2007-09-29

Dysfunctional fundamentalist families (2): the Shame Burden

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by Neil Godfrey

Continuing notes from Marlene Winell‘s Leaving the Fold:

The Burden of Shame (pp. 118-119)

Biblical passages lie at the base of it. But there are modern adaptations of these passages that parents use in the process of disciplining their children and that drag down a child’s self-esteem (Winell’s list, p.119) —

  • Shame on you.
  • You’re so selfish.
  • What’s the matter with you?
  • You know Jesus sees you when you do that.
  • How would you feel if Jesus came back when you were doing that?

The core belief that human nature is evil is the root of it. This belief inevitably instills in all those who hold it a sense of unworthiness, a sense of inadequacy, of failure.

Marlene Winell comments that shame is worse than guilt. Guilt can arise from something we have done. But this shame comes from what we believe we are. One can move out of guilt, but not out of shame.

If people are fundamentally bad then mistakes are rarely simply innocent mistakes but at some level they are the result of “sin”. Not healthy.

Many fundamentalist families, for all the love they have for their children, nevertheless often view them as sinful from (or soon after) birth. Even their early cries and gropings can be seen as signs of an innate “selfishness” or “sinfulness” that needs to be “corrected” as soon as practicable.

The findings of child psychology — that children are different from adults in their cognitive, emotional and moral development — rarely register in any real way in child-rearing in fundamentalist families. I recall my frustration and horror when my toddler son wanted to play “killing games” with an imaginary gun. I was completely oblivious at the time to the fact that he had no notion of killing as adults do, and that I was misguidedly imputing my own experiences and feelings into him, failing completely to understand him.

“From a fundamentalist point of view, issues such as egocentrism, aggression, sexuality, and teenage rebellion are treated as problems instead of natural processes.” (p.118)

I recall my own parents telling me how selfish I once was and thinking at the time, “What are you talking about? How am I being selfish?” 🙂 They might have thought I was totally deluding myself, but as a parent myself I came to see the two sides of this story. Of course children are “selfish” in that they are living out — quite rightly — their own lives. But I would not call that “selfish” now. What I needed at that time my parents called me selfish was not correction from my “sinful ways”, but a bit of guidance to help me through a perfectly natural stage of growing up.

“A parent without this assumption [that a child acts “selfishly” because of some innate fault or sin] could give a child the benefit of the doubt, assuming that behavior is linked to needs and not to a flawed nature. There could be trust and faith in the child’s natural development, with an expectation that healthy changes would occur over time. Instead of the focus on control and force, there could be an emphasis on fostering confidence and new skills.” (p.118)

  • 2007-10-06 10:41:51 UTC - 10:41 | Permalink

    “Shame on you, You’re so selfish, What’s the matter with you? You know Jesus sees you when you do that,
    How would you feel if Jesus came back when you were doing that?”

    My father was and still is an independent baptist pastor, now the senior pastor. Growing up, I never heard any of these statements. That’s not to say some people say them, I just have not heard this at all.

    This may not be a problem with being a person who believes Christ is God, but just a problem with the person, how they handle things. Lots of things are done in the name of God that have nothing to do with him.

  • 2007-10-06 11:29:04 UTC - 11:29 | Permalink

    You may have missed my opening post in this series where I acknowledged that not all families will fit all dysfunctional categories. I know too many whom the shoe does fit, however, as I’m sure most of us do.

    But your last comment on many things being done in God’s name that have nothing to do with him deserves some thought. Is that what the people doing those things say? Or what those embarrassed by their fellow-believers say?

    If the former, then maybe we need to see if there is some synch between those actions and their God. (Is not God essentially a projection of our own ideals anyway?) If the latter, then does the “milder” form of religious belief share some responsibility for the conditions that have led to those forms that embarrass them? That is Dawkins’ argument, and I think he has a point.

    One often hears much public outcry for moderate Moslems to be more outspoken against their extremists. I wish the mirror could be turned back on the too-quietly spoken Judea-Christian branches of this triple headed thing, with their unnecessary, suicidal, criminal, war-mongering death tolls and variously ruined lives in their extremities too.

  • 2007-10-07 03:11:37 UTC - 03:11 | Permalink

    Tell me where the Judeo-Christian followers are following through with what you described. I guess you could say the Iraq war, but I think there is much more to it than that. Retaliation comes to mind, the pursuit of democracy, one could even say the pursuit of oil. But those guys aren’t dying over there in God’s name.

