The secular Seattle myth
Recently, I was sitting with a notable Seattle business owner who grew up in a graceless, rule-based fundamentalist religious home. Eventually, he rejected the faith of his parents and became an agnostic. Highly critical of organized religion, this man has no intention of visiting a gathering of faith-minded God followers. But there we were, bellying up in a local watering hole for a few hours, discussing God, faith and spirituality. He was incredibly curious to hear that I saw the God of the Bible as a loving entity and not a cosmic tyrant in the sky, baiting us to mess up just for a little sadistic fun.
“I love these conversations," he told me. "Let’s continue to have them. You respect me and what I say, you listen and ask questions.”
Yet, when I travel and tell people that I am from Seattle, a common refrain is, “What a hostile place to God and spirituality.” To anyone who's seen the headlines, read the blogs, reviewed the Census reports, it seems as if Seattle just isn’t that interested in God.
But as a lifelong Pacific Northwesterner and longtime pastor, I have had the joy of talking with people across various world views, religions, faiths and beliefs who are interested in having spiritual conversations, who want to talk about God — just like my business owner friend.
What’s clear is that there is a particular approach in Seattle — not only in politics, but also regarding God, religion and spirituality. Just as there is the “Seattle process” in politics, so there is a “Seattle process” in relation to faith.
Seattle is full of people eager to discuss and dialogue about issues of God, but it’s also a city looking to sniff out harsh and unloving rhetoric from the faith community. It's a city that will roundly reject a “faith” that demeans and dehumanizes people.
Each year at the Seattle Gay Pride Parade, religious folks hold signs saying "Turn or burn," "Repent or else" and other slogans that are dehumanizing and disrespectful. There have been threats by Christians to rally boycotts of local companies if they don't change their stance on social issues. These types of faith-based approaches present God as an entity driven by hate and anger, and disregard the side effects such approaches might have: People would get laid off, families would foreclose on their homes.
But there is another way. In Portland, my friend Kevin Palau, President of the Luis Palau Association, was just featured in the New York Times for working hand-in-hand with Sam Adams, the first openly gay mayor of a large U.S. city, to rally more than 26,000 volunteers from Portland churches. The group has worked together to serve underprivileged schools, the homeless and other city needs, making Kevin and Sam's friendship a great example of how religious and political groups can work together for the betterment of a city.
This is a large part of the reason I've been working with the Union Gospel Mission. Though clearly a Christian organization with Christian values, they will partner and serve anyone in our city, whatever their beliefs, positions, background or faith. Currently, Union Gospel Mission is working to develop an app to assess needs and service providers across King County in homelessness, hunger, human trafficking and other areas.
The Stranger's Cienna Madrid hit the nail on the head on this topic back in June. “You know who basically wrote the book on being Christian?" she wrote. "Jesus Christ. His followers were society's marginalized populations — the sick, homeless and outcast. In 33 short years, Jesus cleansed countless lepers, healed passels of paralytics, restored the senses of the blind and the deaf-mute, cured headaches and miscellaneous boils, and did other great stuff. Sure, most of his feats can be attributed to his magical Son o' God status, but that's not the point. Every noble gesture simply underscored his greatest triumph: not being a judgmental dick."
New York City pastor Timothy Keller has famously said that “Tolerance isn't about not having beliefs. It's about how your beliefs lead you to treat people who disagree with you.”
I believe in a Jesus who did and said some radical things, and who treated people with radical love and grace. As a Christian, I am called to love my neighbor, seek his/her good and pray for his/her flourishing, even when we don’t see eye to eye. The more I live and serve in Seattle, the more I understand that Seattle isn’t as disinterested in God as has been written or reported on. It’s just not interested in a God that comes wrapped in hate, condescension and indignity.