Sunday, November 8, 2015

jewel-in-my-crown christians

You've probably seen that article (and its gazillion clickbait permutations) making the rounds on Facebook about how kids who are raised with religion are less generous and altruistic than kids raised without religion. Admittedly, the methodology of the study is a little weird, but for many of my peers, our response has been, "well, duh." We lived in the Christian bubble and, unless guilt-tithing once a year, a super amazing trip to Africa that totally changed your profile picture, and constantly insisting that you'd DEFINITELY give money to charity if it weren't for the darn government taxing it all away counts as generosity or altruism, most of our acquaintances failed. When my friend Lian, whom I've known since our tweenage days of church youth group, posted the article and I commented with my lack of surprise, she replied, "Jewels in my crown motivated." I'll come back to this. It's important.

For the record, this was my profile picture w/ African children. #guilty

To back up a little, in case you don't already know, I went to a small, Christian university in Southern California. I formed many a profound relationship there that I treasure to this day, which is about the only reason I don't wish I'd never stepped foot on that campus. For a little over $100,000, you can spend four years being dragged before a disciplinary board whose goal is to "break you down," (yes, that's how they would put it) until you cry for infractions such as having someone of the opposite sex in your room after hours (even if it was your dad), burning candles, not keeping your room clean enough, and a whole heap of other things for which a simple, "Hey, don't do that or we'll fine you next time" would more than suffice. The breaking was the goal. They liked to say that what was really happening when someone came in for a minor infraction and left an absolute shambles, was that they'd managed to show the person their rebellious heart. They didn't just burn a candle because they liked the way it smelled. They burned a candle because Satan had hardened them toward the authority God had set before them on earth, and this was just one way in which that rebellion was manifesting itself. It was lucky they caught it before it became sex or dancing or something.

That was all bullshit, of course. And I don't just mean the obvious fact that small infractions every college student commits clearly are not the work of the devil. What was bullshit was that they even pretended to think that was the case. As they'd tell us in Resident Assistant class, with self-satisfied smirks, about the latest sinner they'd driven to repentance for playing their music too loud after quiet hours, it was clear to any of us with enough insight into human nature to recognize patterns of abuse that this was about power. They broke students because they could. And they silenced our concerns about it by appealing to our fear of standing up to godly authority on someone else's behalf, lest our souls be the ones tarnished.

At an RA retreat one January, the head of residence life berated me in front of the entire residence staff. More than fifty people watched as he screamed at me, telling me that I, personally, was the only reason that anyone had any problems with the way things were run around the school. I was a pot stirrer. I was a dissenter who was causing disunity -- which, in Christian circles, is essentially the modern equivalent of calling someone a witch. Causing disunity amongst the body of Christ is basically a burn-at-the-stake offense. My infraction, by the way, had been pointing out that several of my colleagues had made suggestions to him after he'd asked specifically for suggestions, and that he'd dismissed them all without considering them further. It may sound like I'm downplaying my role in this, but anyone who was there can vouch for me. More than fifty people. More than fifty people who sat in stunned silence as my boss screamed, turning bright red and occasionally letting globs of spit fly in my face. When he finished, I simply replied, "I'm sorry you feel that way," and remained where I sat. I'll never forget the look on his face when he realized he hadn't broken me. He hadn't had the power to make me react, to make me get up and scream back at him so that he could point at me and go, "SEE!!! SEE HOW HARDENED HER SPIRIT IS! GET HER OUT!" He wanted me to show that I should be fired for questioning him, but it didn't work. He had no recourse but to go back to the meeting and pretend nothing had just transpired, even though it was the only thing on anyone's minds. At the end of the meeting, he asked if we could talk. I told him, "No. Not right now." I walked away.

For the rest of that weekend, people who were there apologized to me for not saying anything. For not getting in between a 6'2" authority figure and his 5'4" college student employee as he towered over me and spat his unwarranted venom. Everyone knew he was wrong, but they were too scared to say anything about it. Or they knew his reaction was wrong, but they did feel that I probably deserved it because I questioned too much and was a problem in general. And here's the kicker: They apologized to me, but they never said a word to him. [edit: A friend just pointed out that one person did, in fact, talk to him about it later and insist he apologize. I didn't know this.] They never challenged him. A few did on various other things, but they regretted it. Anyone who challenged him was made to regret it. Because that's not how these kinds of Christian communities work. Authority is to be unquestioned, and if you question it, no matter how grotesque a form it is taking, you have a rebellious spirit that needs to be either disciplined or removed. See: Mark Driscoll's Mars Hill house of horrors.

The funny thing is, after I stared down my abusive boss and told him I was sorry he felt that I was such a demon spawn, he spent the rest of the year trying to act like we were best friends. He would sit next to me at lunch or during RA class and make jokes. I had never had a conversation with him before the day he screamed at me. Not one. We knew each other's names and maybe said "hi" in passing, but we had never actually talked to one another. Now, all of a sudden, we were TOTALLY buddies? Right? Because buddies don't like, go to HR and stuff, right? Christians who are willing to take the personal consequence for standing up for others are a real problem for authorities who rely on compliance.

