Tag: Freedom

24Sep

The Motherheart of God: A New Picture

I had the singular pleasure of getting to know Adriel Booker this summer over ravioli and wine in a medieval village overlooking the fields of Tuscany at sunset. (It did not suck.) She’s a stunning lady, inside and out, whose own stories of unconventional faith and expat living could have fueled a month’s worth of “Me too!” style dinner conversations if only we’d had the time. She’s hosting a beautiful series on her blog about the nurturing, female aspects of God’s character—something that tends to be overlooked, dismissed, or even denounced as heresy in mainstream Christian circles—and I’m honored to be sharing my story as part of it today:

~~~

I was nine or ten, around the age that my own wide-eyed, freckle-nosed daughter is now, when the Children’s Director at my church picked The Ten Commandments for movie night. My friends and I were not overly enthusiastic about the choice; we would rather have given our church’s bedraggled McGee and Me VHS collection another spin than watched a Bible drama from our grandparents’ generation. Nevertheless, two scenes from the movie caught my full attention. One was the Halloween-worthy arrival of the Angel of Death, portrayed by a creeping vapor that poisoned firstborn sons on the spot. (It still gives me the shivers.) The other was the moment that Moses raised his arms under a roiling black sky in order to part the Red Sea. That image snapped into my mind like a missing puzzle piece. It was the exact visual representation of everything my young heart believed about God.

Charlton Heston in The Ten Commandments

The fierce intensity in Charlton Heston’s eyes, his dominating stance, the power symbolized by his arm-cuffs, even his thickly silvered beard—all of it filled in my mental image of God as neatly as if Charlton himself had graced the pages of my Bible. That God was a muscly Caucasian man in his sixties, I had no doubt. Perhaps that had already been suggested to me through Bible cartoons or maybe it was a projection of my own small worldview, but I knew exactly what I was seeing when Moses spread his arms across our church’s TV screen: Father. Judge. Ruler. Smiter. The Divine Patriarch. The All-Powerful Begetter. God.

This visual cemented itself onto my mind’s eye and didn’t budge for many, many years. When I had my heart broken as a teen and tried to find comfort in prayer, I couldn’t get past the image of God’s penetrating glare. When I got engaged to my husband and found myself yo-yoing between hopes and fears about our upcoming marriage, I felt sure that the God who waged wars and parted seas couldn’t care less about my emotional upheaval. When I entered the misty and profoundly tender world of motherhood, I felt more removed than ever from this deity with his big beard, big stick, and wild eyes. I could no more imagine him nurturing than I could imagine him putting on a pink uniform and dishing up ice cream at the mall.

Aside from deliberate sin, womanhood felt like the furthest possible point one could be from God on the spectrum of humanity.

Five years ago, however, Charlton-Heston God was chipped out of my perspective over the course of a single Sunday morning.

{Continue reading over at Adriel’s place}

image source

22Aug

Book Stories: The Escape Artist

If you’ve been following my blog for any time, then you know 1) that I identify as Christian, and 2) that “Christian” means something very different to me today than it did when I was growing up fundamentalist. The Christianity I experienced as a kid was a members-only club with lifestyle requirements and political loyalties, whereas the kind that I’m discovering and embracing in adulthood is more of an open-air party in which the only common denominator is Jesus. I am more grateful than I can say for the freedom to see God differently. Disengaging myself from the mindsets that formed me, though, has been about as easy as performing a total skeletal transplant on myself.

Take gender roles. The Christian subculture in which I grew up basically assigned one of two identities to everyone at birth. The first identity was “Leader” and came with secondary characteristics such as strength, outspokenness, superior reasoning skills, and money-making prowess. The second identity was “Follower” and brought with it expectations of docility, fertility, weakmindedness, and a knack for the domestic arts. The one and only basis for choosing which identity to bestow on a baby was which set of body parts he or she had.

I can’t speak much to the experience of growing up male in that system, but I do know what it was like to grow up under the “Follower” heading. Because I had been born female, my calling in life was to act as support staff to the males put in authority over me. Our family wasn’t nearly as rigid in this as many other patriarchal families; I was encouraged to get summer jobs and to go to university, experiences that many girls, seen only as homemakers-in-training, are denied. (In fact, one of my favorite posts to write this year was What Our Parents Did Right.)

Still though, I grew up under a list of gender-specific shoulds, some of them directly taught and some of them just implied:

A woman should defer to her father’s or husband’s judgment in all things as her own way of thinking is flawed.

A woman should always seek to diminish herself; her body, her voice, and her actions should never draw attention.

A woman should work tirelessly and selflessly in her home sphere, managing household tasks and child-raising so expertly that her husband never needs to be burdened with them.

