How I Left Christianity Part Five: From Love to Condemnation

“Jesus loves me, this I know. For the Bible tells me so.”

As a child, I was taught at church that Jesus loved me. Over and over again, this was the message I got.

Once I hit puberty, that all changed.

“You look like a prositute.”

“You’re leading your brothers astray. You need to dress more modestly.”

“What were you doing in the choir room alone with him? Were you messing around?”

Once I hit puberty, this is the message I got. This is what I was taught, over and over again. It wasn’t so much about love anymore. It was about my own depravity-my inheritance of sinful temptation that I received from Eve. I was to cover my body in layers of cloth. I was to change my behavior and cut off friendships that had existed since early childhood.

I wasn’t a loved child of God anymore. I was a filthy agent of Satan who had to be reined in at all costs.

“Jesus loves me! He doesn’t care what I wear! He loves me for who I am! He saved me despite my sins!”

I couldn’t say how many times I said some variation of that to my church. They never got it.

I felt like the church was dumping buckets of mud on me, and then telling me I was dirty, and it was all my fault. All I wanted was to go about my business: worshipping my Savior, talking to Him, and fellowship with my brothers and sisters.

Once I hit puberty, I was never allowed to do just that.

The adults in my church were so obsessed with the body parts I didn’t have, and didn’t know existed. I hadn’t developed breasts yet. I didn’t know I had a vagina. I seriously thought I peed out of my anus.

I had no interest in real boys. I loved the Backstreet Boys because I loved their music and I thought they were cute. But the boys in my life?

“Me? Kissing them? You are out of your mind. That’s weird. And gross. Ew. Pervert.”

I was so tired of it. How could I convince these adults to leave me alone?

I tried dressing more modestly. But it was never enough.

“Those pants hug your bottom. That’s inappropriate.”

“You shouldn’t wear tshirts with sarcastic remarks on them. That’s inappropriate.”

“Button up that shirt. I can see skin. That’s immodest.”

“Button that shirt up. No, it doesn’t matter if you’re wearing another underneath. Boys will think it’s not there, and that you’re naked. Button it all the way up.”

“Don’t let that sweater hang off your shoulders. Take it off, or wear it properly.”

I, along with the other girls, eventually took to wearing baggy pull-over hoodies and jeans. Of course, then there was bemoaning over the disrespect our generation showed to God because we weren’t dressing up.

I begged my mother to buy me more clothes. Of course, my parents didn’t have the money to purchase a new wardrobe to accommodate the ever-changing standards of proper modesty and dressiness of the church leaders.

You would have thought the song went something like this:

“Onward, Christian soldiers, to demean those teenage girls…”

It hurt me, deeply, to be treated this way by people I loved and admired…and trusted. I could never be good enough. I wasn’t a person. I was simply a tainted body.

When I took the purity pledge, I earned a brief respite from the constant barrage of insults and condemnations. It wasn’t long, though, before that was used as a weapon against me, too.

Why couldn’t I just be? I knew that I deserved better. I fought for it. I struggled to understand why it was so difficult for the people in my church to just let me be.

All of this? Once I ventured out into the world, once I had a taste of respect, of simply Being, I had no desire to go back to this.

Confession: I Was One of Those “Christians”

I have a confession to make.

I was a Christian. A fundamentalist, evangelical, Southern Baptist Christian.

I will say that Christianity and Christians hurt me, but I also hurt others.

I am guilty.

I left behind those beliefs and stopped committing those actions many years ago, but in all of those years since, I carried a burden of guilt. The girls in that church, they were my best friends. I loved them. We spent so much time together–phone calls, church activities, sleepovers, and various outings.

Then, one day, it all came crashing down. One of the girls announced she was pregnant. She was fourteen years old. How did we respond?

We called her slut. We shunned her. We demanded she repent. We told her she betrayed us. She was made to stand in front of the entire congregation and apologize for having sex and becoming pregnant. We were drunk in our self-righteousness and our purity. We did not stumble as she had. She was a sinner. We were not. Or rather, we were not as big as sinners as she was. We were only sinners in the way everyone was. We were Good Christian Girls.

Eventually, she left the church. I cannot speak of others’ actions here, but when she left, she was gone. I did not call. I didn’t attempt to contact her in any way. I left one of my best friends out to dry–to suffer alone. I inflicted pain and suffering on her. Five became four. We said horrible things about her behind her back.

