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Ever seen one of those silly videos of a toddler in a snowsuit that’s so thick the kid literally can’t fall down or move his or her limbs? There’s a reason why so many of us find it difficult to adjust to life outside of authoritarian groups–and it involves our relationship with our own personal sovereignty and self-ownership.

Some things are just poisonous. (Raúl A.-, CC-ND.)
Some things are just poisonous. (Raúl A.-, CC-ND.)

As part of finding our own internal validation and becoming our own support network, one of the first things we have to do is take back the personal power we’ve given away. Especially if that Christian was tangled up with one of the really authoritarian groups in the religion, this step can be one of the hardest we’ll ever take on our way toward deconversion. That’s why I want to take a moment to talk about why it’s so important to see this transaction of power for what it is: a blatant grab for the lives and obedience of others by people who categorically do not, on the balance, deserve even a tiny bit of that obedience, people whose joy depends absolutely upon gaining power and keeping it against all comers.

Once we’re done here I want you to be as pissed-off as I am that such unscrupulous leaders have turned so many people so far around that they’re terrified to act for themselves or to seek their own happiness–or even trust their own judgment.

And I want you to understand that this situation is one that has been cultivated on purpose.

The Poison That is Undeserved Power.

I’m not a professional psychologist, whatever it might say on my college degree. But it’s not hard to see that the further right-wing a religious group is on the scale, the more that group robs individual adherents of their ability to govern, validate, affirm, and evaluate themselves accurately and compassionately.

This power is stripped from these adherents, then handed to the leaders of the group to use, basically, as those leaders please. The further right the group frolics, the more power is transferred, the fewer leaders are involved (thus concentrating the amount of power being wielded), and the fewer limitations and checks can be brought to bear on the use of this transferred power. Often the adherents themselves give away their personal power (literally and figuratively), innocently assuming that as long as they behave according to the rules handed down to them, they’ll never, ever see that power used against themselves in harmful, unfair, or damaging ways.

Often these same adherents are quite happy to hand over their personal sovereignty, thinking that they are too depraved or sinful or otherwise incompetent to handle their own lives. They mistakenly think that their leaders are imbued with divine wisdom or discernment and can make decisions far better than mere laypeople ever could. Without a god at the top of the pyramid actually doing stuff, the model simply doesn’t work the way it’s supposed to work–but obviously that’s not a conclusion easily reached by Christians.

In absence of that conclusion, every single decision gets imbued with lifelong–even eternal–consequences, none of which can be foreseen easily by the individual making that decision. It might seem meaningless to most of us to hassle for hours over exactly where to eat lunch, but I’ve personally seen Christians do this exact thing. What if we chose poorly? What if “God” had put a lost soul ripe for harvest at the KFC, while the people he’d chosen to share the Gospel with that poor lost soul were all at McDonald’s for their superior French fries?

And if you think that sounds absurd, well, wait till you hear about the even more endless dithering we expended on the big questions like: who to marry; where to go to school; what to study; what job to apply for–and then accept; how many babies we’d have (not if, of course, but how many); what city we’d live in; what candidate we’d vote for; private or public school for our inevitable kids; what ministry we’d volunteer for at church….. oh, it just went on and on.

These were life-and-death questions. Choosing wrong meant being in rebellion to “God’s” will, which meant being in sin, which meant going to Hell. Or it might mean consigning someone else to Hell because we hadn’t been standing at the mark we were supposed to be at when the right time came.

We were so panicky over being out of alignment with our god’s supposedly-divine plan that we never wondered why it was so hellishly hard to ascertain in the first place.

Keeping ‘Em Dancing; Makin’ the Sales.

Anybody who ever tells you that they follow a deity whose will is always easy to discern and crystal-clear is absolutely, positively lying to you–about many things–and very likely trying to sell you something that’ll hurt you in the long run.

I am willing to bet real money that every single Christian alive has made at least one absolutely disastrous decision after becoming certain (or being told in no uncertain terms) of what their god’s will was in that matter–and the thing they will rarely tell outsiders (or even often confess among each other, for obvious reasons!) is that there’s no real way at all to be totally sure one way or the other if they’ve actually heard from their god (ha!), misconstrued their own desires, or are actually being influenced by honest-to-Bumble demons. The only measure of certainty we ever got when I was a Christian was if one of our authoritarian leaders confirmed a decision–or handed one down to us. Even then, I’ve got a long list of decisions that I thought were my god’s will that somehow still turned out to be total disasters, and I bet most ex-Christians have even longer lists than mine.

No, there is a reason why the Christian god’s plan is so hard to ascertain. It’s not a pretty reason, but in religion, most reasons aren’t pretty. Still, it’s one we must confront head-on, like we are Kahvi with her spear, pushing forward relentlessly if we are to successfully defeat it.

Here it is:

A system works the way its owners and architects want it to work. If the leaders of Christianity wanted things to look different, they certainly have always had the power to make that happen–just as their Bible could easily have been edited at some point to include something like “Yo, don’t keep slaves or try to own people–it’s evil and ‘God’ totally hates that shit.” That fix never happened, just as the fixes that could have made Christianity into a good system never happened either, and both fixes are absent for exactly the same reasons.

Don’t ever, ever make the mistake of thinking that the few decent-hearted Christians you see are the expected norm in that broken system. They are, rather, aberrations, their goodness more despite their religion than because of it–and often exploited ruthlessly to make the rest look better. The hypocrisy we more commonly encounter is the norm–for a reason.

See the system for what it is: broken, unfixed, and unfixable–corrupted as it is from the top down by people who stand to gain much from that corruption, and who likewise stand to lose a lot if it ever is reformed. 

