Thought Crimes: Good Intentions, Meaningless Atonement, and Magic Shields.

Thought Crimes: Good Intentions, Meaningless Atonement, and Magic Shields. June 17, 2015

I was already going to write this post when I saw my colleague and friend Galen Broaddus’ post recently about love not being a trump card. So I’m feeling doubly interested in writing it today.

One thing that Christianity did that other religions hadn’t done to quite that extent was introduce the concept of thought crimes. In the Gospels, Jesus tells his followers,

You have heard that it was said, ‘YOU SHALL NOT COMMIT ADULTERY’; but I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart.

In other places, Jesus is supposed to have said that it was not what someone did, but what someone thought that mattered–and that thought alone could “defile” a person. It’s not that the Old Testament didn’t contain references to “coveting” other people’s stuff, but Christianity made the sin almost entirely internal, not external. Without that focus on navel-gazing and internal thought policing, I’m not sure the ascetic movements in Christianity’s early history could have taken off, nor its emphasis on self-denial and mortification of the flesh.

All of this emphasis on subjective feelings comes at a price, however, and Christianity inflicts a particularly heavy and onerous burden on its followers by maintaining this idea.

It's like a Potemkin village. (Credit: Newtown graffiti, CC license.)
It’s like a Potemkin village. (Credit: Newtown graffiti, CC license.)

Good Intentions Are Not Actually Enough.

Good intentions are nice, but Christians use the idea as a magical shield that protects themselves from all criticism. They mean to do well. They want to be loving. Therefore the rest of us have to let them do whatever they want to do to us, even to the extent of controlling our lives and warping our country’s laws to accommodate their increasingly strident and unreasonable demands.

When someone makes a clumsy mistake out of good intentions, the rest of us know it because such a person accepts loving correction immediately and amends the behavior. Someone who keeps making that same clumsy mistake, or demands to be allowed to make that mistake because his or her intentions are thought to be pure, is someone who maybe doesn’t have quite the good intentions being claimed.

For example, let’s say a person gives her partner flowers. That’s a very common gesture of affection, and her partner will probably like it very much. But let’s say the partner grew up in an abusive home headed by a florist, so now flowers are a heady reminder of those years of abuse. Consequently, the partner does not find flowers romantic or endearing; they only bring painful memories.

This is a situation where a perfectly normal, conventional expression of  good intentions has brought pain.

The polite thing to do is appreciate the gesture, but quietly and without rancor tell the person giving the flowers why the gesture didn’t convey the full intention of the gift. And if the person giving the flowers is truly loving and truly has nothing but the best intentions in her heart, then she’ll find some other way to express her devotion and bring a smile to her beloved’s face.

But if our flower-giver does not actually have the fine, sterling intentions she thinks she has, she will drill down harder on giving flowers. The problem isn’t her, she is sure; it is her partner, and her partner needs to damned well appreciate flowers because that is what she’s damned well getting from her partner. The pain inflicted over and over again doesn’t matter; what matters is the flower-giver’s “good intentions” and desire to give flowers. The focus is on the flower-giver, not the partner, whose reactions–being off-script–are ignored, negated, and pushed aside.

I’ve seen exactly this scenario play out, incidentally, and many more besides like it in dynamics. I’ve also been the recipient of these one-sided, self-serving gestures. I’ve learned that when someone really loves another person, that person is the focus of the gestures–not the person giving them. If all someone wants is to make themselves feel vaunted and puffed-up, it shows. The rest of us know. The recipient definitely knows.

So when Christians tell us they’re hitting us over the heads and trying desperately to seize control of our lives and private decisions because they love us so much, their protests of good intentions ring totally hollow because we know what love feels like and this isn’t it. Tellingly, Christians’ response to this rejection is to try harder to get us to use the same warped, one-sided definition of love they use.

