As a preschooler, I didn’t know a lot about Jesus. At least I don’t remember praying, going to church, or attending any kind of community religious gathering.
His name was not particularly spoken in our house. I grew up in the cold climes of Armidale until I was about five, but shortly after this we shifted rapidly from place to place until we landed in a small town very far from anywhere with services or even a reliable source of commerically produced food. The corner shop was it for bread and out of date tins of grub, and anything more required a two hour drive and absolutely no ice-cream could be transported home (as a child this felt like a woeful deprivation – middle class much?). Fewer than 200 people lived in this place, and with rife social problems and little intervention from anyone (DOCS being particularly unresponsive) it was like living in a strangely volatile paradise of luminous space and heat-shrieking scrub.
It was here that Jesus became important to my family. My father was the instigator of our involvement in the local church community, having had a strong ‘personal relationship’ with Christ as a child and young adult. My grandmother had brought him up to that faith, though my grandfather was (and is) a staunch atheist. She managed to instil a germ of belief in him that waited for the right time.
Perhaps as partly a desire to avoid the worst of social isolation, we became regular attendees at church, and our family were socially networked with the minister’s, as well as the families of local people – mostly farmers. The predictability of a schedule that allowed for connection with other souls in this – often forgotten-feeling – place was a burden-relieving kindness we could all look forward to. It was not perfect, and in even with just a handful of us rocking up to the tiny spartan church each sunday, there was still potential for drama, gossip and social recklessness.
I have been the first to denounce the bizarre mores and repressions of growing up in this tradition, but what doesn’t get said as often are the myriad ways in which my upbringing in a matrix of belief and social action actually carved and shaped who I am in positive ways. In many ways, some of the best parts of me have been delicately breathed into life because I had, at one time, a faith and a faith community. Now a queer, poly, atheist (and there is no jamming that genie back in the bottle), I cannot conscience adopting the internal spiritual disciplines and convictions of those times, but there is more to that story that gets lost in an effort I have made to erase too much of who I was as a Christian person. Of course, from a Dawkins perspective, this is all just because of my humanity – but fuck Dawkins. I know I am not the first to say – seriously, fuck Dawkins.
The concept of kindness in Christian churches is a difficult concept because it can very easily be snagged on patronisation and power hierarchies in which one party is the bestower of kindness due to social dynamics that give them the giving duty.
Despite this, my memories of kindness as a Christian in my primary years and early teens are of having a home that was open to children in need of a safe-house when they experienced violence from family members. My parents and members of our church would welcome anyone to church who came, and families from all socio-economic backgrounds were welcome. In my later teen years I knew churches which were racially and culturally and linguistically diverse, and churches like Pitt St Uniting are latter day examples of places where diversity is not crushed, but celebrated with much excitement (even an atheist like me is welcome…and introduced to other atheist members of the congregation!)
Kindness was making up hundred of hampers of food for families experiencing hardship during drought seasons. Kindness was constant fundraising for displaced people, for children who were ill. Kindness was prayers and casseroles for people struggling. Kindness was women turning up on our doorstep with fragrant soups and stews when I had become almost the primary carer for my younger brother while my father experienced a major depressive disorder and was, along with my mother at his side, confined to a hospital far from home.
In the Irish Catholic tradition of my first husband, the concept of keeping a place at the table set for a stranger was a powerful one, and we included an empty place at our wedding. The idea that we should always be prepped for a call to help is something I like. And there is, also, the acknowledgement that we too may need help one day. We have bodies that break, and families that break, and jobs that fail, and minds that alter and flurry and flux. We need each other, and the knowing of that need and how “brokenness” was acknowledged in scripture informed action around frailty.
It was never a perfect kindness; it was, like all human actions, flawed. But it was a kindness that tried, and for these people – and me – it was a kindness motivated by their faith. There is no getting away from the fact that their belief that kindness was a central ingredient to human living was sprung from their belief in Christ. And you know what? Even now, I think I am a kinder person because of this example. I think I internalised the belief that if someone is in need, you offer what little you have – a meal, a phone call, a visit, a bed. Just the other day my husband and I spent time debating the getting of a spare bed because we felt it important to be able to exist as a safe place to stay for friends and relatives in crisis.
Giving and being responsive, despite my imperfections, are goals of how I want to be in the world. And I did not grow up a humanist, I grew up a Christian. I conclude the two are inseparable.
Communion is a time where people powerfully invoke a rite based on the last meal of Jesus with his disciples. Perhaps this meal was also the Pesach meal, and the Synoptic Gospels present it this way (though the Gospel of John contradicts that, so who knows). I choose to relate to the biblical scriptures as fairly interesting, at times violent and also beautiful literary works – I struggle to come close to conceiving them as literal revelations of the spirit of God.
During the meal Jesus gives bread and wine to his friends, his followers, knowing he will die and sharing what he can. He brings them together and his words emphasise community and the importance of giving widely. And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks, he gave to them: and they all drank of it. And he said unto them, ‘This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many.’
I still find communion a really beautiful rite. For me now communion is attending a party with friends where we share food and talk about our lives and thoughts. Kisses and touch and care are exchanged. Covenant is a word that for me is culturally reinforcing of community just as much as spiritual. Covenant is an agreement, a determination, a wish. Covenant is the phone tree. Covenant is the Mardi Gras angels who talk to the drunk kid on the curb in distress.
Who I am now – the best of me, just as much as the biggest knots I’ve had to untangle – is a verdant wood grown from culture. I am no longer ashamed. I am instead thankful for the giving I received.