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Spiritual Abuse and Natural Disasters

With Florence about to make landfall in South Carolina, people have been preparing for power outages and damages. In the midst of all of us trying to anticipate the uncertain, bad theology has come to the surface. This theology invites judgment about who deserves God’s protection and who doesn’t deserve God’s protection. This week Pat Robertson called on God and his people to pray a “hedge of protection” around their church and their properties. This is spiritual abuse.

Fundamentalism can’t thrive in uncertainties and so leaders of fundamentalism have to depend on predicting the unpredictable and trying to bring order out of the chaos that occurs during a natural disaster. These theological claims distract us from confronting the stark realities that natural disasters reveal. Over the course of the last week, I’ve heard many people asking condescendingly why people aren’t evacuating during the mandatory evacuations issued by the Governor in South Carolina. From the outside looking in, it would be easy to conclude that those not evacuating are people who are stubborn or who think the storm won’t be as bad as predicted. This conclusion allows us to turn a blind eye to the socioeconomic divisions that continue to segregate our state.

In reality, many can’t evacuate because they don’t have the resources to evacuate. Many can’t evacuate because of disability, economic restrictions, and responsibility to care for family members who are physically unable to travel. None of these reasons talks about the cost of evacuation: supplies, gas, hotels. For people who were born and raised in the community, evacuation is leaving their whole network. These are people who depend on every shift of work to make ends meet and having their jobs closed means they won’t be able to buy what they need. Evacuation is a privilege.

If there’s still a doubt as to whether evacuation reveals the divisions among citizens, recent reports reveal that the Governor of South Carolina did not make plans to evacuate the prisoners in the mandatory evacuate zones. When asked about those who couldn’t afford to evacuate, the FEMA Coordinator explained that FEMA doesn’t pay for evacuation expenses.

Our eyes are opened as we prepare for a natural disaster to the realities that separate us economically, racially, and socially. The question is will we see these uncomfortable realities or hide behind a hedge of protection laced with spiritual abuse?

On Confronting My Privilege as a White Mom

I’ve been pondering, lamenting, and praying about the children separated from their families at our border. I’ve read as many different reports as I can trying desperately to understand the different sides of the issue, how long the practice has been taking place, and what I could possibly do to help better the situation. There is no doubt that children being separated from their parents, especially their mothers, at a young age is detrimental to their well-being, their sense of safety, and their overall growth. Again and again, in these discussions, I have heard people explaining that these mothers were putting their children in harm’s way by trying to come across the border. Again and again, I have heard versions of, “They got what was coming to them.” And to be honest part of me understands the sentiment behind these statements. Why would you, as a mom, risk crossing a border now knowing the consequences for your child?

As I thought about this question, I couldn’t help but think of books that I have read where mothers put their kids in harm’s way. Sheila Ingle in her book Courageous Kate tells the story of Kate Moore Barry tied her infant child to a bedpost as she rode away to deliver a message to her husband that the British were coming.

Michel Stone in her books Iganuna Tree and Border Child, tells of a mother who trusts a coyote with her child to cross the border in hopes of a better life.

Robert O’Brien in his book Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of Nimh, tells the story of a mouse mom who leaves her four children at home desperately searching for medicine and a new home for her son is so sick he cannot leave the bed.

As I thought about these books, these mothers, I thought about the extreme circumstance they found themselves in: war, abject poverty, and loss of life of one of their children. I thought about how as a white mom in the United States, I have never encountered a situation so dire that I would risk leaving my child or being separated from my child in order to offer a better life for him. I have never had to make what has to be a gut-wrenching, soul-crushing decision. I have never had to make that decision because of the privilege I have as a white mom in the United States.

Reflecting on that privilege, I realize my gut reactions to these stories are going to be laced with bias and assumptions created and formed by that privilege. I can never know what these families and these mothers are going through.

And so instead of judging or assuming, I will instead hope. Hope that more and more people in our country will take the time to read extensively and examine their privilege. It is only in engaging in these things that we will be able to overcome the vast divisions that privilege creates.

Spiritual Abuse and Hidden Lives

When I heard about the resignation the president and Chief Executive of the SBC’s Executive Committee, my atenea went up. Even before the story of the “inappropriate relationship” came out, I wondered if there was another story, a hidden story, that hadn’t been shared before. Many would claim that the #metoo movement has been a reckoning for white, males who have enough power and privilege to keep silent the women who they have abused, harrassed, and mistreated. Decades of stories are coming to the surface raising the question, what is the real story of how our society operates?