By keeping the emphasis on the performer’s intentions, Christians have stripped from themselves any need to check in with the targets of their various gestures. Like most of us do, they lack the self-awareness to meaningfully assess themselves, so that checking-in process that might have corrected them is now no longer an option. Not only are they totally lacking the ability to correct any issues, though, they maintain an emphasis on subjective feelings rather than objective reality. There’s no way to quantify what’s going on with their gestures; they have no way to address problems other than to keep insisting that the targets get on-script again. Everything is happening in their heads.

If their subjective opinions about a gesture conflict with another Christian’s subjective opinions on the same topic, then they start playing Dueling Authority. There is literally no way to resolve a conflict of that nature without pulling rank.

It’s hard to imagine anybody rational looking at that kind of setup and thinking there was no way anything could go wrong with it. Even under the best of circumstances, this kind of one-sided system is a disaster. When someone actually commits a grave offense or crime against another person or group, that’s when the doctrine really goes haywire.

Thought Crimes Equal Meaningless Penance–and Something Far More Malevolent Than That.

Bill Maher wrote an amazing blog post recently about forgiveness and how Christians “screw it up.” When a big-name Christian gets caught doing something seriously wrong, one can predict with stunning success one immediate result: that Christian will appear on television or on their blog crying oodles of crocodile tears about how sorry they are and how Jesus has forgiven them totally.

Once Jesus has forgiven the perpetrator, victims are not allowed to do anything but forgive as well–because otherwise they’re saying they’re better than Jesus or something.

The extremist right-wing version of Christianity that most of these scandals erupt out of* go so far as to treat forgiveness as damned near mandatory for victims. When you hear the kind of language Christians use around forgiveness, it’s very easy to hear dogwhistles demanding silence and compliance.

But I noticed–even as a Christian–how seldom my brethren’s crocodile tears resulted in meaningful action or change. When everything about a thought crime is based on how the perpetrator feels, how do we expect anything else than platitudes at best and negations at worst?

Oh, but even worse, negations aren’t actually the very worst result of the doctrine of thought crimes.

Even Christians themselves recognize sometimes how the current fundagelical conceptualization of forgiveness seems geared mostly toward maintaining a status quo, protecting abusers, and silencing victims. In the wake of the Josh Duggar sex abuse scandal, I’ve been reading a number of comments online from people who were themselves abused by religious leaders–sometimes for years–and one theme emerging from these accounts is that the victims were made to apologize to their church or to their abuser’s spouse for their own abuse. Typing that sentence made me feel filthy, but that’s what this idea of forgiveness does in its worst manifestation.

When victims can be held accountable for their own victimization and blamed even 1% for the assaults they suffered, that’s a manifestation of thought crime policing that seems to run counter to Christianity’s message of social justice and love. It starts sounding a lot more like a shameless attempt to enforce tribal obedience and keep victims completely silenced–and allow those in power to abuse victims without fear of being stopped or called to justice. The only justice they fear–or say they fear at least–is that of their god, and clearly their god isn’t doing anything in that regard.

I’ve personally heard great numbers of Christians sullenly express their indignation that others had not “forgiven” them like Jesus had. Christians who don’t forgive are considered the lowest of the low; their failure to forgive and move on (fundie-speak for shutting up about it) is a sin in and of itself! When Josh Duggar’s supporters do the exact same thing I saw Christians do across the spectrum of the religion, they are carrying on a fine and proud tradition that their religion’s taught for many centuries.

Another terrible side to this doctrine of thought crimes is that it makes Christians beat themselves up for having unapproved thoughts even in the total absence of sinful deeds. To me that’s one of the most pernicious and vicious aspects of the doctrine–and one of the hardest for victims to escape. There is always something a Christian can beat him- or herself up over–or beat another Christian up over. Thought crimes can stop the Christian god from working miracles, halt revivals dead in their tracks, and even prevent opportunities from coming Christians’ way. As ironic process theory tells us, it’s exceedingly difficult to deliberately stop thinking of something–which means more ammunition to use against those who are already suffering under this doctrine.

If I were setting out with the mission statement of creating a toxic cult that brainwashed members and negated them, I could not do better than the Christian concept of thought crimes.

