(CN: Domestic violence, abuse, gaslighting.)
Hi and welcome back! We’re cruising right into the weekend, aren’t we? Last time we talked, I touched briefly on the way that Christians often insist on adjudicating and judging people’s lives and personal decisions. In response to a blogger who wrote that Christians’ hypocrisy was no excuse for not joining his religion, I said: “Citation needed, because I certainly think that’s more than enough of a reason.” But the guy’s audacity stuck in my head because the way he talked made me think he was trying to make himself into a Designated Adult for society.
Have you ever heard that phrase, “Designated Adult?” I don’t remember exactly where I heard it the first time, but the moment I did, it just ricocheted all through me. A lot of things suddenly made sense both in my own relationships and in what I saw happening in society as a whole. And it explains a lot about what’s wrong with modern evangelical Christianity in particular and why it is failing.
A Designated Adult is a bit like a Designated Driver. The Designated Adult is the parent-like figure in a relationship, while the other person becomes a childlike one in turn. On a very few occasions you’ll see (mostly kinky) couples that knowingly and willingly choose this sort of dynamic–and more power to them if that’s what they both prefer, but most of the time it’s a done to an unwilling, non-consensual partner. One day a victim of this control tactic wakes up and realize it’s been ages since he or she got to make any personal decisions–or on the flip side, since he or she went a whole day without emotionally burping someone.
I talk about this concept in the context of control because that is what it is: an expression of control. Whoever makes the choice of who gets what role is the controller; the roles themselves are almost incidental. I’ve been in relationships where I landed on each end of that equation. In one relationship I was gradually made into a child dependent on my abusive partner for absolutely everything; in the very next, wherein I sought a man who was the polar opposite of that first jerk, I ended up as the Designated Adult and got controlled anyway by a man-child who needed a surrogate mommy to love and hate. Someone who presents him- or herself as terribly submissive or passive can still be awfully controlling. Kinksters call this “topping from the bottom” (NSFW).
And this behavior is not love. Love is not about control. Love is not even compatible with control–because control is about fear, not love. Someone who is trying to control another person isn’t expressing love but acting out of fear or getting a high out of the power they get through controlling others. Such a person desperately needs to be in complete power over all situations and at all times. Uncertainty is scary and threatening. Who knows what could happen? A meteor could hit the planet or something if people don’t listen to the controller! Controllers need to know exactly where all the pieces in the game are and be able to move any of them at any time. They need to be able to predict and account for any eventuality. Worse, other people moving pieces means a loss of dominance. Any threat to their total control of all the game-pieces must be eradicated immediately by any means fair or foul. Otherwise controllers just don’t feel comfortable or happy; they mistake a lack of control over other people as a sign of genuine helplessness in themselves.
And nothing drives controllers more crazy than someone refusing to be controlled. They’ll go to weirder and more extreme lengths as time goes by to get the power they desperately need over the person or people they’ve targeted as victims; in my personal life, my very controlling Christian husband even eventually resorted to threats of domestic violence to try to get me back under his thumb. It never even occurred to him that what he was doing could and would backfire by waking me up to just how dangerous he was. To the contrary: one day, he was sure, this would all just be a merry family story to tell to our many merry grandchildren, who he could already see swarming ’round his knees to ask him to tell, again, the hilarious story of how he threatened repeatedly to hack Grandma up with a butcher knife if she kept refusing to reconvert and return home. And he wanted me to see his campaign of terror as proof that he truly loved me and knew what was best for me, like he was my daddy and I was just a recalcitrant little girl. It’s just mind-blowing to look back at it all now and think that once I bought into the lie of control being an expression of love.
Love, by stark contrast, is not about control but rather about acceptance and grace. It’s about taking people’s hands where they stand and loving them in their entirety, not just in the controlled, sterilized, and sanitized form that controllers need them in. It’s about letting people live their lives and do what they think is best for themselves without interfering and meddling with them. It’s about showing respect for other people’s rights and autonomy. It’s about understanding that all people are equal, with no ands, ifs, or buts, and worthy of decent treatment and consideration. It’s about listening instead of assuming; it’s about affirming instead of dictating someone else’s opinions and experience. It’s about letting go instead of grabbing and treating adults like, well, adults and not children. Controllers can’t do a single bit of that. But with love all things are possible, I read somewhere once.
In short, love asks permission, while control can’t even ask forgiveness.
