One Sunday morning in 2009, a woman and her young son quietly enter the foyer of the church in the middle of the sermon. I am sitting there with my two youngest children. We acknowledge each other and she sits on the other available pew.
After, I go to speak with her. I know her, but only by sight. We do not “run in the same circles.” Most of her children are adults, most of mine are babies. I do know, however, that she has split from her husband. She is vague, and I do not want to press. (Later, I would come to understand the abuse.) He is supposed to be attending the “sister” church that is about 3 miles from this one.
She does tell me that she has had to move in with her mother. She doesn’t outright say it, but it sounds to me, as an abused child, that her mother is abusive. I wonder what kind of husband would force her into such a situation. A quieter voice inside wonders what kind of church would allow it.
We speak alone together for quite some time as the other church members spill out of the sanctuary, laughing and talking. No one interrupts us. At first, this does not seem significant. Suddenly, however, there is a commotion at the front door. I look over and discover that her husband has made an appearance. I am shocked.
Then, I am horrified.
It is now, as the entire church throngs to this man to greet him, that the fact that the woman and I were left alone to talk becomes an obvious problem. For a week, I am forced to try to correct my fellow parishioners in what was obviously bad behavior on their part. They tell me they are so excited to see him there. I tell them that it made her incredibly uncomfortable. That seems to be a surprise. No one brings it up in my presence again.
A year later, I would take my children and flee the church myself. Only to land in a different church and find the same thing. For 45 years I watched churches repeat this pattern. The victim is reviled, the perpetrator is extolled and embraced.
This morning, I was shocked to find that Beth Moore finally saw this pattern, at least in her own church. As I read what happened to her at the hands of the SBC, I was not surprised at all. Nothing in her story shocks me, not even the fact that she stayed so long.
I try to explain to my children why people don’t see the obvious, both in the church and in politics. A person’s religion, their political affiliation, and their race & nationality, even their family, are all a part of their identity. As a result, seeing the fault in their group is almost impossible. While we live almost devoid of identity (a problem in itself), people who have theirs based in any group are bound to be blind to its faults. There is something about attaching our identity to anything outside ourselves that makes us almost psychologically symbiotic with it. An insult against someone in our group is an insult against us.
I was forced to consider the years lost (I still sometimes consider them a waste) to this way of thinking as I read about Moore’s experience at the hands of her fellow Christians. It was a stark reminder of why I finally realized it was all a lie. Of course, Moore has been consistent in her church affiliation. I never was. I was always searching, always questioning. The questioning, especially of the church’s tolerance of abuse, often left me feeling on the outside.
Like almost all human beings, I wanted to belong. I wanted a group. I wanted to be a part of something I could view as a thing I could anchor my identity on. We are taught from our earliest days, not by words, but by the actions of everyone around us, that this is found in the “tribe.”
I never truly found that, because being in a “tribe” means never taking a stand against that tribe. Taking a stand means finding yourself forced to decide between your convictions and staying in the group.
I could hear my shock at the discovery of each groups acceptance and tolerance of abuse reflected in the words Moore said about her departure from the SBC. It is like a terrible slap in the face when it happens and we wake to find that the people we thought were “basically good” were really condoning of evil all along.
She has only barely begun her journey, however. I read that she is looking to other denominations. She will find the same thing. Now that she has had her eyes opened to the harsh reality of abuse culture and rape culture within the church, she might not be able to ignore it in the next church she attends. And, she will find it. Not just because the church is a problem, but because our entire society is. Abuse culture and rape culture are the social norms of American society. They are the unwritten rules of remaining a part of the group which we need for our survival. Speak up against them and be cast out, whether from your family, your church, or your workplace.
What the future holds for people who, like Moore, choose to stand up to authority regardless the risk to themselves, is not bright. Despite our belief that, as Americans we are the ultimate rebels, we are really all just part of an invisible mind hive–no other way to describe our behavior, folks–and we will defend it to the death because our very identity depends on others agreeing with us. If someone makes a different decision than we would, we must attack them, because we think it calls into question our own decisions and the group mindset does not give a person the strength to think for themselves.
Good luck to Ms. Moore. I hope she continues to question the authority around her. If she ever does completely leave the church as I have, though, she will find nothing different awaiting her on the outside.
*disclaimer: When I first heard about this on the YouTube show I watch in the morning (Like It or Not–the only reason I get out of bed–lol), I immediately thought she had only just seen the problem. I asked where she had been for the last four years. This is because I have already done that work. I did it six years ago when I finally left the church. But it was also because she is white and, when I was in the church, she had a place of privilege. People like that tend to be slower on the uptake when there is a problem. I am reminded, however, that I only heard about Moore because she has power and privilege. Nobody heard about me when I raised my voice. Nobody heard about others when they raised their voices. We do not have power, but maybe there are more of us that I have previously considered.