Bullying and Persecution
I have been angsty (Word spellcheck tells me that this is not a word, but I think it IS, so I am not changing it) about something to which I could not quite put words. As usual, a series of stories and experiences helped me find the language. I think I still need help wrestling through the implications. If you are reading, I hope that you will approach my story telling and accompanying questions as an invitation to wrestle alongside of me…rather than wrestle AGAINST me. It is my desire that we are courageous to do some truth telling in this space.
Now for some storytelling…
My youngest daughter, then a first grader, lays in bed, snuggling in for sleep. Suddenly, she says: “Mommy, Katie and Emma (names have been changed) keep telling me I’m not a real Christian. They keep asking me if I go to church EVERY Sunday because to be a real Christian you have to go to church EVERY Sunday. I remember when we first moved here we missed church once or twice and so I told them. Then they said that means I’m not a real Christian. I told them I love Jesus. Mommy, am I a real Christian?”
In the darkness, I take some deep breaths, doing my best to steady my beating heart. I ask some questions to understand more about the situation. I assure her that she is a “real” Christian (sigh…words like “real” and “normal” are so ridiculous and tricky, but that’s not the conversation for a 6-year-old). I also try gently to make sure she knows that it is not ok for her friends to assault her with this line of questions. My daughter, who adores her friends, picks up something in the tone of my voice and immediately assures me that everything is worked out…that their teacher helped them talk through the conflict…everything is ok. Oh, and can they come over for a playdate soon?
The next day I write to the teacher to ask about the situation and to make sure it, in fact, has been resolved. I explain that while I am completely certain these little girls did not mean any harm, that I consider this conversation to be bullying behavior. She told me that it has been resolved and that she does not want anyone to feel threatened in the class.
I thank her teacher and share with her a story from when I was about the same age. In fact, when Hillary starts describing what happened I immediately transport back to my elementary school lunch room. I can almost smell the cafeteria pizza. I walk up on my friend Andrea (name also changed), the only Jewish girl in my small southeast Tennessee school, surrounded by a group of kids demanding that she confesses belief in Jesus. I think they are saying that “her” people actually killed Jesus. I am very young and really don’t understand what it means to be Jewish. I do know that Jessica seems confused and scared and that is not ok with me. I am very uncomfortable. I step into the circle and try to clear up what is obviously a misunderstanding. I ask everyone to explain to me what is going on. I decide that it is an easy fix. I ask Jessica to confess that she believes in God or Jesus. She does so hesitantly. Everyone calms down and moves on to the next agenda item of second grade drama.
The experience of seeing other children treat a friend in this way startles and disorients me…obviously enough to lodge it into my long-term memory.
A few weeks ago, I schedule to have breakfast with a new colleague and friend who is also a therapist in the Austin area. I met her at a conference where she attended a session I was doing on spirituality. Since that is our point of connection, the topic naturally rises as we chat over our coffee. We share stories of our own religious upbringing…the gifts and the pain. Later that day I receive an email from my new friend. She wants to make a confession. She says she needs to tell me that she no longer considers herself a Christian. “I just feel like I need to let you know so you can decide if you still want to be friends with me. To be honest, ‘coming out’ as a non-Christian is harder than coming out as a lesbian.”
My mouth opens in surprise and concern as I read the email. Of course, I immediately assure her that her religious beliefs do not affect my friendship with her and that if I had in any way made her feel that it did, I am very sorry. She lets me know that I had not, but that she still just wants to make sure I know.
The conversation haunts me for days.
It is harder to come out as a non-Christian than it is to come out as a lesbian. Wow.
After time living away, I settle in my hometown. I raise my kids in my conservative small city for 8 years before moving again. I remember being in line shopping with two other moms who had moved into the area. I ask about their experience of the town…what they like, what they don’t like, etc. They identify one trait of our community as being most interesting for them. They had never lived in a place where a person’s status or social circle is determined so much by where a person attends church. They explain that it has made it difficult to develop friendships. When they meet someone, one of the first questions asked is: “Where do you go to church?” and at that point they seem to be put into a box that determines whether or not the relationship will continue.
