Redefining Our Scarlet Letters

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Many of us are defined by the hurts we have experienced.  Truly, how we interact today, the anxieties we have, are often a product of something in our past, injustice or injury, that has warped our perceptions.  

For many years of my life, I felt unloveable.  

I had gotten off to a bad start in the romantic realm.  After some failed efforts, stinging rejections, my confidence fell off a cliff, I would self-sabotage even when I had chances and spiraled even further into fear and doubt.  With every “not interested” answer came increased feelings of shame and the stigma of being someone not good enough for even a first date. 

I still apologize, sometimes, or actually more all the time, when asking to have dinner with a woman.

Why?

Well, not because I’m a terrible person.  I’ve always been a good friend and respectful of boundaries.  I have much to offer even in terms of platonic relationships and have proven myself in this regard over and over again.  But still, because of the value others have assigned to me, I look at myself as possibly being a burden to the person I’m asking and that hesitancy can become a self-fulfilling prophecy because it makes the person being asked uncomfortable.

If you see yourself as being worthless it shouldn’t be a big surprise when other people agree.

Breaking free of these cycles can feel impossible when stuck in them.  The most frustrating advice I’ve ever received was “be confident” as if I was simply choosing to see myself as garbage for no reason whatsoever.  I mean, I had been confident enough to express interest, even overcome the oppression of my social anxieties, only to be swatted down one more time by young women who had their eyes set on 5′-10″ or over.

Of course my plight, as a shy person on the shorter end of male stature, was not at all helped by the conservative Mennonite culture that had been overcome by purity culture teachings.  Young people had it drilled into them that dating that didn’t lead to marriage equated to defilement.  So, if you didn’t have the superficial tools, there was really no means of building a relationship or mutual respect that could lead to a deeper commitment.

The Letters We Are Forced To Wear

The Scarlet Letter, a novel written by Nathaniel Hawthorne, published in 1850, is set in the 1600s, in the Puritan Massachusetts Bay Colony, and follows a woman, named Hester Prynne, who—through an out of wedlock pregnancy—was found guilty of adultery and is forced to wear a scarlet letter “A” for her sin.  It contrasts her plight to that of the child’s father, the town’s minister, whom she protects with her silence and lives in constant fear of being exposed for his concealed sin.

Like Hester, some of us wear our shortcomings more visibly than others.  Those who obviously lack something according to the prevailing social standard, whether exposed to public scorn and ridicule or simply excluded from institutions and driven to the margins, are forced to deal with feelings of humiliation.  Of course, that’s not to say that those who appear to be outwardly pure and undefiled are free of pain, those with less visible faults often live with a tremendous fear of being discovered and guilt. 

We all want to be accepted and yet have those letters to wear.  It could be that we’re typecasted, “oh, that’s George, always big talker!”  We have heard the labels, the declarations, “she’s a flirt” or “he’s desperate,” and sometimes it is hard to know if it is that person or the group making that reality what it is.  It is not all completely negative, it could be “they’re meant to be” or any statement that builds an expectation, but it certainly can keep a person confined and limits potential. 

Once you fill a particular role, in the minds of the group, it is often difficult to break beyond it. 

For example, my biggest fear, when I took a job driving truck, was that I would be branded a “truck driver” and thus not eligible for other work.  My concerns were fulfilled, years later, when I talked to a business owner friend about my desire to get off the road and they offered that maybe I could drive a truck for them.  

These kinds of things aren’t necessarily even spoken.  But we know there are those individuals or that don’t quite live up to the ideal of the group, who have a blemish visible or invisible, and are tolerated more than embraced.  In some ways, it would be better if our chests could be emblazoned with these symbols of shame, that we could be told exactly you get told by an eligible young woman “you’ll make a great husband someday” and yet nobody (including her) seems to want that greatness.

However, not all of this is imposed.  Some of this punishment, if not most of it, is self-inflicted.

