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People are not broken

I was on vacation last week, so I didn’t blog until Friday.  I missed jumping on the train with the rest of the people who responded to Steve McCoy’s tweet about teaching our children they are “deeply broken.”  There are still ripples from that tweet, and at no point has Steve bothered to apologize for his tweet.  Instead, he’s chosen to troll Stephanie Drury on her Stuff Christian Culture Likes Facebook page, and he’s responded to the criticism (which has been vast) with defensiveness.  He’s claimed that what he meant was that he personally does teach children that they are loved, though still sinful.  The problem is, he tweeted something which had no context and wasn’t followed up with anything further.  Plus, you know, the fact that what he said is wrong in the first place.

People screw up, make mistakes, do terrible things, hurt each other, sin, whatever you want to call it.  We’re not perfect, and none of us can claim that we always do the right thing in every situation.  But we are not “broken.”  Objects can be broken, but humans cannot be.  The word broken implies a need to be fixed or changed or repurposed in some way.  It doesn’t make any sense to apply that to people.

Since that tweet and its fallout, I’ve seen many people talking about the shame they’ve felt because they were taught from a young age that there was something fundamentally flawed about them.  This is common in Reformed Christianity, though it appears in various forms in all sorts of denominations.  It’s based on the first premise of Calvinism, the doctrine of total depravity.  While I don’t actually agree with that particular theology (or Calvinism in general), I can see how it could be taught in a less threatening manner.  There is no excuse, on the other hand, for teaching anyone that they are “broken.”

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, because I’ve been doing some reading from autistic people.  And yes, I’m referring to autistic people rather than “people with autism,” because this is how many autistic people choose to identify.  The reason for doing so (in their words) is to emphasize that it is not something separate or external to their core as people–it is a vital part of their existence and make-up.  It is this specific thing which makes me angriest about the “deeply broken” tweet.

After reading this excellent post by Michael Scott Monje, Jr. about person-first language, I began thinking about my son’s ADHD.  There is only “person-first” language to describe him–he’s a boy with ADHD.  I wish there were a different way to describe it, though, because without his ADHD, my son would be an entirely different person; he wouldn’t be himself.  The urgency for such language increased after reading Steve McCoy’s tweet.

My son spent fourth grade in a classroom with a teacher who viewed him as, in a way, broken.  I’m not necessarily criticizing her; it’s a common perspective in educational settings.  I’m bringing it up because it’s the same thinking that leads to telling children they are broken in church settings.  It’s a view of people–particularly those who don’t fit some expectation of “normal”–that leads to shaming them and turning them into “others” with whom we’d rather not associate.

The problem with that is that we can easily rationalize poor treatment of anyone we see as “broken.”  When we teach children from a young age that they are broken, who they are at their core becomes irrelevant.  My son’s ADHD and my friends’ kids autism are part of their “brokenness” rather than being something of value that makes them uniquely themselves. Rather than helping them understand their own identity, the language of brokenness shames them into thinking that they require fixing.  Even for children who do fit into cultural and religious norms, these words are damaging and can lead to years of struggle to feel whole, particularly for those who develop physical or emotional challenges later on.

Instead of defending this terrible language, why aren’t people like Steve McCoy listening to those who have been deeply hurt by this teaching?  Why aren’t they apologizing for the use of abusive, triggering language?  And why in God’s name aren’t they urging us to have a view of our children that emphasizes their worth?

My son is not “broken.”  He is not flawed, damaged, or otherwise ruined.  These are not words he needs to hear, particularly as a child who does not fit with what’s expected.  My daughter also has some things about her that make her different from other girls her age, and she does not need to be told she’s “broken” either.  Failure to tell them that they are “deeply broken” will not lead to a belief that they are perfect and sinless.  That concept is not necessary; they already know that everyone messes up.  They are learning that who they are is not the same as what they do, and they are learning that there is a big difference between behavior some people don’t like and behavior that actively hurts someone else.

