Vertigo

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All of this, all of this can be yours

Just give me what I want and no one gets hurt

–U2, “Vertigo,” How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb

One of my least favorite aspects of missionary kid-dom was our family being “special” almost everywhere we went. Except in the rarified world of other missionaries/missionary kids, we were treated like some kind of royalty, and while as an adult, I could really get into that, as a kid, I hated the attention that came with it. It made me feel vulnerable and anxious somehow.

In Kenyan churches, we couldn’t help but get attention because we were white. Generally speaking, attending church as a white person in rural, 1980’s Kenya gave one insight into the life of a boy band member at the height of popularity.  Or perhaps a slightly scandal-plagued one, because it was equal parts people falling all over themselves and hushed stares and pointing.  Church in general is a freaking big deal in rural Kenya, or was before mobile phones and internet; now people probably Facebook their way through the service like they do here.  

But church with a missionary present was like the Oprah show on the day she’s giving away cars.  Missionaries were brought to the front to say a word, special gifts that were undoubtedly a financial sacrifice for the givers were sometimes presented, and everyone generally acted as if they had just encountered their favorite movie star.  It always made me uncomfortable, and not only because there’s pretty much nothing worse for a prepubescent girl than a room full of strangers staring at her, not to mention some of the littler ones running their fingers through her weird blonde hair. If I wanted to give myself undue credit, I would say that I had a subconscious understanding of the colonially-influenced racial politics and stark economic disparities involved that would have these lovely African folks greet white visitors with more than simple hospitality, which they already had in spades.  But I had not yet been forced to read Frantz Fanon, nor had I developed enough empathy to respond graciously to the attention.  I am ashamed to say that my go-to emotion in these circumstances was generally disdain and condescension.  To me, these people were telling us we were better than they, and I arrogantly believed them.  

American churches were only slightly better; no one ever spontaneously styled my hair anyway . When our family returned to the US on periodic breaks, or “furloughs” in missionary parlance, we went on a speaking tour through a handful of Southern Baptist churches.  Compared to other missionaries, the Southern Baptists have it good because they receive a salary from a central fund into which all the churches in the denomination pay. Also, they are right about everything, an added bonus (I’m joking. Sort of). Other missionaries, in addition to getting a lesser place in heaven (again, please laugh), had to raise their own support from individual churches and church members, a form of earthly hell.  For this reason, other missionaries always referred to Southern Baptists as “rich missionaries,” a downright laughable oxymoron, kind of like “medium-sized supermodel” or “stable genius” or “family vacation.”  They weren’t rich, but Southern Baptist missionaries were lucky, in that they didn’t have to worry about where their next paycheck was coming from or pound the pavement while on furlough to the extent others did.  They did typically make some rounds, though, telling congregants about all the amazing work they, er, GOD was doing, urging them to give to the missions fund, and putting on cool slide shows set to the theme from Chariots of Fire that ideally engendered a reaction somewhere in between “Wow, what a gorgeous place!” and “Wow, it must be tough to live there!”

So compared to many of my childhood friends, I did not have it so bad.  But oh did I hate the church visits.  They combined all the worst nightmares of pre-teen and teen girls—being the center of attention, strangers pinching your cheeks, having to smile constantly or getting a scolding for being rude, and tons of people gushing about how amazing your parents are at a time when you are just discovering their flaws.  And in my case, suffering through a bunch of really stupid questions about Africa, most of which involved riding on various animals and wearing skins and whether or not I knew this friend of theirs in Nigeria. 

But it was the hero worship that bothered me the most.  I still vividly remember one pastor introducing my parents as “super Christians”—which incidentally is another oxymoron, in a faith supposedly based on grace—an idea I found extremely unsettling, even at a young age and without a sophisticated understanding of Christian theology.  The whole thing felt like a grand, showy display with which I was supposed to go along and help prop up with smiles and waves, to complete the picture of the sainted evangelical family who sacrificed so much to save people from hell.  

