Another southern preacher in Atlanta, writes about her experience dealing with an outcome of what I call “slaveholder Christianity” — approaches to Scripture that are aimed at advancing one group ahead of another, as if one group can only be included if another is excluded from God’s family. I think these words from Rev. Kimberly Knight about the effect of exlusivistic forms of Christianity on her child gives us all alot to pause and think about.
And I ain’t just whistling Dixie here,
“Fear is one of the persistent hounds of hell that dog the footsteps of the dispossessed, the disinherited…deception is perhaps the oldest of all the techniques by which the weak have protected themselves against the strong.” Howard Thurman.
“Archery, definitely archery – and ropes-course and kayaking and dance, can I sign up for dance too?” said our youngest as she hopped around the kitchen, chattering about which activities to choose for her very first summer sleep-away camp. “Not arts and crafts and no way baby-sitting 101!” As we browsed the selections she nearly burst with excitement for “outdoor living skills” – the nut sure doesn’t fall far from the tree.
“Praise team, what’s that one?” she asked. “Well honey, it seems to be a group that practices, mmm, worshipping…they are a small group that sings and plays music and helps lead worship. “Oh, so this is a Christian camp.” she said with undisguised surprise.
So there it is, we’re letting our baby girl (and by baby I mean rising middle-schooler) go to a Christian camp. Actually this is the second kid we’ve let go to this camp. To be clear it’s a Y-Camp for girls in the north Georgia mountains to which she has been invited to attend with a friend we love and trust – a friend whose family loves and trusts us right back.
When I told our oldest kid that Little Bit would be spending a week at the same camp she went to she was not as thrilled as I thought she would be. “Mom, make sure and tell her about the people there, ok? Tell her to be careful.” I sighed “Yes love, I know.” I remembered the ride back from camp when “Thing 1″ shared the tearful conversation she’d had with one counselor who assured her if we all just prayed enough her mommy could change.
And so it begins; teaching our youngest the first game she will play at camp – the pronoun game. In the weeks leading up to camp we will work to help “Thing 2″ find the right ways and words to navigate the cool mountain waters of Christian camp as a kid with two moms. Why the hell would we we send her here? Well, this camp has a fantastic reputation for safety and fun, a good friend she has known a long time will be there with her and to be frank, it is a camp we can afford.
See, we don’t want her to be bullied by other kids or made to feel ashamed of her family by adults. We really just want her to have a fantastic time horseback riding, swimming, running, playing and being free. Except she won’t be quite as free as some of her cabin-mates and really, a little of the bullying has begun before she ever sets foot on the creaky old porch of her cabin if trepidation is reaching all the way to downtown Atlanta a month prior to camp.
I suppose it comes as no shock that this is troubling me on many levels.
Can you picture it, the first evening in the cabin as the girls sit around in their jammies, hugging knees or stuffed animals to their chests with their cabin leaders getting to know one another? Can you see her eyes shifting and her legs squirming as her turn to accept the invitation to share about her family moves around the circle? Can you hear the wavering in her voice as she talks about her parents, careful not to say moms? Can you feel her little heart beat as she talks about what we do, where we live and stuff we do together as a family? Can you see the truth behind her eyes as she figures out how to tell the truth and lie at the same time? Can you see her little fingernails chewed up as she learns how to carefully preserve the identity of the two people who love her most in the world? This mamma can picture it.
And I am scared to death of what we her parents are teaching her. In Jesus and the Disinherited Howard Thurman reminds us, “The children of the disinherited live a restricted childhood. From their earliest moments they are conditioned so as to reduce their exposure to violence.” This is true and this is real but at what point do we help her tap into the deep well of courage we both know she has. Why is it so hard to confidently teach “The Lord is my helper; I will not fear; what can man do to me?”
And lastly I am devastated knowing that this is part of her Christian formation. Formation by Christians who will teach her one important and terrible message of what it means to be a Christian in America. For many, to be a Christian in American means to know fear and know how to lie.
The other day I asked some friends (that I lovingly called Jesus freaks) what they think of when they hear the phrase “Christian formation” and here is what some of them said:
A different Kimberly said: “Spiritual disciplines/practices”
Ben: “Being formed in the ways and teachings on Jesus”
Diane: “transformation walking in the Spirit!”
Yet another Kimberly: “all the ways that we are sharped and formed in our Christian spiritual life, including CE, workshops, Bible study, and worship (especially the hymns).”
Michael: “The infusion of the theological virtues in us by the Holy Spirit which leads to development of all moral and intellectual virtues.”
Priscilla: “I prefer “faith formation”…those experiences and learnings that inform and deepen my faith…I happen to be Christian so I suppose it is Christian formation.”
Seth: “Makes me think of striving toward a particular worldview, but it’s not a word I’ve heard often, even as I’ve spent time in fundamentalist groups.”
Nar: “Simple for me … continual formation into the image of Christ.”
But when I zoom out and look at the situation impacting our family I see systematic, Christian formation in fear and lies – born in the church and sanctioned by the state. In the churches that have not yet come to understand that love makes a family and that homosexuality is not intrinsically sinful there remains a pervasive pedagogy that teaches our children to be afraid to be themselves and wary of the families that shelter them from the storm. There is in these churches a cultural currciulum that creates scaffolds for building lies about yourself in order to be safe. There is direct instruction that clogs the arteries of our souls with the cholesterol of conformity and control so that heart of Christ that animates our own is suffocating on despair and deceit.
Through this formative education a person learns to suppress inner truth in order to survive. The gay child is taught to despise lovingly crafted elements of their created selves so they can be lovable by the community around them. The child of gay parents learns to tell half-truths and out-right lies to avoid the sharp pain of rejection and bullying. And perhaps the most tragic of all, the young child whose soul is born wide open to the goodness of the universe, learns to suppress the love and compassion that come from Christ in order to please the parents and community to which they are born.
This Christian formation in fear and lies teaches us to reject our inner Christ – the Christ who was, is and will always be the light of love and truth in our hearts. It teaches us to turn away from our God who is pure agape and choose a false god of transient affection.
This formation to fear and hate those God has lovingly created and who we’ve been created to love – your neighbor as yourself and yourself as your neighbor – is nothing less than sinful.
God is love. We are made in the image of love so we are created to be loving creatures. When society – family, friends, church and government tell us that to truly love our neighbors (or to love ourselves as God has created us) is an abomination we learn to display behavior, and even internalize the psychology of fear and hatred of our neighbor, or worse, ourselves. Some learn to fear and loathe themselves according to the same message. As my cousin Michael lifted up recently “If we cannot love our neighbors, our claims to love God are false.” Loving our neighbor is inextricable from loving ourselves and if our neighbors are teaching us we are unloveable then the triquetra of the great commandment is shattered.
I hope you’ll forgive me if I take a moment to quote Macklemore & Ryan Lewis here:
“When I was at church they taught me something else
If you preach hate at the service those words aren’t anointed
That holy water that you soak in has been poisoned…”
When the spiritual practices and religious disciplines form us and our children to fear and lie they are not forming us in the ways of Jesus. To be disciples of Christ we must persist in creating communities of faith that truly listen to the still small voice of God that calls us forward, forms us, in the ways of radical love, infinite compassion and equal freedom.