Friday, July 11, 2014

We Now Pause to Bring You a Very Important Message

The Pink Dog, showing his (OK, our) support for Pink Dot 2014.

The recent rise of bigoted, anti-homosexuality sentiment in Singapore is extremely depressing. Over in the States, Barack Obama is president, the Moral Majority have faded away, and 50 per cent of Americans now believe in the constitutional right to gay marriage (Washington Post). Over here we are still debating whether gay people are entitled to a legal existence, and Singaporean evangelicals are enthusiastically employing tactics taught to them by American rightwingers to dominate the public discourse, and cry 'reverse discrimination!' and 'beware the hidden gay agenda!' whenever their vitriol is met with disagreement. Just today they have succeeded in upholding a ban on three children's books that featured gay penguins and lesbian households. As expected, they are proud of themselves.

I grew up in a Christian household, and every single member of my maternal extended family is Christian - some are even part of the anti-gay Wear White movement. I was enrolled in Christian schools for the first 16 years of my life, joined a Christian co-curricular activity of my own accord, attended Easter and Christmas services, and for a few short weeks was sent to Sunday School until my constant sobbing grew too much for the teacher and I was returned to my embarrassed parents. My first books were a picture Bible and an illustrated collection of Bible stories. I wore a cross until I was in my early 20s.

Yet I never took to the religion, or any religion for that matter. (My parents remain baffled, disappointed, hurt.) When I was a child and sang 'Jesus loves me, this I know', my performance was entirely innocent of any understanding. When I was slightly older I would answer "Christian" to any questions about my religion, but it was like saying "Chinese" to the race question, or "O+" to the school nurse inquiring about my blood type - an automatic reply, free from analysis or even much thought. Being Christian was not a matter of deep importance. Similarly, my parents didn't go to church regularly - I guess the occasional service was enough, a biannual vaccination against Satan.

In secondary school I was exposed to the pumped up, hands in the air, fire-and-brimstone preaching of the evangelical movement, with its emphasis on active engagement with one's religion. Very different from the mild, sleepy sermons preached at my parents' old church. These young pastors bounced off the pulpit and into the congregation, yelling out, "Do you have a personal relationship with God?" We were encouraged to leave the pews, gather round the altar and weep and swoon as Christian rock music swelled and the pastor's wet yearning tones wrapped around everyone, praying for salvation and a new beginning.

If you were never a Christian in a church like that, then you cannot know how thick the atmosphere is, how manipulative the entire setting can be. You cannot know the shame and fear of being the only one not to be moved by the spirit of Christ, not to stand up. You feel as if the pastor is staring right at you when he pleads, "Anyone else? Does anyone else want to be saved?"

It is not a choice they offer you at all. It is a promise that if you are not saved, you will go to hell, and it will be your fault for rejecting your only chance at salvation. It is a threat.

It's heavy stuff to lay on a 13-year-old. And yet I never went up to the altar. The following year when I was sent to a particularly tough Girls' Brigade camp - endless punishments and drill, cold, disapproving ostracism, screaming leaders to be obeyed, constant sleep deprivation - I still didn't go up during the inevitable in-camp altar call. I thought about trying to escape, and I thought about killing myself, but I never once considered accepting Jesus into my heart. I thought that if He existed, Jesus would never force a terrified teenager to shovel rice into her mouth until she came close to vomiting, and then make her scrub the toilets past midnight for the crime of wasting food. (I couldn't quite manage that last mouthful.)

The sweaty animal fear of ever being controlled like that again has never quite left me. I was only in the Girls' Brigade for four years of my life - only a few years spent hiding in plain sight, an atheist among the flock, not knowing what to say or how to behave, but constantly aware that to reveal myself would be to risk punishment, condemnation and isolation. And that was just for being a non-believer! Can you imagine what it would have been like to be gay, and living in that world?

This is where the heart of my empathy lies. I only experienced a small amount of shame at being different. It makes me nauseous to consider a lifetime spent this way, being told over and over and over that you are unnatural, your desires are not of God, you will never be happy or loved, that you are just plain wrong. Sure, the religious activists will mouth the same old meaningless words - 'love the sinner, hate the sin' - but their concept of sin has been scientifically proven to be an inherent part of a person's physical and mental identity, a basic biological drive. People can stop drinking, gambling, beating their wives. Can they stop loving?

For Christian conservatives, gay rights are only one target among an endless list - abortion, birth control, feminism, free speech and thought, science, art and sexuality, education and state protection from discrimination. It's no secret that many Singaporean evangelicals, like their American counterparts, would like to reshape some of these according to their own standards, limit several others and outright ban the rest. All because of an archaic system of beliefs started over 3,000 years ago in a Middle Eastern desert. No one's really sure what the Bible means, which is great because they get to make it all up to suit their own desires and fears.

Make no mistake, fear is a major part of Christianity. My parents are genuinely afraid that when they pass on, they won't ever see me again, because as a non-believer I will not go to heaven. I understand their anxiety, and I will always regret the heartbreak I am causing them. It used to be my biggest fear as a clingy kid, losing my parents forever. I had regular nightmares about it.

But if there is a God, and if there is a heaven, and if He really is a loving God, surely we will be reunited after death, though I refuse to accept man's broken interpretation of His Word. I believe that my conceptions of the world are right, that we were not made to hate or discriminate, and I am willing to place my own salvation on the line. You might say that in this, I have faith.