It can be very difficult, once we’ve begun disentangling from the toxic effects of religion, to start figuring out what real respectfulness is and what it looks like, how to show it, and most importantly how to expect it from those around us.
Respect is so much more than simple etiquette and courtesy. Respect is about giving other people space and letting them handle their own lives. It’s about recognizing boundaries and not violating them. It’s about being a safe space for someone to talk and listening when we’re honored with a disclosure. It’s about trying to understand others and not make assumptions about them, or talk over their experiences, or dictate what and how they should feel about anything. It’s about recognizing other people’s self-ownership and sovereignty and not stepping on their toes. It’s about not being willfully hurtful or mean-spirited. It’s about not penalizing someone for being different or having a different opinion. It’s about giving other people the same consideration we’d like for ourselves–and not doing to them what we wouldn’t like done to us. It’s about caring about what other folks find comfortable, and letting them handle themselves.
And it is about, in turn, expecting all of those things for ourselves and standing up for ourselves when we don’t get them.
I didn’t see much respect in Christianity. Oh, I saw a lot of emphasis on behavior and language, but nothing much about respect–and I’m sure I can guess why. I mean, you can’t control someone in a respectful way, now can you? So I’ve known a great many Christians who could be very polite in conversation while at that very moment unleashing breathtakingly disrespectful treatment toward others. I can’t even tell you how many Christians I’ve personally run into who get totally hung up on cussing while insisting that gay people shouldn’t get basic civil rights or that atheists are “mad at God.” If all someone thinks respect means is “refraining from cussing,” then that person has missed the point entirely. I’d rather hang out with a Hell’s Angel who swears every other word but shows real respect to me than a Christian who minces and prances around linguistically but denies me my essential humanity. Respect is much more than using “Mr.” and “Ms.” and using or not using particular words.
A lot of us recovering folks come from environments where it was more important to keep the peace and to get along than it was to honor boundaries or make sure everybody’s voice was heard. Christianity especially seems to negate people’s boundaries. Not only are Christians taught to get up in each other’s business, but they are often taught that fixing each other’s problems is the height of “loving one’s neighbor.” I don’t know if this idea originated from mainstream secular culture and seeped into Christianity or if Christianity started it, but it sure seems like the more zealous the group is, the worse it is about considering everybody’s private lives fair game. They’ll dress it up in fancy-shmancy words like “accountability,” but really what it is is a hugely disrespectful invasion of another person’s privacy.
And we can get so turned around by this emotionally manipulative headgame that just the accusation of “selfishness” can plunge us into doubt and even depression. It’s hard to see anything wrong about someone being very sincerely concerned for our well-being or very sincerely worried about our futures, even if the fear is about a nonexistent threat like Hell, and the concern is about a total non-starter like losing our morality. “But I’m just trying to save you from your own terrible choices!” is an expression of control that is so accepted in Christian culture that it’s even used to justify the Christian attempt to impose, by force of
sharia law, Christian behavioral rules on people who aren’t even Christian–for their own good. At some point not too long ago, Christians began thinking of themselves as society’s Designated Adult and began acting like everybody’s parents.
Concern becomes so overriding, so important, so overwhelming, that it can excuse any overreach. Anybody with any concern, as long as it’s serious-sounding, can completely negate another person’s boundaries–even if the threat can’t be demonstrated to be a real worry to anybody.
They ain’t concerned enough to find credible support for their worry, you’ll notice. Don’t hold your breath for that, either. Instead of establishing that the threat’s a real worry, which is what truly respectful people would do to persuade others to see the danger they see, Christians leap straight from a totally unsubstantiated, made-up, manufactured fear to “so now you have to let me totally stomp on your rights for your own good.” And if we refuse to let them do so, then we’re “stealing their religious liberty,” because to be Christian nowadays is, apparently, to stomp on people’s rights, and one cannot be Christian without being allowed to do this. Funny, I thought religious liberty involved personal acts like prayer and Bible study, but apparently I was wrong and it actually means to let Christians have their way all the time no matter what kind of overreach it constitutes–all because they’re so concerned.
They’re so very, very, very concerned.
Well, so is the nut on the corner with the sandwich board warning us about reptilian aliens in the White House. A Christian’s concern does not constitute an emergency on anybody else’s part, unless and until that concern can be demonstrated to be a credible threat. Concern does not give a person any right to be disrespectful to others.
A lot of us don’t even realize how disrespectful Christian culture is–and if we do, we’re not sure how to speak up for ourselves to assert our rights in the face of this “concern.” Even years out of deconversion, I sure had trouble identifying disrespect and it took even longer to start demanding respectful treatment. It felt “selfish.” I had been raised thinking that a proper relationship–be it a friendship or anything else–involved fixing each other and getting into each other’s business. And I did the same thing. I can’t say I was any better.
What I was doing was putting my own concern above my victim’s autonomy. I didn’t show respect when I was asked not to discuss a topic because I thought that the “danger” they were in (which, again, and I can’t stress this strongly enough or often enough, I couldn’t demonstrate credibly) overrode the normal rules of engagement. I butted in on other people’s business and broke social rules because I was positive that I could see them heading straight to ruin in some way–either by not acting the right way, or not doing something I thought they should do, or whatever–because I thought I knew better than they did how they should live their lives.
