07 Dec 2012

The Author

I am a doctoral student at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California. I am currently studying Christian spirituality and, within that context, the spiritual words of abused children--namely, that is, how abused children experience the healing touch of God. In my free time, I enjoy writing poetry and children's stories, being in nature, and watching The Wonder Years. Over and over again. And then over and over again. I was born and raised in San Diego, California, and feel madly in love with God on those shores. http://asocialspirituality.wordpress.com

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God In A Fear Factory
afraid

Growing Up in Fear

As a kid, I’d often wake up in the middle of the night: gasping for air and in a cold sweat, I’d be in a state of utter horror: believing that God had returned from heaven and left me behind, I feared that I would have to struggle for three and a half to seven years to avoid the Mark of the Beast in order to be saved from eternal fire and brimstone.

No, seriously.

During the day, I’d keep my eyes peeled for the anti-Christ.  Democrats were particularly suspect.  The stock market was also indicative.  I’d look for places where I could camp out during the tribulation.  I found a tree house once that I thought I could stay in until the water next to it turned to blood.

At night, though, when this would happen, I’d start praying incessantly: confessing the awful sins that I believed I had committed, and asking that God be gracious to me because of them.  I’d be pleading for God to save me from the flames of hell that I thought I was in danger of.

“Oh, God!  Please!  Save me!  I am so sorry to have cursed at Josh today.  He’s not a fucking asshole, God.  He’s my 

friend and your precious child.  Oh, please, forgive me!  I don’t want to go to hell!  Why did I do that?!  I am so sorry! Don’t leave me behind, God.  I am sorry that I masturbated tonight!  Why, God?!  How could I be such a foolish sinner? In your love, forgive me!  If you have already come back, God, then will you please swoop back down and rapture me?  I am so afraid of the devil!  I am so afraid of the anti-Christ!  I promise that I will never get the Mark of the Beast! I am so afraid of hell!”

This began in elementary school and lasted through High School: to varying degrees, and in relative forms.  It’s funny now but it was traumatic as hell then.

Unfortunately, I did not create these fantasies.  They weren’t the manifestation of a deranged child.  No, I am afraid they came from the fear-based Evangelical world that I grew up in. The dangerous myths about God that they taught me and coerced me to live into.

The place truly believed and lived as though God’s return was immanent, and that people that were either (a) unsaved or (b) living a life of sin would soon be suffering God’s wrath and, thus, the flames of hell: first on earth in a sort of tribulation,  and then in eternity.  If one wanted to avoid this suffering, then one needed to profess Christ as God and live a rather sinless life.

This was serious business.

We’d watch videos on this stuff: of God leaving people behind, of people getting the Mark of Beast, of people getting their heads chopped off as a result, of the waters of the earth turning to blood because of God’s beef with the world, of people in hell for various arbitrary reasons.

The implicit message was always: “this is what’s going to happen, and this is what’s going to happen to you unless you accept Jesus and ,basically, not sin”.

They’d illustrate the message through puppet shows.  We’d color this reality on paper.  And into the very depths of our psyches.

Things got pretty scary when the demons of puberty struck.  On numerous occasions, I remember teachers coming up to me and saying: “Let me see you hands, Paul.  [At which point I’d show the teacher my hands].  Is there semen on these hands?  I know there is.  I know you’ve been masturbating.  You better clean yourself, boy.  Lift your hands up to heaven and pray for forgiveness.  Do it.  Right now!”

In 1999, Al Gore was the anti-Christ and Y2K was the beginning of the immanent end.  Families bought land in far off places, stocked their garages with the basic food groups, and purchased things like generators.

That same year, as a gesture of love, he claimed, my Bible teacher suggested that we write out the entire book of Revelation and then address it to an unsaved friend.  The purpose?  So that when God returned, that unsaved friend, who would be left behind, would have an opportunity to be saved by reading it.

Sorry about that, Mark.

How an “unsaved” kid could ascertain that information from a long and complicated book—that many suggest isn’t about the “end times” at all—is sort of interesting to think about now.

My friend’s brother also went to an Evangelical Christian school.  When he was in 9th grade, the school called everyone into the chapel and then locked them inside.  It was an emergency, the school said.

The principle got on stage and told everyone that the nuclear power plant outside of Denver had just exploded.   That all of their family members were dead.  That they only have hours to live.

Fortunately for them, there was still time to accept Christ.  If they didn’t, they’d soon be dead and in hell forever.  Like the rest of Denver.

The principle made the whole thing up to scare the kids into accepting Jesus.  Some parents complained, but he got off with a mere warning because his “intentions” were good: because, so the logic went, leading people to Christ can never be quite that bad.

A Father and His Son

This past weekend I dropped my doctoral program to-do list and drove from Berkeley to Orange County in order to spend time with friends from college.  Thanks be to God that my old Volvo survived the trip.  I wasn’t sure that it would.  But I am so glad: I needed the respite and rejuvenation that my beautiful friends—many of whom also grew up in the sort of Evangelical world I did—lavishly bless me with.

