Today I take off my gloves and shed my ordinary diplomacy to offer a stern word of correction for those who would claim to love me or anyone else who has “fallen from grace.” Ordinarily I try to be as non-confrontational as I can be toward those still in the faith that I left, but today I will not. Today, I am pissed off.
Before you judge me for showing anger I’ll remind you that even your object of worship displayed anger at the times when it was the correct emotion to express. Even Jesus flew into a rage the day he encountered charlatans profiteering at the entrance to a house of worship. I doubt he would have shown any more decorum if he were to pass by the bookstores in the foyer of many megachurches today, and I imagine he could fashion a whip out of microphone cords just as easily as he did with what he found in the Temple courtyard. Imagine the mess he would make! If that happened at your church, you’d probably judge him for his anger, too.
But anger is the appropriate emotion when people are being mistreated, and all the more so if the ones doing it believe they are doing God’s work so that they feel no remorse for their actions. This is not a healthy state of affairs, and it behooves me to speak up about what I see happening.
ACTIONS SPEAK LOUDER THAN WORDS
The Christian church teaches people to master the vocabulary of love so well that they cannot see when their actions do the opposite of what they say they are doing. The Christian faith teaches you to talk about love in ways that actually obscure the damage done by your actions. But in the end, it is the actions that matter. The words themselves mean little. It’s like the old DC Talk song says:
Hey, tell me haven’t ya heard?
Luv is a serious word
Hey, I think it’s time ya learned
I don’t care what you say
I don’t care care what ya heard
The word luv, luv is a verb
That song came out while I was in college and it encapsulates a recurring theme within evangelical Christian culture rooted in an oft-quoted 1 John passage:
Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth.
Far from being a tangential question, this love-in-action is supposed to characterize Christians above all other traits, and it’s supposed to lie at the heart of what it means to be a Christian. Jesus said, “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” And as we’ve seen here already, love isn’t just something you feel, it’s something you do.
If that’s true, then your love for others must be judged by the actions you take toward them, not by the speeches you weave around your actions nor by the feelings you feel when you act. Talk is cheap, and actions speak louder than words. So that must be how we determine if you are indeed loving your “loved ones.” It won’t do simply to say it. Your actions must actually benefit the ones you say you love or else they do not really demonstrate love.
Harm is still harm no matter how noble the sentiment that motivates you to inflict it on another person.
Writing for a growing audience has exposed me to an ever-widening pool of people who have been harmed under the auspices of Christian love. Listening to their stories makes me want to flip tables and grab my computer screen and scream, “You people are not showing love! You’re doing the exact opposite and you don’t even see it!” Your actions are causing harm in the name of love, and your religious indoctrination has blinded you to what’s happening right under your nose. You say you’re showing love, and I don’t doubt that your intentions are loving, but your love is toxic. You can sugar coat it all you like, and often others will swallow it not realizing that once it gets inside it will only make them sick.
Over the last few months I’ve observed four types of “love” that do more damage than good. Each of these four courses of action purports to display some kind of love—perhaps they call it “bold love” or “tough love”—but really they are forms of mistreatment. I’ll lay them out here as succinctly as I can.
FOUR DISPLAYS OF LOVE THAT AREN’T REALLY LOVE
1.) Shunning. It’s not just for the Amish. If you don’t come from an evangelical/fundamentalist tradition then you may not realize how regularly this is the advised course of action. People write books and release videos counseling Christians to turn away their loved ones and cut them out of their lives as a show of love. Are you out of your @#$%&! mind?! That is the opposite of love, and if you don’t understand that, something is wrong with you.
Lately, I’ve seen more of this as a suggested response to friends and family who are gay. Popular evangelical preacher John MacArthur advised it in this video and recently the second-in-command at the Vatican advised the same thing. But I’ve seen shunning used against atheists, too. For example, a local friend of mine was kicked out of her home by her parents as a demonstration of “tough love” after she “came out” to them. Perhaps they were mimicking Paul’s instructions to “expel the immoral brother” from the church in Corinth in order to “hand him over to Satan” in hopes that his soul would be saved in the end. People who do this don’t understand that they are damaging their relationships with their loved ones, perhaps irreparably.
