“Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way he asked his disciples, ‘Who do people say that I am?’ And they answered him, ‘John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.’ He asked them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’ Peter answered him, ‘You are the Messiah.'”
– Mark 8:27-29 (NRSV)
I’ve mentioned a few times that I’m writing a novel, but I’ve intentionally revealed absolutely nothing about it. You know nothing about the plot, the setting, or the characters, and I’ve kept those secret because I’m nowhere near ready to start promoting my book yet.
But I read something a few days ago that compels me to break my silence, because my novel isn’t a light, entertaining beach-read. It deals with a very real and very harmful issue: spiritual abuse.
The novel takes place within the world of fundamentalist Christian patriarchy. This is not an historical novel. Nor is it an alternative history / dystopian fantasy novel. For thousands (if not millions) of people living in the United States today, this is real life. You can see a highly selective and sanitized example of this lifestyle on TLC’s “19 Kids and Counting.”
I was not raised in this environment, nor have I had any personal involvement in it as an adult. But I’ve been fascinated by it (in an anthropological sort of way) for a couple of years now, and have been researching it by following the blogs of some who promote that lifestyle, some who happily live that lifestyle, and some who have escaped that lifestyle.
It was a recent post from one of those last blogs that compels me to write today. Lisa Bennet (which I believe is a pseudonym to protect her family’s privacy) is the eldest daughter of a family steeped in the Christian patriarchy lifestyle. She escaped a few years ago at great personal cost, and is making a new life for herself in Germany. She seems to be doing quite well and blogs about her experiences at Broken Daughters. In a recent post she updated her readers on where she is with her faith.
“You know, I really want to be an atheist. Sometimes I believe that’s what I am. There are days when I have that summery, beachy way of freedom. Those days where you think that your entire life is in your hands. That you’re not just some sort of marionette in the hands of an all-knowing, universal punisher…Other days again I am angry. No, I am furious. I don’t know if you can understand just how furious I get. I hate God with all my being. I know he’s there, and I hate him, and I want to spit in his face for all the terrible things he does. He is not good, he is not just, he is an evil, evil and mean little child who steps on ants and burns them just for fun. I feel for satan – I wouldn’t want to deal with the evil big guy either. Maybe satan is actually trying to save us from God’s wicked ways. Maybe he’s the only one who understood everything that was wrong with the big punisher all along. I want to scream and yell at God that I’d rather spend eternity in hell than with him, because hell can’t be worse than an eternity at the feet of such a gruesome, evil being. I get so angry that I want to hurt everyone who believes in God. I want to tell them that hating people for being gay is awful and disgusting and terrible. I want to tell them that treating women as doormats is stupid and gross. I want to tell them that all they believe is a joke. So an extraterrestrial being snapped us all into existence? And you want to tell me that evolution doesn’t make sense? Please!…And then, I am sad…I wish I wouldn’t have to throw everything away to be religious. For me, there is no middle ground, no grey area. Faith in God still means complete and utter self-denial. I thought this might change at some point, but I’m losing hope. I want to be a part of christianity, but I don’t want to join the choir of hate speech and judgement that I see everywhere.”
These words cut me deeply.
I don’t doubt her pain and I don’t wonder at her conflicted feelings. With the belief system she was raised in, her experiences with faith and God are both understandable and completely justified.
And I stand accused and convicted by her words, because I have failed Lisa and those like her. I belong to a faith community that is still failing her.
As I said before, I have no personal involvement in fundamentalist Christian patriarchy. But I am a Christian.
I’m a Christian, but I’m not a marionette in the hands of an all-knowing universal punisher. I don’t worship an evil, mean, childish god who steps on ants and burns them just for fun. I’m a Christian who doesn’t hate people for being gay or treat women like doormats (I’m proud to belong to a denomination that ordains both men and women as pastors, regardless of sexual orientation). I’m a Christian whose faith can easily coexist with scientific discoveries. I’m a Christian who doesn’t sing in that choir of hate speech and judgment you see everywhere.
And that is why I stand convicted. Lisa isn’t the only one who views God and Christianity that way; most polls demonstrate that a majority of people who do not currently consider themselves Christian (either ex-Christians or never-Christians) identify the Christian Church with bigotry and hate. Christians like me haven’t done enough to counter that perception. We’re so concerned about offending people or–God forbid!–being mistaken for those other Christians that we’re virtually silent about the loving God we worship and the healing power of grace.
Our God isn’t a tyrant. Our Savior came to save, not to condemn. Our faith recognizes human weakness and brokenness as valid states of being, and offers a God we can lean on in our vulnerability. Our spiritual practices work hand in hand with modern medicine for physical and mental health and wholeness, and our religion recognizes every human being as created in the image of God and deserving of dignity and agency.
We’re not perfect; God knows that and so does everybody else. We might be the Body of Christ on earth, but we’re made up of human beings, with all our character flaws and moral failings firmly intact.
But we have been too silent for too long. We’ve let others define our religion and our God in harmful and toxic ways, and we’ve failed people like Lisa, who long for Christian acceptance and receive condemnation or (at best) indifference instead.
I don’t know what my novel will accomplish, but I’m writing this post now because I don’t want to wait until I’m ready to publish to make people aware of the terrible price of our silence.
If your faith resembles the one that I embrace and you’re offended by the God Lisa describes, PLEASE SPEAK OUT!!! Drown out the choir of hate speech with choruses of ‘God so loved the world,’ and then act on the love and the grace that you’ve received. Don’t keep it to yourself; let people like Lisa know that you’re out there, and that they are loved and accepted as they are, doubts, fears, anger, and all. Let them know that you’re approachable, but let them approach you in their own time and on their own terms, because they have suffered tremendous abuse in the name of your loving God.
Lisa, I’m so sorry you experienced what you did, and I’m sorry that we have failed you.
I truly hope you find peace.