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Fight or Flight in Toxic Religious Environments

July 4, 2012

In my previous post, I asked:

What if the church is supposed to be annoying, or boring, or offensive, or untrue, or whatever else…because that’s the way you are tested on your ability to react to these ills with grace and graciousness? What if authenticity isn’t being in or out, but being grounded despite everything going on around you, wherever you are?

Greg had a quite worthwhile comment pointing out all the issues in my post, but I think that his last point is worth addressing again. As he had written:

I have heard variants of the “you will find imperfection everywhere, so accept it here” argument MANY times now since leaving the fold. I cannot validate it. There is no reason that I should suppose that all things share the same corrupt characteristics. The world is obviously diverse and varied. Not all things are of a like. Not all churches are corrupt. Not all institutions hurt people. The attempt at the truism does not make it so and it is so broad as to certainly be false.

I am categorically of the opinion that THIS institution harms people. Upon wandering into the lone and dreary world, I will almost certainly find some others that do as well. But I find it irrational to not leave the known harm because of the possibility of finding other harm elsewhere.

I want to clarify…I don’t want to say, “You will find imperfection everywhere, so you must accept it in the church.” As I had responded to him, I’m not sure if the answer is to “accept” it (I think that in this situation, one has a natural “fight or flight” response, and what I was addressing is that maybe more folks should try to fight instead of flying), but whether one “accepts” it (and tries to work on their personal reaction) or fights it, I also don’t think that the reason one would do such is because imperfection is everywhere (or even a general feature of many aspects of life, rather than being something specific to Mormonism).

My thought process was that for some, it might be worth dealing with the imperfections of the church because these imperfections may be — relatively speaking — less harmful than other imperfections. I think the particulars can definitely vary, but I put it like this:

Suppose someone in church says or does something to me that upsets me. I have the opportunity to react and lash out, the opportunity to internalize the feeling of anger, or an opportunity to try to proactively improve upon my patience (somehow.) I think the third option is obviously the best one to work at practicing, but it’s not going to be easy…in many situations, I am going to fail and lash back out.

What are the repercussions of lashing out reactively? My thoughts are that for most people, the consequences will not be as harmful as it might elsewhere in life. In other words, it’s a lot easier to lash out at someone at church (and potentially alienate yourself from the church community) than to lash out at someone at work (and potentially lose your job.) That’s just an example, but I tend to think of examples like that. Obviously, different examples would apply for different people.

So, the takeaway for me (at least) would be that it’s a lot better to “practice” patience at the church, because if I fail here (which I probably inevitably will), the greatest negative impact to me is unlikely to be too great.

A tumblr article has made me aware of a considerably different outlook:

I had another talk with the pastor of a church I used to go about what’s been going on in my life and why I abruptly stopped going to his church. I thought things were going to be patched up, but as I continued to talk to him, I suddenly remembered all the reasons I don’t want to be there anymore. The basic scenario was I was told a while back, after happily attending the church with little incident for a few months, that if I got a boyfriend, I might not want to come to that church anymore. Which of course led to me deciding, well, if that’s the case maybe I shouldn’t frigging come at all. Also, because of other circumstances, him telling me that set off a suicide trigger for me, which is no small thing. And then I came back months later because I felt I had no other place to go and I thought I’d give it another chance. Then he started talking again and I realized this is not going to work.

I’m sorry. I feel absolutely terrible about this. But I don’t want to do dialogue anymore. I don’t want to journey together or live life with you or work out some difficult answers. I’m tired of having to pray that God will soften my heart so that I can tolerate your bigotry more easily. Because every time I do any of those things at church, I end up getting hurt. And then when I say anything about it, it’s like, “Oh, we disagree, you just have to accept we disagree.” which is code for, “We know we’re hurting you, but there’s nothing we’re willing to do about it, so you’ll just have to put up with us.” Meanwhile, I’m trying not to cry my eyes out when I’m alone because I feel like I have no church I can go to like a normal person while everyone else is like, “Whoa, we’re on a cool journey together.” I’m not your fucking sherpa you can dump your veiled homophobia on while you feel good about yourself for attempting to climb up LGBT Mountain in some kind of fantastic journey. There’s a point in time where I have to say, no, I will not subject myself to this anymore. I mean… that point has to exist, doesn’t it?

The one thing I have to consciously weigh throughout all of this is that there are plenty of folks within Mormonism or any other church (this tumblr article doesn’t come from a Mormon, even if the content could easily fit an LDS situation) for whom the struggle is too much. And I honestly can’t sit back and say that everyone should willingly take abuse just so they can work on their reaction to being abused. I don’t want to blame victims or place a responsibility on victims to reform their violators — even if I can see benefit in moving away from a place as “victim.”


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  1. I once met a man (decades ago) who said he’d been sent as a prophet to the Temple in Salt Lake City. Where they locked him up for awhile, but released him after another person who looked ‘just like him’ showed up with the same message. Which was, that Mormons needed to reform themselves in accord with their calling, or suffer destruction of their church. He didn’t say that other people needed to be good Mormons, merely that Mormons needed to. (I have no idea what influence he had, or failed to have. I don’t always know that about myself, for that matter!)

    Having joined the Quakers, I find plenty of issues with others among that ‘people’. Luckily, we don’t often mistreat each other, or try to force anyone to accept ‘beliefs’ they don’t believe. But there are conflicts, and hurt feelings; and if I wanted an ideal church to stimulate my spiritual growth, this isn’t it. Needing to interact lovingly with people who disagree and oppose — may teach me more than I’d gain in any more like-minded group. And I feel myself “called” to be what we’re called to be, and trust God to take care of the rest.

