Still Rebuilding: When Christianity Robs You of Your Very Personhood

There’s this lie.

This lie I was spoon fed from birth. A lie they put in an IV drip, one I carried with me always, until the lie became my very blood. A lie that lives, still, at the very center of me. Of everything. This lie:

At my heart of hearts, I believe that I do not deserve to exist.

But this lie is really made up of many littler lies. Lies in the form of sermons and scripture, bible stories, song lyrics, prayer sayings, Christianese lines. I broke these down in a draft of a letter to my church. They taught me I have no right to exist. I learned that and more.

1. You taught us that we were tiny, insubstantial, miscellaneous compared to God. That we were utterly worthless and wicked and we should be so so soooooo grateful that gosh, wasn’t Jesus just SWELL for deigning to even notice that we existed?

I learned that I was unimportant (unless it was to God) and that having any sort of pride or understanding of my place in the world was foolish and shockingly arrogant. I feel like I am forever part of the background — never part of real life or relating to other human beings. I am always on the sidelines socially, and I keep myself there because I haven’t realized that I deserve and am entitled to more. I feel I do not belong and am only allowed to be there.

I am situationally mute — I have a hard time speaking and interacting with other people — because I feel like I don’t have the right to participate in life. The rest of you are main players, and I am an NPC, a non-playable character you walk up to to get info or some useful trinket from and then continue on your adventure. I am part of the background, and not the action, the real, complex, hands-on act of relating to other human beings.

And that is because I was taught that I am literally part of the background in God’s universe. My church got into Francis Chan’s book Crazy Love when I was in early high school, and I adored it. I read and reread that book word for word so many times I still have it memorized. Looking back now, every word makes me sick and enraged.

“I am still dumb enough to forget that life is all about God and not about me at all …

Suppose you are an extra in an upcoming movie. You will probably scrutinize that one scene where hundreds of people are milling around, just waiting for that two-fifths of a second when you can see the back of your head. Maybe your mom and your closest friend get excited about that two-fifths of a second with you … maybe. But no one else will realize it is you. Even if you tell them, they won’t care.” (pg 42)

Francis Chan went on to say that this movie is life, and to describe anyone who thinks that their life is about them as “delusional.” Today, I still operate like I am an extra who appears for two-fifths of a second in the movie of life, except everyone else is a main character and I am not.

2. You taught us that everything good we did was God through us, since we had died and Christ was living through us. All that we were was our sins and our weaknesses. We gave credit for everything good, admirable, or unique about us to God, saying it was not us.

I learned to mentally separate all of my strengths, uniquenesses, and goodnesses away from my view of myself until my self splintered. I now see myself as multiple selves. When people compliment me, I feel like they are talking about someone else, because I’m so used to thinking that it is literally not me. I am going to have to reconcile these parts of myself now, incorporate myselves back into a healed whole.

3. You taught us that we did not belong to ourselves. That the REASON FOR OUR EXISTENCE was to serve God. Forever. That we were to be his literal slaves. And on top of that, that we should be OVERJOYED for the chance to be, and that this was our entire identity. Nothing else mattered.

I learned that I only existed to serve other people, and that my own desires, ambitions, and joys did not matter — in fact, they were foolish, dangerous, and arrogant. I learned I had no right to prioritize myself or want anything for myself. The thought of telling people when something is painful, uncomfortable, or less than I deserve is utterly terrifying because I was expected to THANK God for all of my suffering. It was there to make me rely on him and realize just how lost I was without him and I was literally supposed to rejoice in it like Job did, like Paul did. Suffering was a natural part of life and what I deserved in the first place.

4. You taught us that we needed to actively deny our desires and ambitions, because only what God wanted mattered. Our career interests, our thought life, the movies we watched, the people we befriended, how we spoke, it was all up to God, not us. We would be what God wanted us to be in life to further his kingdom.

I learned that it was selfish to want things, and that I had no right to do so. I find it extremely hard to communicate what I want. In a world where everything is about God and you are meant to reduce yourself down to nothing, I was encouraged to stifle my own desires. In fact, these things were foolish, selfish, even evil. I find it humiliating to admit I want things with other people now, from friendships to sex — and a little scary, because I can’t help feeling like someone will come punish me for daring to think I’m person enough to want things out loud.

But altogether, these are basic parts of human existence. Having a place in the world, understanding what you’re worth and what you deserve, expressing what you want. This is what being a person IS. My church’s Christianity wanted me to stop being a person. It literally wanted me to become nothing so God could have all the glory. It wanted me to exist as little as possible. To believe I didn’t deserve to exist.

Believe is not even the right word. Know is better. It was taught, the way a woodpecker teaches wood to make way for its beak. Until it was as familiar as skin: I don’t deserve to exist. I don’t exist. I don’t exist like you do. I’m 20 years old, and I am realizing that I believe this for the first time.

I think this lie was pounded into me so hard that it went straight through me.

daughterslave

  • Luke 17:10: “So you also, when you have done all that you were commanded, say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty.’ ”
  • Galatians 2:20: “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.”
  • Luke 14:26: “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.”
  • John 3:30: “He must increase, but I must decrease.”

This is not the first time I’ve written about how horrific Christianity can be to self-esteem. But it is the first time I see just how insidiously and viscerally it has affected me — like corkscrewing the middle out from me. I don’t believe that I deserve to exist. I don’t believe that I am entitled to taking up space, having strengths, wanting things out of life, or being a person in general.

This kind of thinking is insidious. It eats you like acid. It breaks you down little by little, saying not just “you can’t want things” but “how DARE you want things,” not just “don’t think you have a priority in your own life” but “don’t be SO DELUSIONAL as to think you have a priority in your own life,” until your self-esteem dissolves away. 

Growing up, I was taught that these beliefs were ultimate good, ultimate truth. 

Right now, today, I see it for what it is. I think it’s deep evil. I think it’s a sickening, horrifying lie, and it enrages me that people in my church (and around the world) are still being taught this. Little kids are still being raised like this, still having their hearts and minds broken down until they find themselves where I am: 20 years old, and realizing for the first time that they don’t feel like they have the right to be a person.

But there is a person inside me, a self that has been hidden for a long time. A self that some wise and desperate part of me managed to secret away from the all-consuming destruction that my Christianity wrought. The person I would’ve-could’ve been if I hadn’t been indoctrinated, abused. The person I still am at my heart of hearts, and one day will be inside and out. A self I am reconciling with, apologizing to, learning about, and falling in love with.

This self loves me. This self I meet in my inner world, in woods fragrant with moonlight, jasmine, shifting murmurs and movement, in parking lots, in palaces. This self knows who I am and what I deserve. We’re going to work together to learn how to exist with boldness, pride, joy. To really take up space. To take part in life, to be a main character.

I am going to spend the next few weeks thinking about what it means to be a person. This status, this act, this way of living life itself that I’ve been denied for so long. That I am going to reclaim, “little by little every day, little by little in every way.” And I am going to come back and share what I learn with you all.

Then I’m going to do a scathing chapter by chapter review of Crazy Love, because FUCK that book.

(Edit 8/6/17 for grammar/link colors)

I Didn’t Fall From Grace, I Leapt to Freedom: Ex-Timony of a Half-Disowned Bisexual Apostate

It’s funny. If you had sat me down 5 years ago and told me that one day I’d be a blasphemy-loving bisexual apostate who had finally come out to her parents, gotten cut off, and called it all the best thing to ever happen to her, I probably would’ve laughed. Or cried. Maybe a little of both.

