Why asking people to ignore a few “bad apple” Christians and trust god is toxic
Or, the #1 thing people told me when I left church
There are scripts for every important occasion in life.
We say “Beautiful boy!” and “He looks just like his mom” for a birth. “What’s the date?” and “Where are you registered?” are for engagements. And there’s “Sorry for your loss” and “If there is anything you need, do not hesitate to ask” for a death.
I don’t think relying on scripted replies is necessarily a bad thing. We buy cards, send flowers, and write checks because familiarity and routine are a comfort in the face of sometimes abrupt or painful change. But not all scripts serve the person closest to the suffering, and not all scripts help all parties involved.
Ask any person who has abandoned Christianity, and they will tell you there are scripts for this too.
I have been living a secular life for about three years now, and I have heard many of them: There’s the assessment of what I did wrong (“You didn’t do enough to salvage your faith;” “You’re misinterpreting that verse.”) There’s the assessment of how I am wrong (“ You have a bitter root; “You’re lost in the world.”) And there’s the litany of cures for apostacy in the form of a book, a Bible verse, a sermon, a prayer, a fast, a pastor, a more progressive denomination, an attitude change, an ideological change, a repression of emotion or desire, or a Christian therapist.
Interestingly, the people who recommend these fixes have rarely asked to hear my story and take me on my terms, as though the mere exposure to unbelief without PPE — that is to say, skepticism — is contagious. Maybe it is.
Now, of all the ideas people have approached me with over the years, the most frequent one I’ve heard goes something like this: “Stop letting a few bad apple Christians keep you from god.” It is an appeal to view hypocrites as outliers rather than the norm, as defective products of a system that itself is not defective.
Before I offer an explanation of why I find this piece of advice insidious and toxic, no matter how well-meaning the person giving it is, let me get the story of why I left on the books. Because people who don’t understand the problem have no business offering a solution.
The first time it occurs to me that god may not be real, I’m working as a missionary to Honduras.
It is my second year working in the capital, Tegucigalpa, at a religious bilingual school. The first year, I lived with two other women and made friends who had similar interests and personalities compatible with mine.
The second year, I move up the mountain to a new neighborhood, to a one-bedroom apartment where I live alone. Most of the friends I made the previous year moved back to the States, have been let go, are on pregnancy leave, or are preoccupied with significant others. It is no secret that the remaining single teachers do not like me, and I’m not included in many of their activities.
I spend almost all of my free time alone in my apartment, studying Spanish, reading, and listening to sermons. I often go entire weekends without a having single conversation with an English speaker, aside from church, and sometimes I don’t even get that. I miss being sought out. I miss being touched. I miss being treated like a person.
One week in late September, I cry at school every day. It is a reflex, in the same way that shivering or sneezing is a reflex. I can’t control it.
Students cycle in and out of the library for class and recess. When they are present, I stand and smile on command. I break into song, break out puppets and books, practice my Spanish and teacher look. The moment they leave, the tears well automatically. I sit at my desk and duck behind my laptop screen.
In the future, I will learn from a doctor in the United States that I’m clinically depressed, living with no access to therapy or medication. I’m not just miserable; I’m in danger.
At this same time, I’m having plumbing issues in my apartment, and I’m having a hard time convincing the school to send a maintenance person out. One afternoon, I come back to find my bathroom flooded. Another day, the sink doesn’t work. The recurring issue is the water in the shower refuses to get hot. I bathe by heating a pot on the stove and pouring it over myself.
One morning, it all feels like too much. I’m crouching over the drain, pouring water over my head and asking myself for the hundredth time where is god. There is an incongruence between who people tell me god is and the god I’m experiencing. I prepare a reply to the doubt in my mind, the way I always do. A verse about suffering to explain the contradiction.
But I stop myself and take inventory.
I’m squatting naked over a hole in the floor in a country that isn’t my own, living in distress, working for almost no compensation at the request of a god who isn’t here. I’m tired of forcing myself to be strong, to rely on abstractions like faith, to think of Moses and David and Daniel and Paul, to pretend god is here in my sadness. He isn’t.
In a moment of total lucidity, I decide I have to be done. It is one of the first times in my life where I don’t try to talk myself out of something I feel is true. In the years to come, I will learn that those who leave religion (called disaffiliates or exiters) have a phrase for this kind of moment: I have reached my boiling point.
