But what qualifies as abuse?

I'm to see yet another pain specialist next week. On the forms he sent was the question, "Have you ever been physically or emotionally abused?" I said no, but a few days later, the following poured from me, and I wondered if I shouldn't have responded differently. I know that the answer comes down to what qualifies as abuse, but after dredging up the following memories, I certainly felt abused. But abused by whom, and if my boyhood was so abusive, how is is that so many who grew up as I did would disagree?

I grew up in an ultra-fundamentalist denomination called the Church of Christ, which holds that the Bible is the dictated Word of God, and is therefore completely clear, consistent, and perfect in every scientific, historical, and theological aspect. Because the Church of Christ recognizes no authority beyond the individual congregation, beliefs and practices vary slightly. At the liberal end, women are allowed to make announcements, teach Sunday school, and ask questions during Bible study. At the conservative end, they aren't allowed to speak at all except to the people near them, yet in both liberal and conservative churches, young boys can speak freely in any role assigned to them. Again at the liberal end, communion wine is served in tiny glasses that are passed around in stackable trays. At the conservative end, communion wine is served in one large glass, the reason being that Jesus spoke in the singular when he said, "Take this cup in memory of me."

The Church of Christ has weekly communion; practices baptism by immersion; and prohibits the use of musical instruments inside the church, even for weddings. It claims to be God's one true church and to have been in continual existence since the time of Christ--it explains the lack of evidence for this by saying that Catholic persecution drove it underground until the 1830s. The church teaches that anyone, anywhere who sincerely seeks God will be led to the Church of Christ, and that anyone who has reached "the age of accountability" (around age twelve) without belonging to the Church of Christ is in willful disobedience to God and is therefore condemned to eternal torment in a "lake of fire." To illustrate the extreme literalism of the Church of Christ, I heard preachers debate whether someone who died in a car wreck on his way to be baptized would go to heaven or hell. The Church of Christ regards religious holidays as "pagan" and politics as "worldly." Because it regards other churches as ruled by Satan, ecumenicalism is unthinkable. I, personally, never knew the Church of Christ to do any good for anyone beyond buying poor families a turkey at Thanksgiving, its entire emphasis being on personal salvation.

Members of the Church of Christ call their preachers Brother (Reverend being considered Satanic and Father even worse), and they call one another Brother ___ and Sister ____. Because Church of Christ members expect every sermon to include talk of hell and an invitation to be saved, my earliest memory of God revolves around being so afraid of him that I hid under the bed when I got home from church. Heavy rains scared me because I worried that they were the start of another worldwide flood, and thunder frightened me because I heard in it the voice of an angry God. Yet most of my early memories of church are good memories, perhaps because I was a desperately lonely child who lived in the country and had no playmates, and the people at church were friendly. 

I was six when I started celebrating "the Lord's Supper" privately with grape juice and saltines (the Church of Christ uses wine and Matzo crackers), and seven when I attended a Catholic wedding, and wished that my bare-walled Church of Christ could be so lavishly decorated. By the time I was eleven, my family had moved into town, and I improvised a backyard pulpit, decorated it with wisteria, and began preaching to the neighborhood kids. When I was twelve, Jehovah Witnesses came to my house, and I began knocking on doors alongside them, saying what I had been told to say and handing out Awakes and Watchtowers. Jehovah's Witnesses were new to our town, and because their services were held in the living room of a small house, I believed that they were like the early church. When my mother told our preacher about my JW involvement, he said that I had to choose one way or the other, so I stayed with the Church of Christ.

I didn't remember my grandfather or great grandfather, but I was told that they had been well respected Church of Christ preachers, and when I reached my teens, I began to accompany Brothers Miller and Stewart on out of state revivals. I took my religion more seriously than did my parents or my sister, which proved to be a good thing when I later left the church and they, at least, didn't shun me. I attended church three times a week, preached short sermons, led singing, offered public prayers, and presided over the communion table, yet from age eleven, I fell victim to a long and desperate struggle to maintain my faith. This struggle left me miserable beyond words because I was convinced (from having heard it continually) that a life without God is one of sadness and desperation. 

What occasioned my first doubt was the Bible itself, specifically a passage in the Old Testament that Brother Miller, read in Bible study one morning. In that passage, God ordered the Jews to invade a city and kill every man, woman, child, and animal, except for the young virgins, which they were allowed to "keep for yourselves." I asked Brother Miller how a just and merciful God could command such a cruel act, and he said that the answers to some questions will only be given in heaven because if God answered them now, faith would be replaced by knowledge, and no one could be saved. Until that day, I had thought that preachers knew everything, and didn't know how I could go on worshiping a god who claimed to be good while commanding his followers to do evil. I was surprised that I was the only person in class who seemed bothered by the reading, but I soon found that I was the only person who seemed bothered by much of anything that was said in church, the Church of Christ belief being that the Bible was true, and questions were of Satan.

