After years of receiving graphic hate mail and threats laced through with Bible verses—including wishes that her children be turned into “skin lamps,” her husband be hacked into pieces, and the entire family burn in hell–Bonnie Weinstein of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation (MRFF) gathered some of the letters into a book last fall and published them, To the Far Right Christian Hater. Bible believing fundamentalists, who accuse MRFF of bigotry, responded by sending more hate and threats, prompting an outpouring of apologies and support from other kinds of Christians.
Weinstein’s husband Mikey is a graduate of the Air Force Academy and former member of the Reagan Administration who founded MRFF in 2005. Together with a small staff he has since lead the charge against unconstitutional proselytizing in the military hierarchy. Bible believing fundamentalists and similar “Great Commission” Christians are convinced that they have a mandate from God to win converts, and many perceive rules against religious recruiting as a violation of religious freedom. To say MRFF is unpopular with this segment of Christianity dramatically understates the reality, as their letters attest.
But Bonnie Weinstein’s book, together with additional rage-filled, anti-Semitic curses and threats made public in January, has provoked a vocal response from shocked and horrified Christians of other stripes, who want to make it clear that raging extremists don’t speak for them—or their understanding of God.
Christians Push Back Against Hate
Since I published a sampling of rather horrible excerpts from fundamentalists, it seemed only fair to publish some of the responses from other kinds of Christians that have appeared in comment threads and the MRFF inbox:
- I’m a Presbyterian minister who, in the course of twenty years of ministry, has received a fair share of hateful and ignorant correspondence. I think your stance on teaching folks about their constitutional rights is wonderful. As a moderate Christian who tries to live by the golden rule, I can’t understand how people of faith can be so intolerant.
- I’m not going to pray that you die or even that you eat shit (trust me, I’m pretty sure that’s worse than death as I once tripped in a cow patty filled pasture and so I can speak with some authority on this) as so many of my “Christian” counterparts have hoped for. Instead I will pray that you continue on your journey with peace, hope, and a great sense of humor. That you continue as you have, fighting for the personal and religious freedoms of your fellow human beings, with much success.
- As a United Methodist Clergyman I am well aware of some of the tactics of the fundamentalist groups in their aggressive attempts to “win souls for Jesus Christ.” Please know that I support you in your efforts and wish you every success.
- As a Christian myself, it is painful to see folks, who claim to be my fellow believers, behave in such a reprehensible way. And it seems to me that a big part of the problem is that people are unable to distinguish between a lack of preferential treatment and persecution. The fact that Christianity should not be given preference does not mean that Christians are in any way persecuted.
- I will ask for forgiveness from you for those people. You can choose to grant it or not. Regardless, treating people with respect and grace whatever their beliefs is paramount to practicing Christianity.
- I too believe in a ‘wall of separation’ but the constitution is of secondary importance to me. My faith itself demands such a separation for without it the church—and other religious organizations—end up getting subverted by the interests, aims, and identity of the state.
Veterans and Active-Duty Military Weigh In
Although MRFF is regularly accused of being anti-Christian, over 90 percent of the active duty military personnel who reach out to them for assistance are moderate Catholic or Protestant Christians who are concerned about Constitutional violations or who feel personally pressured by religious recruiting in their chain of command. It should be no surprise, then, that many of the letters of support MRFF has received from Christians come from retired or active duty military.
- As a Vietnam-era veteran, married to another Vietnam vet, I fully support your campaign. . . . We’re now both church members but I believe firmly that the current hate-filled right-wing “Christianity” isn’t the real thing. (We’re also living proof that it doesn’t take constant nagging and scolding by evangelicals for someone to choose their belief system.) I don’t want a theocracy in this country–of any religion.
- I feel that you are supporting that document that our entire country is founded on. You must be doing something right for so many to be so threatened by your work. Again, please know that you and your work is not a threat to Christianity, and some of us DO recognize that. –Navy veteran
- Thank you and the MRFF for taking the public stand you all did regarding the Army “Mission For Both God and Country” recruiting poster for Special Forces. –Protestant Republican Army recruiter
- Today I led and taught a Bible study class here at our largest chapel on post. It was very well attended. I wanted you to know that I based the entire 2 hour lesson on this powerful new book of Bonnie’s. I wanted all of the attendees to understand what it means to be a true and faithful follower of Christ. And what it means not to be.— Senior Army Chaplain
- I just wanted to express my thanks to all of you for what you do every day to keep our military from being overrun with Christian zealots. . . . Being a Christian myself hasn’t really mattered to those in my command chain who make it clear that accepting Christ “in the right way” is what the Navy and America wants of its sailors. My “way” of loving Jesus is not their way. Even my wife has felt this pressure from the other spouses. It destroys the brotherhood and sisterhood bonds of our warfighters and it has to be confronted. –Active Duty U.S. Navy
- Bravo Zulu/Oorah to Mikey and the MRFF for heading bravely into this House Armed Services Comm. farce/ambush and exposing for all of educated mind to see the true religious fanaticism of my own Christian faith which plagues DoD here and abroad every day. –retired senior flag officer.
