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That great southern question

Forty-two years ago, I moved my family from San Francisco into a beautiful little village in rural Georgia, called Smarr. Smarr is 70 miles south of Atlanta and a thousand miles south of anything I had ever seen in California. The name comes from the railroad that runs down the center of the town called The Savannah, Macon, Atlanta, Railroad. The homes and cattle farms are spread out on both sides of the tracks for three miles along Hwy. 41.

The people were warm and friendly and they welcomed us like new-found kinfolk. There’s nothing like a Southern Bar-B-Q in the backyard with the kids running and the dogs barking and the cattle grazing in the pasture. We felt right at home until they hit us with The Question: “What church do y’all go to?”

It came out of the blue. We were talking about the weather or the price of bulls or whatever, and suddenly, the conversation stopped and everyone looked at us. “What church?”

If you drive along the railroad tracks, you’ll see eight churches, starting with the Presbyterian church and ending with the Methodist. Take your pick. Methodist, Baptist …anything you want, except Catholic, of course. Again, The Question “What church do y’all go to?”

When I answered “None,” I got unbelieving blank stares. There are no “nones” in Smarr, Georgia. Every Christian goes to one of the eight churches on Sunday morning at 11 — that’s what Christians do. “You are a Christian, aren’t you?”

Today, the Pew Research Center tell us that 78 percent of Americans are “Nones” and some of us “Nones” are Christians. Well, not the Christians who developed into thousands of denominations and many different sets of beliefs and who have churches on every corner. But rather, the Christians who believe in an historical Jesus who showed us how to live — not how to believe.

I communicate with a few people who wish I’d go away. They resent my claim to be a Christian. How can I be a Christian if I don’t believe like a Christian? Why don’t I just join hands with my friend, Melvin Kruger, and go attend synagogue with him? (Melvin says, “Be careful what you wish for!)

But Christianity is stuck with me. I love the Christmas carols and the bible stories and the Gregorian chant and the Jewish Jesus I find in the gospels when I peel them back. It’s just part of who I am, and I can’t shake it. What I can shake is what 78 percent of Americans have already rejected and that is the emphasis on belief in unreasonable dogmas over living and loving. This is the reason over 4,000 Christian churches close every year in America.

Real Christians have not stopped feeding the homeless or helping the crippled; they haven’t walked away from tragedies like our Southern tornadoes.

But when they’re told under threat of damnation they must believe in things like atonement and incarnation and physical resurrection and trinity, and there’s no talk about loving their neighbor — they begin to wonder and wander.

Tell me, is Christianity an exclusive club of dogmas and unexplainable mysteries, or is it a welcoming community of dedicated people with a deep and unselfish love for each other who make a continuous effort to help the helpless? Or is it both?

I’m not denying the value of faith. I think belief can be very helpful for many individuals, and our gospel writers emphasized it, sometimes too much, I think.

But I believe the real message of Jesus is often overlooked in our gospel stories, and it’s so obvious: love is better than faith.

Contact me: drc@billcummings.org.

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