In January of 2010, I got lost in New York City trying to get from New Jersey’s Newark airport to LaGuardia. I ended up first on the subway and then on a bus, trying hard to keep my luggage out of the way of native New Yorkers who mumbled under their breath about tourists. Just before I reached the airport, I found myself exhausted, sitting in a bus seat with my bag on my lap. A man a couple of years older than me was standing next to me, and helped me with my bags when I had to move to let someone in to the window seat.
As I sat back down and settled into place, the man asked me where I was headed. “Dallas, eventually, if I can get to the airport,” I replied cordially, glad for someone actually being nice to me.
“Oh cool cool! That’s a nice ring. Any special meaning?” he said, pointing to the purity ring on the ring finger of my right hand.
“oh, thanks! It’s, uh…” I paused, not sure if I wanted to explain to this complete stranger why I was wearing a ring that was supposed to signal no sex before marriage but that my views were shifting and I just wore it out of habit now. “It’s a promise ring.”
“Well, he’s a lucky guy,” the man concluded and we both went back to silence. I got off a couple of stops later and made my flight (thankfully).
I’ve puzzled over this conversation a few times in the years since. To my evangelical trained ears, “promise ring” has an entirely different meaning than how he took it. The promise in evangelical culture is different from a promise in “the world.” Words simply don’t mean the same things when you grow up in a conservative Christian environment, and they’ll trip you up at the most unexpected times. Little things that are perfectly normal to you in evangelical land are suddenly thrown into stark relief when you step outside that world.
Evangelicals, in an attempt to poke fun at their own insularity, often make jokes about “Christianese” – these little shifts in language, a form of religious code-switching that signals who belongs and who doesn’t. Going to a public school, I learned quickly what concepts from my Christian world would end up with my friends going, “Okayyyyy” and changing the conversation.
But I was never particularly adept at making the shifts. Just before I started college, I had a spiritual encounter that convinced me that God wanted me to switch my major. Instead of double-majoring in Communications and Political Science, I decided to major in theology and minor in English. When a friend asked me why I’d switched, “God told me to” got one of those “Okayyyy” reactions.
I operated within a world that most people didn’t get. And for years, I saw their occasional mockery, confusion, and desire not to listen to me babble on in what amounted to a different language as a form of persecution. “This is what Jesus meant when he said you would be mocked and persecuted for me!” I told myself as I made no effort to become like the Greeks, Jews or Gentiles as Paul proclaimed.
I’m sitting here writing this in the middle of a coffee shop in my hometown, where instead of asking what you believe, people wonder what church you go to. I can hear no less than three Bible studies going on at this time, and I wouldn’t be surprised if someone started praying. Despite having their own religious vernacular and ideas, evangelicals in America maintain a position of privilege wherein they expect people to adapt to them, rather than adapting to their audience. Christian imagery and evangelical concepts pervade culture to the point where we talk about “Christ figures” in movies that aren’t exclusively Christian art. We discuss heaven and hell and the vast majority of our artistic and historical roots are in religious iconography and images.
America, especially Middle America, caters itself, in many ways, to the white evangelical Christian. But yet, evangelicals have this strange idea that they are persecuted because they are mocked for a refusal to adapt to the very world in which they live.
There is certain arrogance in an approach to the world that demands people understand you while you make zero effort to understand them. When I was deepest into the evangelical world, when I would have told you I was “incredibly close to God and walking with Him every day,” I don’t think I could have named one atheist in my life. I had maybe one black friend, no gender or sexual minorities as friends, and most of the people I knew looked and thought like me.
I would have told you that my God was going to change the world – but I didn’t even know the world God was going to change. Everything looked, sounded, and thought just like me, and that was how the world should be, naturally. People who didn’t get it were worthy of pity and grace and mercy, not wrath. After all, their mockery and disgust with my behavior was just persecuting me for my awesome relationship with Jesus! I was a friend of God! He called me friend! I was in fellowship with fellow Christians and they edified me and I edified them and this was totally how it was supposed to be. Us Against the World, right?
I’d like to chalk up the attitude of Past Me to the naiveté of youth – were it not for the fact that I see this same viewpoint repeated and replicated throughout the insular evangelical world. People my parents’ age are repeating the same lie of American Christian persecution that I bought into when I was younger. Christians in America are blind to their own arrogance in assuming that molding the world to look just like them is evangelism, that conversion to Christianity means conversion to conservative politics, that “Christian” as a label means white, cisgender, neurotypical, able-bodied and straight.
American Christians aren’t being persecuted. It takes profound arrogance to cast an unwillingness to work with people who are different from us as persecution.
In translation: the Lord laid it on my heart today, to lift you up in the power of missional prayer, that you may listen to the Spirit when She’s asking you to Shut. The Hell. Up. And learn to listen to people who don't look, talk, or think like you.