But the church trained me well. I remove the lid from the proverbial pot and let the boil drop to a simmer. I go back to work, to church, to god, to suppressing discomfort and doubt. After all, I’m not a quitter. I’m nothing if not fiercely loyal.
But I’m also afraid of who I or the world will be if god is not real. And I’m afraid of being ostracized.
So I hang on.
A year passes, and I return to the States. I’m Hansel and Gretel now, moving from breadcrumb to breadcrumb, following a trail out of the church.
I’m developing a vocabulary for what I’ve experienced and feel. I’m having discussions with pastors who tell me, “We try not to get too political.” I’m Facebook debating white Christians who are okay with calling Central Americans rapists and murderers and thieves. The insistence that what we need is a wall is growing louder and more urgent.
But I’m nothing if not fiercely loyal, so I’m showing up to lead worship, to lead Bible study. I’m nothing if not fiercely loyal. I’m showing up to mentor and be mentored, to receive prayer, to cook meals. I’m loyal. I’m here to decorate for the women’s luncheon. To turn in my bible to the book of Acts chapter two verse forty-six. Loyal. To stand and sing with us this morning. To come forward if you’re in need of prayer.
I’m loyal, but to my own detriment. Every single time I show up, I reach boiling point.
I go until I can’t anymore, and then I leave, because the pain of leaving hurts less than the pain of staying.
But it is still pain.
Now that you have some background, I want to respond to the suggestion that I “stop letting a few bad apples keep me from god” with an analogy:
Say I returned to Honduras. Say that a Honduran neighbor heard about the way many white evangelicals reacted to the migrant caravan and did not protest the inhumane practice of detaining migrant children and separating them from their families. Say the neighbor could tell you the story of the banana republic — a time in history when American fruit companies exploited Honduran workers and stunted their country economically — which did irreparable damage that is still being felt now.
Say my neighbor said to me, “The United States has oppressed people. It needs to change. I don’t want to go there or have anything to do with it, really.”
I would never dream of replying, “But there are good Estado Unidenses! I have a friend who works with refugees, and she’s from the United States. What about her? Plus, you have to remember hurt people hurt people. Individuals aren’t perfect, but the American constitution and American values are!”
What I would say is, “You’re right. The United States is an exceptionally xenophobic and racist place, and it has harmed so many groups of people. I respect your anger and boundaries.”
I would not excuse or rationalize North Americans’ actions, and I wouldn’t ask my neighbor to ignore what they saw, heard, and felt against their better judgment.
Like the hypothetical Honduran neighbor, my criticism is that Christians have done damage. I don’t want to have anything to do with Christianity; the church needs to change. I understand why this may feel threatening to some Christians. If you believe, ontologically speaking, that there’s only one true reality — either god exists or doesn’t, either he is good or isn’t — then you will have a hard time sitting with my story. I had a hard time sitting with my story.
I don’t know the nature of reality, but I do know that my personality and my circumstances caused me to hit a boiling point while some of my peers did not.
I hit boiling point because much of the white evangelical Christianity I participated in was built on asking people to ignore. Ignore the way they feel. Ignore their desires. Ignore their doubts. Ignore their sexuality. Ignore the misogyny, homophobia, and white saviorism alive in the church. Ignore the corrupt actions of Christians in power and focus on inane things like dressing modestly and a literal seven-day Creation.
I got sick of ignoring. But when I pointed out things I could no longer stomach let alone ignore, people had the nerve to respond, “Well, Jesus is not like that!” as if the person they follow is different from the god who wiped out most of humanity with a flood, slayed the firstborn of Egypt, killed 70,000 in order to punish one man, and commanded the Israelites to utterly destroy the Canaanites, Amorites, Hittites, Perizzites and Jebusites.
How do you know any better than me what Jesus is like? Who are you to tell me he is good, as though you know something I don’t?
Let me spell it out for you: I left Christianity because I had a bad experience with god, and some of that bad experience came in the form of the people god’s system produced.
Understand that asking me to ignore the body of Christ and trust Jesus is like asking me to ignore the hands that strangle and trust the head directing those hands. It’s like asking me to ignore the trees and trust the roots, when so much of the forest has become infested and rotten. Who in their right mind would continue to live there.