Choice

The nail that sticks out gets hammered down-Japanese proverb

Earlier today, a comment was left on one of my recent posts that really set me off. In response to my criticism of the treatment  of women in the Baptist environment that I grew up in, MInTheGap writes:

Joining a church body is much the same, you make the choice to join a body that has roles for individuals. I doubt it was a secret that the group you were with followed the Bible, and I bet you had one available to you and it had said verses that talked about the roles it believed God laid out.

As soon as I read this comment, my mind was flooded with images. And though I experienced these things roughly twenty years ago, my face still burns when I think of it. I see myself at ten years old In November 1990, sitting  in the third pew of my Grandma’s church and feeling her poke me in the back as she whispers go up to the front and get saved at the conclusion of the sermon. I see myself and my two cousins walking up to the front, repeating after the pastor like zombies as the church explodes in thunderous applause.I see myself six months later, carrying black garbage bags out of my Grandma’s house to my Aunt’s beige Ford Escort, as I’d been exiled for missing church two Sundays in a row and refusing to promise I’d attend faithfully. I see myself back at church two months later, one of the deaconess’ smiling as she tells me how disappointed she was in me for not attending church but how glad she is that I’ve been “found” and am back in the fold. In my mind I see myself at eleven, so intrigued by the Autobiography of Malcolm X that I finish it in one sitting, finding his faith more interesting than mine but fully aware that I could not share my feelings with my family. I see myself listening to my pastor Sunday after Sunday, with each sermon concluding with the scripture that “Jesus is the way, the truth and the life; no man cometh to the Father but through HIM!”

Some might say I could have chosen differently. At the tender age of ten,  I could have chosen to disobey my Grandma. I could have chosen to defy my entire family, community and culture. I could have chosen to deal with being ostracized from my own blood, viewed as misguided, flawed and on my way to destruction because I didn’t want to be a Christian. But I was a child, a baby. I hadn’t even reached puberty yet. I still had baby fat in my cheeks and I still played with Barbie dolls. I was a minor. Under such circumstances, how can one even say choice was ever an option? Being a Baptist-or a Christian for that matter-was not something I picked out for myself. I didn’t just up and decide to join after a careful study of the faith that convinced me of the veracity of its claims. I became a Christian because my family was Christian and wouldn’t accept anything else, full-stop.At first I questioned, at first I resisted. But in the family and community I belonged to, to do so was to be the nail that sticks out. And I was quickly hammered down, back into place and forced to conform.Living my life differently didn’t become an option for me until I moved out at twenty years old. Even then, walking away from the faith I’d been raised with and choosing another belief system took me nine years. Though I didn’t accept all tenets of Christianity, I remained captive to it out of fear that I would burn in hell if I abandoned it. It had been drilled into my head that Jesus Christ loved me so much that he would condemn me to hell for not accepting him. Under such circumstances-threatened with rejection and ostracism in this life and hellfire in the next-how can any child truly choose to follow any faith?

Do I hold any ill will towards my family for forcing Christianity on me as a prepubescent? No. Though I disagree with their tactics and would not put my own child through such an upbringing, I understand why they did it. I know that my Grandma was not being malicious when she forced me to get baptized and compelled me to go to church thereafter. Grandma was doing what she believed in her heart to be right and the best way of making me a good person. More than that, my Grandma was doing the same thing that had been done to her. Born in Mississippi in the time of Jim Crow, left motherless at eight years old and subsequently raised by her maternal Grandma, she had no choice either. She was given Christianity as her default faith, just as her mother was, just as her Grandma was, and just as everyone in my line was going back to the first one that arrived in this country in chains, spirit and mind crippled by what he or she had gone through on their voyage.

All this time there has been no choice for children and teens in my family. They were raised the same way I was. I strongly oppose the religious indoctrination of young minds. I wish it hadn’t happened to me and feel I would have been better off without it. But through all of that I find that I can smile. For as I type this, I’m watching my baby girl read. I have made a conscious decision that the indoctrination and fear stops with this generation. For the first time in decades-if not centuries-one child is going to have a choice in belief in my family. And even if my daughter someday makes the decision to become religious and join a faith that I have left, I will love her all the same. For it is not my place to tell my daughter what to think. It is my place to teach her how so that she can make informed choices of her own-an opportunity that was denied me.