As these stories arise, the question of why the evangelical support of the president who has been accused of multiple accounts of sexual harrassment hasn’t wavered is becoming clearer. It’s because many of these evagenical leaders share the hidden life of sexual harassment and “inappropriate relationships” with our president shares. These leaders, like our president, hope that enough power and enough money can keep these stories hidden and out of the public eye. But these leaders, like our president are realizing their power is waning. They are losing the ability to keep up their public personas while keeping hidden the ways they have exploited and oppressed women behind closed doors. Keeping these stories silent while preaching and proclaiming the word of God and calling others to repentenace is spiritual abuse.

As a country, we reflect on the assassinaiton of MLK, Jr. fifty years later and we have to wonder what is the hidden life of our country? A country that would extinguish a voice of challenge and change at such a young age. A country that has decades of stories of abuse and harrassement rising to the surface. A country that has in its very foundation racism and sexism. We must learn to confront these difficult truths within ourselves and within our country if we have any hope of rebuilding.

Eastertide offers us the time in the church calendar to contemplate what resurrection and new life mean, but we will never get to the new life if we don’t first die to the selves that seek power and privlege and self-promotion at the expense of other individuals.

Blessed Are the Poor in Spirit

Holy Week has always reminded me of the best and the worst that resides within me. To walk this road is to walk through the agony of realizing all the ways we could be better to each other and all the ways we could use our talents to cause good. But like the disciples, the closer we get to Maundy Thursday and Good Friday the more we are overcome by our fears.

I lived in fear for a long time. Fear of voicing a call to preach. Fear of finding a place to pastor. Fear of being myself. It’s a terrible place to live full of restless existence and dark nights of the soul.

My biggest fear as a pastor has been to make any kind of political statement. To be sure, my sermons and teachings include calls to help those who are helpless and comfort those who are grieving, but never a statement about the state of our democracy or a statement about political candidates or their views. The discussion and debates are too divisive and too dehumanizing that I haven’t even wanted to wade into the water.

This year I’ve commiteed to speaking to power and privilge in a more conscientious way because the more I have researched and the more I have come to understand, the more I am certain that we are not living in a democracy. We are not a country established and run by the people and for the people. We have become a country dictated by unchecked power and unchallenged privilege. We are not living in a democracy. We are living in a meritocracy.

In this country, children are starving and dying at schools and at churches. This is not a country for the people of the people. This is a country controlled and abused by those in power and those in privilege who are sacrificing themsleves and indeed our children to the god of greed.

And so I must speak up and speak out about systemic abuses of power and privilege.

“I’m disappointed in Sen. Graham’s sponsorship of the CRA, especially as he knows how many people in South Carolina are caught in the payday lending debt-trap. The negative impacts of payday lending have multiple consequences: local businesses have been forced to close, individuals are struggling with depression from financial stress and families have broken up as a result of these unjust products. We desperately need stricter regulations and voices from South Carolina standing up for our families.” Rev. Merianna Harrelson, Pastor New Hope
Christian Fellowship.

South Carolinian Leaders Oppose Repeal of Payday Rule

It’s time for us to be a country for the people and of the people again.

Spiritual Abuse and Justification

The question of how prominent evangelical leaders can continue to support a president whose morality and ethics are questionable is perplexing. How can the same people who questioned Obama’s religious beliefs and berated Clinton’s infidelity defend and justify our current president again and again?

Loyalty to Trump has involved progressively more difficult, self-abasing demands. And there appears to be no limit to what some evangelical leaders will endure. Figures such as Falwell and Franklin Graham followed Trump’s lead in supporting Judge Roy Moore in the December Senate election in Alabama. These are religious leaders who have spent their entire adult lives bemoaning cultural and moral decay. Yet they publicly backed a candidate who was repeatedly accused of sexual misconduct, including with a 14-year-old girl.

The simple answer is that the president finds himself affiliated with the right party and evangelical leaders will back this president because he represents the party they want in power in Congress and in the White House. The acrobatics they must engage in order to justify and continue to support him are merely exercises in ensuring power is kept in their own political party. To address the merit and inaccuracies of their theological reasoning in their support of the president is to threaten their power. These discussions whether in person or on a Facebook comment thread quickly deteriorate into naming-calling, debasing, and dehumanizing rhetoric.