Certainty

Just picture it: high school aged me, little pink Bible in tow, memorizing Scripture verses in our church’s “Approved Workers Are Not Ashamed” Friday night program like any other week. I was not a picture of joyful heresy.

Back then, see, Jesus was still my everything. I was still eager servant to the God of the Universe for my forever and ever, still believed that was the only right and happy and good way to live in the first place, as my Chinese American Baptist church taught. I still sang songs like “your will above all else, my purpose remains: the art of losing myself in giving you praise” with all my heart. I still got down on my knees weekly to rededicate my whole soul to God. And so on and on.

All my life, too, I’d heard of the fabled fallaways, apostates. I could never understand how anyone could know the indescribable joy and peace and hope of Christ, live a life for Him … and leave. For what? Nonbelievers were supposed to be dangerous, blind, with empty lives not worth living; atheists were all secretly miserable. My greatest wish was that I never became one of them. At annual summer camp, I sang “I have decided to follow Jesus, no turning back, no turning back” with tears in my eyes.

Doubt

Maybe that’s why, when I began to have my first doubts in high school, I never saw it coming. I still don’t remember when it happened, or how, or what even did happen — my brain has blocked those memories out. Was it conversations with kids at school — exposing me to a world beyond my insulated church? Websites, videos, or just a slow, wordless dawning that came naturally with my age? I don’t know.

But it began a tug-of-war that lasted years: the ever-echoing could it all be wrong? locking me in a spiral. Every week, seeing the moral and logical discrepancies in what I’d always taught was the only accurate, just, and fulfilling belief system in the world would push me to my breaking point, and I’d think “screw it all” for a few short hours until some sermon or song lyric would “convict” me to return to God on my knees.

Hiding

By senior year, I had somehow reached the point where the terror of hell and wasting my salvation couldn’t chase me back to the foot of my bed in prayer anymore. I no longer believed. I had also realized that I was bisexual. That brought a new all-consuming problem: I couldn’t let anyone find out. 

My parents, while they loved me, could be controlling, punishing, and zealous. I didn’t know yet that it wasn’t normal, but I did know it wasn’t safe. I had no idea how my parents would react if they knew I was bi and a nonbeliever, but it could be anything from getting disowned and kicked out, physically punished and trapped, sent to conversion therapy, and so on. 

So I passed my time in fear. The summer before I went away to college, the pressure of having to keep pretending I believed to everyone I’d grown up with, singing to a God I loved all my life but who never even existed, and keeping my sexuality and true beliefs a secret, all 2-3 times a week, got to me. I nearly attempted suicide a few times, but I made it to college — a liberal, Jewish-influenced university 5 hours away.

College changed everything for me. For the first time, I could say my secrets aloud. I had a lot to learn; I didn’t know who Drake and Beyonce were, I was afraid of alcohol, I didn’t know how to hang out with people. But from the very first moment, I was free to be who I’d always dreamed I could be, beneath the secrecy and fear. I went from a situationally mute high schooler to someone friendly, energetic, open-hearted, and involved in more activities and activist leadership roles than I could remember.

I continued living a double life at home, though, and it was poisoning me. Every time I went home for break, I wondered if I’d come out the other side. Having to keep pretending at church was hell, and I’m not made for hiding. I would revert to the small, powerless, trapped self I’d been, and my Christian indoctrination would rewrite my brain. I almost tried to kill myself one or two more times, and I realized in winter of freshman year that my parents could find out my secrets at any time because of short fiction pieces I’d had published. 

So I started preparing for the day my parents found out. I knew at the very least they would stop paying for college, and if it happened over break, I’d be trapped with them. So I called local shelters, memorized crisis numbers, packed a runaway bag with me at all times, and went to the campus Bible study, which was even more toxic than my church and originated from a cult. When I went home for the summer after freshman year, I truly thought that I would not make it out alive.

But I did. And even this brought troubles with it. I had not expected to survive and for the last half of 2016, I wished I hadn’t. I didn’t know what the point was. I felt I’d been lucky for having kept my sexuality and disbelief a secret for this long, and it was just a matter of time before my parents found out, I was disowned, homeless, and had to drop out of college, and I thought I would kill myself or be killed when that time came. I also didn’t know how to leave Christianity behind fully; my double life kept me anchored still in that world. What did life as a non-Christian even look like?

Healing

But something happened on Christmas Eve of that year. I was desperate, drowning in the memories of how I lost my God, my self, and my family, friends, and world without anyone even knowing, and close to suicide. So I called the Trevor Life Line. A woman picked up, and we talked, and for some reason, while I was sitting on my bed with that tear-streaked phone, I understood why leaving and living in the aftermath of my fundamentalist religion was so damn hard. I saw my past self, everything she had gone through. I saw my past glowing like a path. 

I can’t explain what came next. I think of it like a fever break, forceful, sudden, and thorough as first hail, tongue of fire, riptide. I started healing. Apparently the term for this is post-traumatic growth: a phenomenon where, after trauma, your view of the world and your self evolve into appreciation, openness, adventure, spirituality, and gratefulness. And in the mountains by Vegas as the year turned 2017, that began.

I spent the next few months coming into myself. The world exploded into a wide-open kaleidoscope of possibilities, adventures, opportunities. I realized that the idea of a conventional life: 9-5 job, stationery, family and retirement, bored me. I wanted experiences out of life, and there were so many fewer rules than my religion had led me to believe. I’d discovered absurdism, the idea that life has no inherent meaning, in the autumn, and it didn’t depress me — it excited me. 

And then came March 19.

Leaping

This day, like so many other events in my deconversion, I cannot fully explain. Here, too, it’s like there was something wordless, instinctual, and invisible in me, guiding. It knew, I think. It knew that I deserved more than the hiding I’d been doing for the past five years. It knew that if this new self was to keep growing and healing, the hiding had to stop.

And so, during a late-night routine phone call with my parents on Sunday, March 19, I ended up telling my parents that I was bi and a disbeliever. The whole thing was surreal, none of it planned. It just happened: halfway through the conversation, something unknown in me reached a tipping point, and the words forced themselves out of my mouth.

After all this time hiding, I had never imagined I would be the one to tell them, to bring the consequences I was terrified of down on my own head. My parents told me they were no longer paying for college. They asked what they had done to deserve this.

But it happened. After I hung up the phone at 2 am, I curled up and cried into my stuffed panda. And one minute later I straightened myself up. I breathed deeply. And I launched into action. I told my suitemates next door what had happened, I emailed every university employee I needed to, I paced the common room floor, feeling the carpet under my bare feet, drinking in the redness of the dull EXIT sign.

Everything was a thousand times more real. I knew what lay ahead would be grueling. I knew the person I would’ve become if the phone call never happened would never exist now; instead, there would be a new one, called on to survive all that was coming.

And yet, when I woke up in the morning that same day, all I felt going forward was a deep peace. As I told friends, professors, financial aid advisers, and bosses what had happened, I did it with grace, humor, and that peace. I didn’t know if I would still be able to go to college or have a place to stay come summer; to be honest, I’d never imagined this ending anywhere but with me as a homeless dropout. And yet, in this new reality, I knew I would find a way to be okay because I had me, the me I’d been healing and growing into since Christmas Eve.