Shamed No More

The most brilliant theme of The Scarlet Letter is that that this symbol of shame is transformed over the course of the novel.  This letter intended to stigmatize eventually becomes a badge of honor for the protagonist and something she wears willingly rather than because she must.  The letter “A” because of Hester’s diligent work, her charity, and listening to those lower social status, comes to mean “able” or “angel” as the story progresses.  She, for her proven virtue, becomes well-respected as humble and wise.

My own life journey, with the investment of love and care of a few, has begun to take that turn as well.  

I have begun to realize that my romantic failures were a reflection of a broken courtship culture and not my own lacking.  Because of the drip drip drip of Charlotte’s confidence in me, I have become stronger.  Not only that, but as a result of my struggle, I also have deep compassion for those who suffer and a desire to free them from the bonds of their insecurities.  Now, even when snubbed, because I know who I am and don’t depend on this external definition of what I am for security, I barely care.  It is on them, not me.  I know I’m a good friend and focus my effort on those who appreciate what I offer.

The reality is that I’ve become a different person.  I behave differently than I did when ruled by my anxieties and thus have become more attractive.

No, that doesn’t make what others did to push a person down a dead-end road any more right.  The love of Christ should compel us to invest in the salvation of others and especially to help those who want to be helped.  Things like slavery and denial of rights to people on the basis of outward appearance certainly do hurt and hinder.  And yet, there’s also a way to live beyond our typecasting. to not be confined by the expectations of others, and transcend our circumstances.

For me, there was never that final triumph nor day of reckoning with those who hurt me.  My hopes were shattered.  My identity crushed.  Those who caused my torment continued along their merry way and probably not with a second thought of how their attitudes impacted me.  They never did listen to me when I tried to escape from the box they had put me in.  But, nonetheless, I did emerge.  

The Scarlet Letters others forced us to wear may remain emblazoned on our chest.  However, we do not need to accept the meaning others have created for the symbol.  In the novel, Hester’s daughter, Pearl, became upset when her mother didn’t wear the letter.  For Pearl, the letter represented something other than shame.  It represented her loving mother, not sin.  That was a seed and very likely helped Hester to see her value beyond the opinions of the judgmental townsfolk.  And, eventually, what Hester became changed the meaning of the symbol even for those around her.

Our Perfection Is Not Purity

One of the inspirations for writing this blog was a conversation about matters of sexuality and shame.  My contention that the suffering of sexual abuse victims is a product of social expectations, as much as it is about the violation itself, and would be far less painful if we put less weight on perfection in terms of being ‘pure’ in a physical manner.

That’s where the shame comes in.  It comes from this idea that by being physically violated, or even touched consentingly by another person, we have somehow become worth less as a person than we were prior.  Of course, this is nonsense.  Our value does not come from physical purity, a person who was raped is no less beautiful or virtuous even if she does now feel differently about themselves as result.  It is this, this change in belief about oneself, that lingers long after the assault and is the real cause of suffering.  We are conditioned to see those who have been through this as damaged or defiled.

And that’s not to say that the assault does not do real lasting harm beyond what is physical either. No, rather that a rape survivor is going to be re-traumatized hearing a sermon about saving yourself for marriage. It is going to add to their fears of being disadvantaged and may actually stigmatize them when they really should be loved and treasured. That’s what purity culture does, it heaps shame on those who themselves may have done nothing wrong and often forgives those who should be held accountable.

While holding sexual abusers accountable, like we would anyone who takes what isn’t theirs to take, maybe we should also take on this idea that someone is forever tainted because of sexual intercourse and therefore a perpetual victim?

It isn’t the abusers that define the worth of a person as being their virginity nor is it the abuser who assigns the value to what happened.  No, we do that.  And one of the reasons why sexual abuse is so painful for those who were raised in a purity culture is because they are convinced that their own value is somehow decreased because of something that happened to them.