Soon, things came crashing down upon me, and I too left the church. I took a long, hard look at myself, my beliefs, and my faith, and I cast it out with the trash. I wanted nothing to do with such hatred, hypocrisy, and cruelty. I began a journey, a spiritual one, to learn, to ask, to find out in my words, “what I really believed.” It was a long process, and a story to be shared at another time.

But I did not, in all of this, reach out to this girl, one of my very best and dearest friends. At first, I was consumed by my own problems. But as the days, weeks, months, and years passed, she came to mind more and more often. I realized how awful it was, what I did to her. I realized what a horrible friend I had been. A terrible sister. How selfish. As I discovered feminism, I learned more and more just how fucked up what I had done had been.

I started to wonder how she was, but I was so ashamed of myself that I did not take that step to call and ask. I hoped she was happy. I hoped she was thriving, that her child was happy and healthy. I hoped beyond hope that she had found friends who loved her, who fulfilled her, who were loyal and supportive and true. I wanted to be her friend again, but I thought that I was undeserving. I let too much time pass. My transgressions were too great. I didn’t deserve her friendship.

Then, facebook. I added another friend from my church days–a boy who had also left. I knew his story, and I wanted to catch up with him. We were fellow rebels. He was the only one, in the entire church, who had stood by her. I was glad that he did, that she had someone who had turned out to be a true friend. When I saw their interactions on facebook, I envied their friendship, their closeness, and inevitably, I felt a surge a guilt anew for failing to be what a Best Friend should be.

I was overwhelmed by guilt and shame, yes. But I was also afraid. I knew that I owed her, at the very least, a very big apology, but I couldn’t make myself do it. I was afraid of what she would say and how she would react. I knew that whatever she said–if she chose to react with anger, and throw any and all manner of verbal invective my way, I deserved it. And if she chose to forgive? If she wanted my love and my friendship? I could barely stand to think about it. I didn’t deserve that. She was stronger than me. She was a much better person than me.

I knew also that I was going overboard with my guilt. I should get over it. I should just apologize. I shouldn’t keep dwelling over the past. I should do the right thing, and move on with my life like I hoped she had. One day while sitting with my computer, I took a breath, and sent her a friend request on facebook. I’d wait and see.

A few days later, I realized she’d accepted it. Whoa. This was a huge step for me. I hungrily read her most recent statuses, eager for news that she was doing well. It seemed so. Good. I breathed a sigh of relief.

Now I didn’t know what to do. She was happy, from what I could see. She didn’t need me dredging up the past with all its painful memories. Finally, I broke down and talked to Momma Beemer about it. We sat on the back deck of my older brother’s home, smoking cigarettes, while I opened up about my feelings for the first time. She encouraged me to reach out to her. To apologize. It was the right thing to do–Momma Beemer was sure that it would help to heal old wounds, perhaps rekindle our friendship, and be there for one another like we once were.

Then, a crisis. My childhood and adolescent friend was having a rough time. I can’t describe what I felt at that moment, when I read her facebook note. I wanted to help. I wanted to do something, even if it was only to be an ear. But. I had to apologize first. Before anything else, I had to apologize.

I sat on my couch, with my netbook in my lap, and started to type. I wrote words and sentences, and then deleted them. I was going to do it. I was going to be honest. I was going to admit to her that I had been wrong, that I made a terrible mistake, and I had hurt her. I was sorry. I’m sorry. I poured out my heart in that message. I smoked several cigarettes while writing it. I cried. I let the tears fall, and I brushed them away so I could continue to write.

I hit send.

I spent the next few hours on pins and needles. I was anxious. I smoked more cigarettes. I tried to distract myself, but I kept clicking on the facebook tab and checking.

Then a little red one hovered over my message icon. I hesitated. This was it. Click.

Tears were falling down my face before I’d even finished reading her message. One hundred and fifty-seven words to say: she forgave me. I’d hurt her, yes. But she forgave me for it. She doesn’t hold it against me–it meant so much to her that I’d apologized. She loved me. She called me sister.

I wanted more than anything at that moment to jump in my car, drive to her home, and hug and cry and blubber.

