As a person of faith I still want to call out those parts of our faith systems which are not rooted in love, respect and humility, which instead come from a place of fear and desire for control.
So that was what I wrote. The article discusses a particularly dismaying school-type where students are segregated and use flags to communicate with teachers (my mind is truly boggling!). What scares me is that although many features of this school sound abhorrent, a distressing amount of it is only a few attitudinal steps removed from some more prevalent Christian views and practices.
I am challenged constantly by my work as a lecturer within the Social Sciences to try and locate the cultural practices in our lives which shape our attitudes and views. We unthinkingly replicate patterns, behaviours and values by simply repeating cultural practices and norms. When I was younger I accepted that as a woman I would only ever get to have a view within a church if I was married to a man within the church, and preferably an elder or a leader. I later decided just to move church…
But during the time when I was allegedly being ‘meek’ I was waging a war with myself. I have opinions, I have views, I love words, I cannot bear inequality or structural oppression, and all those ideas were compressed inside me as I struggled to fit in to somewhere that I thought I wanted to belong. I followed the traditions without being able to question them. Outside of church I was confident of my views, but the cultural norms of a congregation denied me my identity as a person purely because I was a woman.
I say ‘purely’, but actually I was also from a working class family, and churches that I went to when I was younger were not working class. I grew up in the suburbs where new estates were built in a time when religion was not fashionable, so they were built with shops, a Post Office, but no church.
To attend a church therefore meant travelling from the area where I lived (a mix of modest-sized houses) to one of the earlier-built estates nearby with bigger houses and upwardly mobile congregations in their brick churches. I heard people mocked for reading the tabloid newspapers and patronising comments about reaching working class people who ‘didn’t have the same moral values’.
I had managed to slip into their churches without them noticing that I was one of the potentially feral working class with my lax morals and ready access to tabloids. I fitted in because I didn’t reveal my actual self. The message I got was that Jesus welcomes the ‘nice’ middle class people and that He thought that the working class people needed improvement before they’d be ready for His church. (As an aside I see a similar trajectory in education where curricula are more about passing on middle-class attributes than addressing actual social inequality of privilege).
So I am a woman, my parents were working class, and I am also single. A friend was told last week that if she ‘worked on her issues’ then she would not be single for long, and going to church more was the answer. The cultural assumption that ‘normal’ women got married led an otherwise apparently sentient man to tell someone he’d just met that they were damaged and that was the reason they were single. If they had been a better Christian and gone to more church events they wouldn’t be in the awful state they were in (that of being a happy and successful person who is kind, generous and good at roller-skating). The message she came away with was clear: You are not culturally normal, and therefore you are not somehow not following God.
Our church congregations transmit values by how we relate to those around us. We also enforce values by our actions and traditions. This week I want to challenge myself to consider what cultural norms I have made part of my faith for good or for ill. I want to think intentionally about how to sift out those things which are cultural and not Christian, those thoughts and attitudes I hold which might be a barrier to someone.