A woman should understand that her purpose in life is to help her man fulfill his.

…for the Bible tells me so.

Actually, the Bible’s part in these gender prescriptions was always a little confusing to me. We didn’t follow Bible verses saying women needed to avoid jewelry or wear head coverings to pray, but we agreed most adamantly with verses saying women shouldn’t teach men (at least not from a pulpit), that they should obey their husbands, and that they should busy themselves at home. Despite the pick-and-choose nature of our theology, the message was the same: Men were God’s white-collar workers, and women were his field hands. And this message stuck with me, deeply.

Even after I had moved halfway across the world with a husband who considers me equal and the beginnings of a fulfilling profession, I felt my fundamentalist identity like a choke chain. In my mind, being a woman was so linked to inadequacy that I couldn’t look at a single aspect of my life without guilt. I wasn’t organized enough, diligent enough, submissive enough, successful enough, conventional enough, reproductive enough, energetic enough, religious enough. Plus, I could only manage something like .003% of what that damn Proverbs 31 woman did on any given day.

And then I read this:

Book Stories - A Year of Biblical Womanhood

“As I saw how powerful and affirming this ancient blessing could be, I decided it was time for Christian women to take back Proverbs 31. Somewhere along the way… we abandoned the meaning of the poem by focusing on the specifics, and it became just another impossible standard by which to measure our failures. We turned an anthem into an assignment, a poem into a job description.” – Rachel Held Evans

I had at least one friend (hi, A!) think that A Year of Biblical Womanhood was about how to be more fundamentalist based on its title and, you know, the whole woman-in-a-head-covering-banished-to-her-roof thing. What isn’t quite so obvious from the cover is the author’s tongue firmly in cheek and heart firmly for women like me caught in the chokehold of “Biblical Womanhood.” Really, those two words should always be in ironic quotes because, as Rachel shows in alternately hilarious and touching experiments, there is no such thing.

I read the book about a year and a half ago, and it was like an escape artist had personally come to spring me from the cramped confines of “Follower.” I do still struggle with feelings of guilt and not-enoughness; if Dan and I are in such a busy work period that we’re having trouble keeping up with household tasks, my first instinct is to berate myself for neglecting my responsibilities, for prioritizing my work over righteously clean floors. Or if I say something at a dinner party and everyone turns to listen, my inclination is to shrink back and turn the conversation over to someone with more a more valid viewpoint. The difference is that I can now recognize these wilting instincts as byproducts of an identity that was never meant to be mine. I can see cultural preference where once I only saw divine prejudice, and I can choose not to be ruled by it.

Rachel even got me to like Proverbs 31, which I consider a feat of staggering proportions. Or should I say… biblical?

“Could an ancient collection of sacred texts, spanning multiple genres and assembled over thousands of years in cultures very different from our own, really offer a single cohesive formula for how to be a woman?” she asks in her introduction. “Do all the women of Scripture fit into this same mold? Must I?” And in her answer, I found a way to keep both the Bible and myself. Pure gift.

In this series, I’m foregoing traditional book reviews and instead sharing Book Stories—why certain books have impacted me, how they’ve entwined themselves through my life, and what the long-term effects are. After all, what better way to talk about stories than through the medium of story?

(If you have your own close encounter of the literary kind you’d like to share here, just send it on over to hello{at}bethanybassett{dot}com.) 

4Aug

The Gospel of Corset Removal

Starting this month, I’m going to be regular contributor to A Deeper Story, a writing collective that has been dear to my heart from Day 1. I had the unexpected and just plain awesome opportunity to sit down and chat with ADS founder Nish Weiseth this summer (over panini and gelato in Tuscany, no less!), and our conversation turned toward Don Miller’s book Blue Like Jazz. Perhaps you’ve read it too, especially if you were one of the many hungering for “Nonreligious Thoughts on Christian Spirituality” in the early 2000s. It was a liberating book for me—engaging where most Christian books were preachy, thought-provoking where others tended to push agenda-laced answers—and Nish pointed out that the reason Blue Like Jazz was so compelling was that it framed theological discussion inside of story. No Bible-thumping. No argument-baiting. No dry platitudes or impersonal formulas. Just one person’s unique and intriguing experience with faith.

That’s what A Deeper Story is as well: a place where Christian spirituality is explored through the writers’ own experiences. It’s beautiful and relatable and surprising and mind-stretching, and I highly recommend poking around the site for a bit after you read my piece. You’ll see why it’s a community I’m delighted to call my own.

Now on to the story…

[Ed: Now that Deeper Story has closed its doors, the post is here in its entirety:] 

