Greetings and salutations! Once again, a warm welcome to the new folks coming in from Reddit. Y’all have been overwhelmingly kind and it is vastly appreciated. Today I want to talk about something that was sparked in me the other day while reading some Christian blogs: this idea of toxic Christians using particular Bible verses and ideas to justify and rationalize treating people like crap. I see these ideas/verses as “permission slips,” and there are a lot of them.
When Samantha over at Defeating the Dragons wrote about the sexual abuse she suffered while attending Pensacola Christian College, she was attacked by Christians who tried to silence her by saying that she hadn’t correctly followed the script that abusive patriarchs have set up for abuse victims. You see, Matthew 18:15-17 says that she should have reported her abuse only to those who’d offended her to give them a chance to resolve it, and then she should have gone public only after confronting them in a small church setting, and only then gone public if even then–only after her abusers hadn’t adequately repented, you see. Apparently she didn’t do it that way, so obviously she is the problem here. She is obviously a rabble-rouser and “divisive,” which is about the worst thing one Christian can call another; it’s a label that gets dragged out whenever someone isn’t behaving in a way that oppressors like. It’s like the word “selfish”–these accusations of divisiveness are used to force and strong-arm victims into complying with their own oppression.
Now, outside of Bizarro Fundagelical World, we are outraged when we hear about an abuse victim being treated this way. These abusive Christians were using the Bible in a way that many people are quite used to seeing. We’ve talked about how this is done before on this blog. It’s downright depressing to see Christians police each other that way. These oppressors genuinely think that they have the right, after oppressing someone, to tell that person how he or she is allowed to react to that oppression and how that oppression will be redressed. People whose reactions don’t fit the ideal get called nasty names and mistreated even worse. There’s a victim narrative at work here that is truly shocking to behold–but one that toxic Christian leaders are very good at employing.
I am very pleased to see some Christians, like Fred over at Slacktivist, speaking out against that abuse and rightfully seeing that oppressive Christians are the only ones who ever drag out those verses and slam their own abuse victims for not following the narrative. That’s a big part of why I think the current fundagelical trend of pushing “church discipline” is so damned creepy: it seems designed around punishing the abused, giving abusers more opportunity to prey upon their victims, and enshrining the privilege of the oppressors. It has absolutely nothing to do with love, not real love; it is only the expression of that weird redefinition of abuse as “love” that fundagelical abusers pulled on their prey decades ago.
Oppressors use Bible verses like Matthew 18:15-17 as permission slips to prey upon their victims. When you see a Christian trot these verses out, you know that you are dealing with someone who cares so much about oppressing others and maintaining the status quo that any excuse will be seized by them to allow it. The religion attracts and draws people to itself who want to oppress others and then it gives them every excuse they need to go out and do it. And then it gives them a ready-made field of willing victims who are trained from their first moments alive not to complain about abuse–and if they do, why then these misunderstood, misapplied Bible verses stand at the ready to tell oppressors exactly how to silence recalcitrant victims and get them back into compliance. It’s a sickening and downright shameless cycle of abuse.
But the idea of permission slips isn’t restricted to Christian-on-Christian oppression by any means. Non-Christians are already well aware of how Christians give themselves permission to prey upon outsiders. Here is how I think of it:
You’re at a suburban indoor mall food court on a nice weekend, sitting down with your tray of chicken teriyaki (light sauce). Suddenly, out of nowhere, a guy comes barreling up to you and knocks you down, scattering your food everywhere and skinning your knee. You get up spluttering, “What the fuck, man?” and he gives you this wild-eyed stare and says, “There was a bus coming right at you! I had to save you!” You look around, but no, you’re in a food court and there’s certainly no bus–or any other danger at all–visible. Nobody else seems to see this bus either. You write him off as wacky and start picking yourself up, only for him to knock you down again, this time even harder. You hurt your elbow in the fall this time and your phone hits the hard tile and cracks. “Dude, stop it!” you yell, and he tries to help you up while excitedly explaining that no, the bus almost hit you this time, so he had to get you out of the way. You angrily tell him to quit knocking you down, but he insists that he will always try to get you out of the way if he sees this invisible bus coming at you, and he refuses to apologize, much less stop. You end up calling the police on him the third time he attacks you, and the whole way to the police station he protests to the skies that he’s just trying to save your life from the bus that only he can see.
