Choice

The nail that sticks out gets hammered down-Japanese proverb

Earlier today, a comment was left on one of my recent posts that really set me off. In response to my criticism of the treatment  of women in the Baptist environment that I grew up in, MInTheGap writes:

Joining a church body is much the same, you make the choice to join a body that has roles for individuals. I doubt it was a secret that the group you were with followed the Bible, and I bet you had one available to you and it had said verses that talked about the roles it believed God laid out.

As soon as I read this comment, my mind was flooded with images. And though I experienced these things roughly twenty years ago, my face still burns when I think of it. I see myself at ten years old In November 1990, sitting  in the third pew of my Grandma’s church and feeling her poke me in the back as she whispers go up to the front and get saved at the conclusion of the sermon. I see myself and my two cousins walking up to the front, repeating after the pastor like zombies as the church explodes in thunderous applause.I see myself six months later, carrying black garbage bags out of my Grandma’s house to my Aunt’s beige Ford Escort, as I’d been exiled for missing church two Sundays in a row and refusing to promise I’d attend faithfully. I see myself back at church two months later, one of the deaconess’ smiling as she tells me how disappointed she was in me for not attending church but how glad she is that I’ve been “found” and am back in the fold. In my mind I see myself at eleven, so intrigued by the Autobiography of Malcolm X that I finish it in one sitting, finding his faith more interesting than mine but fully aware that I could not share my feelings with my family. I see myself listening to my pastor Sunday after Sunday, with each sermon concluding with the scripture that “Jesus is the way, the truth and the life; no man cometh to the Father but through HIM!”

Some might say I could have chosen differently. At the tender age of ten,  I could have chosen to disobey my Grandma. I could have chosen to defy my entire family, community and culture. I could have chosen to deal with being ostracized from my own blood, viewed as misguided, flawed and on my way to destruction because I didn’t want to be a Christian. But I was a child, a baby. I hadn’t even reached puberty yet. I still had baby fat in my cheeks and I still played with Barbie dolls. I was a minor. Under such circumstances, how can one even say choice was ever an option? Being a Baptist-or a Christian for that matter-was not something I picked out for myself. I didn’t just up and decide to join after a careful study of the faith that convinced me of the veracity of its claims. I became a Christian because my family was Christian and wouldn’t accept anything else, full-stop.At first I questioned, at first I resisted. But in the family and community I belonged to, to do so was to be the nail that sticks out. And I was quickly hammered down, back into place and forced to conform.Living my life differently didn’t become an option for me until I moved out at twenty years old. Even then, walking away from the faith I’d been raised with and choosing another belief system took me nine years. Though I didn’t accept all tenets of Christianity, I remained captive to it out of fear that I would burn in hell if I abandoned it. It had been drilled into my head that Jesus Christ loved me so much that he would condemn me to hell for not accepting him. Under such circumstances-threatened with rejection and ostracism in this life and hellfire in the next-how can any child truly choose to follow any faith?

Do I hold any ill will towards my family for forcing Christianity on me as a prepubescent? No. Though I disagree with their tactics and would not put my own child through such an upbringing, I understand why they did it. I know that my Grandma was not being malicious when she forced me to get baptized and compelled me to go to church thereafter. Grandma was doing what she believed in her heart to be right and the best way of making me a good person. More than that, my Grandma was doing the same thing that had been done to her. Born in Mississippi in the time of Jim Crow, left motherless at eight years old and subsequently raised by her maternal Grandma, she had no choice either. She was given Christianity as her default faith, just as her mother was, just as her Grandma was, and just as everyone in my line was going back to the first one that arrived in this country in chains, spirit and mind crippled by what he or she had gone through on their voyage.

All this time there has been no choice for children and teens in my family. They were raised the same way I was. I strongly oppose the religious indoctrination of young minds. I wish it hadn’t happened to me and feel I would have been better off without it. But through all of that I find that I can smile. For as I type this, I’m watching my baby girl read. I have made a conscious decision that the indoctrination and fear stops with this generation. For the first time in decades-if not centuries-one child is going to have a choice in belief in my family. And even if my daughter someday makes the decision to become religious and join a faith that I have left, I will love her all the same. For it is not my place to tell my daughter what to think. It is my place to teach her how so that she can make informed choices of her own-an opportunity that was denied me.

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