We have already covered some basic WTF-worthy aspects of Evangelicalism. Here are a few more WTF-worthy items for your enjoyment.
Sunday School/Bible Study
These were small groups segregated by age group, or by gender, or by marital status. Larger churches would have children’s Sunday school classes segregated by school grade. Children’s classes would be focused on a Bible story, perhaps singing, and an age-appropriate craft or game. Teens were generally segregated by gender and school grade, and life issues would be discussed in “context” with Bible verses. Adult classes could be segregated by gender or by marital status (couple’s classes) where life issues would be discussed in “context” with Bible verses, or Bible stories would be discussed in general.
Students stand, Bible in hand at their side. The moderator calls out a Bible citation. The first student to find the verse and read it allowed correctly scores a point. (KJV Bibles only; no tabs separating books of the Bible allowed).
Pledging Allegiance to the American flag, Christian flag, and the Bible
This was done every day during Vacation Bible School and was done occasionally at church and occasionally at school. As an adult, I realized that this was a part of indoctrination of children into the concept of Christian Nationalism, that the USA was founded as a Christian nation and that our initial purpose has gone astray due to laws allowing “sin” and due to immigration of people who are not True Christians. And liberals – let’s not forget the liberals.
Vacation Bible School (VBS)
Summer Jesus-themed fun for the 12-and-under crowd, complete with Kool-Aid (the literal and the figurative). There was generally a theme for the week (or 2 weeks depending on the church and their ability to muster up volunteers) with Bible stories, games, songs, and crafts. Children were encouraged to invite friends, and churches often advertised with mailed fliers and banners outside the church. A successful VBS ended in a plethora of baptisms the following Sunday.
An emotion-filled trip for the middle school and high school “Youth Group” to go on with the purpose of saving souls and reminding us to live our lives for Christ (i.e., don’t have sex, drugs, alcohol, cigarettes; don’t listen to rock music or see rated-R movies; witness to friends; be “in the world but not of the world”). By the end of the trip there would be a lot of crying, and a successful youth trip ended with a plethora of baptisms scheduled for the following Sunday service.
Often, a guest pastor or pastors, and sometimes guest musical groups, would be invited to preach with the goal of scaring, I mean, saving souls. Members would be encouraged to bring guests. Revivals could last for a weekend or for an entire week with special programming. Successful revivals ended in a plethora of baptisms scheduled for the following Sunday service.
Communion, also known as the Lord’s Supper, was celebrated with grape juice and crackers/wafers. Supposedly before Jesus was arrested, he shared a meal with his disciples. He broke bread and told them that the bread was his body, broken for them, to eat in remembrance of him. He told them to drink wine, as it was his blood shed for them, to drink in remembrance of him. Baptists believe this is a symbolic gesture of Christ’s offering his body as sacrifice for our dirty, filthy sins. In our church, only baptized members of our particular congregation were allowed to participate in communion, which was conducted quarterly (closed communion). Baptists eschewed alcohol so grape juice was substituted for wine. We (made fun of) disagreed with Catholics who thought that the bread and wine actually converted into the body and blood of Christ through Jesus’ Power.
Until the past couple of years, I didn’t talk about my Evangelical Christian upbringing very much with my husband and kids. My husband’s family attended Catholic Mass on Christmas and Easter, and while he went through First Communion, he and his brothers didn’t really attend Confraternity of Christian Doctrine (CCD) classes very often. He and his two brothers were never confirmed as teens. As we stopped attending church when our children were seven and five, they don’t really know much about Christianity and barely remember going to Sunday school at the open and affirming Congregational United Church of Christ that we attended. But a couple of years ago, when my daughter announced that she wanted to leave New Jersey to attend college in the South, I started remembering some of the things that happened in Southern Baptist Church or in Fundamentalist Christian school where most of the staff were members of Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) churches.
Here are some of the things that I have told my family that elicited the WTF? response.
The concept that we are all sinners due to Original Sin brought onto the entire human race because Adam and Eve disobeyed God by eating a fruit they were told not to eat. Therefore, all humanity is doomed to toil and suffering on earth and eternity in hell. But wait! God decided he would impregnate an ignorant Middle Eastern teenager with himself/his son, preach, do some miracles, and stir up trouble for three years, get arrested, tortured and hung on a Roman cross, spend a weekend in hell (roughly a weekend depending on which gospel you read), rise from the dead and show himself to some people (how many and which ones depends on which gospel you read), and ascend back to heaven where he sits at the right hand of his father/himself along with the Holy Spirit/themselves and will come back to earth at some unknown point. Whew!
Making a Public Profession of Faith
When someone realizes that they need salvation in order to escape eternity in hell, they are required to show publicly that they accept the doctrine of salvation and that they are ready to be baptized and to become members in good standing of the church. Some people will say something, others will leave it to the pastor to introduce them. In any case, it is a REQUIREMENT that the person be seen publicly declaring that they’re a filthy, dirty sinner in need of the sacrifice of Jesus in order to be saved (from eternity in hell, don’t forget that part). The primary time that one makes one’s public profession of faith is during the Altar Call at the end of the service.
Every service concluded with an Altar Call in which the congregation would sing an appropriate hymn such as “Just As I Am” to encourage people to come forward to “make their profession of faith” or to “rededicate their lives to Christ.” If no one was coming forward, often the singing would stop, the organist would play, and the pastor would command, “Every head bowed, every eye closed” to encourage the shy to come forward without everyone looking at them. Sometimes I felt like someone would just go forward so the pastor wouldn’t feel bad that no one was going forward.
Baptism by Immersion
One of the hallmarks of being any brand of Baptist is to be baptized by immersion as (supposedly) practiced by John the Baptist of gospel fame. When people publicly make a profession of faith, meaning that they confess to being a worthless sinner in need of salvation by accepting that the sinless son of God, Jesus, came to earth to minister, die, and be resurrected as sacrifice for the sins of the world, and they promise to renounce sin, then they will be baptized. Baptism is a symbolic gesture that our sins are washed away by the precious blood of the slain Lamb of God and that we are clean creatures in Christ.
