I belong to me: learning agency & consent outside Christianity.

I belong to me: learning agency & consent outside Christianity.

Late­ly, I’ve been think­ing a lot about the con­cepts of agency1 and auton­o­my, how nec­es­sary they are for a ful­fill­ing life…and how impos­si­ble they are when con­sent is ignored. I’ve been real­iz­ing with a grow­ing sense of anger and frus­tra­tion that I had no grasp of those con­cepts as a Chris­t­ian. Real­ly, as I came to under­stand what basic respect, pri­or­i­tiz­ing con­sent, and hon­or­ing the auton­o­my of my fel­low human­i­ty looked like, I real­ized that Chris­tian­i­ty as I knew it had no place for those things…and there­fore had no place for me.

Don’t get me wrong. There were many things that played into my decon­ver­sion — this wasn’t the only thing. But it was cer­tain­ly an eye-open­ing dis­cov­ery.

You see, I grew up with the knowl­edge that I wasn’t my own per­son. Oh, no. I belonged to many peo­ple.

I belonged to God, because He made me.2 In fact, I belonged to Him even more because He saved me and I was a Chris­t­ian.3

I belonged to my par­ents (who thank­ful­ly were good, won­der­ful, trust­wor­thy par­ents who loved me with all their hearts and took great care of me). But in my cul­ture, I belonged to them and was expect­ed to for­feit my auton­o­my in favor of sub­mis­sion to their author­i­ty in my life, up until the moment my dad gave me away to my spouse on my wed­ding day.4

I belonged to my hus­band,5 whether I was cur­rent­ly mar­ried to him or not.6 What I want­ed or need­ed, phys­i­cal­ly or emo­tion­al­ly, was irrel­e­vant, because my pur­pose was to serve him.

It nev­er occurred to me to inves­ti­gate this claim that I didn’t belong to myself. None of these things were ever a ques­tion for me. It nev­er occurred to me that I could do things because I want­ed to do them. The thought was always, “Is what I’m doing going to glo­ri­fy God, fall in line with my par­ents, and hon­or my future hus­band?” After all, I could’t for­get the acronym for joy and what it meant.7

As a girl grow­ing up into a woman with­in the Ply­mouth Brethren move­ment8, not only did I not belong to myself, I also had lots of peo­ple to answer to. Lots of author­i­ties who could offer input into my life when­ev­er they pleased. Lots of peo­ple to sub­mit myself to: all the elders at my church,9 all old­er Chris­tians,10 all men.11 Even peers were encour­aged to “exhort” me to bet­ter, more Christ-like behav­ior.12

We assem­bly folk were an extreme­ly bib­li­cal­ly lit­er­al­ist13 bunch. While high­er edu­ca­tion in the­o­log­i­cal or bib­li­cal mat­ters was gen­er­al­ly frowned upon (you only need the Holy Spir­it and a group of like-mind­ed believ­ers, don’t you know),14 we prid­ed our­selves on our abil­i­ty to think clear­ly, com­pre­hend and apply the truths of Scrip­ture to our lives, and make sure that our emo­tions nev­er, ever ran away with us. After all, emo­tions are fleet­ing and untrust­wor­thy, but the Word of the Lord is for­ev­er.

Words were often rede­fined, like love and joy and peace. Love was a choice, nev­er a feel­ing, because feel­ings could change but love wasn’t allowed to.15 Joy was sim­i­lar­ly not based on cir­cum­stances like its shal­low­er sis­ter, Hap­pi­ness, but was to be found in the knowl­edge of God.16 Peace, whether it was tru­ly felt or not, was ours because God promised to give us the peace that pass­es under­stand­ing.17 Even doubts were explained away as unre­li­able feel­ings, because we had God’s Truth so there could nev­er be doubt if we were claim­ing the Truth for our­selves.

Inten­tion­al­ly or not, the result of grow­ing up in a sys­tem that taught such things was that I con­stant­ly under­mined my own emo­tions and feel­ings, see­ing them as less than, as an ene­my I had to squelch. After all, if my expe­ri­ences didn’t line up with what the Bible said, it was me and my expe­ri­ences that were wrong. Always.

All cor­rec­tion from any num­ber of peo­ple, no mat­ter their rela­tion­ship to me, was to be accept­ed with­out com­plaint. All per­ceived pun­ish­ment, born with the knowl­edge that I deserved it. All trau­ma, expe­ri­enced with a joy­ful heart that I got to suf­fer for the Lord and an under­stand­ing that pain wasn’t a big deal com­pared to the glo­ry await­ing me in heav­en.