This is not surprising or shocking to me as someone who grew up with these language patterns. In fact, I too default to this type of rhetoric when at levels of stress or uncertainty. The only goal is to be right regardless of the hurt or pain caused in the quest to be right. Ryan Stollar notes:

Fundamentalism is an obsession with getting ideology right, rather than a dedication to doing right by people.

This issue-first rather than people-first religion doesn’t allow evangelicals to admit they were wrong or misguided in their justification and support of our current president. To make such an admission, would be to admit that they had misheard God or misinterpreted the idea that “God used Pharoah and God can use anyone.” The whole basis of fundamentalism is to protect and defend the “right” ideology and so no matter what is revealed about this president, the connection with Russia, or the abuse towards women or foreigners, the voice of the white evangelical right will remain in support of this president. It has to in order to prevent an unwarranted theological crisis and a threat to the evangelical, political power.

Those who bravely call out evangelical leaders who support the president find themselves an outsider to a community and people who once respected their voice and insight. This threat of exclusion is so strong that it causes people to recant and repent in order to be welcomed back into the fold:

A day after a Religion News Service interview portrayed retired pastor and author Eugene Peterson as shifting to endorse same-sex marriage, the evangelical leader retracted his comment and upheld the traditional Christian stance instead. “To clarify, I affirm a biblical view of marriage: one man to one woman. I affirm a biblical view of everything,” he said in a statement Thursday afternoon.

This is spiritual abuse at its most powerful.

Spiritual abuse threatens and excludes in order to keep power in the hands of the powerful. But spiritual abuse must also have a theological basis in order to withstand criticism of seeking power. The theological basis for defending our current political state and president is justification or “an acquittal of guilt.” And this is what evangelical leaders have provided for the president: justification for past cases of infidelety, sexual harrassment, and abuse; justification for language they would not approve of from their congregants; justification for debasing and dehumanizing attacks via social media. This justification will continue along with the spiritual abuse that defends it because evangelical leaders are concerned about losing political power and favor.

There is no defense against this type of theology. Those who engage in debating or disarming this theology will find themselves excluded and debased. Instead, what we who are concerned and weighted down by our current state must do is invite those who are questioning and wondering into sanctuaries where they can challenge the theology and rhetoric they have been taught. We must be compassionate and kind rather than belittling and accusatory. We must not name call. We must not call those who have been raised in these communities ignorant. We must be radical in our hospitality of inclusion. We must extend table fellowship full of grace even to those who might later betray us.

This is the work of hope and healing and indeed the work of Christ Jesus who offered new life to all people.

Spiritual Abuse and Standing Ovations

I didn’t realize it was strange to some Christians to clap in the middle of a worship service until I was twenty. Clapping was an expression of gratitude common in worship services I attended as a child, especially at Christmas and Easter. I always understood the clapping to be a sign of gratitude for the experience, but in the churches, I visited there was a quiet reverence during worship. An awe and wonder signified not by more noise, but by silence and solitude. Worship wasn’t about anyone who led the service or led the music. Worship was about encountering Creator God who breathed life into humanity and wondering how on earth that could have happened.

This week, a Memphis megachurch pastor admitted to having being involved in sexually with a minor. His congregation responded with a standing ovation. Their response didn’t surprise me. I have stood clapping more than once in church and during worship. But something about this story didn’t sit right with me. While I admire this pastor’s admission in front of a crowd of people, there is something missing. Calling this a “sexual incident” rather than sexual misconduct against a minor, alleviates the legal ramifications of this pastor admitting to having committed a felony. This change of language was not an accident. This was spiritual abuse.

Admitting to something without accepting the full ramifications and consequences isn’t something we should be modeling as ministers. Instead, this partial admission exerts the power and privilege that he as the pastor of a megachurch holds. He holds the attention of thousands of people. He holds the respect of thousands of people and what he has done with that attention and respect is used it to make himself feel better about committing a crime.

This is the spiritual abuse that plagues our society making congregations feel as if they are the judge and juror of pastors’, polticians’, and president’s misconduct rather than our legal system and rather than God. If there are enough likes, if there is enough clapping, if there is a standing ovation than the wrong and hurt and pain that has been committed is ok.

It is never ok for anyone to harm a child, no matter the position, no matter the power, no matter the number of people they influence. It is never ok for a person in power to seek justification from an audience without submitting themselves to the legal process that governs our country.