When the conservatives took over the Southern Baptist Convention in the 1970s and cleared house in their seminaries, the concept of Biblical inerrancy/literalism took hold. This meant that pastors must teach that the Bible was the inspired Word of God, that everything written in the Bible was literal and historical fact, and that the entire writings were indisputable. End of story. So improbable concepts are considered historical fact, such as a six-day creation of the universe and two human beings from whom every other human being descended; a worldwide flood that destroyed all living creatures and plants except eight humans and two of each living land creature (plus seven pairs of each “clean” creature) were saved and were the sources for repopulation of the entire earth; a talking donkey; a talking snake; a man who lived inside a whale’s digestive tract for three days; three men who survived after being inside a fiery furnace; a virgin birth; a couple of resurrections from the dead. Any findings from science or history that contradict what is found in the pages of the (King James Version of the) Bible are considered to be false deceptions from Satan. Of course.
According to Pew Research and other polls, the Catholic Church in the U.S. is losing six congregants for every person who joins. The Church is also hemorrhaging members in other countries, even in such former bastions of Catholicism as Ireland and Spain. Moreover, for every person who formally leaves the church, others simply drift away. While the Vatican doesn’t seem overly concerned, as membership has grown exponentially over recent decades in Sub-Saharan Africa and in other regions, Church leaders in the U.S. and Western Europe (which, a century ago, was home to two-thirds of the world’s Catholics) are deeply worried. Those leaders, clerical and lay alike, are trying all sorts of things to keep members, particularly the young, in the fold.
If generals are always fighting the last war, leaders of institutions are always trying to woo the young with equally outdated notions of what appeals to them. During my childhood and early adolescence, churches—including the one in which I was an altar boy—started to offer “folk masses.” They were, apparently, a piece of the Church’s attempt to “meet people where they are,” which included the shift from Latin to vernacular languages in the liturgy. I can’t help but wonder whether offering masses said in English that included songs by Peter Paul and Mary actually enticed any young people to stay in the flock, but I recall feeling condescended to with the choice of music. After all, most adults’ ideas about what kinds of music their kids like are off by at least five years, if not more. As an example, I think of the relative who gave me a Monkees album for my fourteenth birthday, in 1972. (OK, you can do the math. But I’m a lady and won’t tell you my age! 😉
At least that relative understood other, far more important, things about me. That is why, even after that misguided gift, I never felt patronized. That relative, in short, was sensitive and sensible.
The same cannot be said for a group of folks who are trying to bring the Catholic Church into the 21st Century. At least, that’s what they seem to think they are trying to do. Cathio consists of “a team of well-established experts and leaders with deep roots in the Catholic Church.” Founded last year, the “Catholic enterprise” has just launched a platform “designed to enable all sectors of the Catholic community to benefit from lower costs and transparent payments,” says Cathio CEO Matthew Marcolini. Cathio advisor Jim Nicholson, formerly an ambassador to the Holy See, explains that in addition to the benefits Marcolini mentions, the Cathio platform will also facilitate “the connectivity of people of good will with good works.”
In other words, this Cathio platform is a sort of Bitcoin for the Catholic Church, which supposedly will make it easier for people to give money and harder for the church to hide its financial dealings. Call me a cynic, but I have my doubts as to whether either of those goals will be accomplished. The Cathio platform will almost certainly make it easier to move large sums of money, but from whom and to whom?
At least Marcolini and Nicholson are, at worst, misinformed about the good intentions of the flock and its herders. Another Cathio board member, however, shows that he is, at best, delusional. Then again, he’s merely confirming some of us have known for a long time.
That Board member once ran for President of the United States and has served as a US Senator from a state in which all of its Roman Catholic dioceses are part of a class-action lawsuit from—who else?—priest sex-abuse survivors. Rick Santorum says that, in addition to making financial transactions more efficient, the Cathio platform also offers the Church the opportunity to better engage young people. “Millennials don’t carry cash, they date on apps and watch on-demand entertainment. We have to be there, we have to learn from successful tech companies, and we have to make it easier for younger generations to engage with the Church.”
Now, I don’t know he defines “young people” and “younger generations.” Does he think they are synonymous with “millennials, who are generally defined as those born between 1981 and 1999? Well, I admit, at my age, 38-year-olds seem young, but I still wouldn’t call them “young people” or part of “younger generations.” Also, while millennials might conduct their lives on their electronic devices, they are using them to do things people of their age have always done: date, make travel arrangements, buy concert tickets and the like. Technology doesn’t seem to bring them back to practices or institutions they might have left behind. And, if anything, the “younger generations”—at least those younger than the millennials—won’t be as enraptured by technologies as millennials because they will have grown up with them.
But where Santorum really misses the boat, so to speak, is in his perception of who isn’t going to church anymore and why. Perhaps earlier generations stopped attending masses or services because they’d rather sleep in or go mountain biking on Sunday morning, or simply because they found those masses or services boring or irrelevant. But today’s young, and even middle-aged and older people, are more likely to be fed up with the church. In part because so much information is available to them so readily on their devices, they are less likely to accept the authority of religious leaders or the validity (let alone inerrancy) of the Bible. Even more important, they are more likely to have friends, relatives or co-workers who are LGBTQ or of a different religion or cultural heritage from what they grew up with. And young men know women who are doing the same work as they are, and possibly doing it even better.
Oh, and they’ve heard all about the sex abuse scandals. Perhaps they were victims themselves and were fortunate enough to get help at a relatively young age and be spared a lifetime of shame, self-loathing, substance abuse and unfulfilled and unfulfilling relationships and jobs.
