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Healing, forgiveness, and redemption

Joseph Forgives His Brothers, by the Providence Lithograph Company (http://thebiblerevival.com/clipart/1907/gen45.jpg) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

I recently had the privilege of connecting with Stephanie Drury (of Stuff Christian Culture Likes) through an online community we both belong to.  I’ve long appreciated what she has to say because even though I don’t agree 100% with everything she says, she’s one of the people who comes closest to expressing more or less where my own faith is right now.  I don’t have the history of spiritual (and other) abuse she’s endured; my stay in the conservative evangelical world was comparatively short and uneventful.  My leaving was mostly for the sake of my children.  I saw enough to know that even in the best-intentioned evangelical spheres, abuse is a natural outflow of certain teachings.  It wasn’t something I wanted my children to have long-term exposure to.  Trust me when I say I’d have been happy to foot the therapy bill knowing I could have prevented the damage and didn’t.

That said, yesterday, I read Stephanie’s post, hugo schwyzer’s suicide attempt, the feminist response, and the tension of holding horrible things alongside possiblity.  While again, I don’t agree 100% with everything she says, it resonated with me.  Bear with me as I attempt to explain why, keeping two things in mind:

  1. Stephanie writes from a place of having been harmed.  No one should accuse her of failing to understand what it’s like to be victimized.
  2. I am not writing from that place.  I’m writing from the place of one who has both done the harm and seen the harm.

A lot of people were pretty angry about what Stephanie said in her post.  I understand that.  There was a time when I would have readily jumped on that train.  I have my own experiences with being told to forgive someone who had wronged me–to the point of not being able to express my anger because both Christianity and “psychology” told me that the burden was on me to “own” my reactions.  I wasn’t supposed to hold past misdeeds against people who continued to hurt me.  All of those things are lies; it’s not on me to do anything, and a person’s history does inform his or her present actions.  So believe me when I say I get it that some of what Stephanie said could trigger a lot of feelings.

On the other hand, her post did make me consider two things that are very important for me.  I emphasize that last part because I recognize myself to be pretty near the top of the privilege food chain.  I’m white, I’m cisgender, and I’m straight.  I’m a married stay-at-home-mom (to me, that’s like the height of economic privilege, that I can choose to do what I want).  I’ve never been spiritually abused, though I have a long history of other forms of bullying, and there were certainly abuses in my family.  What Stephanie’s post made me think about wasn’t how I treat those who have wronged me but how I, as a person who has wronged others, have had my own redemption story.

First, I have to really, truly, deeply own my history of fundamentalist ideas.  When I was 15 or 16, I was in the car with a couple of family members.  I cheerfully told them that “sin is sin,” a line I was repeating from church.  They already knew that my church had taught me that gay = sin.  The conversation went like this:

Me: Sin is sin.  One sin is no better or worse than any other.

Family member 1: So, lying and murder are equal.

Me: Yep.

Family member 2: You believe it’s wrong to be gay.

Me: Yes.

Family member 1: So, being gay is as bad as being a rapist.

Me [now very uncomfortable]: Yeah, I guess, but it’s just because all sin keeps us from God.

Family member 2: So I’m as bad as a rapist.

Me: I don’t know. I guess so.

And that’s the most mild and printable of the ways I hurt this person.

Ten years.  It took me ten years to get to a point where I didn’t still believe that.  I have no idea how that particular family member stuck it out with me.  All I can say is that from the time I was old enough to remember, she’s been one of my favorite people in the whole world.  She’s been one of my biggest advocates.  Because she (and other family members, who have also been wonderful) loved me and waited patiently for me, we made it past all that.  I changed.

It’s that belief that people can–and do–change that keeps me blogging.  It keeps me searching for new ways to be an ally and it keeps me reading on Twitter to see where my privilege is showing and what I can do to make it right.  It keeps me searching for justice and my part in it.  It keeps me pointing to the voices of others and asking people to listen.  I express all that in different ways.  Sometimes I’m angry and bold; sometimes I use Scripture; sometimes I write about how deeply I love the people in my life.  I keep going, though, because someone, somewhere may be reading and might just find the spark to change.

