Editor’s Note: Issac Bailey is the James K. Batten Professor of Public Policy at Davidson College. He was a 2014 Harvard University Nieman fellow and is the author of “My Brother Moochie: Regaining Dignity in the Midst of Crime, Poverty, and Racism in the American South” (Other Press). Follow him on Twitter: @ijbailey. The opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author; view more opinion articles on CNN.
A couple of weeks ago, I drank human blood and ate human flesh. It was an expression of my belief in a higher power. No one mocked me for living out my faith the way Christians do, and yet many others have been mocking Democratic presidential candidate Marianne Williamson since Thursday night’s debate.
I wasn’t stuck near the summit of Mt. Everest and forced to become a cannibal in a desperate attempt to survive. It was a voluntary act to acknowledge that I was “born again” and freed from my sins. I was in my Christian church in South Carolina during a normal Sunday service taking what we call communion, an exercise in which we drink a juice and eat a wafer that we are told to imagine are the literal blood and body of Jesus Christ.
Some Christians believe a mysterious process called transubstantiation literally turns the juice (or wine) and wafer (or bread) into Jesus. Others believe it is more symbolic of having Jesus’ spirit among us and a recognition of his suffering on our behalf. Though the frequency of the practice, who is allowed to take it and under what circumstances, vary by congregation, it’s one of the holiest and most important acts in the Christian faith.
It has on many occasions generated fierce backlash when it hasn’t been taken seriously.
But it isn’t the only Christian belief that can seem fantastical to a nonbeliever. From an early age, I was taught Jesus would return any moment, descending from heaven in a flash “like a thief in the night” riding on a horse – with a sword in his mouth – ready to do battle with an anti-Christ, a mysterious figure who is the literal embodiment of evil. I also learned that some of us would be taken up to heaven in the blink of an eye, leaving behind our clothes and the majority of humans on Earth to suffer through seven years of tribulation or 1,000 years of anti-Christ reign before being relegated to an eternity of torture in hell. Or something like that. It’s hard to keep up with all the variations, all of which have the same ending: those who “follow Him” will be saved, the rest will be banished forever.
Still, Christians, despite being the majority and the most powerful religion in the United States, get offended every time an atheist mocks those fantastical-seeming beliefs. If you understood the faith, you’d understand the power and beauty of those beliefs, we argue. And yet, when it comes to Williamson’s new age spirituality, we don’t hesitate to think her strange – even if we haven’t taken the time to understand her. Those of faith should remember that we live in glass houses, that it’s as easy for others to deem us whackos as it is for us to condemn others to that kind of mockery.
Sure, some of Williamson’s beliefs are problematic, including her history as an anti-vaxxer (a position she recently tried to clarify) and her teachings that those who are fighting disease could cure themselves with positive thinking.
Williamson is the Kanye West of the Democratic field, a hard to reconcile mix of truth, depth and kookiness that can baffle and lead to as much harm as good. It’s no wonder, then, that CNN’s S.E. Cupp, an atheist who has defended Christianity, joked that Williamson “might have arrived at the debate by meteor.” And ’”SNL” is likely to turn her into a character, as Kate McKinnon foreshadowed on “Late Night with Seth Meyers.”
But what happened after Williamson’s debate appearance felt different because prominent Christians were among those mocking the author and presidential candidate for how she speaks about and lives out her faith. They dredged up years-old tweets, taking them out of context just to have a good laugh.
National Review writer and well-known evangelical Christian David French wrote, “I cannot believe I haven’t been following her,” in response to a 2012 tweet from Williamson, in which she wrote, “Your body is merely your space station from whence you beam your love to the universe. Don’t just relate to the station; relate to the beams.”
Never mind that French and other conservative Christians are quick to cry foul when their beliefs are belittled or misinterpreted, as they do every time a conservative Christian is called a bigot for opposing “the gay lifestyle.” It’s one of the oddest things we do: demean those who don’t fit our preconceived notions of rationality, even though we hate when it’s done to us.
Political pundits took a similar approach dissecting Williamson’s debate performance, and many declared she didn’t belong on that stage because she talked about things like using love to defeat Trump’s hate. She neither “looks” nor “sounds” like a presidential candidate, they argued.
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While her comments about calling the Prime Minister of New Zealand seemed to come out of left field, she did so because she’s convinced that the country’s treatment of children provides an example to which the United States should aspire. She wants to use the New Zealand model to create a Cabinet-level child welfare position if she wins the presidency. Given how we are treating children on our southern border, that’s not a crazy idea at all.