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A native Seattleite and recent East Coast transplant, I have been interested in politics, religion, and race from the day I saw “The Autobiography of Malcolm X” on the bookshelf belonging to my BFF’s mom back in 1991. While my zealotry has thankfully diminished with maturity, I remain the deep thinking, passionate, and humble woman I have always been. I reside in the suburbs of NYC with my husband, daughter, and our two feisty but deeply loved cats.

8 thoughts on “Choice

  1. Parents have a worldview and they are the ones to whom children are born. Your worldview continues to shape you, as you apply some Christian moral principles without the context.

    I’m with you, children should be brought up to where they are capable of making a choice, but at what point is that? Some have decided later on in life, some early. I officially decided at 8, but feel that a real decision was more in my teens.

    The choice that you still have is something I touched on in a comment on that other post, and from this follow up you are putting for the victim mentality, and not one of strong decision. You continue to act as if everything is out of your control.

    Finally, I appreciate what you are saying, and perhaps you are stronger than I. Should my children decide to become like you, I should find my heart deeply saddened. I would not shun them, put them out, or not talk with them, but I would be praying for them, talking with them about the faith, etc.

    Should your daughter choose faith (which will be interesting, since I don’t know why you’d ever take her to church or speak positively about it), I wonder what it will be like as she pleads with you to change your mind or face the Hell that you’ve decided doesn’t exist.

    1. “The choice that you still have is something I touched on in a comment on that other post, and from this follow up you are putting for the victim mentality, and not one of strong decision. You continue to act as if everything is out of your control.”

      I think you are inferring something that is not there. The fact that I clearly state that as an adult I have made my own choices demonstrates that I am well awere of the fact that I am in control and free to believe what I want. As an adult no, I was not a victim and I certainly am not today. But as a CHILD I was, period.

      “Should your daughter choose faith (which will be interesting, since I don’t know why you’d ever take her to church or speak positively about it), I wonder what it will be like as she pleads with you to change your mind or face the Hell that you’ve decided doesn’t exist.”

      I would not take her to church and her father is agnostic. But we have always agreed that she will not be taught anything extreme in regards to religion and can choose whatever she likes when she is old enough to reason. And given that my family is still Christian and her fathers side is Sunni-Muslim/Lutheran, my daughter will be exposed to religion. Given the way she is being raised I don’t ever see my daughter having the type of conversation you describe above. I also find it interesting that you assume that if my daughter was to become a Christian she would adopt the same form that you do and believe in the concept of hell.There are many Christians who take a more liberal view and don’t even believe in hell(as is the case of an ordained minister I am good friends with) and my daughter could end up being one of them. There are many different expressions of Christianity other than the one that you follow.

  2. Beautiful read, you have come so far and learned so much about life. Such an amazing thing.. I am a firm believer that people use “choice” and “consent” way too freely. Your case, as a 10 year old child – is an excellent example of someone misusing that word when telling you “you could have chosen.” yea, right…

    That would be called victim blaming.

    1. I don’t subscribe to the idea that children are simply small adults. Science teaches us that children go through stages of cognitive development as they grow older, and therefore I’m not sure they are in a place to make decisions about who or what to worship or not worship.

      So, yes, I think it’s appropriate for parents to take their children to worship where they worship just as it’s appropriate for them to prepare one meal and not respect a child’s desire to have a happy meal every night. At the appropriate time, when the child becomes an adult, said child may choose to go to a different place of worship, or none at all. They can also become morbidly obese eating pizza and wings every night.

      In healthy families, there is a hand off during adolescence where the child begins to make more of their own decisions and the parents less.

  3. brilliant post!
    i remember myself not wanting to go to church at very young age and my parents quickly showed me my place. so yeah, when you are dependent on others, you have to do as you are told.

    your life has been quite a journey and it’s great to hear that your little girl will be able to choose for herself what she wants to believe in 🙂 I always wondered why believers feel the need to instill/drill into their own children christian/islamic values from a very young age… after all, if the doctrine can stand on its own merit, those children would still pick and follow the same religion.

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