Really, it’s just astonishing nobody put me into the Oval Office, considering how much better I knew how to run things than everybody around me. I’m sure I was insufferable. But I thought that a god was informing those actions and that the people I was mistreating would benefit from my divinely-inspired guidance. I certainly didn’t recognize when others around me were similarly disrespectful of my own boundaries. I only knew I felt hard-done-by and unhappy, like something was wrong, but I didn’t know what or why. I didn’t give myself permission to be angry about it because I didn’t recognize that what they were doing was transgressing my boundaries. It wasn’t until much later, after leaving Christianity, that I learned to identify my own feelings of outrage and anger over what I’d experienced–and to start recognizing my own habits and attitudes as disrespectful.
Over time I came to see certain behaviors as red flags of disrespect, and our friend Dani Kelley has outlined some as well:
* Making assumptions about people’s lives or about how easy some problem would be to resolve.
* Speaking over another person’s experiences or making assumptions about people’s experience levels.
* Approaching people who clearly don’t want to be approached for conversation.
* Treating as lesser human beings those who disagree with a position.
* Hinging courteous treatment of people upon their adherence to imposed standards of dress, speech, body shape or size, or religiosity.
* Invalidating people’s experiences, negating them, or silencing those who’ve had experiences that aren’t approved.
* Deceiving people, controlling them, or mistreating them for any reason, including “for their own good.”
* Treating people like DIY projects and taking for granted that they want to be fixed.
* Violating stated boundaries like “I don’t want to talk about that” or “Please don’t do that again”–no matter how urgent the situation seems or how much the other person seems to be messing up.*
If I could actually tell Christians something and have them listen, I’d say this:
Your non-believing family and friends are adults. We aren’t children. We have rights. We are not here to be your captive audience, your supporting cast, or your weekend repair project. We value truth, honesty, and love–just like you do. If we didn’t ask for your assistance or input about our spiritual lives, then you can take as read that we don’t want it. Our society is still steeped in Christianity, so you may trust that we have come to our conclusions knowing full well what the penalties–and rewards–promised by this religion are.
We know that you’re Christian. We know that you’re happy with that situation. That’s totally fine. We respect your right to believe whatever you think is true and to talk about it in your own spaces, and ask you to respect our own right to do the same. If we ever need information about your religion, trust us: we know where to find it.
Religion’s a lot like sex: people should engage in it only with partners who enthusiastically consent to the festivities, and if anyone wants to stop, for any reason or no reason at all, then the party needs to end immediately. Nobody is required to justify a lack or withdrawal of consent to anyone or to “earn” their refusal to engage in social discourse. Nobody needs to make anybody understand why there’s been a request made to stop imposing on anybody else. Nobody is obligated to teach anybody a damned thing or to make anybody a better human being. But nobody gets to decide what’s okay or not okay for anybody but themselves.
Most of all, respect approaches people on their own terms, in ways that they’ll find meaningful, rather than on our own terms and in ways only we find meaningful. If we demand that everybody conform to our terms, then what we’re really asking for is adoration and compliance–and it shows. Love’s about dialogue and a two-way street, but those who cannot show respect only want the dialogue–and the traffic–flowing one way.
Respect is a show of love. Disrespect is, well, the opposite. Someone who loves me will show me respect. If someone can’t show me respect, then that person needs to know that I do not feel loved no matter how often and how fervently love is declared.
I can definitely see why the worst elements of Christianity have a lot of trouble with respect and boundaries. That kind of Christianity is more about control and dominance than it is about love or charity. They’ve evolved oodles of rationalizations for why they simply can’t stop treating people disrespectfully–it’s now all but mandatory in some religious circles, with every single bit of pushback seen as a sign that their god approves completely of what they’re doing. Changing their ways, at this point, is going to involve rewriting huge swathes of the culture–and I don’t think many of their leaders are going to be interested in doing that. They’ll ride their loud insistence on being right and their false claims of “persecution” all the way to total irrelevance before they start thinking maybe it’s time to change.
Meanwhile, I will continue to reserve the right to continue quietly insisting on good treatment and respect–even from the most “concerned” of Christians. We’re going to talk more this next week about respect and love, and I do hope you’ll join me then. Have a great weekend!
* Remember, this applies to those nebulous “dangers” like Hell. Any threat that can actually be objectively, credibly demonstrated to be a threat is exempt. If you see someone about to get hit by a real live bus, then yes, do something. But if the bus is actually just a metaphor for death and you’re worried about Hell, then you don’t get to knock anybody down until you can demonstrate the actual danger in a credible way. “BUTBUTBUT A BUS IS COMING” is often used by overzealous Christians to rationalize offending and annoying people, but they’d rather continue to alienate and offend people–and use dishonest equivocations like this false analogy–than to figure out how to credibly demonstrate the danger they imagine looming. (I bet I know why. Either way, not impressed.)
* It doesn’t get much more surreal than informing Christians that they’re not being very loving. You get bonus points if you do it using variants of the Love Chapter or any Bible verse thought to have been a quote from Jesus himself.