This has been one of the biggest revelations of my long, slow faith shift: you can't just tweak a few things and carry on as usual.
The whole system has to change.
In the beginning, I really thought it was just me. I had misunderstood Love, and if I just tweaked my thoughts and behaviors, that would fix the whole thing.
But the more I followed Love, the less I fit into the old systems.
And once I had been in Love, I couldn't (and didn’t want to) get out.
There was no going back, and Love had unforeseen consequences.
When I started to believe that women should be fully included in Love, that was *gasp* feminism, and not "biblical manhood and biblical womanhood." Still, female equality had been around long enough that it wasn’t going to get me more than some side eye from most Christians.
When I started to say out loud that the LGBTQ community should be fully included in Love, no questions asked, no requirements for change and no bedroom policing, that was my do-not-pass-go, do-not-collect-$200, one-way-ticket to hell, with a bunch of religious bigwigs signing onto The Nashville Statement to prove it.
A few weeks after the Marriage Equality Act passed, I lost my job at a Christian counseling center for being LGBTQ affirming.
When we talked about the suicide rates of LGBTQ children to church leaders, to people in various contexts, they sat stone faced and said, "But the Bible clearly says..."
Before I knew it, people I loved decided that I was "not walking with the Lord.”
I was asked to identify myself as either "not a Christ follower" or "a Christ follower who's preaching heresy" so that someone close to me could “decide how to treat me."
I was told more than once that “you love too much” and that I needed to teach the wrath of God more.
I even had someone submit one of my blog posts to a “trusted expert” who refuted it line-by-line to prove my apostasy.
The point of telling you all this is not to garner sympathy, but just to show the reality of what happened during my faith shift: I lost all my systems.
Church, career, family.
Because I love too much, apparently.
I didn't plan it.
I didn't have any idea that including myself (feminism) and others (LGBTQ community, all races, all religions, immigrants) in Love would be so offensive to the system I was in.
Everybody said, "God is Love."
We all said that, and I thought that's what we meant.
When I learned more, I included more in God's Love.
I thought, silly silly me, if I could just explain to people how this is Love, they'd get it too.
It has been a terrible shock to get that stone-faced stare, over and over again.
It has been a terrible shock to be excluded for the crime of loving others.
And that opposition to love, that resistance to human compassion, has required me to dig deeper into what's going on here. (Once you’ve been kicked out of all the systems, you can ask all the questions, because what are they going to do, kick you out more?)
When you can't care about the suicide of children, I'm calling it, people: Love has left the building.
When we make ourselves the gatekeepers of who’s in and who’s out, who’s worthy of acceptance, no matter the clear harm being done to marginalized and vulnerable human beings, some other system is in play, and it’s not Love.
What I've concluded is this: these systems are more about power and control than Love.
Keeping the power to decide the spiritual fate of others, according to what makes us comfortable.
Maintaining control so that everything works out in our favor, so we don’t have to share or make way or admit that we were wrong—or worst of all, lose the scapegoats so central to our authoritarian religious requirements.
What I know as a therapist is this: power and control is the basis of all abuse. And an abuser who believes it's God's will for him to abuse, is the most dangerous person of all.
Like an abusive spouse, religious systems use "love" as the word to gain control, to retain power. And as long as you're on the inside, trying to keep the system going, "love" is the word used to excuse the most egregious victimization of the most marginalized people.
In an abusive system, "love" becomes synonymous with gaslighting, the reinterpretation of reality, trying to convince you what you don't see what you see, you don't know what you know, you don’t feel the pain that you feel, you don’t have the bruises you have.
An abusive spouse verbally or emotionally or physically abuses their victims, while proclaiming to themselves and everyone else that they “love.” Maybe he hits you a little, but he “loves” you. That is the narrative of the system, and you have to assent to it if you’re going to stay.
But when you’re forced to examine the evidence of bruises, broken bones, depression, and suicide, the truth emerges: it’s not love. It’s power and control.
Like all abusive systems, religious fundamentalism is a toxic, brutal, deadly system of power and control that puts "love" on as a mask.
It taught me to live in shame and fear and self-hatred, and to brutalize others that same way as a way of perpetuating the system.
My responsibility in the face of that truth is to get myself free and, as Nelson Mandela says, “to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.”
If we never face up to the reality of that system, if we just try to make a few tweaks here and there in our belief system, we will find ourselves back in the same patterns, over and over: gatekeeping, othering, stone-facing it from our place of privilege as victims bleed in front of us because they haven’t met our particular criteria for worthiness, acceptance, and love.
The system is the problem, and we have to be brave enough to face that.
Does it wreck your life? It does.
Does it set you free? It does.
Unmask the system, and you can never unsee the ugliness that lies beneath.
Unmask it, and it loses its power over you and its ability to control you.
Unmask it, and you walk away free, into the light of compassion and loving kindness that includes us all, unconditionally.
Which means: without condition.