Some might say I’m an apostate, agnostic, atheist or anything else starting with the letter “A” deemed derogatory. I’m resolved to not take issue, so long as no one calls me an ass.
I once was a religious insider myself, well versed in the labeling and categorizing of heretical outsiders. So, it doesn’t take much of an imagination to divine what many may be postulating about me personally: “Is he possessed? Has satan deceived him? Is he delusional? Hurt? Confused? Rebelling? Why in God’s name would he turn his back on his upbringing and walk away from his calling?!” Thus it is for all those who’ve dared to question their inherited, deep-seated beliefs, and even more so for those who once served in a professional capacity such as I did for 25+ years.
The stories of former clergy like me are heart-wrenching and too numerous to recount. Sadly, the tragedy of being ostracized, humiliated, shunned and often terribly impoverished is a common thread running throughout. For a society [the Church] claiming to be built on foundations of grace and unconditional love, the question which begs to be answered is: “Why is it necessary to demonize and shun those who doubt, question and/or choose to simply be a good human being apart from all the religious trappings?” Some have suggested the answer lies in the past, starting with the early European settlers of America.
It’s been my observation that most churchgoers throughout the Bible-belt and America’s Heartland possess very little knowledge of their particular sect’s history. Furthermore, in my opinion, they are woefully lacking in objectivity as it concerns the cognitive behavioral motivators both past and present. From sea to shining sea, the American Christian culture remains deeply influenced by the puritanical heritage originating with the first Thirteen Colonies. Researching this history of Puritan influence, the historian John Coffey has noted:
New England exercised a disproportionate influence on American ideals…thanks to a powerful intellectual tradition disseminated through its universities, its dynamic print culture and the writings of its famous [Puritan] clergy.
Today, the Puritan’s ideology is largely championed by the rise of Evangelicalism and the Religious Right. Emphasizing this, is an article published in 2015 by The Gospel Coalition entitled 8 Reasons Why We Need The Puritans. The article concludes with the following quote by the contemporary theologian John Piper:
My own experience is that no one comes close to the skill they [the Puritans] have in taking the razor-like scalpel of Scripture, and lancing the boils of my corruption, cutting out the cancers of my God-belittling habits of mind, and amputating the limbs of my disobedience. They are simply in a class by themselves.
It’s been my experience that very few evangelicals would privately disagree with Piper’s summation, though publicly opting for a softer, more digestible, “seeker-sensitive” version.
Piper’s “lancing, cutting and amputating” are obviously figures of speech. However, it is reminiscent of a familiar aggressiveness known to his Puritan ancestors whom he puts in “a class by themselves.” Certainly, when it came to dealing with so-called sabbath breakers, smokers, merry-makers and dissenters, “no one comes close.” Employing the same torture devices they had once fled, they religiously shackled, branded, cropped ears and stitched scarlet letters on the clothing of so-called sinners.
For persons of differing faith traditions, namely Quakers and Catholics, tolerance was in short supply. Often, their ears were cut off, and hot pokers pushed through their tongues. Others were publicly flogged, imprisoned and either hung or burned at the stake.
Fortunately, in our modern society, such physically brutal reprisals are forbidden. Sadly though, the wording Piper uses implies old, puritanical attitudes which remain to support harsh, cruel behavior. For instance, with those who dare to question inerrant, sacred text, they are told to “cut it out” or risk being “cut off” from fellowship. Almost instantly, news of their offense travels quickly in the form of “benign” prayer requests dripping with juicy, exaggerated gossip (i.e. lies).
Usually, the resulting drama is enough to bring the backslider “back into the fold” quite quickly. However, for those who persist, reprisals akin to shunning end up producing tremendous, physical pain. For former clergy, the price that is paid is horrific (i.e. divorce, loss of income, no network to find another job, broken relationships with friends, family, children, grandchildren, stress related illnesses, depression, PTSD, etc.). Adding injury to loss, the “razor-like scalpel of Scripture” in the hands of the religious zealots produces horrific scars for life.
Interestingly, in Puritan times, life was so hard for children, some often preferred to be abducted by the neighboring Native Americans who were freer in thought and practice, valuing equality between the sexes. I guess it comes as no surprise so many, led by today’s evangelical youth, wholeheartedly refuse Piper’s amputations and dream of abduction by progressive, critical-thinking tribes. While doing so, many brave the constant threat of being branded and forced to wear the scarlet letter (i.e. apostate, agnostic or atheist). I would implore all rational, compassionate minds to not consider them an ass for doing so.