Tuesday, October 4, 2011

The Burden of Moral Superiority

2 Timothy 1:7

"For God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a sound mind."

It has come to my attention, in the past few years, that Pentecostals have to be getting it wrong somewhere. I didn't notice until college, despite the fact that warning signs really should have showed.

Today, I am afraid of my own religion, in a way. Mentions of "Jesus" in public actually make me wince. Not because I have a beef with Jesus -- He's a pretty cool guy, forgives sins and doesn't afraid of anything -- but because I have a beef with the people who preached at me for ages.

I was always told that I was supposed to be Different. That I had to spend my entire life not looking like Them, like the Others, like the people who went about their lives and didn't believe in God. I was supposed to be a shining beacon of goodness, purity, and God-fearing obedience. Now, that's all well and good, but in the end, the nice little messages of "be good" and "don't do evil" turned into "it is your responsibility to show to everyone you meet that you are Christian and therefore you are morally pure and don't even resemble these heathens you're talking to." The implications here weren't just "don't abuse your fellow man"; they involved "don't get piercings or tattoos, don't read Harry Potter, don't date non-Christians, don't watch movies with sex in them, don't swear, don't..." And the list goes on and on. The real way that Pentecostal morality gets you, isn't in the conditions for salvation. They never do say, "Do this and even if you believe, you're still going to Hell." They say, "In order to consider yourself truly faithful, you are going to have a lifestyle that looks like this."

What a horrible burden this is. And in the end, I'll admit to the world -- I couldn't do it. I just can't. And the process of breaking down and discovering that I was miserable trying to be what they wanted me to be, is one that added heaps upon heaps of terror and despair upon me. Note that "guilt" is not in there anywhere. My moral compass is not telling me to feel guilty. Instead, my past teachings are haunting me like ghosts, whispering in my ear that maybe I'm wrong, maybe the world has tricked me, maybe the way my parents taught me to live is the only way I can possibly live and still be the person God wants me to be. Maybe I can't ever have things I want. Maybe I can't ever have the life I want. Maybe everything I want is evil, because that's how it works, right? Desires are bad. Wanting things for yourself is bad. You should be on your knees all the time, asking God what He wants, and theoretically He is going to answer and you should do it. If He doesn't, maybe you're doing it wrong. Or maybe in the end, your motives aren't good enough. Do you look different enough yet? What are your hobbies like? Are they things The World prefers? What about your education? Are you learning good things? Or...

I broke down.

I found teachers who told me that it was okay to look like everyone else, to wear the clothes I wanted and get whatever piercings I wanted. To make immature sex jokes when it was appropriate. To date people who weren't Christian. To have the same hobbies. To acknowledge that evolution is actually not the opposite of religion and is an okay thing to agree with. To choose sides on social issues, the way that I saw fit. To trust myself and my desires. To be okay wanting things for myself. And you know, once I started talking to them, I felt better about life, like maybe God wasn't all about having to shove yourself into a little box labeled I Am Different And Better Than You. Like I didn't have to spend my life proving my moral superiority to the world for the greater good of God.

And yet, did you know there's a verse for that, or more than one? They say that people will choose teachers that tell them what they want to hear, not what is the truth. So once I gathered my little posse of sanity-saving people, the ghosts changed their message: Now you're just doing what you want, so you don't have to confront the truth. You're hiding your head in the sand, so you can be happy. You have put happiness ahead of God.

How do you argue with that? Yes, I was horribly unhappy. Yes, I felt like I'd been given the shaft and everyone else got to do cool things while I had to sit by and pretend to be Miss Goody Two Shoes in the most traditional way. Yes, about 90% of the college world made me horribly uncomfortable because I had never been taught a sane way to react to the presence of "sex-drugs-rock-and-roll" around me, and how to deal with social life when people consider their lives to be totally fine and you have always been taught otherwise, but you're not sure why you have to believe that. Yes, I couldn't find a particular reason why a lot of my arbitrary standards were the way they were except "someone told me God said so."

But in the end, it all boils down to, what if? Those few verses always pose the question, what if you're wrong? What if you've let your desires run away with you?

In a world where every theologian has his own entire method of interpretation for the Scriptures, and where every Joe Schmo can be an armchair preacher, there is just about no way to know if you're actually living an okay life or if you're just deluding yourself really hard. Add in the Pentecostal commentary that you can never trust yourself because you're human and will always incline to evil, that basically means you have to get your moral advice from other people. (Paradoxically, given that they too are inclined to evil. Presumably you find the most pure and well-studied person in your religion to ask. Like the Pope or something, wait, wrong denomination, oh well.)

You'd think all this would have surfaced years ago, back in middle or high school, when I was actually being a teenager and thinking about my life. The reason it didn't, was because I never encountered a situation where questioning this view on life actually mattered. I never had a boyfriend, so I never had to think about romantic relationships. I had only one friend, ever, who wasn't Christian, so my peers at least passed muster there. I got lots of incentive to feel proud of my conservative social viewpoints (handed to me by fellow churchgoers) and my hatred of evolution as a conspiracy to kill Christianity (handed to me by those evangelical tapes my dad always listened to in the car).

This all clashes with the verse I put at the top of this post. If God hasn't given us a spirit of fear, than this nerve-wracking conflict should not even exist. Do we really have an obligation to spend our lives trying to look more moral than everyone else -- and have the package of fear along with it, that says that if we don't, we're evil? Do we really have to keep looking over our own shoulders to make sure we're not letting our Innately Evil Brains screw up our lives and kill our salvation? Do we really have to think about the nitpicky points of morality all the time?

All of that just labeled a thick repulsive film over most of Christianity for me, not the core of "Jesus Saves," but of everything else. People talking about Jesus make me want to flee, because they look just like the old evangelicals I knew who told me that most of what I didn't think was bad, was. Churches look to me like courtrooms, where you go to be judged and your punishment declared, where you are encouraged to go up to the front and try again and again to apologize for something you're not even sure you did wrong. Pastors seem like executioners just waiting to put my head on the chopping block, to cut off huge parts of my life that I care about and don't want to give up (and of course, I only hold onto these things because I'm evil and can't manage to ditch them For God).

By contrast, everyone else looks really welcoming. "We don't care about your personal life; we care if you're good to people. Are you a dick? If not, you're fine."

This is what I like. I want to be free to pursue my own spiritual questions without the burden of having to be The Most Best Straightlaced Christian Ever. I'm just not that kind of person. You have to break my bones to stuff me in that box.

So I guess, you could say I was traumatized away from Christianity, not in the way that I flee in terror literally, but I get exceedingly nervous and shaky and pull into myself and hunch up my shoulders and am always waiting for the shoe to drop when I talk to Christians. I wait for the inevitable "you're not like me" judgment, upon which point they will drag me to their church and attempt to convert someone who likes to think she is already converted, to an even more extreme form of faith, to drag me back to where I used to be.

They may call some things I do backsliding, but I call them the same way, because giving up what I have would be backsliding into fear and lifestyle jail.

I want peace.

The ghosts keep saying, But at what cost?

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