We weren’t girls anymore. We were grown women. We’d lost years. I wanted yesteryear–to pack an overnight bag, sit in a basement on pillows and blankets, watch movies and giggle maniacally like we did so many years ago. I wanted to prank call the boys, sneak chips and coke, and sit in a circle and confide our deepest secrets to one another.

When I left that church, I left behind childhood friendships. I lost that connection you have with those you grew up with, who know you inside and out, your past and your present. Ever since, the friendships I have cultivated had known only of the past I had told them. I didn’t realize it, but I hungered for friendships that stem from a long past. I missed not having to tell friends of my past, of my family, of my history. I missed having people that knew all of that already.

We traded messages back and forth, and soon graduated to texts and calls. One night, I invited her to stay the night. It would be the first time we saw one another in years. When she arrived, she hugged me, and it was the best hug I’ve ever had. We sat on my couch and talked for hours. About everything. You remember when we ___? Yes!  And ___ said __? Oh man, that was funny. What happened after you left? (A lot.) Do you know ___ is married? Oh, fuck. Seriously? ____ won’t even look at me. Yeah, I don’t talk to them, either. They turn around and walk away when they see me. At ___’s funeral they pretended like nothing ever happened, like everything was the same.

We went out,  picked up our friend, and got something to eat. We teased one another about this or that, and laughed over old jokes and reminisced about our days together in church. How wild it is how different we are now. We joked about making a tshirt. We dropped him off and went back to my place. We settled down and watched a movie. It was so late.

It was better than I could have imagined.

We still have a lot to catch up on–so many years cannot be made up for in a single night. But I hope that we can continue to stay in touch, that we will spend more time together in the days to come, and learn more about the women we have become.

I regret those lost years. I regret that it took me so long to do the right thing, and I will continue to regret that I did not do the right thing in the first place. Bigger than all of that, however, is love.

I love you, sis.

Slut Shaming Preteens in Church

I was a rebellious little shit.

Last night I was browsing this blog, written by a former fundamentalist Baptist preacher who has left Christianity altogether. I came upon this post, and stupidly I watched the sermon. It brought back a lot of memories.

You see, from 1993-2003/4 I attended a Southern Baptist church with my aunt and uncle. I went to church Sunday mornings, Sunday nights, Wednesday nights. I was involved in choir, Sunday school, youth group, hand bell choir, vacation bible school, church camp, the production of numerous musicals, and so on.

After I watched the sermon mentioned above, I tweeted this:

ABookishBeemer: “Just watched a vid of a baptist preacher raving on about women’s clothing and modesty. gag/lol/middle finger I’ll have to write about this.”

Once we reached puberty, I, and the other girls in my youth group were scrutinized on a regular basis. Were our clothes modest enough? Were we behaving inappropriately with the boys in the youth group? Were we spending too much time alone with the boys in church?

I hated this.

My parents did not attend church. While both parents were raised in a Christian environment (my mother attended church with her parents, my father attended Catholic schools) they were not religious. My parents did not teach me such ridiculous things such as the draconian dress codes Christians impose on women or the subjugation aka “proper submission” of women.

They did teach me that I was my own person, deserving of respect. They taught me to stand up for myself. They also taught me that only they, as my parents, could dictate to me my actions or behaviors.

You can imagine the effect this had on a young teenage girl being told she was slutty if she wore tank tops, shorts, or skirts, or existed alone in a room with a human of the opposite sex.

Oh yes, I was a rebellious little shit.

What does this mean? Well. It meant that in the hot, humid Kentucky summers, I wore shorts and tank tops. I wore skirts that bared my knees.

It means that I told the adults who slut shamed me that “Jesus doesn’t care what I wear.” and “It’s hot. I’m wearing shorts. The end.”

I remember one incident, at a Super Bowl party at church, when a Very Important Lady chastised me for wearing a shirt, if I recall correctly, that had a smartass remark on it. (It was January after all, I could have been wearing a tank top, but there was no way I was wearing shorts.) Having enough, I called my mother. Having enough, my mother came to church to confront this woman and to take me home.

Now, Momma Beemer is one who, when people are ridiculous, loves to mess with them. In response to this incident, she showed up in a long, dark-colored trenchcoat, combat boots, with a hat pulled low over her eyes. (Not my mother’s normal choice of attire.) She strolled purposefully through the sanctuary toward this woman. They had words. With childish glee at my harasser getting hers, I watched. I wish now that I’d been nearer so that I could overhear what Momma Beemer said. This woman never bothered me again.