    And no, those people doing wrong things in God’s name won’t say that they have ulterior motives, and most of the time they have tricked themselves into believing that.

    I think a good measure stick is Jesus’ teachings. Apply those to what people are doing, either globally or locally, and if doesn’t add up, then it isn’t of him.

    I don’t project my idealism on who I believe is God, I read about it. My idealism is to ‘shoot and ask questions later’. Gods is to forgive. I don’t own a gun, by the way, so I did not mean that literally.

  • 2007-10-07 12:08:09 UTC - 12:08 | Permalink

    You asked me where the Judeo-Christian followers are following through with what I described. Here is a list that comes immediately to mind:

    1. Jonestown, Waco, Solar Temple Sect, and now these recent Western religious histories are being currently mimicked in Uganda.

    2. Countless deaths by those refusing normal medical care to their loved ones or themselves; or by prescribing faith-based remedies of physical or psychological kinds that have resulted in abuse and death.

    3. Countless others living in poverty as they sincerely self-sacrifice, even denying normal educational and material needs for their families, to support their Christian organizations and leaders.

    4. And countless more living in bigotry and hate for minorities who are condemned by the same book that (as Spong observes) thinks epilepsy is demon-possession.

    5. Some of these in God’s name kill, and more support those who kill, those practicing what they believe to be against their religious teachings. Some of these see themselves as religious martyrs when they go on death row for their crimes.

    6. Countless more living in ignorance of basic science and denying life-saving research that would save the suffering of millions — because the research is not approved by their biblical interpretations.

    7. Countless believers who self-righteously, in the name of God, pressure their leaders to deny life-preserving drugs and simple protective devices to helpless victims in countries where AIDS is currently decimating whole societies and villages.

    8. Believers who believe that their nation’s economic order and judgment and treatment of the poor is God-ordained and thereby help perpetuate needless economic, physical, social and psychological suffering.

    9. Countless multiples of thousands who keep up pressure on their leaders to actively support an illegal and brutal dehumanizing conquest and oppression of Arabs in the West Bank and Gaza because their Bible compels them to believe that this is God’s will. And any violence in that part of the land is to be seen in the context of biblical prophecy and thus a vindication that the blood and suffering is for the ultimate God-ordained “good”.

    10. Some military do fight in God’s name, such as those who publicly announce they saw the shadow of evil spirits in intelligence photos, and all those (including their leaders and supporters) who take a manichaean (i.e. puritan-biblical) view of the world with their nation as the missionary light bearer (founded and led by people of God) in a sea of dark chaos.

    11. Finally the millions who have suffered in ways that have led to the timely availability of books like Marlene Winell’s.

  • 2007-10-07 13:56:04 UTC - 13:56 | Permalink

    I should add that all of the above are not aberrations of biblical teaching but are the direct outcomes of the very heart of it: love for God more than for self or any human relationship; total faith in the word of God even to the point of casting mountains of evidence completely beyond their sights.

    Many Christians disagree over interpretations of scriptures, but they do not disagree with the ideals of love for God above all else and faith that is not shaken by what is seen; or belief that the Bible is a higher authority than anything else. It only takes varying interpretations of the specifics to decide the potential nature of the damage that must follow.

  • 2007-10-08 07:50:47 UTC - 07:50 | Permalink

    Thanks for the reply. I will try to respond to the remarks about the Judeo-Christian paragraphs you posted.

    1. I live 60 miles from Waco, btw. Didn’t this person have mental health issues, believing himself to be God? I don’t see how these or the others examples apply here, as they are disturbed men doing bad things.

    2. The only current example I can think of this is Jehovah’s Witness. And I am really not going to make a point to defend that faith, I realize that it is considered to be the same as being a Christian or Jewish in your eyes. In the U.S., when a J.W. refuses a transfusion for their child, the state takes over, allows the transfusion to occur, and then gives custody back to the parent. I realize that this is probably just the crust of what you are talking about with this point, but it is all I am truly knowledgeable about.

    3. People living in poverty because they give to the church. I can see your disdain for this practice. Although I have heard it said even in the secular world, that it is good practice to give your 10 percent to charities, others. So, blame Christianity, Judaism for this, but I don’t know if this is a logical step to make. And I don’t know if people are giving so much it is putting them into poverty. There is the example of old widows giving their savings to televangelists, and this is a terrible practice.