So I did all the things I needed to do to stay in college. I filed my first tax return at 5 am on a Wednesday. I wrote a 13-page letter to the financial aid office, appealing for a grant of independent status by describing my abuse and trauma narrative with details I had never told anyone before, hoping they would consider it “bad enough” for me to be allowed to try to pay for college by myself. I got a 4th job and started waitressing with no prior experience during finals season. I started a fundraiser for summer living expenses that went over its goal in 3 days. 

And through it all I found more love, support, and grace than I ever expected. From all sides. I found out I had friends who were working through college as independents and got advice (and my 4th job lead) from them. The financial aid adviser turned out to be queer with abusive parents just like me, and my academic adviser, a wonderful man with a husband, went through the same thing himself in college. My supervisor at work and my therapist advocated for me. A friend from high school shared my fundraiser on Facebook, and ex-religious friends from online, readers of my poetry and short fiction, and people I hadn’t seen from as far back as fifth grade donated and encouraged me. I made new friendships and deeply strengthened and restarted old ones.

Freedom

After it all, just before finals, I heard that dependency override to the financial aid office was accepted, and I applied for financial aid. What I heard back still floors me.

I won’t need to pay for any tuition out of pocket, other than the usual loans I’ve already been taking. I’ve been given free on campus housing this summer through a job (in the financial aid office!) with someone who’s been unbelievably generous to me this whole way. And with my new waitressing job? I am gonna be okay. 

But I’m so much more than just okay. I am thriving. On a level I’ve never seen before. 

I enjoy going to work because I love the people I’m with. I make good money on my tips, and I’ve heard that I’m good at my job for someone who’s just started. Waitressing is throwing all the areas of situational mutism that I need to recover in my face, and while it’s definitely hard, I’ve grown so much as a person just in the past 2 weeks.

I’m planning to get the blasphemous badass tattoos I’ve dreamed of this summer, and I may finally change my name to my preferred, Max. I’m going to sharpen my harp skills at a Renaissance music camp on full scholarship for a week. I’m hanging out with friends, making new ones and learning to connect.

I’m going back to my old high school, empowered by finally being out, to make things better for LGBTQ+ people, while I also organize Asian American advocacy events, plan LGBTQ+ resource improvement at my university, and try to build community and resources for people who are recovering from and transitioning out of religious communities just like me. 

Life is an adventure now. Life is open, and full of possibilities, and while the world can be sketchy and complicated as hell, I’m all in it now, and it in me. I wanna travel, to live an unconventional life, to become and grow and heal every day. I am not just the person I always dreamed of being as a closeted, scared, traumatized born again Christian kid … I am becoming someone I didn’t even know I could be, and falling in love with them.

Before I lost my faith, my self, my world, I was supposed to go to a Bible Institute. Become a missionary, live my whole life for Jesus. Now, I’m a soon-to-be-tatted bisexual apostate, financially independent from her family, recovering from situational mutism, depression, disordered eating, and religious trauma, and an aspiring community/clinical social worker dedicated to empowering ex-religious people. I never saw this coming, but I’m so happy it did.

There’s a poem I read today that I think sums this all up. Fittingly, it’s “Autobiography of Eve” by Ansel Elkins.

Wearing nothing but snakeskin
boots, I blazed a footpath, the first
radical road out of that old kingdom
toward a new unknown.
When I came to those great flaming gates
of burning gold,
I stood alone in terror at the threshold
between Paradise and Earth.
There I heard a mysterious echo:
my own voice
singing to me from across the forbidden
side. I shook awake—
at once alive in a blaze of green fire.

Let it be known: I did not fall from grace.

I leapt
to freedom.

 

Backing Slowly Away from Hell: Post-Traumatic Growth and Deconversion

“Sometimes you can only find heaven by backing slowly away from hell.”

Carrie Fisher quotes are a great start to any blog post, amirite?

Seriously though, I’ve got that quote up on my dorm room wall in red-orange pen, complete with a grinning skull doodle that I like to think Carrie would’ve appreciated. It’s there because it’s a really great way to sum up how my deconversion from Evangelical Christianity, and my struggle to survive in a new and godless reality, has been for the past five years. Backing slooowly away from hell, and a damn deep tan to go with it.

See, I was raised an Evangelical Christian, and being born again, being on fire for God, being in a singular and transformative and divine relationship with Jesus, that was everything to me. It’s what I based my imagination of the future, my goals, my social life, my thoughts, my speech, my daily routine, my values, my beliefs about the whole world, all around.

And then in high school, over a slow and shattering period of time, I quietly lost my belief. I realized that what I’d been taught wasn’t just wrong, it was toxic. But when I lost my belief, I lost my God, and I lost my very self. I went on pretending I still believed, not knowing how my parents would react, and the added agony of hiding it all meant that my relationships with my best friends, my church family, and my parents withered away.

I went to college. I was struggling with depression, dissociation, situational mutism, social anxiety, and the trauma of growing up and emotionally leaving the community and lifestyle that I was still physically trapped in. And then I met a man we’ll call Jonathan. And I loved him – human to human, I loved him, because he showed me love and grace, and with him I healed. He was there with me when I became obsessed with my spiritual trauma, when I went full hermit and descended into my depression and disordered eating. He saw me, witnessed me, and he was with me, unlike anyone I knew before.

And then he left. He left his job at my university right before the summer of freshman year, a summer I fully believed I would not survive, because I was going back home, and I expected the pain of hiding my loss to kill me. And that summer was hell. There was a pain, and an agony, and a redness in me, day after day. It also hit me that if my parents found out I was gay and godless, I wasn’t guaranteed safe, so I packed a secret duffel bag, memorized shelter numbers, planned out bus routes. Some days I was drowning in that red pain, because when Jon left, it was like he had died, and I had died with him. After all, he was my therapist, so I didn’t know if I’d ever see or speak to him again.

But I did survive that summer. In fall semester of sophomore year, I had to deal with the unpleasant, unexpected surprise of, uh, still being alive. Fall semester was another type of hell. I was alive, but I didn’t think it would last. There was something coming that I’d have to survive and I didn’t see the point of trying. I couldn’t see a future. Almost everything I’d believed in and loved had been a sick lie. I had lost myself, but never gone about creating a new one. I stayed in my room. I started compulsively visiting the nearby chapel, crying my eyes out, asking aloud how I was supposed to leave God behind when I had no idea how or what that even looked like. Winter break, I almost killed myself.

And then 2017 came.

And I don’t know how to explain it. I don’t know how to make a story out of this. I don’t need to, I think, or even want to, really. But it was like the breaking of a fever. And suddenly, I began to heal. I can pick out touchstones in that process now, small moments when my direction changed:

After the summer, like a cool slow breeze, I began to allow myself to imagine a future. It started with a 3-second byte: me, holding a mug, walking into a room in a cardigan. And it grew, very slowly. I wanted to do social work, help other people who were struggling to recover from their faiths like I was.

Before winter break, like lightning, like a rushing tide, sitting minding my own business in my therapist’s office, I wanted to live again, and I swear I felt my future self touch me. Out of goddamn nowhere. 

