Saturday, May 26, 2012

Bullies: It's not just a school problem

Taylor Swift captured the essence of bullying in her song "Mean".  P!nk minsters directly to the heart of the bullied in her song "F**kin' Perfect".  Both songs are huge hits.  Unfortunately, it's because bullying is such a huge part of the American experience.  With 84% of Americans claiming adherence to religious faith, and a whopping 78% claiming to be "Christian", why is this?  Could it be that church is where bullies are made, groomed, and continue their post-school reign of terror?

I feel like I am waking up from a bad dream, only to find I'm still dreaming.  That's what it was like at my last church: it was so egalitarian (I thought), welcoming to all (I thought), and finally (I thought) I'd finally found a place where people took the words of Christ seriously.  The reality? I was believing what I wanted to believe. It took the ELCAs vote on ordaining gays in committed relationships to bring the bullying to the surface, but it had always been there. I just ignored it because this particular pastor was at the time very passive aggressive about his hate.  I remember him telling me that I wouldn't like him if I knew him better, following up that he was a Mark Driscoll fan once.  Since I had no idea who Mark Driscoll was, I replied, "Why would that cause me to reject you?  I don't care whose fan you are."

But now I see he was saying, "I believe you are inferior and should be put in your place."  Yep, I wouldn't have liked that if he had come right out and said it, but he is a sneaky sort so he said it in code.  Too bad I didn't know the code.  The fact that the Lutheran church follows a scriptural calendar kept him from preaching a sermon on the need to subjugate women, but if he could have found a way to sneak it in, I would never have caught it.  That's for two reasons.  First, at the time the majority of the congregation would have disagreed with him, and he wants to be liked and popular above all, so he wouldn't have come right out with it.  Second, he is ADD and his sermons rarely seem to have a main point, or even a theme.  I'm pretty sure that's why the ELCA sidetracked him into this little congregation, after he thought he was going to be associate pastor at a huge suburban church in an affluent part of town.  His rambles, if you will,  were always harmless enough, and me and my family could doodle, read our Bibles, look out he window, etc. when he was so vague it was pointless to try to follow.

But leaving the ELCA changed everything.  The tolerant open-hearted people left, but that was not the worst.  The worst part is that the congregation began to grow because the self-righteously offended folks from other ELCA churches,those who also disagreed with the decision to allow ordained gay clergy to enter into lifelong monogamous love relationships (what would be called marriage if it were legal), were looking for a "like-minded" place to "worship".  Now, pastor was popular because of his dark side. No need to hide it anymore. Things changed almost overnight, but I didn't realize it was happening, because I wanted to believe good of my church and my pastor.

Even with his new "friends", like bullies everywhere, he waited to throw his barbs until no one else was around.  When he struck at me he called me late at night on my cell phone.  If I hadn't been in the car, I don't think ANYONE would believe how hateful that "holy man" was to me in private.  As it is, the only people who DO believe it are the people who were actually in the car with me when it happened.  Wow.  Public school all over again.

This has had me thinking a lot lately about church itself, and how much bullying really goes on there.  It happens all the fricking time.  When I look back at the thirty years I have been faithfully involved in American evangelical Christianity, for the most part the best experiences I have ever had have happened when I just showed up, kept my head down and didn't really get involved personally in any other member's life.  Sure we volunteered, and went to special events, etc., but there were no real offers of friendship anywhere.  One of my favorite pastors, who retired since we moved, he was the most compassionate and sincere Christian I ever met, but he wouldn't know what to do with the gay issue.  I know the two churches that have generated from his retirement are not either one places I would attend.  The one with the most loving pastor, that I thought I would like, has in their statement of faith a belief in a 6000 yr old earth and the infamous one man, one woman statement.

As if reality is something you can choose to "believe in" or not!  Evolution, the speed of light, archeology, anthropology, etc. are not on equal ground with the tooth fairy.  You can't just decide your family is going to ignore reality because you don't believe in it!  My Sikh neighbor told me that his religion didn't believe in "that stuff" i.e. gay marriage.  What does he mean?  They don't believe gay people exist?  They don't believe gay people are capable of love?  Or that gay people don't deserve equal protection under the law?  I think he may mean that you can't be openly gay and be accepted in the Sikh religion, but that's not what he said.

