Trigger warning: this post contains stories of abuse in families and church settings.
My family life growing up, was marred by mental, physical, and emotional abuse. This abuse has shattered relationships not just between the one responsible for the abuse, but also between the victims: my sisters and I.
Growing up, the abuse at home was not challenged by the Pentecostal church I was raised in. The majority of the congregation had experienced some type of abuse be it sexual, physical, mental, or emotional, yet there was rarely, if ever, any explicit condemnation of such actions.
Physical abuse was often jokingly referred to as part of Latinx culture. Physical abuse was associated with love in that it was an attempt by adults to keep “children in line” from the evil temptations of the world. Other forms of abuse were ignored, at least from the pulpit.
In fact, the tradition’s theology, unintentionally or not, set a very dangerous precedent that linked violence with love.
My childhood church emphasized God’s willingness to inflict massive amounts of pain and suffering on Jesus as the ultimate example of God’s love. Jesus was abused and shattered because humanity is so evil and wrenched, that only blood and death can lead to the forgiveness of a broken and selfish human race. In fact, God’s love is such that Jesus became a substitute for the divine and human abuse-that each and every one of us as individuals deserve to experience.
In other words, the God of this tradition was portrayed as expressing “his” love (because God was always referred to using the pronoun “he”), through the infliction of violence. This God is a vindictive being that not only sanctions but actively engages in divine child abuse. Yet this tradition still provided a sense of comfort to me.
It expressed the only type of “love” I ever knew, and it reinforced the idea that as a corrupt, sinful child, I was unworthy of love and life. It took years for me to find a way to let go of this depiction of God and even now, I still struggle with being attracted to the idea that God loved me so much, God allowed someone else to take the violent abuse, I so desperately deserve.
Walking away from this theology of abuse, led me to seek out Moderate/Liberal Mainline churches and at first, the deemphasis of a physically violent God was a welcome change.
For the first time I learned that physical, mental, or emotional violence are not synonymous with love. I intentionally sought out churches that rejected the theology that Jesus died a horrific death in place of humanity. It was healing to hear that God loved me, as is, period. But this relief was short lived.
Being told that God loves me without any qualifications was nice, but where was the God that condemned abuse? Not a God that found abuse and injustice to be “wrong” but a God that actively shouted, “no, this is not how to treat my beloved children.”
Instead the God preached was one who disliked abuse, violence, and injustice but was more concerned at assuring white middle class Christians that they were loved and that their inaction in addressing the various individual and institutional abuses going on in their midst was ok.
These moderate/liberal mainline churches would have no qualms about placing themselves in stark contrast to more fundamentalist denominations. Very rarely if ever, would a sermon be given that focused on the notion that salvation was tied to Jesus’ bloody death. If such a theological concept was referenced it was briefly, in a song/hymn or in a an abstract way. While the pastor at my childhood church could spend an hour detailing and repeating how Jesus suffered a excruciating death because of our horrible sin filled nature, the mainline churches I attended would, at best, mention Jesus’ crucifiction during Easter.
Instead many sermons were spent extolling how generous the congregation was for providing an act of service for a marginalized group. I remember volunteering with a college group at a mainline church in a relatively well off part of the country. the congregation was responsible for hosting a week-long winter shelter for the homeless at their place of worship. The pastor in describing this particularly ministry, mentioned how a cop used to sit at the parking lot filling out paperwork. One time she went up to speak with the officer to ask him if there was an issue and she explained to him the church was offering shelter to a group of homeless individuals for a week. The officer offered to move because he understood that his presence made those the church was ostensibly serving, uncomfortable.
However, the pastor explained that she had no problem with the officer’s presence because it might serve as an incentive to keep the homeless people on their best behavior. I was shocked but not surprised. The officer recognized that his presence might be uncomfortable for those seeking shelter at the church and he offered to leave, but this white pastor took comfort from the presence of a representative an institution often known to harass or even kill members of the homeless population.
She did not care whether or not those in her midst had legitimate reasons to fear for their lives in the presence of an officer, all she cared about was the comfort the officer’s presence gave her. This pastor also praised her congregation over and over again for organizing one week out of the year where the homeless were actively welcomed into their building.
Additionally, I was often one of only a handful of non-white people in attendance. Rarely if ever would there be a sermon addressing the very real issues that black and brown people face on a daily basis. Discrimination, racism, poverty, were only discussed in light of the “great” actions that the congregation took to “help” members of a marginalized group. Discussions on how church members helped perpetuate injustice via their actions or lack of action, rarely took place.
It took me years to figure out that this passive God, was also an abusive God. While this God did not equate violence with salvation, this God had nothing of value to say to those like me who experienced abuse in the home and who because of race, gender, and sexual orientation faced systematic abuse in the larger culture. This God perpetuates abuse via silence.
As I’ve gotten older I’ve had to learn to unpack the baggage from an abusive childhood filled with broken relationships amongst my family members, but I’ve also had to process and discard the abusive theology that I was exposed to in both the Pentecostal and Mainline churches I attended.
It seems obvious to me now that the theology of my youth helped perpetrate and condone the abuse I experienced as a child. But I still struggle with the silence of many mainline churches and their portrayal of a passive God. This God does not actively call for violence, but this God also appears silent when it occurs. Both depictions of God need to be challenged and ultimately rejected.
But if this God is rejected, what is left?
The notion of an abusive God that actively requires violence to appease “his” anger, as well the portrayal of a loving but passive God that is supposed to contrast the former image, have been deeply ingrained into some forms of christian traditions for decades, if not centuries. Leaving behind these theologies of abuse, requires an intentional re-reading and re-interpretation of scripture.
It also requires letting go of notions that while harmful to the marginalized, can be a source of comfort for some of those in power. The tricky part is formulating a God that actively loves all-a God that doesn’t demand violence to satisfy God’s anger but one that doesn’t express love in an overly sentimental and ultimately passive way.
We need to preach and believe in a God whose love is manifest not through a bloody death but through the explicit condemnation of abuse and who actively works to journey with and heal those who have been abused by loved ones, strangers, and/or societal institutions.