Instead of teaching our children that they are broken, I propose that we love them, cherish them, and teach them that they are precious, beautiful people.  Instead of raising them on the doctrine of total depravity, how about we simply correct behaviors that are hurtful and harmful?  How about we seek their forgiveness when we do the wrong things?  We don’t need to make children–or adults, for that matter–feel ashamed of who they are at their core; they will meet plenty of people willing to do that for them.  It’s our job to assure that they know how deeply loved they are.

 

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The Past of Sinner – Seven Deadly Sins, Franciszek Żmurko [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

At church on Sunday, in her sermon, our pastor mentioned some key differences between evangelical and mainline/liturgical faith practice.  There were several, including believer’s baptism and the preference for praise songs over hymns.  Among these differences was the tendency of evangelical Christians to emphasize The Testimony–a telling of one’s story of coming to faith or of what God has been doing in one’s life.

My husband and I were sitting in the last pew, and we were shaking with silent laughter and exchanging fistbumps of solidarity.  I thought about all the times, as a teenager and college student, I listened to people’s testimonies–and even gave my own more than once.  After the church service, when we greeted the pastor on our way out, she said, “I have to know why you were laughing.”  Still giggling, I explained that everything she’d said rang true and brought back a lot of memories of similar experiences.

(In fairness, our pastor’s point was actually not about these differences or about passing judgment; she was talking about how “reasonable” any part of our faith really is.  I’m not going to recap the whole thing here, of course, but it was a good message.)

Later, I had time to consider just what struck a chord in me and why, exactly, I found it so funny.  I think I can answer that now.  It’s not the idea of giving a testimony that I have issue with; it’s the specific way in which it’s often done that makes me cringe.

There’s nothing wrong with sharing the blessings in our lives.  There’s no problem with talking about how our faith has shaped us or what we believe we can attribute to God.  What I’ve found, however, is that in many evangelical circles, it follows a pattern that troubles me because of the heavy emphasis on having been bad, wretched, evil, self-destructive and having been turned around to become a “new” person.

I don’t doubt that faith changes lives.  I’ve certainly seen it happen.  But there are some disturbing aspects of testimony culture.  First, when a person has not had a past involving much of what the conservative Christian world regards as sin, one of two things happens.  Either the person becomes convinced that mere thoughts are enough to send them to hell, or the person makes up a testimony about being brought out of the pit.  I’m an example of the former; Mike Warnke is an example of the latter (though an extreme one).

Second, there’s a common view that when one has come to faith, the person will automatically have some magical transformation.  When it doesn’t happen that way, and a person continues to do what their particular church regards as unacceptable, there’s often very little grace.  I recall one friend, many years ago, telling me that when he first stepped into a church, he had a serious, ongoing addiction.  As a result of the warm welcome he received in the church, he began to turn his life around.  He entered recovery and remained clean for years.  In the end, however, the church continued to view him as little more than an addict, and every challenge on his journey was met with disapproval for not having come far enough, fast enough.  After all, if he was now a committed Christian, how could he do something seen as sinful?

On the other side of that are people who have the “perfect” testimony with the public appearance of righteousness to match.  More often than not, people like that are able to deflect blame for their shortcomings, particularly when they have used “biblical” authority to abuse others around them.  This is often the case when thought-policing is involved in someone’s testimony.  For example, young men who claim to have had “lust issues” can frequently excuse themselves by placing blame on women for being “immodest” and causing them to “stumble.”

Third, due to the heavy emphasis on the myriad sexual sins listed by conservative evangelicals, many people find their testimonies involve repentance for a wide range of human sexual experience and expression.  Because the focus is on the meaning and appropriate context of sex, rather than on how to have healthy, ethical relationships, many people are led to believe that even their natural physical reactions are sinful and must be controlled.  “Addiction” is thrown around without fully understanding the meaning of the word and sometimes becomes used as a way to bolster testimony.  Someone who can claim to have overcome “porn addiction” (often without the help of an actual professional with experience in the field) is viewed as “honest” and is celebrated for such a victory over sin.  That person may be held up as an example of the power of God and paraded around by church authorities.

