In God’s Club, the Christian movie we’ve been talking about lately, the hero suffers from a vastly incorrect self-perception that colors everything he says and does. He shares this inaccurate self-perception with his tribe of right-wing Christians who are totally convintced that they are suffering massive persecution for their faith and that this persecution is offered up in retaliation for nothing more than their sincere exercise of their beliefs and their heartfelt desire to help others.
But they’re wrong, especially about whether or not they’re helping anybody. If we really want to help people, then we need to do something that the Christians of God’s Club simply can’t do.
They’re Just Trying to Help..?
In God’s Club, its central conceit is that its titular religious club is helping its members in some tangible way. Squinty’s wife Christine sees the club as helping students to develop moral qualities and self-worth, a viewpoint that her husband later clearly shares and takes for granted.
When some girls at the school set fire to his home to get back at his daughter for “stealing” one girl’s boyfriend, Squinty declares that the arson was committed because he “[tried] to be nice” to the people of Echo Grove–meaning that he’d done things for them that he considered helpful and compassionate, but they were such ungrateful beasts that they shat all over his kindness.
He’s quite mistaken about why the fire was set, but the fact that he immediately sprang to that conclusion says a lot about him.
The movie does not treat this assertion as a mistaken one, either, nor give any signs that Squinty is not actually a reliable narrator. Its creators clearly share the viewpoint with him that Christians keep “trying to be nice” and get nothing but savage retaliation as a result.
Certainly this mistake would not be the first time Christians have mischaracterized both their “niceness” and the responses they receive; at least as far back as the Irish potato famine of 1846 (as is detailed in the excellent food history From Hardtack to Home Fries), well-meaning Christians from other countries sent provisions that the Irish had never seen before and had no idea how to cook, or else were spoiled and loathsome–and when the food was inevitably rejected, many of those same Christians abused the recipients of this dubious largesse for their lack of gratitude instead of giving the Irish some help that was more meaningful to them. (In the same way, many charities that gave food relief to starving Americans during the Depression went to pains to ensure that the food they provided didn’t taste good–because the Christians in charge of them felt that the people receiving it might learn to like it so much that they’d get all dependent on it and then not get jobs to buy their own food.)
We could spend many posts talking about Christians’ various misguided relief efforts, most of which are not accurately described to believers–like World Vision and other “child sponsorship” charities, which use deeply deceptive advertising to lure in Christians who then get the psychological lift of thinking they’ve “helped” children in third-world countries–while ignoring or even harming the poor and hungry kids right here at home. But really, I’m sure that anybody reading this post can think of similar situations when the “help” offered by Christians wasn’t particularly helpful–and when Christians abused someone who refused their very unhelpful “help” or who dared to criticize them.
Christians are getting this criticism because the real goal isn’t to help the other person, but to feed their own narrative as nice, helpful, kind, compassionate people who are never appreciated by the heathens they’re trying to “help.” If the other person actually gets some good out of the “helpful” gesture, then that’s great, that’s nice, that’s fine, they’ll take it. But it’s almost better if the “help” is flat-out rejected.
Paring Away the Other Person.
We can get a little weird when it comes to giving things to other people. That’s because gifts are statements about ourselves and our connection with the person we’re gifting. Some of us can get downright prideful about how good we are at giving just the perfect gift–but many of us struggle to hit the right note.
Toxic Christians rarely feel that struggle. They already know what’s best for everyone.
A few years ago, Time outlined various kinds of gifts that people give around Christmastime; one common thread weaving through the piece was that the worst, least-welcomed gifts were ones that were more about the gift-giver than the recipient. Many of these unwelcome gifts conveyed a criticism or mean-spirited message guaranteed to hurt the recipient extra-lots at a time when they weren’t prepared for an incoming attack–and when the recipient complained or rejected the gift, you can be sure that the gift-giver then got the added joy of denouncing that person for ingratitude.