If at any level you harbor the notion that God intends to use you as a source of blessing in the life of your “fallen” loved one (so condescending, btw!), then consider the very real possibility that in choosing this course of action you may very well be permanently ending your relationship with this person. To be rejected in this way by a father, a mother, a brother, a sister, a spouse, or even your own child is to experience harm at a level so deep that you may spend the rest of your life working to heal that wound. You never forget the ones who kick you while you’re down. And well you shouldn’t, for the way people treat you in that moment shows you what they’re really made of.
Again, no matter what the motive that inspired the wound, harm is still harm. You may call it love, but your love is still toxic.
2.) Withholding. This is the passive-aggressive version of cutting off your loved ones. Where I’m from in the Deep South, we have mastered the art of passive-aggression. We can lace our sweet voices with the loftiest declarations of good will even as we stab our loved ones in the back. It’s almost an art form for us. And what better way to punish those of whom you disapprove than to sit on an abundance of resources but withhold those resources even as you watch your loved ones suffer under the consequences of falling out of everyone else’s good graces? This way you’re not actively harming us; you’re just choosing not to support us as long as we’re in the wrong. This kind of mistreatment is so subtle it can even be done without you yourself becoming aware that it’s what you’re doing. It’s brilliant, really. It’s sophisticated. It’s a powerful and effective way to punish someone you love while remaining above blame yourself. “They brought this upon themselves,” right? Brilliant! And yet equally disgusting to watch.
Years ago I unintentionally intercepted a message intended for someone else, someone in a position to help me at a very difficult time in my life. A well-respected advisor to many enjoined this person to refrain from doing anything that might lessen my suffering because—and I’m almost quoting verbatim here:
It’s actually a good thing that Neil be made uncomfortable at this time. Perhaps it will wake him up and cause him to come back around.
He should be ashamed of himself. What an awful thing to tell someone in a position to ease my pain at a difficult time in my life! I’ve often wondered how many people he’s counseled in that same manner. I wonder how many people close to me have followed advice like that, whether they heard it from him or read it in a book or heard it from a pulpit? What a pernicious and hypocritical course of action, especially for a group of people claiming to be all about love! This isn’t love, this is harm. This is punishment for leaving the tribe.
I don’t doubt that you feel love toward the people from whom you withhold your blessing and your resources. I don’t even doubt that it sometimes pains you to do it. But your love is toxic, and you should know that. It claims to be love, but in the end it only hurts the ones you say you want to help.
3.) Crusading. Some people go the opposite direction of shunning: They bombard their loved ones with sermons and exhortations and threats of Hell, hoping to scare them back into compliance with the faith. Quite the opposite of staying away, these people run roughshod over personal boundaries and ignore everything their loved ones tell them about themselves, what they think, and how they feel. Even though all the scare tactics have already been used on them before, people will reach for the same weapons and verbally bludgeon them all the more now as it appears the previous amounts of force were not enough to keep them in fear.
I’ve had this tactic used on me as well. Someone very close to me once cornered me at a vulnerable moment and said:
If you don’t get off the path you’re on, you will lose your family. Your wife will divorce you and your kids will hate you. You’ll probably lose your job because no one wants to hire an atheist. You’ll lose all your friends and eventually you’ll die alone, then you’ll burn in Hell after that.
This isn’t love, this is control. I can’t even count how many of my friends have endured almost the exact same speech from their friends and family. It almost becomes numbing after a while. It’s not that these people don’t feel love for us. It’s just that they’ve been taught to behave toward us in ways that aren’t loving even while being couched in the language of love. “I’m only saying these things because I love you.” That may be. But your love is toxic. In the end it causes harm, and your love must be judged by what it does, not by how you feel.