    If this were some different sect, where belonging committed me to doing/saying anything I found wrong, that would be different. If I didn’t feel that sense of God wanting and using me here, that would be different. But what Friends have insisted from our beginnings: God is available to guide and teach. “Stay or go; this church or that,” are not issues a person needs to decide by abstract rules.

  2. I think that there are times that I wish I could walk away from painful situations, and things that remind me of former situations that were painful. I do think it would have been easier to leave and never look back, but that is not my calling. Just because I feel that I am called to stay and fight doesn’t mean that anyone else is called to stay. It truly has to be a personal choice/revelation.

  3. John Gustav-Wrathall permalink

    Both and.

    True: No institution is perfect.

    True: the Mormon Church has been a toxic environment for most (not all) gay folks.

    (Also true: it’s getting better.)

    I don’t think Mormonism has been a toxic environment for gay folks, though, because it is somehow evil or corrupt. It is because of a perfect storm of history, doctrine and culture. Though I understand the anger — I shared it for many years.

    Liberal Protestantism is more gay friendly, but it also doesn’t do nearly as good a job of creating a sense of community. Politically, it can feel like government gridlock all the time, 24 / 7 / 365. Also, it’s more intellectual, less heart oriented. I am not sure I ever really felt spiritually nourished in liberal Protestant churches…

    A dream I once had crystallized it for me. In the dream, I was thirsty. I kept asking my (UCC) pastor to give me something to drink. He kept filling a jug of water and handing it to me, but no matter how much I drank I was still thirsty.

    You still encounter homophobia among liberal Protestants, but you’re not as affected by it… Maybe because nobody has nearly as much invested in the institution. People come and go easily in liberal Protestant churches. (Maybe easier to go, since these churches continue to decline in numbers.)

    So pick your imperfection.

    I’m excommunicated with no chance of being a full member anywhere on the horizon. Yet, I feel the Spirit at Church, I feel nourished. I have a ward that is very loving and supportive of me as a person. I feel I have a sense of purpose in life, and understanding about what’s important and what’s not. I feel I am growing. So strangely, I prefer to be an excommunicated member of a Church where I am not treated equally, than a full and equal member of a Church that doesn’t nourish me.

    I do have a sense of optimism… Because I feel God’s presence in my life, the institutional rejection doesn’t overwhelm me any more like it once did. I see things improving, and I am grateful to be a part of the process that is opening people up and helping them to understand.

    I agree 100% with your initial statement… Whatever trials we do go through, we learn and we become better people for facing them, learning how to negotiate them. But people should go where they need to go… I would never tell someone, “You have to put up with X, Y or Z crap.” Go where you need to go… You’ll learn what you need to learn there, and then when you can’t learn any more there, you’ll move on.

    • A couple hundred years back, when we (Quakers) still ‘disowned’ (~”This person doesn’t speak for us!”) members for being doctrinally “incorrect”, a woman from the US had a call to come ‘minister’ to Friends in England. In England they asked her a few questions, & said, Nope. Heretic. She continued to worship with them there for the rest of her life.

  4. John GW,

    Several things about your comment…

    It seems like the “sense of community,” “heart orientation/spiritual fulfillment” and “God’s presence” are three related, but definitely different concepts. So, if you didn’t feel spiritually fulfilled from the church, wouldn’t things be different for you? Do you think that you are spiritually fulfilled because Mormonism has a greater sense of community, or because it is more heart oriented, or is your fulfillment/nourishment separate from these things? It seems to me that the experiences you’ve had could potentially have happened in any number of places.

    If your ward wasn’t “very loving and supporting of you as a person,” would things be different?

  5. John Gustav-Wrathall permalink

    They are related.

    When I first started going to Church again, it was because I felt the Spirit prompting me to do so… I was prepared to go to Church without receiving much if any of a welcome, and perhaps even some outright hostility, so to be honest, the first time I walked through the doors I was nervous to say the least. So I think I can say I was prepared to go even without the community support.

    As it turns out, my first Sunday at my ward involved a providential encounter that left me feeling immediately cared for and welcomed by members of my ward. Perhaps my presence at the Lake Nokomis Ward was the Lord’s way of testing the faith of the members of my ward… And fortunately for all of us, I think they passed the test. So I can’t really answer the question, Would I still be attending if I had been made to feel unwelcome… All I know is that I was welcomed.

    But even with the welcome I got, I don’t think I would have kept coming back to my ward for the last seven years if it hadn’t been for the fact that A) that’s what the Spirit told me to do and B) the spiritual experiences I have at Church have been powerful and unlike anything I’ve ever had anywhere else. I attended Church for almost 20 years at other churches, but never experienced that level of spiritual connection anywhere else.

    I still wrestle from time to time with the fact that I can’t be a member in full standing. My husband came home Monday evening to find me weeping, after being reminded of this fact through some on-line encounters in a way that was very painful to me. Being formally excluded is hard. Still, paradoxically, my sense of connection to God has never been stronger. I don’t know how to explain that. Maybe God is present to me and comforts me in this way in order to make up for the pain caused by my lack of status in the Church. I’ve received numerous revelations that this will be fixed eventually, and I don’t need to worry about it as far as my eternal welfare is concerned.

    I don’t deny that somebody else could have the same kinds of spiritual experiences I’ve had in my ward at another church. All I know is I didn’t/couldn’t have that experience “in any number of places.” There’s only one place I’ve been able to get that.

  6. Seth R. permalink

    Well, all the religions have their own little quirks:

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