Friday, March 8, 2013

Love! Betrayal! Scandal!: Shame and the Church

Rachel Held Evans' latest blog post, "Ashamed," is convicting, powerful stuff.  She addresses a lot that is wrong with the American church, with nothing held back:
I am ashamed of the bumper stickers, the t-shirts, the logos, the fog machines, the light shows, the celebrities, and that paralyzing fear of Silence we’re so bound and determined to avoid that we keep shouting and shouting and shouting at one another till our words are just clanging cymbals echoing off church walls.  
I am ashamed of the walls. They are built high, with circles of barbed wire around the top, to keep pests away from our bread and wine, to keep the Silence from getting in. 
I am ashamed of the abuse, the shaming, the cover-ups, the secrets, the millstones* being forged in Sunday school classrooms and pastors’ offices where people are supposed to be safe, and the way I want to watch those millstones drag a few more bodies down to the bottom of the sea.  
I am ashamed of the violence—in our theology, in our words, in myself.
Many who read this post agreed with Evans, and told their stories of the pain they felt from fighting so hard to remain devoted to the faith while the church continued to behave abominably.

I identify with those people.  Where once I was delighted to announce my Christianity to the world, felt nothing but excitement at entering the walls of a church, now there is so much pain.

I feel like my former church is turning against me, as they decided to dig in their heels and refuse to ordain non-celibate gay people even though the denomination opened up ordination to us.  I think back to the things I learned as a youth, how even as I was assisted in delving deep into my spiritual life, I was also taught that video games could cause me to be violent, that non-Christian religions are dull and/or unsatisfying, and that nonmarital sex only occurred in damaged relationships or as one-night stands.  I think of how as the church expanded and embraced more advanced technology, it also became less personal.  I'm sad that now, returning to that church is both a happy and painful thought; happy because of the kind souls there whom I love, painful because even before my family moved I had become on-edge at every sermon, waiting for the pastor to say something that would set off an alarm, because I feared the alternative of feeling safe only to have a hurtful phrase punch me in the gut.

Hunting for a church where I won't feel that pain is hard.  Over the summer, my family did our best to visit only explicitly gay-affirming churches, so that I could feel at home.  Each one was small and intimate, and each had varying degrees of spiritual energy.  After I returned to school, however, my parents found themselves happiest in a church not unlike our former one; large, active, and still working out how they feel about the whole gay issue.  I remember feeling hurt and betrayed, as I'd made it so clear to my parents that I did not want to go through being in a non-affirming church again. (I've since gotten over that, because I've learned that my parents' spiritual needs are far different from mine.)

All of this is to say, there are many of us whose relationship with our faith is much different from our relationship with the church.  Mine is one of the more minor examples.  I can't imagine trying to keep to my faith after being betrayed by every spiritual leader in my life after being abused. (Trigger warning)

I suppose you could say that sometimes, heck, oftentimes, I'm ashamed of the church.  When there is so much bad happening, when I can hardly think of going to church without that pang of dread which I'm sure I share with many others, something has gone horribly wrong.

Apparently, however, this means I don't love Jesus.

There's a regular commenter on Evans' blog who seems to go just to mainly offer a counterpoint to what she says.  He's quite conservative, which I make as a statement of fact, and not as a slander which the word has become in progressive circles.  Sometimes he has some good points.  This time, his comment set me on edge.  Seriously, go read it.  But not before reading Evans's initial post.

First of all, he apparently hasn't read the post clearly, because Evans says the opposite of "I'm ashamed of the Church as defined by the worldwide collective Christian community and all it has done, good and bad."
I am not ashamed of the Church. She is a survivor, after all, a work-in-progress, a stubborn bride-to-be. The gates of hell will not prevail against her, they say. So I guess I better quit hedging my bets.
What Evans, her commenters, and myself are saying is that we're ashamed of how the church is so often a source of pain and humiliating antics, not love and wisdom.  We're ashamed that the church has turned into an exclusive club.  We're ashamed of how overall bad things have gotten in the institution that is the church**.

The good things that the church has done make it easier for me to defend it, to legitimize its existence.  The bad things make it harder to associate with it.  There are many times where I'd rather be doing good on my own or with firmly secular organizations.  I stay because I believe we can make it better.  I daresay that's why many of us bitter progressives/emergents*** stay with the church; we're not content to run away.  We believe that our shame and pain can motivate us to bring change.

If we truly didn't love the church/Church, we wouldn't be standing around bemoaning its failings and looking for answers.

We would have left.

*This is a reference to a verse in Matthew, where Jesus says that anyone who causes harm to a child is better off having a millstone tied to their neck and dropped into the sea to drown.
**As opposed to the Church, which as I said above is the worldwide collective Christian community.
***Emergent Christianity or "the Emergent Church" is a different form of Christianity from evangelical or mainline (which does not technically mean mainstream); it's mainly characterized by its social justice focus and the pursuit of a new way of doing Christianity in the 21st century.

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