But I digress.  The topic is bullying.  When I look back at all my former church experiences, I can plainly see bullying in evidence in each and every one.  I am ashamed to say that since I wasn't personally involved, I played it safe and ignored that it was happening.  So I don't guess I should be surprised that when I got bullied, that's how everyone would treat me.  Why do American recreate their public school experience, which is essentially what church does?  Classroom lecture, check. Posted start and finish times, check.  Take notes, check.  Popular people asked to help the "teacher", check.  Marginalization of the less socially acceptable, check.  Behind the scenes bullying, check.  Churches even have people who will throw you out if you disrupt the service by openly questioning what's going on there.  I have seen it happen.  Mega churches go one further.  Some of their ministry positions include armed security.  Scary stuff.

The big difference though is that church attendance is not legally compulsory.  It does become psychologically compulsory though once you become a part of that world.  Once you're in you know the shame and scorn heaped upon the heads of those who don't attend by the man in the lectern.  Over and over again, from the pulpit, I have heard it: promises of God's reward to those who build their social lives around the church, labels of "lukewarm", "lazy" and "hell-bound" to those those who only come on Sundays, some Sundays, and/or never come at all.

Shame is a powerful motivator.  No one wants to be one of the outcasts.  Everyone wants to be part of the "in" crowd, accepted by the popular people. Once you've heard that connection (the best Christians are here every time the door is open and volunteer and tithe) you want to be in the committed group that God blesses and pastor rewards.  You sure don't want to be rejected by God himself!  Yikes!

The other big difference is that as adults in the church, we pay the very people who bully us!  Oh sure, we really do believe we are giving it to God, not to the pastor directly.  That's the beauty of the whole scam, from the industry perspective.  They teach us that it's our religious duty to pay them, so they can turn around and bully at will from their place of honor at the lectern.  Why do we do that?  There are so many worthy causes our there in the world that could use more funds.  Why do we pay people to self-importantly lord it over us at church?

Finally there is no diploma.  You never graduate.  You might become a teacher's pet and get a moment or two of glory from your own time in the lectern, teaching a Sunday school class or leading a Wednesday service, if you tithe, attend and agree long enough.  Nope, there is no diploma but you do get something in return: the social approval of being a "good Christian".  That is still worth a lot in this country.  If you are in a family like mine or my husband's, it's a minimum requirement for being considered acceptable in the family.  Like trying to get a job without a high school diploma, I don't know if it's possible to get by socially without being a church attender.  I have been in the subculture so long, I have no idea how to get by outside of it.

I am not alone in wanting out, however.  The Barna research group's most recent findings show that:

More than one-quarter of American adults (28%) have left the faith in which they were raised in favor of another religion - or no religion at all. If change in affiliation from one type of Protestantism to another is included, 44% of adults have either switched religious affiliation, moved from being unaffiliated with any religion to being affiliated with a particular faith, or dropped any connection to a specific religious tradition altogether.
The survey finds that the number of people who say they are unaffiliated with any particular faith today (16.1%) is more than double the number who say they were not affiliated with any particular religion as children. Among Americans ages 18-29, one-in-four say they are not currently affiliated with any particular religion.
I interpret the data this way:  44% of people in America have left the place they were bullied in search of a church where bullying does not happen. 28% of them have already figured out that no such place exists.  My two children, both raised on daily devotions, regular church attendance, Christian radio, Bible memory, AWANA, church camp in the summer, the whole evangelical cradle-to-grave, morning-to-night marketing strategy, are among those "one in four".