In brief, if the Church has any hope of re-engaging the “younger generations” Santorum and others want to woo, it has to get rid of the predatory priests and everyone who covered up for and enabled them, for starters. (Actually, it would help even more if those priests, deacons and others didn’t molest kids at all, but that might be asking for too much too soon.) Then, it has to finally start respecting women’s bodies and minds. That means, among other things, supporting birth control and contraception and not punishing women when they come forward as rape victims. Finally, for once and for all, it has to end any and all bigotry, whether against LGBTQ people or anyone else.
If the Church is willing and able to do those things, it just might stanch the outflow of young people. Best of all, for the Church, such actions don’t require technology and wouldn’t cost the church anything. But I don’t expect the church to adopt such ideas: Even if the American and European churches become relics like Stonehenge, the church still has the Global South—at least until its young get smartphones and make gay friends.
There are a lot of people from my Evangelical past with whom I am connected on social media. A few of them never post anything at all that is religious. It is clear that some folks left Evangelicalism for a more progressive, inclusive Christianity. But there are quite a few who are still deeply rooted in Evangelical churches and beliefs. The majority of those who are still deeply rooted in Evangelicalism are also politically conservative. Not only are some of these folks posting about hell, but they are also supporting gun ownership, anti-immigration sentiment, and anti-abortion stances. Sometimes when I can’t take it anymore, I unfollow people.
All the Christians that I know believe in the power of prayer. They are convinced that their deity wants to hear from them and wants to help them with their issues, provided of course that the person praying is “right with God” and that whatever the person is asking is within God’s will. I don’t know any Christians who would state with certainty that they are “right with God” or that they know conclusively what is God’s will, but they certainly do throw their prayers out there in case all the right circumstances converge to produce the desired outcome. It’s a little like playing the lottery, except with the lottery someone will actually receive a payout at some point.
As someone who no longer believes in deities or the power of prayer, it is interesting to me to see what Christians post on social media when they are seeking a desired outcome to a situation. Some will post a cryptic notice to their “prayer warrior” friends that there is a situation requiring prayer. Inevitably, dozens of people will respond “praying,” while some include heart or praying hands emoticons. Others will post a specific event for which they would like their friends to pray, typically something to do with illness or financial/employment situation. The posts regarding cancer or terminal illness are the most heartbreaking for me to read, as the person posting often will state that they are putting their loved one’s well-being (or their own well-being as the case may be) in the hands of their deity. All of them do seek the best medical care that they can find or afford, so at least they are aware that physical treatments are necessary to treat disease. However, they ask for prayers for “getting an appointment soon,” “getting treatment right away,” “seeing the best doctor,” and so forth. Picking up the phone and talking with someone who can actually make that happen for you might be a better option than talking to an invisible deity and asking all your friends to talk to an invisible deity.
I feel for those who are reaching out for prayers. They are afraid, concerned, sometimes grasping with their last hope that their deity will show favor and perform a miracle to rectify the situation. Yet I just cannot bring myself to say that I am “praying.” I have not prayed in many years, even before I acknowledged that I was an atheist and no longer believed in any deities. I believe that if I say I am praying that it is a lie even though it is an expected response that might make the person feel better.
What prompted this post is seeing a series of posts from Evangelical Christians over the past few months regarding illness and death. A friend’s mother died after deciding to discontinue chemotherapy as her cancer had progressed too far. Another friend’s father died after years of cancer and remission; he was a pastor, which goes to show that the Evangelical deity does not favor his mouthpieces when it comes to cancer. Yet another person posted that her husband was experiencing unexplained blindness for which doctors, after several months of tests, have not found the root cause. My sister-in-law’s year-old grand-niece suffered a seizure, and doctors could find nothing long-term wrong with her. Another friend just posted yesterday that his wife was diagnosed with breast cancer and is starting radiation therapy today. And the most heartbreaking of all is a friend whose husband had surgery for a glioblastoma, was sent to Duke Medical Center to be evaluated for an experimental program, and the day before the appointment, was rushed to Duke where doctors performed emergency brain surgery to alleviate swelling where a new faster-growing glioblastoma has taken root. It took several days for the family to secure transport back home to Georgia so he could begin radiation treatment.
All of these people asked for prayers, and they received hundreds of responses such as “praying” or “praying for you,” or longer versions that include some sort of Bible verse and “praying,” or a long-winded monologue “lifting you up in the name of our Lord and Healer Jesus Christ.” Very few people actually offered something useful in return.
What I did notice was that hardly anyone who posted responded to those who commented “praying,” but everyone responded to my comments which usually involved saying that I hoped their medical team could find out what was wrong or made some other comment that had nothing to do with Jesus or prayer. My comments gave them the opportunity to express their thankfulness for their medical teams and to explain what had been accomplished so far. My goal when commenting was to show empathy, and I suppose that was also a goal of those who responded that they were “praying.” The difference is that I know and accept that there is very little actionable that I can accomplish to help these people with their issues while those who pray think they are doing something important and useful by appealing to their supposedly omnipotent, omnibenevolent deity. If the person does show improvement or recovery, the deity is thanked and held responsible for the “great things he has done.” Sometimes the medical team is thanked, but they are typically an afterthought in the process. And if the outcome is not favorable, then it is attributed to “God’s will, praise His name, glory hallelujah.”
In closing, I would like to mention the way a nonreligious friend is posting on social media about her husband’s bout with a brain tumor. They were on vacation in Italy when he collapsed. Hospital tests showed he had a brain tumor that required immediate surgery. When he returned to the US, he started radiation and physical therapy. All of her posts have been pictures of her husband with his medical team, with physical therapists, with friends and family who have visited, with many thanks for these professionals, family, and friends who are working with him. Not once did she mention a deity or ask for prayers.
If you are nonreligious, how do you deal with people asking you to pray for them regarding an issue? Do you tell them you are praying, or do you do as I do and mention how you are thinking of them and hope they have good resources? I would be interested to hear other ways that might convey empathy.