As I said, it’s not the testimonies that are the problem necessarily; it’s the fixation on “proving” that God changes lives in extraordinary ways.  It’s a natural result of the view that what one believes is of greater importance than what one does.  When the whole message can be summed up with “Sin–repent–stop sinning,” and evangelism is reduced to “convince people they are sinners so they can repent and stop sinning,” we’ve lost the point of Jesus’ life and ministry.

I don’t believe people should stop talking about what God’s doing in their lives.  I do think we need to reconsider how we handle it.  It should never be about turning bad people into good ones or using words to shame others into belief or pretending that if we just pray hard enough things will work out in our favor.  The testimony that convinced me to throw my lot in with the Christians was nothing like that.  It was about the power of God’s love to help us see ourselves as worthy simply because we exist–God doesn’t make garbage.  I’m grateful for that testimony and for the ways my life has been changed as a result.  Maybe that’s where we should start: seeing each person as inherently valuable and taking it from there.

You are loved

In case anyone missed it, many of us have been participating in an ongoing conversation about sexuality and sexual ethics.  There have been so many brave people sharing their stories with honesty and dignity.  Collectively, we all seem to need to move away from the shame and fear that have permeated conservative evangelical teaching.  This is an incredibly beautiful, brave venture and I’m proud to be part of it.

But.

After one of the first posts went up, Sarah Bessey’s wonderful I am damaged goods, I began to notice something that disturbed me.  Rather than understanding Sarah’s use of the phrase “damaged goods” for what it was in the context of her post, others were appropriating the term and using it to mean something very different.  I lost count of the number of times I saw someone post or tweet something like this:

We are all damaged goods.

I understand what they meant.  I, too, am a product of the doctrine of total depravity (that we are born without any goodness in us and our only worth comes from God).  While I no longer hold that view, I certainly respect those who do.  I also understand the sentiment to be a paraphrase of “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”  That isn’t my primary concern here.

The phrase “damaged goods” breaks my heart not only for women like Sarah Bessey who have been told that their sexual histories have ruined them but for all of us.  We are not “damaged goods.”  Not one of us.

Words mean things.  “Damaged goods” is something we should use to describe a bruised banana or a dented can of tomatoes or a package of frozen peas that split open.  Damaged goods are unsaleable throw-aways.

Call us sinners, if you believe we are.  Say we make mistakes or that we sometimes hurt each other or that we need forgiveness (from people or God).

But don’t call us damaged goods.  Human beings are not ever damaged goods.

We are not spoiled, ruined, useless, or worthless.

We are beautiful.

We are precious.

We are valuable.

We are loved.

You are loved.  I am loved.  Let us reflect that love that no one will ever again believe he or she is damaged goods.

Shamesville

Congratulations, new follower of Christ, you have won an all-expense paid trip to Shamesville.  Please carry your own baggage.

While we don’t ever hear that when we walk into a church, it would certainly be more honest than what most people get.

Last night, I was tweeting with some fellow bloggers about the way in which conservative Christian (and here, it goes beyond evangelical) culture frames love, sex, dating, and marriage.  I was torn.  On the one hand, I was stunned at how many people have such deep pain not because of their history but because of what was said to them by the church or by fellow Christians.  On the other, a big part of me is not surprised at how vast this shaming is.

It is a deeply rooted problem within the church that we talk about how “free” we are in Christ yet apply layer after layer of guilt on people.  This isn’t just true when it comes to matters of sex, gender, and sexuality (although those seem to get the most mileage on the guilt train).  It permeates everything.  I can see why so many Christians either hide their behavior or hide behind legalism.  When you regularly hear two conflicting messages, it’s not hard to understand why so many people feel like failures.

Even the imagery we use surrounding the concept of sin is laden with shame: A cup that’s been spit in; a gift-wrapped dirty diaper; cookies with salt replacing the sugar; chewed gum; a licked lollipop; brownies made with dog poo.*   The message is the same with each of them—that you are dirty, worthless, and full of things no one could ever possibly want.

It’s true that right after we hear the message of how completely screwed up we are we get the “good news” that even though God is royally pissed off at us, we don’t have to worry.  Jesus took one for the team!  Yay!  We are now supposed to feel free and clean.

