The daughter of a conservative Christian preacher was suspended from school at the beginning of the school year for wearing a black T-shirt with the words “Homosexuality is a Sin” boldly emblazoned across the front, according to a recent article by the Christian Post.
When Brielle Penkoski, who attends Livingston Academy, a public high school in Livingston, Tennessee, showed up to school wearing the offending garment, she drew the ire of the school leadership who promptly requested that she change her shirt. Upon her refusal, she was sent home from school.
I wonder why?
Now Brielle Penkoski’s father, the Reverend Rich Penkoski, is threatening to sue the school stating that his daughter’s first amendment rights have been violated. “She wanted to go there to … express her values like all the other kids do,” Penkoski argued. Now, according to Penkoski, she’s been discriminated against for standing up for Biblical truth — or at least his version of Biblical truth.
It turns out Reverend Rich Penkoski is no stranger to controversy, describing himself as one of the most censored Christians in the world. Penkoski, has a peculiar obsession with demonizing drag queens, and regularly speaks out in opposition to homosexuality and gender dysphoria through his YouTube channel called Warriors for Christ.
Yes… apparently, Jesus Christ, the preeminent preacher of grace and love, needs warriors like Reverend Rich to deliver some hard-edged condemnation on his behalf.
Reverend Rich is also up in arms because, in August 2020, YouTube decided to “demonetized” all of the videos on the Warriors for Christ YouTube channel — robbing him of the ability to earn advertising revenue through vilifying sexual minorities.
Maybe Reverend Rich should ditch the YouTube side hustle — since it’s not making him any cash these days — and start his own clothing label for religious fanatics who want to broadcast hate speech on T-shirts, like Reverend Rich’s daughter.
By the way, if you’re a raging Christian fundamentalist and you’re frothing at the mouth to acquire one of these T-shirts to call your own, you’ll be pleased to learn that they are on sale on the Teepublic website, and come in a range of colors to suit your taste. You can even grab a bumper sticker and a coffee mug with the same tasteful message for just a few dollars extra.
Or, if you’re a normal, decent human being, you could just file a complaint about this shirt on the Teepublic website, and then leave an honest and frank review of what you think of this product.
Another ‘Christian’ embarrassment
You have probably picked up by my tone that I am not impressed with Penkoski and his willing daughter, nor anyone else who engages in this kind of behavior and then has the gall the whine about being persecuted for their religious beliefs. As a Christian, I find this kind of religious fanaticism embarrassing. I could write a book about the reasons why I disagree wholeheartedly with Penkoski’s actions and beliefs, but for the sake of brevity, here’s a summary of some of what I find offensive about Brielle Penkoski’s T-shirt stunt:
It is not loving
What people like Reverend Rich Penkoski and his daughter don’t seem to get is that, in their rush to display their self-righteous zeal, they have forgotten some of the very core tenets of the Christian faith.
Jesus himself summarized his message in two simple statements: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself. All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”
Basically, we ought to love God and love others.
The problem with wearing a T-Shirt like the one that Brielle Penkoski wore is that it is not a loving action. There is absolutely no way on God’s earth that this T-shirt was worn for any other reason than to provoke, incite and inflame.
Still, there are Christians out there who convince themselves that it is a loving thing to do to tell everyone how wicked and sinful they are. Back in 2014, megachurch Pastor Mark Driscoll infamously tweeted this:
Of course, Driscoll would be an expert on unloving behavior given that later that year, he was forced to resign from his position following accusations of bullying, plagiarism, misuse of church funds and for propagating his evangelical brand of toxic masculinity (He once labeled wives as penis homes).
Another, more recent example, is famous Australian Rugby player, Israel Folau, who posted this on Instagram:
As the media storm surrounding Folau’s post unfolded, Folau refused to retract his comments insisting that he had made them “out of love.” Folau’s cousin was quoted as saying, “If you truly love someone, just as Israel loves everyone, you would want to warn people.” Folau subsequently had his lucrative Rugby contract torn up and was thrown out of the sport for good.
Given the response to Folau’s comments, I suggest that most people would struggle to see how telling someone that their lifestyle is wicked and sinful, is a loving action. In fact, it’s nothing more than condemnation and judgement dressed up as false concern. Further, the mental health challenges that LGBTIQ youth face is significant enough without the church heaping guilt and shame on top. Bravo to the school Principal who evicted this girl with her insensitive T-shirt!
It is not helpful
Do people like Penkoski, Driscoll and Folau really believe that by sharing these kind messages, they are really drawing anyone closer to belief in Christ? More than likely they are having the opposite effect. Have you ever known a homosexual to fall to their knees in repentance, loudly declaring, “I have seen the light,” when a Christian tells them how sinful they are?
Let’s imagine — in a purely fictional sense of course — that the message that they are bringing is actually true. When you wield the truth like a wooden club and bludgeon people over the head with it, do you suppose you will convince anyone that your God is loving? And, even if your perspective is true, would sharing it in such a way be conducive to people listening?
Of course not.
If you really wanted to convince people that Christianity of some value to their lives, perhaps you could start by sharing the many benefits — existential meaning, purpose, value, love, grace, acceptance, community, and free and unrestricted access to the divine — to name a few. Isn’t this a better approach than saying, “In my opinion, you’re a wicked and horrible person, but I have all the answers you need?” I don’t know anyone who has been ‘judged’ into changing their life.
It is not intelligent
Gender identity and sexuality issues are complex. So, maybe Christian ministers ought to be a little bit more circumspect before spouting their uneducated opinions about such matters both on social media, in front of their own congregations and especially on T-shirts.