The second thing that occurred to me is that I’m a harsh critic of people.  I don’t actually like people very much.  Perhaps that’s the result of my history with peers at school or with some of my family.  It could be because I’m pretty introverted.  I don’t really know.  The problem is that I often have trouble separating what people say and do from who they are.  This is particularly true when those people are public figures.

I have little difficulty accepting and loving ordinary people, even when they aren’t perfect.  The real people in my everyday life get the benefit of my ongoing forgiveness.  My two closest friends (other than my husband) are very different women, but I love them both so, so much.  Have we ever hurt each other?  Sure.  Do we do things the others think are probably bad ideas?  Of course.  But there is a lot of good history that none of us are willing to throw away.  We make things right and we move on.

That can’t be done with these big-name “celebrity” bloggers, pastors, and speakers.  I’m not at all condoning what any of them say or do.  We need to keep calling them out on their behavior because they are doing these big, public things and using their fame to gain followers who will then turn around and do the same things.  We need to stop them.  We need to be angry, we need to be pushy, we need to be bold.  We also need to be gentle and persuasive and kind–not because that’s the “best” way to do it but because our natural personalities make us respond in our own ways.  I cannot imagine some of my fellow bloggers being polite about Mark Driscoll or Hugo Schwyzer’s latest pile of poo.  On the other hand, there are many bloggers I can’t imagine writing a scathingly funny take-down or an angry rant; they normally write very differently than that.

Where we may be able to agree is that we can say what a person is actually doing without assigning motive or making assumptions about who that person is or whether there is any hope for change.  We can say with certainty that Mark Driscoll, John Piper, Hugo Schwyzer, and others have said and continue to say terrible things.  We can worry about their families.  We can tell anyone who will listen in whatever way we need to that their words are damaging.  What we can’t do is know why they do those things or whether they will ever change.

I also feel uncomfortable with name-calling, as that speaks to who or what we think someone is at their core.  I admit to having done this; I imagine that I learned to do it as a child.  My mother used to call me names when she was angry, and I was bullied mostly with name-calling for years.  Whether or not anyone else agrees, I believe no matter what abuse someone has committed or appears to have committed, it is, in fact, bullying to call people steaming piles of shit or assholes or fucktards or douchebags.  I don’t really care that you think it’s not hurting them because they hurt you first or that you’re just expressing your anger.  It’s still not right.  They are humans, not poo or body parts–regardless of the evil things they’ve done.*

There is one place where I strongly disagree with Stephanie (and I hope this does not hurt her, in the same way that I hope not to have hurt others with my words above).  In the specific case of Hugo Schwyzer, his past is applicable.  He may have apologized for what he did, but the fact that he keeps on doing it says volumes more than his apology.  Perhaps he wouldn’t try to kill an intimate partner now, but he isn’t demonstrating respect for women.  This is the same man who penned an article (which I will not link to) about removing a tampon from his soon-to-be ex-wife.  If that’s not a violation of her privacy and her womanhood, I don’t know what is.  If he wants people to stop bringing up his past, then he needs to stop behaving that way in the present.

I know this post is already too long; I hope you’ve stuck with me.  I honestly don’t want to hurt anyone with my words.  As I said near the beginning, this was mostly about the things I believe I’ve done wrong and now wish to amend.  It won’t change the fact that I’m going to continue to use my words to fight injustice.  It does mean that I want to be careful not to conflate actions with unknown motives or words with people.

I’d love to know what you think; leave me a comment and tell me what’s on your mind.

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*I maintain that name-calling can be ok for institutions (which are not thinking/feeling beings) or in certain humorous contexts, such as the post I linked in my News last Friday about being a better douchebag (it wasn’t connected with a specific individual).

An Open Letter to No One

I am sick and tired of open letters.  It’s a meme I wish would die a thousand deaths.

Some time ago, I posted my response to Joe Dallas’ “To My Gay Angry Friend” (you can read those posts here, here, and here).  The other day, I read a post titled, “An Open Letter To The Girl In The Dressing Room.”  Those are only two examples of this “open letter” idea, two among a sea of similar blog posts.