Except it doesn’t work that way.

Even after we give our lives to Christ, the church continues to lay on the guilt week after week, a bringing out a constant stream of all the things we need to improve in our lives.  We get tidy sermons in which our sins are bullet points in a list of words all beginning with D, and the solutions are often out-of-context Scriptures that speak to the behavior but not the heart.  Sunday after Sunday, people leave the building feeling less human than when they went in.

When I read and hear the stories of people like the women on Twitter last night, I am horrified that this is how we make people feel.  Is it any wonder that there are so many people who are turning to desperate measures to feel whole?  Is it any wonder that people are leaving the institution that has driven them into hiding in shame?

I’m not suggesting that there is no such thing as sin or that everything is relative, nor that we have no responsibility to call people out on their sin.  But I think we’ve become people who fixate on exactly the wrong things.  We hear in churches all the time about purity and modesty, pornography, the proper role for women, homosexuality, lying, and gossip.  But where are the church leaders speaking out against violence and racism and greed?  Who is demanding justice for the abused child or the rape victim?  I can’t recall the last time I heard a sermon on sin that raged against any of those things.  (And just for some perspective, in the last week I have seen the exact same people, who claim to be “Christians,” make both racist remarks and slut-shaming comments.)

Churches, if you want to know why people are leaving, it’s not because you’ve become irrelevant in your style; it’s because you’ve become irrelevant in helping wounded souls heal.  Do you really want to know how you can fill your seats?  Open your doors wider.  Stop fixating on personal sin and start spreading the message that God can reach into the places of pain and shame.  Speak out against abuse and stand up for victims.  Don’t treat frightened victims as though they have a responsibility to their abusers.  Don’t treat survivors as though they still have something to feel guilty about.  Teach your members that respect means all people, not just the ones that look and act a certain way.

When are we going to stop living—and treating others—as though we are all permanent residents of Shamesville?

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*Those are all real object lessons used to teach “purity” and/or sin.  The brownie one made me laugh, though, given the fact that there often are…er…added ingredients in brownies; just preferably not that particular one.

My sin, not in part but the whole

First, I should apologize for my absence last week.  A combination of family vacation and illness derailed me.  Ah, well.  It’s back to real life, though.

Today’s stimulating topic: Sin.

Have you ever noticed that people who live by a rigid list of Things I’m Not Supposed to Do are almost never happy?

I’m not suggesting that sin makes us happy.  Obviously, living in a pattern of selfish, sinful behavior doesn’t make anyone happy, either.  But it seems that people who are extremely rigid and rules-bound are equally (if not more) miserable.

I suspect that part of the problem is that people like that also want everyone else to comply with their version of the Official Rules for Life.  I’ve certainly heard my share of sermons implying that the world would be a better place if everyone did what the Bible says we’re supposed to do.

The problem, though, is that different eras and different churches have had their own spin on things.  What was considered shameful and wrong in the past, we no longer find objectionable (such as indoor plumbing).  What was considered acceptable in another time is now considered grave sin (slavery).  What one denomination views as against God’s plan is not an issue in another (female pastors, homosexuality).  Each one of those perspectives can be supported through Scripture.  The Bible has been used to both justify and condemn certain actions.  We may become more restrictive or less, depending on interpretation.

So how do we truly know what is or isn’t sin?

The list of rules may change, and if we try to cling strictly to the Ultimate List we will end up unhappy.  That’s because sin is inherently self-centered.  Believing that we can just exercise self-control (even with God’s help) and keep to the rules is also self-centered.  It’s all about me—what I’m not doing (self-righteousness), or what I’m doing that I shouldn’t be (guilt).  And unless we have superpowers, not one of us is likely to maintain every rule all the time.  That path only leads to misery, shame, and self-doubt, perpetuating the cycle of self-centeredness.