In my previous article, I mentioned that in 2015, Ireland became the first nation to legalize same-sex marriage by a popular vote. In another ballot last year, the Irish approved a bill that struck down the country’s near-total ban on abortion. The procedure had been allowed only if the mother’s life was at risk. That, in what was one of the world’s most devoutly Catholic countries just a generation ago.
Now the State of Alabama has, in essence, the sort of law Ireland just got rid of. The other day, Governor Kay Ivey signed a bill into a law that allows abortions only “to avoid a serious health risk to the unborn child’s mother,” for ectopic pregnancy, and if “the unborn child has a lethal abnormality.”
She was allowed to undergo an abortion in her own country, but the same right wasn’t granted to other girls and women. Instead, an amendment to the Irish constitution was passed, guaranteeing the right to travel to another country (usually England) for the procedure. That was fine for those who could afford to make the trip, as I’m sure Alabamans who can get to other states won’t be hampered by the new law in their own.
But in one area Alabama does old Ireland one better (or worse): Doctors who perform abortions can be punished with life in prison. Even televangelist Pat Robertson howled: “I think Alabama has gone too far,” he said during an episode of The 700 Club.
Ireland is starting to look really, really good right about now, even though I am not, and have never been, at any risk of getting pregnant. And hearing what’s transpired in Alabama and Georgia, and what may well come to pass in other states — not to mention thinking about the possibility of striking down Roe v Wade altogether — gives me the chills.
It would have given me the chills even when I was still living as a man. For me, the right to choose whether or not to carry a pregnancy to term has never been an abstraction. On one level, it is also about sovereignty over one’s body and life. Now, I’m not a constitutional lawyer or scholar. But, for what it’s worth, I have to wonder whether a government which can tell a woman or girl that she has to carry her father’s or brother’s or some stranger’s baby can also give itself the right to tell people such as I that we can’t take the hormones, have the surgeries or do whatever else we need to do in order to live at peace with ourselves. Also, would such a government imprison a doctor who prescribed the hormones or did the procedure—or even a psychiatrist who diagnosed a transgender, or a social worker who showed that transgendered person how to navigate a gender transition?
For all that I worry about such possibilities, I am affected in a more fundamental, even visceral, way by attacks on the right to a legal, safe abortion. As a child—an altar boy—I was sexually abused by a priest. That was half a century ago. I talked about it for the first time less than two years ago. By then, he was long dead, so I never had the opportunity to confront him. On the other hand, I never had to face him every day, directly or through the child I might have been forced to carry had I been, say, a 13-year-old girl instead of a 9-year-old boy. The state in which I was abused (New York) hadn’t yet legalized abortion, and Roe v Wade wouldn’t be decided for several more years. In the community in which I lived—almost entirely Catholic—young women were disowned or worse for having abortions. Even if abortion were legal, it would have been as unavailable to me as it was to most Irish women and girls—and will be for many in Alabama.
I am thinking of those women and girls. I could have been one of them. That is why I am so appalled at the law Alabama just passed. More importantly, though, I realize that for all I suffered as a result of my abuse and sexual assault, things could have been even worse for me. Unfortunately, in Alabama, they will be for many girls and young women.
‘History’ Stephen said, ‘is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.’
That is one of Jonathan’s favorite quotes. Knowing what I’ve come to know about him, it’s not difficult to understand why: the history from which Stephen is trying to awake in James Joyce’s Ulysses is the same history in which Jonathan (not his real name) came to be. To some extent, it is also my history.
Jonathan is a co-worker of mine, and we have been working on a project. That is how I have come to know a bit about him, and he’s come to know a few things about me. It shouldn’t have surprised either of us to find parallels in our backgrounds.
We both grew up in communities where nearly everyone went to mass in the same Catholic parish. My education was remarkably similar to his, though I received mine in a Catholic school across the street from the church and his took place in a “public” school. Most of my teachers were Dominican sisters. I got a heavy dose of religious instruction and was brought, with my schoolmates, to confession every Friday in the church. We now chuckle about standing on line at the confessional and thinking about what sins we would confess — at age eight.
As an altar boy, I served in the First Holy Communion mass for one of my schoolmates. A couple of weeks later, I served at the funeral of her older brother who was killed in Vietnam. I also served at my brother’s confirmation and, a few days later, the wedding of an older sister of a boy who was confirmed with my brother. I always felt that much in the lives of our community centered on the church.
I would later learn that there are many such communities all over the United States. The churches at their cores might be Baptist, Lutheran, Methodist or some other denomination. They nonetheless dominate the social as well as spiritual lives of those hamlets, villages, towns and urban enclaves in much the same way my former Catholic church cast its net around my old neighborhood.
Even so, those communities, numerous as they are, could never compare to what Jonathan lived in. It’s something that, even with my background, I have difficulty imagining: a whole country in which everyone belongs to, if not the same parish, then at least the same church. “In Ireland, you didn’t just go to church,” he explains. “You were always in the church, wherever you went, whatever you did.”
Jonathan grew up in Ireland during the 1980s and early ‘90s: two decades or, if you prefer, a generation, after my upbringing. At that time, the Catholic Church was still the de facto government, education system and provider of social services. “There really wasn’t any secular education in Ireland at that time,” he observes. Even most “public” schools, like the one he attended, were run, in fact or in essence, by the church. He got an hour a day of religious (indoctrination) instruction, as I did. That teaching was compulsory in all Irish schools of the time, he says. On the other hand, had my parents enrolled me in the public school of our urban American neighborhood, religious education would not have been part of my curriculum.
Another striking similarity between my education and his is that, while instruction in most subjects was rigorous, it included nothing about our bodies—or, of course, evolution. Had I attended public school, I might have learned something about Darwin’s ideas though, to be fair, given the times, I might not have had anything resembling sex education. In contrast, there was really no way Jonathan, in his country, in his time, could have learned anything about the way humans or other animals evolve, reproduce or take care of themselves.
