A while ago there was a movie out called I, Robot. One of its most disturbing scenes, to me, was one in which the hero must search for a robot who is hiding in a factory among a sea of newly-built robots. The robots–all alike, all identical, all mindless and unmoving and unaware–were an image that has always stuck with me. It took a while to figure out why I thought that scene was so eerie, but you know me–I’m tenacious. Eventually I realized that that scene captured how I felt when I was a Christian–like a robot in the middle of a big group of robots, and how I see Christians acting even today–like their main goal and focus is on creating people who are exactly alike and completely homogenous.
Indeed, there ain’t much that bothers fundagelicals as much as people not believing the same exact way they do, and a distressingly large part of their time and resources go into creating clones of themselves among those who are different–and the more different, the more eager these Christians are to push these folks into the fundie mold. We’re going to look at this mindset today and talk a little about why it’s an indicator of the sickness in the religion itself.
A while ago, when talking about a movie about a mixed-faith relationship, He’s In Love With a Church Girl, I noticed that the movie only considered one outcome of the clash of faiths to be acceptable: the “worldly” guy had to convert to Christianity. Indeed, when you look at blog sites and books written by Christians regarding being “unequally yoked” with non-believers, that’s the goal for them as well. They don’t consider any other outcome as divinely blessed or even condoned. Heck, you get this kind of Christian into a group of other Christians, and the first thing you’ll see is that person whipping out the spiritual yardstick to figure out where the other Christians don’t measure up–and then that Christian will start fighting to get everybody on the same exact page theologically that s/he is on.
I’m sure that most non-Christians could tell the same stories I do of feeling like Christians take my mere existence as a challenge, of feeling like Christians can’t and won’t rest till they’ve bashed me back into the right shape. But it goes so much deeper than them trying to force ex-Christians back into shape. There’s a whole pervasive distrust of the idea of someone refusing that shaping.
Fundagelical Christianity is built upon this idea of homogeneity and sameness in its adherents. One of the biggest myths I believed about marriage was that any two people should be able to make a marriage work if Jesus had ordained that they should marry. It didn’t matter what the two people were like or what they wanted out of life; if Jesus had said they should be together, then they’d find some magical way to make that work. I had this idea that marriage partners were more or less interchangeable–that you could plug any two people together and as long as they had differently-shaped genitalia, they could make a marriage work if they were basing it on Jesus. I saw my god as smoothing those rough edges of differing personalities and individuality to make us all capable of marrying pretty much anybody.
I got that idea from my perception of Christians as this huge monolithic group of people who were more or less interchangeable in my god’s big plan. Often I’d hear a pastor or preacher or evangelist or missionary (always male, of course) talk about how they felt they were the very last person who should be assigned this or that task, but they’d felt led to do it, and obviously it was the right thing to do. The idea of the reluctant warrior permeated my culture and frequently showed up in sermons and presentations. As Moses had been unsuited, our god chose vessels who had unknown strengths and unsuspected powers, and just like our mostly-doctored-up testimonies, these stories always ended with dramatic victories and turnarounds that showed how very wise our god must have been after all to choose exactly the right person, even if that person hadn’t realized it. But what these tales also did was show me that it didn’t matter what someone’s strengths, abilities, or even interests were: our god moved us around and did whatever he wanted anyway, without regard for any of that, and we had to be able to just drop whatever we were doing to do what he needed–whatever that was.
We called ourselves “sheep”–and though we always assumed our god knew us apart from each other, can anybody else tell one sheep from another? We called ourselves “soldiers”–and one thing you can say about armies is that they don’t typically value a lot of individuality. We wore almost-identical clothing, did our hair almost exactly the same way (my friend Mike, who’d loaned me that reference Bible, called it “the Pentecostal Pouf”), listened to the same music, and channeled our interests into the correct paths in church, with women serving as Sunday School teachers or in the music ministry, and men doing the leadership stuff. Children were trained to be obedient and unquestioning, with the slightest show of defiance treated like World War III. When we talked about tradition, we were envisioning one big tradition for everybody; when we yearned for “the good old days,” we were not yearning for a multicultural, diverse, robust society but one with people like us in it–white, Christian, cis-gendered, conservative, and straight. When we talked about the perfect family, there was only one type of family we imagined. Hell, even our “speaking in tongues” all sounded about the same, like what you’d imagine an Ancient Near Eastern language might sound like if it got channeled through a toddler-aged Larry the Cable Guy.
Once converted, we fully expected “the Spirit” to “convict” our target to make him or her act, dress, and talk more like us. Think I’m kidding? I was explicitly told exactly this about a week after my baptism into the Pentecostal church, when an older man told me that he was praying that “god” would “convict me about skirts,” since I was wearing pants. Even when I began wearing skirts, they weren’t the right kind of skirts–they were the gorgeous, dramatically-gem-colored challis prints that everybody in the 80s was wearing, not the simple circle skirts of cotton that my church favored. So slowly I was “convicted” by simple group pressure until my wardrobe was correct and my hair was grown out and my makeup thrown away. And I began parroting the same apologetics my peers did, leaping on the same trends they did, and doing all the same stuff they were doing. I stopped writing, stopped reading anything that wasn’t pre-approved, and stopped doing all the other extracurricular stuff I’d been doing before my conversion to concentrate only on church activities. I stopped feeling proud of my accomplishments (those were of “the world” anyway and it wasn’t humble to feel pride) and tried to cultivate that calm, cheerful, generous demeanor that my church preferred in women.
