Winter Weekend retreat had arrived, and just like anyone would do on MLK weekend, I joined my youth group on a pilgrimage to the shrine of the Confederacy, Gatlinburg, TN. A quirky group of kids hopped on a bus and headed to the state just north of us (both geographically and on most all of the national stat rankings). I hadn’t been part of the youth group for long. I was extremely introverted and much preferred spending time with adults, but our new youth minister had recruited me. The weekend was full of pancakes, cliques, and abstinence talks. On the last day, though, we all knew what to expect.
The room was pitch black, and we sat alone in our chairs that were strategically isolated away from our friends. Then the track started to play. The dialogue began with Jesus’ trial. I could hear Pontius Pilate and riotous crowd. Then came the whipping. The audio of the the leather across Jesus’ back was so crisp, it made me cringe. Then I could hear the cross being dragged slowly to Calvary. Onlookers were mocking and spitting at Jesus. With a thud, the cross fell to the ground on Golgotha. I braced myself for what would happen next. As the nails hammered into Jesus’ wrists and feet, I couldn’t distinguish between the cries on the tape and the cries in the darkened room in Gatlinburg. I sat in a huddled mess. Jesus was crying, and so was I. Auditory torture.
When the lights came back on, my eyes adjusted to see other youth group members all knotted up in their chairs. Mascara streaks, red eyes, sniffling noses. All for what purpose? To be reminded that Jesus’ suffering was our fault. I was a guilty sinner alone in that chair being forced to listen to torture. All for what purpose? To be reminded that I was depraved. I remember sitting alone and thinking what have I done? I’m a good kid. I follow all the rules, I don’t drink, I haven’t had sex, I go to church, I love my family. Why do I feel so broken?
I am finally able to look back on things like this and confidently label them as abuse.
Thankfully, my family no longer attends the evangelical branch of Christianity, but the damage remains—and it’s a wonder that we all still attempt to associate with the church at all.
Growing up, I was an anxious kid. I was always worried about death, the rapture, eternity, and hell. Countless nights, I would sneak to my parents room and make sure they were still in their beds. I was afraid the rapture might leave me sinful and alone, but if my parents remained, I knew I was safe. My parents were very aware of my worrisome tendencies and my lack of self-confidence. They were constantly affirming me and offering “chin up” speeches, but nothing ever seemed to change. I was unable to see the value in myself—but why?
The answer has finally been unveiled. It is because of the spiritual abuse of the Evangelical movement. The whole construct is rooted in fear and depravity, and it ensnares and suffocates every aspect of a person’s identity. All religious, social, political, and gender identities are molded by the Evangelical establishment.
The cyclical story of perfection, sin, shame, saved, redeemed, and perfection again is perpetuated from the pulpit Sunday after Sunday. I don’t claim to agree with his overall theology, but I want to paraphrase a provocative sermon I heard by Bishop Shelby Spong. Where did this idea come about? This idea that we are fallen and despicable. It came from the first chapters in Genesis that were 4th century interpretations by Gentiles—men who didn’t know how to correctly transcribe the original Jewish texts, thus telling stories most likely intended to be figurative. Then the Jesus story was told in terms of this false narrative! The Bible paints God as a monster, Jesus as a victim, and creation as deviant. I don’t believe this Evangelical interpretation anymore. In fact, my view of the Bible has been so shaken up, I’m excited about it for the first time in my life. Selling scripture as a scare tactic and giving out tickets to heaven is a great business, but what does victimization create? Victimizers. That’s why the Evangelical church has morphed into a body that quotes the Bible to warrant prejudice. I don’t want to be a part of that.
So where does this leave us if we drop the atonement parallel? We are left with the opening of life as incomplete, full of potential and seeking ultimate humanity (perfection) which no one has achieved since Jesus. That’s what makes the story of Calvary so magnificent, and my ideas are probably heretical to a lot of people.
I no longer believe Jesus came primarily to die for my sins.
As Bishop Spong said, “I believe Jesus displayed the ultimate form and depth of humanity by transcending the biological drive to survive.” Instead, He gave away love and ultimately His life. Death could not contain Jesus.
So that is my purpose. Rather than continue to buy into the scheme of my depravity, I’m choosing to live into the message Jesus shared: love others as yourself. It’s that simple, folks. My name is Meredith, and I am an EXvangelical. I’m finally living.