Precious Memories: Religion, Resentment, & Reconciliation

As almost no one knows, I was raised in a fundamentalist, cult-like religion. With roots in the Deep South and traditions in the most austere expressions of Protestantism, the flavor of “independent, fundamental, pre-Millenial” Baptist theology that informed my childhood and youth could variously be characterized as devout, extremist, antiquated, and other descriptors that accentuate how very far from normative culture this sect really is.

At the tender age of 12 or 13, I had reached the point in my own cognitive development where I could no longer accept Christianity as a rational choice. The nuances of faith were lost on me. I had recently discovered science, socialism, and secular philosophy; marrying reason and religion is a delicate art not well-suited to young minds. So, being an arrogant little brat, I declared myself an atheist. This action broke my dear mother’s heart and very nearly broke my backside, as well.

Perhaps I should explain why I rejected the faith of my childhood so vehemently.

From birth, I was guilty on four counts.

First, I was guilty for being born. But that was a crime committed by everyone, so at least there was a level playing field.

Second, I was guilty for being born a woman. Women in this culture were subjected to institutional subordination. “Submission” wasn’t simply a vocabulary word or an ideal; it was expected. Women were not permitted to speak in church or lead in any way. We weren’t allowed to wear pants, and wearing “loud” makeup was frowned upon. Typical dating was out of the question, and as for sexuality, most parents preferred their daughters experience their first kiss at the wedding altar. We were pretty much treated like property; most of us “belonged” to a man in one way or another. And once you belonged, you were required to submit – that meant doing what you were told with a smile. If he said, “Jump,” you asked, “How high?”

Third, I was guilty for being born bisexual. Before I knew there was a word to describe my condition, I experienced thoughts and did actions that (I thought at the time) were merely natural. I later learned that the church considered those thoughts and actions – and indeed, that personality – a sin. An abomination, actually. Something so disgusting, it was almost unspeakable. Something that could be cured through miracles of prayer and months of rehabilitation in frightening facilities far from home.

Finally, I was guilty for being a child. This is the most difficult part of my story to tell, but I feel I almost have a duty to tell it because it symbolizes the crux of my anger and because it still affects so many young lives.

Ritualized child abuse is a fact of life in many fundamentalist, American, Christian sects, including the one in which I was raised. There is, of course, mental abuse – being brainwashed to believe that you are inherently sinful and worthless without God, to take no pride in your own accomplishments, to demean and dehumanize yourself and others. But more pressing is the issue of physical abuse. Spanking and actually, legitimately beating your children is preached from many pulpits as something that must be done to save the child’s eternal soul. Pastors and parents are complicit in this arrangement; for the most part, the children don’t know they deserve better.

I hold all adults in these scenarios responsible for their crimes (yes, legally, beating up kids because you didn’t like their tone of voice is a crime); however, the ideology of fundamentalism is also to blame. For the longest time, I didn’t know which party to blame more, and I was so miserable.

You see, as a child, I was forced to sacrifice hours and days of my life to physical, mental and emotional misery. That time and that happiness had already been taken from me. But as an adult struggling to live a normal life and conceive normal thoughts about myself, about faith, about the world around me, I sacrificed an equal or greater amount of time and happiness over those actions and words from long ago.

I had already given so much to fundamentalism; could I ever get rid of this burden of anger? Could I ever find peace in a sincere understanding of God?

As an adolescent, I swung like a pendulum away from the fundamentalist beliefs of my childhood. I experimented with Catholicism, grappled with Buddhism, read up on Sufism, contemplated Judaism, toyed with moderate Protestantism, and even practiced Wicca for a year or so, all the while adamantly rejecting anything that smacked of the cult-like Baptist theology of my past.

What that did was fragment my sense of self and distort my understanding of the past. As difficult as that religion was for me, the queer girl child, I had to holistically integrate that experience into who I am and what I think and believe. Life is not a black-and-white, heroes-and-villians comic book; sometimes, it’s impossible to pinpoint any absolute.

I had to get back to my roots, and I had to find some good in them. After all, even though the cognitive dissonance of my childhood ended up driving me crazy (quite literally), it was still my childhood.

Over the years, my mother has apologized to me for the harshness of her punishments. And I’ve noticed that her beliefs, though still strongly stated, have a much more mellow interpretation in her real-world actions. Because she’s changed, I’ve been able to forgive her.

But what about God? As I become more mature, I realize that “God” had nothing to do with the negative aspects of that religion. God was not present in the beatings, the hatred, the repression.

I have come to understand God as the good that exists between and within people. When I see unconditional love or kindness to strangers, I see the face of God in those acts. And I cannot ignore that, for all their faults, the figures in my childhood still did show me the face of God many times.

From them, I learned that material possessions don’t matter nearly as much as internal beauty and kind actions. I learned that every moment of suffering also contains a precious lesson. I learned that every life has meaning and a purpose. I learned that you can choose your family, and that every brother and sister is a child of God, worthy of respect. I learned so much about gentle virtues – seeking advice from others, maintaining humility, giving generously of your time and resources to others, letting your heart be moved by those who need help.

In fact, many of those lessons still inform my day-to-day actions now, and I am grateful that someone taught them to me, even though the methods were, at times, completely inappropriate.

Those lessons, whether I liked them at the time or not, are a large part of why I am who I am.

This reconciliation is ugly and uncomfortable for me, but my past and present must be reconciled. To you, these are anecdotes. For me, this is my person as a whole being that could not stand divided.

I recently experienced a small personal crisis that motivated me to do something I’ve been meaning to do for quite a while: to darken the door of a local church. I haven’t been opposed to churchgoing for the better part of a decade; I just hadn’t made the time to do so unless I was visiting with family.

One of my favorite things about going to church, even as a child, was the music. Every hymnal held a series of familiar, beautiful songs that had been sung for decades or even centuries; in a theology spiked with hostile, bitter sermons, these hymns were a great source of solace to me. They expressed gladness and redemption. Also, as a musician, this was one part of the religious service that I could relate to; as a female, it was one part of few in which I could actively participate.

We sang to shake the rafters on some of those Sunday mornings, with the piano thumping, tenors hollering, and me, with the sopranos, sailing high above. Even though we only sang the old hymns and gospel songs (electric instruments and drums being forbidden – heck, listening to the radio was even forbidden), the happiest moments I spent in church were when I was singing with my family and friends.

So, in returning to church over the weekend, I was reminded of those times, those hymns, those “precious memories,” and all the good things that had lain hidden under a deep layer of sadness and anger in my childhood. I now feel that I can claim the good in my past, treasure those traditions, and acknowledge all the beautiful lessons I learned while rejecting all the wrongs that were done to me; I feel like I’ve finally found some kind of continuity in faith without anger.

Being able to finally forgive – to forgive God, my mother, the church, and even myself – has allowed me to recover the joy I used to find in religious expression. Although I still choose to worship without a set creed, I am happy to have finally, after 13 years, come to terms with the faith of my forebears.

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