~~~

“Between two lungs it was released
The breath that carried me
The sigh that blew me forward”
– Florence Welch

At eleven years old, I had no notion of a drill sergeant except for what I’d seen in a passing clip of Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C., but I was pretty sure my ballet teacher fit the bill. As my class labored over our barre exercises, she paced the ranks, snapping commands like rubber bands into the smalls of our backs.

“Chest out! Head up! Stomach flat! Tuck that seat in! Breathe up and down, not in and out! No one wants to see your diaphragm move! Turn that leg out! ROUND ELBOWS, for the love! Stand tall, everyone! Taller!”

I adored my teacher despite her Sergeant Carter routine, and I practiced my posture daily at home. A real ballerina was a whipcord, long and lithe and compressed within an inch of her life. A real ballerina could corset herself through willpower alone. I cinched my ribcage tight in the mirror and watched each breath push my non-existent bosom upwards.

Perfect. As close to perfect as I was going to get, at any rate.

There it was in the mirror for God and so great a cloud of witnesses to see: the successful suppression of self. There was the proof that for all my excesses and deficiencies, all my shameful impulses and sins of omission, I could at least hold my respiratory system in check. I could breathe without breathing, and if I could do that, surely I could learn to pray without ceasing and do all things without grumbling and go a whole blessed hour without incurring the wrath of a Father who was perfect as I was not.

Forget Sergeant Carter; God was the greatest caricature of a short fuse that I knew.

///

Four years ago, my husband coaxed me out to the running trail below our house with promises of cardiac health and cute workout clothes. Our younger daughter had just started preschool, so my fallback excuse of “Sorry, got these two kids” (à la Jack Handey) wasn’t going to fly anymore. Besides, my fondness for that excuse was doing me no favors in the waistline department. Full of good intentions and the merry optimism of the ignorant, I laced up my running shoes and hit the track with my husband.

Two minutes later, I was hobbling at the speed of an asphyxiated snail, purple-faced and gasping for breath. It was one of the sexier moments in our marriage for sure. Dan jogged in placed beside me while I wheezed out my list of reasons why exercise is detrimental to one’s health and marital happiness, punctuating every sentence with an “OW.” I suggested he go ahead and put me on hospice care because I clearly wasn’t going to make it.

He suggested I try breathing.

When we made it home later that morning (no small miracle), I consulted Dr. Google about why running made me feel like my sides were being surgically removed with sporks, and I discovered that Dan had been on to something. Breathing was the secret, the Internet explained. Specifically, belly breathing. By keeping the air high and tight in my chest, I was putting stress on my diaphragm and depriving my muscles of oxygen. Instead, I needed to be relaxing my torso, filling my lungs to capacity, and then letting all the air out in an easy whoosh. If I did this, the Internet promised, my body would stop the gutted gastropod routine.

So I tried it. The next day at the running trail, I flopped my arms around to loosen myself up and then took a deep bellyful of breath. Immediately, air rushed into my lungs, whistling down dusty tubes and rousting cobwebs from long-forgotten bronchioles. I could feel it inside me, a blustering brightness that expanded until I thought I might float away. My stomach hadn’t ballooned so freely since the last time a baby had been in residence. (“Suck it,” I thought in the direction of passing runners with their hardwood abs and lack of pregnancy symptoms. “I’m learning to breathe here!”)

