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The Wages of Sin
By Hannah Gordon
God and I aren’t speaking these days.
It’s not so much that I’m angry with him; but rather, his followers. Those who carry the Bible like a sword, ready to wield it against the unbelievers, ready to skewer them and call it redemption.
I wasn’t always like this. There was a time when I considered myself one of them—if, maybe, a peripheral member, one who believed deeply, yet didn’t see any value in forcing it on others. Saw it for what it was: aggressive, arrogant, and destructive.
I went to school—all fourteen years, pre-kindergarten until graduation—at a private, non-denominational Christian school, which is really just Evangelicalism hiding under a mask of acceptance. I write about my experience there often, both in my fiction and nonfiction, and I know I’m not quite ready to let go of what happened to me there.
I thought I was getting close. I’m not so sure anymore.
Sometime when I was in elementary school—I want to say second grade, but that seems too young (funny how, sometimes, the specifics of memory can fade, but the feeling can last forever)—my class read Pilgrim’s Progress. The story follows a man, Christian, as he travels from his hometown, the City of Destruction, to the Celestial City. Upon his back, he carries a heavy, crushing burden.
(Now that I think of it, maybe I did read this in second grade. I’m sure even my seven-year-old brain was equipped enough to understand these names, this so on-the-nose allegory.)
Christian’s burden represents his sin. While reading the story out loud with my class, I remember the lot of us chanting, ominously, “The wages of sin is death, is death.”
If Christian’s burden is sin, then my burden is Christians.
I moved to Chicago recently, and just a few nights ago I received a message on my phone. It was from a friend from school, a blast from the past, asking if I’d like to get together. She was living in Chicago, too. What were the odds?
That’s how I ended up on the Riverwalk, a sweaty glass of rosé dripping condensation onto my jeans, catching up with an old friend, someone who’d known me since we were four-years-old.
I remember our Kindergarten play. She played a cow. I played Little Bo Peep. My only line was, “Little lambs! Little lambs! Oh, there you are.”
I remember summers spent at her lake house, fingers sticky with sunscreen and marshmallows, bug bites dotting my skin like heavenly constellations.
I remember slumber parties and school formals and AP classes and county fairs. I remember it all, in shocking clarity. These memories have yet to fade.
I remember the end of our friendship. We parted ways at the same divide so many other students had: she chose God—barreled ahead, full speed—and when I faltered, she left me behind.
Over our wine, we caught up in a typical, surface way. Remarked on how we hadn’t seen each other in forever. What are you doing in Chicago? Where do you work? Where are you living? Are you seeing anybody?
God, it’s been forever, hasn’t it?
There I was, letting myself relax in her presence, the rosé and the sun setting over the river making my insides feel sparkly and light, when that old divide came back up, and suddenly I was fifteen again, watching as my friends chose God over me again and again.
Perhaps emboldened by her one glass of white wine, she asked me how I felt about our school.
“And you can be honest,” she said.
And so I was.
“I think it made me bitter,” I told her. “I think it was close-minded, toxic, and made a lot of people hate themselves.”
I thought of my best friend, who came out as gay during a Marriage and Family class, finally angry enough to admit the one thing the school would never forgive her for. I thought of the notes left in her locker after that: I’m praying for you. Praying the gay away. I thought about how her mother had to threaten to sue the school to make it all stop. I thought about all the pain there.
And so I told my long lost friend, “I think there’s a right way to approach faith and religion, and the school didn't do it right.”
She thought about this for a moment. She almost seemed to agree. I thought this would be the end of it.
I’m Catholic. Meaning, I go to church on Christmas Eve and Easter (well, sometimes), and my family is huge, Irish, and full of drinkers. Meaning, I have a Celtic cross tattooed on my neck, but I still can’t remember to say, “and with your spirit,” not, “and also with you,” during mass.
As a kid, my family went to church religiously. I enjoyed the liturgy. The flow of mass was beautiful. It felt ancient and big. It felt like the biggest thing I would ever be a part of.
To the kids at my school, though, my Catholicism made me other. Despite claiming a nondenominational approach to the Bible, it was made clear, by both my peers and my teachers, that Catholicism was not Christianity.
My memory of a student telling me I wasn’t a Christian because “Catholics worship Mary” is not fuzzy at all. It is as clear and painful as broken glass, embedded into the souls of my feet.
My long lost friend was relentless.
“Well, what do you believe?”
“Who decides what’s right and wrong?”
“Where do we get our morals from?”
I believe in people, in their goodness. I believe in loving others, in helping them, in trying my hardest to do what is right.
I decide what is right for me.
I get my morals from my family, from my studies, from my experiences with the world. Where do you get yours from?
None of these answers were good enough for her, because she was only looking for one answer—the one she believed was objectively right. And so she kept pushing and pushing. Trying to lead me from my City of Destruction to her Celestial City.
Only adding to the burden already crushing me.
I drained my glass in one gulp. Barely tasted its sweetness.
“Where do you get your fulfillment?” she asked.
Tired, annoyed—and, okay, a little tipsy—I finally caved and said, “Clearly you get yours from religion. And that’s great for you. But that’s not where I get mine. And that’s okay for me.”
In this, I was offering her the same grace I wanted so desperately—and had been wanting for a long, long time. It’s the same grace I wanted for my gay friend in high school—gentleness and acceptance and love, not in spite of who she was, but because of it.
Too tall an order, it would seem.
I am tired of Christians, and I resent this. I resent that a school has made me bitter. I resent that an old friend—practically a stranger now—could make me feel so small, all these years later, when I thought I was finally moving on.
Most of all, I am angry. I am angry that their close-mindedness has taken away something I once found so much worth in. I am angry that, in trying to ease my burden, they have only ever added to it.
I know that good Christians exist, because my husband is one of them. He is kind, he is loving, and he is so accepting. I am trying to let his goodness eradicate the pain caused by my years at that Christian school. But fourteen years is a long time. It is more than half my life.
Maybe someday I won’t feel this way anymore. Maybe I will be able to go to mass without feeling my inadequacy. Maybe I will be able to pray to God without feeling as though his followers are eavesdropping.
Until then, I will continue to believe in people. I will continue to love others. And this, too, will be enough.