During these golden years of raising babies I remember conversations with friends in which one would warn against letting our daughters play with another child: “They don’t live like us. And, I’m pretty sure they don’t go to church.” Or, it might be said in a more passive way. It could even be phrased as a question: “Where do they go to church?”
Of course, the children absorb these messages. I overhear conversations among young friends of my daughters as they are figuring out how to handle a peer exploring and playing with new, different ideas: “I thought she was a Christian!”. The implication is clear: different or new means no faith.
Same equals faithful. Different is suspicious at best, dangerous at worst.
Undoubtedly, there are all of the “bless her heart” and “I’m praying for her” and “Don’t get me wrong, I LIKE her” comments that get tagged on to ensure we all know that we are all GOOD PEOPLE who ultimately just CARE and are definitely NOT judging.
When I am about 10 years old I spend the summer with my Pentecostal preacher grandfather and his wife. I watch and listen in the church services. I hear things taught that scare me. One day while driving down the road I get the courage to ask my step-grandmother: “Do you think you have to speak in tongues to go to heaven?” A severe look comes over her face. “Well, I don’t want to tell you that you have to, but I believe you do.” My whole body freezes. My heart starts pounding. I had not spoken in tongues, so I feel the terror of eternal damnation instantly course through my skinny arms and legs, sticking with humidity to the seat in the summer heat.
The next church service I try to get my 3-year-old brother saved. He cries and yells at me: “I don’t WANT to go to heaven because I want to stay here with YOU, Mommy, and Daddy!” Out of fear, and probably some desire to win some favor in the God department since I obviously am not getting “in” through tongue speaking, I try to explain how it works. “You live a long life here with us. THEN you die and go to heaven…IF you have accepted Jesus as your Savior.”
I left off the speaking in tongues part.
Theology according to 10-year-old Emily.
Unfortunately, 10-year-old Emily was not yet educated on stages of childhood development. I don’t understand yet that 3-year-old boys have no concept of next year much less death and heaven after a life time.
He isn’t having it. I let it go, mostly because he is starting to cry very loudly in the church pews and I am embarrassed.
The idea of being left out… not included…it is terrifying. Our relational attachment needs are so strong that when it comes to choosing between relational acceptance and just about anything… authenticity, clear thinking, being honest, thinking objectively, being empathetic, prioritizing people over rules…we will choose belonging and acceptance. We will suspend all sorts of personal values, needs, growth, opportunities… in order to maintain our status as part of the herd.
We also have a tendency to organize beliefs in a way that helps us find power. If we do not have power in one area of our life, it can feel so good to find it in other areas. We find a lot of power in saying who is in and who is out…and what the “rules” are for such a status.
Some Christians cling to their identity as the “persecuted”…the ones left out, the ones ridiculed, the ones punished for being different. It gives us reason to stand strong and to be on guard. Persecution is one of the single most powerful organizational tools for cohesion. Persecution and trials for group membership clarify that you and I are a WE. We can band together and maybe even make rules and systems that explain why actually WE are the better ones…the right ones. We find the redemption in persecution. It is a sign of our worth.
My angst finds its home here. This narrative does not match the stories I share above.
If as Christians we are the ones who are persecuted, then why is that not the case in these experiences? It seems the other way around.
Please, please. Hear me. I recognize that persecution happens to Christians around the world. It is horrific and not ok.
I also know that some of my fellow Christians might be remembering times when you WERE ridiculed for your faith. Maybe you were made fun of for taking your bible to school or for refusing to participate in something that seemed contrary to your beliefs.
I also know that there is a concept in my field where sometimes the “abused becomes the abuser”
Sometimes it is said like this: “If you don’t heal what hurt you, you’ll bleed on people who didn’t cut you.”
Maybe we have been the minority in the past. Maybe in the past there was an environment in which faith was not revered. Now we are the majority. Evangelical Christians are the largest faith group in the United States, larger than Catholics or those who classify themselves as Unbelievers.
We aren’t the persecuted minority anymore. We are the majority. When it comes to majority and minority groups and power, it is the responsibility of the majority group to make room for those with less power…to be hospitable and kind. I am fairly certain Jesus gave this model to us, too. As a therapist who works with issues of power in relationships of all kinds, I know that it is a model that is the way through hard things.
