The other day I was walking through the mall dressed in my “official” clerical garb. While I was at the kiosk for the cell phone people, another customer was treating me with a noticeable deference and even with good humor. As I walked out of the mall, I saw a group of young people. One of them made eye contact with me but it was not a friendly connection.
His t-shirt had a red circle and slash over a cross under the caption “no bad religion.” I wanted to stop and ask about the shirt. After all, if I am going to wear the symbol of the churches ordained ministry in public, I had better be able to take the brickbats as well as the bouquets.
My hunch is that if the two of us could compare our lists of what constituted “bad religion,” they’d be more alike than different. My list would start with violence and persecution perpetrated in God’s name. I would also add the many examples of hatred that some justify on religious grounds. I also think that “bad religion” is religion that is uncritical or reactive or which puts institutional life ahead of people’s well-being. Bad religion pits science and faith against one another as if they are enemies. Religion that doesn’t drive us to leave a world better than how we found it is to me “bad religion.” But we did not have that conversation. As a public representative of an old religious tradition, I have to say that I did not do a good job asking the question because all he would say to me is “no bad religion, man!” Whatever.
I’ll bet that the reason the young man refused to engage me was the same reason that the guy at the kiosk was so nice. They both made certain assumptions about me, what I believed, and what I represent based on the total package they saw: a fifty-ish white guy wearing a clerical collar. It’s not a uniform, it’s a projection screen.
But it’s not just religious professional in funny clothes who get misunderstood. I think that the very idea of having religious faith can lead to misunderstanding. Take Mary Magdalene for example. Many churches recently celebrated her feast day. Mary of Magdala is perhaps the patron saint of projection and misunderstanding!
Depending on what books you read or films you see, Mary Magdalene was a person healed by Jesus, a prostitute who may or may not have repented, who may or may not have washed Jesus’ feet with her hair, and who may have been Jesus’ friend, companion, disciple, successor, lover, wife or mother of his children. Next to Jesus himself, it is hard to imagine a person on whom we have directed so many of our dreams, fears, hopes and hurts.
The only thing we know for sure is that she was a follower of Jesus, she was healed of some infirmity by him, and that she was one of the women who witnessed his crucifixion and knew where he was buried. We know from the Gospel of John that she went to the empty tomb and that she was the one who took the news of Jesus’ resurrection to the eleven remaining apostles.
History, popular culture and even the Church has deeply misunderstood Mary. They have either tried to denigrate her witness or adapt it for their own purpose. Mary teaches us that the important thing is not that we understand God so much as discovering how deeply God understands us. We may all be as misunderstood as she was, but at the moment of moments, at the border of life and death, Christ knew and understood Mary. If Mary knew nothing else except that God knew her to deepest core and was loved, then nothing else matters.
There are lots of theories on why Mary Magdalene is so misunderstood, some of which border on the conspiratorial, but if the most important part of her story is that God knows and loves us, Mary also teaches us that to live a life of faith is to be misunderstood.
To practice peace in a world that values power is to be misunderstood. To seek to serve the poor in a world that values wealth will create misunderstanding. Advocating for people who have no voice, no vote, and no position in society is not comprehensible to many in our world. Bringing care for the sick even if is not profitable and to demand that society remembers the forgotten often invites labeling and name-calling. When a person of faith places love as the highest value, and lifts up the dignity of even the lowliest among us, other people will misunderstand.
Frankly, there are days when I don’t understand the life of faith that even I have chosen to live. We human beings are such imperfect practitioners of the spiritual life, and yet we are drawn to grow and know more. We are drawn to create. We seek love and we crave to be known. We are called to change. Mary Magdalene reminds us of the truth of the old Franciscan prayer where we seek “not to be understood as to understand” that God knows us and loves us right down to our very core.
The Rev. Canon Andrew Gerns is rector of Trinity Episcopal Church in Easton, Pennsylvania.