Are We Saved or Traumatized by American Christianity?

 

 

When I was seven years old, I prayed the “sinner’s prayer,” asking Jesus to “come into my heart” to save me from sin and death. If you grew up in a conservative Christian household, maybe you did the same. From that point on, my spiritual life was shaped by this duality: saved or not saved, bound for heaven or bound for hell.

It affected every relationship I had, because it affected me at the core of who I am.

In bible studies and at youth events, I grew up learning about how to best share our “personal testimony,” that story of how we came to be saved, how we were transformed from sinners to people who look more and more like Jesus every day.

The problem was that the Jesus we were being trained to look like doesn't look anything like the actual Jesus-- we were being trained as cogs in the machine of Christian empire.

Every time I was asked about my testimony, I would chase my memories back to my seven year old self, trying to find some fault in her. I wondered if, in that moment she prayed that prayer, she had some transformation, that a veil was lifted, that she saw everything around her more clearly. Surely, there were some awful underlying sins that she was hiding. Surely, she was a heathen before she prayed that prayer. Maybe she was extra selfish, and that was her downfall. Maybe she wasn’t grateful enough and needed the promise of heaven to fix it.

Maybe, though, she was just a kid, sacredly created and wholly loved by Mystery.

As an adult, thanks to therapy and other safe spaces created with friends and family, I can revisit myself as a child. I can ask her questions, scan the recesses of her mind and imagination and see where she saw beauty and where she felt pain. As an adult, I can ask myself what my own trauma and anxiety stems from so that I can walk, write, sing, cry, run, or sometimes crawl my way through healing.

It is enduringly hard work, but if we are to dismantle some of the dangers associated with the colonizing evangelical Christianity we’ve inherited, we’ve got to look our trauma in the eye and hold the institutions accountable that caused that trauma.

Am I saying that every church member, youth pastor, and evangelical is a monster?

No.

I am saying that collectively we’ve done monstrous things, and we need to pay attention to the damage done in spaces where we promised someone salvation from themselves based on a one-time prayer and snap of the fingers.

 

Maybe we need to go back and ask our child-selves some questions.

Maybe we need to give them some room to ask us questions.

 

Today, the stories of Jesus tell me of a man, a human, who used spit and dirt to heal. He escaped to countrysides and water to remember his connection to the land. He told empire to back the hell off, and he held the oppressed and the young close to his own heart without shaming them into submission.

I grew up hearing that we are to be in the world, but not of the world.

But today, all I want is to hold space in this world with my relatives, human and non-human alike.

As Robin Wall Kimmerer says in her book Braiding Sweetgrass, “We spill over into the world and the world spills over into us.” 

If anything, the church has lost its ability to find its place in the midst of sacred creation. The church has been power hungry for too long, and has forgotten its need to stay humble and gentle, to learn from the world and the creatures in it, and to learn from the least of these when it has lost its way. We lost our way when prayer became a weapon that we wielded toward others we thought needed saving.

Do we need to be saved from anything? Probably. We see the way that systems of hate and white supremacy have permeated the earth and destroyed people. We’ve seen how dangerous the ideas of in vs out, black vs white, us vs them can be. Maybe we need to save ourselves and each other from that wreckage. But we have to ask ourselves better questions and hold space for better answers.

Little Kaitlin? She saw something holy in the world around her, an awe and wonder that was slowly replaced with fear and shame.

We must do better by future generations inheriting a belovedly created and wholly loved world, and their wholly beautiful place in it.

We must be willing to lead them, and to stop and let them lead us. In order to be good ancestors, we begin with soft yet fierce love today.

We must do better by future generations inheriting a belovedly created and wholly loved world, and their wholly beautiful place in it.

 

IT’S OKAY TO DECONSTRUCT YOUR AMERICAN FAITH

In college, I took a world literature class. We spent some time with famous stories from all over the world, including the literature of the Old Testament. Being a born and raised Christian, I thought that when we’d gotten to that section, I’d be able to share my wisdom, have a bible study right then and there with a classroom full of people.

Instead, when we got to the story of Abraham and Isaac, those who sat around me said things like, “This story is ridiculous! Why would God tell someone to kill their own son and then change his mind? Why do people believe this is a real story?”

