When Bad Systems Happen to Good People

I, like apparently everyone on planet earth, watched the Oprah interview with Harry and Meghan. Honestly, I would watch Oprah interview a bowl of apples. I spent all of the nineties crying in front of the television with Oprah. Oprah has saved me thousands of dollars in therapy (to be clear, I have been to counseling, I’ve just been to much less counseling because of Oprah). Harry and Meghan are also of sufficient interest, as I am a huge Anglophile.

The interview had many jaw-dropping moments that I’m sure you’ve heard about, but one moment stood out to probably only me. Harry was talking about his treatment by “the institution” and trying to reconcile that with his love of his family. He talked about his father and brother being “trapped” in the system and seemed more forgiving of their behavior because of that.

This caused me to think of the many, many times I have witnessed conservative religious loved ones do and say hurtful things, either to me or to others, because they believed their faith demanded it. “The system” said they had to, if they were real Christians. They believed that to say nothing or to fully embrace people “in sin,” they would be approving of that sin. “Love the sinner, hate the sin” usually translated to “bash the sinner over the head with a Bible lest they think you approve of it.” And so good Christians do things like reject their gay children or tell their divorcing loved ones that God won’t ever bless their decision or explicitly tell people they are definitively going to hell or even make a rape victim apologize to her faith community for putting herself in a compromising situation or support a racist politician because he claims to be anti-abortion. Yes, I’ve seen or experienced all of that.

I myself did the equivalent of this when I was firmly in that culture. I recall a friend from high school who I hadn’t seen for a long time telling me she was living with her boyfriend. Man, did I take her down like a wildebeest on the Serengeti. Girl did not have a chance. I deployed all the Bible verses like a BOSS. I really wasn’t interested in the circumstances of her choice or why she made it or who this man was or what their plans were or what their relationship was really like or how much they loved each other. I wasn’t interested in her at all, in fact. I was interested in proving my own rightness, my own righteousness, to myself most of all. At the time, I was in a completely loveless marriage in which I practically had to drug myself in order to sleep with my husband and felt sick to my stomach and violated afterwards. But, God is glorified by marital sex, can I get an Amen!

And frankly, it felt terrible to condemn her like that. It always, always did when I confronted someone or judged them or told them in some form or fashion that they were going to hell. It never seemed loving to me. It never sat right with me. I did it, and sometimes I did it with outward gusto, but my heart wasn’t in it. I felt like I had to, otherwise my own soul was in jeopardy. For years, I did all kinds of acrobatic maneuvers with regard to LGBT people, as I tried to figure out how to love them while being very clear that I did not condone their “lifestyle.” It felt like bondage. Now that I have fully walked out of that context and attend a church that welcomes everyone with open arms and listening hearts, it feels like freedom. It feels like love, in fact.

As a child, I remember watching Gone with the Wind for the first time. Yes, I know, I’m fully aware of the racist interpretation of the Civil War and Reconstruction that the film presents, which was the predominant narrative of that period when the film was made. That’s not my point today, however. I remember how drawn I was to the character of Melly, and in particular, when she meets the prostitute Belle Watkins in her carriage to thank her for protecting her husband (Yes, who was in the KKK. Again, not a great film on the issue of race and historical accuracy!) I was so struck by her kindness to Belle, how she made a point of finding commonality with her, asking about her son, identifying with her as a mother. There wasn’t a hint of judgment in her voice, and she certainly didn’t preach Belle a sermon. At the young age of 10, I thought, “Wow, that is Jesus (if his spouse was in the Klan). That is love.” I somehow had this response even though Melly’s approach was pretty much the opposite of what I had seen modeled up to that point by the religious culture in my life. I rarely if ever saw people approach “sinners” this way in real life.

It is now my view that any religion that tells you you must judge, condemn, and shame people in order to love them is way off base. Any faith that separates you from people rather than bringing you into closer communion with them is missing the point. Any religion that tells you you have to sign on to a political program led by a sociopath because of certain issues in order to be a Christian is not a good faith. It is a toxic system. But it doesn’t mean all the people in it are toxic people (to be clear, some of them absolutely are, just as it sounds like some if not many of Harry’s family members are pretty awful). But there are a lot of good people in toxic systems. There can even be good things that happen in such a system and even good sides to such a system. The world is morally complex.

This is what I saw Harry trying to negotiate in that interview. His love for his family and the ways they had disappointed and hurt him. The choices they made that didn’t seem to square with the kind of people he knew they were, or maybe that they could be, in their hearts. He made choices that hurt him in order to extricate himself from the toxic system. He left them behind. But he has grace for them. Some might say too much. He is trying to separate the system from the people, and to maintain compassion for the people.

And I’m not royalty, but I get it, I really, really do.

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