We tend to talk a lot about religion specifically here–obviously, since this is, well, a blog on a religious site. (Also about animals, but since this is the internet I don’t expect anybody to object.) But the criticism I have about religion really deals with the broken system that undergirds it: that marrow-deep dysfunction that pushes people to create a broken system, to join it, to celebrate it, to perpetuate it, and ultimately to protect it from all potential criticism or dismantling. Though Christianity is one of the best examples of a broken system that we could possibly encounter in our society, there are certainly others. Today I’ll show you what I mean by illuminating one of the biggest miseries to come out of broken systems: the false illusion of safety that they offer to both adherents and those who encounter their adherents.
The Illusion of Safety.
Nobody joins a broken system thinking to themselves, Hooray! I’m going to be in this group that’s going to make my life a living hell, strip me of my rights, marginalize me, hurt me in every single way possible, and possibly kill me!
Rather, they join the system because they think that its rules and its leaders and adherents will keep them safe from whatever dangers they perceive in their lives. (And then they have children that have no choice at all about joining it because they are simply born into it, with no say at all about joining or not joining.)
Once indoctrinated into the broken system by either conversion or upbringing, adherents become convinced that leaving the group devoted to that system will bring them harm in some tangible way. And oh, their fellow adherents will ensure that there is indeed something to fear.
I’ve personally heard of countless Christians (and even ex-Christians) who were terrified about not tithing because their leaders have convinced them that people who don’t tithe enough will be punished brutally somehow. But there are other examples I could point to. The broken system of misogyny that undergirds our civilization assumes that women who step outside of the boundaries set by that system’s adherents are going to face violence and rape for their refusal to comply. The broken system of poverty is what may indeed have led to the murder of a onetime homeless woman who’d finally turned her life around (and made the mistake of talking about that turnaround on social media). Black parents must teach their children a litany of rules that white children don’t even need to know about in order to have any hope of seeing their kids get home alive every night. Quite a lot of people have no problem with the idea of prison rape for men who break the rules of American society. And even the “nicest,” most fervent Christians have even less trouble with the idea of threatening grievous harm and misfortune upon non-Christians, either in the posthumous future or this present lifetime.
The notion that transgressors deserve any kind of harm they receive for leaving the system is built into any broken system.
And the quiet, implicit understanding that that harm will generally come to transgressors from the hands of adherents who are loyal and faithful to the broken system, adherents whose violence and wrongdoing will be seen as justified by the rest of the adherents there?
That’s left unspoken, but it doesn’t need to be said, really. If anybody doubts that notion or wonders about just what kind of harm will befall them, all they must do is break the rules of the broken system and step outside the boundaries its leaders have marked, or even behold those who have already taken those steps, and they’ll find out soon enough where the real danger is and what form it takes. The broken system’s adherents protect that system, and they are quite direct about it.
The Savage Dance of Rules.
One way that we can know we’re seeing a broken system in action is that its rules for potential victims are varied and nonsensical in their restriction–and yet its predators roam unabated and unrestricted, unfettered and ultimately unstopped.
Think for a moment about the numerous rules women face in our own culture that are supposed to protect us from rape: Don’t go out alone at night. Carry mace. Don’t wear that outfit. Ask your friends to call during dates in case the guy is a creep. Consider gun ownership. Buy a dog. Lock your doors. Don’t jog through there. Be nice. Learn self-defense but also know when to just run for it.
It’s a dizzying array of rules. And yet women are raped, whether they follow those rules or not. Constantly. By strangers and by those they trust. In 1997, a study of the non-institutionalized, non-military population found that very nearly all the victims of reported rapes were women–but we also know that rape is seriously underreported. And only about half of forcible rape reports ended with an arrest, with 2/3 of those arrests leading to a guilty conviction and prison time for the offender (and when released from their prison sentences, rapists were more likely than other imprisoned men to leave prison and then get arrested again for another rape–so the brutal conditions in many American prisons don’t appear to change or fix what’s wrong with incarcerated rapists). There doesn’t seem to be a way to stop them.
It doesn’t seem to matter how harsh prison is; certain kinds of men still feel license to rape women. If anything, they’re only angry at women when they’re handed prison sentences.
