This week has felt like its own Good Friday. By that I mean that through my own experience as well as through stories I’ve read and conversations I’ve had, it seems as though the faith that many of us hold dear was put to death on Sunday by the well-intentioned but ultimately misguided powers that be.
Before I go any further, I want to clarify two terms that I’ll be using. The title of this piece is Bullied into Belonging. I think that I initially conflated “belonging” with “assimilation”. “Assimilation” is really the better word here, but I like alliteration so I’m sticking with “belonging”. Second, I want to be clear that I’m not calling the people involved “bullies” – though some may very well be. I would rather say that bullying tactics are used, sometimes wantonly. Additionally, I would add that microagressions are rampant and they are bullying tactics, but I want to give the perpetrators the benefit of the ignorance because I don’t believe they are intending to bully (if anything, they are subconsciously bullying themselves – more on that later).
So, last Sunday (Easter) I’m sitting in church listening to a speech about how if we were a jury there would definitely be enough evidence to convince us that the Resurrection truly took place. (This is following a 20 minute long musical pep rally). And I sat there asking myself: Who is this for? Is someone off the street going to just walk in and hear this evidence of the Resurrection without any context and “give their life to Jesus”? To be fair, we’re in Texas – it’s hard for anyone to be totally without context. But as I asked myself these questions, it dawned on me… intentional or not, this speech was bullying people. But the target audience was really people who already believed, and were just looking for that little extra convincing. It was bothersome to me, but I kind of wrote it off as a well-intended but missed opportunity.
Then I heard stories of similar Easter services. I heard stories of violent and explicit services where the tools of Jesus’ sufferings were on display. I heard of people being accosted to pray a “sinner’s prayer” as they walked along the street. I even read about a program of 50 days of (pre-planned) revival by way of street-corner “evangelism” that a church I formerly worked for was participating in. And maybe it was the fact that I had just watched a TV show episode about the topic, but one word just rang loud in my ears: Bully.
What I found interesting, the more I thought about it was how limited the audience was for that particular Easter sermon. But as a lifelong church-goer I know a ton of people who fit into that category. Let’s say we were to put people into a very short number line, 0-1 with 0 being disconnected, uninterested, apathetic or otherwise disassociated from religion and 1 being fully bought in, on board and engaged with religion. I felt like so much of this was aimed at the .75-.90 crowd.
I started thinking back to college (a time I wrote about previously) and how I always felt more at ease with my “0” friends than with my “1” friends. With those outside of faith, I never felt like I didn’t belong. I never had to fight for my place. In fact, the 0/1 distinction was non-existent. However, in the religious crowd so much was made of which church you went to, which ministries you were involved with, particular songs and doctrinal stances. And the social pressure to fit was so pervasive that even without external influences you might beat yourself up over whether or not you could squeeze another event into your Sunday morning, Sunday night, Monday afternoon, Tuesday night, Thursday night religious practices.
And because self-perception is everything, and a lot of people know that they are never fully “1”s, their attempts to convince (bully) themselves are often externalized. Their validation-seeking and yearning for certainty lead them to verbalize their doubts in the form of accusations hurled at those a few decimals below them.
Looking back even farther, I’ve tried to recall the bullies of my childhood. How bizarre this is. I remember cartoons and movies portraying bullies as lower class, lower income, less intelligent, bigger built ruffians picking on the so-called “nerds”. That’s not my experience at all, though. My bullies were the well-put-together, well-educated kids. The ones with money and nice clothes. In fact, the rough-around-the-edges crew were far more accepting – much like the religiously disenfranchised of college.
When did the church become the well-dressed bully? When did arm-twisting become synonymous with evangelism? When did the rationality of “evidence that demands a verdict” replace the call to a very different way of life offered through the imitation of Christ?
In my opinion, an expertly reasoned faith is no faith at all because it requires no risk, no trust. It is a false God. It is the Idolatry of God (one might say).
Yet, year after year I find myself exposed to this bullying into belonging. I’ve watched as people stifle their questions and doubts in order to fit in with their church crowd. I’ve heard women speak of how they have a hard time subjugating themselves but they continue to do so because it’s the “Christian” thing to do. I’ve listened as political stances are dressed in priestly garments and paraded around in a way that says “if you’re not with us, you’re against us.” I’ve seen scare tactics used against children in order to “save” them.
And all of this makes me furious. But it also breaks my heart. Because I long to belong and I know that so many others do as well.
Bullying tactics are tools of oppression and Christ died to diffuse oppression of its power. It has no place in our churches and it certainly should not be the gatekeeper to the sense of belonging that so many of us crave.
I started out with the prompt of writing about the balance between belonging and being yourself. Certainly there is some social and emotional intelligence necessary to living in community, but there should not be tensions between being true to oneself and belonging within the community of faith. It shouldn’t require an internal compromise.
The other day, my friend Sarah posited the question of how we build bridges between faith explorers and the organized church. My response was a resounding “STAY!”
When I complain about church, people ask my why I keep going.
Here is why: because on a scale of 0-1 I’m a .25 so they’ve basically stopped getting at me, but I’m sick of seeing .75s-.90s being bullied. I’m sick of seeing them be told that they are not (doing, singing, praying, serving, believing) enough. I’m tired of seeing them feel like they (and their doubts, questions, fears, emotional issues) don’t belong.
I won’t be bullied into someone else’s definition of belonging. Because I know that by Jesus’ definition, I do belong. And there’s nothing more I need to do to make that so.
So, I will persist. Because the church is mine as much as it is theirs.
People need to know that we can belong together, even if we hold our faith differently. They need to know that they don’t have to subjugate who they are and how they see things to the will of the group or the demands of a bully.
Jesus invited, included, initiated, and instructed those he was calling to join him. He didn’t coerce, demean, or belittle them. Certainly, he corrected them when the time was right and He was direct but he was no oppressor.
When oppression is your tool of choice, then your kingdom is decidedly not that which is inaugurated through Christ’s death and resurrection.
Perhaps that should have been the message this Easter.