I’ve been thinking lately my voice. And I don’t mean my odd grammar, the random gibberish, swearing, slightly off colored jokes or any other matter of style. I mean my ability to simply say what I think. Can I do that? It is even allowed? Do they still burn heretics at the stake? Can I get some big name person to call me out as a heretic and use it for publicity?
It seems like such a simple thing, just saying what you think. Yet we are indoctrinated practically from the first time we dare to say “no” that saying what we think is wrong. I have heard parents come right out and say to their kids, “you are not allowed to disagree with me.” When you tell someone that simply having an opinion which does not agree with your own is forbidden and subject to punishment, that’s a pretty powerful way to stop them from owning their own voice.
When you are part of a community which demonizes people for simply sharing their own thoughts, ideas and opinions, it really does work like a form of brainwashing. You may not even realize that you’ve been silenced. You may not realize that you have a right to speak that extends beyond the boundaries that others have imposed on you. And you probably don’t realize how important it is for everyone to hear what the world looks like from where you’re sitting.
This silencing of people goes on in families where everyone knows just what the rules are about what can and cannot be said and relationships are put on the line should you break those rules. But it’s even worse in the church. And what’s particularly evil about the way this happens in the church is that the bible is the tool by which it is done and your relationship with God is what is on the line, should you resist.
Now, the particulars of how this works vary wildly, but when it comes to how the bible gets used to steal our voice, it’s pretty simple. First, you are told what the bible says. Then you read the bible. And it doesn’t say what you’ve been told it says. If you go looking for an explanation, you are usually given a “what it really means” explanation. If you accept it, then life goes on. If you don’t, this could mean the beginning of the end of your faith.
There’s actually a word for this: gaslighting. Gaslighting is when you convince someone that they are crazy. And the most common tool used by people who gaslight is to cause you to continually doubt your own perceptions. It’s a nasty thing to do to people.
So, let’s look at a simple example. 1 Timothy 4:9-10 says:
This is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance, it is why we labor and strive, because we have put our hope in the Living God, who is savior of all men, especially those who believe.
Now, if I go to the study notes in my Life Application Study Bible, I find this:
“Christ is the Savior for all, but his salvation becomes effective only for those who trust him.”
Which, while consistent with post-Constantine church dogma, isn’t at all what it says. The verse very clearly says that God IS (not could be or has offered to be) the savior of ALL men and even adds in “especially those who believe” to make it clear that believers are a part of all men, not that all men refers to all believers. The verse just couldn’t be any clearer.
The footnote is gaslighting, pure and simple. It is telling you that your ability to understand what you have just read is so impaired that you need some bigger, smarter authority figure to tell you what it really means. Except you don’t. If you have the reading comprehension skills to understand it, then you have the ability to form your own opinion as to what it says. Even if what you think is says doesn’t fit with any of the standard models.
A lot of this biblical gaslighting takes place within the context of the church’s ongoing battle to get the bible all tied up in a nice, neat, human approved package. Which is not only a terrible project in and of it’s own right, it is robbing us of our voices. We are not allowed to simply say what we see, if what we see doesn’t meet someone’s approved standards. We are forced to either ignore our own perceptions and just adopt other’s views as our own. Either we must stay silent and pretend not to see what we really do see. Or we have to risk losing our place in our community in order to speak out.
Frankly, putting people in the position of having to chose one of those options is a really shitty thing to do to someone. If your opinion is so rigid and fragile that it can’t even occupy space with an opinion different than yours, you have a problem that you are projecting onto innocent people around you. The fact that the bible and the Christian faith are being used for this task is abhorrent.
One of the things we have learned about people is that no two people are going to view the same thing the same way. If three people witnessed a car crash, at least one of them will disagree with the others regarding the color of the car. Some people love cilantro and other people think it tastes like soap. One woman wears heels and feels sexy and another wears heels and spends her day regretting it. We each have our own unique view and perspective.
That’s how it was made by God (remember God, creator of heaven and earth who created people in his own image?). So it’s absurd to think, much less demand, that each person who reads the bible will understand it the same way. And since it was God who created us to see things so very differently, it’s safe to assume that God cannot rightfully be used as an excuse to shut down all but one (or a narrow range) of views.
In fact, I would argue that it is God’s desire that all of these different views be heard. Now, not every view is as valid or well thought out or supported as every other view. I’ve seen people pull some wild stuff out of the bible. But each view is needed. Not everything everyone sees will be accurate, but it also won’t be entirely inaccurate. And what we get right is far more powerful and important than what we get wrong. When we take people’s voices away, we are also shutting ourselves off from some truth or insight they have found.
A funny thing about our voice, however, is that it seems to have a life of its own. While it’s very hard for a lot of us to own, silencing it is costly. Some people seem able to give up their uniqueness easily enough, but for many of us, maintaining silence and denial is exhausting. Often we don’t find our voice until we no longer have the energy required to keep it silent. Sure, we can parrot what we’ve been told and unthinkingly accept “what the bible says” even when it’s really nothing more than some man’s ideas about “what the bible meant to say” just to keep the peace. But it’s going to cost us.
Jesus came to set us free. We cannot be free if we are not allowed to have our own voices. So, if you suspect you’ve been gaslighted, allow me to offer three bits of encouragement:
1. Your voice is not going to sound like everyone else’s. That doesn’t mean you’re wrong. It just means that you aren’t like everyone else. None of us are.
2. The fact that your perspective isn’t widely shared doesn’t mean it isn’t valid. Even if it’s wrong, you have every right to your own way of seeing things. What you don’t have is a right to insist that everyone agree with you. You might need to grow some thicker skin as you learn to speak your own truth.
3. You have an absolute right to your own voice. God created you a certain way, he put you into a certain context where you had a unique set of experiences. Denying you the right to share your own perspective is an attempt to invalidate all of that. You are in no way required to participate in any attempt to hide, shun or reject what God has done in you.