Feeling Empathy for Christian Patriarchy Parents and Leaders

HA note: The following is reprinted with permission from Heather Doney’s blog Becoming Worldly. It was originally published on November 13, 2013.

I did a couple things I never expected to do yesterday. I had a thought-provoking conversation that left me thinking about how it is easy to decide that someone is an enemy, a jerk, a selfish person. It is easy to determine that people are unworthy, undeserving, maybe even unclean. It is easy for them to decide that about you too.

Yesterday I found myself talking about my blog with my Dad. 

He’d found out about it a month ago. It hadn’t mattered to me. We hadn’t spoken since before Father’s Day. I expected we might never speak again and it might be for the better. But I got off the phone from that thought-provoking conference call and sat in my chair for a bit, thinking. Then I called my Dad.

Why? Well, sometimes you find out information that humanizes people a bit more, that explains why, and that makes you realize you attributed motives to them that weren’t exactly accurate or that didn’t contain some missing pieces of a bigger picture.

The more adults I talk to or learn from who are walkaways from the Quiverfull and Christian patriarchy stuff, or even ostensible leaders or former leaders within it, the more I see them as not abusers and power-grabbers per se, but also victims. They often had harsh upbringings filled with authoritarianism and loss or were constantly uprooted, never knowing what to expect next.

My Grandad, the man I looked up to and loved so much, was not the same man when my Dad and his siblings were kids. He’d just gotten back from Vietnam back then.

He was a tyrant.

He beat his kids, like his father before him.

Even my Grandad said it, telling me “I was a son of a bitch, and I was a son of a bitch to my kids.” He realized later in life that kids need something different then what he’d gotten and what he’d given. He told my Dad, “Don’t raise your kids like how I raised you.”  My Dad thought he had found a different way. Except it wasn’t really all that different.

Him and my Mom got sucked into extreme religion like a drug when they were just kids, each not yet 20 years old. They became true believers. They more or less still are. That sort of faith easily attracts young people from dysfunctional families who are looking for guarantees, assurances that family life will be different, better, and that heaven awaits if they follow what I have occasionally referred to as “the faith equivalent of the Nutrisystem diet.”

They were trying and failing and starving away on the inside and it was as hard growing up with them as if they had been on drugs.

I thought of Dr. David Gil, a social policy professor I had at Brandeis, in his late 80′s and a holocaust survivor, a man who had testified before Congress against corporal punishment of kids back in the 70′s and had spent much of his career working on fostering reconciliation after atrocities. He’d spoken of society’s ills all coming back to unmet human need. That we have kick the dog syndrome, we have substance abuse, we have wealth hoarding, we have people treating other people (generally weaker people) like objects, and almost all of it is due to stunting – people not being able to reach their full potential during their formative years because the previous generation has hurt them, and the fact that they were born into a society that did not meet their needs starting at a young age. Dr. Gil talked about how people-led movements for equality and social change were all that could alter this dynamic. That it was about interpersonal interaction, sharing, and giving, collaboration rather than competition.

I am not a Star Trek nerd, but this video really moves me. Patrick Stewart’s father was an abuser. He watched his mother get abused as a small boy and couldn’t do anything about it. Later on he learned that it was untreated mental health problems from wartime experiences that caused his father to have so many issues, and while it did not excuse the abuse (because nothing does) it did help him develop empathy for his father. So he is doing work to help veterans and work to help battered women, in order to honor them both, in order to help others avoid beingthem both. I thought it was so moving because this is someone who gets what the cycle really is like. Hurt people hurting people.

We can sit here loathing each other, re-wounding each other, blaming each other, but an eye for an eye truly does make the whole world blind.

I thought about how people often try to improve a dysfunctional world by creating little Utopias and about how people do what they can with the tools they have and sometimes when you have a hammer everything looks like a nail, and sometimes you get caught up in hammering away at everything only to get stopped in your tracks when you least expect it and find that you do have empathy for where someone is coming from simply because you see humanity there. Even if they’ve done things you think are shitty and even if you don’t agree with their outlook much at all. You remember that they are a person too, and if you remember that they are a person they just might remember that you are a person and then as two people you can do the hardest and most special thing that people can do, which is to be people, together.

So many homeschool parents who got sucked into the Quiverfull and Christian patriarchy stuff are still hurting. 

They secretly bear so much shame. So much self-loathing. So much guilt and fear and they are tired and worn down. They often have too many kids and not enough resources or answers. They are trying to pick up the pieces of their lives, decide where their boundaries are, figure out what’s right and what’s wrong and what’s bullshit. I don’t think a lot of them are doing as good of a job as I’d expect, but then again I do have pretty exacting expectations, very little tolerance for the sort of brokenness that reminds me of my childhood. It’s pretty triggering.

But I am trying to be more forgiving. I am trying to bear in mind that once safety has been ascertained, that forgiveness is an option and sometimes recovery, rehabilitation, and reconciliation are too.

I try to remember that at one time they were all babies – they were all cute and innocent little children making mud pies or pushing their peas around their plates. They were all pimply teens trying to figure out what to do with crushes and first loves and first kisses and broken hearts and whether their friends liked them and their clothes conveyed the right message about who they were on the inside. They were learning about education and vocations and how to pay the bills in a world where none of those things were simple (and still aren’t). They were learning how to be parents and what it meant when nobody had ever taught them how. None of it was easy.

They went through hardships, too.

Hardships that caused damage and misconceptions and harms that they passed down to the next generation and sometimes the people around them in one form or another.

