2020 is crazy. Consistently. Unimaginably, wait-what-now-?! crazy. Even the days that seem normal, are normal for crazy. Yesterday, for instance, was a pretty normal day. After staying up all night catching up on podcasts, I fell asleep around 7am, to wake up at the crack of noon and spend most of the day writing, with Jingle Jangle playing on a loop in the background. It was a pretty standard… Monday? Yes. Yesterday was Monday. Whatever that means. I remember when days used to feel like something. I would stand in the kitchenette at work, stirring a spoonful of honey into my tea and say things like, “I know it’s Tuesday, but it feels like a Thursday.” Now everything about that scenario feels like a fever dream. It seems absolutely unreal that I used to get up everyday and go places. Get on the subway and go places. Everyday. To work. To midtown. To Target. To dinner. To the movies. To hang out. Out. Outside. Everyday. Unreal. It sounds exhausting from here: day who-even-knows of the Coronaissance. Where everyday is any day and no day at all. And I’ve gotten so used to this new timeless indoor existence, it’s easy to forget I am being actively traumatized. We all are. Nothing about this new abnormal is normal, but a gift/trick of the human spirit is the ability to normalize almost anything.
Which is how so many of us were able to adapt to, survive, (and sometimes even thrive!) in toxic church environments for so long. I look back now and I can’t imagine volunteering so much of my time, giving so much of my energy, my talent, my hope and my faith to something that ultimately did exactly what it promised to do: it emptied me. Because great churches aren’t built on the gift and talents of a few, but on the sacrifice of many. Oof. If only I had read that correctly from the beginning…
“Do you think it can be fixed?” If I were to create a FAQ to go along with my Dishonorable Mentions post, that would be the second most popular question. We’ll get to number one later, but my answer to both would start with a heavy sigh and “Well…”
Do I think it can be fixed? Do I think abusive churches can stop abusing people? Sure. With God, all things are possible, right? But do I think abusive churches will stop abusing people? ::insert Heavy sigh:: Well… not if they don’t have to. Not as long as they can keep people thinking that great churches are built on the sacrifice of many.
There’s a story that appears twice in the gospels, first in Mark 12:41-44 and then again in Luke 21:1-4: the story of the widow’s mite. Listen to the “tithes and offering” portion of any ten church services on any given Sunday and I’d bet way more than a mite that story would come up at least twice. At least. It’s a classic. A real moneymaker.
41 Jesus sat down opposite the place where the offerings were put and watched the crowd putting their money into the temple treasury. Many rich people threw in large amounts. 42 But a poor widow came and put in two very small copper coins, worth only a few cents.43 Calling his disciples to him, Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put more into the treasury than all the others. 44 They all gave out of their wealth; but she, out of her poverty, put in everything—all she had to live on.”
Wow. What a widow. Commendable; amen? We should all be so generous. Amen? Being “better” than the rich and powerful, giving more by giving sacrificially, emptying ourselves on behalf of Jesus and his temple. Amen? Except it wasn’t his temple. In fact, in both tellings of that story, the very next passage has the disciples remarking on how great the building looked and Jesus casually mentioning that it would soon be destroyed. Imagine that: Jesus, son of a widow, watching a powerless, marginalized woman give all she had to something that he was well-known for critiquing and well-knew wouldn’t last. Why would he commend that? ::insert theological side-eye:: Well… who said he did?
If I were to ghostwrite a three-point sermon on this passage, my three points would be:
- Where does Jesus situate himself? Opposite the place where the offerings were put. Hmph… Once could almost say he was opposed to what was happening. (Opposite = opposing. It works. You like it.)
- What does Jesus see? Rich people putting in large amounts that meant nothing to them, a poor widow putting in a small amount that meant everything to her. (Oooh. Large = nothing, small = everything. Peep that irony. You love it.)
- What does Jesus say? He draws his disciples’ attention to the fact that she had put in all she had to live on. And… that’s it. Jesus has no further comment on it. He leaves it up to his followers (past and present) to know him well enough to know how he would feel about that. (Wait… critical thinking… what kind of trickery is this?!)
So you tell me. Who told you Jesus would be an advocate for someone vulnerable being completely drained by something religious? Who told you that great churches were built on the sacrifice of many? And then focused your attention on the widow instead of the many rich people who could afford give largely while sacrificing nothing? Imagine pretending to think two mites are worth more than the riches of many. Church math is dumb. And imagine thinking Jesus would be supportive of someone giving their life (all she had to live on) to something cruel enough to take it from her. Church math is abusive. And suddenly… that “sacrifice of many” hits different. It’s a double whammy. Abusive churches will take everything you sacrifice and then will gladly sacrifice you.
Which is why FAQ number one is some variation of “Aren’t you scared?” ::insert smirk:: Well… why do you ask? Why do you think I might be? What do you think might happen to me? What do you think might happen to you, if you were to speak up? How would you be sacrificed? It shouldn’t require extra bravery to say “this hurts” in a place that claims to want to see people healed and whole. It shouldn’t be dangerous to tell the truth to and about people who are supposed to be dedicated to the way, the truth and the life; but ::shhh, don’t tell anyone:: have settled on using N.D.A.s as a way to keep the truth from the light. Oop.
Since my post last week, between WordPress, Twitter, Instagram and emails, I have received close to two hundred messages. It has been both wildly encouraging and extremely devastating to realize how “normal” my experience was. And then I woke up this morning to a screenshot of the empire striking back. Badly. Like cringeworthy bad, trying to shift the focus of the narrative, from the talk of the people, to the work of the church. Let’s forget about all the toxic interactions, let go of all the offenses and forgive what the abusive will never repent of because building a great church requires sacrifice, and building a great church is what matters.
And so be it. Because if a great church is comparable to the temple, then that tells me the church is something Jesus would be unafraid to critique and be fine with seeing destroyed if need be. Or is that too harsh? How discomforting is it to imagine Jesus being fine with a church, maybe even your church being disappeared? Is it more discomforting than imagining Jesus being fine with someone vulnerable being devastated by your church? Because we have been fine with that for as long as I can remember. We have grown used to living with church trauma and normalized abuse by labeling it as sacrifice.
So, am I afraid? Not really. But I am a little worried that we’ll miss this moment in time and this weird 2020 chapter will end the same way it began: with abusive churches continuing to preach and practice abuse, not just as normal, but as noble. Commendable. With lead pastors and ministry middle managers lording over volunteers, keeping them off-balance with faulty theology. (Literally. If you feel hurt/tired/disillusioned/distressed/offended, it’s your fault.) Keeping them conflicted. (It’s sacrifice, it’s not’s supposed to feel good.) To keep them turning up and keep them serving. Misinformation, on tap. Year after year. A bottomless supply. I worry that the machine is too big, the programming too effective. And honestly, I get angry. I want it to stop. And so I know I’ll keep writing until it does. To keep speaking and hoping others find ways to do the same. For the people who are on the edge and those of us who have already gone over. To remind us all that we’re not alone and what seems impossible, unlikely, even unreal today, could be the new normal tomorrow. That the megalomaniacs who seem untouchable and the megachurches that seem unstoppable could someday be a thing of the past. Can you even imagine? Me either. Which makes me think it might just be possible in 2020.