But of course, that didn’t stop everyone else from continuing their harassment of me and my friends. Someone made a rule that we could not go anywhere in the church, save the office, kitchen, and sanctuary, unless an adult was present. I broke this rule.The policing of our clothing continued. Adults were constantly suggesting we sneaked off with boys to “do stuff” while we were at church. Now, we were thirteen and fourteen when this began. Thirteen and fourteen year old girls. Grown men and women suggesting that preteen girls were dressing like “hookers” and sexually active. In church.

Though I was a fundamentalist Christian at the time, my reaction to this was not one of shame. It was anger and indignation. How dare they? I am not a slut. These boys are like my brothers. We grew up together. That’s gross, suggesting that I’m messing around with them. (I had no idea what sex actually entailed at that age. Are you surprised to hear that I never received any formal sex education?) My clothes are fine. My Mom and Dad are fine with them (my parents bought my clothes!) and it’s not slutty to wear shorts in church. If so-and-so is “led astray” when he sees me in shorts, that’s his problem. He’s the pervert, not me. That’s gross. Old fracking perverts.

Oh, I was not popular.

Years later, when I ran into one of the boys from that youth group, we naturally began talking about those days. “Brittany, none of us [boys] never knew what to do with you. You were so different.” Different meaning stubborn. Bullheaded. Opinionated. Independent.

Is it any wonder I eventually left?

Now, my leaving the church was not because of the slut shaming. No, it was something else–but that’s another story for another day.

The way those church members treated me and my friends was abhorrent. Unfortunately, however, it was not unusual. The video that sparked this post is here. It’s a thirty minute diatribe on slitted skirts and tops with too-large armholes–and let’s not forget the CLEAVAGE! (That horrible cleavage!) It really is maddening to watch (see Tweet quoted above.) but for those stuck within the throes of modern American Christianity, it is par for the course.

Slut Shaming

Chloe Angyal wrote a piece for the Christian Science Monitor about slut shaming. I’m glad to see this piece on CSM. It’s a very succinct, well written article. It uses an episode of the ABC show What Would You Do show as a lead-in. The show hid cameras in a diner, and filmed patron’s reactions when women, actresses, were abused by their assumed-boyfriends, actors.

Not surprisingly, the patrons defended the women and confronted the boyfriends when the women were modestly dressed, though they were slower to react when the actors were POC, which is a big issue, all in itself. However, when the women wore low-cut dresses, the patrons did nothing. Two even speculated that the women were prostitutes, and when later interviewed, offered that as the reason they did not intervene.

One of the actresses asked, “What difference should it make if she were a prostitute?”

What, indeed.

Women’s clothing is coded socially. Revealing clothing indicates a woman’s sexual status in our culture. Low-cut tops and short dresses or shorts are given meaning, namely, that a woman is sexually active and available. Clothing is of course neutral, nothing about them tells us anything save their fashion choices. But people take intellectual shortcuts in judging people, and clothing is one of those shortcuts used. It’s wrong, of course, and it hurts a lot of women.

Race is another social shortcut. POC women are hyper-sexualized in our culture. Chloe’s article was a good one, but she left out this aspect, and it needs to be addressed. Racist “cultural” indicators of sexuality are part of our society, and they shouldn’t be. Race is intellectually neutral, yet we attach meaning to it. Men of color are violent, criminals. Women of color are extremely sexual, aggressive, bad mothers.

Slut shaming is not complicated, but it is intertwined with sexism, racism, and a whole slew of other isms. Once you examine it, it’s easy to see. Exposing slut shaming in a popular newspaper, and breaking it down for those not familiar with these facts are key to educating, and then eradicating it.

A lot of people are afraid of the f-word, or rather intimidated by it, convinced by all the man-hating, shrew propaganda that’s been perpetrated for years. Blogs are not yet seen as valid sources by many. But a piece in a large newspaper? A good piece to refer friends and loved ones to when trying to talk to them about this issue. We’re trying to change the world–by activism. And talking to people, educating them, is a big part of that.