Of course, not all crusaders preach hellfire and brimstone. Some show just as much disrespect for boundaries and personal autonomy by showering their loved ones with more “positive and uplifting” (but still unwanted) proselytizing despite repeated requests for personal space. “I just want to tell you, again, that God loves you. Please don’t reject his love.” Yes, thank you; you’ve said this many times before. Never mind the fact that we’ve said we don’t believe you’re talking about a real person. Rather than showing us the basic respect of acknowledging that’s how we see it, you continue to egocentrically preach at us, never grasping that your unwillingness to respect our boundaries is unkind and inconsiderate. It fulfills what you feel is your responsibility toward God, yes. But each time you ignore our boundaries you teach us to avoid interacting with you. The never-ending proselytizing will eventually have the opposite effect from what you want.
I know it’s frustrating to see someone close to you no longer identify with your tribe. It’s natural for you to want us to remain “one of you.” You’ve also been taught to fear that something bad is going to happen to us now that we’ve left the fold. But we need to see that you don’t think less of us for not thinking the same way as you. We need to see that you care about our own individual dignity enough not to treat us like wayward children, always communicating a sense that we are wrong and you are right, and that we need “fixing.” When that’s how you see us, it shows whether you mean for it to or not. More than anything I wish you could learn to see us differently. Stop defining us by whether or not we think the same way as you about this narrow field of metaphysical questions. We are more than the things we believe about religion.
4.) Gifts with Strings Attached. Ah, now we’re getting to the truly clever forms of manipulation. If you openly shun your loved ones or cut them off, you have to live with the guilt of knowing you pushed them out of your life by your own hand. That’s a lot to take with you to bed each night. On the other hand, if you preach hellfire and brimstone, threatening your loved ones with eternal torture, that clearly demonstrates an emotional coercion that feels equally icky. So what’s a person to do to exert the most guilt-free form of control over others? You can give gifts and do nice things for them, all the while making it clear that receiving these gifts obligates the recipients to comply with your accompanying expectations.
I suppose if I had to pick one of these not-loves, I’d pick this one because at least it brings some kind of benefit to the ones being judged. I’ve noticed my Christian friends will capitalize on other people’s needs by swooping in at just the right moment to offer help as long as it brings with it an opportunity to preach the same message one more time, or invite them to church one more time, or maybe proselytize their children one more time. In time we learn to refuse these gifts because we can sense the strings attached. But at least for a time we get something we need out of the arrangement. As sad as it is to say it, some religious friends and family require ulterior motivation in order to show love for others. Say what you want about promises of posthumous rewards and punishments, but some people simply need that kind of thing in order to be kind and considerate of others.
WHAT WOULD JESUS DO?
None of this behavior is very Christ-like, right? I mean, surely your version of religion is above these manipulative tactics, right? Inevitably whenever I write a criticism of Christian behavior I have several people write in to tell me the conduct I’ve described isn’t “Christian” at all. They offer condolences because their tradition would never condone this kind of treatment. And that may be. Liberal and mainline Christianity often follow a more humanistic social ethic. They are indeed less inclined to judge others for not swearing allegiance to Jesus. But where does the impetus for this exclusivism originate? Is it just inherent tribalism? Is it just human nature, and the Christian religion shouldn’t be blamed for it?
Not so fast. Jesus said he didn’t come to bring peace but to bring a sword. That doesn’t mean he came to start a violent war. But what did he mean by it? His words are very strong:
I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to turn ‘a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law—a man’s enemies will be the members of his own household.’
Jesus wasn’t one to focus on the family. In fact, he famously ignored his own family in the interest of pursuing his ministry. One day when his own family came to see him he dismissed them and then pointed to his followers and said, “Here are my mother and my brothers.” On multiple occasions Jesus told his followers that unless they were willing to put their devotion to him above their own families, they were no disciples of his. Some would approach him about joining him in ministry but if they said anything about family obligations conflicting with doing so, he sent them away. I don’t think the behavior I’ve described in this post un-Christian at all. It seems to me that depends entirely on how faithful to Jesus you really want to be.
I for one hope you won’t drink that kool-aid. Your real-life family members can actually give you a hug and hold you when you need it. They can help you lift heavy things and care for you when you are old or infirm. Please don’t let your religion come between you and the people you love. In the end, they’re the ones who will be there for you when you need them. If you run them off, I suppose you’ll still have Jesus, right? But are you really sure that’s all you need?