Jonathan left Ireland in the mid-90s, just before it experienced its first (and perhaps only) economic boom — and the church started to lose its grip. He’s been back a few times, mainly to visit family and friends, but has no regrets about leaving, he says. For one thing, he pursued graduate studies and a career that would have been all but unavailable in the Ireland of his youth. Oh — and he met and married a beautiful biracial woman.
Also, he says, even though many of Ireland’s young today find the Church, and religion generally, “irrelevant,” there is still a “residue of religiosity,” mainly among older people and in the countryside. That is one reason, he says, the country was “convulsed” by the sex abuse scandals in ways that people in other European countries or the US can barely imagine. While the young don’t attend church and many don’t believe, the Church still runs schools like the one Jonathan attended. And hospitals. And orphanages. And many other organizations and institutions on which people depend for finding employment and housing, getting healthcare and other things most people consider part of living.
The church had an even tighter grip on Ireland during Jonathan’s youth, not to mention in earlier times. In few other countries was Catholicism as much a part of a person’s identity as it was in Ireland until a generation or so ago. One reason the Church was able to take such a hold of the populace is that, for centuries, their British occupiers tried to obliterate all signs of native culture. Speaking, let alone teaching, Gaelic became illegal. As in Poland during the Cold War and earlier occupations, the Church was the only organized opposition to oppression, mainly because it was the only opposition that had help from outside the country: Priests could go to France, Spain or Germany for their training. Thus, for the people, their religion became a bulwark against a foreign power that sought to subsume their identities. That, from what I’ve read — and what Jonathan has told me — is the reason the Irish held so fiercely to a religion that did as much to oppress them as any occupying army.
If a hierarchical structure like the church can use its representatives’ putative relationship with God to exploit those who are younger, weaker, poorer or in any other way more vulnerable than themselves in a country like the United States, the horrors they could inflict on poor Irish people are unimaginable to most of us. Even the most devout or impoverished American Catholics have never depended on the church for their identity or even sustenance in the way an everyday Catholic in Ireland did just a generation ago, i.e., in Jonathan’s time.
The “residue” of which Jonathan speaks was left by that captivity. Let’s call it what it is: slavery. Just as African-Americans still must extricate themselves from the detritus of their ancestors’ bondage, the Irish today are still living with the debris of the Church (and colonialism). And, although the young have made great strides (for example, four years ago Ireland became the first country to legalize same-sex marriage by popular vote, largely because of the young), they are still awakening to the nightmare of their history: their parents’ and grandparents’ oppression by the church.
Waking from a nightmare is difficult. It is not — contrary to how it may seem — the waking itself that’s difficult. Rather, it’s the nightmare that causes difficulty because it terrifies and tires us. At least the nightmare can end if we wake up.
And so it is with the church sex-abuse scandals, in Ireland and elsewhere. People see it as a tragedy or scandal when it comes to light. But the real tragedy, the real scandal, as Jonathan points out, is that the sex abuse went on, in the Magdalene orphanages, in the monasteries, in the schools and, of course, in the parishes, for centuries—during Jonathan’s lifetime, my lifetime, his parents’ and grandparents’ lifetimes, their grandparents’ and great-grandparents’ lifetimes, and during the lifetimes of their forebears. They lived the nightmare; we have lived it; now we are waking from it. Jonathan knew he had no other choice. Nor do I.
Amateur apologist and C. S. Lewis wannabee, Don Camp, makes the argument that as human beings have always believed in gods (have they?), it must mean that gods exist. They – or at least one of them – must have planted an instinct for worship within us from the outset. Don, of course, feels it is ‘self-evident’ that the god he believes in (the Christianised version of the Jewish tribal god, YHWH) is the One True God and consequently the deity who imbued us with the god instinct. Eventually, after millennia, during which humans misdirected their god-instinct to create thousands of false gods and imaginary supernatural beings, this One True God revealed himself and made known his expectation that he be acknowledged as the only God.
Where to begin?
It is not ‘self-evident’ that the tribal god of ancient Jews is the One True God. It is not ‘self-evident’ that this god exists while all the other gods humans have created (current estimate: 28,000,000) do not. The people who created these other deities were equally convinced they existed. Some had texts setting out the expectations the gods had of their human acolytes; most had rituals and forms of worship that had to be adhered to; they had experts – priesthoods – who knew exactly what the gods required; many encouraged adherents to serve the gods in their daily lives.
These other deities were every bit as ‘real’ as YHWH. There is nothing that singles ‘him’ out from them; nothing that makes him any more real than they were. He is indistinguishable from them in every way. It cannot be argued that they don’t exist, while, ‘self-evidently’, the Christian god – a very late arrival on the scene – is real.
What of the god instinct then? Where does it come from if not from the gods themselves? As others have argued (Dawkins and Harris, for example) it appears to be a misfiring of our need to know. The ancient peoples who devised gods to explain their world were doing their best with what little knowledge they had. Attributing agency to the activities of nature is an understandable mistake to make. Early people had first-hand experience of human agency and it was not an unreasonable assumption that agency must therefore lie behind other phenomena. We know that very early religions did precisely this in respect of animals, weather, and the stars (animism; while astrology, in which celestial bodies control human behaviour, survives to this day).
We now know, however, that such attribution was wrong. Inanimate phenomena do not possess agency. They do not possess it because they are not cognitive beings; any cognition we think we detect is our own, reflected back at us. The entities earlier humans created to explain what they took to be the purposeful activities of nature had no independent existence.
Our imaginary creations have no counterparts in reality; none of the 28,000,000 gods that humans have conjured up have actually existed. Is it reasonable to assume, then, that one of these otherwise imaginary beings really does? That YHWH is the exception; the one god, who, just because we’re more familiar with him than any of the other 27,9999,999 deities, is one hundred percent real?