This situation is an accurate picture of the country and culture we live in. We applaud spiritual abuse and people using their power and privilege to avoid the legal system because we believe we are the ones who know whether someone is good or bad and whether an act is right or wrong.

Be careful then how you live, not as unwise but as wise…

We’re quick to like and love and retweet. We’re quick to applaud when we are entertained and offer standing ovations when something surprises us. This is what our consumerist culture has taught us. This is what has infiltrated our communities of faith.

It’s up to us to learn the difference between living for applause and living for God.

 

That’s not “just John Doe.” That’s Sexual Harassment.

Sexual harassment lives in systems like workplaces, family, and communities of faith because systems always aim to keep homeostasis or a place of stable equilibrium. If there is something that threatens that stability or equilibrium by asking for changes, a system resists those changes.

It’s why in systems like families, workplaces, or communities of faith, it is common to hear comments that are sexual harassment responded to with, “That’s just John Doe.*” It may be a co-worker or an uncle or a grandfather, but almost always John Doe holds a position of power in the system. Therefore, questioning or challenging John Doe would be detrimental to the individual who challenges John Doe.

But that’s not “just John Doe.” That’s sexual harassment.

When sexual harassment goes unanswered because of the position of the person who sexually harasses, we teach those who are victims that if you have enough power and privilege, the rules don’t apply to you. The issue of sexual harassment in our culture is so prevalent that it is going to take a concerted effort to eradicate it from our systems, from our families, and from our speech. This can’t be done by single individuals. This has to be all of us working together to challenge systems harboring and protecting sexual harassment.

Together we can do this. We can imagine better systems. Systems that protect creativity and kindness. Sytems that change the world for the better.

 

 

*John Doe is a placeholder name.

Reading Beyond Your Experience

I’ve always believed that reading transports and transforms you, not only in the way it introduces you to new worlds and new experiences but also in the way it endears and entices you to characters while causing you to wish for the death and destruction of other characters. Reading reveals your true nature. It reveals how within you there is both love and hate. It reveals your assumptions, your privilege, your generalizations and challenges you to confront your true self.

Reading, this very magical, mystical experience is why I trained as a reading teacher, why I represented authors as an agent, and ultimately why I launched Harrelson Press with Sam. We believe reading transforms and transports and that language has the power to heal and challenge even the most difficult and ingrained beliefs.

The reality of our culture today is that the majority of our population doesn’t read. We skim searching for sources, posts, and people who agree with us. When your mission is to be affirmed, you will find affirmation because of the myriad of content that exists and is readily available. When your mission is to never stop learning, you will open yourself to words, stories, and experiences of other people and to the possibility to you are in fact wrong about some things you were pretty sure you were right about.

I can’t help but think about the cosmic, divine coincidence that I finished a young adult novel called How It Went Down the night before I awoke to news of the largest number of people killed in a mass shooting in American history. I read this book as part of my commitment over the past year to purposefully read books written by authors who have been systematically discriminated against in the world of publishing, including women, people of color, and people from lower socioeconomic status.

This journey has led me to recognize and analyze my own privilege. Privilege I was sure I didn’t have. Privilege I was sure hadn’t had anything to do with my pursuing and achieving two Master’s degrees, accepting a Fulbright scholarship, or living into a call to minister as a woman in the Bible Belt. Privilege I was sure everyone was afforded.

I was wrong. I discovered I was wrong by reading stories written by people whose experiences I have never had and quite honestly probaly will never have.

People like Cheryl Strayed.

People like Ta-Nehisi Coates.

People like Yaa Gyasi.

People like Toni Morrison.

People like Margaret Atwood.

When we don’t read, we hear our own beliefs, our own privilege in our hearts and minds echoing, “You’re right. You’re right,” again and again. Reading changes that voice to, “Are you right? Are you right?” Asking you to reflect on how you see the world and why you see the world the way you do.

What we need more of is not certainty, but uncertainty that leads to reflection asking us to question what we have always thought was true; asking us to question who we are and who we will become over and over again as we learn more and understand more about other people’s experiences.

This is the Day the Lord has Made?

Part of our morning routine includes singing:

This is the day, this is the day.

That the Lord has made, that the Lord has made.

We will rejoice, we will rejoice

and be glad in it, and be glad in it.

This is the day that the Lord has made, we will rejoice and be glad in it.

In the middle of our singing this song this morning, I heard the news that over 50 people had been killed and over 400 injured and that those numbers would climb throughout the day. I read accounts and listened to interviews knowing that the people who experienced the horrific tragedy in Las Vegas last night would never, never be the same because The Body Keeps the Score of trauma.

