Progressive Christianity,  Religious Abuse,  Religious Trauma

“Real” Christianity: The Phrase That Enables Abuse

If you’ve ever tried talking about your experience of church trauma and/or abuse, its likely you’ve been met with something along the lines of “Well, that’s not REAL Christianity!” “Oh, but those weren’t REAL Christians!” I’ve heard this more times than I can count, and I have a few embarrassing memories of responding similarly myself.

I don’t think manipulation, control, shame, abuse, judgment, discrimination, or oppression – which have all become commonplace in American Evangelicalism – are in line with the teachings of Christ.

But that doesn’t mean we get to dissociate those behaviors from Christianity.

“Christianity” is whatever Christians are doing.

And yes, Christians lie. Christians gossip. Christians turn a blind eye to suffering. Christians misuse tax-free dollars. Christians sexually assault minors in their care. Christians colonize lands and cultures they deem inferior. Christians pass legislation that keeps people on the streets, in prison, and in destitute poverty.

And “not all Christians” doesn’t negate the fact that Christians are still doing these things, and more frequently than most would like to admit.

Christians also donate to charities. Christians volunteer at homeless shelters. Christians build community gardens. Christians practice radical forgiveness. Christians march in Pride Parades. Christians advocate for justice and peacefully protest. Christians give their extra bedroom to a homeless teen.

All of this is real Christianity. The good and the bad.

I have seen the Christian faith expressed anywhere along a wide spectrum – from hellish horror stories that still haunt me a couple decades later, to transformational healing communities that met me in my darkest times and make up some of the best years of my life.

Christianity is the whole gamut. You can’t pick and choose what you like and ignore or justify the rest.

I’ll admit, it’s tempting to gate-keep what is “allowed” to be Christian. That way anything that makes us uncomfortable, makes the faith look bad, or goes against our personal values is therefore “fake” and not our problem.

Perpetrators of atrocities can be labeled insincere, fallen away, or wolves in sheep’s clothing – whatever keeps them disconnected from us.

But we don’t get to conveniently assume the people we don’t like aren’t part of us. If someone practices the Christian faith, participates in Christian community, touts Christian morals, obeys Christian rules or makes decisions based on their understanding of Christianity, for all intents and purposes – they are a Christian.

If it looks like a duck, walks like a duck and quacks like a duck – its a duck. Whether its a cute duck or an ugly duck. Even if that duck leaves a poopy mess in the park. Even if that duck nips a child trying to feed it. Even if that duck wakes up the neighborhood at 5am with annoying quacks. We don’t get to say its not a “real” duck because we are fond of ducks and this duck makes ducks look bad. It’s still a duck.

As I mentioned earlier, I used to respond to religious trauma survivors saying “Those people aren’t really following Christ” or “That’s not what Christianity is all about “. This was my knee-jerk reaction because I felt defensive of my own expression of Christianity that felt positive for me. It was uncomfortable to feel misrepresented. I had deep convictions about what Christianity was “supposed” to look like (which didn’t always line up with the lived experiences of others). At the time, my fervent life goal as a Christian was to invite more people into the faith which I believed was always the best thing for them. Acknowledging something negative about Christianity might scare people away. It was counter to everything I thought I was supposed to be doing with my life.

But over time, as I experienced my own religious trauma, I learned firsthand how the “not real Christians” mindset dismisses survivors who were hurt in Christian churches, manipulated by Christian doctrines, abused by Christian leaders, and oppressed by Christian institutions. This response tells survivors – “what happened to you wasn’t real”.

But it is real; perhaps more real than anything else in our past because of how it permeates our present and shapes our future.

Have Christian abusers strayed from the true way of Christ and created their own warped brand of Christianity?

It all depends on your interpretation of Christ’s teachings (and whether that interpretation allows you to see abuse in the first place). But I think many Christians would say yes – the damaging aspects of modern Christianity were not the original intent.

But even so, positive intent doesn’t erase negative impact. Those of us who still identify as Christians must take responsibility for the ways our tradition has made room for and turned a blind eye to Christian abusers because we’ve decided they aren’t “real Christians”.

And we desperately need to reflect on ways our tradition may have even cultivated harmful beliefs and behavior in the first place.

By distancing ourselves from the abuse that takes place in our churches, we let it continue. By deciding that abusers aren’t real Christians, we are choosing to see the dangerous and damaging aspects of the faith as coming from the outside, and therefore not our problem. This enables abuse.

As someone who spent almost 30 years in the church, I have a lot of repenting to do. Not just “I’m sorry” but actively undoing the harm I contributed to either directly, or by my lack of awareness.

As someone who (kind of) still identifies with progressive and mystic forms of the Christian tradition, I acknowledge that for every way the faith has been good for me, it has been life-shattering for someone else. My tradition has brought a lot of healing to people, and it has profoundly hurt people. Until every single Christian takes personal responsibility for the ways our tradition has been harmful, and strives to change it, real Christianity will continue to spread unimaginable pain.

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