This morning I came across an article in the Huffington Post which suggested that the current brand of American evangelicalism may be “sociopathic”. That may well be true, but I am not going to address that issue. What caught my attention was a blog post that the article referred to, which is entitled Giving Your Child to the Devil (yes, seriously). Written by special needs teacher and evangelical Christian Kim Higginbothams, the post explains that she and her husband have decided to cut all ties with their son because he has “chosen a life of sin”. She doesn’t mention what the “sin” but I’m sure you can guess… Yes… He’s gay. On top of that, she apparently posted the article online on the day of his wedding. Smooth.
Now, I don’t know about you, but I would expect more compassion and sensitivity from a special needs teacher. And yet her attitude is characteristic of the rampant homophobia of evangelical Christianity. It also points to a deeper, more fundamental problem with Christian theology : the Bible’s teachings about human relationships.
Here is an extract from Kim’s post:
Our contact with our son is now limited to attempts at restoration. We have no fellowship. We used to share holidays, regular phone calls and texts, family events, etc. but now, all that is gone. Our son has completely turned his back on everything he ever believed. He has no respect for the Lord or His church. He has chosen a life of sin rather than the hope of salvation. And because of his rebellion against God, we as parents must make a choice. Do we overlook his practice of sin and maintain our relationship, or do we withdraw ourselves from him as the Lord instructs?
The choice that Kim makes is, of course, the latter. This is far from uncommon in the evangelical world. I know several people who are estranged from other family members because they have come out as gay or even because they vocally support LGBTQ rights. How can parents be so uncaring? How can they inflict such pain to their child, and to themselves? The answer to these two questions is – as always in evangelical Christianity – “because the Bible says so”.
To explain her decision, Kim Higginbothams refers to a verse from Matthew 10:37-38, which is attributed to Jesus. To provide some context, I’ll quote the preceding verses too:
34 ‘Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.
35 For I have come to set a man against his father,
and a daughter against her mother,
and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law;
36 and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household.
37 Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; 38 and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me.
In this (in)famous passage, Jesus is basically demanding unflinching, unreserved and unquestioning obedience from his disciples. Now, some may point to the fact that such use of language is hyperbolic. That may be true, but it doesn’t make those words any less problematic from an ethical point of view. Indeed, it raises the following questions:
Should anybody love a deity more than their own children? And should they be made to feel guilty (“not worthy of me”) if they don’t?
What kind of influence does such violent language have on parenting practices in already dysfunctional or authoritarian families?
More fundamentally, is a deity which claims to have come to harm rather than heal family relationships worthy of worship?
Kim Higginbothams doesn’t stop there. She quotes a number of others verses, and in particular a verse from an especially unpleasant passage in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians:
you are to hand this man over to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved on the day of the Lord.
Basically that means that bad things should happen to him so that he repents and comes back to the fold. Here Paul is admonishing the church of Corinth because of reports “that there is sexual immorality among you” (in fact, a guy turns out to be sleeping with his mother-in-law). A few sentences later he adds:
I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother or sister who is sexually immoral or greedy, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or robber. Do not even eat with such a one.
It turns out that Christians are only allowed to “eat with sinners” as long as they’re not Christians. If Christians do something which the Bible (or the church) considers immoral, then their co-religionists are not even supposed to eat with them. While cutting off all ties with anyone (including your child) who doesn’t abide by the group’s 2,000 year old views on sexuality may seem extreme (and it is!), it is standard, orthodox Bible teaching. Hopefully, most Christians don’t take those verses too seriously, at least when it comes to their own children. Hopefully, compassion will prevail in most similar situations. But that highlights even more the following problems:
Are the biblical teachings on human relationships — and parenting* — really that moral?
Are they morally superior to the secular humanist emphasis on compassion and empathy for all people?
If the Bible teaches that love for its deity and conformity to outdated sexual ethics trumps love for your very own children, how can it claim to have the moral high ground ?
It’s an honest question. I have yet to hear a compelling answer.
Kim’s post made me very angry at first, because she is perpetuating an unkind, unloving ideology. But after reading the following part, I felt really sad:
Perhaps I am writing this is for myself more than for those who are reading. I have not seen my son in nearly two and a half years now and there are days that the pain is just as fresh as ever. Until now, I have kept this pain inside and shared with only a couple of my closest friends. I am not sure that a day has gone by that I have not shed tears. Sometimes it is a single tear and other days are gut wrenching cries of despair. I have pulled into my driveway with tears blinding my eyes, only to find myself literally screaming and wailing in grief. I’m devastated by our loss; his loss.
Her pain is very real.
What is so sad, is that — from a secular humanist or skeptical point of view — her pain is caused by her belief in something that isn’t real: a jealous deity and the words it supposedly inspired.
So yes, we should do everything we can to oppose these harmful, misguided ideas about human nature, human relationships and parenting.
We should care for the people who are at the receiving end of such horrible actions and stand up for their rights.
But we should also show compassion to those who hold such views because, ultimately, they are harming their own lives and relationships.
How? By showing them that secular values and progressive parenting can lead to a happier and more ethical life than traditional teachings about human relationships.
*How often, in sermons or in Christian books, have I heard/seen appeals to Proverbs 13:24:
Those who spare the rod hate their children, but those who love them are diligent to discipline them.