Moments after the clock struck 2017, I felt like my spirit pivoted, and all the hells I had been through were behind me. I was facing forward. I didn’t know how to live without God, to make a life despite the fact that I’d always heard that non-Christians were miserable and purposeless and destined for destruction. But hell if I wasn’t gonna try. Because I was tired of wasting away and hurting and feeling so damn lost. I was done with it.

It’s February now. And it’s still so hard to explain – but my God, I think I want to live. I am changed. Where I once believed that my only purpose in life was to glorify God, now I believe that life doesn’t have a purpose at all, and it’s incredibly, gloriously liberating. Absurdism freed me. I have learned how to love and let go at the same time, and while I will always miss and cherish Jon, after months of processing and hurting, I know I am a different person because he left, more gracious, more inspired, more tender. And I’m figuring out who I wanna be through who I can be, discovering just how damn much I love the idea that life doesn’t actually have as many rules as I thought.

I was thinking about all this last night – how I am changed through it all, miraculously, unbelievably, because I never saw any of this coming. It just happened to me. Again, like a fever breaking, like a chemical reaction. Old bonds were broken, new ones formed, structure reshaped and properties transformed… it’s a whole new look, boys. I feel brighter, cleaner, fresher. I feel renewed. I feel alive.

It turns out that this type of change is called post-traumatic growth. I stumbled on this idea by complete accident this morning. Post-traumatic growth is a positive change experienced as a result of the struggle with a major life crisis or a traumatic event. According to the Posttraumatic Growth Research Group, it’s got 5 major areas: awareness of new possibilities in life, warmer relationships and kinship with suffering people, a sense of personal strength, a greater appreciation for life, and a change or deepening in spiritual beliefs.

While people who go through trauma can face post traumatic symptoms, including PTSD itself, they also change, they grow. And that is true for me, so true. I feel myself, my own spirit, changing shape and color and tenor. I would never want to relive everything I went through. But I also know that I am healing, and that I have learned invaluable lessons from some (not all) of the ways I was hurt.

Don’t get me wrong, it was hell, and I’m not in heaven; I’m not glad I went through any of it. But I am really starting to like who I am now. I’m excited to see who I’m becoming. And I hope that you out there, you hurting/suffering/lost person, will find growth in your own way too. Even if you have to back ever so slowly away from hell to feel it. It’s the only reason this happens in the first place.

And don’t forget, if you’re already backing slowly away from hell, try and make s’mores while you’re at it.

Stray Thoughts in 2017: Being a Person, Community, Unexpected Good, and Loss, Like a Peculiar Fruit, Like Something Burning

Hey, we’re officially two months into 2017! So far, it’s been a mixed bag. A lot of great. A lot of no good, very bad nights and days, with the kind of trauma plot twists that are so horrific that all you can do is laugh. And a lot of unexpected good in between.

I thought in this post, I’d just mention a few things on my mind lately. Because there’s no one huge topic I want to write about right now – just a couple competing issues orbiting me like moons…

Just for some context, 2017 is a big-ass year for me. I’m now working 3 jobs (it sounds like a lot, even if it’s only 6.5-10 hours a week, and all very chill). I’m involved in leadership and community on campus like always. And I’m also taking the enormous step of trying to recover – from situational mutism, from depression, from Christianity, of trying to turn on my heel away from everything that has shackled me for so long and just peace on out into a better life. One that is both hell and heaven to make.

Been thinking lately about how to be a person. It’s probably no surprise that with everything I’m doing lately, I burned straight out two and a half weeks in. Right now, I couldn’t tell ya what kind of place I’m in, but it’s not where I was. I’m realizing that I don’t know how to relax, have fun, and casually exist. So my life right now includes a lot of me saying “nah” to commitments I would’ve jumped on before. “Fuck it” is the power phrase of the day.

Been thinking lately about belonging to a communityFor quite a few nights, I was really messed up (we’re talking suicidal), freaked out that the communities I’m in now would turn out to be toxic just like my church was. That I’d lose this home too – the first home I’ve had since I lost my church, everyone I loved and trusted, and the person I was. And that I’d just keep going through life finding and waking up to and losing homes. 

And then I realized that I’m thinking about people and communities all wrong. Can you guess who the culprit is? (That’s right. It’s Christian indoctrination. Gold star.) I guess if you grow up being taught that people are divided into groups of goodness, joy, love, and safety vs. wickedness, blindness, deceit, and danger, well. Let’s just say I never explicitly realized that humans are not whole good or bad.

But they are flawed – sometimes inexcusably, sometimes not. And that’s up to you. You decide who you want to stick around, who you want to stay the fuck away from, who you enjoy for the time being. Just because someone turns out to have fucked up, or to do something wrong or that you don’t agree with, doesn’t mean you have to shun and condemn them. All this time I thought I did. But instead – you trust your heart, but keep your eyes and ears open to the person in question, to other people’s experiences with that person, and to your own blind spots. Love wisely. 

Also been thinking about unexpected goodnessThe first week back in college was amazing. Recovery felt like it was going great. Then came the second and third weeks, and just… WOW. No. They were horrible on my mental health. But the Monday of this week, it was unexpectedly so easy to be a person and to work toward recovery, it felt like. And quite a few people care about me, it’s been revealed to me, in ways I didn’t expect, from places I didn’t expect. And I’m taking note of that now. I’m lucky and I’m glad.

And I’m thinking about how what I’m going through now is survivableI know that to other people it might sound crazy, but in the end, it’s chill. Just today, for example, I found out that the church that I have to go to in order to keep my family thinking I’m still a Christian? Yeah, it was founded by a former cult leader. And that’s just the most recent plot development with this situation. But my response was to just laugh. Honestly still is.

Thinking, last of all, about loss. So strange, going through hell yet knowing that you would not exist like you do now if you hadn’t. I lost someone, and I miss him in many ways, but they are littler and fewer and easier to breathe through as time goes on. I know that his sudden leaving was something I had to survive for months and months, that left a mark which shaped the body of the spirit I have today.

And I will always miss him and wish he hadn’t left and hope by some chance he’ll come back to work here, but I also have learned in the raw agony of losing him how to love and let go in a dozen different times and ways, to do life while knowing he’s out there doing life too, and that hopefully he’s happy-healthy-safe-secure as he does it —

And one day, maybe as we do life in separate parts of this planet, our paths will cross and we will do a little of our lives together. I know he’d like that. I didn’t make what he said up. I won’t forget it. And when that time comes, I’ll come look him up.

Strange, how the loss of another person will morph and ebb in you as time goes on, how it changes shape and taste and shrinks and rubs away at the edges, like a peculiar fruit, like something burning.

They Said Walking Away from God was Impossible. Watch Me.

From the very beginning, they said there was no walking away. They said I was in the palm of God’s hand, and nothing, no power of hell, no scheme of man, could ever pluck me out. They said no matter what happened, even if I somehow (gasp) stopped being a Christian, if God wanted me, he would always find a way to bring me back to him.

From the very beginning, God was it. Being “on fire” for him, serving him, being a living sacrifice for him, dying to myself so that he would increase – that was always the only life worth living. That was the only life that was possible to live.

I was born and raised in a church that taught that I exist is to stroke God’s ego glorify God. It proclaimed that without a relationship with God, without completely surrendering and sacrificing your life to him, without killing the self you were before you dedicated your very being to him and begging him to break and reshape you according to his will, well, life was completely and utterly empty, void of meaning, dark. Worthless. (Cue the crashing piano.)