I suggest we start over.  Instead of looking at sin as a black-and-white list of all the things we should avoid, let’s begin with aligning our behavior with what Jesus says:

Do to others as you would have them do to you. (Luke 6:31)

“‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” (Matthew 22:37b-40)

And what Paul says:

Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves. (Philippians 2:3)

This isn’t just about “big” things, it’s in everything.  Every interaction we have with another human being should begin with placing value on the other person, then acting accordingly.  Do I get this right all the time?  Heck, no.  I’m lucky if I manage 50-50.  But I’ve stopped operating on a list of what I’m not supposed to do and started working on the ways I can love other people, treat them as I want to be treated, and value them more than I value myself.

Disciplining the Disciples

Church discipline has been a big topic in the last week or so, at least in the blog circles I read.  I thought it was time I pitched my own tent on the battlefield.

I won’t mention any names this time (even though we all know which church sparked the conversation).  I will say that I was appalled at the disciplinary contract.  I wasn’t bothered by the idea of signing a contract.  On the contrary, I think that can be a good thing, when it’s mutually agreed on (rather than forced) and has specific goals in mind.  While I understand that there is nothing in the Bible about that type of contract, there is precedent.  People made covenants with one another all the time, agreements which were typically mutually beneficial.

I’m also not against asking someone to leave who is consistently dragging down the church, blocking its mission, or who is predatory in word and deed.  It’s not about simply banishing “unrepentant” people, it’s about what it’s doing to the health of the church.  In my experience, it’s rarely necessary to bar someone from the church.  People who refuse to acknowledge their problems typically don’t stay after they’ve been confronted.  It’s the ones who insist on taking others down with them who create the most drama.

There is nothing wrong with using the Bible to understand spiritual discipline.  But when it’s misused, there’s trouble.  We are fortunate that the Bible tells us that we can lovingly correct someone who has done wrong.  Unfortunately, it doesn’t spell out the specifics for each circumstance.  We have to do that part on our own.  I agree that Matthew 18 and 1 Corinthians 5 are good places to start for a healthy overall approach to dealing with sin within the church.  All they do, however, is give a framework.  How we carry it out is up to us, and we need to be sure that what we’re doing has the purpose of healing, not shaming.

The problem I had with the contract that’s been circulated on the ‘net was its excessive demands, nebulous action points, and lack of time frame or end goals.  The terms and conditions were confusing at best.  There was far too much potential for the contract to become weaponized.  As far as I could tell, without any real, measurable goals, the process could have been dragged out indefinitely by the elders.  If their stated result was to restore the individual to full spiritual health, that was probably not the best way to handle it.

I look at spiritual restoration as being similar to physical rehabilitation.  (Before anyone gets all twisted up about whether or not that’s “Biblical,” it’s no more or less “Biblical” than the contract in question.)  When a person has been injured or ill, there are always specific goals in mind.  Sure, the end point may be for the person to return to work or independent living, but that’s too broad a goal at the start.  That’s a great thing to aim for after smaller steps have been taken.  The goals are manageable, have a specific time frame, and never have in mind the idea of reminding the person of what they can’t yet do.  I believe spiritual healing when sin has been uncovered (in whatever way) can follow the same pattern.

When we find ourselves needing to discipline those under our spiritual direction (and this applies to people in lay ministry, not just pastors and elders), there are key parts of the process:

1. Does the person understand and believe that he or she has done something wrong?  If so, then discipline can begin.  If not, then there are further actions as described in Matthew 18.  I do think we’re misinterpreting the Scripture if we think it means to shun someone.  Revoking member privileges and not allowing the person to continue to serve can happen first.

2. Is this a pattern you’ve seen before in this person?  We do need to give others the benefit of the doubt.  Unless it’s something illegal, there is no reason to assume it’s a pattern unless it’s happened before on your watch.  This was one of my problems with the contract I mentioned.  There was an underlying assumption that the person had habitually engaged in the same sin.  That’s a thinly veiled attempt at shaming.  Unless the person says it’s a habit, or unless there is a history of discipline over the same issue, assume nothing.  It doesn’t foster healthy reconciliation.

3. The consequences should fit the sin.  I don’t mean in terms of ranking sins according to how bad they are.  I mean that the consequences should not be excessive and that they should make sense.  We use this technique on our kids.  We don’t just give them a time out or extra chores for every offense.  That wouldn’t even make sense.  The consequences of sin should not be for the purpose of punishment but for correction.

