Shame Begets Shame

…the familiar, but lesser understood linage

When I began my religious deconstruction, I honestly had no idea that my process had a name. 

Following the 2016 Presidential race, and watching my own church tribe become hard core followers of a known narcissistic racist who also admits to sexual assault, I began my journey- in hopes of alerting others of this destructive path that goes against what Christ teaches. I quickly realized that my husband was the only one on board with me, to the point that extended family was either “unfriending” us on social media or asking us to unfriend them and other family members for our shameful behavior (of including the word “pussy” in some posts to quote Trump’s own words)- apparently a pussy-grabbing candidate is allowed to use that language and garner a following, while I was to put my head down and follow the religious leaders. It was at this point I realized not all cults come with black hooded capes or live in secluded compounds…… Many look like Ken and Barbie on Easter Sunday morning. 

Now in year six of my fundamentalist deconstruction, I am becoming quite comfortable with the idea that I can (and should) choose my own perspective and make up my own mind on the values I choose to filter my thoughts and actions through. 

While some might think, uh yeah… haven’t we all simply known to do that since our late teens and 20s?- others may catch my drift- while still others might be thinking, isn’t that what scripture and our church leaders are for? 

As a product and survivor of a deeply religious cult, I am just learning the term, “differentiate,” by watching my own adult children take on this path for themselves. This typically natural process was so foreign to me up until recently, that I thought they must have joined their own sort of cult to behave in such a manner- not realizing that it was their exposure to the same mentality resulting from my religious upbringing and deeply ingrained judgment-spewing shame that was causing them to flee for safety and a healthier aspect of living. 

Sadly, it has taken me a half of a lifetime to realize that not only is it healthy to break away from the boundaries that were set for me in my youth, it is crucial for an authentic relationship with God- or anyone else for that matter.  And no, it is not rebellion to separate from what your church leader or any other human on this planet (alive or dead) tells you to do or be in order to attain God’s love or acceptance. And herein lies the power of shame. 

A cult will tell you that you must look and/or behave in a manner consistent with the group in which you identify. What used to include only simple church attendance and a conservative dress in the sanctuary, has turned into “Guns, Babies, and Jesus,” (also an actual slogan of a political conservative currently running for office). The tribe mentality has become increasingly more aggressive, unemphatic, conspiratol, exclusive, and entitled- nothing like the character of the Christ they claim to love and serve. 

Leaving a cult is not simple. Afterall, those who claim you as an extension of their identity will become defensive and protective of the identity you have shared for so long. Be prepared for heavy dosings of manipulation, gaslighting, and retaliation. I personally (and ashamedly) have been the individual on both sides of this scenario, and can confidently speak to the experience of both sides. Cult members do not want you thinking for yourself, likely because it forces them to have to reassess if this is something they should also be doing for themselves. Cults thrive on leaving the existential qualifications up to group ideology. It makes sense, in that we value safety in numbers- especially when we as humans rely on the acceptance of others to validate our preferences/norms. However I, for one, do not want my relationship with God to be defined by a process of fear-based group-think. 

We are all messy in our own rights- a collage of experiences and trauma that is constantly shaping and forming in response to the same of those we come into contact with. This is the authenticity that God seeks- not the appearances we fashion in an attempt to cover what we are told to hide in shame. 

Whether you identify as a literal believer of the bible, or ingest biblical stories with a cautious grain of salt… we can each identify with Adam and Eve’s response to their realization of judgment- the knowledge of good and evil, and the fruit of judgment- shame. Without good or evil- there is just behavior… with no judgment with which to classify it. And with the capacity to judge others comes the capacity to both shame and be ashamed. The story results in Adam and Eve wielding this knowledge by incorrectly concluding that their nakedness was what was so offensive- so they covered themselves. From the figurative perspective, they hid away their authenticity- further clouding their ability to perceive and wield good from evil. 

From a deeply ingrained sense of shame passed from millennia of generational attempts to wield judgment- we continue to demonstrate we know just enough to be dangerous with the power that judgment wields. A cult mentality is (at best) an attempt to align judgment by insisting that we can simply hide beneath a cover of conformity and shared ideology. This practice lends a false sense of control as to how to both identify and therefore judge behavior- deeming it rewarding or shameful. Religious cults have become experts at judging and shaming what we create to cover our authentic selves within. The problem with this practice is that the authentic self becomes developmentally stunted and shamed into remaining in hiding. The sense of safety in belonging becomes a tough master to displease. When one garners the respect of the greater community, even if it is only the cover we use to hide beneath, the idea of ever taking the chance to reveal our more authentic side becomes a threat to our very sense of belonging and where we fit in the grander scheme of things. 

In short, a cult will accept or deny you based on your outward appearance and behaviors- despite what may or may not be going on under the surface. It is when those outside behaviors and appearances fall out of conformity that the community becomes inclined to judge and consequently shame you in an attempt to bring you back into conformity- recognizing that the strength of the cult also relies on numbers. 

As one experienced on both sides of this toxic mentality trap, I want to communicate that we are free to escape that bondage. We don’t need the acceptance of a cult to justify who we are and our places in the grand scheme of things. My most authentic self is determined within a relationship between me and my maker alone. 

Once we come out of hiding (God already knows what we look like beneath our carefully fashioned coverings anyway), we can fully come to appreciate who God is and how he loves us despite what the world passes as judgment against us as toxic shame. Outside of a cult, we can authentically face our own bout with shame and allow God to reveal how we each are created to be intentionally unique -not a social clone of arrogant cult rhetoric. If God had truly wanted a community of cult mentality, I believe he wouldn’t have provided the opportunity to take a bite of the fruit of the tree of knowledge in the first place. 

I challenge each of us to wield this opportunity to judge wisely and differentiate accordingly. God did not originally create or expect us to pronounce perfect judgment- thus, his explicit instructions to avoid the fruit of this knowledge. Despite the heartache of having dismissed his instruction, and consequently bearing the full weight of the shame it created through our own poor judgment capacity- we are also free to positively wield the same free will granted to Adam and Eve in the garden, to break free of the chains of a cult mentality and explore who God intended each of our authentic expressions of his creation to be. 

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