I expect most of the time they didn’t mean to cause hurt, but they did and we can’t change the past. We can only look to the future and try to do what we can with what we’ve got. I’m not a fool. I know the odds of my Dad and I having the sort of quality relationship that I would desire in an ideal father-daughter sense is unlikely bordering on neigh impossible. But maybe our relationship can be more than nothing. Maybe it can be more than him getting old and dying and me not seeing him for years before that day. If it has to be nothing I’m ok with that. But something would be better.

And that’s why I called my Dad. I told him that he was worthy of forgiveness. I told him that I forgave him. I told him that I had two rules. He couldn’t tell me what to do and he couldn’t try to rewrite the past. He said ok. Then we talked.

We talked about an old family photo my sister had texted to all of us, when I was just a baby and my parents were young, starry-eyed, and impossibly good looking, and how the picture reminded him of when I was small and he took me to the University of New Orleans once. He said he remembered how happy I was there. I said yes, that I’d remembered that visit, walking up the liberal arts building stairs, him buying me a Coke (a rare treat) out of the vending machine, and seeing adults poring over their books and listening to lectures in classrooms.

He said, “I did good things too, you know. I did good things too.”

I said, “I know, Dad. I remember the good things too. I remember them.

He told me that when he watched the Al Jazeera video he agreed with Pat Farenga’s perspective more than mine, that he felt I did a good job but my framework was off, that he figured modern technology and online schools solved a lot of the homeschooling issues I was concerned about, and with my skills (and here he sounded proud) that I should work towards bigger issues, things that could do more for society, that homeschooling was small. I replied that Pat was a nice guy and we just disagreed about a few things, and I figured if I used my education anywhere, I should start close to home, in an area I know, and so that’s what I was doing.

I said I didn’t do it to shame him. I did it to help other kids.

So I’m gonna call my Dad again in a few days and see if we can start small, start with more good things, attempt to be family to one another, and meantime I’m gonna work on some child abuse prevention resources so that other families can stop the cycle before it gets as bad as it did in mine.

I’m not going to whitewash everything and act like its peachy keen now (because there has been a lot of damage done and a lot of work still needs to be done to bring things in a positive direction and it’s a pretty tall order) but I am hopeful. There is still room for redemption. There is still room for improvement. We are all still alive. Or most of us are anyway, and those who aren’t should be held in our memories, their stories and hardships learned from, their lives honored, the lessons not forgotten.

It is a punitive, careless, and authoritarian culture that hurts us.

This issue isn’t about Christianity. It isn’t about homeschooling. It isn’t about families. It isn’t about faith or love or loyalty. It’s about power. Power that the fearful grasp onto or lash out with. That is what we need to try so hard to end, to use our own power to do.

Sharing is still caring. There is still room to learn and grow and try to make the best of the present, using what we know from the past. There is room to accept broken people and wounded people and people who have done serious harms that are not able to be erased but who are trying to do better now, even if they don’t hardly know the way. We don’t have to do it. We don’t have to do anything. But we can. If we want to.

I’m still pretty early in my career, green in the public policy profession, but today I wanted to share this lesson that I learned, that hit home, that I hope to always remember.

We think we’re just working on metrics, policy issues, and stakeholders and then we run into raw humanity – unmet human need, trauma, and people trying to find a way to get by and make it better than they’ve had it. Maybe this shouldn’t change our goals but our methods. Remind us that it’s never “just business.” It’s always personal.

Everyone is a person.

5 thoughts on “Feeling Empathy for Christian Patriarchy Parents and Leaders

  1. Headless Unicorn Guy November 15, 2013 / 10:05 am

    That we have kick the dog syndrome, we have substance abuse, we have wealth hoarding, we have people treating other people (generally weaker people) like objects, and almost all of it is due to stunting – people not being able to reach their full potential during their formative years because the previous generation has hurt them…

    More and more I’ve come to the conclusion that when the Bible speaks of “generational curses”, this is what they’re talking about in poetic language. How each generation raises the one after it and their screw-ups cascade from generation to generation. NOT that God actively sends curses on you because of something your grandfather did.


    • Retha November 16, 2013 / 10:15 am

      Now that I am older, and less influenced by charismatics and the demons they speak of and more by real people and their pain, I came to pretty much the same conclusion.


  2. Christian November 15, 2013 / 8:49 pm

    That was both healing and inspiring.You have responded to fear with compassion. Thank you for sharing such wisdom.


  3. Serving Kids in Japan November 16, 2013 / 8:41 pm

    I appreciated the idea of pain being passed from one generation to the next, about “hurt people hurting people”.

    It reminds me of one very good book I read recently, dealing with this from the psychological/psychiatric point of view. The author writes about what he calls “covert depression”, and how it might be the cause of much the harmful and anti-social behaviour perpetrated by many men. This kind of depression, he says, can be passed from one generation to the next, and leads to “wounded boys becoming wounding men”.

    For anyone interested, I highly recommend “I Don’t Want To Talk About It” by Dr. Terrence Real. It resonated with me a great deal.

    (P.S. to moderator: Apologies for the plug. If you think it’s inappropriate, please feel free to edit or delete.)


  4. Fia November 29, 2013 / 6:24 pm

    Yes. Just…this. I know this comment is probably really late, but as I’ve gotten older, I can see that my mom is really really hurting. And some of her hurt has stemmed from the same issues I have, control issues and fear of people’s expectations. She idolized her father, but when she talks about him, he sounds like he was very controlling as well. She wasn’t allowed to pierce her ears until she was twenty!


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