Here is what often happens. The majority group doesn’t make room…isn’t kind and hospitable…isn’t willing to say: “We hurt you by not acknowledging your needs. We are sorry.” Maybe they even have a “too bad, so sad” kind of mentality. As in: “You aren’t fitting in and getting with it and you are having trouble… well, duh. Get with the program. Become more like us and you won’t have those struggles anymore.” Maybe, they make it difficult and scary to “come out” as different.
Then the minority group, after doing exhausting work figuring out ways just to survive…after the toll of always having to find a space, to be accepted in some way, to EXIST…gets tired and acts out in some way.
“See! Just a toxic group of people. Look at the persecution we get! I knew they were crazy. I knew they had issues. I knew something was wrong with them. Look at how SANE we are. Obviously, we are doing things RIGHT. We ARE right.”
History shows us that the minority that turns into the majority OFTEN finds power in this way. They really do become the abuser that was the abused.
And, Christian friends? We ARE NOT THE MINORITY anymore. We just aren’t. Having our beliefs questioned at times IS NOT PERSECUTION. It just isn’t.
But, you know what? We could become the minority again. The stories above make that a frightening thought to me.
The abused becomes the abuser.
I was raised in churches where missionaries came and did talks on the persecuted church in places like China. The persecution is real. I believe it. And? Recently I heard from a man who does work with the Chinese people. When this idea of the persecuted Christian is posed to him, this gentleman (white, male American in his early 60’s) pauses to think through it a bit: “I have been to church a lot in China. I never had any trouble and the sermons all seemed to be similar to what I would hear over here. I do know that there are arrests in secret house churches. The thinking seems to be that in secret meetings a very charismatic, spiritually abusive leader could rise up and manipulate people in cult-like groups.”
I had never once considered this idea. It is a completely new perspective for me. I can picture some charismatic, spiritually abusive leaders in the United States. I can DEFINITELY think of situations where people could be abused…no, HAVE BEEN ABUSED… by said individuals. In the context of his reported understanding, the rules, even if ultimately not what I consider the best choice, seem to make sense. They do not seem as anti-God and about Christian persecution as I was raised in the United States of America to believe…where our missionary work can, at times, closely resemble imperialism. We are trying, more than we want to admit, to make people more like Americans than like Christ.
Again, it can be difficult to determine if we are perpetuating Christ…or our idea of American Christianity. Are we loving people…or trying to get them to look and act more like us?
Just for clarification, because some of you might need it.
No, I am not a communist.
No, I am not a registered anything.
No, I am not advocating for becoming more like any other country.
No, I am not anti-American or anti-Christian.
(I am stopping to take a big sigh at the realization that I feel like I even have to include those statements, but I know that for some people I really do.)
I AM asking you please to consider…what are we teaching our children about loving people who are different than us.
I AM asking you please to consider…what are our children hearing us say in our homes, churches, and around our friends.
I AM asking you please to consider…that maybe…just maybe…we end up being the ones doing the persecuting sometimes…and to start being aware of that potential.
Recently, I encountered research explaining that fear is an excellent motivator for NOT doing something while hope is an excellent motivator for DOING something.
If it helps us avoid something we consider horrible….like not belonging…or feeling powerless… fear can override just about anything…facts, other emotions, relationship ties, etc.
Hope is harder. Hope doesn’t offer us the same resistance…the same “don’t” motivation…in the face of a world that is so obviously against us (said tongue in cheek). Hope does not motivate us to endure persecution as well as fear. And, since we are definitely being persecuted…we should use fear more than hope.
But, what if, friend? WHAT IF? What if we tried hope? What if we tried hoping and LOOKING to build relationships with people different than us. What if we had enough internal security in ourselves and in our faith not to feel like we have to live on attack all the time?
Talk to me. Am I off base? I realize that there is so much more that could be said. Am I missing something? Am I seeing a dynamic that really is at play? Or, am I making things up? Do you have stories to share, too?
(Geez this one is long. If you are still reading, you have invested so much time we might as well be BFF’s Call me for coffee. Thanks for reading. )