The "problem" is not improper doctrine formation, bad apologetics, or lack of commitment to Jesus.  The "problem" IS the doctrine, apologetics and the fact that these are an epic fail when one attempts to reconcile them with a sincere devotion to Jesus.  Church and Jesus parted ways a long time ago, around the time of Constantine. Further, home churches and denominational splits are plainly just an attempt to open up new venues to new bullies. They split because it's too crowded at the top, so when a person has enough popularity to strike out on their own, they go for it.  Invariably the new group will still set up pyramids of power, collect  money for those at the top, and bully the ones who aren't playing along the way they should.

I foresee an exodus from organized religion BECAUSE of the rise of evangelical Christianity and its success at setting up a parallel culture.  Their big mistake was keeping the gospels in the Bible.  Anyone who takes the time to look at Jesus closely, His life, His example, and His words, will wind up following Jesus right out the door and into....well, that I am not clear about yet.

That's the scary part.  The evangelical sub-culture has been my whole world for so long.  I don't really know how to live without it. But I am not a part of it anymore.  I believe in Jesus, but not substitutionary atonement, eternal hell, or putting limits on the love of God.  I am unwilling to deny reality on any front, finding reality completely compatible with believing God created reality.  To think that some Bronze Age tribal scribes, or even first century eye-witnesses to the life of Jesus, get to define reality for the rest of us for all time because the God who is amazing enough to create all this complexity spoke to them in their day, well that's just stupid.  I believe Jesus healed an epileptic man who was deaf and dumb; I do not believe that demons cause epilepsy or deafness. (Mark 9: 17-27) I believe Jesus healed a woman with severe osteoporosis; I do not believe osteoporosis is caused by a demon sitting on someone's back and tying them into a hunched over state with invisible ropes.(Luke 13:11-17)

I want to go to church.  I really do.  But I can't "unknow" the things I know.

Peace and good will to all who read here, SS


  1. Shadow,

    I love reading your blog, especially these "coming out of the dream" posts. You were pretty mainstream evangelical, not one of the "lunatic fringe" families who espoused hard-core Quiverfull or Patriarchy or Dominionism, just regular old Evangelical family who tried to take seriously the doctrines and teachings of Evangelical Christianity and live it out in daily life as best you knew how.

    These coming-out stories are so helpful to me to watch you coming to the same realizations I had twenty or thirty years ago. I have been assured I was mistaken, that mainstream Evangelicalism isn't addictive, dismissive, bullying, or Fundy-Lite, that Evangelicalism isn't the problem, if only I'd try the "right" church and not generalize from "the cults" to "true Christianity" (quotes all actual things I've heard from friends and family, all decades after I actually left the church, only in recent years as I've become more outspoken about how detrimental Evangelicalism is).

    Because I haven't actually been a part of institutionalized Christianity or any organized religious group in decades, I've doubted myself: maybe it isn't really as bad as I remember, maybe the examples I see online and in the news really are the "fringe Christians", maybe I *am* too sensitive to "things because of my [problem childhood/health problems/sin in my life]" as people keep telling me because they "love me and fear for me".

    But you are looking at the modern Evangelical communities, across denominational lines, from the perspective of an adult who truly subscribed to the faith doctrines. And you see all the same things I see/saw. It is there, it is real, it is scary.

    1. :\ I wish it wasn't the way it is, but wishing doesn't make it so. Oh well.

  2. My husband and I have not been to church in years. Twice my husband was told he was to be a music leader and twice they said "fooled ya. we picked someone else." Well not in those words but he would come to church on sunday ready to lead music and there would be someone else leading music who had no idea what had been done. He was bullied everytime he went to choir practice and all he wanted to do was sing..,"steve, you are too loud. steve, keep it lower." He would come home from practice looking like he had been in a bar room brawl...why he did not quit then, I do not know...but when he did it was for good! He still loves God and would like to go to church but he just does not want to get into all that petty gossip crap and cliques.

  3. My heart goes out to your husband. I'm sorry the people didn't allow him to use his voice to worship God the way he wanted to worship.

    Might I suggest a karoake bar? I know I am NOT going back to church anytime soon. Surely he could pick a song and just sing it from his heart to Jesus, right there in front of God and everyone, and go sit back down. My guess is that it would touch people's heart who are open to his gift.