Laughing At the Dark: Hate-Watching, Mockery, and Healing

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A few years ago, I suffered through about 6-7 months emotional and spiritual abuse. It’s not something I feel I can divulge a lot of details on, and I dislike calling myself a “survivor,” because it feels a bit appropriative of things far worse than what I’ve gone through. But, in a few ways, it is what I am. My experience skewed my perception of myself in ways that interfered with my daily life, increased my anxiety, and made me have to rewrite my own scripts of self-talk.

In recovering from this experience – and I consider myself a good way along the road to recovery – being able to poke fun at things that resembled my negative experience was healing. It’s from that space that I produce mocking, satirical blog posts like “Are Christian Complementarians Hurting Their Cause?” which was so popular a couple weeks ago. It is from this space and mindset of mockery that I’m able to place theologies, arguments, and ideas in context and ridicule them for thinking they’re original when they’re really just the same tired old refrains – refrains that used to hurt but now roll off my back like water off a duck.

These points where I can laugh about what happened without feeling angry or anxious or terrified in the ways I did when it actually happened? They have been vital to my recovery. Like the child who laughs out in the dark night to let the monsters know that he is unafraid, literally laughing at the trappings of that space which abused me has helped me to feel braver, to be more confident in my self, to finally feel like I’m not insane, that I’m not hated by everyone, that I’m not a bad person for believing the things I believe – all of which are things I was told when I was extricating myself from my former evangelicalism.

So when people – however unintentionally, however nicely – police the ways in which survivors are healing, especially when it involves mockery, my hackles raise. Friend of a friend, Richard Clark, raised my hackles in a piece that’s been making the rounds – “Stop Hate-Watching The Church.” (We’ll ignore the conflation between mockery and hate for a moment).

I read this piece multiple times, as I knew from being FB friends with Clark and other CAPC writers, that its detractors were accused of missing the point and reading something that wasn't there. However, in each of the four times I read it, I still disagreed with his thesis, which I’ll put in his own words here:

Scripture doesn’t reject the concept of venting. It has a realistic and tender approach to emotional suffering, and in fact commands Christians to weep when others weep. God knows the Church could use some help with this principle: just as many struggle with bitterness after being victimized, others struggle with the blindness that comes with privilege. None of us should be willing to stay there. That famous commandment to weep with those who weep is meant to be carried out within God’s covenant community, among flesh and blood church members who take it upon themselves to empathize and care for one another.
God does mock and is harsh towards his followers at times, but those are rare exceptions, and redemptive in nature. But we, with all our flaws and frailty, were never meant to be God’s instruments of justice. We are to be instruments of God’s incredible redemptive grace. Turn over all the tables you want, but in the end, all you’ll have to show for it is a God-forsaken mess. [emphasis mine]

There’s a lot to unpack there, to be sure, but I think Clark's thesis has a few problems that need to be addressed.

His first problem is the flattening of the motives and actions of people who mock the church as a part of their healing process. Notice how I phrased that – as a part of the healing process. Staying at the stage of cynical mockery is, I think any therapist would agree, probably not a healthy long-term decision. Clark, however, seems to be assuming a static community – that much is clear when he says “No one should be willing to stay there.” The burden of proof, however, is on Clark to prove that people are staying there – and, honestly, unless you are their therapist working through these issues with these people, you really can’t judge whether or not these people are stable and static within their mockery.

In other words: people change and communities are not static. While the community Clark focuses on - Stuff Christian Culture Likes (SCCL) - has existed for a long time run by the same person, people come and go and flow within and without the community, taking what healing they can from the mockery, and then deciding for themselves when it is good and healthy to leave.

This last part is also something that Clark makes a mistake on. By presuming to dictate how a Christian should heal from abuse – he directly states in the comments that “voicing their frustrations in this way is not the way to heal" - he repeats the very same oppression mocking watchdogs are trying to get out from under. This type of dictation – though Clark clearly meant it to be loving – speaks to a lack of experience with survivors, and a distinct lack of empathy for spiritual abuse survivors in particular.

Survivors of spiritual abuse have suffered under deeply flawed and harmful authoritarianism, and part of their recovery (and the recovery for any abuse survivor, really) is learning how to regain their agency, to own themselves and dictate for themselves what they believe, how they feel, and what is helpful or not helpful to them. Survivors of fundamentalist cults, for example, have been told for years and years and years not to trust their own instincts, not to believe their own gut feelings or emotions, that their very selves are attempting to deceive them. So part of their recovery from that kind of spiritual abuse is knowing for themselves and only for themselves what is healing and what is not.

At the point that we say, “this is not the way to heal,” we remove their agency from them yet again. Survivors of spiritual abuse have suffered for years thinking that there is nothing they have done right, that they are incapable of autonomy and self-direction, and Clark’s “this is not the way to heal” robs them of that autonomy and growth yet again, by reinforcing for them that here is yet another thing they are doing wrong.

The third mistake Clark makes is assuming that someone is either Christian or not and that this label has a specific definition that aligns with his orthodoxy. One of the most harmful parts of my own experience was the continued implication that I could no longer call myself a follower of Christ because I questioned some secondary doctrines. I was asked, straight out, if I was a Christian or a feminist first – the implication being that if I was a feminist, I could no longer truly call myself a Christian. It felt like my very identity was at stake, like my attempts to own my faith and to figure out what it meant for me were all for naught because whatever road I struck down wasn’t the right one. There was an undergirding judgment of "doing faith wrong." Rather than assuming that all people who are healing from abuse from supposedly Christian environments fall into two categories of “atheist so hurt they left” and “Christian,” Clark needs to allow room for a spectrum of identities.

I identify as a progressive, liberation theology believing, feminist, agnostic who finds much of Christianity and the person of Jesus useful for private spiritual practice. I’m hardly orthodox, but my faith – what little of it is left – is fully my own, and I no longer feel abandoned by God, whatever form They may take. I’m not orthodox, but I’m not an atheist either. Clark’s need to categorize those identify as Christians into a space in which they have to choose between a healing strategy or being a person of Christ is a fairly damaging approach. It doesn’t meet people where they are – people unsure of what to believe any more after their experience but reluctant to leave the faith that was home to them for so long. Indeed, Clark’s pervasive “Christians do healing this way” is one approach that has hurried several of my atheist friends down the road to deconversion. Many of them think, “Well, if I’m not a Christian because I’m not recovering in the ‘right way,’ then what point is there to calling myself Christian anymore?” So they leave.

 Telling people in an already vulnerable position that they are "healing wrong" or "recovering wrong" just labels Christianity and its representatives as more and more unsafe, to the point where people are pushed into unbelief.

Despite explicit statements to the contrary, Clark’s eventual conclusion smacks of a misunderstanding of survivorship, mockery, and healing. Rather than meeting people where they are, he ends up unintentionally placing himself in the position of policing people’s healing, of flattening their identities, and repeating many of the oppressive kinds of rhetoric that these survivors are trying to leave.

All this said, it doesn’t mean that mockery is de facto good or always healing. Like anything in this world, context is key, and I’ll be discussing good and bad types of mockery in a follow up post on Friday.