That is what it’s like to live among fundagelical Christians–every single day, you risk getting knocked down because somebody sees an invisible bus coming right at you and has to save you from getting run over by something neither one of you can physically perceive in any way. When you want to have unapproved sex, or be anything but straight and cis-gendered, or just want to go about your day free of religious intrusion, you can count on some Christian somewhere to freak out because you just stepped into the path of their invisible bus. And you can count on some self-appointed savior to come rushing in to knock you out of the way of that horrible fate.
This may surprise some folks, but I have used this exact metaphor in sharing with Christians how their efforts look to me. And to my shock, every single time, they’re totally on board with it. They have no objections whatsoever to the metaphor. Hell, they’re proud of their willingness to make themselves look like idiots and worse. And they’re certainly not going to apologize for their desire to save you from danger. Hell, you’re the one who needs to apologize to them for not appreciating their heroism!
The Christians who metaphorically knock you down like this think, very genuinely, that they are acting in your best interest. The fact that you do not recognize their efforts as heroic attempts to save a person in imminent danger is your problem, not theirs. The danger and risks you face are, to them, very real. The more you protest their treatment of you, the more deluded they think you are being. And the reaction I have personally gotten from Christians when I protest their behavior is, every single time, indignation and smug arrogance: no matter what I say, no matter how I protest, no matter how vehemently I reject their attempts to “rescue” me, they’re going to keep trying even if I perceive their efforts as hateful and harmful to me, because they know better.
Because they think they have permission to do it from no less than the author of the entire universe, who cannot communicate with me in any other way but to have his minions repeatedly hurt me for my own good. And that permission overrides all other considerations. To them, human rights are all well and good, yes yes, it’s all very fine indeed to have rights and social mores, if it makes me happy I can have a nice Democracy Cakewalk right down Tiananmen Square, but if my soul is at risk, then none of that matters and any abuse of me is totally justified and even required for the greater good.
Let’s look at the permission slips toxic Christians use against non-believers (and believers who aren’t in lockstep with their more toxic peers):
Permission Slip #1: The Great Commission. Whether it’s a valid passage or not, whether it means what they think it means or not, Matthew 28:16-20 is something almost all Christians take seriously to heart:
Then the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go. When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”
Christians think these verses mean that they have a huge obligation to push their religion onto others, and they will go to absolutely any length, even lying to the face of federal judges (as the Christianist school board members did in the Dover case), even violating the law, even offending and ostracizing and insulting people, even physically harming them, if they think it will spread the Gospel they think is so important. When told that they are being offensive and insulting, these Christians will point to these verses with a palm wafted toward the heavens and a plaintive furrowing of the brow: What after all can anybody do? It’s the boss’s orders, and you can’t defy the boss’s orders. You can’t ask them just to stop being offensive if it’s in the service of the boss’s orders. Of course, they happily find all sorts of ways to slither and squirm away from the boss’s other orders, like loving their neighbor and selling everything they own and feeding the hungry, but their conceptualization of the Great Commission is, unlike those other orders, about oppressing and victimizing outsiders, so is it any wonder at all which orders they will follow to the very ends of the earth?
