Conversations with my fundamentalist brother, By Karen Lowenstein

Posted on June 18th, 2009 | Filed under Faith and Politics, InterViews

The binary divisions of our nation (Republican and Democrat, conservative and liberal, right-wing and left-wing) constantly haunt me because they have become so personal over the past decade.  For the past ten years, I have become more and more what might be described as a left-leaning citizen; simultaneously, my brother has become more and more conservative, seeking a leadership role in a Christian fundamentalist community.

From the GLBT community choir in which I have sung in my hometown of Denver to the Cavalry church my brother attends in his hometown of Ft. Lauderdale, it is clear that my brother and I find membership in our respective and distinct communities.  What I know to be true is that our communities are safe, joyous, and loving spaces for each of us.  What I also know to be true is that our particular groups of friends believe as we do.  And our colleagues believe as we do.  And the people we have lived with believe as we do.  My sense is that my brother and I represent a kind of microcosm of faith differences that exist in our nation, differences that probably exist within many families.  Why else would the common understanding of not talking politics or religion, even with family members, exist?  Let me say up front that my intent is not to demonize my brother.  But rather, my intention is to ask these questions: When and how do we come together?  And what does relationship across difference look like?  And what does it mean to carry out love in this world?

A few years ago, my brother and I attempted an e-mail conversation about our differences.  We included several of our (his and my) closest friends in on the conversation.  This resulted in a painful, knock-down, drag-out series of electronic exchanges about Jesus and the truths of the world.  After a few weeks of e-mails, we seemed to vow (silently, implicitly) to avoid talking about truths (Truths?) because we seemed to know that we have to sacrifice pieces of ourselves in order to sustain our relationship.  I concluded that perhaps this sacrifice is the only way a relationship with my brother is possible.

Since that time, my brother and I usually chat in generalities, with my brother sprinkling a few “according to the Lord’s plan” and “Praise Jesus” interjections along the way.  I know that these interjections come from his paradigm, and when he offers these, I simply continue the conversation, adding my own interjections from my own paradigm.  These sound like, “I am glad you are following what is true for you” and “I am happy you have found community.”  It also occurred to me during these particular exchanges that much like my perception that my brother clings to his absolute Truths, I also cling to my very own set of Truths around the need for multiplicity in the world.  One might even call my perspective on the need for multiple perspectives fundamentalist.  Moreover, I wonder if my fundamentalist perspective on the need for multiple perspectives in the world allows for any absolutist perspectives, like my brother’s.

Recently, in a phone conversation, my brother decided to take us back into our deep-seated differences.  He moved to Florida so that he could attend a church of many, as he would describe them, like-minded “believers.”  As he begins to share the community of believers with me, I feel us slowly moving down the path of binaries we represent: his absolute Truths (about Jesus, about the Bible) and my fundamentalist desire to honor multiple perspectives of the world.  It begins innocently enough; he had a series of powerful dreams and I ask him to tell me about them.  He dreamt a series of foreshadowing visions, inspired by God, culminating in a scene in which a Cavalry pastor tells my brother that he will plant a church in our New Jersey hometown.  In working to connect, I tell him that I am glad that he feels that he has a clear vision of his future.

Then my brother moves on to the recent testimonies he witnessed of folks who have been saved.  This includes mention of the fundamentalist Bible scholar who travels to Ivy League schools to debunk what he called the “smart kids’” false ideas about the Bible.  My brother makes sure to mention that this scholar is doing the important work of proving that smart in university terms does not equal smart about the Bible, and furthermore, smart does not equal saved.  Because I have always been considered “smart” by our parents and by university standards, it does not seem pure coincidence that my brother describes this scholar’s journeys.

With little interjection from me (I just don’t know what to say at this point), my brother continues: “The most powerful testimony I heard was from a man who chose the homosexual lifestyle and then he found the Lord and got married and had kids.”  I am stunned, and begin to mumble something about knowing many people who are gay and lesbian and living authentically and happily; I am just not at all sure as to how I might proceed in a way that honors both my brother’s paradigm and my own. I have recently ended a long-term lesbian relationship; it again seems no coincidence that my brother shares this particular testimony.

For the remainder of our conversation, I find it incredibly hard to figure out what the point really is.  I tell him this during one part of the conversation, and in response, he declares, “I was where you are now.”  This puts me over the edge; I tell him that he cannot presume to know my journey (since I have not shared much with him).  I say that I want to exchange thinking, and not be wronged for my thinking.  This only further perpetuates his notion of having been where I am now, for he repeats this phrase several more times.

When I think that the conversation cannot get any more painful for me, he brings our (no longer living) grandparents into the picture.  He declares in a matter-of-fact way, “I can’t wait to embrace Grandmom and Grandpop when I see them in Heaven,” – a kind of ecclesiastical taunting that actually pierces my heart and again, I am temporarily unable to respond.

He brings us to a close.  He states, “I will leave you with this challenge.  Prove the Bible wrong.”  I reply that I revere the Bible – and I struggle to find words to honor what he believes about the Bible (as literally from God) compared with my own understanding of the Bible as a series of true (little t) stories from which we have much to learn, including the notions of perspective and universality, forgiveness, and compassion.  I am not sure how to end the conversation.  I tell him that I want to know his thinking and share my own, but not from a perspective of judgment.  I tell him that I want to stay in relationship, even while I really don’t know what this means or if and how it makes sense to either of us.  It becomes so distressful for me; I can only find the words, “we just need to agree to disagree.”

After hanging up, I just sit with my feelings of upset, not sure how the conversation became what it did.  I know that from my brother’s perspective, he believes that he has such gifts to offer me: a Savior and an eternal life with our grandparents.  Weeks after this conversation, I find myself in a therapeutic space that allows me to re-connect with my spiritual belief that I will see my grandparents in Heaven.  I find myself thinking that my brother and I just live in our own worlds – amidst like-minded people – who think or believe like each of us does, without much interaction with communities of thinkers who differ from us.  And the bottom line is that I just don’t know what deeper connection looks like between us.

The funny thing is that I get angry at anyone who tries to pigeon-hole my brother in simple boxes.  Only I am allowed such depictions of myself or of him.  What I know as true is that he is a loving human being, acting from his belief system.  What I also know as true is that I am a loving human being, acting from my belief system.  Is this enough?  I just find myself constantly wondering:  What might love look like when love is defined so differently across perspectives?  And how will we all live out the call to love each other?

Dr. Karen Lowenstein is Co-Director of the Boettcher Teachers Program at the Public Education and Business Coalition in Denver, Colorado.

Photo courtesey of the American Corners in Hungary program, sponsored by the U.S. State Department:

One Response to “Conversations with my fundamentalist brother, By Karen Lowenstein”

  1. Dani Dickson says:

    I have a similar relationship with my brother. He and I both grew up Catholic but our parents supported our faith doctrine with a focus on our spiritual development, and it left me with a deep love for the church, and a deeper connection to God that has allowed me to approach life with compassion and to strive to not waste valuable energy on judgement. My brother however isolates himself with his superior fundamentalist beliefs. He is frustrated that I can not seem to see what is so obviously truth. I accept that his truth is true for him and I am happy for him, but it is hard for me when his truth has to be my truth too. One thing I know for sure is that I don’t know anything for sure and that is where I leave it with him. He is pretty sure I will go to heaven though. Praise the Lord!! I feel so much better.