My friend has immersed herself in her religion over the last few years. She’s had some difficult times, and finds comfort and community in her church and in her faith. We’ve both been open with one another about our different beliefs and non-beliefs, and we don’t try to change the other’s views. She mentions her church friends, or that she’s thankful to Jesus for answering prayers, and I listen and nod and leave it at that. But recently, when we were spending some time together, an interesting conversation unfolded.
She said, quite suddenly, “I just want you to know that I still love you even though you don’t believe in God.”
I smiled and replied, “I still love you even though you believe in God.”
Sarah laughed. “You’re so funny.”
“Oh, were you joking?” I asked.
“No, of course not.”
“Then why did you say I was being funny?” I was genuinely confused at this point.
“Well, why wouldn’t you love me because I believe in God?” she asked.
I had a sense of foreboding about my next question, but I felt a compulsion to ask it anyway. “Why wouldn’t you love me because I don’t?”
A seriousness changed her features, and I think she realized where we had arrived. “I don’t know. It’s just different.”
I saw the chasm between us open up and I felt like something important to me — was it my respect for her, or was is it the idea that she respected me? — fall away, irretrievable. My lack of faith was obviously a character flaw for her — one she was forgiving me for, or overlooking. She was telling me she loves me regardless of my atheism as a way of showing her righteousness — her capacity to love the undeserving. It had never occurred to me that anyone would not love me because I lack belief in their god, but now I see that as naive. Maybe her friendship with me was a concession, or a good deed.
She broke the silence, probably sensing my dismay. “The Bible says that God gives us freedom to choose Him because He loves us, so I have to accept that it’s your God-given right to choose.”
That wasn’t a message of acceptance to me. That was a message of forced tolerance and festering judgement. It wasn’t the mutual respect that I thought we had. And it certainly wasn’t an appreciation of who I am.
It occurred to me then that this is how tolerance blossoms into hatred: people blindly believing in something that emphasizes the differences among people, that makes those differences into offences or flaws. “So, if the Bible said that atheists are bad people and you should never associate with them, what would you do with me?”
I could see her struggling to reconcile the teachings of her religion with the very concrete nature of our friendship. “Lots of Christians say that we shouldn’t spend time with atheists because we will adopt their beliefs. But you don’t try to change my mind, so I think it’s ok.”
“Honestly, I don’t want to change your beliefs. I appreciate you just the way that you are.”
In my mind, I acknowledged that she didn’t lie to me then and tell me the same, but her silence was defining. So we moved on with a new awkwardness between us. She gathered her things and left, saying she’d call tomorrow. And she did. She called the same time she always does and we continue on, though not exactly as before, when our differences didn’t seem like something to be avoided.
It leaves me longing for the relationship I thought we had: one in which our differences were just differences, not good or bad. Not things to be avoided or overcome. Just characteristics of one another. Normal variations in the human experience.
Many things about that conversation cling to me and I can’t shake them. I have a sense of her prejudice now, which, ironically makes her proclamation of love seem like anything but. I am an “other” to her. I’m one of “those” people who she shouldn’t associate with, but she does anyway. I’m a sin she’ll ask forgiveness for. I’m a heathen she prays for. I’m a friend who has supported her more than her own mother and father, but who she would walk away from if the Bible told her to.
I just can’t understand that. I’m really trying, though. Because I know that if I can’t understand her perspective, judgement will take the place of acceptance, bitterness will take the place of appreciation, and prejudice will take the place of love.