Looking in From the Outside ~Guest Contributor, Matthew Coomber
"Common People," by Pulp, is my favorite Brit-pop song. In it, a rich exchange-student asks a working-class boy to show her what it’s like to be common. But the boy makes clear that she’ll never really know because, unlike him, she can escape. If things get too intense—or too boring—a simple call to daddy will make it all go away.
In the same way we can’t fully step outside of our socio-economic situations, people can’t ever fully leave the faith traditions in which they grew up. Love them or hate them, or for better or worse, they played an important role in our development and shape the lenses through which we see the world. But during my five-year hiatus from Christianity as a Buddhist, I gained valuable insights into what being a Christian and professing my faith means to me.
Becoming Buddhist was certainly a transition, but a relatively painless one. My reasoning was pragmatic: Buddhism made more sense to me. When I told my parents they were confused, and perhaps a bit concerned, but they supported my decision and took a deep interest in my new faith. But while my own conversion was rooted in the intellectual and spiritual satisfaction I found in Buddhism, I learned that not all conversions are born out of positive circumstances. For some, they are an escape from abuse.
After entering a graduate program in Buddhist studies and Sanskrit, I learned that many of my fellow students were also former Christians. But unlike the positive experience i had with the Church, many of them associated Christianity with deep pain. Some suffered cruel judgments and had been expelled from their communities. Others became disgusted by the hypocrisy of clergy who turned their backs on pastoral care in their hunt for greater membership numbers and, subsequently, revenue.
My friends’ stories of pain and betrayal enraged me. I shared in their anger at pastors who inflict injustice upon congregants. I shared their anger at clergy who exchange duty to God and flock for a larger ego. And I shared their anger at the pain that Christian leaders have inflicted—throughout history—either by direct engagement in war, abuse, and exploitation, or by committing that most grievous of clerical sins: looking the other way. But while I shared in my friends’ anger, it sat differently in me. Whereas many of them saw these sins as inherent to the Faith, I saw them as examples of the human depravity that can—and does—infect any faith or philosophy.
Since my reconversion to Christianity—and answering the call to ordained ministry—those conversations with my classmates have greatly influenced my approach to practicing and professing my Christian faith. Even as Buddhists, we had carried our Christian upbringings with us wherever we went—kind of like the rich exchange-student carried her status in “Common People.” But while the Christian leaders we grew up with had all professed Christ’s teachings with their words, that wasn’t what ultimately stuck with us. What left a permanent imprint was how they had lived that profession with their lives. Those conversations with my Buddhist classmates taught me that the greatest witness we share is the one we act out. It’s useful to check in and ask ourselves if we’re just saying Christ’s Truth, or if we’re living it with a conviction that’s rooted in kindness, humility, and care. I can tell you from both experience and also from observation, the profession of faith that we live out is the one that sticks.
Matthew J.M. Coomber is an Episcopal Priest and an associate professor of biblical studies at St. Ambrose University. His primary research is on how biblical texts on economic exploitation can confront systems of poverty in our time. He sits on the board of directors for the Center and Library for the Bible and Social Justice in Stony Point, New York. His publications include Re-Reading the Prophets Through Corporate Globalization, Bible and Justice: Ancient Texts, Modern Challenges, The Old Testament and Apocrypha: Fortress Commentary on the Bible, and his forthcoming book Amos and Micah: Through the Centuries.