It is difficult to confront the past: victims are made to relive their pain; victimizers are forced to face the truth. That, of course, is the reason why histories, whether writ large or in one’s own life, are too often unresolved: the victim’s suffering may just be too much to bear, and the victimizer’s guilt causes him or her to lie, evade, or flee.
The unfinished business, if you will, doesn’t go away. It is carried across generations, through history, and among families and cultures. As an example, many of the difficulties faced by African-Americans today are direct consequences of their countries’ inability or unwillingness to deal honestly with slavery and its aftermath, as well as other aspects of their nation’s history.
There comes a day, however, when there is no choice but to deal with the crimes committed by individuals and institutions that had, and sometimes still have, power. Those crimes are like bubbles that could have been submerged only for so long: eventually, they must rise from the depths to the light of day.
Just as those bubbles rise, whether they are in oceans or puddles, abuses must find expression by the individuals who experienced them or the societies in which they occur. Such expression might be in works of art, organizing communities, or simply in telling one’s story and someone else listening to it, without an agenda. Otherwise, those bubbles explode, and the people, their communities and cultures do not survive—or, at least, are tainted.
I am one of the people who could have been blown apart, if you will. Less than two years ago, I named the abuse I experience and my abuser—a priest who, half a century earlier, took advantage of my availability and vulnerability. I have, on a number of occasions, come close to destroying myself: whether consciously, through what people readily identify as “suicide attempts,” or unconsciously, through addictive and reckless behavior.
What seems odd to me now is that some might see recounting my abuse and remembering my abuser as the most difficult thing I’ve done, just as some people thought my “coming out” as a transgender woman was a “big step” for me. Yes, it took a lot of emotional and mental work to be able to take the reins away from the abuser and to stop the emotional blackmail he generated. But I realize now that the difficulty, the pain, of “coming out” as an abuse survivor is temporal, if not momentary. At least I know that, whether or not that pain has an end, it is at least something that I can use to forge new paths in my life and, possibly, help someone else do something similar.
As difficult as confronting that part of my past was, and is, having to live through, and with, the abuse and the shame I felt for so many years was far more difficult and caused much greater damage. Whatever is ruptured by breaking my silence—including that shame and the self-loathing that it too often became—didn’t deserve to survive intact.
Some might accuse me of “projecting,” but it’s hard for me not to think that, in some way, so many cases of sex abuse by clerics and others connected with organized religion is a greater, wider example of what I experienced in my own life. The “scandal” or “crisis” in religious institutions isn’t that the stories of abuse and exploitation are coming to light, by the thousands. The “crisis” has been going on for centuries, and the “scandal” is that its perpetrators kept their victims silent for so long.
In short, the “crisis” or “scandal” in the Roman Catholic Church (and other religious organizations and communities) is nothing more than an institution and its leaders being forced to confront its past—and present—because we, the victims, have had to deal with our pain, for ourselves and those who couldn’t. And those of us who are living could not keep silent any longer, or else we would explode like the Langston Hughes’ “dream deferred.”
Within the past forty-eight hours, two news items related to the Catholic Church caught my attention. One saddened me; the other left me furious but not surprised.
Les francaises sont tres choqués wrote a friend of mine who lives just outside the City of Light. Tout le monde est tres choqué, I responded. Indeed, the French were shocked at the Notre Dame Cathedral fire, and so was the world. I have divorced myself from the Catholicism in which I was raised, and my friend is a non-believer of Jewish heritage. But we both love art, architecture, history and Paris itself, so we feared the loss of one of the monuments Sir Kenneth Clark all but defined as civilization itself. Even in a country that prides itself on laïcité, the Notre Dame is the very epicenter of the nation: distances between Paris and other points in France are measured from the Cathedral.
It seems, thankfully, that the main structure of the Cathedral, and its iconic rose windows, were spared. But as the spire burned away, a leader of the Roman Church was igniting controversy—and re-inflaming old wounds some of us have suffered at the hands of the church’s entrusted servants.
I am referring to a letter from Benedict XVI, the Pope Emeritus. He’d written it several days before the Notre Dame conflagration, but it was going viral right around the time when les pompiers were expressing uncertainty as to whether the 850-year-old house of worship could be saved. Even in an age defined by an American President whose explanation of “the crisis at the border” might be confused with a porn movie script that was rejected because its plot was too unbelievable, Benedict’s explication of the origins of sexual abuse by priests would be seen as disingenuous or simply dishonest if it weren’t so bizarre and discombobulated. Not surprisingly, he blames an “egregious event”: the “collapse” of “previously normative standards regarding sexuality” in the 1960s:
The matter begins with the state-prescribed and supported introduction of children and youths into the nature of sexuality…
Sexual and pornographic movies then became a common occurrence, to the point that they were screened at newsreel theaters [Bahnhofskinos]…
Among the freedoms that the Revolution of 1968 sought to fight for was this all-out sexual freedom, one which no longer conceded any norms.
So far, nothing is surprising. Benedict is simply employing what seems to be the Church’s “go-to” explanation: Sexual permissiveness is to blame, and it started in the ‘60s. Francis himself has said as much. But, from there, Benedict seems to be taking his cues in critical thinking from our Porn Connoisseur-In-Chief:
The mental collapse was also linked to a propensity for violence. That is why sex films were no longer allowed on airplanes, because violence would break out among the small community of passengers. And since the clothing of that time equally provoked aggression, school principals also made attempts at introducing school uniforms with a view to facilitating a climate of learning.
Part of the physiognomy of the Revolution of ‘68 was that pedophilia was then also diagnosed as allowed and appropriate.
Now, maybe I haven’t flown enough, but I never knew that “sex films” were shown during flights. Sure, I’ve been on transatlantic flights where the likes of Léon the Professional and La Femme Nikita were shown. And, yes, Europeans are less squeamish than Americans or other people are about seeing some skin in their movies, but I would hardly label those two films, or any other airline cinematic offerings, as “sex films.” Moreover, while there has been some violence among passengers, I don’t recall hearing of any that was provoked by the showing of anything on an airborne screen.