Some ex-Christian friends of mine and I have been talking about love lately. It’s not surprising that we would; leaving religion brings many of us to thoughts of what to keep and what to burn of our old lives. Many of us have to figure out what love even is so we can recover and get healthy again. And so much of what we learned and absorbed in Christianity is not loving at all. It can be really confusing when Christians say they’re being loving when we can clearly tell they aren’t. Relabeling hateful behavior as loving is part of an abuse technique called gaslighting; it’s meant to make victims second-guess their own judgment and accept an abuser’s self-serving redefinition of reality. So you can guess we’ve had a lot to unpack and figure out regarding love.
Setting boundaries is another place where ex-Christians can lose our footing. For many of us, we got taught that love is about fixing and improving each other. We almost never got taught that it’s not okay to try to fix or improve someone who hasn’t asked for that help. Consent isn’t something that pings Christianity’s radar much. It’s just assumed that of course the other person wants help, and if not, then Christians should force their help on even unwilling people because they know best. The victims of this help might object at first, but they’ll thank their Christian helpers once they’ve been repaired. On the other side of that equation, if someone is forcing help on us, then we should allow them to do so because it’s for our own good. This abuse gets dressed up in Christianese like “submission” and “accountability.” It takes a long time to unlearn that kind of programming and learn how to trust ourselves again.
In light of those twin pitfalls, gaslighting and boundary-setting, it’s not hard to see why ex-Christians have to be really careful navigating the trap of the Designated Adult. Usually in our case it’s the Christian who is trying to “parent” us. Most of us have relatives or friends going that route so they can get us back under control and into the fold again; sometimes this control is subtle, like passive-aggressive tricks: “hey, can you read this apologetics book and tell me why it’s wrong?” Sometimes it’s quite overt: “if you don’t start going to church again I’m taking away your college fund.” They do these things for our own good, they say. They’re damned proud of assuming the role of Designated Adult over us–implicitly declaring that we in turn are children in need of their sublime guidance. They seem confused, angry, or hurt-sounding when we reject their attempts to parent and fix us. They’re “just trying to help.”
This behavior is abusive, and we are right to call it for what it is and to refuse to play along with it.
But this form of abuse doesn’t just happen on the personal scale. It’s happening on the national scale as well.
For a long time Christians have been moving themselves into position as the Designated Adults of society itself. If you need illustrations of that claim, all you need to do is look at movies like Left Behind or study other Christian conceptualizations of the Rapture; a great many Christians seriously believe that when (ANY DAY NOW™) they get bodily taken up to Heaven in the blink of an eye by their magic invisible daddy, society will self-destruct and descend into madness, chaos, crime, and unbelievable, unthinkable perversions. All that holds the rest of us back from that fate is the presence of holy, pious, sanctimonious–er, sanctified Christian culture warriors who are trying their best to rein us all in and protect us from ourselves by running our lives, so when they leave, the rest of us are screwed. DAMN IT, why won’t people listen to them? Shut up and let Daddy drive!
But until that joyous day they will do their best to save us all from our own idiocy by forcing us to behave by hook or by (ever-more-frequently) crook, even if we absolutely hate being forced to obey. Children never want to listen and they often don’t understand why they’re being controlled by their parents. If you saw a child walking into traffic/drinking poison/playing with fire, you’d have to do something! We’ll thank our Christian parents for their efforts one day. We’ll see. Or we’ll get what is coming to us–forever.
I know that sounds awful, but yes, that really is the mindset: Christians like that believe that they are superior to non-believers in every way, and thus morally justified in “parenting” others.
As doctrines go, the Rapture is already one of the very worst in the whole history of a religion famous for awful doctrines. But second only to that has to be this very mistaken idea that Christians have that they are the morality-keepers of the world and that without them everything would just go to pieces–just like how parents know what happens if they let their toddlers go very long without supervision. Some Christians are so terrified of the idea of an uncontrolled “worldly” society that they’re starting to stock guns and sacks of beans for what they genuinely believe is a looming apocalypse caused by giving too many people civil rights and insisting that schoolchildren be taught only true things in public schools. (So much for perfect love casting out fear!) The only thing that soothes their terror somewhat is taking control over other people.
And the first steps of control are usually pretty subtle–such as demanding the right to judge the validity of another person’s personal decisions.
Just knowing that someone else has made a different personal decision about something is enough to drive a controlling person’s blood pressure skyward. That’s a challenge to the validity of their own decision, so obviously they have to force that other person into lockstep with themselves. So when I saw that Christian blogger whining that hypocrisy was no excuse for not joining his religion, that was a red flag for me. Who died and made him king? Because I sure don’t remember giving him the right to decide how valid another person’s decisions are. The real irony is that he was condemning people for using the “excuse” of hypocrisy to justify not joining his religion, all while blithely and supremely unaware that he was at that very moment practicing hypocrisy in being judgmental.