Can Haters be Real Christians?
Many of those who wrote to apologize or applaud the work of MRFF questioned whether the faith of the hateful critics was authentic. “I would venture to say that they probably are not even real Christians,” said one. “I would question that those people are followers of Christ or very familiar with the New Testament,” said another. “How these “christians” can have any link with God, Jesus, compassion, brotherhood, forgiveness and all the other good things claimed by real Christians (as found in the mainstream groups and especially in other countries!) astounds me,” said a third. “These people have hijacked Christianity and, as “Muslim” or “Hindu” extremists do the same to those faiths,” complained a fourth.
Those disturbed by the hate mail cited Bible verses to back up their claim that spewing anger, hatred or threats is incompatible with Christianity, for example, a New Testament verse which says that the “fruit of the spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faith, mildness, self-control” (Galatians 5:22, 23) or another in Titus, “Speak injuriously of no one, not to be quarrelsome, but to be reasonable, displaying all mildness toward all men” (Titus 3:2). One quoted at length a much loved passage from the Sermon on the Mount:
Love your enemies; do good to those who hate you; bless those who curse you; pray for those who treat you spitefully. When a man hits you on the cheek, offer him the other cheek too; when a man takes your coat, let him have your shirt as well. Give to everyone who asks you; when a man takes what is yours, do not demand it back. Treat others as you would like them to treat you. If you love only those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners love those who love them (Luke 6:27-33).
The Mixed Blessing of Biblical Authority
Since fundamentalists treat the Bible as the literally perfect and complete Word of God, it makes sense that other Christians would leverage the authority of the Bible to challenge their bad behavior. And yet, by making the Bible the arbitrator of moral behavior, they may inadvertently reinforce the world view of the fundamentalists. One aggrieved modernist Christian made this point by citing the following passage:
O that you would kill the wicked, O God, and that the bloodthirsty would depart from me— those who speak of you maliciously, and lift themselves up against you for evil! Do I not hate those who hate you, O Lord? And do I not loathe those who rise up against you? I hate them with perfect hatred; I count them my enemies (Psalm 139:19-23 NRSV).
The Bible contains text fragments from hundreds of authors over hundreds of years. It binds durable wisdom—like the Golden Rule or Paul’s tribute to the gift of love—with stories, laws, and exhortations that put God’s Seal of Approval on bigotry and violence, culminating in the threat of eternal torture wielded against Bonnie and Mikey Weinstein and their staff and children.
The contradictions can be found even in the “Wisdom Literature” of the Psalms and Proverbs, and in the words of Jesus himself. One Psalm urges peace while simultaneously implying that religious insiders (in this case the ancient Hebrews) are entitled to rule the earth and that outsiders are evildoers.
Let go of anger and abandon rage; Do not become upset and turn to doing evil. For evil men will be done away with, But those hoping in Jehovah will possess the earth (Psalm 37:8 NRSV).
Similarly, the very same Jesus who says “love your enemies” and who is called the Prince of Peace also says, “I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law” (Matthew 10:34-35). He tells his disciples that they should forgive those who sin against them not seven times but “seventy-times seven”—and then he reinforces this message with a parable in which a servant is tortured (not forgiven) when he commits the sin of being unforgiving (Matthew 18: 22ff). One gets the sense that the author almost—almost gets the point he is trying to make. So close! Or perhaps one writer got it and then another tried to reinforce the point by adding a story that would have made the first one cringe.
In contradictions like these, we see the struggle of our ancestors, trying to hold themselves to a higher standard and then failing, grasping for extreme compassion and forgiveness and love, but falling for the extreme satisfaction of tribal pride or vengeance. Unfortunately many Christians, evangelical fundamentalists in particular, fail to recognize this. They insist that by the end of the biblical record our spiritual ancestors had somehow gotten God and goodness right.
While moral norms evolve during the intertestamental period between the Old Testament and New, a mix of timeless inspiration and Iron Age cultural fragments can be found in both Hebrew and Christian texts. In Judaism, moral norms and spiritual insights continue to evolve down through the present, in documents such as the Talmud, Mishnah, and Gemara, and via a process known as “wrestling with God.”
Citing the Bible as the definitive moral authority leaves Christians to choose whichever bits happen to fit their own mindset and predilections. Which verses they choose as models for their own lives (and letters) reveals less about divinity than about the mind of the individual believer—whether oriented toward tolerance and peace or toward dreams of global domination that when thwarted morph into rage-filled rants about skin lamps and the fires of hell.
Valerie Tarico is a psychologist and writer in Seattle, Washington. She is the author of Trusting Doubt: A Former Evangelical Looks at Old Beliefs in a New Light and Deas and Other Imaginings, and the founder of www.WisdomCommons.org. Her articles about religion, reproductive health, and the role of women in society have been featured at sites including AlterNet, Salon, the Huffington Post, Grist, and Jezebel. Subscribe at ValerieTarico.com.