A lot of people are leaving their churches right now never to return and you might be one of them. Millennials especially are “disaffiliating” in large numbers and for very good reasons. Churches have gotten into the bad habit of shaming young people for their doubts, condemning LGBTQ people and their advocates, and righteously dismissing any challenge to their claim to be speaking for God on issues like the role of women in church and society, climate change, racism, militarism and so much more. If people are leaving churches it is because churches are driving them away.
American Christianity is suffering from a self-inflicted crisis of belonging. And the people suffering the most are often the ones who are leaving.
When church fails to be a welcoming place, we are right to go in search of such a place elsewhere. Because belonging matters. It’s not just a luxury we can do without if we have to. It’s a necessary part of knowing who we are and feeling good about our place in the world, good enough to want to continue living, period.
American Christianity is suffering from a self-inflicted crisis of belonging.
Why Do Good People Do Bad Things?
Finding a place where your voice is welcomed, listened to and respected is essential to recovering a sense of belonging. I hope that you find that Raven is a place of healing for you, where you can express your hurt and anger and find answers to your questions. A big question that comes up often is one I’ll try to answer now: “How could people who claim to be so good and loving, who really are good and loving in many ways, how could they believe things that shame and exclude so many people like me?”
The answer to the question is actually part of the question – it’s the “good and loving” bit. Because there is a flip side to your suffering, a side where benefits flow from setting strict requirements on belonging. When you have clear criteria for who is on the inside of God’s love and who is excluded, it can be very reassuring to find yourself on the inside with other good people like yourself. This way of knowing yourself as good and beloved of God depends on a scapegoat, a contrasting group, however small, that is not good or loving at all. That’s you right now.
Having you on the outside helps build and sustain strong bonds of belonging among those on the inside. It doesn’t mean that they are wicked because they think you are wicked! It just means that they have fallen victim to a wicked way of forming belonging, one that is very difficult to become aware of because the people who could tell them the truth – you! – are the ones they are determined not to listen to. It’s a vicious cycle and anyone can fall into its trap!
Learn to Recognize the Scapegoating Pattern
Just look at how many different groups establish a sense of belonging through scapegoating. Some examples are silly and relatively benign, like foodies who bond over their disdain of fast food patrons or coffee snobs who refuse to set foot in Starbucks. Other forms of over against belonging can be fun and exciting like attending a playoff game of your favorite team or going with your friends to hear your favorite band. Being against the other team or bonding over your superior taste in music hopefully doesn’t hurt anyone else all that badly. But some forms of belonging that follow this pattern are as dangerous and harmful as we saw in our church examples. Political hyper-partisanship, misogyny, racism, nationalism, discrimination, bullying – all these are examples of the way scapegoating both creates victims and offers benefits to those who find unity and solidarity against their scapegoats.
Those who have left churches can even form belonging by being against the church they left behind! You can find yourself wearing your rejection as a badge of honor or your decision to leave as a sign of spiritual superiority. There are a lot of recovering Catholics, as we call ourselves, in my United Church of Christ congregation and we sometimes do congratulate ourselves on having made the right choice to leave our church with an implicit judgment against those who have remained in the pews. Like I said, we all do it.
But here’s the good news! Because “scapegoat” and “scapegoater” are roles we play and are not part of our DNA, we can recover and repent, as the situation and our self-awareness make possible. No one is inherently a victim or a persecutor; we can fall into one role or the other at different times or we can choose another role altogether, one that is authentically good and loving. This third way is something Jesus revealed to us by occupying the role of victim at the crucifixion and then returning to offer forgiveness to his persecutors.
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Jesus Revealed a New Form of Belonging
What Jesus revealed was that there is no way of forming belonging that doesn’t involve victims. We can either form communities that create victims or we can form community around the presence of the forgiving victim – Jesus – in our midst. We can silence our victims or we can listen to them with humility. The communion table is the visible sign of the invisible presence of Christ forgiving us for how we have benefited from scapegoating so that we can begin to see the truth about our group belonging. Not to make us feel guilty, not at all. But to reassure us that God does not hold our past against us which frees us up to imagine the new community that the presence of the risen and forgiving Christ is making possible in our midst.
Does this mean that God is calling us to return to churches and forgive the ones who hurt us? Not at all! I mean, some people are best loved from a distance, don’t you think? What I think Jesus is asking us to do is to be a loving presence wherever we find ourselves free and safe enough to do so. Jesus asks us to be in the process of becoming someone who does not condemn others but who can admit our own complicity in the scapegoating way of the world.
That type of authentic goodness might look something like Val Stones, a sixty-something grandma who was thrown off The Great British Baking Show half-way through the season. She was remarkable in that she managed to be a loving presence in a competitive situation designed to create rivalry, encourage cruel judgment, and give the audience a scapegoater’s thrill by expelling a new victim— I mean baker – each week.
When Val was deemed unworthy to continue in the competition, here is what Paul Hollywood (you can guess how big his ego is from his name!) said about her: “I love Val. Her character is fantastic. She really buoyed everyone up every week. A great baker without a shadow of a doubt but this was not her week.” And one of her fellow contestants, someone who obviously benefited from Val being cut from the program, had this to say: “Val was a really positive presence in the tent. She came up with little games for us to play in between bakes. Like today she was reading a 1977 shopping receipt and having us guess the prices.”
Val sounds like a really nice lady, doesn’t she? And a pretty good baker! But not good enough. Fortunately for Val the joy she gets from baking doesn’t depend on whether she is excluded or included in the little scapegoating games we play on television or in our lives. Here’s what she had to say: “When you bake you always bake for a reason. You are giving it to people so you make it the best you can. You make it with love. Whenever I make anything I stir love into it. I knead love into it. So when I present it, it’s special.” Luckily for Val’s family and friends, her rejection seems not to have dimmed her desire to bake love into all her relationships.
So when you go in search of belonging remember:
- Belonging matters.
- Scapegoating creates a sense of belonging by excluding others.
- Anyone of us can fall into scapegoating.
- Jesus forgives us and calls us to inclusive love.
We cannot escape the pervasive way belonging is structured around scapegoating and the way we are implicated in it every day. But we can play the game of belonging by Jesus’ rules, loosening the criteria by which we judge others and expanding the boundaries we build around our little circles of belonging. So let’s try to stir in the love whenever and wherever we can.