As a teenage girl I would earnestly pray for God to “break me” as God breaking me and putting me back together was apparently the only way that I could be of any use for God. I would never be good enough if I had not been broken first. God was supposed to shatter me and then put me on the potter’s wheel and mold me into something beautiful and new.
There is a story told in all four Gospels (which I will return to later and which is one of my favorite parts of the Bible) in which a woman comes and she breaks a jar of ointment to anoint the feet of Jesus after having already washed them and dried them with her hair. The fundamentalists said that the point of that story was that she had to break the jar before it could be of any use to Jesus. Until it was shattered it was worthless.
We were told that if messed up, God would spank us. Metaphorically of course, but that was still a threat because the idea was that if we did not obey God’s commands exactly, that God would take us to rock bottom to punish us to lovingly bring us back to God. Besides, spanking in fundamentalist churches is more like beating. I was told that there was nothing whatsoever that was good in me and that if I wanted anything good, I needed to follow Jesus, because threats are totally the way to make sure people are all in. The Bible in Hebrews uses that violent imagery.
One day I wrote in my journal: “Oh Lord, you are so merciful! Again, you slapped me. You slapped me harder this time and gave me more. The merciful part is that it doesn’t sting for long. These ones stung more and longer than the last but thank-you for doing what you had to do to get my attention. I know that people need a shock before they will listen. I have been going my own way, so you had to give me a shock to make me listen.” (17 November 2002). I seriously thought that I deserved to have God slap me in the face or come down with a huge cattle prodder and beat me. This is completely and utterly fucked up, but I did not know that at the time. It seemed very reasonable. If I didn’t do what I was told I was in for a beating. After all that’s how it was like with my parents growing up, and God was my spiritual father, so God operated the same way. But God only did this to me because God loved me.
In their book Proverbs for Ashes: Violence, Redemptive Suffering, and the Search for What Saves Us, Rita Nakashima Brock and Rebecca Ann Parker say: “Do we really believe that God is appeased by cruelty, and wants nothing more than our obedience? It becomes imperative that we ask this question when we examine how theology sanctions human cruelty.
If God is imagined as fatherly torturer, earthly parents are also justified, perhaps even required, to teach through violence. Children are instructed to understand their submission to pain as a form of love. Behind closed doors, in our own community, spouses and children are battered by their abusers who justify their actions as necessary, loving discipline. ‘I only hit her because I love her.’ ‘I’m doing this for your own good.’ The child or the spouse who believe that obedience is what God wants may put up with physical or sexual abuse in an effort to be a good Christian.”
This quote resonated deep inside my soul, I recognized myself and that what I had been taught made me equate violence with love.
When I was seventeen I spent most of my time wondering how God was going to chasten me, how God was going to break me and mold me into something that pleased God more that the awful person that I was, and freaking out that I was too worldly. I lived in absolute terror that God would do awful things to me if I strayed from God’s path, which is how I ended up becoming even more fundamentalist than my parents for many years. I was so afraid of doing it wrong that I went to extremes to be right with God and show God my love, which probably has a whole lot to do with my not being able to separate love and abuse. For a long time, I thought that abuse was love, all because of shit like this.
The shame was so prevalent. I first got baptized when I was ten years old in a freezing cold creek that was basically in the middle of nowhere. It was surrounded by bush and sugar cane fields, it was a creek that flowed rapidly most of the time, but I remember the water being relatively still that day, because the church chose baptism times around what the creek and weather would be like. We were not one of the fancy churches with white baptismal robes and a baptismal pool. We just showed up at the creek after church in our church clothes. I was terrified of “being dunked” as my parents jokingly called it.
I think my entire Sunday School class may have gotten baptized that day because the biggest pressure had been put on the pre-teen class. We were old enough that we should already be saved, because hey, who wouldn’t want to be saved from hell?
Herein lies a huge problem with fundamentalism, that obsession with being saved from hell. Hell is one of those necessary, foundational beliefs, without which, there would be no fundamentalism. There are several things that fundamentalist cults like the one I grew up in need in order to be successful in maintaining their control. They need shame, they need hell, and they need the doctrine of original sin. In fact, Matthew Paul Turner, in his book Churched states that: “Being a fundamentalist was pointless without hell. With no hot and fiery pit existing somewhere below the soil, our views and beliefs lost a good deal of their meaning.” (p. 108).
Sure, the church gave lip-service to this wonderful new life I could have in Christ but usually only after literally trying to scare the hell out of me first. Anyway, for some reason the shame got to me right before and many times after I was baptized. Almost every time hell was preached about, which was a lot, I just knew I was going there. I was constantly told that people could only be saved if they really and truly meant it when they prayed to be saved. I guessed that I just never meant it enough and I spent my childhood and teenage years being terrified of hell and the fact that I was obviously going there. I prayed “the sinner’s prayer” more times than I can count, and I eventually went on to be baptized twice more as I thought I had gotten “truly saved.”
The next time I got baptized was a time of even greater confusion for me and I was still straddling the fence of this elaborate double life I had lived since I was a child. On one hand I was the picture of a decent fundamentalist young woman, on the other, my heart wasn’t in it at all and I knew the whole thing was fucked up but those people were my life, they were my community, I literally knew nobody else and had nobody else. So, it was a matter of conforming if I wanted to keep my community and life as I knew it.
This baptism was done when I was twenty, right after my six-month stint of homelessness, where I had done things which I still regret to this day. I guess that I may have been in search of another community to attach myself to. I wanted to fit-in somewhere, and I was never quite good enough for the fundamentalists. I always missed the mark. But the things I did during that time were big bad sins that definitely meant I was not saved. I knew I had done wrong, and this was not just a thing that I could pretend was inconsequential. I had messed up big time, in ways that could have totally ruined my life, and not just in the fundamentalist community.
Brock, Rita Nagashima and Rebecca Ann Parker. Proverbs of Ashes: Violence, Redemptive Suffering, and the Search for What Saves Us. 2002: Beacon Press.
Turner, Matthew Paul. Churched: One Kid’s Journey Toward God Despite a Holy Mess. 2010: WaterBrook.