Feminism

"Real Marriage" review: 86-106, "Taking out the Trash"

I wish you all could read the entirely of this chapter because it is ironic. One of these days I’ll have to create a whole series of posts dedicated to page 89, where Mark defines repentance, comparing that to his actual real-life behavior, because it is hysterical. Not only does he fail his own list of “pastoral requirements,” he also bombs at his own definition of repentance– and you can read the whole thing here.

Interestingly enough, I actually agree with Mark on almost everything from 88-90. His definition of repentance is pretty comprehensive, and I only disagree with two of the points– that repentance is not “worldly sorrow” and not “grieving the consequences of sin but hating the evil of the sin itself,” but that’s probably because a) I don’t think Christians are better at everything than everyone else and b) I don’t have the same definition of sin.

To me, I don’t have a problem with arrogance in and of itself but because of the consequences that being arrogant can have– it can make me blind to things I’ve done wrong, it can cause me to belittle people I don’t understand . . . and I think this is where Christians can get it backwards. If we focus on an abstract list of things we consider to be “Sin,” it seems like it would be inevitable for us to forget how much damage our actions can cause. As long as we’re not “Sinning,” it’ll be easy for us to ignore how we’re hurting people. That is how Christians can claim to “love gay people” and yet hold and express beliefs that are directly responsible for emotional and physical harm in the LGBTQ+ community, including the deaths of many queer people. We haven’t “Sinned” by talking about how perverted gay people are, so we can ignore that our actions and words have consequences.

After page 90, though, Mark and I start having problems. The bulk of the chapter is dedicated to sections on “Forgiveness” and “Bitterness,” and I imagine most of you just felt your hackles go up. So did mine. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to hear the word “bitter” without being mildly triggered or angry because of how that word is thrown at me all of the time. I have never heard someone use the word “bitter” without it appearing in the middle of a demand for silence. Bitter is the evangelical version of “shut the fuck up.”

We’ll get to how Mark uses it in a bit. First, let’s cover his approach to forgiveness.

He starts off with this statement: “When we sin against our spouses, we cause them to suffer.” This is an excellent example of how backwards the whole “hating the sin itself” concept can make us. Causing our spouses to suffer is a sin against them. I cannot stress how important I think this concept is, because it revolutionized my life. When I stopped worrying about “how much sin I had in my life” and started focusing on “how do my words, actions, and inaction hurt people?” everything changed.

The next few pages I have mixed feelings about, mostly because I’m still wrestling with what forgiveness is. Personally, I think there’s a difference between personal healing and forgiveness, but those two seem conflated in Christian conversations. It’s also possible that I have forgiveness and absolution and reconciliation all mixed up inside of my head, and I’m trying to straighten that out.

The one part I do have unequivocal feelings about is this:

Forgiveness is not dying emotionally and no longer feeling the pain of the transgression.
Rather, forgiveness allows us to feel the appropriate depth of grievous pain but choose by grace not to be continually paralyzed or defined by it.

This irritated me because I do not think it is ok for someone that isn’t me to tell me that there is an “appropriate depth” that I can feel my pain at. Healing looks different for every single person, and healing from trauma and abuse isn’t ever pretty. I spent three years trying to experience pain “appropriately” because nearly everyone I encountered had some sort of yardstick for what healing should look like, and the one I heard all of the time was “you’ll know you’re over it when you’re not talking about him anymore.”

Well, I wanted to be “over it,” so I stopped talking about it. For three years. Until I realized that it wasn’t helping, and I was actually getting worse. I’d refused to actually heal from the abuse and the rapes, and my body wouldn’t let me go on that way.

And guess what– I’m still talking about it. I talk about spiritual abuse. I talk about child abuse. I talk about sexual violence and rape. I talk about sex-based oppression in Christianity. My professional life is “defined” by my status as an abuse survivor, and that is not just completely appropriate: it is a good thing. I will never stop being “defined” by this because that is how I help others.

But … moving on to the section on bitterness, and this is where I threw the book.

In order to illustrate what bitterness looks like in a marriage, Mark uses John and Molly Wesley. I’ve been doing off-and-on research on John Wesley, and I think when it comes to his wife at least he was an unmitigated ass. Mark sets this illustration up by talking about how Molly didn’t like it that John traveled so much and John’s justification that he did it because God.