The thing is, I understand why people write these things.  We all have feelings that we need to explore after our encounters with others and the world.  Situations can be triggering for us due to our own past or because of what we’ve seen loved ones experience.  As a person who loves words, both written and spoken, I understand this need.

But, people, this is not the way to deal with our feelings.  There are three serious problems with these “open letter”-style blog posts.

First, the open letter puts our own overlay onto the feelings, thoughts, and experiences of others.  Both the posts I mentioned above, as well as nearly all other similar posts, make assumptions about the people to whom the letters are written.  Joe Dallas assumed that the man with the sign was gay and that he was angry.  Lauren Alexander made assumptions about what specific thoughts the woman in the dressing room was having.  It’s entirely possible that they were right, but they could not possibly know that without speaking directly to the people in question.

What they did do, however, was an inappropriate hijacking of those people’s inner life.  They confused their own prior experiences and feelings for those of another person.  This is wrong.  It takes away someone else’s ownership of his or her feelings and actions.  It takes away that person’s right to express him- or herself as he or she chooses.  It reduces another human being to an object, something that feeds our own personal need to express our feelings.

Second, the open letter fails to take any real action, or to make any real human connection.  Both Joe Dallas and Lauren Alexander comment that they did not engage with the other person of whom they spoke.  Mr. Dallas chalks this up to business; Ms. Alexander to not wanting to be creepy.  The sad thing is, their failure to connect didn’t just prevent them from knowing what real feelings those people were having in that moment.  It also prevented them from doing any real good in the lives of those individuals.

I strongly suspect that one reason some people (and I am not specifically referring to the aforementioned bloggers) don’t engage is exactly for that reason.  They don’t want to deal with whatever they might have to face if they take the risk of interacting.  They would rather use their almost-meetings as blog post fodder, rather than find ways to connect and help.  I actually don’t think it’s a bad thing to feel uncomfortable walking over to strange people in restaurants and stores.  But if we don’t take the risk and meet the other person, then we lose our right to impose our view of their feelings on them.

Third, the open letter almost never reaches its purported audience.  I realize that’s not usually the point.  The point is to write something that will possibly touch people who are struggling with similar issues.  If that’s the reason for the blog post, however, why not write it generically?  Or write about our own feelings and thoughts?  Or respond to a blog post that someone else wrote on a similar subject?  There are many better ways to handle tough subjects than coming at them sideways through the lens of what we think a random stranger might have been feelings.

Again, I believe there is an underlying fear in these open letters.  Sometimes, it can be hard to admit that something we saw stirs up past pain.  We may need a way to get ourselves into a place where we can freely write about our deepest wounds.  But I believe this can be done without transferring our feelings onto others.  Instead of making claims about what someone might have been thinking in a dressing room or outside a restaurant, why not admit that their actions—rather than their feelings—stirred the waters in our souls?

I am sure that reading (and perhaps writing) these open letters can be healing for some people.  But we need to be careful that our own healing doesn’t come at the expense of usurping someone else’s agency over his or her own experiences and feelings.

Taking It Too Far

Today I got into a fight online with a stranger. The thing is, I have no idea why I took it so personally. Well, come to think of it, maybe I do.

It wasn’t because the other person was mean. She was harsh, yes, but not cruel. It wasn’t because I was right and she was wrong. I’m not sure there was a right or wrong. It wasn’t because she doesn’t like me. I have no idea what her feelings toward me are. And I don’t care if random people like me.

No, what bothered me is that I wasn’t able to come across as my authentic self. I would have needed an entire blog post of my own to explain the feelings and thoughts that the original article evoked. So I resorted to idea nuggets in the comments section. It was a bad idea.

Even worse, I failed to be anything like the Jesus I claim to love. Not because I was rude, nasty, or resorted to childish behavior, but because I didn’t express mercy or grace.

I’m not okay with that. I don’t want to be that sort of person, one who comes off as unconcerned about someone else. When I posted my comments, I wasn’t trying to be unkind. But I somehow wasn’t able to convey my real feelings about the issue being discussed.

So here I sit, reminded that how we interact online is just as important as face to face. Next time, I need to choose my words much more carefully, or say nothing at all.

