I grew up going to church. Not just going, but religiously so…attending every single Sunday morning and Sunday night, unless terribly ill. And I hated church, largely because I was forced to attend without my personal consent. Any part of life you can’t consent to can be a struggle, especially for the naturally independent leader that lived deep inside of me, but when other really important decisions are also made without your consent (like the bodily choice of surgery or testing or sexual contact or any number of things that I struggled with over the course of my formative years) then being forced to go to church just becomes another area outside of your control that makes you feel diminished and marginalized. So I hated it.
And at some point I got over that hatred of church because later in life I was given the choice to go, and I chose to attend and participate, not only in church but in the pursuit of multiple degrees in theology. Church became my life, in many ways. But the longer I stayed, the more I knew that I wasn’t really wanted there. Inside my head the “if people knew” clause started to pop up over and over. If people knew that I was an addict… If people knew that I have sex on the regular… If people knew about my molestation… If people knew I was pro-choice… If people knew I get food stamps… If people knew my personal view of eschatology… If people knew I don’t believe [insert some sort of popular religious belief here]…. If and if and if and if and on and on it went.
I started to feel like I had to hide myself from the church. I started to feel the weight of shame, even while I wasn’t personally being shamed (because I was hiding my true belief and experience). I began to know that I wasn’t welcomed “just as I am” in any church that I had ever attended. I began to search for churches that would let me in, even if I were just me—as is and with no hiding and no apologies. I have yet to find a church sans shame. So I have yet to join a church again.
It has been a little over three years, I suppose, since I last attended church, and I have never been more free.
I was always taught—from Sunday school classes as a small child to my seminary training—that Jesus brought freedom. Free at last, free at last, thank God Almighty I am free at last. But the only time I was actually free to study and believe without shame was when I left the confines of religious communities and went out into the world.
Ah, the world. That damnable expression of all that is evil and to be feared. Or so one would think, given the reactions of Christians in the United States. But the world, you see, is open in ways that the church had never been for me. The church confined and constricted. The world let me investigate and study and try and experience and discover in ways the church never would.
The world didn’t try to shame me as much or as often as the Christians tried to shame me.
Eventually, I came to the realization that the church isn’t usually practicing in Jesus’ name. It is often practicing shame.
Sex is bad and you are bad for having it. Poverty is bad and you must be doing bad things to land in that state. Being gay is bad and you are messed up if you love people outside of the parameters that we express. Rape is bad, so if you have been raped you must have done something wrong to deserve it. Women’s butts are bad, so you mustn’t let them be out in the “open” with revealing yoga pants. Being single is bad, because you are supposed to make babies. Abortion is bad because you are supposed to make babies. Birth control is bad because you are supposed to make babies. You are bad if you don’t make all the babies all the time. Except if you have a baby and not a husband then you are bad. Drugs are bad and if you are addicted you are bad. Depression is bad, and if you are depressed you are not good at trusting in god. Disability is bad, so you need to suck it up and get back to work or you are bad. You are bad. You are bad. Christy, you are extremely fucking bad.
And then one day, I decided I am not bad. Because every religious text I have ever encountered promises hope and renewal and the “becoming” of the person. The promise is that shame disappears, not becomes the defining characteristic of the church. The promise is acceptance and love without conditions and grace and a forgiving spirit and a love of peace. All of these things require that we kill all this rule-making and fear-inducing and humanity-stripping, damnable shame!
“I love you, but…” cannot be a part of our language or our thinking if we are going to be the love and grace and peace that every single religion I have ever encountered says we must or shall be. “I will love you if…” cannot be a part of that language or thinking. “I love you because…” is not a religiously accepting statement unless it is followed by “you exist”.
There is a passage in the Christian biblical text that I once had to translate in a seminary course. I was shocked to read and to learn and to begin to hold the belief that “anyone who loves is of god”. This transformed all for me, in the sense that love becomes the definitive aspect of what is right and good, and of who belongs to and with and in god. So the impoverished woman who helps me up when I fall is of god, and the prostitute who always asks about my day and shows concern for me is of god, and the person to whom I am not married, but who shows me love and care both in and out of my bedroom, is of god, and my Atheist and Muslim and Jewish and Hindu and Buddhist and Pagan friends are all of god, because they all love fiercely and choose peace and show grace all of the time.
I am of god because I just reminded myself, during the interruption of my short time in which to write by a pair of Jehovah’s Witnesses at the door, that I need to show even those who interrupt my theological expressions or blog posts the grace and the love and the promise that is god.
And because of this discovery, I have moved away from the term “god”, for the most part. I choose to use the term “the divine” or sometimes “the universe”, depending on the situation. (Because the word “god” carries so much weight for so many…and usually not in a positive way.)
Anyone who loves is of the divine. Anyone who loves….without qualification, without exception, without condition, and without being shamed into compliance with the normative religious ideal of the day…is of the divine.
Shame is not discipleship. Shame is not beneficial. Shame is not helpful in any proven study regarding any desired behavior. Shame is not love. And love is god, and god is love, and those who love are of god. So, if you insist on shaming others, you are not of god.
Love = divine. Shame = not divine. (For those who would like this boiled down to its most basic expression.)
So, let’s all stop trying to shame others and call it something we do in Jesus’ name.
And let’s all recognize that trying to shame people like me, who have come to understand the will of the divine in this open and free and beautiful way, is a waste of precious time. Maybe hug your grandkids or knit a scarf instead, or do something that expresses love and grace and equity and peace to those less fortunate than you (as Jesus also suggested), but without superiority and judgments and shame (which Jesus never suggested, and instead taught against). Let’s spend less time assessing my yoga pants and sex and spend more time assessing ways to reduce violence against women and inequity in our justice system and the increasing gap between the rich and the poor and the ways that our current support system isn’t supporting the people who need the most support.
I sometimes wonder what troubles we could eliminate if we put into Alzheimer’s research, or new mental health care facilities and programs, or access to fresh vegetables all the same energy I see being spent on demanding less yoga pants and decrying the (very legal) right to choose what happens inside a person’s own uterus. What if we cared about the 2,114 people who have been shot in Chicago (as of yesterday…today it will likely be higher) this year as much as we did about the shape of a buttock or the type of birth control a couple chooses or the number of meat packers who happen to have come from Mexico? What if we spent our energy on loving meat-packing Mexicans and loving couples and loving my buttocks? How would that change the world? (I do have a rather amazing ass, by the way. It deserves much love.)
I would much rather express love than refrain from sex. I would much rather choose peace than promote conflict. I would much rather be the divine than shame the poor or the addict or the disabled or the person who has less understanding on a subject I may have studied extensively or any that may be deemed “less fortunate” (though when you begin to be love and grace and peace, your idea of “less” can be transformed in myriad ways).
So, I leave you with this question: Do you speak in Jesus’ shame, or are you of the divine?