What Acceptance Can Mean

What Acceptance Can Mean January 28, 2015

I recently stumbled upon a guest post on Camels with Hammers that I found quite interesting. In it the author, Alexandra, wrote about what it was like growing evangelical in France. She very effectively got at something I attempted to write about a few weeks ago—that when you are in a religious subculture, being treated judged or mocked by those in mainstream culture will only make you become entrenched further in that subculture, because it is there and only there you will feel accepted and valued and loved.

I grew up an evangelical in France. We represented less than 1% of France’s population. Most people I met outside of church functions had never met an evangelical in their lives before me. And so when my faith came up—which it always did, because of the strong push to share the gospel with people around me, among other reasons—they were curious. I was an oddity. I stood out. My ideas were rejected—and since middle-schoolers are not the most mature crowd—I was rejected, as a person. Once I had stated my beliefs, any efforts on my part to fit in—occasionally laughing at a dirty joke, expressing interest in attending a party, uttering a swear word, wearing slightly more revealing clothing – were policed just as strongly at school, by the unbelievers, as they would have been from within my evangelical community. They made sure I followed my religious rules, or what they perceived them to be. My every choice was scrutinized, picked apart and analyzed—by non-religious people as well as by the religious people. I understand where this comes from, of course. They felt judged by the rules I was living my life by because I actually was judgmental even if I thought I wasn’t, so if I didn’t follow them to the letter, I looked like a hypocrite—whether I actually was, or whether I was having momentary doubts, or just wanted to fit in in order to be like everyone else.

So eventually, when you are ostracized, singled out, and targeted for bullying, you dive deeper into the small subculture that caused you to be rejected in the first place. They understand you. They welcome you with open arms. Sure, they also notice if you step out of line, but they do so “in love”. They do not express glee at your failings. Although they hold you up to very lofty—and I believe misguided—goals, values and standards,they at least hold themselves to the same. The secular people? Not only do they denounce your values as false and mock you for them, they also punish you socially if you dare test what life would be like if you didn’t hold to them anymore. There is no way to win as a religious minority in a secular culture.

This subculture dynamic can even appear to the believer as further “evidence” for God. It is easy for a Christian teenager to attribute the meanness of non-believers and the warmth and acceptance of believers to the action of the Holy Spirit.

Let me tell you a story. When I went to college, I was looked askance at by a lot of people. I was laughed at for my creationist views (in front of an entire classroom of my peers, no less), and I got weird looks for the way I dressed (let’s just say that I took “modestly” very seriously). Some people made crude remarks about my parents when they learned how many siblings I had. I avoided the people who treated me this way, because why would I want to be friends with them? The way they treated me only confirmed what I’d been taught: that the world hated us, because we loved Jesus.

How was I able to break out, then? I became part of an amazing friend group in my residence hall, and it was there I found people who accepted me as I was. Some of those in the group were evangelical like I was, but they were also not like me, because they hadn’t been homeschooled and their politics and beliefs about gender roles were not as conservative as mine. Others in the group were not evangelical at all, but they also didn’t give me a hard time.

Do you know what’s interesting? As these friends gave me acceptance, I returned that acceptance. It’s much easier to judge those who mock and make fun of you than it is to judge those who accept you and treat you as part of the group. My more mainstream evangelical friends showed me that it was okay not to hold my beliefs as conservatively as I had—and that it was okay to make my beliefs my own, and not my parents’, and to ask questions. And my non-evangelical friends? Let’s just say I found my old ideas about what unsaved people are like crumbling. How was I to judge them when they were so accepting of me, and so not like I’d been taught they would be?

Even when my friends did laugh at my difference, they did so in a way that was kind and not derisive. One evening, for instance, we were playing Apples to Apples when it was my turn, and the green card was “Evil.” The others all played their red cards, and I turned them over and deliberated. I eliminated most of the cards, but then couldn’t decide whether to choose Adolf Hitler or Hilary Clinton. My friends thought this was completely hilarious, but not in a way that felt mean or judgmental.

After talking about her own experience, Alexandra talks about Muslims, also a minority in France:

I believe the same mechanisms are at play for other religious minorities in the West. Why is it that so many young Muslims in the West end up more radicalized than their own parents? It may be that a similar subculture effect is in play—one that also has ethnic dimensions exacerbating it. How can we help make sure we, as secular people, don’t compound the problem? 

She offers a list of six points:

1) Stop focusing on the differences. They are there. They are glaring. But they are not everything that person is. Find out what you have in common—and focus on that.

2) If they deviate from what you assume are their religious rules, do not point it out to them. They know they are deviating. There might just be a reason for that. It could be that their core values are at odds with what their religion states they should value and they are trying to figure things out for themselves. It could be that they are in the process of deconverting. Or they could be hypocrites. Only time will tell.

3) Do not single them out because of their religion. Be considerate, of course. But do not bring up their religious beliefs unless they do first. If you are concerned about dietary restrictions, ask all your friends: “anything you cannot eat or would prefer not to eat?” If you’re concerned about whether they can participate in an activity at all, discreetly make alternate arrangements for any guests who may not want to—sometimes for reasons that have nothing to do with religion and that you wouldn’t even have suspected.

4) Do not treat someone differently if you suddenly find out they are religious when you weren’t aware of it before.

5) Do not assume they are so unreasonable and so different and so far gone that they will never change their minds—that is condescending. If they are willing to discuss ideas, be open to that.

Alexandra and I both grew up as religious minorities. She grew up evangelical in secular france, and I grew up I-don’t-even-know-what-to-call-it in the middle of the U.S. We were both of us out of step with the mainstream culture around us. Both of us ultimately left the beliefs we’d been raised with behind. Both of us remember what it felt like to be judged, treated as outsiders, and mocked—Alexandra even more than myself. And for both of us, those things made it only harder for us to break out of our religious subcultures. It was finally finding friends in the mainstream culture who were accepting of us and allowed us to acclimate—and in Alexandra’s case, she had to work to actively hide her beliefs for this to happen.

I understand the temptation to mock and judge, I really do—especially when the targets are judgmental themselves. I also imagine that many people will argue that this isn’t applicable to fundamentalists or evangelicals in the U.S. because they aren’t minorities (regardless of whether they are, they feel like it), or that fundamentalists and evangelicals are oppressors who deserve to be mocked (and I’m certainly not saying that bigotry should be affirmed). Please simply be aware that for many, the mocking and judging serve to make them hold their beliefs only closer, not out of some sort of spite but rather because that’s how humans work—if they feel accepted and valued as people only within their religious communities, that is where they’ll likely stay.

I will always be glad for the group of friends I fell in with while in college. There was the evangelical girl who took me under her wing. There was the art student who was raised Methodist and primarily believed in love. There was the friendly outgoing guy who shocked me by coming out as bisexual and then as gay. There was the tall, quiet Catholic guy who had also been homeschooled. There was the dancer who had grown up Episcopalian and had even considered going to seminary. There was the Catholic girl who had a much younger sister who made me think of my own younger siblings. There was the evangelical girl with the sharp sense of humor who ended up going to seminary. And of course, there was also Sean, whom I later married.

Sometimes having friends who are accepting and willing to suspend judgement can mean all the world.

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