Un-Feelings

Sometimes, it’s easy for us as Christians to forget that we are free. Being free doesn’t mean doing whatever we want, but it also doesn’t mean that we subject ourselves to doctrines which bind us through legalism. All that can ever lead to is feelings of shame. Faith in Christ cannot ever be about being ashamed, because that is not love or grace. A legalistic church environment denies basic, common human needs and feelings. When we live in that kind of space for any length of time, it leads to both suppression and repression.

We may be used to hearing the term “repression” in the context of sexual expression. It is often presented as an accusation by a non-religious person towards a person of faith and can be roughly translated as “prude.” A person may be referred to as “repressed” because he or she believes pornography to be unhealthy sexuality, for example.

Sexuality is only one aspect of repression, however, and the above example is a misapplication of the term. A person whose moral values lead him or her to conclude that a particular action or expression of feelings is wrong is not necessarily repressing anything. The reason for this is that repression refers to unconscious exclusion or avoidance of feelings or desires. A person with the value that murder is wrong is not repressing anger, merely making a distinction between appropriate and inappropriate ways of handling anger.

This concept is markedly different from suppression, which is a conscious avoidance of feelings and desires one deems negative. Parents often suppress their own needs in favor of meeting the needs of their children. This is entirely normal when a child is an infant; it is not normal when a child is an adolescent.

At this point, you may be wondering what any of this has to do with legalistic church doctrine. Legalism as a measure of church doctrine is a way for church leadership to control the flock. It has little to do with actual righteous living or humbly following and serving a gracious and merciful God. Legalism, when practiced as church mission, is self-serving. Its aim is to create a group of like-minded and like-behaving people in order to project a certain image. It concerns itself not with love and life but with doctrinal purity.

In the end, this leads many people within those rigid confines to both suppress and repress their natural human feelings and desires. People begin to believe consciously that their feelings are sinful, and attempt to control themselves by denying their needs for self-expression. They may also begin to subconsciously avoid certain feelings because it is too painful or embarrassing to acknowledge their existence.

Sadly, this kind of thing happens even when a church has healthy boundaries and the leadership are attempting to guide the people without legalism. This brings me to the point I want to make.  One Sunday, for example, my son came home from his Sunday school class in which children’s very real feelings were denied. His sister expressed a “what if” type of concern, and I reassured her that we would take care of her. He piped up with, “You shouldn’t worry, worry is a sin.” I would very much like to know who used those words on my eight-year-old in such a way that he repeated them back to deny his sister the right to express her fears.

Children should not be told that their fears are “sin.” The world is a big and sometimes scary place to a young child. When a child has a fear, the correct course of action is not to scold a child for “worrying.” The correct response is to reassure the child that he or she is loved by God and the people in the church and that we are here for them. There are other ways, of course, of helping children feel safe, but that’s a basic beginning.

Not only that, the sentiment isn’t even Biblically true. It may be inferred if one wants to take certain Scriptures in a particular way. But the statement, “Worry is a sin” cannot be found within the pages of the Bible. We do find the idea that worrying alone, without faith, is a useless pursuit. But even that is a difficult concept to bring to children. One way it can be handled with older children is to ask if their worry has made the situation go away, or if they have had to trust an adult or pray about it. But for very young children, no more is needed than care and reassurance.

How often do churches make the same mistake with adults?  Rather than helping people explore healthy self-expression, we simply tell them their feelings are “wrong” or “sinful” or that God doesn’t “want” us to have those feelings.  The church becomes the thought police.  From that stems the shame, leading to people denying, in one way or another, that they have those internal thoughts.  People are afraid to be honest with themselves and others, and perhaps even with God.

Yet the truth is that the more open we are with ourselves, other people, and God, the deeper our relationships become.  God doesn’t want us to clean ourselves up, it’s His job.  He wants us to bring every part of ourselves to Him, keeping nothing back.  Not because He wants to judge us, but because He loves us and wants to crack us open that we can replace (not reject) those hurting, insecure, and sinful parts of ourselves with His grace and His desires.

I admit I struggle with this.  I still have a lot of trouble being completely open about some of the things in my life.  But I’m trusting God to fill those parts of my life with His Life, daily making me whole.