    4. Racism. Extremely bad and ugly. I guess you can blame Christianity for this. Although I have seen some non-believers hate other races, and I have also seen professed believers be racist. But thank God for people like Dr. King, who saw that racism is not what Jesus was about.

    5. Again, I am not going to defend other faiths, because I know I can’t. But Judeo-Christian wise, I don’t see that happening currently. I do believe that there are areas where people are being killed for their Christian faith, I have not seen numerous or any reports of them killing for their Christian faith. Again, I say currently.

    6. Stem cell research and others. I don’t know if I can argue this, because I don’t know if I know enough about the issues.

    7. Yes. AIDS research. The American Christian church dropped the ball on this in the 80’s, I totally agree. I am glad to see a changing of the tide currently, however.

    8. I guess I have to go personal here. My grandfather grew up in a literal cardboard box. He is now a professor, isn’t rich by no means, but he had the opportunity to do what he wanted. I can see some people blaming capitalism for the poor, but not Christianity or Judaism.

    9 and 10 are very political questions, and I am sure that my points won’t change your mind, however I do feel that these issues or more complex than the people’s faith, those who are in charge.

    11. That is a very personal statement. It saddens me when kids are abused in homes, emotionally, physically and sexually. Does it happen in Christian home? Absolutely. Does it happen in homes where there is no apparent faith other than what they may check on a census report? Absolutely. I am sorry for what these people have gone through, and I don’t want to comment to take anything away from their pain. I am sorry.

    We have a bad issue with Meth here in the states. Meth makes parents forget to change their infant’s diapers, forget to feed their babies, forget they left their babies at home. Or maybe they didn’t even forget, but chose to do these things due to their addictions. There are countless other examples which get worse. It is neglect to the extreme. That being said, give me a Mother and Father who are active in a bible believing church, and who have a safe, loving, caring relationship with their children, and I just don’t see those above examples happening in the majority of cases (meth free). I know people who have been sexually abused by Christians. I know it happens, and again I am sorry. These and others have also been emotionally abused, and still wear those scars today. But I don’t think we can blame the parents’ faith for that, I think we need to blame the parents.

    Sorry for the long comment. Thanks for reading.

  • 2007-10-10 08:34:49 UTC - 08:34 | Permalink

    Summary response in bold:

    I do not believe that “faith alone” prompts bad behaviour. (I have argued against Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins on this point several times on this blog and elsewhere.) Nor am I suggesting bad behaviours are found among the “faithful alone”. But I do agree with Harris and Dawkins that the irrational core of faith does contribute too often too much to evil acts — whether the faith is Christianity, Judaism or the Muslim faith. Most believers within those religions are not extremists as most people in any group are not on the extreme, by definition. But we need to be examining what the extremists have in common with the mainstream and ask some hard questions.

    Detailed responses for those so inclined:

    JT: 1. I live 60 miles from Waco, btw. Didn’t this person have mental health issues, believing himself to be God? I don’t see how these or the others examples apply here, as they are disturbed men doing bad things.

    Neil: No, he did not believe he was God. The issue is that the same faith and bibliotry that the mainstream encourages made Waco possible. People who become involved in such “counter-mainstream” groups are often protesting against the mainstream for not taking their own teachings seriously enough. Cultists are very often simply more sincere in taking mainstream beliefs to their logical conclusions. I am not referring to the specifics of doctrines which vary from group to group, but to the underlying principles of faith and reverence for a book as an ultimate authority. Mainstream Christianity needs to examine why it produces so much embarrassing spin-offs, not just the types referred to here but in the other points listed too. I don’t think blaming a few psychos or misguided interpretations comes close to addressing the heart of the issues.

    JT: 2. The only current example I can think of this is Jehovah’s Witness. And I am really not going to make a point to defend that faith, I realize that it is considered to be the same as being a Christian or Jewish in your eyes. In the U.S., when a J.W. refuses a transfusion for their child, the state takes over, allows the transfusion to occur, and then gives custody back to the parent. I realize that this is probably just the crust of what you are talking about with this point, but it is all I am truly knowledgeable about.

