Christian formation…in fear and lies

Christian formation…in fear and lies May 19, 2013

“Fear is one of the persistent hounds of hell that dog the footsteps of the dispossessed, the disinherited…deception is perhaps the oldest of all the techniques by which the weak have protected themselves against the strong.” Howard Thurman.


“Archery, definitely archery – and ropes-course and kayaking and dance, can I sign up for dance too?” said our youngest as she hopped around the kitchen, chattering about which activities to choose for her very first summer sleep-away camp. “Not arts and crafts and no way baby-sitting 101!” As we browsed the selections she nearly burst with excitement for “outdoor living skills” – the nut sure doesn’t fall far from the tree.

“Praise team, what’s that one?” she asked. “Well honey, it seems to be a group that practices, mmm, worshipping…they are a small group that sings and plays music and helps lead worship. “Oh, so this is a Christian camp.” she said with undisguised surprise.

So there it is, we’re letting our baby girl (and by baby I mean rising middle-schooler) go to a Christian camp. Actually this is the second kid we’ve let go to this camp. To be clear it’s a Y-Camp for girls in the north Georgia mountains to which she has been invited to attend with a friend we love and trust – a friend whose family loves and trusts us right back.

When I told our oldest kid that Little Bit would be spending a week at the same camp she went to she was not as thrilled as I thought she would be. “Mom, make sure and tell her about the people there, ok? Tell her to be careful.” I sighed “Yes love, I know.” I remembered the ride back from camp when “Thing 1” shared the tearful conversation she’d had with one counselor who assured her if we all just prayed enough her mommy could change.

And so it begins; teaching our youngest the first game she will play at camp – the pronoun game. In the weeks leading up to camp we will work to help “Thing 2” find the right ways and words to navigate the cool mountain waters of Christian camp as a kid with two moms. Why the hell would we we send her here? Well, this camp has a fantastic reputation for safety and fun, a good friend she has known a long time will be there with her and to be frank, it is a camp we can afford.

See, we don’t want her to be bullied by other kids or made to feel ashamed of her family by adults. We really just want her to have a fantastic time horseback riding, swimming, running, playing and being free. Except she won’t be quite as free as some of her cabin-mates and really, a little of the bullying has begun before she ever sets foot on the creaky old porch of her cabin if trepidation is reaching all the way to downtown Atlanta a month prior to camp.

I suppose it comes as no shock that this is troubling me on many levels.

Can you picture it, the first evening in the cabin as the girls sit around in their jammies, hugging knees or stuffed animals to their chests with their cabin leaders getting to know one another? Can you see her eyes shifting and her legs squirming as her turn to accept the invitation to share about her family moves around the circle? Can you hear the wavering in her voice as she talks about her parents, careful not to say moms? Can you feel her little heart beat as she talks about what we do, where we live and stuff we do together as a family? Can you see the truth behind her eyes as she figures out how to tell the truth and lie at the same time? Can you see her little fingernails chewed up as she learns how to carefully preserve the identity of the two people who love her most in the world? This mamma can picture it.

And I am scared to death of what we her parents are teaching her. In Jesus and the Disinherited Howard Thurman reminds us, “The children of the disinherited live a restricted childhood. From their earliest moments they are conditioned so as to reduce their exposure to violence.” This is true and this is real but at what point do we help her tap into the deep well of courage we both know she has. Why is it so hard to confidently teach “The Lord is my helper; I will not fear; what can man do to me?”

And lastly I am devastated knowing that this is part of her Christian formation. Formation by Christians who will teach her one important and terrible message of what it means to be a Christian in America. For many, to be a Christian in American means to know fear and know how to lie.

The other day I asked some friends (that I lovingly called Jesus freaks) what they think of when they hear the phrase “Christian formation” and here is what some of them said:

A different Kimberly said: “Spiritual disciplines/practices”

Ben: “Being formed in the ways and teachings on Jesus”

Diane: “transformation walking in the Spirit!”

Yet another Kimberly: “all the ways that we are sharped and formed in our Christian spiritual life, including CE, workshops, Bible study, and worship (especially the hymns).”

Michael: “The infusion of the theological virtues in us by the Holy Spirit which leads to development of all moral and intellectual virtues.”

Priscilla: “I prefer “faith formation”…those experiences and learnings that inform and deepen my faith…I happen to be Christian so I suppose it is Christian formation.”

Seth: “Makes me think of striving toward a particular worldview, but it’s not a word I’ve heard often, even as I’ve spent time in fundamentalist groups.”

Nar: “Simple for me … continual formation into the image of Christ.”

But when I zoom out and look at the situation impacting our family I see systematic, Christian formation in fear and lies – born in the church and sanctioned by the state. In the churches that have not yet come to understand that love makes a family and that homosexuality is not intrinsically sinful there remains a pervasive pedagogy that teaches our children to be afraid to be themselves and wary of the families that shelter them from the storm. There is in these churches a cultural currciulum that creates scaffolds for building lies about yourself in order to be safe. There is direct instruction that clogs the arteries of our souls with the cholesterol of conformity and control so that heart of Christ that animates our own is suffocating on despair and deceit.

Through this formative education a person learns to suppress inner truth in order to survive. The gay child is taught to despise lovingly crafted elements of their created selves so they can be lovable by the community around them. The child of gay parents learns to tell half-truths and out-right lies to avoid the sharp pain of rejection and bullying. And perhaps the most tragic of all, the young child whose soul is born wide open to the goodness of the universe, learns to suppress the love and compassion that come from Christ in order to please the parents and community to which they are born.

This Christian formation in fear and lies teaches us to reject our inner Christ – the Christ who was, is and will always be the light of love and truth in our hearts. It teaches us to turn away from our God who is pure agape and choose a false god of transient affection.