Christians LOVE to read about martyrs in other countries. It's a straight up fetish. People get so excited to read the gory details of what happens to people who dare to be Christian in hostile environments (which is actually a very real and terrible thing, btw). And then they also like to pretend that we have martyrs in ours: People who have to bake cakes for gay couples, multi-million dollar corporations that have to provide healthcare to their underpaid workers, folks who have to put up with being told "happy holidays" instead of "merry Christmas," a guy who was fired for posting racial slurs about his students or someone he arrested or a member of his congregation or whatever the case may be. They write petitions and boycott businesses and store up jewels in their crown in heaven for making the Lord famous, no matter how much that's synonymous with making the Lord hated. We are very concerned with standing up for other people... as long as they're just like us.

Meanwhile, we have schools like mine, where a twenty-two year old can be torn to shreds by someone who's supposed to be an example of Christ, and no one says anything. Where another girl dares to call out bad behavior on behalf of her superiors and is called into a secret meeting where she is intimidated and has to swear never to speak of it again -- even though there were other witnesses -- and no one says anything. And where faculty members who question the administration are ganged up on and pushed out as troublemakers, while no one says anything. I'm not calling any of us martyrs, and I'm not calling my school unique. This is sadly normal for many Christian organizations. That's why just about anyone who's spent a good chunk of their life in the flock has at some point rolled their eyes and said, "Ugh, church politics."

But it's not because this is how the Bible says church should be run. There's no part in there where Jesus is like, "And the tallest and whitest of you should definitely be the most powerful, and everyone who doesn't listen to you is DEFINITELY a pain in the ass who needs to be tormented until they give in or get kicked out." We have a selfish Christianity here. We have a Christianity that says, well, I would do the right thing but.... We have a Christianity that is also a political party; a Christianity that does a lot of good in terms of serving the poor, but doesn't speak up when "Christians" insist that the government shouldn't be involved and therefore relegate people to even worse poverty; we have a Christianity that is individualistic, and is openly hostile to collectivism in nearly any form beyond the church potluck; we have a Christianity that's OBSESSED with what's fair, that says "no matter how much I have, I earned it, and if someone else needs it, they'd better earn it themselves." We have a Christianity that insists people prove they deserve our help. They have to prove they don't drink or do drugs, that they don't have modern conveniences like iPhones or microwaves, that they were born in the right country and have the right papers, and the list goes on. We would do the right thing but it costs us something -- money, discomfort, ostracization, our jobs, our friends -- and that's not fair. 

Altruism is the opposite of fairness. It means potentially not getting what you deserve because your concern for someone else outweighs your need for everything to be fair. Altruism can help to level an unbalanced playing field, so that we're all playing a fair game -- or at least playing the same game -- but it's not about making sure no one has as much as you who doesn't deserve it. As Louis CK, put it, "The only time you look in your neighbor's bowl is to make sure that they have enough. You don't look in your neighbor's bowl to make sure you have as much as them."

I'm not even slightly surprised to find that Christian kids don't show a particular knack for putting others before themselves. The times that I saw it happen, usually there was a pretty sweet reward in it for them. They couldn't do good with their right hand and not let the left hand (and the entire church) see. They'd be patted on the back for it, brought up in front of the church and praised for it, get to sing in the mega-church's worship band. Whatever. Oh, and they'd get to go to heaven. Many people I went to school with would argue that you can't be "good without God," as the saying goes. People only have a sense of morality if it is imparted upon them through their belief in God, and their desire to do God's will. If that's what motivates you to do good things and otherwise you'd be an asshole, then I'm REALLY glad you believe in God. It's silly to discount all the wonderful things people do, think, feel, create, etc. without a belief in God, though. Thus, we come back to the "jewel in my crown" motivation. Shirking earthly reward for the idea that one's reward is in heaven is not, in itself, altruistic. It says, I'm doing this thing now because I believe that something awesome awaits me when I die. There is absolutely nothing wrong with believing that. The problem comes in being motivated by that.

If I'm standing in line behind someone who can't afford to pay for their groceries, my first thought isn't, "What would Jesus do?" It's "What can I do?" It's nice to think that after I toss that person a fiver God's like, "Yoooo, well done my good and faithful servant," but that heavenly fist bump doesn't motivate me in the slightest. If I see someone publicly humiliating their child or their employee or a waiter, I don't think, "That's terrible. I'll pray for them." I think, "Someone's gotta stop this abuse. Nobody? Okay, me, then."

I went to school with kids who were petrified of doing what was right for fear of repercussion, and who were paralyzed by a need for everything to be fair. The greatest motivation for doing good was to gain God brownie points. And that's not to say that I don't know amazing people from that school. Like I said, the relationships I gained there are what I value most. But it's also worth noting that those with whom I am now closest have since shed that obsession with what's fair and embraced the altruistic. When people act selflessly toward others without concern for reward or repercussion, in life or the afterlife, they turn out to be great people. That's not exclusive to any type of person, religious or otherwise. But a lot of religious households could probably stand to benefit from a little less focus on jewels in their crowns and a little more focus on the humans they're using to earn them.

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