    Neil: The JW’s are the most prominent institution with this teaching, but it is not at all uncommon among many other believers, — speaking from many years of associations with various cult or milder ‘alternative’ religious groups. The sensible reaction of the state does not change the fact of the problem.

    JT: 3. People living in poverty because they give to the church. I can see your disdain for this practice. Although I have heard it said even in the secular world, that it is good practice to give your 10 percent to charities, others. So, blame Christianity, Judaism for this, but I don’t know if this is a logical step to make. And I don’t know if people are giving so much it is putting them into poverty. There is the example of old widows giving their savings to televangelists, and this is a terrible practice.

    Neil: Pointing to cases where there is no problem or abuse involved does not change the fact that many do, because of their sincere religious beliefs, live in poverty. And it is not hard to find more formal published documentation of this abuse. I have known many cases over many years having associated with such groups in that time.

    JT: 4. Racism. Extremely bad and ugly. I guess you can blame Christianity for this. Although I have seen some non-believers hate other races, and I have also seen professed believers be racist. But thank God for people like Dr. King, who saw that racism is not what Jesus was about.

    Neil: That non-Christians are racist and that many Christians are opposed to racism does not change the fact that many are racist because of their religious beliefs. Mainstream Christianity has a responsibility to understand the extent to which the very foundations of religious faith itself contribute to this extremist form, and respond appropriately. If it is just a matter of “misinterpretation” then we only need more education. But if that is not the answer then we need to be looking at something more foundational — something that can potentially spin people off in either direction.

    JT: 5. Again, I am not going to defend other faiths, because I know I can’t. But Judeo-Christian wise, I don’t see that happening currently. I do believe that there are areas where people are being killed for their Christian faith, I have not seen numerous or any reports of them killing for their Christian faith. Again, I say currently.

    Neil: I was thinking specifically of those Christians who, in the name of their faith and because of their faith, kill abortion doctors. Mainstream can say they got the interpretation wrong. But clearly there is something else at work there too — Mainstream needs to understand why their “extremists” protest the lack of sincerity or seriousness “mainstream” takes towards its own core beliefs of faith and authority.

    JT: 6. Stem cell research and others. I don’t know if I can argue this, because I don’t know if I know enough about the issues.

    Neil: It is simply a question of science, knowledge based on research, and human ethics. To bring in ancient texts that predate science, that teach that genocide is a godly thing for certain times and races, that assume epilepsy is demon-possession, is like trying to argue Galileo was wrong because he contradicted the Bible.

    JT: 8. I guess I have to go personal here. My grandfather grew up in a literal cardboard box. He is now a professor, isn’t rich by no means, but he had the opportunity to do what he wanted. I can see some people blaming capitalism for the poor, but not Christianity or Judaism.

    Neil: Capitalism has grew out of the Puritan ethic from the 16th and 17th centuries. This still plays a dominant role in sustaining certain libertarian type principles in countries that are populated in many quarters by the descendants of those who brought that culture with them to their “new lands”. (I am generalizing I know, but not too much. I am drawing specifically at the moment on the work of Anatol Lieven, America right or wrong” (2004).

    JT: 9 and 10 are very political questions, and I am sure that my points won’t change your mind, however I do feel that these issues or more complex than the people’s faith, those who are in charge.

    Neil: They are very religious questions to many fundamentalists who lobby and pressure politicians. I was not expressing a personal political view but drawing on the research and studies of, again, Anatol Lieven, America right or wrong (2004), also Kingdom coming (2006) by Michelle Goldberg, American theocracy (2006) by Kevin Phillips, God under Howard (2005) by Marion Maddox, Expulsion of the Palestians (1992) and Imperial Israel and the Palestinians (2000), and A Land without a people (1997) by Nur Masalha, and The Invention of ancient Israel (1996) by Keith Whitelam.

  • 2007-10-10 10:13:04 UTC - 10:13 | Permalink

    Forgot one of the main sources for response to #9:

    Challenging Christian Zionism: Theology, Politics and the Israel-Palesting Conflict (2005) — a collection of papers by Christian authors from a Sabeel conference.

    Israelis themselves are engaged in public debate over their extremist religious fringe with their political allies who insist on their rights to expel or otherwise “bantustan-ize” Palestinians and to occupy “biblical” sites that they believe are theirs by divine right. It is not a personal opinion to state the obvious religious fundamentals stoking the fires of the conflict.

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