lever there, next to the word that starts with ‘B’?”

Many of us find ourselves in similar dilemmas. In the present combative political/social/moral climate, we are nearly forced to offer our hands to be stamped conservative or liberal, Republican or Democrat, right or left. I am not free to choose other categories, declaring myself a member of the Noble Order of People under 5’4“, or of West Baltimore Contra Mundi. Society has decreed from which labels we may choose, just as earler eras grouped people according to genealogical splendor or brute physical strength.

This ancient rub between individual identity and group affiliation goes back to our childhoods; perhaps the last time we felt it so acutely was in the identity-crisis days of adolescence. We wanted to be unique, and we wanted to be in the in crowd. When I was about 13 years old, I wrote a poem with the refrain, ”Who am I?“ Wait, come back, I promise not to quote it. But I do find myself thinking of it—sometimes in amusement and sometimes in dejection—more frequently all the time.

The problem, then as now of course, is not really ”Who am I?“ but ”Where do I fit?“ All our lives we shuttle between the need to assert our irreproducible uniqueness and the need to find shelter in company of others. The world is too vast and chaotic to face alone; we would be swept away, voiceless, in the flood. But to which group do I belong? Which speaks for me?

I wish that the answer to ”Who am I?“ was as easy as saying, ”A Christian.“ Unfortunately, this answer is too brief; in the present cultural conflicts, ”Christians“ appear on all sides. Sociologist James Hunter, who coined the term ”culture war,“ identified the sides as either ”orthodox“ or ”progressive.“ People sort themselves, he said, not according to race, class, age, or education; they group according to whether or not they believe in an ”external, definable, and transcendent authority.“ Some who are not Christian—devout Jews, for example—will join the orthodox side; some who call themselves Christian will join the progressivists, as Hunter says, ”resymboliz[ing] historic faiths according to prevailing assumptions of contemporary life.“

My first painful discovery was that not everyone who calls herself ”Christian“ was my ally. The mainline Protestant denomination in which my husband pastored for 15 years came gradually to feel alien—as if each day the walls of our living room were subtly changing from blue to yellow. Our co-religionists were all using the same words we did—the Gospel, the Cross, salvation—but meant different things. We did not share a faith; we shared only common words about the faith. Philosophical nominalism, smiling and hollow, is a false unity, and to label it ”diversity“ is to mask over honest, painful division.

I felt a final break when, at the church’s national convention, the delegates considered a resolution to instruct clergy to refrain from sex outside marriage. As I heard one voice after another vote ”nay,“ as the final count showed the resolution fail, I thought, ”This isn’t a church any more. It may be some kind of weird social club, but it’s not a church, because it has no intention of following its Lord.“

Note that it was not the embracing of sexual sin that disturbed me as much as the attitude that enabled that action: a willingness to reject Jesus’s authority. As Hunter would say, it mattered to me that God be acknowleged as an ”external, definable, and transcendent authority.“ I had become orthodox, and shortly therafter capitalized the term when my family left our Protestant home and was chrismated into the Eastern Orthodox Church.

Like a kaleidescope, my home-group shifted. Now I had more in common with non-denominational Christians and Protestant Evangelicals than I did with the highly-liturgical denomination I had just left. But even within Evangelicalism I felt hints of the previous tension. Browsing through a Christian bookstore, listening to Christian radio, I heard elements as me-focused and self-pampering as any Christian progressive. The only difference was that Consumer Evangelicalism was cuddly-sweet and giggly, while Religious Progressivism was sour, pouty, and aggrieved. Neither seemed to know the wild drama of lostness and salvation; neither grasped the hideous depth of sin and the corresponding height of Cross-won forgiveness and new life. In another odd connection, I realized that Eastern Orthodoxy’s constant emphasis on repentance found its nearest American cousin in an earlier generation of vivid Evangelical preaching—not the present cupcake variety.

Joining the pro-life camp chafed in other areas as well. A woman who works the political field assured me that a candidate was trustworthy: ”She’s on our side about abortion, school vouchers, the gays, and gun control.“ It’s the marriage of abortion and guns that confuses me most. A friend told me of being at a meeting where a man proclaimed, ”Pro-life means pro-gun!“ This would be a delicious absurdity, if it weren’t scary real life.