Exhaling was next, a conscious release of the breath I’d just taken in. I hadn’t realized that this would be the harder step, but instinct clenched itself around every precious molecule of air and had to be pried away one finger at a time. Ridiculous as it sounds, I had to whisper to myself that another breath would be waiting for me after I let this one go. I hadn’t used up all the air in our great green park. I could trust that no matter how far I ran or how extravagantly I spent each lungful, there would be enough left. There would always and forever be enough.

///

I don’t know what I’d expected from that first exercise in belly breathing, but it certainly wasn’t a total spiritual overhaul. You can’t learn “the unforced rhythms of grace” in one area of life, see, without it affecting all the others, and once I learned to breathe deep, I couldn’t stop.

I began to inhale truth about the destructive religion of my childhood and to exhale story. I let myself drink brimful from the kindness in Jesus’s voice and sigh from satisfaction instead of angst. Before my eyes, the God who had always been breathing down my neck faded away, a pernicious mirage, until I could finally see the God who breathes life into clay lungs, the one whose breath had been carrying me all along. “So spacious is he,” writes Paul, and I stopped right there on the page, unwilling to read on until those words had inked themselves onto my soul.

So spacious is he.

I hadn’t known.

Everything comes down to breathing for me now. Whether I’m running or praying or wrestling with doctrine or opening a blank page, the secret is in relaxing whatever I’ve got clenched—all my righteous restraints and illusions of control—and trusting that I can fill and release and be filled again. I think of it as a kind of life Lamaze, this focused refusal to hoard tension. Just like the hilarious “hoo-hoo-hee-hee” panting techniques I had to practice in childbirth class, it goes against my instincts. I feel unstable without my old fear and shame and exclusion-based doctrines to clutch, and the risk of taking each moment by faith unsettles me further.

Being able to relax in the company of God, however, is a gift worth every existential discomfort. So spacious is he that my lungs can’t fill beyond his capacity to provide. So spacious is he that I can travel from one set of perspectives to their opposites without losing his trail. So spacious is he that my days of corseting myself and standing ramrod straight at the barre are over; now it’s our time to run.

“Gone are the days of begging
The days of theft
No more gasping for a breath
The air has filled me head to toe
And I can see the ground far below”

image credit

30Apr

The Spiritual Practice of TED

I was not born with the gift of waking up. During the night, sleep clots in my veins while my eyelids turn into miniature lead aprons, and while I might be able to force uprightness on myself the next morning, I can guarantee neither alertness nor attractiveness. (Ask Dan sometime how he feels about The Walking Dead as a reality show.) However, as much as I may rage, rage against the dawning of the light, my best days are always the ones that start an hour or two before I absolutely have to be up.

I call that hour or two my Spiritual Recharge Time (SRT) for lack of a better term. I grew up calling it Quiet Time, but that now reeks of obligation and guilt to me—falling asleep over Bible pages I was too tired to make any sense of, Psalms about morning prayer wagging their fingers at me, preacherly voices admonishing, “You don’t love sleep more than you love God, do you?” Give me a break.

I do sometimes read The Message for SRT, but I might read something else or journal or listen to music while the first cappuccino of the day warms my brain back to life. I have to figure out on a trial-and-error basis which practice will work for me on any given morning, and that’s not always easy. One morning, perusing the Bible will make my mind glow; the next morning, it will make me feel like stabbing something. Same with music and journaling and reading. I wake up (which in my case is always a euphemism, but still) with expectations of connecting with God, but sometimes trying to find the right spiritual practice feels like combing through a wardrobe of ill-fitting clothes. The frustration of this can leave me further from God and closer to zombiehood than I was upon “waking.”