It painted non-Christians as unsafe, depraved fools, conspirators, and enemies. It said that these poor people were like clueless babies, and we, the enlightened and blessed, were to, ah …humbly preach God’s message. This way, they too could have the only thing that made life remotely worth living. (Misery loves company?) It said that nonbelievers knew, deep down, that God exists. Those atheists were just denying it because they didn’t want to have to give up their lives to God. Can’t imagine why not.

And those people who left? The people who believed for years and years and years, who studied the Bible and sang and tithed with the rest of us, who were even worship leaders or Sunday School teachers or pastors themselves? They were never true believers. Because no one could ever know the only True Love in the universe and walk away from it.

And even if they somehow did? Well, God would hunt them down, just like he did Jonah. He would shipwreck us and we would come back. Someone we loved would die, or we’d lose our jobs or houses or minds, and God would use it to show us just how very powerless and useless we were without him. How generous.

All my life, all along, the message was crystal clear. Since some lady at the beginning of time chomped on a forbidden fruit, obviously all of humanity was utterly depraved forever and deserved to be eaten alive by worms for the rest of fiery eternity. Duh. I was worth less than a used tampon by my very nature.

But God, bless his heart, had the generosity to get tortured to death on a dead tree, even though nobody even asked, thus saving us all from ourselves – all for the low, low price of killing our spirits and pledging to unquestioningly obey and serve God forever as his children, slaves, and bride all rolled into one! And this was the epitome of love, by the way. So much so that non-Christians didn’t even know what real love was.

I have decided to follow Jesus, I sang, over and over and over. No turning back. No turning back.

I’ve heard that C-PTSD is especially tough on people who have got no concept of themselves before their trauma. They lived in danger ever since they could remember. It was all they knew. 

For myself and others who were raised in Evangelical/Baptist/Fundamentalist Christianity, leaving feels impossible because we have no concept of being people without believing and living out all this crap. It’s like we get Jesus Juice through an IV.

And then we stop believing. And that alone is hell enough. It takes months or years and some of us barely survive. It’s been roughly 5 years for me, and I’m still barely surviving it some days. Just the mere idea that I once knew the “Truth” and walked away from it – I never once imagined that could happen to me. And besides, I knew nothing about the secular world. It was supposed to be dangerous and utterly empty and depressing and blah blah blah. Even if I wanted to leave, how would I?

But it turns out, you can stop believing. Your entire world can melt away around you. And for a long time, yeah, it’ll blow your mind, because almost everything you loved and believed in turns out to be a bullshit casserole – there’s layers on layers of just how fucked up it all was. And for so long too, you’ll be shell-shocked. Because you don’t know how to exist, how to LIVE, without serving God, thanking him for everything, constantly apologizing and afraid and guilty and alert. Because you weren’t supposed to escape. And there will be so many others you know who didn’t, so why did you? 

But you are here. Surviving. And slowly, like a thaw, you learn how to live. And how to leave. And oh yeah, it’s fucking terrifying, and you don’t know what the hell you’re doing. But there is a point, a constellation of many points actually, where you actually start to want to be a person and live without God. To own yourself for the first time. And you may not see it coming, but it happens. And you’re doing it, as messy and awkward and funny and hard as shit that it is. Look, Ma, no hands!

There is no one point when you simply leave. You’re always leaving. It’s the art of leaving. You leave when you drink for the first time and a girl puts her hand on your thigh. You leave when you wake up late on a Sunday and the birds are chirping and you got nothing planned. You leave when you pick up a new hobby, strike up a conversation, start saving up for that tattoo. You leave from breath to breath as you exist, as you do and recover and feel and build what you want. You leave by living. And it’s fucking awesome. Ex-fundies do the impossible every day. Call us stuntmen.

They said I could never have a fulfilling life without God. I say, watch me.

2017 Resolution: This Story is Mine, and God No Longer Gets a Part.

 

 

A few weeks ago, I was sitting in yet another Sunday church service, waiting for it to finally end because look, they had lunch ready and there were meatballs and listening to a pastor spout off about how porn is satanic makes a girl hungry, damnit!

But prayer time dragged on. And on. It was about that time in service when people were praying (and crying) on the floor, and there was this one person who was just going at it. Sobbing so hard. Minutes passed. I was a little freaked out. But honestly, more hungry than anything.

And then finally someone appeared in the front of the room. Hallelujah. Meatball time.

If only.

I wanted the guy to open his mouth and say, “alright, time for lunch, let’s wrap it up!” That is not what the guy said. Instead the guy said, “today, in this church, a boy was just saved!” And everybody clapped. (Except me. I shuddered and whispered good game, obviously.)

At that point I was still young and naive. I was still hoping that meatballs were gonna be a thing. Except that wasn’t meatballs coming round to the mic. It was a kid, the one who just got “saved,” and he was a complete and total wreck. He had a piece of paper in his hands. He stood in front of the mic and he opened his mouth and my dreams of meatballs and emotional stability for the day shattered into a hundred little pieces.

Dear God,” he said, “only you know how much of a piece of trash I am.” That was his opening. He was sobbing so hard he could barely whisper. As his “testimony” went on, sometimes he couldn’t even do that. He called himself a liar of liars. I was crying with him at that point. He looked broken. He looked so broken.

He spit out the phrase “Internet porn” like a knot of wet hair, and my mind flew back to the sermon we’d all just heard, the one where the pastor proclaimed that porn was under the cloud of Satan (wherever the hell that is), the one that I joked off in my head but had probably ripped this kid’s heart to pieces. That one.

This boy was breaking my heart. I wanted to reach out and hug him. I was crying and shaking. This boy, standing right in front of me, was so convinced that he was disgusting, worthless. He was so ready to enter into an abusive relationship with God, the kind that had almost killed me, that I’m still to this day trying to survive. He looked and sounded so broken, that’s all I could keep thinking. In that moment, I thought, he looked anything but free.

And as I was sitting there, open-mouthed, wide-eyed, brokenhearted, the founder of the church sprang out of her front row seat, took the mic, and said, “He is free now!” And everybody clapped.

She talked and talked on. She was talking about nonsense. The boy stood next to her, saying nothing, motionless, his head slumped to his chest, staring at the floor. It was like there was nothing in him.

At one point she said, “Let’s all sing Our God Is So Good!” And everyone sang, except me, who was staring at this woman by now with unmitigated horror and hate. Did everyone else in the room really think this was normal? They applauded this boy for saying that he was a piece of trash. Three separate times.

We eventually did get to lunch. I wasn’t hungry by then, but I still ate. At least one thing that day went right. The meatballs were great.

A girl struck up a conversation with me. She looked me in the eyes and said, “yes, before that boy got saved God saw him as trash, and even now that he’s saved he’s still a piece of trash.” On the way back I wanted to scream. PEOPLE ARE WORTH SOMETHING.

Which is, I think, what leads me here. Today.

It’s been months and months since something happened that rocked me to my core. I thought I was going to die. I’ve spent months since wishing that I did. I didn’t want to live. I knew I was going to get cut off from my parents for being a queer nonbeliever. I didn’t want to survive that. I didn’t see the point. 