There is a willingness to link the pro-life cause with bellicosity, even with entertainment violence, that still perplexes me. I once attended a screening of a new pro-life film, one which used the talents of devout, pro-life football players. God bless them for their commitment, sincerity, and gift of time to this project—but the contrast was just too much. We saw footage of the big hulks hurtling down the field, trampling their enemies, footage of the coach barking orders to kill, voice-overs of commentators recounting how brutal and ruthless these guys are. Then cut to one of the big guys, scrubbed for Sunday best, sitting in a fabric-draped soundstage with his stylish wife and holding in his ham-sized hands a lacy pink baby. His gruff and meltingly sincere voice is telling us how much he loves the unborn and is dedicated to the sanctity of life. I couldn’t help it; I started to giggle.

This illustrates another source of discomfort, which I may frankly confess as snobbery. Our opponents are the cultivated elite, and our allies are the common people, God’s favorites, who lack porcelain-teacup tastes. I once attended a conference with a strikingly beautiful young woman, P.R. director for a large pro-life concern. As we entered the assembly hall for the evening’s entertainment we heard a woman singing pop-Christian tunes in a big Broadway voice. My companion said, ”Times like this I wish I could sit with the media—it seems like I have more in common with them.“ I knew what she was feeling—embarassment at the bathos (for all its guileless sincerity), a need to ridicule it, to roll our eyes and show the in-crowd that we’re hip too.

To my chagrin, the singer moved into a baby-talk version of Disney’s ”I Want to Be Where the People Are,“ inviting us to imagine it sung by an unborn child. My friend placed her briefcase on her chair and began rummaging through, her cheeks burning red. The singer then asked us to join hands and sing along. At the end of our row two middle-aged men awkwardly joined hands and reached out toward my friend. This was not the kind of crowd where two men want to be standing around long holding hands. My friend sped up her furious paper-rustling; if she could have climbed in and closed the lid behind her, she would have done so. Mercifully, the song ended and we were released from our agony.

The joke’s on me, of course; the gap between refined and common taste, which looms to me, is an absurdity to God. My previous denomination had buckets of taste, but was fast running out of obedience, and obedience, even decked with black-velvet paintings, is the irreplaceable necessity.

A more serious problem emerged for me during the Gulf War. I had not thought much about pacifism for a decade or more, until the day I saw one of the Schwartzkopf press conferences celebrating the smart bomb. We saw the grainy footage as the device honed in behind an open jeep, puttering alone in the vast desert. ”Just about this time, he’s looking in his rear-view mirror,“ our Willard Scott of the airwar chuckled. The jeep exploded in a cloud of rolling smoke, and Schwartzkopf’s audience chuckled, too, with deep satisfaction.

I thought: this is like abortion. The pregnancy vanishes; we pretend it isn’t little limbs and a broken skull being fed down the garbage disposal. The jeep vanishes; we pretend it isn’t a teenaged boy, frightened and bewildered, whose limbs have been blackened and melted into the vinyl seats.

While many of my pro-life allies were enjoying the war as much as they would a good football game—good in the sense that a game between the Washington Redskins and an inner-city high school would be good, if you were on the Redskins’ side—I was becoming increasingly alert to the rhetoric that glorified noble war. I had laughed with recognition when I first heard the adage that a neo-conservative is a liberal with a teenaged daughter. Now I began to wonder if a neo-pacifist was a conservative with a teenaged son. I would soon have three teenagers, and felt the same sort of alertness to danger. I didn’t want the world to seduce my daughter with deadly sexual lies; I didn’t want it to seduce my sons with glamorized tales of killing.

Is it good to die for your country? It is good to die for your faith or even your family, and our nation may be our extended family (though I am not sure we are obliged to die for a corrupt nation, simply because it claims our formal membership. Alasdair MacIntyre likens this to ”being asked to die for the telephone company.“)

It may be right to die, but it is never right to kill. Christians are called to be something different in the world, a new thing the wearied, bloodied globe had never seen: people who love their enemies. When we twist hot metal around the body of a boy in a jeep, we are not showing him love.

I learned to keep my mouth shut about this in pro-life circles. I would unfailingly be told that refraining from killing was impractical; people would explain to me that of course Jesus didn’t mean it literally. (What else did he not mean literally? Was he just kidding about sexual morality, too? This genre of Biblical interpretation reminded me uneasily of the bland, self-serving liberals in my previous denomination.) I was told that principled non-violence was self-indulgent, impractical, and fell short of the noble heights of courage that only war can call forth. The reasoning seemed to be that it took more courage to stand before your enemy holding a gun than it took to stand there empty-handed.

