I am the problem. I am “wholly unholy” and the wages of that sin is death.
Believing this message, internalizing this story, was the gate through which I had to pass to gain access to the road to salvation. God, and the eternal life he guarded so fiercely, remained an impassable chasm away if I did not take this first step.
So, I prayed the prayer that begins, “I am a hopelessly lost sinner. I am corrupt to my core – I cannot trust myself. There is no good in me – I am powerless to satisfy God’s demands. I need a savior who is perfect, able to pay the price of admittance into God’s family.”
As a kid desperate for love and belonging, the loudest voice in my head (my inner critic) was the one telling me I was unworthy of love and belonging because there was something very wrong with me (the story I internalized). The story I was living in cast me as bad and disgusting. On the outside I may have appeared to many as “the good girl,” but inside I knew that couldn’t be true. Inside I was confused by and afraid of my “feelings for girls.” I knew that if anyone found out, they would agree with that inner critic and abandon me.
When my parents did find out, my fear was proved right. “Satan has a hold of you!” reverberated through my body, my dreams, my story for years. Finding me out was the catalyst for my mom bringing my whole family to church to be saved.
We all prayed the prayer. We all committed to the story.
One of the primary reasons I stayed in that story for so long, even though it was killing me, is that in one way or another every church I attended reinforced that story. Over the next 15+ years after first praying that prayer, most of the churches I encountered explicitly embraced theology that shaped their telling of the Christian story in terms very similar to my youth. As my theology began to expand beyond the fundamentalist and more conservative evangelical versions of the story, I sought out churches that I thought would help me continue to grow and expand.
This quest for a bigger and truer story, fueled by my longing for secure attachment to love and belonging, seemed to find its fulfillment when I encountered Anabaptism. The vision it cast for community and peacemaking was like cool water to my parched soul.
Though the Anabaptist church community I called family for several years told a different story than the one I had previously internalized, I’ve come to understand how it regularly reinforced many of its themes. One through line is the systematic disempowering of people by relying heavily or exclusively on an external authority.
As a human being, I was taught to distrust myself and only trust God. As an evangelical, I was taught to rely not on my own understanding, but to turn to the Bible, as it was the only legitimate source of knowledge (i.e. God’s will). As a woman, I was taught to defer to men–their authority, their explanations and answers, their needs and comfort. As a queer person, I was taught to hate and reject myself and aspire to “God’s best” (i.e. being straight and “correctly” female–a human giver who is “pretty, happy, calm, generous, and attentive to the needs of others, which means [never being] ugly, angry, upset, ambitious, or attentive to [my] own needs”). As an Anabaptist, I was taught that the community knows best, and that I needed to protect its unity from conflict. Add all this together, and the moral of the story was this: sacrifice myself on the altar of whitemalegod.
In my church experience, I often second-guessed myself when I “heard a voice inside my head [that] disagreed.” That voice beckoned me into a different story than the one the voice of my inner critic told. That voice was the voice of my own intuitive knowing, my body, my self. She was more often than not silenced and “kept in her place” by the inner critic. When she emerged, when I could hear her, she was a powerful force. Looking back, I now understand that she was what kept me alive.
However, when I let her speak, all those external authorities I was supposed to listen to fought back. They needed to silence her voice, my voice. She was telling a truth that threatened to expose their story as false. That story is the foundation for unjust systems of power that maintain the privilege of those at the top at the expense of everyone else below them. As long as their story was the officially accepted story, the one animating the life of their communities, they were safe. I felt immense pressure to submit and realign with that story. To do so, I would have to commit to the first words of that story again: You are the problem; deny yourself if you want to be loved and belong.
My journey of healing, being “pieced back together” and ushered toward liberation, has been full of moments of responding to that pressure – “No more!”
The voice of the inner critic is not the loudest voice within me any longer. Its story is not my story. My voice has found her footing over the years, and learning to listen to and trust her has grounded me in love and belonging in ways I always longed for yet were always out of reach. This journey is ongoing. I am learning a new story.
For those who have been reading my responses to the Mennonite Brethren (MB) U.S. and Canadian executive leadership’s censoring of three pages in the book, On Holy Ground, this post provides context for my next reflection. It will focus on the MB leadership’s action as a demonstration of patriarchy responding to the threat of women’s voices by controlling the story.
In this post I quote from two books I am currently re-reading, God is a Black Woman by Christena Cleveland and Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle by Emily Nagoski and Amelia Nagoski. I highly recommend them, especially for women finding and honoring their voice on their journey of liberation.