No mat­ter what hap­pened, I knew beyond a shad­ow of a doubt that my thoughts, my wants, my needs were of no con­se­quence. I didn’t mat­ter. Only God and those He put in author­i­ty over me mat­tered, and there was no bound­ary I was allowed to set that would allow me any amount of auton­o­my.

Like when “god­ly” peers and author­i­ties alike proved them­selves to be untrust­wor­thy, manip­u­la­tive, even preda­to­ry, and my friends and I had no recourse because we instinc­tive­ly knew their author­i­ty meant our com­fort didn’t mat­ter.18

Or when I told a friend about being sex­u­al­ly assault­ed in col­lege and he replied, “Praise the Lord!” because like me he was taught suf­fer­ing for God was the great­est thing that could hap­pen to us as Chris­tians.

Or when I was forced to sign a state­ment say­ing I agreed with all 80 pages of the BJU rule­book under penal­ty of expul­sion19 (and when that forced agree­ment was brought up as proof that I’d con­sent­ed then bro­ken my “con­tract” with them when I was expelled).

Even when I became sui­ci­dal after hav­ing sex with my boyfriend,20 because I was so ashamed that a healthy, heal­ing con­sen­su­al sex­u­al expe­ri­ence some­how meant I dis­hon­ored God, my par­ents, and my future hus­band. My enthus­ti­a­sic con­sent meant noth­ing, because those peo­ple not involved in the sit­u­a­tion at all didn’t want me to. To dri­ve this point home, a friend at the time said I’d proven I could no longer be trust­ed to make my own deci­sions so she and anoth­er friend would be mak­ing them for me.

Then there’s the time when I final­ly talked about my sex­u­al assault,21 depres­sion,22 and PTSD23 pub­licly for the first time and Chris­tians seemed to pri­vate­ly rush to tell me to be qui­et, that talk­ing about such things or dwelling on them was dis­pleas­ing to God and dam­ag­ing to oth­ers.

And of course when I final­ly decon­vert­ed and told my Chris­t­ian friends that I under­stood their pain and con­fu­sion but asked them to respect me and my beliefs by nei­ther scold­ing me nor try­ing to con­vert me,24 and those requests were ignored en masse to the point that I had to delete an entire tox­ic, hate­ful thread and block peo­ple who took to pri­vate mes­sages to lam­bast me for dar­ing to have a pub­lic opin­ion in such oppo­si­tion to the one I was sup­posed to have.

This isn’t some­thing that’s par­tic­u­lar to my for­mer brand of Chris­tian­i­ty, either. By and large, Chris­tian­i­ty as a sys­tem in the West­ern world teach­es peo­ple to run roughshod over the bound­aries of those with­in and with­out their camps under the guise of love.25 The con­sent of its mem­bers and non-mem­bers alike isn’t required, as clear­ly demon­strat­ed by the past almost 28 years of my exis­tence. And that’s a mas­sive prob­lem, enabling (and at times com­mand­ing) the manip­u­la­tion, mis­treat­ment, and abuse of count­less peo­ple.

In fact, I’d say one of the defin­ing char­ac­ter­is­tics of Chris­tian­i­ty today is that it has a con­sent prob­lem.

When God’s love is offered freely to everyone…unless they reject Him, at which point He’ll sub­ject them to vio­lent, painful, and — oh yeah — eter­nal pun­ish­ment, Chris­tian­i­ty has a con­sent prob­lem.

When gen­er­a­tions are taught they don’t belong to them­selves because God made them2 and paid for them by killing His Son3 so now they’re lit­er­al­ly His slaves,26 Chris­tian­i­ty has a con­sent prob­lem.

When it’s taught that believ­ers are dead and thus no longer alive, but Christ lives through them now27 so they lit­er­al­ly no longer exist and every­thing they do must align with the desires of a being oth­er than them­selves, Chris­tian­i­ty has a con­sent prob­lem.

When peo­ple are con­stant­ly28 com­pared29 to30 mind­less31 sheep32 who need a shep­herd33 because on their own they can’t sur­vive, Chris­tian­i­ty has a con­sent prob­lem.

Come to think of it, I’m pret­ty sure Tan­gled is one giant metaphor for decon­vert­ing from Chris­tian­i­ty and escap­ing the abu­sive con­trol of a manip­u­la­tive author­i­ty fig­ure.

When Chris­tians con­stant­ly evan­ge­lize those who want to be left alone because of course they know bet­ter than those poor hell-bound sin­ners,34 Chris­tian­i­ty has a con­sent prob­lem.

When Chris­tians want to be free to live how­ev­er they please,35 but also want to use the gov­ern­ment to force the coun­try to live under “bib­li­cal” laws,36 Chris­tian­i­ty has a con­sent prob­lem.