What does seem to deter rapists is a societal disapproval of violating consent. Initial reports from Canada’s “Don’t Be That Guy” ad campaign indicate great success–dropping Vancouver’s rape rate by about 10%, which The Globe and Mail says is “the first time in several years it had gone down” after years of it rising precipitously even compared to other crimes. Other cities across Canada are reporting similar success.
Instead of imposing tons of rules on the victims of sexual assault, the ad campaign demands that their potential rapists take responsibility for their own actions. It also rips away the veil of societal approval for their “punishment” of women who stray outside the traditional bounds of men’s approval. That veil of approval is what rapists count on to excuse their actions. By telling men that it is flat-out wrong to have sex with women who cannot and don’t consent to sex with them, these ad campaigns–and the growing number of men who are not afraid to call out “rape jokes” and the like when they see them–rapists get told that it’s not rules that matter; it’s consent.
The ball’s trajectory is up to the server, not the wall it hits. And once the servers realize that, that their peers won’t let them delude themselves into thinking anything different about the reality of their abuse, they start settling into line.
I could go on and on about this part–about Christians who don’t tip because they think that servers are violating their god’s will regarding working on Sundays, about employers who withhold vital medical care from underpaid employees because they think their god will throw a tantrum if someone uses birth control, about Christians who think it’s okay to tell people that they will be raped in Hell if they don’t convert–but hopefully you get the point. The people doing it think that it’s okay because the people they are hurting and punishing stand well outside what they imagine are the boundaries for behavior and belief set by their tribe. Nobody’s there to tell them that nobody’s fooled by their attempt to shift blame onto their victims.
Don’t Be That Christian.
I wonder what that “Don’t Be That Guy” ad campaign would look like if someone were talking to Christians?
To a very small extent I got an answer to that question once, when I saw a blog post by a Christian pleading for his fellow Christians not to be “that Christian.” There are a lot of quibbles one could make with his Bingo-conforming post, starting with his assertion that “one of the best-kept secrets of Christians is that we are actually not that good at following Jesus,” which I’d say is in no way at all a secret, much less a best-kept one, but the sentiment is there.
As you already know, though, in the two years since it was written absolutely nothing has changed in the religion. But then, one could say that about any number of would-be reformers’ efforts.
The first and smaller problem is that these few pleas–and they are very few indeed when one considers the number of Christians in our culture and the how serious the problem is–are written by Christians who think they’re trying to do better, and they are written for Christians who are already on-board with their ideas. The Christians who desperately need to hear this stuff won’t hear it. They already think they have their culture’s approval for behaving the way they do. (They might even fear becoming abused themselves if they are seen as overly sympathetic to the people their tribe likes to abuse.)
The other and far greater problem is that even the Christians who are writing these few pleas are trapped solidly within their broken system and are trying to put an end to an outgrowth of the system’s brokenness–which isn’t possible until the system itself is changed or renounced. It’s not rare at all to see a bigot-for-Jesus pleading with his fellow bigots-for-Jesus to maybe not mistreat gay people so much, while maintaining the separate but equal system that produces that mistreatment as a natural byproduct. Nor was it hard in my own time as a Pentecostal to see misogynists pleading with their fellow misogynists to maybe treat their wives like people sometimes to avoid the fights and blistering resentment that seemed inevitably to build up in all of their marriages, while studiously ignoring the fact that their complementarian philosophy itself is what created both in ready supply.
Abusers get told, “Follow the system, just maybe try a little not to show the natural byproducts of following the system.” And even that proves impossible–thanks to the system itself.
It shouldn’t be hard for people following a good social system to automatically treat people better, and for crimes against people and mistreatment to be such aberrations that they are automatically called out so swiftly that perpetrators are under no illusions about the level of support they receive for what they do. Some cultures and countries have managed it (such as Japan, Canada, Finland, and Germany, which you might recall as being such great religious strongholds chock-full of TRUE CHRISTIANS™). Others struggle mightily.
And indeed, that’s what finally happens even to Christians when the greater society around them starts showing genuine disapproval for their various misdeeds and (more importantly) firmly holding them accountable for flagrantly flouting the standards of decency they themselves claim to hold dear.
Ripping the Rug Out From Under Those Who’d Mistreat Others.
In one dramatic example, researchers began to notice that the incidence of suicide attempts in young people decreased after marriage equality laws passed in their areas. The suicide rates in all teens dropped slightly after the laws’ passage–about 0.6%, translating to 134,000 fewer teens attempting it, but in LGBTQ teens, the rate dropped 4%. Simply having that umbrella of rights extended to them led to fewer attempts in LGBTQ teens.