Growing up in church

Growing up as an old child and a young teenager, I constantly got crap from members of my former church for my clothing.

I was taught to “come as you are” and that “Jesus didn’t care what you looked like or what you wore” but in reality, I was being taught the opposite. Every Sunday, I’d choose my outfit, sometimes dressy, sometimes not. Sometimes I chose the outfit because I really liked it, and sometimes because of the weather. Sometimes, I chose my outfit based on my activities for the day. Every so often, someone would pull me aside to tell me how “inappropriate” my clothing was.

Sleeveless dresses and tank tops are not appropriate for church, I was chided. I was angry. I was being made to feel bad for something that wasn’t wrong. I was being made to feel like an outcast, a dirty sinner, for something that wasn’t a sin. I could feel the burn of others’ stares. I could almost hear their judgments, too. Jesus doesn’t care, I screamed inwardly. It was hot! In the beginning, we were too young for “temptation” to be a concern, but they policed me anyway. note: None of the girls whose parents also attended church were policed for their clothing, only girls who came with relatives, or friends. The fun of the day, the excitement of learning something new at church, of spending time with my friends, was gone.

Shorts were even worse. I was active; I hated wearing a lot of clothes in 90+ degree, 80%+ humidity weather. I loved being outside and running around with my friends. But if my short’s legs weren’t four inches from the inseam? I was pulled aside, told my dress was “inappropriate” and that I should be more mindful of modesty next time. Again, I felt humiliated. The fun and joy of being at church with people I loved was gone. I felt like an outcast. The dirty sinner to be avoided.

Then, I and my peers hit puberty.

Gender policing began in earnest. We’d all been raised together, since ‘Jesus Loves Me’ and diapers. We were brothers and sisters, in closeness, and in Christ. And yet, suddenly, the adults in the church were dividing us. Whole areas of the church were suddenly off-limits to us–no more hanging out in the youth room, with the brightly painted walls (that we painted ourselves!) and the cool couches. No two of us of opposite genders could be alone, anywhere, at any time. We were met with disapproving stares if a boy and a girl sat too closely together in the worship service, or at dinner. Passing notes during the sermon was extremely suspect–notes were snatched and hissed lectures were handed out.

We fought back for some things: the youth room soon became an approved area again. When we started falling asleep during the sermon (unintentionally), we were grudgingly allowed our notes. But the ease of youthful interaction was forever lost to us.

We started to police ourselves. I was called a prostitute for wearing a knee-length skirt and-boots. We started whispering amongst ourselves if so and so were spending just a little too much time off alone together.

Would we have started to explore the realm of relationships and sexuality on our own amongst each other? Sure. Would it have started so early? Probably not. Gender-sex-sexuality policing 8-12 year olds hurt my relationships with my church friends. It divided us, first by gender, and then individually, until all of us felt judged and ashamed, and so acutely aware of our every move, that we felt pressured to superficialize our friendships with our opposite-sex friends.

I couldn’t just wear that pair of shorts with the red stitching and the buttoned pockets because I like red and I like stuff not falling out of my pockets. I had to hold my arms at my sides to see if the fabric passed my fingertips–the measure of modesty. If so, hurray, another awkward day at church where at least I wouldn’t get yelled at for my clothes. If not, I had to steel myself for a possible confrontation, which usually consisted of my responding that they could speak to my mother if they didn’t like it. (she was always on my side, thank goodness!)

I couldn’t just hug my male friends. The Christian side-hug was the only hug acceptable, though this was unspoken. If you simply hugged a male friend, the whispers about “being boyfriend and girlfriend” and hand-holding and kissing started, just as often by elders as it was by us.

Why did the adults start this gender policing so early? Why was it so vicious? Perhaps I have an answer: Jesus didn’t care, but Paul did.

Clothing and relationships weren’t issues before–we simply existed. We played together, learned about Christ together, and grew together. Humans are sexual creatures, but children are not.  The youth group at my church could have been a great support system for each of us growing up. We didn’t see one another as dating/sex prospects until after the adult Christians made us so.In doing so, they divided and conquered us, until we were bickering and judging one another, and church evolved for us not an escape from the world, but simply another scene of it. It drove us away, from our friendships, and the church, and even Christianity altogether.

We came as we were, and they didn’t like us. It wore us down until we were changed. And then we left, as we are.