One of the biggest things the leaders of this broken system stand to gain from the system as it stands now is unwarranted power over others.

The Meta-Religion.

You won’t understand toxic Christians till you understand their idolization of power over others.

Every single idea in toxic Christianity comes down to power: who commands, and who obeys. Aside from the people who accept being controlled without question, most of the people you see in an authoritarian group are jockeying in one way or another for more power–both to wield against others, and to avoid being controlled in turn by more people than they want over themselves. Not only that, but Christians in these sorts of systems tend to think that their god’s approval mounts with the more power people wield–meaning that he approves more of a pastor than a deacon, since he’s chosen to give more power to the former than to the latter.

No wonder the idealized vision of Heaven these groups peddle is a glorified monarchy with a king at its top and everyone else cast as happy slaves glorifying that king and feasting at his table! And no wonder Christians in the really power-hungry groups demonize and try to destroy any personal-relationship models based on mutual interest, consent, and cooperation, since these models lack either kings or slaves. Someone always must be the boss. The lines of power must be crystal-clear. Adherents of authoritarian systems have to know who to bend knee to, and then they must be able to compel the rest to bend knee to them in turn.

When someone who lacks personal power in a broken system finally gains some, they often turn into Prince Joffrey–abusing those they can until that power is removed from their hands again somehow (almost always by someone totally outside of the system). Ever wonder why Christians tend to be such awful tippers at restaurants? Why endless scandals keep erupting in their ranks against those they’ve stripped of power? Why they feel entitled to impose themselves upon anybody they wish, whenever they wish, without regard for the opinions or feelings of those they impose upon?

Yes, this is why. They perceive that they finally have unlimited power over whoever they’re victimizing, and all that rage and resentment over the systemic injustice of their social system comes roaring to the fore. Now, finally, they can dole out to others what has been done to them all this time! Now, finally, they can get a bit of their own back!

Even when I myself was a Christian, in every retail-oriented job I ever had, I frequently found myself at the mercy of some self-righteous Christian (in scenarios that are very similar to what Libby Anne was talking about the other day), helpless to defend myself or even respond as I’d wish lest I lose my job. Such Christians feel like it’s perfectly acceptable to mistreat others in this way because they think their god has put them in their perceived superior rank, and in their system power exists only to be used against others–and in practical matters, it’s extremely unlikely that they’ll ever see any fallout from being abusive and predatory, just as their own masters will rarely ever see any fallout.

Shit rolls downhill.

It always has.

The Surest Sign That Power Rules All.

The surest sign we have that what we see in Christianity is no accident is that there is no way whatsoever that decent Christians can definitively rein in the Prince Joffreys among them. It’s not hard to find lots of Christians trying to shame their peers into tipping through various means, for example, but tipping culture has existed now for many years and there’s still no end in sight to Christians withholding tips like it’s a giddy thrill for them to be so nasty to servers.

(ricardo, CC.)
Not a great snack. (ricardo, CC.)

That’s what I mean: the power structure most Christians have bought into, including even the really nice Christians in the really service-oriented groups, has no way whatsoever to stop power-greedy Christians from abusing others with whatever shreds of power they can seize and wield. There’s no mechanism in place at all to ensure that only people who deserve power get it. The further right one goes in Christianity, the more this is the case. When you see a group that has an effective system set up for reining in those who don’t deserve to have or wield power–and that demonstrably uses that system when necessary–then you can be fairly sure that you’ve discovered one of the less-toxic groups. (Congrats! Yes, they do exist, of course.)

Sometimes you run into a toxic church that has actually been shamed into making real changes, like we saw with Mark Driscoll’s church when the full extent of his douchebaggery became very public knowledge–and we’ve talked about The Village Church’s turnaround after public outcry mounted about one of their more egregious exercises of unwarranted power. But usually, nothing whatsoever changes. A little flurry of infighting begins and then subsides, and the Christians who acted like cosmic assholes before the squabble feel free to keep doing whatever they were doing except with even more belligerent posturing because now they think “Jesus” approves of their behavior since they withstood a shouting match about it. (As an example, check out this Christian’s post about the fallout he got after he dared to suggest a few reasons why he thought Millennials don’t like fundagelicalism anymore.)

But do you know what absolutely destroys the hierarchy that these leaders love so much? Bamboozles the power grab? Thwarts the pickup-artist routine?

Opting out. Walking away. Rejecting the overtures. Refusing to be pushed into upholding a social contract around someone who feels absolutely no such obligation in return. Having about enough of that shit.

Whether done from utter disgust with our onetime leaders’ hypocrisy, from exhaustion at all the demands we cannot possibly meet, or from anger at the injustices we’ve suffered, one way or another we finally see just how unworthy those leaders are to command us–and we realize that we’re under no obligation to remain there.

That’s when many of us finally realize that we are, to a much greater extent than we ever dreamed, (dare I say it?) the captains of our own ships, the owners of our own souls, and the masters of our own fates.

When that moment comes, that’s when we’re ready to take back our own power–and to start finding our own validation and our own way through life.

The guru at the mountain wears our own faces. The sacred thing we sought in group after group turns out to live inside us. The big answers we begged for were always right here, all along, in our own heads.

We just didn’t trust ourselves enough to dare. Maybe it’s a barely-there amount of hope that we find, maybe it’s just a flicker of light in the darkness, but it’s enough for us to take that first tremulous step into a very new world.

We’ll take up next time at that first doozy of a step–and I hope you’ll join me.

ROLL TO DISBELIEVE "Captain Cassidy" is Cassidy McGillicuddy, a Gen Xer and ex-Pentecostal. (The title is metaphorical.) She writes about the intersection of psychology, belief, popular culture, science,...

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