But the day after that service, wanting to live came. I was sitting down with my eyes closed when it came. I was trying to imagine a future (an exercise in impossibility, it felt like.) But it came. It came without warning, like a riptide, from somewhere below my throat. It was visceral, sudden, full-bodied, and all of a sudden it was like all of my being was lunging toward that one image of my future self. And God, this sounds so corny, so dramatic, but I swear in those moments, I felt my future self touch me.

I want, I thought, a life without him.

A life in which God has no part. He has always been a part of this. He has been my father, my master, my owner. When he existed I belonged to him. There was no other reason to live. When he stopped existing, I felt like I did too.

I still carry him in my heart, my mind. Still talk to him, still make myself relive the horror he put me through, still get triggered by things that remind me of him.

Ever since that day at the pond, with Tyler Glenn blaring in the background, I wanted to leave him behind. But I didn’t know how. I didn’t know how to leave something that lived in my own head and heart. I didn’t know how to live a life without either loving God or mourning him. Without flashbacks and fear, longing and loss. 

But I’m ready now, I thought, sitting there with wanting in my chest. I remembered the boy, broken, in church while all of his supposed friends applauded him on.

I saw, there, that there is nothing left for me in church. I saw all of the pain and horror that I had been put through as a believer. That’s what I needed to finally hate him. To say, enough. To say, I’m leaving you, I am above you, I deserve and deserved more than you. To say, you are an abuser, and I will be bigger than you ever were. I’ll create a life in which you have no part, neither presence nor absence. You are no longer a factor. 

So that’s what I’m doing in 2017. I’m building a life separate from him. He always said I was nothing without him. So wrong. I am everything without him.

I will do what has to get done to survive on my own when my family cuts me off. I will try to recover – from depression, situational mutism, binge eating, religious trauma. I will do my best in school, learn because I mean it, work toward grad school and a social work license. I’ll have fun along the way, damnit. I’ll drink, love, hangglide, visit parts, play with dogs, wake up late on Sundays. If God was a “real life” abuser, this is the part where I set the GPS, pack the car, take the dog with me.

Take a good last look, God. I’m leaving. 

Life Has No Purpose, and That is Freedom: Vignettes from an Ex-Christian

It’s been years since that night. Those nights. But I still remember them, still turn the memory over in my palm like a small river stone: the bonfire bristling with thick snaps of sparks, soft crackles, insistent heat. The stars glimmering quietly in their shadowy seats up above the glassy black lake, among the silhouettes of towering trees.

There I was on the hill, surrounded by believers, the air laced with cricket song and sweetish smoke, the cold sliding down my throat. In those moments everything felt alive and thrumming, sacred and old. It was easy, then, to look up at the dark summer sky and see God. To feel him moving among us. To love him. Oh, more than anything, to love him.

It was so easy. Easier still to rise when the preacher called, pick my way down the incline and take a stick from one of the servers, stare deep into that flickering fire as I prayed for God to forgive me for not giving him my all, to help me do that now. Easiest of all to throw that stick into the flames, a symbol of my decision to follow God for the rest of my forever. He was my God, and I was his. We were the fire. All else was just smoke. 

– – – – – – – – – –

I was 10, 11, 12, 13, 14 then. In my life, I’ve thrown a lot of sticks into a lot of bonfires. Walked down a lot of church aisles, knelt on a lot of different spots on my bedroom floor. Growing up Evangelical, pledging my wholehearted servitude to an invisible being every few months was a given.

For little me, it quickly became a sacred and comforting ritual. Sit in a pew and listen to a sermon. “Convicted by the Spirit,” realize in horror and shame that I hadn’t been giving all that I was to God. Immediately come before him, “broken,” lavishing him with passionate apologies, praise, promises. Humbly ask that he “reveal to me his plan” and help me, despite my selfish, weak soul, to “live for him.” No matter the cost.

Vowing my eternal allegiance to the God of the Universe was easy. All I had to do was throw a stick into a fire. I watched it burn. Afterward, when I closed my eyes and sang, all of creation sang with me. What else was worth singing for?

– – – – – – – – – –

My knees to my chest, bare feet on the cold hardwood floor, I shifted a little. One of the legs of my bed was digging into my back. I don’t know how old I was – 14, 15, 16? However old, I was small. I felt small.

The words had been there in my head for I don’t know how long. Once, when I was younger, I was brushing my teeth when a centipede slithered out of one of the holes in the bathroom sink and I screamed. This feels like that. Like those words had been hiding, hideous and horrific, just behind the porcelain.

I knew what the words were even though I had never thought them. Now, it was time to think them. I put my hand flat against my bedpost to steady myself. The words spoke themselves. What if, they whispered. What if this relationship with God isn’t working. What if this relationship with God isn’t working because it was never going to work. What if He’s not there. What if heaven is empty. I sat so still. But no bolt of lightning came. No light erupted through the ceiling. No blindness struck. What if heaven is empty.

– – – – – – – – – –

I swing my legs gently, letting my heels bump up against the cobblestone ledge of Chapels’ Pond. The sky above me is a melt of blue, fletched with soft-edged clouds. I sigh and rub my eyes. I’m tired. I’m tired.

Behind me is the Christian chapel on my college campus. I just spent three hours sobbing uncontrollably in its sanctuary while my computer grinded out Tyler Glenn’s solo album, EXCOMMUNICATION. I burst out with bitter laughter when I got to “keep on living, keep on living, keep on living.” When I heard “I found myself when I lost my faith,” I lost it.

It’s been 2 years since I started college, leaving my family and church behind. But I haven’t forgotten the summer before I started college, the summer I realized – that God I threw sticks into bonfires for, he was a monster and a myth – and all the rage hate disgust confusion terror and desperation made a lump in my throat I couldn’t swallow. I also haven’t forgotten the summer before this year. Both summers, I stood in front of my bathroom sink with a cup full of chemicals on my lips.

I didn’t expect to last this long. There’s a little person in me who isn’t a fan of tomorrows. Now that God’s gone, for her, there’s no point in living. And even if there is, it won’t last long anyway. In the closet in my dorm room there’s a plaid red backpack. In my head is the length of time it’ll take to walk to the nearest homeless shelter from my parents’ house. After all, once my parents find out I’m a queer nonbeliever, it’ll be over. They’ll disown me. They’ve threatened over less. And once that happens, I’ll either die or finally down that Drano. I don’t want to survive. What purpose is there in living? God and I used to be the fire. Turns out I’m just the stick.

But as I sit at that pond, legs swinging, something begins to ripen inside me. Words swell up from a place I haven’t been in a long time. What if, they whisper. What if you’re right. What if there is no point in living. A bird swoops down to settle among the leaves. What if you don’t need a reason to live, except to just live. A little orange fish nips at a lily pad and the pond puckers with tiny quiet ripples. Would you ask a birch what it’s doing here? Would you ask the rain its purpose? Would you ask Jupiter why it spins?

What if you’re right. Life is meaningless. There’s no point in being here. There’s no plan for your life to be revealed, there’s no one to follow or serve, there’s no single sacred reason to keep breathing. The sky’s blue is deep as a voice now. You’re here because your mom had scientists cook you up in a Petri dish. There are no rules. No expectations. You’re here. You’re now. What are you gonna do with that?

