Happy Thanksmas

Thanksgiving-Christmas

Happy Thanksmas

Don’t worry. This will be quick. I know how little time there is this time of year. There is so little time, we do not even have time to fully say the names of the holidays we are rushing to celebrate. In the time it takes for us to say, Thanksgiving, we could have bought two Christmas presents.

Don’t get me wrong. We love Thanksgiving. It gives us a couple of hours to show all of our family and friends just how much we have to be thankful for. But this year, for many retailers, Black Friday is starting Thursday. That means that immediately after Thanksgiving dinner, make it lunch, we’ve got to clear the table, and the guests, so that we can head on over to the nearest pusher of holiday cheer, and start stocking up on the things for which we will be thankful next year.

Black Friday puts the lie to our pretense of being thankful for anything. We have so successfully decoupled thankfulness from contentment, that we do not even see the irony, or shame in rushing out the very next day to max out our credit cards to acquire yet more things that we simply do not need.

Let me put it in terms we can more easily understand: imagine you have just given a child the expensive gift she has been begging for all year. Immediately upon opening it, she begins begging for the newer one. You might be a bit miffed that she was not a bit more thankful for what she had. We are that child, surrounded by all the things for which we are thankful on Thursday, only to be chasing the sequel on Friday. Now that Thanksgiving is even shorter, why not just shorten the name to something that makes more sense. Happy Thanksmas!

David Johnson

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The old, old story: Part Three

abuse parent yelling at child

Emotional abuse is a clinical term, and I am not a clinician. But abuse has been around a lot longer than the psychiatric arts. You do not have to be a doctor to know abuse when you see it. You just have to have the courage of your convictions to call it out. The old, old story is a tool for perpetuating emotional abuse. It should never go unchallenged.

Before we can address the abuse, we first, have to recognize it. This can be difficult because abuse is seldom seen with an evil grin, twirling its mustache. On the surface, abuse looks innocent, even good. Violent abuse of children is often disguised as firm discipline, hard love. Spare the rod, spoil the child. An abuser breaks many a rod over the back and shoulders of would-be, spoiled children. “Not on my watch!” says the abuser as he takes another swing. The church says, “Amen!”

Sexual abuse often begins by breaking down the boundaries of personal space. Once the victim is denied the ownership of the space immediately surrounding their own body, it is a short step from there, to accepting unwanted, physical contact. Once intimate contact becomes the new normal, and sexual awareness awakened prematurely, sexual abuse may not even be recognized by the victim.

Emotional abuse is even more difficult to spot. There are no physical signs, nor encroachment into personal space. Though more subtile, the effects may be even more devastating, perhaps due to their subtlety. Religious abuse is one of the worst forms of emotional abuse because it is socially acceptable. Here are three aspects of religious abuse:

Guilt

Convincing a person that they are doing something wrong, when in fact, they are not, is a sure way of opening them up to manipulation. The greater the wrong they have supposedly done, the greater the debt they owe. The Christian story exploits this to the fullest. Part of a song sang by children proclaims:

He paid a debt he did not owe. I owed a debt I could not pay. I needed someone to wash my sins away. And now I sing a brand new song, “Amazing Grace”. Christ Jesus paid the debt that I could never pay.

Many a preacher has harped on the notion that, even if we were the only person on the planet, Jesus would still have had to die on the cross. We, personally, killed the perfect, innocent Jesus. People of conscience can’t help but respond to this message. Just imagine how much more compelling this message is to an impressionable child, especially those who are at the age where everything they do is wrong. “You killed baby Jesus! Now, it’s going to cost you!”

There is no such thing as sin. Religious people define sin as a transgression of God’s law. But there is no such law to transgress, and no such god to give it. It is impossible to be in transgression of a nonexistent law, of a nonexistent god. Yet, what percentage of the world’s seven billion inhabitants are convinced that they are sinners in need of a savior? Too many! The knowledge of my sinful condition was drilled into me as a small child. I was baptized at age 7. How could it be anything other than abuse?