I went home that day terrified, eyes open to the reality that the whole world doesn’t view the Bible as this all-righteous book of literal truth I’d been taught to view it as. I was terrified for the people in the room who believed God was different than my own beliefs. Suddenly the world was torn in two, and I was asking who was right and wrong. Because we couldn’t all be.

The problem was, I’d never questioned anything until college. I questioned myself a lot, mostly questions revolving around whether or not I was doing the right thing, if I was considered righteous enough in the eyes of God. My questions were ticks on a list to keep me from going out of line, to keep me in good standing with a God that I was terrified might leave me if I didn’t. It was based on answering the right questions to keep my guilt and shame at bay.

But this is not the way of Christ.

Suddenly, in my third year of college, I wondered if there were some other questions I needed to be asking. Suddenly, the world was older than I thought it was, and I found myself more ignorant than my non-religious fellow students, more aware of my lack of understanding.

It was clearly time to deconstruct, and I didn’t know if I was ready.

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Fast forward six years. I’m walking a famous Southern cemetery in Atlanta with my two sons. We pass trees with acorns still intact, workers picking up the nuts that have fallen to the ground. They are working to care for the graves of Jews, African Americans, and confederate soldiers. My little boys don’t understand war, and neither do I, to be honest, especially when the nation is on fire with fresh-wound arguments that have been aching to come to the surface and finally have again.

This time, deconstructing faith means deconstructing everything, because in America, faith is mixed with empire, whether we want to admit or not.

As humans, we are called to deconstruct. We are called to question and break apart to put back together again. As Christians, we believe it was the way Jesus worked and for too long, we’ve shamed people for following in his footsteps.

It’s gotten people of color, people who are different, people who are “rebellious” kicked out of churches again and again because their questions bring up discomfort and challenge the almightiness of the white evangelical church.

But Jesus was about deconstruction, about re-wiring belief to understand God in new ways, because we will never fully understand the mystery, and so the questions are the important part.

 

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War is a complicated thing.

War takes people and divides them. It takes belief and elevates it to the point that it is a tool used to hurt and kill.

War tears families and friends apart.

War creates chaos to the point that it’s hard to tell who is who and what motives exist on every side.

War is difficult to deconstruct.

But it’s possible. And so, here we are.

If you grew up in the evangelical church, maybe you’re asking yourself what it meant to be a Christian all those years. I know I am.

And as a native Christian, I’m asking what it means today for me to deconstruct and decolonize my faith enough that I can see clearly the trajectory of Jesus’ love from the words of the Bible to my own culture and people.

But institutional church is a complicated thing.

Church takes people and divides them. It takes belief and elevates it to the point that it is a tool used to hurt and kill.

Church tears families and friends apart.

Church creates chaos to the point that it’s hard to tell who is who and what motives exist on every side.

Church is difficult to deconstruct.

But if we do not try, we do not get closer to the gospel. If we do not try, we only sit in what we’ve been told all these years. We only continue the cycle of Christians who go into world literature classes clutching their Bibles so close to the chest the they miss the beauty of a world in which the Bible can be viewed as an important work of art, a tool of metaphor and history that teaches us what humanity means.

It’s to teach us how to navigate a world full of war, not to create it.

And so, we continue to deconstruct.

We’ve got to ask questions if we want to get America and its people back to a healthier place again, because it never should have mixed church and empire to begin with.

And the deconstruction process means churches will hurt. It will stretch everyone. It will be very, very uncomfortable.

It requires lament and repentance. It requires honesty, and probably a whole lot of therapy.

I’m meeting more and more people who are in a kind of post-church PTSD, and many people of color who have been sitting in that tension their whole lives. Even admitting that it’s hard brings a certain level of shame and criticism. We pile shame on ourselves, and the American Evangelical way piles shame on us for trying to ask hard questions.

So to deconstruct things, to turn something upside down so it looks different, to pick apart pieces and try to put them back together again a little differently–well, that’s the work of Jesus over and over again.

So it should be our work, too.

To get to the questions, we have to know that there is no shame in wanting to ask.

And the asking means we ask everyone, all kinds of people, so that the full mosaic of the kingdom of God can be understood in our time and in our spaces.

Maybe if we start with the want, we’ll get to the actual asking, and there will be hope for our country, our faith, our relationships– for shalom to do its work in and through us.

The only way to reconstruct things toward a closer image of kingdom is to deconstruct what once distorted the gospel of Jesus. That’s where we go from here.

Hallelujah and Amen for the Work of Deconstruction.