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A plea made not in vain

| Thursday, April 25, 2019

For most, “The legging problem” hubbub is beyond us, the news stories quieted, the “Trending Stories” bar on The Observer website featuring a new lineup, yet I feel I must call attention to an issue that, to my knowledge, has been too long ignored: Maryann White’s repeated assertion that her views stem from her being a Catholic mother. Yes, I agree with the masses about leggings’ undeniable comfort and multi-functionality. Certainly, I feel horrified by the column’s blatant sexist undertones. Truly, I identify with the students speaking out against the finger-pointing blame-shame Maryann adopts instead of thoughtful accountability. However, I must confess my deepest concern had nothing to do with leggings at all. It had to do with the association of The Church with this woman’s controversial views.

From the Ten Commandments, Judeo-Christians are taught, “Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain” (Exodus 20:7). Many faithful interpret this teaching as a warning against cursing. Growing up, I consistently heard parents correct angsty teenagers to say “Oh my gosh” rather than “Oh my God.” When my high school Latin teacher exclaimed “Jesus Christ” in anger, a student quickly added “is my Lord and Savior!” Though these people are well-intentioned, I feel that they often miss the deeper meaning of this Commandment’s teaching.

Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain. The Hebrew word for vain also translates to “emptiness” and “falsehood.” Refraining from using the Lord’s name as an expletive fulfills the command to keep from using it meaninglessly, but fails to address the issue of “falsehood.” People substitute “darn” for “damn,” trot out “my goodness,” instead of “my God,” but they continue to take on His name falsely, using religion as a thin guise to justify their own personal agendas.

When a country invades another, claiming they act in defense of God’s will, is that not taking the Lord’s name in vain? When one group is denied the same rights under the pretense that God doesn’t love them, is that not taking the Lord’s name in vain? When Maryann White uses her identity as a Catholic mother to push a sexist agenda, is that not taking the Lord’s name in vain?

In the Catholic faith, Pope Benedict XVI connects this Commandment to the Lord’s Prayer. He explains that when we pray “Hallowed be thy name,” we vow to “protect … and constantly assert His true identity as opposed to our distortion of it.” We vow to keep His name holy, to keep it from perversion.

The New International Version of the Bible translates the commandment as, “You shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God.” The Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America warns, “The hypocrite uses the name of the Lord in vain because he is dressing his evil thoughts with the mantle of God’s name.” Jewish scholar Dennis Prager, explains, “When religious people commit evil, especially in God’s name, they are not only committing evil, they are doing terrible damage to the name of God.”

Each time someone commits evil in the name of God, they brand all religious as hateful. Each time a Christian tells a member of the LGBTQ+ community that being gay is wrong, they taint the name of God. Each time a person shouts on a street corner that passersby are going to Hell, they pervert the idea of Heaven.

If the goal of this radicalization is conversion, its methods are counterproductive. Would you be enticed to join a faith that tells you that you’re going to Hell? Would you feel warm and fuzzy towards a religion that shouts slurs at people with different lifestyles? If the goal is to motivate people towards reconciliation, this tactic is ineffective. Can you think of anyone who has wanted to change their lifestyle after being belittled? Can you think of anyone who responds well to fear-mongering?

The real shame of religious fanaticism is that it does not represent the spirit of religion at all. Jesus Christ spent days with prostitutes and criminals. He dined with tax collectors and sinners. If these people shouting on the streets are trying to emulate Christ, they’d do better to embrace their neighbor. To speak kindly and warmly. To extend a helping hand in the face of adversity. Above any other commandment, any other call to action, the Bible preaches the power of love. It calls on people of all backgrounds to act with utmost respect towards one another; to recognize the common humanity in each person and treat them with compassion. If you must do something in the name of religion, be kind. Choose to love in the name of God.

In high school, I had a hard time expressing my devotion to religion because I knew the negative assumptions some people make about faith. I knew that when I said I went to church camp, my gay friends assumed it was a place they weren’t welcome. I knew when I expressed solidarity with The Church, people assumed I was expressing solidarity with the hatred and belittling in which other Christians in my grade engaged. I found myself grow frustrated. If a girl in my math class was racist, no one would claim that calculus taught hate. If a boy on the track team hurled slurs in the name of running, no one would condemn the entire long distance crew. Why was religion different? Why did people have such a hard time understanding that sometimes a person’s views are just that: theirs. Sometimes hate belongs only to the person it stems from, not every organization they belong to.

I realize now that religion holds a higher responsibility — a burden and a blessing. It’s more than a book club, a Girl Scout troop or a sports team. It’s more than a Sunday morning activity or a box to check on the U.S. Census. With every action a person takes, every comment she makes, she represents the faith she espouses. With every person I love, every person I show compassion to, I remind the people around me, believers and nonbelievers, that the cross I wear around my neck is a symbol of inclusivity, not exclusivity. My faith is not an identity I can switch on and off when convenient. It is not a club I can cancel and renew my membership for. How I act, how I treat others, how I move through my day, whether I like it or not, represents the Word of God. I must choose not to represent His Word in vain.

I don’t believe that Maryann White is a bad person. I don’t believe that she intended to pervert Catholicism for her own personal gain. But I do believe she must do better. I believe we all must. We must not embed personal prejudices in our faith. We must remember that who we are on Monday matters just as much as, if not more than, who we are on Sunday. We must not make our cross in one moment and in the next use that same hand to point and jeer at our neighbor. We must not take Communion on Sundays and from that same mouth spew forth venom on Thursday. We must not intone prayers of goodwill and love, but use our tongues to also form slurs and hate in the name of God. We must do better. Don’t let this plea be in vain.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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