I recently found a solution to this nothing-fits scenario though: TED Talks. It’s not that I’m just now discovering these “ideas worth spreading;” they’ve been on my radar since Liz Gilbert’s brilliant talk on genius in 2009. However, I never thought of them as spiritually relevant until one morning a couple of months ago when I gave up on SRT in frustration, opened my computer, and landed on Louie Schwartzberg’s presentation about nature, beauty, and gratitude:

“When people see my images, a lot of times they’ll say, ‘Oh my God.’ Have you ever wondered what that meant? The ‘Oh’ means it caught your attention, makes you present, makes you mindful. The ‘my’ means it connects with something deep inside your soul. It creates a gateway for your inner voice to rise up and be heard. And ‘God’? God is that personal journey we all want to be on, to be inspired, to feel like we’re connected to a universe that celebrates life.”

I felt it. Watching his stunning time-lapse photography filled me with the Oh my God that had been so absent from my other meditative attempts that morning. It rescued me from the confines of my own small mind and replaced my frustration with wonder. Wonder. That was the missing piece, the perspective I hadn’t had the strength to conjure for myself.

The talk finished, and I clicked to another one. I watched Paul Nicklen befriend a dangerous leopard seal, Sue Austin go deep-sea diving in a wheelchair, Amy Cuddy prove that we can change our internal chemistry with body language, and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie discuss the power of our stories. Their innovations and perspectives helped me sense the scope of the universe a little more clearly. It felt like tapping into an existential undercurrent, one powered by creativity and open-mindedness and awe… and what was that undercurrent if not God?

Watching TED Talks has become my go-to spiritual practice when none of the conventional ones seems to fit, and I’m sharing this because I know I’m not the only who struggles to connect with God. Religious institutions have worked a number on many of us. The Bible has been used so often to manipulate and oppress that its words wound rather than heal some of us. Faith traditions straight-laced with rules and shoulds and penalties have convinced some of us that they control access to God, and why even bother trying when it’s all so hard and heavy, when all our attempts at devotion seem to turn our souls industrial grey?

This is why: Because God is bigger than the walls put up to safeguard religion. This I believe with all my heart. If we’re not finding God within other people’s traditions, that’s okay. In fact, there’s an expansive kind of joy in brushing up against the divine where you least expected to find it—in the zombie hour following dawn, for example, when all the usual spiritual channels have failed and all that’s left is the entire wonder-full universe.