4. There should be measurable goals.  What do you want to see accomplished as a result of the discipline?  The end result may be for the person to regain full membership status and the same role as before, but that’s both too far out and too unfocused.  If you have specific things in mind you want to see happen, or a level of accountability, then spell it out clearly and define the parameters.  This is the step that should not just be meted out by the elders or the leadership or whomever.  If the person under discipline is agreeing to the process, then he or she can be part of the solution.  Again, we sometimes do this with our kids.  They have ownership of their action steps and are usually more compliant.

5. There should be a clear time frame.  The other big problem I had with the contract was that there was no end point.  There was no time limit on the action steps.  They could be carried out or enforced indefinitely.  That’s not helpful because it never allows the person to achieve full spiritual health.  It can’t operate on an “I’ll know it when I see it” basis.  People get far too emotionally involved to be objective.  Again, giving someone the benefit of the doubt will help here.  If it becomes a pattern, then there is always room to revise.  There should be dates by which steps will be completed, and an evaluation of their success by all parties involved.

6. Shaming or humiliation should never be part of the process.  If your goal is restoration, then shame should not be part of the equation.  There is absolutely no Scripture that encourages making someone feel humiliated, even when there is a need to confront the person in a wider circle.  We all remember The Scarlet Letter, right?  Right.

7. When there is no chance of reconciliation, there are two options: Let them go or ask them to leave.  Sometimes, unrepentant people will leave.  I’ve seen it happen.  I have never, ever been to a church that chose to a) shun the person who left; b) ask members to refrain from friendship with the person; c) pursued them angrily, demanding that they finish what they started; or d) tell the entire membership what happened.  People who choose to leave, leave.  They may be given over to God, with the hope that they will eventually repent.  It’s different if someone refuses to be corrected and insists on staying put.  It’s healthy and appropriate to ask that person to leave, especially if he or she is creating tension.  It can be healthy to continue to work with the person, even if they don’t believe they were wrong, if that is what the leadership chooses to do.  I’ve seen that happen, and it can result in healing and deeper relationships.  (In that case, it was a matter of doctrine, and it opened up great conversation.)

In all things, the goal should be to handle things with love and not anger.  If someone in leadership cannot be objective, that person should not be responsible for discipline.  I imagine that’s part of what got in the way in the Contract from Heck.  (Of course, I think that church has other issues, but that’s another matter.)  If we stop treating people like conflicts waiting to happen and see them more as children of God, we will be able to handle sticky matters in a healthy way.

Listening, Heart Wide Open

We need to hear people’s stories. Not just the ones we want to hear, the triumph-of-grace-over-sin, feel-good, happy-ending tales of a life turned to Christ. Not just the kind that make the people cheer in victory, that another soul has been rescued from the clutches of Satan.  We need to hear the stories that make us squirm. The ones that cause us to lie awake nights, asking the deeper questions about sin, salvation, and grace.

Here are a couple of links to just such stories: Life Abundant, a guest post on Andrew Marin’s blog; and this one, the most recent post on Ryan Nix’s blog, Queer as Faith.  (Nix’s posts are much less about being the “gay Christian dude” and more about drawing us back to the heart of the Father.  Incredibly inspiring and often convicting, the posts are very well-written; it’s worth checking out some of the others as well.)

Often, we might say that we ought to get to know real-life LGBT people. But the subtle underlying message we hear or sometimes speak is, “So that they come to know Christ and give up their lifestyle of rampant sin.”  The fault in that is two-fold. First, it’s incorrect to assume anything about someone’s faith (as seen in the links above). Second, it’s never a good idea to enter a friendship with an agenda.

Most of you know where my heart is.  If we’ve talked, then chances are I know where yours is.  No one is being asked to jump immediately on board the train and change their thinking, certainly not overnight. But we do need to hear what people different from ourselves have to say. It’s not a matter of listening with an open mind but an open heart.  When we do this kind of open-hearted listening, we are offering ourselves to G-d to work through us and in us.

Who will you listen to today?