After that incident in Bible study, I started paying increasingly close attention both to the Bible and to what my church was telling me about God, and so it was that my doubts increased. I concluded from this that there must be something wrong with me that had caused God to deny me the "gift of faith," and that other people had access to some secret knowledge that I lacked. I continued to cling to my religion, but I could only experience joy to the extent that I was able to find distraction from my questions. I started asking God for faith, and when none came, I berated him for breaking his promise to give faith to those who asked. Hundreds of times, I would pray for guidance, open my King James Bible at random, and point to a verse with my eyes closed in the hope of receiving a message from God, but none came, and when my finger fell on a blank space, a genealogy, a genocide, or some Old Testament ceremonial law, I became furious at God for mocking me. 

I was struck by the irony of having almost no belief in God, yet being obsessed by fear of him. Today, when I hear the continual outpouring of anger, petulance, bullying, narcissism, childishness, and mean-spirited vindictiveness, that comes from my president, I'm reminded of my boyhood image of the Biblical God, only without the white robes and long beard. Of course, the Church of Christ also talked about the gentle Jesus, yet Jesus, like his father, was often insulting, threatening, condescending, hypocritical, and contradictory, plus the context in which Christ was mentioned in church was usually in regard to "his atoning blood," and him being a "ransom for our sins," images that took me right back to the image of an angry God who requires innocent blood to be shed before he can do what he expects us to do freely, that is to forgive.

When I was thirteen, I was running my paper route on my bike when I told God that, since he had ignored my every prayer for faith and because his own son's last words had been an accusation of abandonment, he could hardly expect me to believe in him. As soon I said this, I became terrified that I had committed the unpardonable sin. While I still found church rewarding, I was often consumed by a fear of everlasting hell when I was alone. When I finally concluded that I had to either talk to someone or lose my mind, I went to a preacher's house in search of assurance of God's forgiveness, but when I got there, I couldn't bring myself to tell him why I had come, so we chatted awhile and I left. While still in high school, I tried to help myself by taking a course in psychology at the local college, and we visited the Mandeville, Louisiana, mental asylum as a part of that course. I wondered if I could find peace at Mandeville with the help of wise psychiatrists, but I didn't know what to do to be committed. I thought that maybe setting the woods on fire was the answer, but I worried that I would instead end up in juvenile prison.

By the time I reached my upper teens, I had the thought that maybe my fear and loathing of God wasn't caused by him but by the teachings of my church, and that I either needed to liberalize the church or find a different one. I began writing liberalizing articles for the church newsletter, but none was published, and I began to imagine that the people at church were treating me differently. I then started visiting other churches. Because my options were limited by living in a rural area, I sometimes drove sixty miles north to Jackson (I lived in Mississippi). I stopped counting denominations when I reached fifty, accumulating churches in the same way that other people accumulate states or nations. My search also inspired me to read a set of books on comparative religion, and I took courses in Bible and theology at the local Independent Methodist college, which was only slightly more liberal than the Church of Christ. Early in the process of church shopping, I visited the Episcopal Church, and felt that, at age nineteen, I had finally found my home, so although I visited other denominations, I did so for the joy of it rather than because I had any thought that I might want to become a Pentecostal, a Christian Scientist, etc.

I later joined two other denominations (more about that later), yet the Episcopal Church continued to be the only church I ever loved, although I love it largely because it doesn't even qualify as a church by the standards with which I was raised. I say this for reasons already mentioned, but also because it avoids tackling the Bible directly, but instead cherry-picks passages for its Book of Common Prayer, the result being that most Episcopalians are Biblically illiterate. Yet it is for such reasons that I love the Episcopal Church. I love it so much that I sometimes cry (something I never did in the Church of Christ) while singing a hymn or taking mass, but my tears don't come from any love of a divine being, but from the sweetness, grandeur, and antiquity of the service; from the physical beauty of the sanctuary; and from the shared intimacy with other people. To me, these things and more constitute God, although I avoid the word because I can't to this day separate God from Satan, the one being depicted as hardly less evil than the other in the Bible, and the meaning of God in my life being characterized for far too long by an increasingly desperate and despairing attempt to worship and seek solace from an abusive deity.

More later...