“Love and abuse cannot coexist.” – bell hooks.
It’s been over a year since I first read bell hook’s masterful treatise on love, All About Love: New Visions. The book called to and was answered by changes stirring in my heart, little epiphanies cracking the surface of my reality, and it was the catalyst for a radical reevaluation of what love meant and how I practiced it.
I have always craved justice and sincerity. As a child, I distrusted adults who laughed too much or were effusive with praise or compliments. I gravitated toward those who were sarcastic, cynical, pointed. Pastors were suspect unless they seemed to have a healthy respect for suffering.
And yet, I was divided from myself in my own cynicism, emotionally connecting to missionary stories, reading the Anne Shirley books over and over, and accepting the tenets of courtship and fundamentalist neo-Calvinism without question for the sake of the utopian emotional future they offered. I was too cynical to ever seriously write letters to my future husband, but secretly hoped that the gilded fidelity of guarding my heart and wearing a purity ring would secure me true love where I could hang my cynic’s hat by the door and stretch out by the hearth and have a marriage where I could get my belly rubbed and never fear betrayal or complicated emotions.
Emotional idealism of this sort is dishonest and lazy, and I paid dearly for my naïveté and blind trust. I could wear out pages with my experiential research on cultivated codependency in courtship culture and cultivated female helplessness in patriarchy, but the larger thing I have learned is less specific to male\female relationships or romantic relationships and more relevant to relationships in general, and is especially relevant to relationships touched by fundamentalist thinking on the part of one or both parties.
Fundamentalism, when I use the word, generally implies a measure of absolutism and hierarchy of belief. It is a relational militarization of ideology at its core (which is why I believe it is not something religious people have exclusive province over). Fundamentalism says “my way is better and our relationship is going to be defined by that assumption or we have an impasse.” It costs relational parity and ends humane discussion.
In the slice of human experience where I come from, fundamentalist Christian homeschooling, it exhibits itself when a parent asserts their “right” over their child in the name of ideological purity of some sort and negates that child’s right to autonomy and voice.
Example: “you will not bring Harry Potter into my house” because you, the parent, believe that witchcraft is worse than the sin of rebellion (see the story of King Saul) and rebellion is the sin that caused the fall, and witchcraft is aligning oneself with the enemy of God, and you want your household to follow in the ways of God (“as for me and my house…”) and you believe that God has called you to be the spiritual head of the home (circle of blessing) and your child is under your authority because you are under God’s authority, and Harry Potter does not condemn witchcraft as being of the devil, therefore: your child has no rights when under your roof because of God’s ordained spiritual hierarchy and you are accountable to him to protect your child from evil and Harry Potter threatens that order and your ability to be blessed by God for following in his ways…so Harry Potter has to go, no matter what your kid has to say about redemption narratives and metaphor and literary genres. By doing so, you are honoring God, and any opposition to this order is your child’s natural sin nature expressing itself and an opportunity to use corrective discipline to help your child along in the path to sanctification and honor God in their own life.
In fundamentalism, ideology and hierarchy > person and emotional healthy relationships. Every. Damn. Time.
bell hooks writes that “abuse and love cannot coexist” because (as Christian theology teaches) love is about considering another person’s best interest. When I chose to break the rules of courtship and tell my boyfriend I loved him before we were engaged, I did so because I believed that if we broke up, my promise of “I love you” would still be true: if our relationship ended, it would be because the relationship was no longer in his or my best interest and love does not demand the other partner to suffer to satisfy the other. Love should not be mutable, but the terms of the relationship will be in order to be consistent with love. Love respects the other as a separate, autonomous individual with unique needs. Love does not require the other person to fix your emotional problems. Love is considerate, respectful, ethical, generous. Love is not craven, demanding, or manipulative.
This cuts two ways. Loving others well is easier (and probably better) the better you are at loving yourself well. It’s hard to love someone else well if you are abusive toward yourself, and if you try you’re more likely to expect the other party to love you the way you should be loving yourself, and then resent them for not fixing your emotional disassociation with yourself. No person, no religious belief, no creature comfort will be able to fix the fundamental need for self-acceptance. I’ve been learning this, and it’s not easy. I can deflect and distract myself, but there is no substitute for sitting with my own emotions and owning them to myself and accepting that the me I’m living with is messy and not quite all who I want to be. I have to live with (and learn to love) me in real time, as I grow and learn, and not with my idealized future version of myself. This means also recognizing when I’m in unhealthy relationships or situations and being responsible for standing up for myself, and not expecting others to read my mind or know my needs and rescue me. Boundaries, communication, and actively engaging my day-to-day life and owning my responsibility to and for myself: these are ways I can engage in loving myself well.
Loving others well is an extension of understanding how to love myself. I need to respect the fact that others need different things and that what is good for me might not be good for them, that my perception of reality might not be their story, that they may be growing and learning faster or slower than I am. I respect them as individuals and not as caricatures or emotional food sources for myself, and that paves the way for healthy relationship.