Jesus, even in dealing with those who had willfully sinned sexually, was completely gentle. 

Why? 

Well, it is because Jesus valued the individual for more than their physical ‘purity’ and past behavior.  Yes, he told the woman at the well, “go and sin no more,” but he did that for her sake.  Her lifestyle was not good for her and, unlike the proud religious elites who can admit no wrong, she was already humble enough to know her own shortcomings and want the change.

So, if Jesus could forgive those who sinned of their own volition, why should those who were violated by the sin of another feel as if they are somehow damaged goods?

If we actually believe that our righteousness comes from being clothed in Christ, made perfect in him, then why do we place so much value on the physical and the past?

To be clothed in Christ means that our negative experiences can be redefined.  No longer should the sins of the past (our own or by others) define who we are.  Instead, we are new creatures.  No, these things we have gone through are not removed, yet they can be redeemed and no longer a burden of shame that we carry, no longer a cause for self-pity or self-loathing, because our perfection does not come from our own abilities.  Our purity comes from the inside, through spiritual transformation, and no longer by the reputation others give us or regrets we have.

The Symbolism of the Cross

When Jesus was stripped naked, his flesh cruelly shredded by scourgings, battered and bruised, finally mocked under a sign “king of the Jews” while he suffered unimaginable anguish, the whole process was intended to humiliate and shame. 

He did not deserve the mistreatment nor was it a pleasant experience.  It was the sin of others that put him there.  It was a cross and a horrendous image of despair and death.  There nothing worthy of celebration in that.  But even this, intended to destroy him, could not.

Most of us, put through similar abuse, may curse God or at the very least we would not be in the mood to forgive those who torment us. 

Jesus, by contrast, did not let the circumstances define his character.  What they did to him was not a reflection of him nor could it be to his shame.  And, most importantly, they could not keep him in the grave as much as they tried.

As a result, the cross, this symbol of their hatred and abuse, has now become something we can look to for healing.  It is in the cross of Christ that we can see our worth as being more than what the crowd yells, more even than our broken physical body, and to have faith in God’s perfect justice.

Those ensnared in the world of sin and death, whether victims of abuse, self-declared advocates for victims or the abuser, cannot accept the message of the cross.  It is foolishness to them.  They are slaves of their twisted passions, prisoners of the past and bound to their own reasonings. And, for the victims who harbor grievance, their answer to being mistreated is always the same as what they feel was done to them. They want to take the marker of shame off of themselves and place it on those who harmed them.

But the message of the cross is that even shame itself can be defeated by the grace of God. Those clothed in His righteousness no longer have need to rank above their peers, no longer live for the acceptance of other people, and live for something altogether different from what many others strive for. No, rather than shrink in fear or fall into self-pity, they see their cross as something that is purifying, as the proving ground of their faith, and opportunity to serve.

If something as awful as the cross can be redefined to become a story of salvation, those letters we wear can also be changed in meaning and redeemed. We can be the Hester, in our own story, the one who proved that her character was about more than that one act those many years ago. In the end she was the better person, for what she went through, than those who had looked at her in judgment.

Why Purity Culture Must Be Kissed Goodbye

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Those who are sincerely wrong are oftentimes the hardest to convince otherwise. Those who are the most sincere are also the most emotionally invested in their own position. This investment can lead to blinding confirmation bias and prevent a person from seeing the truth when it is staring them in the face.

The problem with many people raised in religious purity cultures is that they are very sincere and yet extremely misguided. Many in these cultures are convinced that their salvation is something they earn through their diligent efforts to please God and their own righteousness. Sadly, this is a complete misunderstanding of God’s grace and a form of false religion that will leave a person lost as ever despite their sincere efforts.

People often think of purity culture as it applies to romantic ideals. (And it does wreak havoc there.) However, purity culture is a religious mindset that goes far deeper than our courtship practice. It is a perspective that hurts everything we do as a church. It makes us less effective as evangelists and missionaries. It undermines the concept of church as a family and leads to division. The purity culture has produced a bitter fruit because it is based completely in human reasoning rather than God’s word.