8Apr

Upside-Down Art: Jaw Harp Jam

From the time I stumbled across D.L. Mayfield’s writing a couple of years ago, her perspective has intrigued and challenged me. Her blog was the first place I came across the term “downward mobility,” and her conviction that Jesus’s teachings and the American dream might be at odds has set off powerful ripples within my own thinking. Through her writing, she draws those on the margins of society into the middle of the picture, over and over until readers can’t help but start to see the world differently. In short, she’s a game-changer. I’m honored to be sharing her space today with a cross-cultural redemption story that has become my favorite earworm; join me there for the rest, would you?

~~~

When Marcus Mumford and his band of indie folk-farmers hit the scene back in 2010, I had never heard the term hipster. I didn’t know suspenders were the new rubric of cool; I just knew that their music spoke to me, that Mumford’s “newly impassioned soul” plucked the strings of my own longing for a full-volume life. I queued up Sigh No More and played it on repeat for the next six months. Chances are, you did too. The album peaked at #2 on the Billboard 200 and was the third most downloaded album of 2011. Everyone, it seemed, was getting his or her British bluegrass on.

But this story isn’t about Mumford & Sons. It’s about an almost impossibly obscure group of musicians from rural India who recorded an untitled EP with them.


Dharohar ProjectImage from last.fm user rahsa

They went by Dharohar Project (pronounced “Dah-RHO-har”), and the only thing I knew about them was my own disappointment. I’d been hoping for a fresh dose of the barn-dance rock I’d been cycling through my stereo—not the wailing and twanging I associated with traditional Indian music. I gave the MP3 samples a once-over, but they only confirmed what I already knew: Jaw harp just wasn’t my jam.

{Continue reading over at D.L. Mayfield’s place}

14Jun

Teenage Rebel in an Apron

I march up the hill from the post office, where I have just waited 67 minutes for a stamp to put on an envelope addressed to the IRS. Smoke is wisping from my ears. My sandals would bore all the way through the pavement if they could.

Right now more than ever, it feels like the whole world is calling dibs on our money and time, and I just want to snatch our life back from the Powers That Be, fold it tightly into a suitcase, and run somewhere without cell phone service. But responsibilities are waiting at home—individual meal components roosting in the fridge, drain cleaner standing like an impatient tour guide on a bathroom counter painted in toothpaste, business trip preparation lists lying expectantly where they were written. I don’t know where to start, and as I trudge up the last hundred meters to our stairwell, defeat slinks quietly between my ankles.

Part of this is my own fault for leaving without breakfast this morning. Somewhere in the early bustle of sunscreening little limbs and locating the car keys, my iced coffee went back in the fridge untouched, and my mood is now firing snappy remonstrations on behalf of my stomach. Though I know this can be remedied within thirty seconds of entering the front door, I’m still disillusioned by the trajectory of sunbeams across the hall. More than half the morning is already gone.

The thought comes unbidden to me as it has so many days this month—Whose life is this anyway? I breathe in the slanted air, feel the slick of granite underfoot, and wonder if the Me of ten years ago would be able to pick out the Me of today in a lineup. The minutiae awaiting me inside—recipe cards and utility bills and a thousand small testaments to adulthood—feel like exhibits in a World War II museum, fascinating and wholly foreign. That they’re a part of my storyline at all, much less a defining part, halts my heartbeat in its tracks.

This isn’t me… is it? This girl in a cocoa-dredged apron flitting from stove to broom to ironing board and back again? Only I’m not a girl anymore, and it is me, and fighting against the planetary draw of hearth and home never immunized me to its orbit. I’m here now. Mom. Housekeeper. Errand-runner. Responsible adult.

Maybe this is why I’m so cavalier toward my evenings, choosing to stay up even as my window for rest shrinks to the size of a cat door. That element of choice often feels absent from the daylight hours when calendars converge and phones ring and children’s needs ebb and flow along my shorelines, but nighttime is for sneaking out the back door, for the teenage rebellion I never had. It’s when I feel most able to choose who I am.

Unfortunately, it’s also when my creative center closes up shop, so I’m left to prowl my own living room rug in a cross-eyed fog, stepping on construction paper confetti and the occasional Lego and really only succeeding in sabotaging the next day’s energy. I may be sticking it to the man (the mom?), but I’m not making any progress in reconciling my inner life with my outer one.

This sense of mistaken identity falls heavily on my neck now as I unlock the door and let the wind slam it behind me. If I had a soundtrack, this is when the Talking Heads would queue up… This is not my beautiful house! The fascinating, foreign domestic orbit is reeling me in, but I’m just a delayed teenage rebel, and I don’t know how the care and keeping of a family became my area of expertise or how more than half a morning has slipped through my fingers already or how to start reclaiming it, any of it.

I hesitate for a few staccato heartbeats, letting a last tendril of smoke unfurl from my eardrum, and then I make a choice. It’s all I know to do in the moment, so I choose well: two eggs sizzled tender-crisp in butter, toast dolloped with blueberry jam, yogurt eaten off a tiny spoon, two iced coffees in a row. Lunch is only an hour and a half away, but I don’t care. In fact, I’m glad to be doing something that makes no practical sense whatsoever; this is, after all, about choice.