I also learned to leave unstated my beliefs on the death penalty; people would heatedly recount ugly crimes and ask me to acknowlege the family’s right to vengeance. This made me wonder if they had been reading a condensed Bible. I kept thinking about God’s mercy to me, a sinner, and how he spins out the thread of a life, alone deciding how long his patience will wait on repentance. How could we dare cut it short?

On other issues the fit was better. I have never encountered a pro-life activist who is a racist, although I have had pro-choice people insist to me that we’d better fund abortion or we’ll be overrun with welfare babies. Inner-city violence can be eliminated by a little judicious intra-uterine violence now. One high-toned lady in our previous parish complained that professional women were having the procedure, but poor women weren’t. ”The people that shouldn’t have abortions do, and the ones who should don’t,“ was how she put it.

The gay issue was a little trickier. Liberal members of my old denomination had decided that gay relations were acceptable, as long as they were loving and monogamous. This is a vague standard, of course, begging questions about serial monogamy and what constitutes love. But most problematic was the familiar willingness to displace the ”external, definable, and transcendent authority“ of our Lord in Scripture and explain to contemporary ears what he really meant to say. This is a risky game, particularly in light of the warning that the sexually impure (along with thieves, adulterers, and drunkards) will not inherit the Kingdom of God. A great deal is at stake, and if we mislead people by whitewashing sin their blood will be on our hands.

My pro-life colleagues were allied against the gay rights agenda. Interest in the issue is justified because, after all, there isn’t a Drunkards’ League or a Thieves’ Alliance seeking acceptance for their behavior; as one conservative points out, ”We didn’t start this fight.“ But sometimes it seemed as if my friends were not powered by an impulse to call people to holiness with love, but by a revulsion for the things gay men did in bed. ”Homophobia“ is the wrong word—it wasn’t fear—but it was disgust and sworn enmity, something short of pleading love.

We were just, indeed compassionate in light of the consequences, to call gays to seek healing and a transformation to heterosexual orientation, or else life-long celibacy. But we were not as willing to apply the same standards to ourselves. While there are a couple of situations in which Scripture permits divorce, remarriage after divorce is never allowed. Jesus calls it adultery (and adulterers are told they’ll be left outside the kingdom along with the gays). If we’re going to call gays to life-long celibacy, don’t we need to hold divorced people to the same standard? But when I’d say this, people were always shocked. It’s different for heterosexuals, they’d explain—celibacy would be too hard for them. Here’s what Jesus really meant…

I hasten to add that I belong to a Church which sometimes allows remarriage, and I honor the Church’s authority to interpret scripture and allow exceptions. But I never have figured out on what basis sola scriptura Evangelicals wink at remarriage, while insisting homosexuals walk the line. I’d hate to think that some of my dearest Evangelical friends will be turned away on Judgement Day as adulterers, fully hearing only too late the warning, ”such shall not inherit!“

It is still hard to know just where I fit. The pro-life issue remains top priority, as it is the only one where 4500 children are dying every day. I feel more at home with the type of Christians I meet there, who honor Jesus as Lord and his word revealed in Scripture. But I don’t quite blend in.

I recall the opinionated old nun who insisted on being buried in a plain pine box. Eventually the funeral home came up with the shipping crate for an elegant but damaged casket. Her friends waiting at the hilltop cemetery saw the procession come up the incline bearing a bulky, rough-hewn box, stencilled on top with a single word: ”Irregular.“

We sometimes talk about ”putting people in boxes.“ I guess I don’t mind—as long as mine can be stamped ”Irregular."

About Frederica Mathewes-Green

Frederica Mathewes-Green is a wide-ranging author who has published 10 books and 800 essays, in such diverse publications as the Washington Post, Christianity Today, Smithsonian, and the Wall Street Journal. She has been a regular commentator for National Public Radio (NPR), a columnist for the Religion News Service,, and Christianity Today, and a podcaster for Ancient Faith Radio. (She was also a consultant for Veggie Tales.) She has published 10 books, and has appeared as a speaker over 600 times, at places like Yale, Harvard, Princeton, Wellesley, Cornell, Calvin, Baylor, and Westmont, and received a Doctor of Letters (honorary) from King University. She has been interviewed over 700 times, on venues like PrimeTime Live, the 700 Club, NPR, PBS, Time, Newsweek, and the New York Times. She lives with her husband, the Rev. Gregory Mathewes-Green, in Johnson City, TN. Their three children are grown and married, and they have fourteen grandchildren.

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