Many years ago, a little 8-year-old girl sat in church with her mother. Every Sunday and every Wednesday she listened to her pastor urging everyone to “receive Jesus in your heart and come forward.” She would watch her little friends fold their hands and march smugly up to the altar, but she never felt it. Her friends would scowl at her. Her mother would nudge her, and even her pastor would frown when she refused to move. But she couldn’t help it -- Jesus never came.
She had ADHD and couldn’t sit still in the pew. She figured that was why Jesus wouldn’t come. Surely it was her fault and, most certainly, she was going to hell. Hell became more of a reality a little later on when she was late with her period. The horror of being pregnant like the Virgin Mary and not being able to explain it sent her headlong into the fiery flames of Hades.
Luckily she had a wonderful daddy who never went to church. He loved his little girl and spent many afternoons with her after school on their front porch, but his refusal to go to church was noticed by all her mother’s friends. Whenever her father’s name came up at church, they’d say: “He’s going to hell.”
When you’re 8 years old, hell can be frightening. Think about it. It’s not so much the thought of some future fiery torture (although that’s pretty scary too), it’s the realization that today you’re rejected. You’re an outcast from the only society you know. All those gossipy church women are saved and you’re lost. You’re all alone because all the other kids got “Jesus in their heart” and you didn’t.
What can you do?
Well, this little girl built a little ledge in hell. It was well up above the flames and it was big enough for her daddy to sit with her on his lap. The two of them would talk just like they did on the porch in the afternoons, and he would laugh all her troubles away. But the undeniable fact was that they were still in hell. And this little girl had to carry this inside her head for many troubled years. It’s what her church taught. Without Jesus in her heart, hell was in her future. No doubt about it.
Church trauma is the worst kind. Scary-movie trauma and accident trauma and especially a parent’s death trauma leave long scars on a child. But church trauma seldom goes away because the thought is always there, even into adulthood: “What if it’s true?” We know it’s not true, but what if it is? That’s the power of theology. It’s the power of the church. That’s why we have one on every corner in Georgia.
Churches can be a great help for a lot of people. They provide comfort in pain and sickness, ceremonies in times of celebration, and a second family when you’re feeling homeless. I don’t want to burn down all our churches, that’s not what I’m saying. What I am saying is that our churches are like guns, dangerous in the hands of the wrong people. Churches can cause unbearable burdens, bring long-lasting psychological problems, and inject hurtful fantasies into the minds of children.
I encourage everyone connected to a church -- priests, pastors and teachers -- to carefully examine what they’re saying. It’s one thing to say that each child has a guardian angel and quite another to say it’s a mortal sin to practice birth control.
The image of a “fantasy-angel” can be very pleasant; controlling the size of my family is none of your business.
Just because the “church has always said this” doesn’t mean we should continue saying it.
Remember: for thousands of years all of our churches said slavery was just fine. Think about that.
Dr. Bill Cummings is the CEO of Cummings Consolidated Corporation and Cummings Management Consultants. His website is www.billcummings.org.