One afternoon, as I dug my toes into the warm sand of Newport Beach, listened to the waves crash onto the shore, and ate a ridiculously expensive acai bowl, I watched and listened to a father teach his son how to boogie board.

I watched as the boy’s father gently held his shirt until a wave was powerful enough to carry him forward.

I listened as he told his son what to do: “here comes a big one, my boy, kick your feet as hard and fast as you can!”

I watched as his son struggled to learn and failed to ride the waves.

And I listened as his father encourage him in his struggles and failures: “that’s okay, my boy, we’ll get the next one”.

As I watched and listened to this simple and yet beautiful exchange, I gave thanks to God: for being the sort of Father that gently teaches us how to ride the waves of life, and that encourages us when we struggle and fail to do so.

I also gave thanks to God for not actually being the God of the fear-based Evangelical world that I grew up in.  And for helping me understand that.

The fear-based Evangelical God is a monster.  He’s a child abuser.  And a lot of people that have left the church have left for that very reason: because they don’t want be around a God-monster that abuses children.  We should applaud their departure.  And seriously mourn their loss and the reason for it.

Addressing Abuse in the Church

I got to wondering about this on my drive back up to Berkeley.

How many children have had similar experiences?  How many children are experiencing this sort of thing right now?  Have people left the Church because of this reason?  What are the consequences these experiences? Has it been seriously studied yet?  Have I changed my doctoral focus yet again?  How many questions can one ask before going insane?

But seriously, is this issue on our radar?  How concerned are we about it?

Children enter the world with a profound sense of openness and trust.   That is a gift.  A blessing.  But it is also a vulnerability, and something that can be taken advantaged of and murderously destroyed if handled inappropriately.   And what some churches do to children to get them “saved” is nothing short of child abuse.

The Church ought to wake up to this fact and deal with it within its own walls lest the State take up the worthy cause to the detriment of both the Church and the State.

A few important points:

I am not suggesting that churches are intentionally and consciously abusing children.  I am also not suggesting that the people that teach children to be afraid of God are child abusers. Some churches are also more extreme than others.  Not every fear-based Evangelical church is like the one I grew up in.   Some are worse.  And some, like mine, are also very beautiful and loving places.  I fell in love with God in my fear-based Evangelical world, however pathological that love initially was.  And that is a testament to God’s presence there.

The situation is complicated and nuanced.  And, most of all, it’s a sacred tragedy.

God is love, and the Church is called to be an orchestra of that love.  It ought to be a place of safety for children—a place where they can go to understand howridiculously in love God is with them.  Not a fear factory garbed in godliness.

The Church ought to be a place where children need absolutely not be afraid of God: because that is the last thing God wants for children.  When the Church teaches children to fear God, and thus alienates them from God, it perverts the essence of its mission and it embarrasses itself.  It takes advantage of children, and it often destroys something sacred in them.  And few things grieve the Spirit more than that.

“Woe to you who cause children to stumble,” Jesus warned.

3 Comments
3 Comments
  1. Thank you, Paul. I love this article, and I’m going to share it with about a thousand of my closest friends. This is a conversation that needs to happen.

    Big love to you, brother!
    Daisy Rain

  2. Thank you for a great article about an important issue. It is indeed child abuse and spiritual abuse. Hmm, there was a Catholic or former Catholic minister, what was his name? Ah, Father Leo Booth, that’s it, who did some wonderful work and wrote a fantastic book about this some years ago, the 90′s. Do check him and the book out. That was about the first time I had heard someone else take very seriously the kind of abuse you descibe that i also grew up in and continue (in my forties now) to recover from. It IS heartbreaking: to instill SUCH fear! Remember “A Distant Thunder” and that triology of terror movies that they showed in my childhood church? I do. Still can’t forget it. True enough, we would have NEVER been allowed to watch such harrowing images on television (when it was finally allowed in the house) when i was ten or eleven, but horror in church, it seemed, was fine. It is severely heartbreaking to at best have a facsimile of a relationship with God and at worst to completely shut out (who wouldn’t?!) this God, this God that is meant to be and wants to be our greatest comfort. I am grateful for you post. . . and grateful for the relentless love of God that has pursued me and continued to minister to me through the likes of Brian Zahnd, Jimmy Spencer Jr., Shane Claiborne, Andrew Marin, Rob Bell, and many others now. Blessing to you, as together we continue to turn toward the One and share in the wonder of our growing in Love. – PreetamDas

    • I saw that movie series in church as well. Thank God, no permanent damage here. Unfortunately, not everyone can say that.

      I’ve read Bell (who hasn’t?) and I will check out the other names you mentioned. Thank you for your post!

      Daisy Rain

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