A bold claim?

Let’s compare and contrast purity culture to the actual example of Jesus and what his ministry established:

#1) Purity culture externalizes blame for sin, but Jesus taught that defilement comes from the inside.

Many people blame external factors for the choices they make. This can be used as an excuse for sin. It is also used as justification for a long list of safeguards and arbitrary religious standards intended to preserve or protect a form of purity. They reason that since sin is a product of outside influences, they therefore must require people conform to their own rules and shelter their children carefully for fear they will be contaminated.

Obedience to rules of outward appearance and ritual purity pleased the Pharisees who trusted their Bible based tradition, but it did not please Jesus:

“Then some Pharisees and teachers of the law came to Jesus from Jerusalem and asked, “Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? They don’t wash their hands before they eat!'”

Jesus replied, “And why do you break the command of God for the sake of your tradition? For God said, ‘Honor your father and mother’ and ‘Anyone who curses their father or mother is to be put to death.’ But you say that if anyone declares that what might have been used to help their father or mother is ‘devoted to God,’ they are not to ‘honor their father or mother’ with it. Thus you nullify the word of God for the sake of your tradition. You hypocrites! Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you: ‘These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. They worship me in vain; their teachings are merely human rules.'”

Jesus called the crowd to him and said, “Listen and understand. What goes into someone’s mouth does not defile them, but what comes out of their mouth, that is what defiles them. (Matthew 15:1-11)

The Pharisees, like their modern day religious purity culture counterparts, put their hope for salvation in their ability to maintain an outward distinction between themselves and others.

But Jesus was unimpressed.

First he points out their hypocrisy for neglecting weightier matters and then he goes on to explain something that many still miss today: Our defilement comes from something spiritual within us and therefore our purity cannot be preserved by external or physical means.

#2) Purity culture creates walls of separation between people, but Jesus removed barriers and bridged divides.

Purity culture teaches defilement comes from an outside physical source and it is for that reason those indoctrinated into this system are obsessed with maintaining physical separation as a means to protect themselves or their children from sin. But Jesus completely defies this kind of thinking:

“A woman in that town who lived a sinful life learned that Jesus was eating at the Pharisee’s house, so she came there with an alabaster jar of perfume. As she stood behind him at his feet weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears. Then she wiped them with her hair, kissed them and poured perfume on them. When the Pharisee who had invited him saw this, he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would know who is touching him and what kind of woman she is—that she is a sinner.” (Luke 7:37-39)

This was considered scandalous by the self-righteous and sanctimious religious people then. It would also be seen as a scandal in many churches today. Even the disciples (Judas especially) found cause to question the appropriateness of Jesus allowing this kind of behavior.

Can you imagine?

A single man, a leader in the church, being touched by a woman, and a sinful woman at that!?! Outrageous, right?!?

I do not need to imagine the raised eyebrows and expressions of concern. I know them all too well. We would never allow such a thing in my own church tradition. We segregate practices like foot washing and the kiss of peace for fear of impure thoughts. It is because we believe that defilement is something that comes through our physical contact (like a grade schooler’s aversion to cooties) and do not actually follow the example of Jesus.

Ironically, those who view any meaningful relationship across gender lines outside courtship as dangerous (or see any and all physical touch as a prelude to sexual behavior) are as guilty of a the same hypersexualized view as those in the world whom they condemn. They may be outwardly pure according to an arbitrary religious standard, but they have an unhealthy obsession with sex and a fear born of their own impure thoughts. Purity cultures are fertile ground for sexual abuse.

#3) Purity culture avoids ‘the world’ as to appear righteous to religious peers, but Jesus made his place amongst the sinners.

