One of the things that bothers people who leave the Churches of Christ are the comments and questions of people who don’t listen. Most of the comments that we get after we have left fall into the category of judgments. The worst are the judgments that claim not to be judgments:
- “Don’t leave sound teaching.”
- “What church are you attending now?”
- “What about your children?”
- “Do they baptize for the remission of sins there?”
These are familiar questions that, sometimes sincerely meant, are also designed to rope a person into a scripted response that ends with: “I’m just concerned about where you will spend eternity.”
What these questions and scripted responses lack is the element of listening. We are lulled into responding to these questions when ultimately they do not deserve a response. The people who deserve a response are those who say things like: “How did you come to make your decision to leave?” Or better yet, anyone who was really paying attention already knows why you left. It’s not like we didn’t speak up. Often the reason we left was because the churches we attended were full of people who have agreed not to listen to each other.
I remember attending a church serivce while visiting a childhood friend. I turned to my brother during the Bible class and said,” There is not a single personal thing being said during this Bible class.” My brother responded: ” That’s the agreement: Never say anything personal.” They had devised a system of call-and-response in the Bible class that never necessitated any kind of personal reflection or personal intimacy. What they had gained was safe distance from each other. What they had lost was intimacy. Every single person in that room was lonely, and ashamed of their loneliness, and terrified of the responses they would get if they had ventured out of their safe bubbles and tried to get close to each other. The call-and-response consisted of “we’re right and they’re wrong”. Everyone knew the answers from years of sitting in the Bible classes and repeating the same catechism questions over and over.
The childhoods of those who choose to continue this call-and-response Bible class system consists of the usual authoritarian child rearing techniques: being shamed by one’s parents for one’s feelings, being disciplined by methods that shock, confuse and surprise the children, being told one’s opinions and emotions were to be ashamed of, making the child’s decisions for him or her, invading the child’s privacy, and being beaten. This was fortified in church by going over the punishment passages: Adam and Eve, Noah’s flood, Sodom and Gomorrah, forty years in the wilderness, Achan’s lie, Ananias and Sapphira. The result is a group of people who fear exploring their own emotions and motivations.
This is the opposite of what Jesus expects of us. “You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ 22But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment” (Matt 5). Wow! What a difficult thing to fathom. What does Jesus mean? How deep do I have to dig in my heart to understand this command? Jesus encourages personal reflection.
I remember how angry my father was in 1968 at the Viet Nam war: “We have enough firepower; why don’t we just go in there and blow them off the map?” This is black-and-white thinking, us-versus-them, good guys and bad guys, communists versus the American way. What is lacking is any understanding of relationship and how one has to pick up and continue living with an enemy after a war. It is like the thinking of those who trash and sue their spouses during a nasty divorce and then expect to be able to co-parent their children. The hardline Churches of Christ fit neatly into this “blow them off the map” mentality.
The problem with this kind of faith is that it does not sustain a person throughout one’s life. It holds our fears at bay for a limited period of time, but eventually the pied piper has to be paid.