Yesterday I had the opportunity to go to one of our parenting support groups and it was really exceptional. There is something really genuinely amazing to me about watching parents who are being intentional about being parents. Being open and honest and talking about what worked and what didn’t and what is so very difficult and what they’re scared about and how do you deal with those things and what does talking with your kids look like? Those are the sorts of things that give me hope for the world. I also feel like watching the group gave me a much better idea of how feminist counseling could be used in a group setting and that I would really like to work in group settings as well as one on one and those were all really exciting things to think about.
While the facilitator was talking about parenting, she was talking about discipline. She started by talking about the purpose of discipline vs punishment. The idea that discipline is about teaching your child life skills, so it needs to be consistent, it needs to be about finding out what motivates them, what moves them forward. It needs to be intentional and thoughtful and also individual, because you’re working with your specific child. These are important concepts. Not things I’ve never heard before but not how I feel I was raised and they always strike me. But then she said something else. She said “On the other hand, there is a spectrum. Sometimes safety is an issue. If your child is running in front of a semi-truck, you’re not going to stop and think about what life skills they’re going to learn. You’re going to do whatever it takes to stop them because if you don’t, they won’t learn anything ever again.” Now, that’s super sensible and it may not sound like something that would stop me in my tracks but it totally was. See, there’s really only one place I’ve ever heard anyone use that analogy before – it’s about God.
I literally could not count the number of pastors I have heard use that analogy when talking about hell. God is our father and he is saving us from the oncoming semi-truck of hell. Sometimes it’s a car, sometimes it’s a bus. It’s something big enough to crush us. They appeal to the parents in the audience. “If your child was running in front of a speeding car, you don’t pause to reason them out of it, you do whatever you need to in order to get them out of the way!” Now this has two problems but I find one of them interests me a lot less than the other. The one I find less interesting is about God. Because obviously there are problems with this. I mean, it’s all fine and good to pull your child out of the way of a car, but what if you put the car on a track to run into your child to begin with? What if you’re also driving the car? What about the idea of a hell that is not discipline and teaches nothing but is just eternal torture signifying nothing? The truth is that I don’t really care about that though, which I’m pleased about. I’m glad I’m not worrying myself over the theological inconsistencies of a God I’m not sure exists.
There’s a much more present problem with this teaching – it’s what it taught you as our parents. It’s the parents I want to talk to, not about. I feel like we’re all a family that’s been broken and the lines are fractured here. If I could wish anything, it’s that you could hear me. See, it’s not just God pulling the kids out of the way of the car, it’s you. What if your child is in sin? What if they are heading directly to hell? How are you supposed to save them? As parents, it is literally not possible for you to love them and not save them. You have to pull them out of the way, you have to at least try. Now, I know there are different versions of this. There is at least lip service given to the idea that only God can save. Some people believe that more than others. But it’s your child. Just trusting God to save them from eternal torture is a bit of a tall order, you have to admit. So you have to do something. I understand that, I really do. But where does this leave you? And I ask that sincerely. See, one of the key things about what she said is that parenting is a spectrum. Pulling your child out of the way of an oncoming semi is at the most extreme end of that spectrum. But what if everything is the semi? What if every sin is the same? What if hell and eternal damnation are a real part of your everyday existence and it is your job to save your child from that fate? Suddenly your normal parenting could very likely, very understandably, become the extreme end of that spectrum. It can make it very hard to be intentional about their day to day emotional skills in this life, and what is this life compared to eternity in hell or heaven? There is not a lot of room for a spectrum, there’s not a lot of space for individual parenting when you’re parenting with only one vital and unshakable goal – to make sure your child is safe forever.
Existentialist therapists believe as one of their core principles that death is one of the key things that gives our lives meaning. If life just went on forever, there would be no sense of urgency, no reason we had to get things done. It is the perspective death offers that gives us an ability to create a full and meaningful life. But as many kinds of Christian, you can’t believe that. Because focusing on this life is secondary to the afterlife. What good is the “blink of an eye” that is this life in comparison to an eternity we can’t even grasp? Of course it’s possible you’ll make some mistakes in that fervor. But you are doing it for their own good. You’re doing what you believe is the best thing. And it’s why, when your children try to talk to you about it, try to explain the hurt that came out of it, you are angry. How could you not be? You were trying to save our souls, not something as transitory as our minds and bodies. It’s not that those things don’t matter (depending on which tradition you’re in) but they have to matter less because they don’t last. But we’re still here, your children. We’re here, in the flesh, our minds and our bodies and we feel that we were broken and hurt and abused and we cannot just let it go because you meant well or because you were doing your best, even though many of us believe you.
I spent years running that exact hamster wheel. How could I be angry when I know they were doing what they believed to be right, what they believed was the best thing? How can I be upset when I know they loved me? It’s not fair. It’s not fair that so much of the time you didn’t know better. It’s not fair that you were tricked. It’s not fair that you were lied to. Because make no mistake, there are still Christian leaders pounding the pavement telling these same lies every day, stirring up hatred and fear and aggression. Except now so many of those things come down on the heads of us, the children who turned out wrong. Some of you were more susceptible to this than others. Some of you were already scared, were already hurt, were already abused and you wanted answers. You wanted a way to raise me and my siblings and the thousands of kids out there like us that was a guarantee. You were promised something by leaders who lied to you. I want to say that leadership should be intentional just like parenting, there are consequences just like parenting and as I look out and see major Christian leaders falling like houses of cards, some part of me wants to hope that consequences are coming, that a difference will be made, that this culture is crumbling from the inside. I don’t know if those men knew what they were doing, if they lied knowingly, if they drew you into this with eyes wide open or if they too were somehow dupes in this trick. If they led in fear of the semi-truck and taught you to parent on that same spectrum. I don’t know.
But I know that people were fooled, people were hurt. And it’s a particularly cruel joke if you believe, as I do now, that the semi-truck never existed in the first place.