I didn’t even notice this process of homogenization till it was completed, when it was far too late to object to the end result. Not for nothing do you sometimes hear such Christians called “god-bots” by derisive outsiders. That was me. I was a robot in a sea of identical robots, able to be picked up and plugged into any project by my god, interchangeable, with some slight variations in skills and aptitudes, but none of those really mattered.
So I can say with perfect assurance that when we witnessed to people, what we were really trying to do was make our target more like us. When we told someone we were praying for them, what we were praying for was that our target would start thinking like we did. We were bringing that person into the fold. We were saving that person from the world, which was seen as dangerously unpredictable, ambiguous, and chaotic. Where outsiders might appreciate the world’s tender nuances and subtle shades of grey, we saw threatening ambiguity that we had to resolve as quickly as possible. Our very conceptualization of creation itself saw our god as creating order out of disorder, law out of chaos.
When we waded into that crazily-erratic world to find lost sheep to save or to fight in our god’s battles, we saw ourselves as the saviors of those lost souls. We saw ourselves as their champions, bringing our way of life and our wisdom to those poor damned people, lifting them out of that unpredictable chaos and into order alongside us.
There’s something truly insidious about this kind of proselytization; it doesn’t look like “saving” people so much as forcing people to be the same to reinforce cultural dominance and reassure these Christians of their privilege. I really think that one reason that such Christians tend to react so poorly to rejection of their strong-arming is that outsiders aren’t just rejecting their piss-poor arguments, immoral reasoning, and total lack of objective evidence. We’re also rejecting the arguments, reasoning, and fake evidence that was more than good enough to convince these Christians of their claims, and thereby invalidating and challenging their intelligence, discernment, moral capacities, hell, even their entire lives. We’re rejecting the insistence to become like them and saying that we see what they are–and want no part of it.
It’s really no wonder to me to see that so many toxic Christians in America (and to a lesser extent elsewhere) are turning their eyes away from their own home cultures to other countries.
Missionary work is in Christians’ blood. They think that Jesus told them to spread his gospel through the world, a task now called “the Great Commission.” Though this command is, as we’ve discussed, almost certainly a later addition to the Gospels, and though this command’s interpretation is definitely up for debate, it caught on with Christians very quickly. Today this verse is used as one of the “permission slips” that Christians love to lean on when accused of hypocrisy and, in this case, manipulative overreach and abuse of others (we’ll talk more about this idea of “permission slips” next time, because I can already tell we’ll need some time to explore it). Obviously they’re going to look like they’re preying upon unwary people and manipulating them, but they’re just (insert totally whiny tone here) following the Great Commission, so therefore nobody’s allowed to say anything about it!
Back in the 90s, when I was a newlywed, I belonged to a church that took missionary work very seriously. As part of a missionary’s appeal one night, Biff (my then-husband, who was angling for a preaching career) and I committed to sponsoring an African child. We got letters and drawings every so often from a person who said she was our child, as well as little presents like a string of gingerbread-man paper garlands that she had ostensibly made herself.
Now, if you’re not too sure about how that works, here’s the low-down: you think you’re getting to sponsor an individual child. You send money to a group every month, and they in turn act like they’re giving it straight to that child’s family. You get, in return, letters and pictures that are ostensibly written and drawn by “your” child, as he or she progresses through the charity’s educational system, and learn a little about the culture in which that child ostensibly lives.
Did you catch all those uses of the word “ostensibly?” Good for you.
What’s actually going on in most cases (and in the case of the charity that’d been pushed at me and Biff) is that the money goes to that child’s community and helps clothe and feed a bunch of kids, and send a bunch of kids to school. Probably. I wish that’d been made a little more clear to me back then, because I was both peeved at hearing it, because I felt like I’d been deceived, and relieved at hearing it, because that actually made a lot more sense than just going family-by-family. And, of course, a lot of that money goes to upkeep of the charity itself, as well as, often, into evangelism efforts to “save” the people in that community. And I had no way of actually knowing that any of the letters and drawings we received from “our” child were actually written by her; indeed, when one journalist who’d sponsored a child for over ten years through World Vision finally met her in person, he discovered that not only did she not know English (which her letters had said she was doing great in learning!) but that she had no idea that she even had a sponsor; moreover, the only benefits she had ever seen from World Vision were precisely one (1) pen and one (1) denim jacket that she was wearing the day of her interview. World Vision, like the charity I was involved with, doesn’t exactly make its various sponsors aware of how the money is actually being used.