I push all domestic concerns from my mind and ask myself, the real enduring self who I so often confine to overtired nights, what she would choose to do next if given the power to decide. She answers that she would turn on her computer and open a blank document.

So I do.

21Mar

From the Other End of the Power Spectrum

Trigger warning: child abuse.

We were at a dinner party some time back when a conservative Christian dad at the table joked about how many hours he had to wait after his babies were born before he could begin spanking them. I immediately focused on my lap, not trusting myself to look at the man. I was afraid that one more glimpse of the self-satisfied grin on his face would sever every attachment I had to civility. I twisted my napkin into cardboard and tried not to listen the precious dinnertime chatter of his little girl with mine. Even after all these years, a child’s laugh can undo me, and no one wants a dinner party to turn into a nuclear meltdown.

I still think about what I would have said to the man had I been unable to keep a lid on my thoughts that day, but it’s a futile conjecture. For one thing, common sense says that no one’s mind is likely to be changed by a dinner party debate. For another, conservative Christianity usually holds that men’s opinions and theological interpretations are superior to those of women; God-given authority is a trump card that would have rendered my hand ineffective from the beginning. However, the most disturbing reason my words would have been discounted that day is that I have lived through child abuse. I would have been viewed as emotionally compromised and irrational because I have intimate knowledge of the topic at hand.

In the thirteen years since beginning to work through the repercussions of my childhood, I have heard two common reactions among fundamentalist Christians when the word “abuse” is attached to fundamentalist Christian practices:

  1. “I’m so sorry that you were abused, but your situation was extreme; what I do isn’t abuse.”
  2. “You have a distorted and psychologically imbalanced perspective of what constitutes abuse; you are making up this victim mentality for your own selfish gain.”

One response sidesteps blame; the other flings it back. Neither acknowledges the victim’s validity as a first-person witness or the relevance of his or her first-person pain.

Perhaps I should take a step back and clarify what I mean by abuse, especially within a Christian context. I work by a very simple definition of “abuse”—using a position of power to harm another person.Therefore, sexual abuse is forcing sexual harm on another person, physical abuse is forcing physical harm on another person, and spiritual abuse is forcing spiritual harm on another person. The first example is universally accepted as horrific, but the latter two are especially prevalent within fundamentalist religious lifestyles.

Take the concept of “divine authority” assumed by many church leaders, husbands, and fathers, especially throughout the Patriarchy Movement in which I grew up. Wielding a position of spiritual power, these men can manipulate their congregants or families into serving them, submitting to them, and accepting their every word as truth. Actually, I see very little difference between spiritual abuse and the more mainstream emotional variety; they both employ shame, withheld approval, verbal aggression, and intimidation. Spiritual abuse is simply emotional abuse on God’s letterhead.

The harmful effects of spiritual abuse might be difficult to quantify, but they’re real enough to those who face the herculean task of working through them. I can personally attest to just how mentally and emotionally draining it can be to push back against the teaching that you are inferior in God’s eyes. Imagine having your sense of who-you-are systematically destroyed while your protests are decried as sin and then having a new, subservient identity installed in its place. No more freedom to think for yourself or make your own decisions, no relief from the fear that you will anger God (or his henchmen), no confidence, no autonomy, no self-worth—these are the effects of spiritual abuse, and no matter how often the term “godly authority” is thrown around, bullies are bullies are bullies THE END.

Physical abuse is a less obvious practice of fundamentalist Christianity, but brave souls like Elizabeth Esther have done much to raise awareness of the parenting techniques often endorsed as God’s will and focused on breaking the child’s. By spanking their children for infractions ranging from direct disobedience to grumpiness, many parents believe that they are training them in accordance with the Bible, and some actually believe that spanking will save their children from hell. While I grant that most parents would never take this philosophy to the extremes that have landed a few families on primetime news, and while I do not think that spanking one’s children indicates a lack of love, I would like to bring up the following points that shape my thinking on the topic:

  • Can we be honest that “spanking” is simply a euphemism for an adult striking a child? If a child repeatedly strikes another child, whether it be with a stick or a pipe or his hand, we call it “hitting.” If an adult does the same to another adult, we call it “beating.” When an adult does it to a child as a disciplinary tactic, we call it “spanking” and often overlook violence that would disturb or anger us in different settings.
  • Inflicting physical pain on children can certainly condition their behavior and subdue their independence as promised by spanking proponents like Michael Pearl, but it neither imparts a change of heart nor teaches anything specific about the behavior being punished. Some parents say they are teaching their children self-control, but spanking is not a natural consequence of any choice a child might make, so I would argue that their children are learning coping strategies rather than genuine self-control. (Protective coping strategies I picked up as a child include lying, redirecting attention toward a sibling, and hiding.)