When believ­ers pry into each other’s lives and shame each oth­er for per­ceived moral fail­ings that tend to be absolute­ly no one’s busi­ness under the guise of exhort­ing each oth­er,11 Chris­tian­i­ty has a con­sent prob­lem.

When women are expect­ed to give men a chance whether they want to or not,37 because men have more god­ly author­i­ty than women so we ought to trust them, Chris­tian­i­ty has a con­sent prob­lem.

When peo­ple, mar­ried or not, are taught they don’t have author­i­ty over their own bod­ies3 because they belong to their their father (if unmar­ried)4 or their spouse5 (and of course ulti­mate­ly with God), Chris­tian­i­ty has a con­sent prob­lem.

When divorce is for­bid­den38 even in emo­tion­al­ly, phys­i­cal­ly, or sex­u­al­ly abu­sive cir­cum­stances,39 Chris­tian­i­ty has a con­sent prob­lem.

When women are forced to car­ry preg­nan­cies to term against their will,40 Chris­tian­i­ty has a con­sent prob­lem.

When chil­dren are seen as the prop­er­ty of their par­ents and treat­ed like show dogs to train and show off, praised when per­form­ing well and beat­en (oh, excuse me, spanked) when they “mis­be­have,”41 Chris­tian­i­ty has a con­sent prob­lem.

When chil­dren are told to respect and hon­or their par­ents, no mat­ter what abus­es were rained down upon them in the name of love or oth­er­wise,42 Chris­tian­i­ty has a con­sent prob­lem.

When you are told to lean not on your own under­stand­ing but in every pos­si­ble way sub­mit to God and His author­i­ties in your life,43 Chris­tian­i­ty has a con­sent prob­lem.

When core ten­ants of the faith dic­tate that your own heart is deceit­ful above all things and des­per­ate­ly wicked and no one can know it,44 and in the next breath you’re taught spir­i­tu­al author­i­ties in your life are to be trust­ed more than your own intu­ition45 and obeyed even against your bet­ter judg­ment (because of course you can’t even have bet­ter judg­ment, don’t you know that your heart is deceit­ful and des­per­ate­ly wicked?), Chris­tian­i­ty has a con­sent prob­lem.

When the lib­er­als, athe­ists, non-Chris­tians, LGBT+ com­mu­ni­ty and all oth­ers that Chris­tian­i­ty by and large decries as sin­ful and repro­bate are the ones who teach love, accep­tance, respect, and com­mu­ni­ty bet­ter than West­ern Chris­tian­i­ty as a whole ever has, Chris­tian­i­ty has a con­sent prob­lem.

There are indi­vid­ual excep­tions to this, of course. Cer­tain groups with­in Chris­tian­i­ty who are dif­fer­ent, tru­ly respect­ful and lov­ing and inclu­sive. I’m unend­ing­ly thank­ful for the Chris­tians in my life who tire­less­ly work to make their reli­gion a bet­ter, safer place. Peo­ple who strive to teach that you are your own,46 in fact, and fight against the awful lie that we’re dam­aged goods,47 and lead the charge of lib­er­a­tion for the oppressed.48 I’m equal­ly thank­ful for oth­er for­mer Chris­tians like me, who write about our expe­ri­ences in the faith and out­side the faith,49 offer­ing sol­i­dar­i­ty to oth­er for­mer Chris­tians in an over­whelm­ing Chris­tian­ized nation,50 pro­vid­ing valu­able cri­tique51 of the frame­work of Chris­tian­i­ty and how to live as an actu­al­ized per­son when you’ve real­ized that every­thing you’ve ever known is no longer avail­able to you, and fight­ing to make sure that the church and state remain sep­a­rate for the good of all in our coun­try.52

I can’t tell you how free­ing it is to real­ize that I belong to me, and no one else. I get to decide what hap­pens to my body, what kind of inter­ac­tions peo­ple are allowed to have with me, and what sort of peo­ple and activ­i­ties and pos­ses­sions I want to have in my life. I’m my own per­son, and I get to decide who that is.

And until Chris­tian­i­ty as a whole takes a good look at its refusal to rec­og­nize or hon­or the bound­aries of oth­ers and work to change their ram­pant ten­den­cy to con­trol the lives of all they can in the name of God, con­sent be damned…Chris­tian­i­ty is not a safe place for any­one. And more and more peo­ple like me will have to leave it to find any sort of free­dom, respect, and dig­ni­ty.

Thanks to Amy, Suzan­nah, Abi, Christi­na, Blair, and Josh for help­ing me brain­storm for this, and also to Sarah, Dian­na, Jes, Lind­sey, Paige, and Michael for being my extra sets of eyes.

Posted in Fat Girl,