Purity cultures build walls to physically seperate people. Those in this type of culture, not recognizing that sin originates in the heart, believe there is safety in the guard rails they create to protect themselves against sin and worldly contamination. But Jesus directly opposed this mindset, he confronted those who promoted it by exposing them as hypocrites (or only outwardly pure) and led by a completely different example:

“While Jesus was having dinner at Matthew’s house, many tax collectors and sinners came and ate with him and his disciples. When the Pharisees saw this, they asked his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?”

On hearing this, Jesus said, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” (Matthew 9:10-13)

Those who were influenced by the modern purity culture ought to read the book of Hosea as Jesus told their religious forebears to do.

They should look for themselves and try to determine what “I desire mercy, not sacrifice” means as applied to their own mentality. If more did take this recommendation of Jesus seriously it would make a dramatic change in their perspective. It could shift their focus from a ritual religious devotion to something altogether different.

#4) Purity culture attempts to manipulate God through religious devotion, but Jesus taught to authentic worship is showing true love to other people.

Purity culture, no matter what disguise it wears, is always an attempt to be control and manipulate rather than actually love God. It is an idea that “if I do A then God will do B” that treats God like a vending machine (where we insert our diligent religious practices then out pops a blessing) and really only an attempt to make ourselves master over God. Devotion in a purity culture is no more than a cynical calculation rather than a true commitment to love God.

This is exactly what was condemned in the book of Hosea. The charge made early in the book is “there is no faithfulness, no love, no acknowledgment of God in the land.” Later on, the Israelites, after experiencing the consequences of their neglect of true worship, try to regain God’s favor through false repentance, say “come, let us return to the Lord” and think their going through the motions of will force God to take them back. But God is not fooled and asks like a disappointed parent: “What can I do with you… Your love is like the morning mist, like the early dew that disappears.”
It is at this point where the phase “I desire mercy, not sacrifice” comes in and we get to the heart of the matter: The Israelites, like the Pharisees after them, and our various purity cultures today, tried to please God by a devotion expressed through religious practice. However, no amount of sacrifice, no amount of religious practice, and not even a life of poverty or missionary service can save anyone.

The message of Hosea seems to be that the mercy we show to others is the true measure of our love for God. Love for all people as expression of love for God is a theme throughout the teaching of Jesus. Jesus taught to “be merciful just as your Father is merciful” (Luke 6:36) and left his disciples with this commandment:

“As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” (John 13:34-35)

True love of God is expressed in our love towards each other and most especially out mercy shown to those who need it most. We are told to love everyone and not only those who we believe are deserving according to our own religious score card. Our love must be genuine or all of our worship and diligent religious works will be in vain.

#5) Purity culture is obsessed with righteous outward appearance, but Jesus focused on religious hypocrisy and the inner reality of hearts.

Purity cultures work overtime to maintain a superficial visual distinction between themselves and those outside of their own religious group. They take pride in their maintenance of dress standards and see themselves as better than others for their ability to conform to the expectations of their religious peers. But Jesus exposed their counterfeit faith and true shallowness:

“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. Blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and dish, and then the outside also will be clean. Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean. In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness.” (Matthew 23:25-28)

Some people are able to please man-made requirements and earn themselves the praise of their religious peers for this. But this righteousness of outward appearance is not evidence of an inner heart change. It is a false security established on meeting human expectations. No amount of church attendance, missionary service, or religious devotion proves a person’s heart is pure.

Jesus taught that true faith is something that transforms a person from the inside out and is something completely dependent on God’s grace. Purity cultures get things completely reversed, they put the cart ahead of the horse (put works of the flesh before God’s grace experienced through faith) and for this reason it is impossible for them to love as Jesus did.

#6) Purity culture loves selectively with a judgmental unforgiving attitude towards outsiders, but Jesus consistently showed grace to those who needed it most.