This means: I cannot demand my more fundamentalist friends to change their beliefs on things, because their emotional needs (and reasons for holding on to various positions) are different from mine. I can, however, write about what I’ve learned and how various elements of religious fundamentalism have been harmful. I can also limit the ability of their more negative positions to affect me personally by reducing my exposure to toxic relational dynamics, and I can also appeal to their desire to love others when I see them hurting people close to me and ask for them to change how they treat people based on our shared assumption that they care about the other person’s best interest. (In this vein, a great opportunity Clare had before her was recently leveraged against me to require that I change the offensive-to-patriarchy language in her “Fuck the Patriarchy” post. The situation has now resolved itself, and I have reverted the post back to the original content, but necessary steps have also been taken to remove myself from being able to be manipulated by those who value image and control over people.)
This also means: when a friend has to go no contact with a family member because of abuse, or when someone’s marriage ends and you don’t know all the details, respect their choices. You don’t know what’s best for them and we are in danger of practicing the fallacy of a “single story” when we require someone to meet our socially acceptable normal behavior because we think that they should be in relationship with someone that “normal” people have in their lives. Eliminating abusive relationships from my life seems heartless from the outside, but it’s been a way I’ve learned to love myself: by admitting what (or who) I can and cannot handle if I am going to be mentally healthy and thrive. It seems heartless, but in reality, it’s a way of having compassion for myself and not expecting others to do that work for me.
I recently had a treasured friendship end because of a non-conventional theological position (but one I think has sufficient evidence in the Bible to be supported) that I hold and have written some about. The details are moot, and were moot to the end of the friendship, too. The point, however, was: if you are a Christian, you cannot support this position, and until you recant, I cannot be your friend. It’s the same mindset as I demonstrated before with Harry Potter: ideology supersedes the individual. I’m saddened by the outcome, but there’s no way to debate the issue because our starting premises are so far divided. What has been healthy and freeing and brought light to my life is seen by this individual as a darkness that threatens to devour the “real” me and is an affront to their own perception of themselves: if I am right, then everything they’re betting on is wrong. As high-stakes spiritual premises go, they can’t afford to be wrong, and so I must go. It’s understandable. I love this person, and as I understand the emotional cost of this sort of gamble, I know that this decision is (in their estimation) in the best interest of this person for the sake of their mental health, and it’s not my place to question that. I’m sad for my loss, but if I am honest about caring for them, I need to let them go and wish them the best from afar.
And I need to be honest, too. In my pilgrimage to understand love and to heal, I’ve had to reconcile myself to the fact that church and Christian culture are antithetical to my emotional and mental stability. The solvency of Christianity for some, I believe, is viable and good. I think the church can be better and radically change lives for good. I think the teachings of Jesus are precious and radical and good. There is much that I love, but I have had to remove myself from it and remove it from me in order to be kind to myself. All things are lawful, etc. For me this means: I’m not a Christian anymore.
The damage done to my brain by code-switching in Christianese and by tiptoeing around emotional land mines from my time in the cult outweigh the worth of holding onto the Creeds for the Creeds’ sake. If Jesus is the Christ and all of that is true, then I’d rather be a Calormen in the end and be sound of mind and live ethically and love well than be a martyr for something that has fostered so much suffering.
I do not recant anything I have written. I still love the things I have always loved. I still believe in the power of radical love to transform. I still believe in the magic of community and the mystery of burden-bearing and communion. I still love justice and mercy and crave light and truth.
But it is the learning of the loving that calls me to keep exploring, and so I’m discarding things that are impotent or emotionally destructive. I’m not merely disassociating from the label of “Christian”or organized church in pursuit of being a “Jesus-follower.” I am closing that chapter completely. I’m not sure if I’m an atheist or just agnostic, but I don’t think it’s salient right now. For now, what I know is: this path has taken me away from Christianity and that has been immensely freeing and healing.
I’ve known this for a while, but I wanted to sit with it for a season first, to be sure. And, honestly, I was afraid to tell you.
You readers have been along with me for quite the unexpected journey. I originally started this blog as a place to try to do some fiction and poetry writing, assuming that I’d be able to be productive in those things now that I was graduated from college, employed in an adult job, and settled into married life. What followed was so far from that reality that it seems a little hysterical to think about, now. I wouldn’t trade this journey for that reality, though, and I am thankful for how much I have learned and grown through it. And I’m thankful for those of you who have supported and loved and stayed with me since then. I’m excited to see what comes next, and I’d be touched if you are, too.
A housekeeping note: Once I can get a few things sorted out, the header image of this blog will change and I’ll just write under my name rather than a blog title–Wine and Marble has served a good purpose, but no longer fits what goes on here. Just a heads up.