This paper outlines some serious critiques of aid organizations, particularly World Vision, calling it a “Trojan horse” for US policy and accusing it of giving aid money not to community leaders, as promised, but to local evangelical church leaders. It goes on to mention several other disturbing facets of world aid, namely that groups that provide this aid seem more interested in making other countries into mini-USAs and their people mini-me Christians–sometimes even in open defiance of their own charter rules around proselytization (such as World Vision has). When Mitt Romney turned out to have dodged the draft by going on a missionary tour of France, his and his wife’s famous insistence that he’d done something just as worthy as going to war (rightfully) shocked and outraged outsiders, but had I heard it as a young Pentecostal, chances are I’d have agreed at least a tiny bit with the sentiment.
So had I known at the time that my money might be going to a little bit of evangelism or US cultural dominance, I wouldn’t have minded. I didn’t know any better. At the time, I regarded people’s souls as being as important as their stomachs and my culture as the bestest in the whole wide world, and in these mindsets I wasn’t alone. I wanted the whole world to be just like me: Christian, and moreover Protestant, and moreover fundagelical, and moreover Pentecostal, if I could humanly arrange it. Now things are a lot different. I know that missionary groups often don’t have or show a lot of respect for local customs and culture, and that they often care a lot more about spreading their religious views than about actually helping the people in these cultures–a phenomenon called Religious Imperialism.
There is a much darker side to this imperialism, and we’re seeing it lately with the “Kill the Gays” legislation going on in Uganda. The success of this legislation has a great deal to do with right-wing Christianists from America, like Scott Lively, who figured out that while Americans are wanting less and less to do with their toxic message of bigotry and legalism, Africans seem very receptive to that exact message. There’s a very ugly racist vibe I get from what I see of Mr. Lively’s behavior and work there; it seems a lot like he’s pounced on that part of the world because he sees the people in that part of the world as more gullible and naively trusting. Unsurprisingly, he’s on the Southern Poverty Law Center’s watch list of bigots and hatemongers (and also not surprisingly, he’s a historical revisionist, according to that link–in his demented, broken little brain-pan, the Nazis were actually gay guys, and gay guys today are the real anti-Semites; isn’t it just the wackiest thing how often anti-gay bigots also turn out to be hugely racist, hugely fundagelical, and hugely anti-Semitic?). Scott Lively’s just one of a number of fundagelical bigots who are finding the pickings easy in Africa and other troubled areas; his buddy-in-bigotry, Rick Warren (yes, the Purpose-Driven guy), has also been busy in Uganda inciting hate and fear against LGBTQ people. Fundagelicals’ aid often doesn’t come with the same accountability requirements as more mainstream groups’ aid would have, making it way easier for these groups to gain the allegiance of corrupt local evangelical church leaders, who are way more likely to misuse the funds.
And one can also see some truly ugly hatemongering in Russia along the same exact lines. American fundagelicals are also responsible for similar laws and attitudes there. Larry Jacobs, of the “World Congress of Families,” has been a busy little bee indeed in Russia, spreading hate speech and complete lies about LGBTQ people. It is not hard to imagine that he’s spending so much energy on Russia because America seems less and less interested in helping him create his vision of the Happy Christian Culture.
When I see Americans doing this stuff abroad, it really makes me think of that old poem, “The White Man’s Burden,” like we feel like it’s our duty to export our way of life and ideas to other cultures, like those cultures’ current way of life is childish, barbaric, and savage and they need civilizing and taming from us.
But even worse than treating these cultures like they’re feral little children in need of nice white saviors, sometimes we treat the saving like it’s a stop on a tourist visit. I remember my mind just being blown by the idea of young Christians begging for money to go on missionary trips to places like Jamaica and Hawaii. But more than that, I’ve actually heard ex-Christians talk about these mission trips–that most of the “missionaries” involved really do regard the outing as a nice Jesus-tinged vacation that they can put on their resumés and college entrance applications to demonstrate how civic-minded they are. I’ve also been personally told by someone who wanted to go on one of these trips that young people who look too much like the natives of whatever barbaric locale is being saved get turned down so nice white exotic-looking kids can go instead. Once there, the kids spend time doing busy-work and enjoying the sights, sometimes “witnessing” to locals.
Most of these trips are, as you can guess, a total and complete waste of time if not downright damaging to the cultures being treated like a zoo exhibit for the entertainment of oblivious young Christians. One blogger calls them “poverty vacations” for good reason; I’ve also heard them called “sanctified vacations.” The kids who go to these mission trips usually don’t speak the local language and lack the skills needed to do some real good, like carpentry or plumbing. And the churches hosting them have to spend a lot of money to keep them housed, fed, and entertained.
That’s not counting the obvious party destinations like Jamaica and France, of course. The appeal of going somewhere like that is quite clear to me. I hadn’t realized there were so many people in those places that had never, ever heard of Christianity, had you? It’s kind of funny when one hears about missionaries coming to America from countries like China for the exact same reason–do these missionaries actually think they’re going to encounter loads of pagans or something? Do you hear about that and think what I do: “Wait, that’s something Americans do, not something Americans get done to us!”
But it’s all worrrrrrrth it to share “Jesus” with these places. When they’re done, the culture will be just a little bit more civilized, just a little bit more American, and just a little bit whiter in mindset.
Must save the poor savages.
And get a killer tan.
Join me next time as we talk about the various “permission slip” Bible verses Christians misuse to stomp on outsiders and exert control over stuff that’s really none of their bidness.