Misinformation

“How many lights do you see?” asked the Cardassian interrogator. Tired, hungry, and suffering from the ongoing torture, Picard squinted upward to consider. “There are four lights!” Knowing the answer to be correct, the interrogator contradicted the prisoner, asking him to look closer. “No! You are mistaken! There are five lights!” No reference is needed for fans of Star Trek TNG.

At the end of this episode, we find Picard admitting to the counselor that not only was he ready to claim that there were five lights, he actually believed there were five lights. His sense of reality had been broken. Once a person’s sense of reality is broken, they are no longer able to navigate reality. This may be religion’s most powerful tool for abuse.

Once you convince a person that at least one, invisible, magic being is real, that person’s universe becomes filled with all manner of invisible, magical beings. At any moment, that person may bump into a guardian angel, or the Angel of Death. There are baby angels with wings, and angels disguised as hobos. Or, are those demons? There are as many kinds of demons as there are angels. The skies are filled with warring factions of invisible, super beings.

Teach a person physics all you like. Once that person is convinced that miracles happen, all scientific thinking goes out the window. Who needs Newton when prayer can change the course of human events? In this world of unreality, there are two kinds of people: the saved and the lost. How might it effect our treatment of others when we are convinced that the vast majority of them will burn in hell, a punishment they richly deserve for defying your god? Might that warped view of reality limit one’s possibilities? You bet it does!

If you convince a nation that they were chosen by the god of creation, and that other nations will be your subordinates, how might that effect the course of history? What happens if the Germans start thinking that the Jews are subhuman? What could possibly go wrong? This is what happens when one’s sense of reality is warped by another. Parents take their small children into compounds every Sunday, to have professionals warp the child’s sense of reality. Once this abuse is accomplished, every other kind of abuse springs fourth. Teach enough children that two and two is five, and you will never run out of low-level servants. Flood their minds with guilt and magical thinking, and you will always have suicide bombers. At the very least, you will always have contributors to the collection plate.

Forced immaturity

Who could forget the words, “I don’t want to grow up. I’m a Toys R Us kid…”? At least, in the jingle, the immaturity was voluntary. Religion halts the maturation process, keeping adherents from fully growing up. We are made to address God as our father. We are to think of ourselves as children of God. At no point does this relationship dynamic ever change.

The bible teaches that we should never say that we will do this or that. Rather if it be God’s will, we do this or that. That means that we can never just decide that it is in our best interest to do something. Instead, we must forever second-guess ourselves. We can never trust our own judgement lest we like sheep, go astray. We will always be babies, never allowed to grow up.

We must ask forgiveness for every little thing we do wrong. We have to tell our heavenly daddy how much we appreciate every single breath we take, and how glad we are that he chose not to kill us in our sleep last night. We have to thank him for every scrap of food we scarf down, give him the credit for everything we manage to accomplish, convinced we could accomplish nothing without his help. We can never be allowed to accomplish anything on our own.

We must always be subject to daddy’s punishments when we make him mad. With God, you are never too old to be turned over his knee. Of course, like a good, Southern daddy, he beats us for our own good. He never spares the rod. Sometimes we just have to be bludgeoned into submission. He will starve us, deliver us into the hands of our enemies, and kill us if that’s what it takes to save us. Just look at how he treated the children of Israel when they disappointed him. After Moses spoke to him on the mountain, God killed almost every last one of those filthy sinners, you know, for their own good. As your Heavenly Father, he’s not afraid of loving you into submission, as well.

Breaking free

Breaking free of abuse might well be the single most difficult thing you ever do in your life. Freedom comes at a price, and that type of freedom is particularly expensive. The cost of breaking free from religious abuse is the loss of community, friendships, and sometimes family. You will also probably lose your sense of purpose, and a sense of who you are and what life is all about. You will find yourself disoriented, unsure of how to navigate reality when magical thinking has been your constant companion. I did it. It is sometimes messy, and never easy. I offer a few keys that helped me unlock my chains:

Look around

All types of abuse depend on an insular environment that isolates you, in some way, from the outside world. In this way, the victim may never realize she is being abused. Even if she does, she may not know of any alternative to the situation she is in. Conservative religion works the same way. You are discouraged from visiting other denominations. You are encouraged to attend a university sponsored by your particular denomination. Likewise, marriage outside of your church is frowned upon. Like the ancient Jews, isolation is the key to maintaining religious purity.

