Today was supposed to be the day for the rapture, according to Harold Camping, the leader of Family Radio, who arrived at the date through a whole series of confusing and complicated mathematical equations based on Biblical passages. So far, none of the earthquakes that he predicted have materialized, and it seems pretty clear that his predictions have been proven wrong. A lot of people – myself included – have been ridiculing his predictions and celebrating his failure.
But there is a tragic component to this – he has thousands of followers, who have quit jobs, spent their life savings spreading his message, and in general, ruined their lives. They will have to pick up the pieces of their lives and try to rebuild. Worse, many of them have children, who have been subject to abuse and neglect as part of this. I have read stories about teenagers despondent over the fact that their parents refused to save for college in light of the end of the world, and children told point blank by their parents that they would not be going to heaven.
And this breaks my heart, because I experienced the abusive effects that sometimes come from religion as a child. While my father, a minister in the Southern Baptist and Assemblies of God denominations at different points in my childhood, never predicted a specific date (although he did once say, around 1974, that he was quite certain that the rapture would take place no later than 1977), he did preach an imminent end to the world, and I was exposed to books and movies that graphically depicted the horrors that unbelievers left behind would experience. On numerous occasions, I woke up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat, from a nightmare where I was one of those left behind. Sometimes, I would find myself alone in the house, not knowing where my parents were, and would experience a panic attack, convinced that they had been raptured while I had been left behind. On one such occasion, my father thought it would be fun to play a prank, ignoring my hysterical upset cries, and jumped out and scared me, and although I begged and pleaded with him never to do that again, he just laughed it off as a fun joke. (I did not tell him that the specific source of my fear was being left behind after the rapture, but his lack of empathy for my obvious fear and panic is not something I would recommend as a parenting technique.)
When I was eight, I was sick with a cold, flu, or some common illness, and stayed home from school. My father gave me a book on divine healing that morning written for adults by Hobart Freeman, a minister in the charismatic movement, and told me to read it and pray for healing. Later that afternoon, when he asked if I had read it, I told him I had not, because I did not feel well. He said that I obviously wanted to be sick, because if I wanted to get well, I would read the book and pray and believe and be healed. I later learned that because Hobart Freeman’s followers did not seek medical care because of his teaching that it was sinful, several children and others had died, and as a result he was put on trial for negligent homicide. Ironically, before the case came to trial, he himself died from a serious illness for which he refused medical treatment.
When my father was removed by congregational vote from his pastorate, something that occurred in four different churches over the course of my childhood, about the time I was nine, he received information from the denomination (at that point, the Assemblies of God) about a number of congregations that were open. I remember that he, my mother, and I would discuss them. One did not sound very ideal, and when I said so, my father yelled at me that if I kept refusing openings God was giving us, we wouldn’t find a new church, and it would be my fault. (Later, as a teenager, when they learned I was gay, my father again blamed me for his not being able to be called to a church, saying that God was punishing us for my sin.)
These experiences were very damaging to me, and although I was ultimately able to find a way to experience a non-abusive and healthy form of Christian faith, it was an unnecessarily arduous journey, and there are scars that remain. And others who have experience abusive religion have not been so fortunate.
Religious abuse can undoubtedly occur in many religious contexts, but I think there is a special danger in communities which claim infallibility for their teachings and who have strong leaders who exercise that infallibility. In the case of the fundamentalist churches in which I was raised, the Bible was considered to be the inerrant word of God, and the preachers who interpreted it were often put on a pedestal and given a lot of power over their parishioners’ lives. Fortunately for the congregations he served, my father’s sometimes combative personality led them to reject his authority, and the Baptist doctrine of soul competency – the ability of every believer to interpret the Bible without a mediating authority – and Pentecostal view that the Spirit can work and speak through all who have received the baptism of the Spirit were able to act as counterbalances to my father’s abusive preaching.
It is my hope and prayer that as we consider this latest failed apocalypse, we will give some thought to the ways in which religious faith can be abusive, and do all in our power to remove those abusive aspects from ourselves and from our own faith communities.