Permission Slip #2: Hell. The New Testament is filled with the threat of Hell. It is such a huge risk and such a huge punishment–so totally out-of-scope with anything that a human being could ever possibly deserve, so totally disproportional, so totally and obviously punitive and vengeance-based, so very obviously useful for controlling people with their own fears of the unknown–that the very concept of it forms one of the greatest objections against the validity of Christianity for many people, me included. Christians don’t stop and wonder at how they can “love” a being responsible for creating such a realm, nor do they stop and consider the monstrous injustice of this realm’s existence–nor of how unlikely it is to actually exist. To them, it exists, and it is such a huge risk and such a monstrous threat that any temporary discomfort or injustice that might occur in the course of “saving” people from going there is more than fully justified. It’s curious that they don’t care more about proving whether or not this risk is valid before plunging into “saving” people from it, nor that they don’t care more about the incredible, mind-boggling injustice of the concept of it. Me personally, if I were told about some huge risk that people faced, I’d be investigating it very thoroughly to see if it is a valid threat or not, and if it turned out to be a threat of the sort Christians imagine Hell to be, a place of eternal punitive torture from which there is no rehabilitation or escape, then I would not be trying to save a few lucky people from it but dedicating my life to fighting against the monstrous tyrant who’d set the place up in the first place–or trying to find a way to get this god of love and mercy to make it so that people no longer risk going there at all. But Christians never seem to get that far. Instead, they use the verses about Hell to justify hurting and steamrolling outsiders to make us just as terrorized as they are and to force us into the same hellish compliance they live under. Misery loves company, I guess.
Permission Slip #3: Anti-gay bigotry. The Bible verses Christians often erroneously think condemn being gay form a huge body of the hatred and marginalization Christians indulge in regarding the LGBTQ community (link goes to a Christian explanation of why the Bible doesn’t actually condemn being gay). What’s really happening is that Christians don’t really need much excuse for being cruel to those they don’t understand or think are inferior. LGBTQ people neither care what Christians think of them nor need to be “saved” from anything, but because of these misapplied, misunderstood Bible verses, Christians think they have a right–indeed, an obligation–to trample on folks who are different from the party line.
Permission Slip #4: Misogyny Deluxe Squared. Most women are well aware that the Bible’s got some wildly contradictory ideas about how women should live and be treated by men. Christians often try to reframe this misogyny as “complementarianism,” the idea that men and women are totally equal–just super-separate, and women can’t lead or even teach men in some denominations, but they’re still totally equal in the eyes of their god. Just that men are always in positions of power over women, which is just soooooo harrrrrrd and all, and women have it so easy sitting on their spiritual couches eating spiritual bonbons while men do all that heavy lifting of leading and deciding everything for them, but no, really, separate but equal. Pity these poor, poor Christian men having to be the Designated Adult for them and their wives both! This slip is used by Christians to peel women’s rights right out from under them, like Hobby Lobby is shamelessly doing in the courts right now, and to justify an entire raft of anti-woman rules and regulations. When people protest these shameless attempts to re-marginalize women, we get told that it’s just how the Bible treats women, and obviously since the Bible is the divine word of a living god, that we should just content ourselves with making our modern culture look just like that of a bunch of primitive nomads from thousands of years ago.
But really, that’s how all of these permission slips work: if outsiders criticize being mistreated, then abusive zealots can retreat behind their perceived permission to claim that the abusive behavior is not only condoned but in some cases required. They think that this use of permission slips means that they are immune from not only criticism but sometimes even mere questioning. They think that we’re fooled by their pious exclamations of concern. They think that we don’t notice that their solemn duty just so happens to require that they dominate and trample those they view as their inferiors.
I know what they’re trying to do; I did it myself as a Christian. They’re trying to compare sinners to drug addicts and the like, to wayward children even; by comparing perfectly-fine adults to addicts and children, they are comparing themselves to these addicts’ families and these children’s parents. They are saying that because of their superiority to us, that they are inherently allowed to control and dominate us, and to do things to us and treat us in ways that we consider harmful and vexing because they know better than we do what is in our own best interests. If we would only understand why they’re being this way, we’d totally be fine with it. Indeed, I’ve heard Christians (that was a plural, as in way more than one) personally tell me that without being treated this way by other paternalistic Christians, they would not be the fine, morally-upstanding people they are today. One day we’ll finally understand. They’re only trying to help.