You have to find the courage to look up and see what is going on in the world outside your religion. Preachers are always telling you how bad things are outside of the church, and many accept those pronouncements at face value. Don’t! Much to my amazement, I discovered that non-religious people also find true love, and keep it. Marriages last, children are born, societal promises are made and kept with no less fidelity as with the religious.

I found that non-religious people lead fulfilling and happy lives. Faith and hope are not required. They get through each day without uttering a single word of prayer. They spend holidays such as Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Easter with family and friends, enjoy all the same rituals, with the exception of God being absent from their festivities. This does not seem to dampen the experience. I have seen people curse God and not die. I have seen bad people prosper and good people suffer equally, with or without religion. I see graves greedily holding the remains of both the righteous and the unrighteous, alike, neither more likely to release their occupants.

Without much investigation, I found that the faithful suffer from as much depression and take as much Zoloft as the unfaithful. Their children are just as homosexual, just as addicted to drugs, just as likely to lie steel and cheat as the atheist child. I have seen no fewer instances of teen pregnancy inside the church as out. Suicide rates remain the highest in places where religion is the strongest. Look around, and you will find that life beyond religion is just as good, if not better than what you have come to know as the only life worth living.

Experiment

I’m not suggesting that you dive in on the basis of a theory. Rather, dip a toe in the water to see for yourself. There are many small, safe things you can try when testing the waters. One of my first tests was prayer. I was not testing to see if prayer would change things in my favor. I had a lifetime of data on that. Rather, I wanted to know if things would change for the worse if I was to stop praying. This was a lot harder for me to put into practice, as I was used to praying reflexively.

Once I turned off the prayer machine in my head, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that my life did not go straight to hell as I had imagined it might. Instead, I found no change in my life. Each day went pretty much as the last, more or less on schedule. I found that the little serendipities I once attributed to God’s providential answering of prayer, continued to happen long after I stopped praying. They still do. That told me that God was not answering my prayers. Rather, that sometimes, good things just happen to us. Sometimes bad things happen to us as well. Neither happens as a result of praying or not praying.

The same non-event took place when I stopped putting money into the collection plate and taking communion. My income did not grow smaller; it grew larger. No horrible plagues befell me when I stopped the cannibalistic pantomime of the Lord’s Supper. Small experiments are a big step in breaking the fear cycle.

Grow up

This is not intended to be harsh, but freeing. Victims are kept in a childlike state by their abusers. I am simply encouraging you to grasp what is yours: the right to grow up to a state of maturity. Religion loses all hold on you once you stop believing in magic. Stop seeking magical answers, and you will cease to be swayed by peddlers of religion. You can only be taken in by the bible when you desire all the answers to life’s problems, and expect those answers to come from a magic book. Only in the context of religion can a magic book with all of life’s answers be taken seriously.

The same is true for all of the magic frameworks of religion. Invisible friends who have the power to keep us safe, and make all things work out to our good as long as we love him, are the imaginative ramblings of a 5 year-old. Call it religion, and you’ve got prayer. Childishly, we want all our bruises to be fixed by the power of magical thinking. But neither broken bones, bacteria, viruses, blindness, nor cancer responds to magic words. Outside of religion, this is obvious. Outside of religion, it is patently obvious that the emperor has no clothes.

Conclusion

The old, old story is a trap. It should never be told to impressionable children, or emotionally vulnerable adults. It is a little like recreational drugs: You find it was a lot easier to start than quit. You start depending on it for things it has no power to do. So much so, you forget how to depend on yourself to make it through a typical day. Like a payday loan, it’s a trap that places you into a debt that you can never pay. Give it a wide birth, and be the author of your own story.