Indeed, one sees that exact sort of tut-tutting from Christians regarding rejection of their various “helping” gestures. One Christian spent an entire post outlining how her tribemates could emotionally recover from the trauma of feeling unappreciated–but not one single suggestion of hers centered around asking if maybe whatever the Christian did wasn’t actually meaningfully helpful. She joins other Christians who agonize over how best to help people and how to avoid being taken advantage of without ever actually concerning themselves with wondering what the other person really needs.
That’s what Squinty is doing in God’s Club, in a nutshell: he is “helping” his town in a way that they never asked him to help and which isn’t actually improving anything at all. Despite his wife’s insistence that the club will improve members’ morality, all that seems to happen in the town is an increase in fights, vandalism, and conflict. Worse, the club decidedly damages his relationship with the other people in the town, who resent his interference in their parenting and his unwanted proselytizing efforts. The children appear to be doing just fine, by and large, without his religion; certainly none of them seems particularly bad (with the exception of the two over-the-top Mean Girls, who are there purely to drive the kids’ half of the movie’s two-tiered conflict). In every single way, this club is a failure.
At no point in the movie do we ever see Squinty and Christine asking any of the other parents what they would actually like to see in the way of help. People tend to have very firm ideas of what help they could use, so it’s a rather strange oversight. I think if they’d asked those parents what they really needed, they’d have gotten very different answers than “we totally need you to indoctrinate our children into the nastiest branch of Christianity imaginable.”
But such an indoctrination is the “help” that this Christian couple wanted to give, and so that’s why they couldn’t possibly have asked such a question. It has clearly never even occurred to either the characters or their creators that maybe asking what people need is a good idea.
It’s a mark of maturity when someone begins to recognize that other people have their own needs and desires. That’s why we smile indulgently when a young child gives a baseball bat to their frail great-grandma for Christmas, but frown when the giver is a 30-year-old. We expect adults to do a little better than that. But Christians have demonstrated a remarkable difficulty in giving timely, meaningful aid to others and more than a little desire to exploit the vulnerable to make themselves feel and look better. (Really, the entire industry of Christian short-term missionary trips could well be summarized by the phrase “exploitation of the vulnerable.”)
Little wonder that we’re starting to hold Christians to higher standards than we’ve held them to in the past, now that culturally we’re starting to understand that being Christian doesn’t guarantee greater discernment or wisdom. We’re not accepting Christians’ self-serving narratives as much as we used to–and we’re starting to ask some very tough questions about exactly what aid they’re giving, to whom, in what form, and how effective it is.
Asking the Right Questions.
When we’re thinking about helping someone else, there are some essential questions we’ve got to ask.
Is this gesture actually something the recipient of it will appreciate? Is this help coming in a form that is the best use of available resources? Does the help show respect for the recipient’s autonomy, rights, and dignity?
Christians are very fond of ignoring all of those questions in order to offer their victims relief from stuff the victims don’t want relief from, or in forms their victims don’t find meaningful or which are far from the best use of the helper’s resources. Worst of all, Christian “help” often denigrates their victims’ autonomy, dignity, and rights. When you hear a Christian pontificate about why one should never, ever give cash to homeless people, you’re hearing a Christian who cares way more about their own internal narrative than about actually helping others. The Bible might be crystal-clear about exactly what Jesus meant about charity and how far Christians should go in providing it, but the last 2000 years have largely been an exercise in side-stepping, minimizing, and hand-waving away those instructions.
Long ago, fundagelicals and other hardline zealots cut away those questions–and it’s hard not to speculate that they did it very purposefully because they know that the answers to those questions would stop them cold from offering the sort of “help” they want to give: the sort of “help” that would make them feel comfortable, secure, and superior–and worse, which would help maintain the status quo they prefer. (Once again, we see that the system works exactly the way its masters want it to work!)
Asking “What is the most helpful thing I could do for you?” is a crucial question–and listening to the answer is what will bring us out of our own headspace and make us truly useful to the people we want to help. When the answer to that question differs radically from what we thought it’d be, that’s when we need to be paying extra attention to the situation–because we might have massively misread something.