Some school principals indeed made “attempts at introducing school uniforms.” But, as far as I can tell, any “aggression” provoked by students’ attire wasn’t a result of its sexual provocativeness; rather, it was a result of kids trying to impress each other with designer labels or being enraged by seeing the colors of a rival gang.
And, I’m no expert in the field, but to my knowledge, nowhere has pedophilia been “diagnosed” as “allowed and appropriate” except, perhaps, in NAMBLA literature. Certainly, no one approves of it: Almost any time a teacher, priest or someone else is accused of inappropriate contact, the cries for his or her removal are all but unanimous among parents and others in the community.
So, the former Pope is either seriously deluded about the phenomenon of priests taking advantage of the young people entrusted to them—or he, like too many other church officials, is trying to deflect blame away from those who deserve it: the perpetrators and those who enable and, worse, fail to penalize them.
While the original look and “feel” of the Notre Dame’s spire cannot be replicated, and artworks and artifacts lost in the blaze cannot be replaced, at least most of the cathedral’s grandeur can be saved and/or restored. The same cannot be said for the trust and faith many people had in their priests and church as long as the likes of Benedict offer up explanations for the real crisis in his church that are no more credible for than the ones the American President offers for the Trumped-up “crisis at the border.”
He was a student in the yeshiva where I taught for a year. For months, he circled around me before he asked whether we could talk. We did, and he complained about the restrictiveness of his community. Finally, in despair, he revealed that a rabbi in his synagogue was sexually abusing him.
I expressed sympathy—or, more precisely, I channeled my anger into words of understanding. I asked whether he told anyone else. He shook his head: “He made me promise not to tell anybody.”
Were my words coming out of his mouth? I felt as if my lips were moving in sync with his. If they were, I don’t know whether he noticed.
He didn’t ask me not to tell. At least, I don’t recall that he did. But there was no way that I would, even if I could. Perhaps he understood that; I understood his fear because it was my fear.
At that time, I had not told anyone about the sexual abuse I’d experienced at the hands of a priest. Even if I had the language for it—which no kid of my age in that place and time had—I couldn’t have described it for anyone.
For the same reasons, Moishe didn’t talk to anyone besides me. Even if I’d had the words, it would have been my word against the priest’s. Moishe had the words in spite of his community’s and school’s effort to keep him from knowing them. Still, it would have been his word against the rabbi of his synagogue—and the rabbis who ran the school and surely would have sided with Moishe’s abuser. And my word, as an outsider, would have no more weight—actually, probably less than—Moishe’s.
That, of course, is another reason why he told me. He knew I wouldn’t tell, because I really couldn’t. Because I was afraid, as he was.
The word “forgiveness” comes from the root word “forgive” which the dictionary says “to stop feeling angry or resentful toward (someone) for an offense, flaw, or mistake.”
I recently had a conversation with a young woman who was physically abused by her father. He was never a “hands on” dad (meaning when it came to the raising of his daughter, he wasn’t active). He served in the military, but came home and started abusing his two daughters. The mother and father are now divorced and the father is in jail for what he did. The young woman told me that her father blames his behavior on the military (he did see action), and that he thinks that the kids are going to forgive him and let him still be a part of their lives. The daughter will not hear of it. She wants nothing to do with him. I do not know the extent of the abuse, or what kind of abuse, but I assume it’s bad because he is in jail.
We’ve all heard the saying “forgive and forget”, but the problem is you can never forget some things. These things can cut deep into your very being. While it is said that time can heal all wounds, forgiveness is a part of that. Most think forgiveness is for the person who wronged you. I argue that it is not. In fact, when you read the definition, it is all about the person who was wronged. After a person hurts you, the way you deal with the hurt to make it stop hurting you (when you think about it) is the process of forgiveness. Forgiveness DOES NOT absolve the person of his or her wrong-doing.
Melody was my girlfriend for four-and-a-half years. Her family lived in Florida (except her daughter). I took care of her during her battle with lung cancer for eighteen months. When she died (October 2006), her family came in and took all her stuff. I didn’t care about most of it. She had little of value when it came to electronics, jewelry, money, or possessions. But what she did have were pictures, art, and memorabilia from our four-and-a-half years together. They cremated her without letting me know (she wanted to be cremated . . . I knew that, it was just they did it without including me). There was no grieving with me. I had no one to grieve with. They did everything behind my back and refused to talk to me. The only exception was that her sister called me up from Florida (two days after she died), and left me a voice message, threatening me with jail time if I did anything with her money or bank accounts. I was livid. I heard the voice message and I immediately began to shake with sorrow and anger! Here I lost the love of my life and all I got from her family was a threatening call.
I was angry, really angry. It was so consuming that I couldn’t grieve her death because I was so angry at her family. I tried to reach out to them, find out why they did what they did, but I never got any answers. They just took her stuff away, thought I had no right to any of it, and left me alone to grieve. The worst thing about that is there would never be closure. I would never know why they did it. Closure is the only thing I wanted in this situation and I was never going to get it, and that made me even angrier. For three months, I would go to work, come home with takeout and wine, eat the food, drink three-quarters of the bottle of wine and fall asleep with the XBOX controller in my hand. Wake up the next morning, rinse and repeat. It was the most miserable I had ever been in my life and I struggled to come to grips with it.