David Johnson

The old, old story: Part Two

6166387-portrait-of-angry-priest-and-nun-in-black

In part one, I summarized the story in a single paragraph. Here’s the recap:

In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth, and humans, and everything else, and it was all perfect. Then, one day, the humans messed it all up. They did such a bad thing that God was forced to make them die, and ultimately, burn in hell. This made God very sad. So he devoted the rest of his life to rescuing the humans from their plight, and restoring the perfect relationship he had with them. To accomplish this, God had to make the ultimate sacrifice, which involved killing his perfect son so that we wouldn’t have to die or burn in hell. This, in turn, makes us so happy, we want to devote the rest of our lives to doing all of the things he likes, and none of the things he doesn’t. Eventually, we will all live happily ever after.

This story is embarrassingly weak, and should hold no sway over any, thinking person. However, as already pointed out in the previous post, this story is not for thinking people, but for emotionally vulnerable people.

If, however, you find yourself in a place where you can think through the story, the lynchpin is, in fact, the weakest part of the story. The whole thing depends on a literal interpretation of the fall. There can be no good news without the bad news. The story of rescue is meaningless if we were never in any danger. We must be convinced that we are on the outs, and that our situation is both dire, and unrecoverable, at least, not by us, or anyone like us.

The failure of the fall

Evolution tells us, however, that we did not fall down from heaven, but climbed up from the earth. The bible has evolution going the wrong way. People have never lived upwards of 500 years. Animals did not lose the ability to speak like humans. They never had it. No rational order of events give us seed-bearing plants before the sun, required for photosynthesis. All this, and so much more, leads a thinking person to understand that the creation story, whatever it is meant to be, should never be taken literally. The Eden story is a part of the creation story, and therefore, cannot be taken literally, either.

If all of the details of the creation story are not literally true, then no aspect of the fall of man is true. No fall, no redemption. During the last decade of my religious life, I met more Christians who did not believe in a literal interpretation of creation and Eden, than those who did. They did not believe in Adam and Eve, the talking serpent, or forbidden, magic trees. Yet, they clung, tenaciously to the idea that they were fallen victims of original sink desperately I need of a savior. These are victims of emotional abuse. No amount of reason can free them from the trap in which they find themselves.

A bloody mess

Another part of the story that simply does not logically hold together is the notion that salvation could only be purchased with blood, not just a pin-prick, but quite a lot of it, and innocent blood, at that. The whole story of redemption is drenched in innocent blood.

It starts with God demanding that Abraham make a human sacrifice of his only son, Isaac. Though God stopped it at the last moment, it is important to note that the father of Abrahamic religion was the type who was perfectly willing to perform human sacrifice on a child at the behest of a voice in his head. Equally important, his god was the kind of god who would order it. Though the boy was spared that day, another innocent animal was slaughtered without cause, in the name of useless sacrifice.

Moses set up a whole institution of animal sacrifice, where only the most perfect of the innocent would do. This, of course, was foreshadowing the sacrifice of Jesus for our sins, the most perfect of them all. Positioned as the son of God, more than that, God’s only son in human form, Jesus became the ultimate, human sacrifice. I find it repugnant that even one, innocent ant should have to die for something wrong that I did. That a father would murder one son to save another son, is unbearable. I want no part of any salvation at that price. If he sacrificed the perfect one for me, how long before he sacrifices me for an ameba?

Thing through this logically. You are told that you have committed a capitol offense. Yours is the death penalty. But, the one against whom you committed the crime, also the judge in the case, wants to exonerate you. Rather than just forgiving you and closing the case, he comes up with a plan. Instead of killing you, he murders your brother who did nothing wrong. Lucky you. Now, all you have to do is wash in the blood of your dead brother, and take a sip of it every week or so, you know, just as a reminder. Oh, and the plaintiff and judge is also your dad. Guess who’s going to be father of the year. Who, but the emotionally damaged, would possibly want to take part in that story?

We’re still here

The final point I will make about the old, old story is that it does nothing to explain why we are still here, still suffering, still dying. Part of the Jesus story is that he is the god and conquerer of disease, nature, and death. We are even told that the Holy Spirit, himself, indwells within us like an old fashioned demon possession.