This formation to fear and hate those God has lovingly created and who we’ve been created to love – your neighbor as yourself and yourself as your neighbor – is nothing less than sinful.

God is love. We are made in the image of love so we are created to be loving creatures. When society – family, friends, church and government tell us that to truly love our neighbors (or to love ourselves as God has created us) is an abomination we learn to display behavior, and even internalize the psychology of fear and hatred of our neighbor, or worse, ourselves. Some learn to fear and loathe themselves according to the same message. As my cousin Michael lifted up recently “If we cannot love our neighbors, our claims to love God are false.”  Loving our neighbor is inextricable from loving ourselves and if our neighbors are teaching us we are unloveable then the triquetra of the great commandment is shattered.

I hope you’ll forgive me if I take a moment to quote Macklemore & Ryan Lewis here:

“When I was at church they taught me something else
If you preach hate at the service those words aren’t anointed
That holy water that you soak in has been poisoned…”

When the spiritual practices and religious disciplines form us and our children to fear and lie they are not forming us in the ways of Jesus. To be disciples of Christ we must persist in creating communities of faith that truly listen to the still small voice of God that calls us forward, forms us, in the ways of radical love, infinite compassion and equal freedom.


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186 responses to “Christian formation…in fear and lies”

  1. How delightful to read your piece and warming to read the comments, much of that warmth coming from the release of dread that the fearful would intrude.
    Christianity American-style has me reel almost everyday with sadness. The partisan politics is making Christianity farcical. Tragic.

  2. The anti gay message preached by many main stream churches has become a millstone tied to the neck of Christianity. It is driving many young people from church because they cannot reconcile institutional homophobia with Christ’s teaching of radically inclusive love. We are not born hating the “other” we are taught to hate. Shame on all those who call themselves Christians and force their LGBT brothers and sister to hid their true selves. Most of all shame on all those who call themselves Christian and force children to “suppress the love and compassion that come from Christ in order to please the parents and community to which they are born.”

  3. You touch on some of my most important themes. I particularly like your statement, ““If we cannot love our neighbors, our claims to love God are false.” Loving our neighbor is inextricable from loving ourselves and if our neighbors are teaching us we are unloveable then the triquetra of the great commandment is shattered.”

  4. Ty for this piece! I’ve been fortunate enough to teach in environments where children feel safe enough to casually mention ‘my moms’ in everyday conversation. I’ve often wondered where and at what age they will feel the need to self-censor. How should we prepare them? What is our responsibility as educators and Christians?

    • Those are some hard and good questions Marleen and I think it comes down to each individual child’s development and needs. I think at the earliest age though we can never say enough that everyone, everyone, everyone is welcome to bring their whole selves to the table.

    • When it comes to educating our young ones, doing so honestly and truthfully is vital. It is the only guard against ignorance.

      Quick story about my own situation from last week: my boyfriend and his sister live in the same house. He is open about his identity, his sister is accepting (as is his whole family), and they all are accepting of me. His sister has a six-year old boy who is very smart, very intuitive, and like all children of that age is incredibly curious about the world around him. Now, I am at the house regularly. Several days ago, my boyfriend told me that his sister doesn’t want us to hold hands when her son is around. The reason? Because he recently saw us holding hands and asked about it, and she doesn’t want to have to explain to him why two males are holding hands. YET, she holds hands with her boyfriend in front of her child, smokes in front of her child, and regularly swears in front of her child.

      My point is this: being truthful and telling her child very simply that I am the boyfriend, and then taking the time to educate him that it is okay for two males to hold hands, is to fight against ignorance. Instead, she reinforces ignorance by not only preferring silence over responsible education, but also by encouraging destructive values through her own destructive and hypocritical behavior.

      Failing to educate our children with full honesty and with full truth only serves to inject more ignorance into a world that is already oversaturated with it.

  5. Excellent piece, Kimberly. It made me think of my own “Christian formation” days way, way back when lying about my identity was crucial for my social survival within the very tightly-knit religious community in which I grew up (compare Genesis 12:12-13) It necessitated that I put on the appearance of accepting certain doctrines outwardly, though inwardly I was terribly afraid. And it is the kind of fear no child should ever experience, whether it is because they are gay and/or because they have two moms or two dads.

    “Christian formation” within the Traditionalist framework is ultimately a barrier-building exercise. Believe this, but not that (or else we’ll throw you out, and God will kill you). We are accepted by God, but “those people” are not (and “those people” include not only persons of different belief, but also gay people). Traditionalist “Christian formation” is not education. It is, in its effect, disinformation.

    Authentic formation is about diving into the waters, not building dams. It’s about the hospitality of a wide-armed and open-handed welcome, not the defensive close-armed stance with battle-ready fists. It’s where one should feel safe and free, not vulnerable and afraid. It’s about bridges, not walls. It’s about “We-All-ism” not “Us-Them-ism.”

  6. Thanks for the mention and for posting this. I agree. Means determine ends, in other words, how you go about something fundamentally shapes the result you obtain. Using fear and oppression as means of Christian formation will necessarily distort the end result, as both fear and oppression are antithetical to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The method must mirror the desired result, because the method will determine the actual result, no matter what the stated goal was. Many Christians are in desperate need of deconstruction from such violent formation and re-formation in the way of Jesus.

    • Amen Michael. And even thought people believe in some twisted way that they are acting out of love when they inform their neighbors they are headed for hell, the scare tactics only serve to drive people further from the love of God.

    • “Using fear and oppression as means of Christian formation will necessarily distort the end result, as both fear and oppression are antithetical to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.”
      You are right on target Michael!

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