When Ought Collides with Is.

The reason Christians have such a weird relationship with forgiveness is that the doctrine of thought crimes actually seems like it should work–if the religion’s claims were true. In theory, the doctrine sounds okay. Ideally, it’s very easy to find forgiveness. As long as one repents–which itself is a vague and nebulous term but which generally means to pray and say sorry very sincerely–then Jesus is obligated to forgive by the rules he set up himself. Repentance itself is a topic that’s started arguments among Christians since well before I was one myself; my denomination added a proviso to the standard “name it and claim it” formula that the person saying sorry not only had to sound very sincere but also resolve never to commit the sin again, but didn’t set up any way for other people to know how firm that resolution was, while other churches required that resolution but also wanted a real-world action plan that would train the repenting sinner in new behaviors.

The problem I was seeing was that we were experiencing a collision between our doctrines and reality and we had no idea how to resolve it. I don’t mean the ought-is fallacy, which consists of two parts: the idea that if something IS happening now, that it SHOULD be happening now, and that if something is NOT happening now, that it SHOULD NOT be happening now. No, I mean instead this collision of how Christians think the world ought to work if their doctrines are put into practice versus how the world actually really does work when those doctrines are put into practice.

This dilemma is a serious one for Christians. If someone really truly believes that Jesus forgives people and changes them, then the formula I’ve outlined should be everything needed to produce a healthy, happy community full of people working for each others’ good. And it sure seems clear that in Josh Duggar’s community, plenty of folks there think this way; even the father-in-law of one of this predator’s victims has come down solidly on the side of everyone shutting up already because “Jesus took [Josh’s] shame as he was punished in [Josh’s] place.”

The problem is that all but the most deluded (or predatory) of Christians know better than to think that. They sense at some level that the offense occurs in the real world, so an imaginary forgiveness isn’t enough; they know that something more is required here than a flippy-dippy chortling declaration of forgiveness. They see that these demands are often couched in language that protects offenders and quiets or ignores victims. They can tell that denominations that emphasize this fake forgiveness are also hotbeds of other forms of abuse. They know that real forgiveness happens only from the hands of those who were offended, and only once the offender has accepted the consequences of the offense and made serious changes to prevent the offense from happening again. In other words, they’re seeing that the Christian brand of forgiveness is incomplete, while the scary secular world’s growing awareness of it seems to be what works better to bring healing to victims and justice to criminals.

One very small bright spot in the Duggar scandal is that more Christians are openly pushing back against that formula. Others are openly questioning the dogma that predators use and abuse to keep themselves in power over silenced victims. This pushback couldn’t happen unless Christians were starting to recognize–however dimly, however slowly–that their happy Mayberry religion doesn’t quite work in reality the way it works in their fantasy–and the reason it falls so short is because the way Christians engage with forgiveness and thought crimes is itself deeply flawed.

All it takes is realizing that their leaders were wrong about one thing to start a Christian wondering what else those leaders are wrong about–one step to start climbing out of a pit. That’s why we need to keep shining lights on these scandals and talking about how its emphasis on harmful ideas like thought crimes encourages abuse. By exposing the religion’s dark corners like we are, we’re showing that the Christian land of Ought almost never coincides with the Is we have before us.

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* I know, right?–it’s so weird. One rarely sees this kind of scandal erupt out of liberal, mainstream churches. It’s the really misogynistic, power-imbalanced, boundary-blind churches that hand all power and authority over to one gender and strip the other of not only power but even its rights, voice, and self-ownership. They trust Jesus to keep everybody safe and doing what they’re supposed to do, but strangely “Jesus” seems to care more about the free will of abusers and predators than he does about protecting those who have been thusly stripped of their rights and power. I noticed as a Christian that the further into the right-wing extremist end of the pool I waded, the worse the abuse was that I saw and experienced. Until I realized Christianity’s claims weren’t actually true, this observation baffled me quite a bit.

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