Unfortunately, none of those claims stands up to a cursory glance at the evidence. Consider only the most faithful and devout believers throughout the world. They are just as afflicted with disease as the atheist. They die in the same, stormy fits of nature as the unbeliever. And not a single one has risen from a single grave. Of those that remain, none are truly righteous. They all suffer the same temptations, and give in to them just as frequently. The indwelling Spirit is not enough to avert a single, lustful thought.

More difficult to explain, we’re still here. The world has not come to a glorious end. The saving work of Jesus has been long completed. He went to prepare a place for us a long time ago. I’m pretty sure all the sheets have been turned down, and mints placed on each pillow. What’s the hold up? On the cross, he said it was finished. Yet, we’re still wearing designer crosses, and waiting for it all to come to an end.

We are the bride, head full of promises, left at the alter by the groom who assured us he would be right back. He just had to check on the reservations. 2,000 years later, we’re still at the alter, still assuring ourselves that he’ll be right back… any minute, now…

Emotional abuse.

As it happens, the old, old story is indeed, one of the oldest stories of all. It is the story of abuse. Make them feel guilty and vulnerable, present yourself as the only way out, then take them for all their worth. When you’re done with them, leave them hanging. Make them think that you’ll be right back. Give them no sense of closure.

I know this story all, too well.

The only question remaining is, how does one ever get free of such an abusive relationship. That will be the subject of part three.

David Johnson

The old, old story: Part One

birthJesus

Why do people become Christians? What is so compelling about the Christian story that would make a perfectly rational person abandon his way of life and take up the cross? I am reminded of a song that I sang in my youth:

Tell me the story of Jesus,
Write on my heart every word;
Tell me the story most precious,
Sweetest that ever was heard.
Tell how the angels in chorus,
Sang as they welcomed His birth,
“Glory to God in the highest!
Peace and good tidings to earth.”

Fasting alone in the desert,
Tell of the days that are past,
How for our sins He was tempted,
Yet was triumphant at last.
Tell of the years of His labor,
Tell of the sorrow He bore;
He was despised and afflicted,
Homeless, rejected and poor.

Tell of the cross where they nailed Him,
Writhing in anguish and pain;
Tell of the grave where they laid Him,
Tell how He liveth again.
Love in that story so tender,
Clearer than ever I see;
Stay, let me weep while you whisper,
“Love paid the ransom for me.”

…and don’t forget this old chestnut:

Tell Me the Old, Old Story

Tell me the old, old story of unseen things above,
Of Jesus and His glory, of Jesus and His love.
Tell me the story simply, as to a little child,
For I am weak and weary, and helpless and defiled.

Refrain

Tell me the old, old story, tell me the old, old story, Tell me the old, old story, of Jesus and His love.

Tell me the story slowly, that I may take it in,
That wonderful redemption, God’s remedy for sin.
Tell me the story often, for I forget so soon;
The early dew of morning has passed away at noon.

Tell me the story softly, with earnest tones and grave;
Remember I’m the sinner whom Jesus came to save.
Tell me the story always, if you would really be,
In any time of trouble, a comforter to me.

Tell me the same old story when you have cause to fear
That this world’s empty glory is costing me too dear.
Yes, and when that world’s glory is dawning on my soul,
Tell me the old, old story: “Christ Jesus makes thee whole.”

With so much emphasis placed on telling, and retelling the old, old story of Jesus, it seems appropriate to delve into the details of the story. More generally, what exactly is the story that has proven so transformative and resilient?

The story…

In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth, and humans, and everything else, and it was all perfect. Then, one day, the humans messed it all up. They did such a bad thing that God was forced to make them die, and ultimately, burn in hell. This made God very sad. So he devoted the rest of his life to rescuing the humans from their plight, and restoring the perfect relationship he had with them. To accomplish this, God had to make the ultimate sacrifice, which involved killing his perfect son so that we wouldn’t have to die or burn in hell. This, in turn, makes us so happy, we want to devote the rest of our lives to doing all of the things he likes, and none of the things he doesn’t. Eventually, we will all live happily ever after.

The end.

