Trigger warnings: Christian martyr culture, child abuse
“Maybe I’m mistaken, expecting you to fight
Or maybe I’m just crazy, I don’t know wrong from right
But while I am still living, I’ve just got this to say
It’s always up to you if you want to be that
want to see that
want to see that way.” -Supertramp
“Do you remember wanting to die?” My housemate asked.
“Yep,” I replied. “After Columbine, they made all those kids heroes, and we 90s kids grew up just wanting someone to hold a gun to our heads and ask if we believed in Jesus. It should have just been what it was – a tragedy. They made it into an aspiration.”
“I always wanted to go to China, and for them to kill me for my faith. That was the best thing that could possibly happen to you.”
“I thought for sure I’d be killed for being a Christian by now. I never thought I’d reach adulthood.”
The other people in the room were shocked, and her boyfriend had lost his appetite.
The thing is, we were being mild. I could easily have gone into detail about the books I read and loved from very young – I read Joan of Arc when I was five, Samuel Morris when I was nine, Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, Jesus Freaks, and Tortured for Christ as a teenager. The Left Behind: The Kids series, which I read at age ten and eleven, described Christians being lined up to be guillotined after the Mark of the Beast appeared. My family never subscribed to the Voice of the Martyrs magazine, but I still found enough of those to mix the fictional Left Behind stories with real life.
The best literary example I’ve ever seen of the fundamentalist child’s mindset is in Orson Scott Card’s book A War of Gifts. While it’s disappointingly inconsistent with the book Ender’s Game, it’s worth the read as its own story. The main character, Zechariah, is seven years old when the government takes him to train for space warfare. He hates the government, and pushes his religion on everyone in the space school. When the other kids complain, Zech says he’s being persecuted. His father beat him, and he thinks he deserves it because of his rebellious spirit.
I remember being that seven-year-old who wanted to be persecuted and to die. It’s hard to describe what the dedication is like. I was spanked, and I thanked my parents for it. I wanted to die, and I thought that made me a hero. I thought I was happy. I thought I was doing the right things. I was willing to suffer and die for what I believed. Today, remaining a Christian is something so rife with conflicted emotions that I can’t even talk about it. My Christianity and the Infinite One can wait for me to process the manipulation and self-deception, no matter how long it takes.
When you’re willing to die for something, it’s very hard for people to reach you. That’s why I don’t know what would have worked when I was younger. Getting out was a process. The “breakthrough moment” couldn’t happen until I learned how to recognize what was wrong.
My sister Alicia tried to reach out to me many times, but I could not be reached. That’s the power of living in a manipulative household. I believed that she was a bad influence, and that she had abandoned me.
Now, looking back, I understand why my siblings have the same mistrust for me as I did for her.
If anyone tried to tell me that it wasn’t normal to set aside my schoolwork to bathe seven kids, or to dedicate my weekends to scrubbing all the floors in the house on my hands and knees, I would have just said they didn’t understand. My family life was different, so outsiders would of course be judgmental. When I found people with genuine concerns about my family online, my parents would write them off as “the haters,” and I believed that’s what they were.
If anyone had told me it wasn’t my job to keep everyone in my house happy, I wouldn’t have listened. I was an empowered, virtuous girl. I hated the phrase “it’s not your job.” I was capable of making the house relatively peaceful, so why shouldn’t I? It’s not like anybody else was going to do it. Meekness and self-deception gave me small comforts.
When people tried to tell me there was something wrong, it was always in a condescending tone. I was told I’d understand when I was older. I was dismissed as naïve, and my choice to embrace my lifestyle was treated like stupidity. Condescension never worked. You can’t tell someone who’s willing to die that they’re stupid or misled. The persecution complex plays into that perfectly: you’re insulting me, good for me, I’m suffering for doing what is right.
If you know anyone who’s immersed in fundamentalism, you need to know that we’re not stupid. We’re surviving, and we don’t know it. We will dismiss your condescension and shut you out, and honestly, you’ll deserve it. We’re told that we can fight and lose, or we can succumb and survive, and the latter is only acceptable if it’s convincing. And the easiest way to be convincing is to convince yourself.
People asked if I felt abused. I said no. People asked if my family felt like a cult. I said no. People asked if my life was bizarre because I was one of fifteen kids. My answer was always, “This is normal for me. What’s it like to be one of two kids?”
What did work was being recognized for who I was, and that happened when I made friends in college. Before that, I was praised all the time for the right things: I was great at cooking, cleaning, baking, sewing, caring for children.
When I got to college, I didn’t have to fear losing friends because I liked rap music and symphonic metal. Instead, my friends said I had good taste. When I got to college, my friend Cynthia saw a rebel in me because I was constantly criticizing the education system.
My old friends were “exhorters and encouragers,” who helped me on rough days. This life was holier, it was supposed to be difficult, it was the narrow path. It never occurred to me that maybe the difficulty of my life was an indication that something was wrong. It wouldn’t have helped if someone told me it shouldn’t be so hard.
I got out because people knew me for me, not what I was supposed to be. They didn’t talk about what was wrong with my lifestyle, they just encouraged what I didn’t know was okay.
So if you know someone who’s still in the world of self-deceived fundamentalism, please, please don’t condescend or even try to convince them that there’s something wrong with the world they know. Criticism is easy and it makes sense, but it doesn’t work.
Just listen and find out what makes us individuals, the part of us that’s not accepted in the world we know. Prize that. Nurture it. Let us be ourselves. We carry intense shame for it and we’re afraid to show it. We’re very good at hiding it. Help us be ourselves, and the pressure to be what we’re not will help us find freedom.