And suddenly the backdrop of death I’ve been carrying around with me for so long falls away, and I see life, I see everything ahead of me. And it is vast and bright and beautiful. 

Whatever you want. You don’t have to die. You can plan to survive what your parents will bring you. Save up. Fight for your voice back. Recover from God. Change your name. Get tattoos. Forgive yourself. Wake up early. Sleep late. Skip math class. Go hang gliding. Learn the back handspring. Study Polish. Move countries. Make friends. Lose them. Write blog posts no one might ever read. Kiss a girl. Get drunk. Camp out in a national park. Roast marshmallows over the stove. Let people see you. Let people love you. Let yourself love.

I don’t know how to leave God once and for all. I don’t know how to make him leave me. But I want to learn, I think. I think I can try to learn. No matter how long it takes. How hard it gets. I have lost my God; I have lost myself; I have lost the fire, and the stars, the hill and the lake and the cold. Look at how little I have left to lose. Look at how much I have now to gain. I still have the smell of smoke on my skin. But maybe, just maybe, with time and a whole lot of fresh air, I could make my own sparks.

Cover image by ninniane of Flickr ]

The Emotional Work of Being Christian

Emotional work (work, work, work, work, work)

Hey all! It’s been a bit since I last posted – I moved back in to start my second year at college two weeks ago and it’s been pretty whirlwind, emotionally speaking. I finally found a sweet spot where I have both the energy and time to write up a post, though… a crisp autumn breeze is chilling the tea-colored light pooled on my windowsill, and I’m cozy in bed. I say let’s get started. (Yay for fall, btw!) 🙂

While I was settling in these past two weeks, I hit quiiite a few emotional snags along the way. College is great, but it’s been exhausting. I’m tuckered out to the point of tears every morning and night, and I thought there might be an official word to explain it. So I went Interwebs foraging on a hunch.

Here are the two words I stumbled across… emotional work.

My goal for this post is to touch on a few ways that Christianity forces believers into ridiculous emotional work  – but overall, I wanna give you an FYI on emotional work. Those 2 words are a great tool to recognize how “everyday life” tires us out! Without more ado…

What do the following situations have in common? On a bumpy flight, a flight attendant comforts freaked out passengers even though she herself is pretty damn worried. A waitress chirps out hello (and all today’s specials) to the new customers even though she craves a nap. A woman thanks attendees at her dad’s funeral without a chance to cry.

In all these situations, people are acting counter to their feelings in order to help other people. That’s called emotional work. In society, we do emotional work all the time: as part of our jobs (especially service-with-a-smile professions) and as part of daily life. The concept was first defined by sociologist Arlie Hochschild in 1983, but it’s recently become well-known among feminists to explain how women are often expected to do a ton of day-to-day emotional labor on behalf of men.

In this post, however, I’m not so much interested in the emotional work that people do as women or as workers. What about the emotional work we do as Christians… and as sufferers of mental illness?

Christians (/religious people): the real MPVs of emotional work.

As too many of the followers of this blog know… take any crappy situation and throw Jesus in the mix, and you’ve got insta-shit. The same is true with emotional work. The kind that’d make Rihanna sing. 

 

We also know that Christianity spews a whole lotta “Jesus is the only thing in the universe that will give you contentment!! Everything else is completely meaningless!!” to sell itself. (I actually heard that today during church service. Almost verbatim.) Unfortunately, that belief has huge emotional costs, work-wise. Lemme rattle off just a few.

1. Deep acting: You should be happy. Constantly. Don’t worry. Don’t be sad for too long. And definitely don’t be mentally ill.

Because if Jesus is the One who gives you deep and everlasting happiness, and everything else is Bleak Suckiness like Christianity insists, then in theory, you should be pretty damn happy with Christianity. This is why Christians like Francis Chan preach that worry and anxiety are sins, or that depression is ungratefulness. If you’re still mopey after you get saved, that threatens the very heart of your religion.

So Christians tend to do a lot of deep acting. Deep acting is a kind of emotional work where you actually change your emotions for the sake of your situation. For example, you convince yourself that you’re happy or repress negative feelings because Christians are supposed to have “god-given joy” (aka, that divine happiness that comes from surrendering your entire being forever to God, which is so radiant that it brings non-believers to Christ. Or something.)

The problem with deep acting (and emotional work in general?) It’s fuckin exhausting. I mean, convincing yourself that you’re happy because your entire basis for understanding the world collapses otherwise… is some meta shit. Constant emotional work can make you physically tired, give you migraines and muscle aches, lose appetite, etc. It can also worsen mental illnesses you might have… and hence, a deadly cycle.

2. Self-sacrifice, Jesus/Others/You style: You volunteer to help others without taking care of yourself.

This belief deeefinitely does not make Christian emotional work any easier. Before all things, you’re expected to honor Jesus. Everything good you do is due to him, and you ought to vocally give him that credit on a regular basis. If you feel Jesus is calling you to do something for him (or your pastor keeps dropping hints), you put his desire above other people’s and your own.

Next, you’re supposed to look after others. It doesn’t matter if you’re tired, if you don’t like them, whatever – just as Jesus served everyone, so you should too. On a practical level that can get exhausting, because making sacrifices to help others, even if it’s not even necessary, becomes a cultural norm and a lifestyle. You might volunteer for church cleanup even if you’re exhausted. Or… to the relief of church staff everywhere… to chip in way more to the collection plate than your bank account suggests you should. The Parable of the Widow’s Two Mites, anyone?

And, of course, you always wave away people’s concerns, saying that doing this work for the Lord gives you the energy you need. This emotional work translates into physical labor too, roping you into more and more commitments, which makes it doubly exhausting.

Bah. And people wonder why pastors burn out.

3. You’re always putting yourself down to make God happy, because it’s all about God.

The heart of Christianity is self-denial. Sin is anything that makes God unhappy; people are inherently sinful. Awfully convenient, huh? In one respect, Christianity is BUILT on the idea that we should ALWAYS be doing emotional (and physical/financial) work to make God happy. If you don’t, you literally go to hell. Ya know.

What this means on a practical level is that you are always striving to make God happy no matter and very often DESPITE your own unhappiness. Time and again, Christians are told that God’s plans for their life come first, period. They’re guilted for wanting careers, lifestyles, hobbies, etc. that don’t fall in line with God’s will. Church communities make it a norm for people to put themselves down (“I am so wretched,” “I never learn,” “I can’t do anything without God,” etc.) – it’s in the lyrics of their songs, it’s in the testimonies they give, it’s in their prayers and conversations.

On top of convincing yourself that you’re happy and feeling bad when you aren’t… on top of throwing yourself into serving others and thanking Jesus… you’re expected to self-deprecate for failing to put God’s happiness first. It’s tiring shit, man!

If you’re ex-Christian (or ex-religious, since after talking with exes from multiple religions I’m sure we ALL have our own versions of this)… I hope you’re finding ways to recover from the chronic exhaustion that builds up from years of living like this. I hope you find “emotional labor” a useful concept for your own life. And I hope you find ways to rest up and shift some of the burden off yourself if you can!