All those anti-bullying campaigns seem to have done next to nothing to prevent teens’ suicide attempts. One study even discovered that kids who’d attended schools that had deployed (expensive, time-consuming) anti-bullying campaigns were more likely to report that they had experienced bullying than kids who hadn’t attended such schools.
But laws demonstrating that everyone has rights–and therefore, worth and value–produce consistent results. I’ve seen similar results around hate crimes against people of color (POC) after anti-segregation laws passed, particularly around those hate crimes committed regarding mixed-race marriages. Such laws tend to move much more quickly than Christians’ prejudices ever wane on their own.
It’s not hard to see that all the rules that abuse victims get taught to follow don’t matter. Telling abusers (as schools’ anti-bullying programs try to do) that their behavior isn’t acceptable doesn’t matter either, since they know perfectly well that their real source of permission and validation isn’t telling them to stop. There’s no deterrent at all for them; they’re playing to–and receiving–the rewards they seek.
Instead, what matters is that victimizers get shown in no uncertain terms that the people they’re abusing have rights and value, and that harming them will bring very direct and certain repercussions upon the heads of their victimizers–and most importantly that those repercussions will be ones that they themselves feel matter.
In similar fashion, the Christians who abuse others get their permission slip to behave that way not from the few less toxic Christians who are busy issuing all these urgent pleas for reform, nor from the Bible, but from the various authorities–both social and legal–that they have set up in their heads as their real commanders. Unless the dictate to stop doing it comes from those authorities–or one that transcends them–the behavior will not stop or slow down even one bit.
Certainly, none of us can count on “Jesus” to change anybody in Christian culture to make them better people.
Indeed, there’s nothing supernatural going on in Christian cultures. They’re just following the Principles of Power that govern broken systems, and those principles–and the systems they govern–are perfectly understandable as natural sociological phenomena.
The False Assurance of Safety.
Compliance doesn’t matter.
Obedience doesn’t matter.
That’s the point, in a broken system.
The pain comes to those who do not obey and comply, yes, but it also comes to those who are trying their very best to do both.
Further, it often skips those who disobey and refuse to comply if they happen to belong to groups or families that the broken system considers above reproach, like a respected pastor or a very wealthy church member. Or a police chief. Or the President.
Remember the Principles of Power? Those who have no power in a broken system will seek to gain it because they know that becoming powerful is the only way at all to escape abuse. Gaining power, not following rules, is how someone escapes abuse in such cultures.
So it doesn’t matter to Christian abusers even if their victims join their religion to make the pain stop. The abuse is what they want to inflict; they don’t particularly care who they inflict it upon, as long as they feel they have permission to do it. Should their victim at the moment actually fall into line, the goalposts shift slightly and then the abuse continues anew because there is always someone that Christian abusers have permission to hurt. The only way to escape that abuse is to become an authority in their culture. And if someone manages that, they will join a system that protects abusers at the expense of the abused, and when the abused cry out only gives them more and more rules they must follow to perhaps avoid abuse.
Unless, of course, the system itself gets renounced and thrown to the trash heap where it belongs, while the number of adherents in the system starts to seriously shrink to the point where the system enjoys less and less dominance over its local areas–and thus, its adherents’ power to harm others shrinks. Or the leaders who call the shots in that system issue start calling for genuine reform, I suppose, but that’s so rare I can’t even think of a time when it’s happened in Christianity. What those leaders often do instead, when they realize that their onetime victims are escaping and that their influence is seriously waning, is to encourage their followers to become more and more belligerent and abusive. That’s why you see these constant calls from Christian leaders lately advising their followers to figure out ways to become even more obnoxious to others (a typical entreaty: “we must stand against persecution!” when persecution is the last thing happening to Christians). Abusing people worked in the past, so surely doing more of it should work now when the need is so much more dire, right?
And it’s up to the rest of us to show them that no, that’s totally wrong, and that we are on to their reindeer game.
On this glorious Independence Day, we celebrate not only our independence from foreign masters but also our independence from the domestic masters who ache to reclaim us. We proclaim our continued independence from them all. Resistance to tyranny is our right and our heritage, and if we can but stand strong then we will prevail over the tyrants who would dearly love to get us back under their rule.