This is the day the Lord has made? Certainly not.

This is the day we have made. We have made this day by insisting, demanding, and defending on protecting and preserving our own rights without reflecting or acknowledging how those rights can be transformed into massacre and madness in the hands of certain people; not willing to sacrifice our rights and our privilege for the sake of the common good so people can enjoy an outdoor concert, so kindergarteners can go to school to learn and teachers can go to school to teach, and ministers and congregants can have Bible study on a Wednesday night without losing their lives.

What most of us don’t understand about privilege is that we also can give up or sacrifice our own privilege for the sake of someone else. It isn’t that we lose our own voices, not that we speak on behalf of people whose experiences we haven’t had, but rather that we sacrifice what we think we deserve knowing that by sacrificing we, in turn, give someone else an opportunity, a chance, and indeed hope.

Most of us aren’t willing to do this.

Most of us aren’t willing to give up our privilege for the sake of other people’s safety or other people’s well-being because we’ve been taught in this individualistic culture that is America to stand up for ourselves, our beliefs, and our rights, which requires competing and ultimately trampling other people.

I have a right to bear arms as an American, but I give up that right.

I give up that right out of respect for the families who lost their children at Sandy Hook Elementary School and the ones who survived and relive that trauma in their dreams and in their flashbacks for the rest of their lives.

I give up that right out of respect for the families who lost their loved at Bible Study and the ones who survived and relive that trauma in their dreams and in their flashbacks for the rest of their lives.

I give up that right out of respect for the 59 people killed last night and over 500 people injured, fighting for their lives, and for the ones who survived and relive that trauma in their dreams and in their flashbacks for the rest of their lives.

I give up that right to try to solve the problem of gun violence and the fear and division it causes in our country.

What will you do with your right?

The Ghosts of Our Past

I just finished reading Toni Morrison’s Beloved part of my commitment this year to read more books by women authors, authors from different socioeconomic backgrounds, and authors of different ethnicities and races. Morrison weaves a devastating tale of African Americans trying desperately to find freedom from slavery. Her main character Sethe is beaten when she is pregnant to the point that she will wear scars on her back for the rest of her life. In a pivotal moment, Sethe’s old owner finds her in Ohio and intends to claim his property back: her and all four of her kids. What is she supposed to do? That moment of decision plagues her for the rest of the book. Ghosts from her past keep her up at night, make her question who she is, and make her wonder whether she is a good mother.

I’ve often said I wish I could go back to the community of faith I grew up in now that I have found my voice and speak into the sexism and spiritual abuse I encountered. I wish I could stand up to that power and privilege protecting the hierarchy and often times missing opportunities to meet the desperate needs of the community. These ghosts of my past keep me up at night, make me question who I am, and make me wonder whether I am a good mother as the theology I grew up in taught that a woman’s most important role was to raise her children, not share God’s word, especially from a pulpit.

This weekend, we saw the ghosts of our past as a country in broad daylight in the violent protests of Charlottesville, VA. We saw the hatred and enmity as one woman was killed and nineteen others were injured. We saw the racism, sexism, and elitism that are usually subtexts and passive aggressive comments broadcast in public. We were confronted with the reality that our country was founded on the backs of treating people like property and animals. We discovered there are still some who believe that the past is not only ok but the way things should be.

The thing about ghosts of our past is that we don’t want to seem them. In fact, most of convince ourselves that ghosts don’t exist brushing aside the missed opportunities to offer a helping hand to someone in need, excusing the privilege we have enjoyed with defenses of why we deserve what we have (forgetting this means others don’t and can’t have what we have), and forgetting that what we saw this weekend, we helped create.

But being confronted with the ghosts of our past reminds us of where we have been and challenges us to ask the question who do we want to be. Do we want to be the kind of people who try to ignore the racism, sexism, and elitism that abounds in our country limiting the possibilities of other people? Are we going to brush aside people’s stories of racism, sexism, and elitism when we hear them blaming the victim? Or are we going to be the community that surrounds these ghosts of the past and exposes them?

At the end of Morrison’s book, there is a beautiful scene of the community gathering at the edge of the property where Sethe lives. They sing, they pray, they stay until she comes out of the house and they stop her from repeating her past. This is the power of community.

We can’t face the ghosts of our past alone. We need the power of community to help keep us accountable and courageous to become something more than who we used to be.