If you related to anything in this post, feel free to comment below or share it around! I’d love to hear from ya. 🙂

No True Scotsman – I Mean, Christian, Muslim, or Feminist

Okay, so I’ve been brewing over a really frustrating sentence on my mind for the past week – and even more frustrating, I’ve realized that nowadays… it’s everywhere. I read it in feminist spaces in exasperated tones. I see it headlining Facebook posts about Muslims denouncing the actions of ISIL. And I hear it like clockwork from well-meaning Christians anguished over their homophobic brethren:

“Christians who hate people just for who they are aren’t real Christians.”

On the surface, that statement looks harmless – and so do its equivalents, whether we’re talking Islam, feminism, or pretty much any other “morally good” group. I’m guilty of slinging it about dozens of times. And… it seems to make sense.

But as it turns out, when you say “homophobic Christians are not of God”; when you say “misogynistic Muslims aren’t true Muslims”; when you say “non-intersectional feminism isn’t real feminism”; you’re not just saying that the philosophy you hold dear should be peaceful and constructive. You’re also saying a caboodle of other things that can, honestly speaking, be silencing and frustrating as hell to people who’ve been hurt by those ideologies. Here’s what they are – and how we can change that.

1. “Those guys aren’t with us.”

Hopefully, it’s obvious from the title of this article that the “No True Scotsman” logical fallacy is at play here. If you’re not familiar, this should catch you right up. “No True Scotsman” is, at heart, a line of reasoning people use to distance themselves from the more…  unsavory members of their group.

Problem is, what’s savory or 100% no way not savory to people depends entirely on them. When Christians claim that homophobes, sexists, or racists aren’t really Christians, trumpeting God is love as proof, they’re not only ignoring multiple Bible passages where God talks about stuff he detests” – they’re taking the best of a group and making them the only valid members of it.

I’ve seen fundie Christians do the same thing (and I did it too.) We said things like, Christians who don’t go to church on Sunday aren’t Christian. We see a similar line of thought in ISIL terrorists who insist that Islam calls for violence. It’s easy to make your interpretation the definition of the group… but it also gets really, really dicey.

Muslim, religious scholar, and author of Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth Reza Aslan explains it best of all in his brilliant piece here:

“It says in the Qu’ran that if you kill a single individual, it’s as if you have killed all of humanity. It also says to slay the idolater wherever you may find him. The Torah says do unto others, but it also instructs Jews to slaughter every man, woman, and child in the holy land who doesn’t follow the God of Israel. The same Jesus who says turn the other cheek also says he who does not have a sword should sell his cloak and buy one.”

2. “Since our texts can only be interpreted our way, all the shitty ways aren’t our problem to recognize, change, or take ownership of.”

No matter the qualification, the result of No-True-Blank-ing is Othering. It’s saying, Oh, look at how crappy those guys are. It’s saying, thank God we’re not as bad as them. It sets up group members to feel better about themselves, enclosed from an outside evil or inferiority. It’s Timmy and Maya in the principal’s office saying I know Alex was bullying kids who aren’t in our club, but it’s not our fault! Alex wasn’t a true member. Kids in our club don’t bully people.

But No True X doesn’t just set the speaker apart from unsavory people like them. No, it sets them apart from any unsavory things they might perpetrate: for example, from unsavory Christian things. From Josh Duggar and how Christianity can be used to shut up victims and force forgiveness of sexual abusers. From Leelah Alcorn’s parents and the torture of conversion therapy. From past Popes and the horrific damage the Church inflicted on queer people.

It absolves them of the work of starting potentially jarring conversations with other idea-holders; it denies that even an ideology supposedly meant for good can be corrupted, which would fly right smack in the face of religions like Christianity. It’s easy. It’s simple. And it’s annoying as shit because it so often leads to this:

3. “Stop going around saying it was [group members] who hurt you. They weren’t really [group members], so quit being bitter and give us another try.”

YIKES. I can’t count how many times Christians have used faulty reasoning (always founded in Scripture, of course) to invalidate what I’ve been through, silence me, or paint me as a bitter person and Bad Survivor. Samantha Field does a hell of a job calling out 15 common shitty responses to an ex-fundie here, if you’re interested. At the heart of the matter, “that wasn’t really Christian” is almost always on the other end of the hook.

The reasoning is simple. Christianity is the only true and good spiritual path in the world. Therefore, anyone who abuses, commits a crime against, or otherwise hurts another person in the name of the religion isn’t actually a Christian. To admit that is to admit that Christianity can be twisted… and fallible. Shocking to the core, I know. I’ve heard similar arguments for Islam from ex-Muslim friends – the universal bane of spiritual abuse/trauma survivors through space and time.

Granted, when I hear this message relayed to those who have been “hurt” by feminism, the “victims” are often men crying tsunami over a drizzle – think not all men and you’ll get the picture. That said, there are surely people out there who have followed a brand of feminism that hurt others; more on that to come…

Now, where does all this leave us?

Let me temper the conversation: I don’t think Christians wanting to distance themselves from acts of abuse, hate, violence, or oppression is inherently bad. I think it comes from a genuine desire for Christianity to be a religion of love and diversity and that is awesome. 

What I do have an issue with – the reason why this article exists – is that No True Christian silences survivors in the same turn. It tells us that since we weren’t hurt by real Christians, we shouldn’t be speaking badly of the religion. That that’s not what faith is about, so no wonder we left – why don’t we give it another go the right way this time?

I also think that while “true feminists are intersectional and for gender equality” (so, they include race, class, etc. when calling out gender discrimination) speaks to a desire to detach feminism from the androcidal, white-only brand that the word evokes in many people’s minds… we can grow so much more when we let ourselves acknowledge that that’s the past, it was silly and exclusive, and we accomplish so much more by being intersectional now.

Not a non-Christian… just a bad one

I see – and have complied with – the urge to self-distance and self-acquit. But by changing our wording, maybe we can create a less silencing, more realistic and pluralistic view of our world. Instead of calling sexist Muslims not true Muslims, we can go with Muslims who hurt people or hell, just sexist Muslims. Instead of branding non-intersectional feminists as fake feminists, we can opt for uninclusive feminists. I think there’s something to be learned from C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity preface and Lana Hobbs’ article on the word Christian:”When a man who accepts the Christian doctrine lives unworthily of it, it is much clearer to say he is a bad Christian than to say he is not a Christian.”

Maybe part of being a constructive group member is accepting that the group isn’t perfect. Maybe it’s having the guts, compassion, and integrity to acknowledge where things went wrong and people got hurt. Maybe it’s putting in the work to make sure it doesn’t happen again, at least not without a fight. It’s realistic. It’s survivor-affirming. And, in my humble opinion, it’s the right thing to do.

[[[Disclaimer: I also don’t think Muslims wanting to distance themselves from acts of terrorism is bad… or illogical. Othering terrorists encourages people not to wrongfully blame and persecute all Muslims for atrocities they had no part in. As a defense against Islamophobia, it’s clear why someone would condemn ISIL as un-Islamic, and one could argue that as long as masses of people are still oppressing all Muslims for the actions of terrorists, No True Muslim is preferable.

However. There are ex-Muslims I know who hate how the phrase invalidates them. I included NTM in this article because it’s such an accepted, repeated statement nowadays, and it’s a tricky subject to tackle as a non-Muslim, but I can’t not try knowing that it silences other ex-fundies. If you think I approached something in the wrong way, let me know! One last thing: this topic would be lacking without this take on condemning ISIL.]]]

(Photo credit: Stan Obert)