I do think this phenomenon has gotten better over time–missionaries continue to hold a very special place within the evangelical church, but I think there is more recognition regarding the dangers–both spiritual and otherwise–of this kind of pedestal building. There is more acknowledgement of and provision for the human struggles of missionaries. They are allowed to be more frail and fallible now and more honest about the toll missionary life can take on their family’s health, including mental health. I would hope these days no pastor would ever introduce visiting missionaries–or any one else–as a Super Christian.

But my experience on the mission field underscores for me a broader issue in the church, as seen most recently with disclosures about Ravi Zacharias and other mega-church pastors and evangelical super stars. C.S. Lewis called pride “the worst of all vices,” and spiritual pride is the most insidious of all in its ability to blind you to yourself. Christians who become convinced of their own righteousness, their spiritual superiority, their immunity to sin are a danger to themselves and others. Most mildly, they will become judgmental and harsh. As a result, they may suffer isolation and loneliness, as their relationships suffer. Most destructively, they will feel justified in whatever action they may take, even if it’s abusive of others. All of us are susceptible to pride, but when you exist within a culture that sings your praises where ever you go, I think it’s a particularly open trap.

It should also be mentioned–positions of spiritual authority are frequently sought by clinical narcissists and sociopaths (as well as similar positions in secular settings). And unfortunately, religious cultures that celebrate leaders and do not hold them accountable allow them to thrive, as they wield the faith like a weapon and hide behind their outward righteousness according to the standards of the group. The Zacharias scandal appears to be a sad example of this.

Certainly many missionaries and other spiritual “rock stars” I have known are deeply decent people who manage to remain humble and kind, by the grace of God and their own hard work maintaining self-awareness. But I also witnessed horrible cases of things going off the rails. I won’t go into details here, but I know of cases of missionaries committing murder, rape, child abuse, and far more commonly, child neglect and abandonment. There was very little or no accountability, either, which only perpetuates the problem. On the mission field, the worst that happened was the offender was sent home. I never knew of a case where they were reported to US authorities; to be fair, there are more legal paths to do so now than there were back then. Some of them went on to offend again. Less dramatic cases include so very many of my missionary kid cohorts and dear friends who experienced the detrimental impact of spiritual arrogance of parents and other adults in their lives.

Even as a missionary kid, I became spiritually arrogant. I had a view of myself as impervious to “serious” sin. Certainly, I could not imagine that I might marry someone from a place of emotional brokenness (I wouldn’t even allow myself to be emotionally broken) and then fail to make it work. Divorce was not something I could conceive of myself choosing. I was basically Christian royalty in my mind, raised by the very best. This exact thought, in fact, explicitly entered my mind as I contemplated getting married. I told myself, yes, I’m young and I’m not exactly ga-ga over this guy, but neither of us believe in divorce, we are way too good for that, ergo our marriage will succeed. What breathtaking arrogance, as I learned the hard way.

There’s got to be some way of encouraging our spiritual leaders–or just having them in the first place–without feeding into a culture of spiritual arrogance. Of course, missionaries and other spiritual leaders need our support. We do need to hear about the good work they are doing. We do need to hear their prayer requests and to lift them up. But as a church, we’ve got to figure out how to do this without building celebrity cultures around them. It is dangerous, to the Christian enterprise, to potential abuse victims, and to the leaders themselves. It does them absolutely no favors! It is not healthy to be worshipped. It puts inordinate pressure on people. It starves them of the help and nurturing they need. It destroys their relationships and ruins their own faith.

And, in cases of abuse, there MUST be accountability. Victims MUST be heard and believed (this does not preclude thorough investigations, but all accusers should be taken seriously).

Pride is part of the human condition, and it does indeed goeth before a fall. But the higher a culture elevates their leaders, the greater the vertigo. Unless the church works to build cultures of humility, vulnerability, and accountability, in which “all have sinned” isn’t just a throw away line for “those people over there” but something leaders are expected to live out (personally, I head for the exits when none of the pastor’s sin anecdotes involve himself/herself), I suspect we’re going to continue to see more scandalous headlines.

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