I’m not surprised he didn’t notice. Hypocrisy is deeply embedded in church culture. When the Barna Group undertook a study of how people both in and out of the religion view Christianity, they figured that outsiders wouldn’t be very pleased with their religion, but they had no idea just how negative these perceptions were or how grounded they were in actual experience rather than what they thought would be childish petulance:
When they labeled Christians as judgmental this was not merely spiritual defensiveness. It was frequently the result of truly ‘unChristian’ experiences. We discovered that the descriptions that young people offered of Christianity were more thoughtful, nuanced, and experiential than expected.
Indeed, they discovered that a shocking 85% of outsiders saw Christians as hypocritical–and that even half of young Christians saw their own religion that way. And whether Daddy thinks hypocrisy is a valid reason to avoid a religion or not, I think that it is. Given that no religion makes objectively-true supernatural claims, a religion’s validity all comes down to how good it is for its people and its surrounding society. Hypocrites are proving that even when taken metaphorically this religion doesn’t work well and isn’t relevant to even its own people’s lives. I’d expect a few bad apples in any large group, but when “hypocrisy” is one of the defining features of that group, that’s a good indication that even its own adherents aren’t taking its promises and threats seriously–so I see no reason why I should. Instead of fixing the problem, these Christians are instead attacking my right to view their hypocrisy as a problem at all.
This rush to judge others would be baffling if I thought that Christians as a group cared much about what their Savior told them to do. Indeed, they’re told quite explicitly not to judge other people, but that’s just another rule they contort to get out of having to obey. They’ve got tons of reasons why sometimes a Christian’s just gotta judge others anyway, just like they’ve got tons of reasons why a Christian should TOTALLY pray in public or behave hatefully toward other people, as shown in the depressing comments on this and any other blog post that dares take Christians to task for, well, not being loving. And any time a Christian steps out of line with the hate-filled, controlling, judgmental square dance, you can bet that other Christians will be right along to beat the dissenter back into line.
It shouldn’t take a casual observer long to realize that Christians don’t really want to obey these commandments in the first place. There’s simply no charitable read I can make for why they’d choose to disobey these very plain and simple commands from what they truly believe is no less than their Messiah. But there are plenty of uncharitable ones.
The primary conclusion I draw from my observations is that Christians are in no position whatsoever to consider themselves the moral powerhouses of the world. There is no reason whatsoever to grant them parental rights over me or anybody else.
In order for Christians to be the Designated Adults, first they have to be, as a group, worthy of holding that authority. As we just covered, they are not. Their magical friend is certainly not inducing them to behave morally. No magical processes make them superior to anybody. Even the threat of literally eternal, punitive, unending, excruciating torture isn’t enough to make them obey their very own rules. Meanwhile, I don’t lie, steal, hurt anybody, or cheat, and I don’t even have that gruesome threat looming over my head to force me into good behavior–so thanks, but I’ll captain my own ship; I think I know this patch of coastline better than they do anyway.
Whether Christians think my reasons for doing things are valid or not, it’s not up to them to approve or disapprove. It doesn’t matter if they’re comfortable or not with what I do. And more of us need to question why Christians want to grab the right to control us. Once we grant them even a small amount of unwarranted power, then they will grab for more and more of it. Abuse always escalates. Controllers aren’t ever content with what they have; when they realize they are not soothed by the control they already have, they’ll grab for more in the hopes that the next crossed boundary will soothe their anxieties. But the next seizing of power doesn’t do the trick either. There will always be more power demanded, until we find ourselves totally boxed in. That’s why we have to speak up when we see a Christian trying to take more power than he or she should have over others.
If you’re wondering why the religion seems to be staggering and faltering like it is, well, I think that’s why. The rest of us gave them way too much benefit of the doubt before, but not a day passes without us seeing some fresh new scandal erupting out of the Christosphere like a volcano rumbling into life. As more and more of these stories come into the light, the rest of us realize more and more that we shouldn’t let a group be our culture’s parent-figures when the people in that group don’t even know how to handle themselves. In two thousand years, they still haven’t managed to figure out how to live by their own rules.
But it’s a lot easier for Christians to try to control others than it is for them to confront their own shortcomings.
Hey, don’t look at me that way. Not everything in the Bible’s false.
Speaking of control, we’re going to talk next about what some Christian leaders are doing in their panic about their young people leaving the religion in such great numbers. I hope you’ll join me. Until then, have a good weekend!