I find this mindset repulsive and insulting, obviously, especially as I’ve actually been involved with a drug addict (post-Biff, obviously). Non-Christians are not the children of Christians, and we are certainly not doing anything that could be compared to something like drug addiction. And even if we were, we are adults, not children, and not related to these Christians. We did not give permission to these Christians to be treated that way. We did not give permission to be “parented” by total strangers and treated like children. We did not give permission to be given Christians’ poorly-understood concept of “tough love.” If we actually were the drug-addicted adult children of these Christians, tough love would not involve knocking us down over invisible buses. It would involve withdrawing from us in a healthy and affirming way. But that would involve not trying to control people or assert dominance over us, so yeah, I don’t see toxic Christians doing that any time soon.
This is what I think: That unverified, imperceptible, potential harms (the risk of spending time in unpleasant afterlife realms, the risk of someone’s soul being damaged, etc) do not outweigh verified, perceptible, actual harms done in the here and now–in the only lifetime we actually know for sure we’re ever going to get. These vague, unproven fears of harm certainly do not give someone the right to decide to hurt me or victimize me. And even if these harms were demonstrably true, I am still a human being with human rights, which means that if I want to pursue a course of action that the Christian does not approve or or feels will harm me in some way, I get to do it anyway and that Christian doesn’t have the right to control me even for what that Christian thinks is my own good. If a Christian cannot prove, objectively and credibly, that something I’m doing is harmful to others, moreover, that Christian has no right to impede my private behavior and interfere with my private decisions.
I really think that Christians–especially toxic ones–are so used to being ordered around and living in an environment of strict hierarchical patriarchy, to being constantly exposed against their wills and exposing others against their own wills, to constantly meddling in each others’ lives and affairs, to policing every single little detail of each others’ decisions, that they’ve successfully made themselves think that this is a great way to live and that their keen and special insight to their god’s thoughts gives them some kind of special ability to control and run other people’s lives for them in exactly the same way. That their attitude amounts to the enslavement and victimization of others hardly matters; slavery and victimization are absolutely fine to these Christians, as long as it’s all for a good cause and done “from a place of love.” When I was a fundamentalist, we even said proudly that the world didn’t realize that freedom really was slavery–and that the slavery of Christ was freedom. And we called this controlling brand of victimization “accountability” and lauded its power to keep ourselves on the straight and narrow path. I see that doublespeak mindset at work today among Christians.
It’s absolutely not my mindset anymore. I’m glad that I rejected it. And I will continue to reject it. I think what really drives Christians nuts is that not only are we rejecting their “good news,” we are rejecting their entire conceptualization of superiority over us. We no longer care about their opinions of our personal lives, and we certainly do not give them permission to harm and victimize us for their “good cause” and in service to their murky and unverified fears for us. If I thought toxic Christians actually cared about anything I thought, I’d say that they need to unlearn those old insane lessons about how to express caring for others. They need to stop trying to control people in the name of doing what’s best for them. They need to listen when we try to tell them that what they are doing hurts us. They need to learn this above all else:
The kind of god they serve thinks it’s okay to victimize people for the greater good. Their god thinks that it’s perfectly fine–even laudable–to hurt someone if it’s in that person’s best interest. Their god doesn’t care what they think is their own best interest any more than they care what we think is our own best interest. Their god is absolutely okay with them controlling people and trying to run their lives. And he signed off long ago on his people showing massive disrespect to others if it seems justified to them to do so.
That’s not a god I’d ever consider worthy of worship, much less one worthy of love. It’s one made in the image of his followers, all right! That’s a simply ghastly god, and any Christian who justifies mistreating others for religious causes is an equally ghastly person. The religion being pushed by these Christians is one I reject with as much force as I can mentally summon.
No matter how many permission slips these Christians think they have, they do not have the most important one of all: the one we actually give them. And without that permission slip, I don’t care what else they have that they think justifies and excuses how they treat people nowadays.