But then we get this:

“I took you first by the arm, and afterward by your shoulder, and shook you twice or thrice … and might have made you black and blue. I bless God, that I did not do this fifty times and that I did nothing worse.” [edited for ease of reading]

That sentence from one of John’s letters to Molly is immediately followed by this:

Her bitterness, made worse by John’s extensive ongoing letter writing to multiple women, caused Molly to become insanely jealous … Their final years were spent apart, as she never once set foot in his personal residence.

What in the ever living fuck is this. John Wesley admits that he could have made his wife “black and blue” (“thank God I did nothing worse”) and the fact that Molly decides she’s not going to put up with his abuse any more makes her bitter?! She couldn’t even divorce him– at the time (this “time” extending to 1923 in England), women could only divorce their husbands if they could prove adultery and could also afford the £1,500 fee. She didn’t have any options, and she was married to someone who ignored her, ignored her requests, disrespected her continuously, and was willing to hurt her. A domestic violence victim is not bitter when they decide that they’re never going to step foot back in their abuser’s house.

So, once again, Mark is making it perfectly clear what he thinks about abuse, and it’s terrifying.

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  • Wow. Just wow.

  • Melody

    “If we focus on an abstract list of things we consider to be “Sin,” it seems like it would be inevitable for us to forget how much damage our actions can cause. As long as we’re not “Sinning,” it’ll be easy for us to ignore how we’re hurting people. That is how Christians can claim to “love gay people” and yet hold and express beliefs that are directly responsible for emotional and physical harm in the LGBTQ+ community, including the deaths of many queer people. We haven’t “Sinned” by talking about how perverted gay people are, so we can ignore that our actions and words have consequences.”

    I love this and it goes for so many things. The way christians talk about poor people, homeless people, teenage pregnancies; the list is endless… When sin is clearly defined it is easy to see yourself as better, as your not doing these specific sins, yet at the same time your actions could be pretty bad, regardless. Arrogant judging is precisely what Jesus frequently agitates against, yet that doesn’t stop most one bit in judging others. I like how you shifted the focus on how do my actions affect or hurt people: the golden rule as it were.

    Also sin is such a big word and many small things are not actually qualified as much as such: creating the ability to be holier than thou without being all that good in the first place.

  • “If we focus on an abstract list of things we consider to be “Sin,” it seems like it would be inevitable for us to forget how much damage our actions can cause.” I really, really want to communicate this to my first graders, but I’m not sure I’m getting through. I’ll keep telling them anyway.

  • Wow. I’m still blown away by the understanding of “causing suffering” vs. “sin.” No one has ever explained it to me this way, and yet it makes so much more sense that if, to live as good Christians, we must love others, that to cause suffering is to sin and not the other way around. Far less abstract. Thank you.

  • Thank you for letting us see through your eyes and hear through your ears. You opened up a new thought for me when you talked about healing and forgiveness. Please expand on some of your thoughts in that area. I have struggled with finding an adequate “bible” word for the healing part of the journey. I have tried to apply forgiveness to it, but as you point out it is a minefield of emotions because the word has been used to continue the abuse. Have you written about your healing journey? What was helpful to you on this journey? Thank you for continuing to share your thoughts with us.

  • Amanda

    awesome post! really apppreciated the distinction between abstract sin and realizing/acknowledging when words and actions would hurt someone else.
    also- i’m just bursting at the seams and i just have to tell you- i’ve told you guys about the little church/cult we’ve been in and its many issues- my husband finally went and talked to the pastor and told him we are withdrawing our participation, and i’m rather surprised that my husband wasn’t met with much resistance. my mom says my voice sounds different, my yoga teacher says i look 5 years younger. i feel so much lighter! thanks so much to those here who have been a willing sounding board for me in this process!

  • From your on-and-off research, do you have book recommendations for studying Wesley?

    • I read the Stephen Tomkins biography in graduate school. Seemed pretty fair to me, and seemed to be honest about the sort of man Wesley actually was instead of glossing over things. But it’s possible it’s not as objective as I remember it. Some Christians dislike it because it’s “overly secular” for them and it’s not really an examination of his theology.

      Most of my other research has been online, and somewhat tangential as I wasn’t really looking for information on Wesley specifically but on salvific order, Arminianism, moral culpability, the Quadrilateral …

      • That’s a helpful starting point. Thanks!