Then one night, I was working on a piece of music which I was using as a way to deal with my anger. I had put together all the voice mails I received after she died and set them to background music. When I came to the sister’s threatening message, I put the sound of vulture calls in the background and changed the music. And all of the sudden it hit me. You see, Melody was not close to her family. She thought all her siblings and her mother had major issues. The reason the family took her stuff was because they were trying to desperately to regain the part of her they didn’t have . . . her heart, her love. But no matter how hard they tried, they would never get that. Her heart and her love were not in her possessions. I had her heart, I had her love . . . inside of me. I’ve always had those parts. And all the things that she taught me over those years would be alive and in me . . . and then I could pass those nuggets of knowledge on to my daughter and those around me . . . and thus Melody lives on. All of a sudden, I realized . . . I won! I had her heart! I had the most important thing! These people will never know the Melody I knew, the wonderful, talented, nurturing, person she was. I was a direct benefactor of that. Once I looked at it that way, the anger subsided, almost instantaneously. I had finally found a way to look at the situation and be at peace. I had found a way to forgive them. Notice, I didn’t say forget. I still wouldn’t piss on any of them if they were on fire, but I was able to move on, knowing I was the one who actually won in this situation. I am also not ashamed to admit that I don’t feel an ounce of sorrow for them. I don’t feel anger towards them. I just feel nothing towards them. They weren’t a part of my life before, they aren’t a part of my life now . . . so I don’t care what happens to them.
I relayed that story to this young woman, and something clicked with her. Her eyes were glazed over with tears and she said “I never thought of it that way. This really helps me with this situation and another that I’m going through. Thank you so much. Would you become my “step-in dad?” And with that . . . Melody lives on! I’m still winning! If it weren’t for me going through that situation more than twelve years ago, I would have not had the tools to help this young lady.
So, forgiveness is not about the other person, it’s all about you! It’s about the way you cope with someone who wronged you. You can never put the toothpaste back in the tube. You can’t change what happened or the way people are, you can only change your reaction. You can only change your perspective. Once you decide to exorcise the offending situation from your life, peace is right behind. If the person who wronged you means something to you and it would be worth keeping him or her in your life, you will have to deal with it and find some way to make the relationship work. If the person should be “dead to you,” then cut them out of your life and don’t look back!
Here in the United States, we have the same problems you find everywhere: drug abuse, domestic violence, you name it. One of our problems, though, is that we sweep it under the rug.
Such an admission would be unusually forthright, if not startlingly frank, in almost any place or time. But I recall it so clearly, more than two decades after I heard it, because of the person who uttered it.
He had hired me a week earlier—to work with children from some of the families he was talking about. It wouldn’t take long for me to realize that those problems, and others, had much to do with the very existence of that school.
The boys in that Orthodox yeshiva had been kicked out of other Orthodox yeshivas, almost invariably because of their behavior. I’d heeded the warnings of the man who hired me—the school’s head rabbi, whom I’ll call Halphen—about the “games” the boys might play. They played them, and I wasn’t surprised. (After all, I was a teenaged boy once!) I soon realized, however, that most of the boys would do no better in that school, in part because the main tool the school had for helping the boys was Halakhic law. More important, though, the boys—at least one, anyway—had problems even more serious than the ones Rabbi Halphen mentioned, and “the community,” as he liked to call it, was a cause.
Being a non-Jewish teacher (and a Catholic school alumnus) in an Orthodox yeshiva was, to say the least, an interesting experience. So was being a transgender woman—who was still living as a man—in an all-male environment. Of course, the boys didn’t know about my identity, though some thought I was gay. In any event, I was an outsider.
That meant the boys both looked down on, and even expressed hatred for me, but looked to me for what they couldn’t find from their rabbis and parents, or the other adults in their community. I think now of a dynamic James Baldwin described: whites who saw blacks as their inferiors went to those same blacks for love when no one else was watching them. When groups of boys were together, they mocked my goyishness, but when they encountered me one-on-one, they wanted to talk.
Naturally, they wanted to talk about wishes and dreams that were taboo in their community. One confessed his crush on a Puerto Rican girl. (As someone who’s dated Hispanics of all gender identities, and was married to one, I sympathized.) Others thought they might be gay or simply didn’t want the kind of family life their community proscribed for them: “You get married, start a business, have a bunch of kids, double your weight and get a heart attack,” as one boy mused. Still others wanted careers that weren’t part of the Orthodox menu. And there was the junior who wanted to know what I thought of Allen Ginsberg’s poetry.
One boy, though, haunts me to this day. I’ll call him Moishe. He seemed to circle around me for months before he finally asked whether we could talk during his lunch break. I agreed. Moishe expressed some of the usual complaints about the restrictiveness of his community. All along, I had a feeling he wanted to say something else, but not what he asked a few days later: Could I adopt him?
I explained that I couldn’t which, of course, he knew—but as I suspected, his question was a pretext to talk some more. Which we did, several more times over the weeks. Then, one sunny Spring afternoon, he came to me in tears. “I want to die!” he exclaimed.
“Have you talked to anybody else?”
He shook his head. “I can’t,” he sobbed. “They’ll never believe me.”
I knew that “they” meant any authority figure in his life: his parents, his other adult relatives, the rabbis in the school and the ones in his synagogue. Nor would anyone else in his synagogue. “They’re all in on it,” he cried.
My spine tingled. This was years before I talked about my own abuse, but I knew he wanted to talk about his. “Who?” I asked.
Moishe then told me about the rabbi in his synagogue who was always calling him in to help with one thing or another. My guess is that his parents thought the rabbi knew he was a “problem” child and they were grateful for the interest he showed. The rabbi took advantage of that trust and use the pretext of errands and chores to make contact with the boy. I am not talking merely about “face time;” I mean, literally, contact—in areas that should be touched only by medical professionals with gloved hands.
Although I would not talk about my own abuse, or name the priest who abused me, until many years later, I had an overwhelming, physically aching, sense of déjà vu. So many things I experienced felt the same way, as a Catholic school alumnus and transgender woman who was still living as a man, during the year I taught in that Orthodox yeshiva. And when I hear about sex abuse in the Catholic church or any other religious institution, I think of Moishe—and the words of Rabbi Halphen, who hired me to teach Moishe and other boys who were living with the issues that were being “swept under the rug.”