Blanket statements are rarely helpful. Broad generalizations do not account for the stories of individuals. Oversimplifying complex issues does nobody any favors. If you don’t treat these issues with the considerate nuance that they deserve, you end up being a nuisance.
The kind of thinking that reduces everything down to just two options where one is the right way and one is the wrong way is known as dualism. Dualism is essentially binary, either/or thinking. It knows by comparison, opposition, and differentiation. It uses descriptive words like good/evil, black/white, in/out, not realizing there may be a hundred degrees between the two ends of each spectrum.
Dualistic thinking works well for the sake of simplification and conversation, but not for the sake of truth or the immense subtlety of actual personal experience. Or, to put it simply, this kind of thinking takes no account of the individual person which is exactly the opposite approach to that of Jesus Christ.
It is not asked for
Many people in the West no longer consider themselves Christian. They’re not pretending to be Christians, so why would they adopt Christian values or morals? If anything, non-Christians act in ways that are more consistent with their value system, because at least they are living out what they believe — not saying one thing and doing another. The same could not be said about many Christians.
On the other hand, Jesus never blamed non-Christians for acting like non-Christians. The Apostle Paul stated it explicit when he said that the rightness and wrongness of what people outside of the faith do, is not ours to judge. If you want to judge anyone, judge yourself. We are instructed in the Bible to not attempt to moralize those who are not Christians.
It is not clear cut
All the haters will come at me for making this comment, but I’ll make it anyway. I am one of many Christians who is not convinced that the Bible condemns homosexuality, as many modern Christians understand it. Whether or not homosexuality is a sin is not as clear cut as many hardcore believers make out.
However, the Bible’s instruction to love others is clear cut. So is showing mercy and compassion. So is treating people with dignity and respect. The Bible clearly speaks out against exploitation, favoritism and greed. Jesus Christ’s stand against self-righteousness and performance-based religion is unmistakable. Therefore, I will try to live my life by making a clear stand on those things which I believe the Bible is clear about. Homosexuality is not one of those things.
It is self-righteous
What Christians seem to forget is that the main group of people that Jesus had a problem with was not sinners. In fact, Jesus was kind to sinners. On the other hand, he was hard on the self-righteous — those who were living out this kind of heartless, cold and arrogant brand of religion— the kind that looks down on others and judges others, while simultaneously congratulating oneself on having it all together. In Jesus’s day, many of those kind of believers were present in a group known as the Pharisees.
One of the most common, negative things I hear about Christians is that our attitudes and behaviors more closely resemble the Pharisees, rather than Jesus. There is plenty of empirical evidence to support this view. However, George Barna decided to go one step further when he conducted a research project entitled, “Are Christians more like Jesus or Pharisees?”
In his research, Christians were asked to look at twenty different statements — 10 that reflect Christ-like attitudes and behaviors, and 10 that reflect Pharisaical attitudes and behaviors, and asked them to state their level of agreement with each statement. For example, some of the Christ-like attitudes included these statements:
- I believe God is for everyone.
- I feel compassion for people who are not following God and doing immoral things.
- I am personally spending time with non-believers to help them follow Jesus.
Christians had to say how much they agreed with these statements. On the other hand, some of the Pharisaical attitudes included things like:
- I find it hard to be friends with people who seem to constantly do the wrong things.
- I try to avoid spending time with people who are openly gay or lesbian.
- People who follow God’s rules are better than those who do not.
And Christians had to rate how much they agreed with these statements as well. Using these 20 statements, the researchers created a score for each individual and placed those results into one of four categories, or quadrants:
- Christ-like in action and attitude
- Christ-like in action, but not in attitude
- Christ-like in attitude, but not action
- Christ-like in neither
The findings revealed that most self-identified Christians are characterized by having the attitudes and actions researchers identified as Pharisaical. Just over half of the nation’s Christians — using the broadest definition of those who call themselves Christians — qualify for this category (51%). They tend to have attitudes and actions that are characterized by self-righteousness.
On the other end of the spectrum, 14% of today’s self-identified Christians — just one out of every seven Christians — seem to represent the actions and attitudes Barna researchers found to be consistent with those of Jesus.
Who could blame non-Christians for calling us hypocrites?
What kind of T-Shirt would Jesus wear?
The Jesus that I know would never turn up to school wearing a T-shirt that says “Homosexuality is a sin.” But, imagine for a moment that Jesus did have the benefit of visiting the Teepublic website and selecting his own attire. What message do you think Jesus would want emblazoned across his chest?
How about, “Everyone matters to God” or maybe “You are loved” or how about, “I build bridges, not walls?”
Or maybe — just maybe — Jesus wouldn’t need a slogan plastered across a T-shirt at all. Maybe he wouldn’t need to advertise what he was on about at all. And maybe the very things that Jesus stood for would be evident by his actions, and the way he lived his life: He served the unfortunate, healed the sick, bound up the broken-hearted, welcomed the reject, touched the untouchable, regarded the ostracized and surrendered his life for the sake of others. At the same time, he challenged systems of power and oppression, called out spiritual abuse, named the hypocrisy in the religious establishment, condemned self-righteousness and completely rejected performance-based religion. He was simultaneously the most merciful and the most fair-minded man to ever walk the earth. He embodied love.
What is more, he got his message across without the help of T-shirts.
This post was previously published on Medium.com.
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Photo credit: Robert V. Ruggiero on Unsplash