Will people sometimes ask for stuff that doesn’t seem to us like it’d be a wise use of resources? Sure, sometimes. To me, that’s a necessary risk to take. The alternative is a disturbing level of paternalism. Biff once saw a man begging by the side of the road and on a lark took him shopping in a burst of Christian charity, since obviously he couldn’t just give him money. He proudly told me all about it later. Instead of just giving the guy the USD$20 he’d decided he could afford, he took him to the grocery store. He told me later, all earnestly wide-eyed, about how poorly the guy had tried to use the money. Apparently at some point the fellow had tried to buy a gallon of fruit-flavored drink–and Biff said he’d carefully taught the man that milk or teabags (or plain water) would be a better use of the money. I’m sure Biff thought that his gracious deed was very impressive, but I was really put off by it–not only because Biff was notoriously incapable of handling money in a responsible way (and so had no room whatsoever to “teach” anybody else how to do it), but because the man was not only considerably older than Biff but black. There were some serious “White Man’s Burden” implications going on there that Biff couldn’t even see, but all he cared about was hearing from me that he’d done well in performing this grand and generous gesture in the name of Jesus.
My reaction was lukewarm at best (which is probably, now that I think of it, why he never did it again; plus, the guy never came to church so obviously as an evangelism effort the shopping trip had failed). I couldn’t understand why he hadn’t just given the man the money. I still don’t. The guy wanted orange-flavored fruit drink? JFC, why couldn’t Biff have let him get an inexpensive treat that he enjoyed? Why couldn’t Biff have shown respect to the man’s greater maturity and dignity by letting him handle that tiny bit of money however he thought best? At the time, though, I didn’t know exactly why I felt so uncomfortable with it all.
Now I know a little better why it made me so uncomfortable–and that I was totally right to feel that way.
Meeting People Where They Really Are.
Christians often talk about meeting people where they are, to the point where the phrase is all but a Bible verse in their minds, one that they rarely bother even to define or explain. They all reflexively know by now that it’s super-important to “meet people where they are,” even if they have no idea what that phrase functionally looks like in action–or, for that matter, if it’s actually even effective in evangelism! Charity is seen as part of “meeting people where they are,” and Christians do so enjoy a rousing game of figuring out exactly how to “meet people where they are” through charity without (clutch those pearls, now!) condoning sin or granting other people too much dignity and autonomy.
But Christians’ inability to offer meaningful help to others is the most glaring demonstration possible of how they are missing their own target. Little wonder their writings and sermons often seem like they have little to do with the real world, and why the huge engine of Christian charity seems to have had so little impact on the world as a whole over the span of the religion’s history. Christians regard themselves as incredibly giving, kind people, and many of them are–but their gauzy, rose-tinted vision of a utopia where charity from Christians covered everyone who needed it never existed, and never could. Christians themselves have seen to that. Nor are they as generous as a group as they like to imagine themselves as being.
We’re seeing something similar going on with Catholics’ recent beatification of Mother Theresa, who in reality did not help India or her adopted city Kolkata much at all despite her famous faux-charity efforts. Many Christians revere her and look up to her, but her group largely exists–much like the club in God’s Club does–to feed Christians’ flattering self-image as charitable and compassionate people.
So when I look at the Bible Club in God’s Club, I see yet another misfire of misplaced Christian charity: unasked-for, unwelcome, unnecessary, and possibly bringing more harm than good to the people it’s supposed to serve. Then again, a movie where the Christian protagonist asks what the parents in his town need and then gives them that wouldn’t have given fundagelicals that little delicious burst of martyrbation they love so much or let them cluck at each other about how ungrateful and meeeeeeeeeeean non-Christians are to them.
And really, gang, where would be the fun for Christians in watching that kind of movie?
We’re going to talk next week about escaping the Christian bubble–see you then!