Doesn’t that make you want to become a Christian? From our perspective, it is a story of rescue. We were hopelessly lost, doomed, and in need of a savior. We had fallen, and could not get up. Unless someone came along who could get us out of the mess we made of things, we were without hope.

It is critical that the story begin here, and be absolutely convincing. The story of rescue falls flat if there is nothing from which we need to be rescued. It is also vital we be convinced that neither we, nor any other human could save us in our hour of need. Before a rescue story can have any emotional resonance, the situation must be utterly hopeless.

A story like this is very effective on impressionable children. It is easy to make them feel guilty for things that are not their fault. They are hyper-dependent on authority figures. The displeasure of just one of those figures engenders fear and uncertainty. For many children, the displeasure of an authority figure means some form of punishment, often, quite painful. To review, the ultimate story makes children guilty of the ultimate crime, creating the ultimate disappointment and anger of the ultimate authority, who threatens the ultimately painful, ultimate punishment for all time. That is some story. The worst is yet to come.

When children are conditioned to feel guilt for imaginary crimes, and made to fear the punishment from angry and disappointed authority figures, they are ripe for abuse. At that point, the abuser can get away with just about anything. The frighten child believes that everything, including the abuse, is their fault. As a result, they endure the punishment for which they so richly deserve. Furthermore, any scraps of goodness that come from the abuser are accepted with extreme gratitude. At some point, the child can no longer discern the difference between abuse and kindness.

At the point of deepest despair, the old, old story provides a rescuer. Unfortunately, it is the same rescuer that created the false guilt in the first place. This rescuer offers to remove the guilt by adding more guilt. God can only take away your sins by murdering his only son. Make no mistake about it; this is the only way. Your sin is too great for anything less. It is really you, who is murdering God’s perfect son. I hope you are pleased with yourself little girl. The blood of Jesus is now on your hands, and you will never be allowed to forget it. You will have to be washed in the blood at least once, and will have to symbolically drink it every week of your blood-bought life. You’re welcome!

This guilt and rescue leads to all manner of abuse. Despite the ultimate sacrifice having been made on your behalf, you are never really done with your sin problem. You continue to sin, you filthy little ingrate. And your sinful nature needs constant maintenance. You can never get off your knees for very long. You must ask for permission and guidance for every little thing as a reminder that you are too sinful and stupid to do anything on your own. And you must wax poetic with gratitude for every scrap of food you eat.

Additionally, you must endure persecution, ill-health, unfair treatment, and poverty. And that is when you are doing everything correctly, which you can never actually do for very long. You are to endure such things stoically, even joyfully. You should be thankful for every, undeserved lash you take at the hands of your enemies. You should feel lucky that you are counted worthy of suffering in the name of your rescuer. Whenever someone says that God is good, you must dutifully respond, “All the time!”

There you have it, the old, old story. No wonder it is so compelling. It does not appeal to our intellect and better judgement, but rather, something more visceral. It appeals to our sense of guilt, hopelessness, and fear, during a time when we are emotionally vulnerable or immature. How similar is religious contentment to Stockholm Syndrome? The adherent is conditioned to accept abuse as kindness, and never know the difference.

This also explains why it is so difficult to reason with devout Christians. They did not come to their condition from a place of reason, but a place of childlike, vulnerability. They are not stupid people who lack information. They are abused people who need counselors. I am not a counselor, but I was victimized by the purveyors of Christianity from childhood.

I know what it is like to be paralyzed with guilt and fear for imaginary, childhood sins. I know what it is to be afraid of my own thoughts, lest I accidentally think my way into sin, and the thought police find me out. I went to bed every night of my life, worried about the many ways I disappointed my rescuer, terrified that my sycophantic requests for forgiveness were not enough, afraid to entertain the idea that my rescuer was really an abuser, and that none of it was real.

Having been there, I can attest that the problem is not a matter of intellectual deficiency, but of emotional imprisonment. The most difficult prison to escape is the one you don’t even know you’re in. The old, old story is a trap that, if left unchecked, will imprison you for the rest of your life. To the extent that more information can help, I will provide the keys to escaping the trap in the next post.

David Johnson