  • While some Bible verses from the Old Testament book of Proverbs can be (and are) used in defense of spanking, Jesus both speaks at length about and demonstrates in person what loving our fellow human beings should look like. He preaches non-violence and inspires people to changes of heart through kindness. He flips notions of power and authority on their heads, and just in case we might not think his teaching applies to how we treat children, he gathers a group of unruly kids into his arms and tells us that his kingdom belongs to them. When in doubt over the Bible’s seemingly contradictory teachings, I go with Jesus.
  • Spanking depends on parents’ sheer physical dominance (or, in the case of older children/teens, parents’ ability to withhold food, shelter, human interaction, etc.) to purposefully cause pain to those in their care—using a position of power to harm another person. Beyond the fact that this sends a deeply confusing message to children, who themselves are not allowed to use physical dominance to get their way, it fully fits the definition of abuse.

I realize that criticizing a popular parenting technique like this is not too far off from coming unglued at a dinner party. To be honest, I’ve put off writing about this for a long time because I didn’t want to face the effects, both the emotional strain of dialing up my childhood and the potential backlash from parents who feel attacked. It would be fifty shades of hypocritical for me to tell others what they should believe and how they should raise their own children, and “abuse” is not a word that can be applied lightly. I’m wading through serious territory here.

But the seriousness of abuse is precisely why I’m taking the chance to speak up today. Spiritual Abuse Awareness Week is bringing survivors out of the woodwork, and I’m standing up with them—not because I enjoy playing the poor pitiable victim or because I want to spread another layer of guilt on this grace-starved world but because the truth matters. You deserve to hear the whole story, the practical conclusion to bookshelves’ worth of theory, the reality on the other end of the power spectrum. You deserve to know the emotional impact of philosophies that many people accept as God’s will despite their misgivings.

In turn, I trust you to accept my perspective as valid rather than irrational or compromised by my being “too close” to the subject. This isn’t an FBI investigation we’re talking about; it’s life. It’s experience. It’s the intersection of theology and practice, the correlation between what we believe and how it affects others. If we believe in a God of love and grace and peace, then we need to be closely examining philosophies that produce the opposite, and that means listening to the uncomfortable stories, taking them to heart, and working to right wrongs however we can.

Here is my own uncomfortable story: I am a survivor of child abuse. Under the approval of fundamentalism and the Patriarchy Movement, I endured years of severe spiritual and physical abuse, including some that veered over the line into sexual abuse. I helped the perpetrators to cover it up, even when instinct screamed at me to protect myself and my younger siblings. (That dinner party joke about spanking infants is no joke, and I don’t know if I can ever fully forgive myself for the things I enabled through my silence.) I grew up fearful and ashamed, with helpless fury often spiraling downward into depression. I battle those same feelings in adulthood, with the addition of panic attacks and other physical manifestations of PTSD, and there is not a single aspect of my daily life that is not affected in some way by what I endured as a child. Not one.

My saving grace has been a long, slow discovery that God is not the mastermind behind my abuse. I’ve had to shed thousands of assumptions along the way, prying my clenched fingers from fears and shames that I had thought were part of my identity, and there are thousands still to go, but I know that the divine source of light and love is not responsible for the way power was used to hurt me all those years. I do struggle heavily with why God allowed the abuse to happen, but it comforts me to think that he didn’t send down preventative lightning bolts from heaven for the same reason that he didn’t make me spend the rest of my life in a falsely constructed identity: because he does not abuse his power. He doesn’t force or manipulate or use his position to demand subservience. He is about as far from the patriarchal standard as a deity could get.

And in coming to recognize this, I’ve been able see ways in which God was with me all along—providing moments of comfort and flashes of joy, stopping me at the brink of suicide, guiding me toward a life far, far away from my past and its triggers where I can heal in peace. I know it doesn’t make sense to some people that I would have anything to do with the God whose name was plastered all over the abuse I endured. However, uncovering God’s real identity is helping me more than anything else to uncover my own, and if this makes me emotionally compromised, then I’ll wear the stigma proudly.

This is my uncomfortable story, this is my song. (Part 2, about parenting after abuse, here.)

~~~

More uncomfortable story-songs from this week:

The Day I Died by Caleigh at Elora Nicole

Paved With Good Intentions by Hännah Ettinger

God is Love by Sarah Moon

The Cult That Changed Everything by Kiery King

How Spiritual Abuse Has Affected Me by Jessica Bowman

Spiritual Abuse and How It Shaped My Identity at Defeating the Dragons

After Steubenville by Ann Voskamp

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