The ten year anniversary of Ballard megachurch, Mars Hill, was honored this fall with a piece in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer about its growing regional influence. The article set off an on-line flurry, with defenders pointing out the transformed lives of some church members, while detractors railed about sexism and bigotry. The debaters told two sides of the same story, but was anyone listening to both?
Religious passion has tremendous power to inspire good and evil, and Mars Hill Church inspires both. In my own experience as an ex-evangelical, (and my own contacts with Mars Hill) accusations and defenses that have been articulated by witnesses on one side or the other are very real—with one exception:
If outsiders were listening, what they would hear is that on the inside, it doesn’t feel hateful. The accusations of hate and bigotry simply don’t ring true. When a dogma takes hold of you and shapes your moral priorities, you can do all kinds of things, good or evil, and they can come from a place of love. Encouraging women to pump out "quivers full" of babies, telling gays and Jews they are going to hell, dismissing the moral wisdom of non-believers – these are minor compared to other things that have been done in service to the God of Love.
Long ago Spanish Conquistadors baptized native infants and then ran them through with swords. As extreme as this sounds to us today, they may have been feeling pained benevolence, born of certainty that they had no choice when dealing with people they viewed as ‘savages’. The young men who drove planes into the Twin Towers may very well have acted out of love—love of God and love of their fellow Muslims. When we see ourselves as servants of a higher good, and when we pair that attitude of service with certitude, we become capable of the selflessness of Mother Teresa or the horrors of the Inquisition.
If we are listening, the Mars Hill members are telling us quite honestly what it feels like to be a fundamentalist. Ex-Moonies, Ex-Scientologists, Ex-Pentecostals, and even garden variety ex-Evangelicals have written about this with thoughtful and sometimes painful candor on FactNet and other websites for "walkaways." It feels beautiful. It feels like the real deal. It feels like being part of a loving community with a higher calling–because, in fact, it is.
Religion scholar Huston Smith says that the world’s great wisdom traditions converge on three virtues: veracity, charity, and humility. Veracity means truth telling and truth seeking, including honest appraisal of our own biases and limitations. Charity means love—valuing the pain and delight of others as you value your own. Humility means seeing yourself as just one among many— recognizing both the limits of your own discernment and the value of theirs.
These three virtues provide a good metric to assess an institution like Mars Hill. Where the teachings of religious institutions are in keeping with these three virtues, their leadership inspires acts of generosity and compassion. When these three are violated, leaders and followers in any religion are at risk to do harm to those around them and to inspire not gratitude or respect but hostility born of fear.
We should not be surprised that when fundamentalism came to urban Seattle it came wearing hip clothes, playing rock music, and tossing Frisbees. How could it succeed any other way? We also should not be surprised that it evidences some of the very same beauty of spirit that characterizes our region so broadly.
Whether they are Christian, Jew, Muslim, or none of these, fundamentalists are our brothers and sisters. Rather than reacting to them with fear or contempt, we need to hold them accountable to their own highest values: to transcend the arrogance of the modern day Pharisee, to refuse to settle for archaic half-truths, to bind their love to the humility that would allow it to become genuinely unconditional.
Valerie Tarico, Ph.D. is a psychologist in Seattle, Washington. She is the author of The Dark Side: How evangelical teachings corrupt love and truth.
–Op Ed 10/26/06