People in religious purity cultures often do the exact opposite of what Jesus did. They judge outsiders harshly and then give themselves a pass for their own grave sins of self-righteousness and pride. Jesus, by contrast, was gentle with those outside and made them feel needed, appreciated and useful:

“When a Samaritan woman came to draw water, Jesus said to her, ‘Will you give me a drink?’ [His disciples had gone into the town to buy food.] The Samaritan woman said to him, ‘You are a Jew and I am a Samaritan woman. How can you ask me for a drink?’ [For Jews do not associate with Samaritans.]” (John 4:7-9)

Jesus, unlike many so called ‘Christian’ evangelists today, did not try to scare the hell out of this woman. He did not condescend. But, instead Jesus made himself dependent on her (a lowly Samaritan woman) and treated her as an equal and with respect. Through this loving humility he gained opportunity explain a greater spiritual reality to her and then tactfully addressed her sin while offering forgiveness rather than condemnation.

The hellfire and brimstone Jesus preached was, without exception, reserved for the smug and sanctimious religious insiders who turned to their own righteousness for salvation. The people who had their act together according to religious standards are the ones condemed by Jesus.

Why is it that the religious can be so demeaning of those outside their tradition and yet so sensitive when criticism comes their own way?

Because they are afraid and should be, that’s why…

#7) Purity culture is motivated primarily by fear and deep down insecurity, but Jesus told us to walk steadfastly in faith and trust God with the future.

Purity cultures are negatively focused. They see only moral decay, the live in a world of slippery slopes and anxiety about the future.

“We do not see things as they are, we see them as we are.” (Anaïs Nin)

Those who live in fear are like the men described in the book of Numbers (chapter 14) who’s pessimistic faithless outlook led to a rout and years of wandering aimlessly.

People who are extremely condemning of others are often the most insecure themselves. Those in purity cultures are so sensitive to criticism because they are attempting the impossible without God’s help and do not know the true meaning of grace.

Perhaps they think if they throw enough people into the pit of hell behind them (through their words and judgments) that God’s wrath towards them will be somehow satisfied?

At a deeper level those in a purity culture may know their own inadequacy. They fear of not being able to measure up and therefore are competitive against those of lower social status rather than truly compassionate.

Whatever the case, true faith relies on God’s grace and leads us to love rather than fear:

“And so we know and rely on the love God has for us. God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them. This is how love is made complete among us so that we will have confidence on the day of judgment: In this world we are like Jesus. There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.” (1 John 4:16-18)

True devotion to God is born of faith that comes through grace and not human effort. It is a commitment to a love that is impossible by our own standard. The love God seeks is unreasonable and irrational by human standards. It is a divine love made possible only through means of the Spirit. It is the love of Jesus who died to save us while we were yet lost in our sin and a love that takes away our fear of not measuring up.

In conclusion, we need to rid ourselves of counterfeit faith based in human ability and embrace the truth of God’s word.

Purity cultures, because they are based in human effort, do not lead to real faith or true repentance. They do little more feed obsessive compulsive disorders on one side and arrogance on the other. Those who believe that their salvation depends on reciting the right words or reading a requisite amount of Scripture daily are more hopelessly lost than their worldly counterparts.

It is what Jesus condemned in the Pharisees and also what Paul addressed as false religion in the early church:

These rules, which have to do with things that are all destined to perish with use, are based on merely human commands and teachings. Such regulations indeed have an appearance of wisdom, with their self-imposed worship, their false humility and their harsh treatment of the body, but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence. (Colossians 2:22-23)

Purity cultures attempt to manipulate God rather than live in faith and genuinely love their neighbors. They are condemning rather than compassionate and are more concerned with what people may think than they are in true purity of love. For fear of being defiled or viewed as less pure they (unlike the good Samaritan) cross the street rather than address the needs right in front of them.

True faith runs like a man on fire to where the need for mercy is greatest. Those who walk in faith know the truth of God within them is always greater than the world and therefore fear no evil. Faith always rests in the adequacy of God and never in our own.

True purity of heart comes from being clothed in the righteousness of God.