In the past a practicing christian in America, was not only someone who could casually greet a stranger with a phrase like “Have a blessed day.” or , “God bless you.” when someone sneezed and not really worry about a possible reaction except “Thank You”. In many communities this is still the case, but in many others these phrases have been replaced with de-spiritualized euphemisms. These days, is easy to sit in a bar with people you have known for years and not know what religious beliefs they hold or if they hold any at all. How we carry our faith in our daily lives is something that Peter Laarman has thought a lot about. He is an openly gay reverend, recently retired director of Progressive Christians Uniting, and founder of Justice Not Jails operating out of Los Angeles,and is an fan of Mozart. He is as much a man of religion as he is everything else about him.
Our beliefs are woven into everything we do. It is a fundamental component of who we are as people and how we act in society. But when religion becomes the dominant force in a person behavior it can cause division from others. On the same token, a dormant spiritual practice is as good as calling your self a pianist, because you played piano when you were a child. Achieving this balance is a lofty undertaking in a world that is always trying to label you.
If you are a person that wears a badge, it a creates expectations and assumptions that might not always be true. If one of those badges happens to be “Christian” then those expectations can become oppressive in someways. The church can sometimes create a suppression of our individual behaviors to fit the cultural norms associated with Christianity.
To fight this some people just give up on church. They have been ostracized or denounced from the church at large or quite simply have seen how some organizations are run and turn away. They may even turn away from God hoping to seek the real fulfillment that religion is supposed to provide. So how do we navigate this?
Peter developed an understanding of his Christian identity that allowed him to see past the boundaries created by institutions and seek an unrestricted relationship with God. America and Christianity at large are so intertwined that it is hard to see one without the other. The voice we hear in media is often skewed to serve other agendas.
Reverend Laarman has had to reconcile his personal identity with his faith in a way that isn’t necessarily common for us all. But none of us fit neatly into the boxes that the culture of our religion would suggest we do. In some cases we simply do not speak of these inconsistencies, we bottle them up and try to hide them. In other cases we must face our community with what ever truth is ours to claim. “People like the protection of simplicity” explains Laarman, “but some of the threads that circulate have been edited or interpreted to suit a prescriptive position.”
According to Peter’s understanding,we can look to the Bible and Jesus for principles of behavior. These principles help us govern our lives, treatment of others, and are more relevant than the superficial prescriptions that arise from some modern American churches. If we take this on we are then able to bring our faith into the fold of our lives more holistically instead of relegating it to dogmatic customs.
How then does the christian community connect if we do not share our religion openly? The answer may lie in how Laarman is handling Justice Not Jails. The organizations mission is to create reform in the prison industry and effect policy changes that lead to mass incarcerations. It is not an overtly religious organization but they are “faith based”. When people come to rallies or meet-ups they get to work regardless of religion. When Justice Not Jails works with churches those communities are more interested in the connection between their faith and the organization and so it becomes a relevant talking point. To the point of disclosure, Peter does not hide or deny his beliefs, but understands that is is not always pertinent to the situation at hand. Laarman elaborates,” Faith is not something you put on a calling card. We should hope that you believe is implicit in the work you do.”
This is an interesting lesson here. We all believe in something, be it science, Christ,or our empirical knowledge ,and our religion serves as an orientation for those beliefs. We have the option, which Peter exercises, to enact our beliefs in our work and broader behaviors. “I try to think of my faith as more of a verb than a noun, a set of values in action.”
This means we don’t need to wear the badge of Christianity or other religions necessarily so overtly, but follow the principles we believe in such a way that they are evident in our interactions with others without the need for a label. We can see how the term “practicing” of religion has come to be. It is a daily attempt to embody your spiritual beliefs, and that is something for all of us to ascribe to regardless of the way we carry our faith.