Thursday, March 5, 2015

On Homeschooling: I Will Control your Soul

One of my guilty pleasures, a major one, is that I kinda heart Traci Lords. Yeah, she's a campy actress (I think she's even been in a couple of Asylum movies) but...Yeah, there's a real soft space in my cold lil heart for Ms. Lords. And I found this song to be...appropriate.

The group I call the Homeschool Hijackers fall into three major groups: Bill Gothard and ATI, Vision Forum and its support system, and the Pearls. While there are many, many other sub groups--authors, magazines, religious movements--these three groups enter into every single homeschooling story I've ever heard of. Their ideology taints every aspect of homeschooling. Even if your family didn't enroll in ATI, use Doug Phillips' materials, or use the Pearls (terrible. horrible. disgusting.) books, the odds were that people in your homeschooling group did, and it was very likely that the people offering your parents advice were, in effect, offering water from a poisoned well.

Religion has two uses, one positive, one negative. The positive use is the support that it offers the individual. It creates a common ground between individuals. It provides comfort in times of stress. It gives people a common, simplified language for offering complex advice. And, if you believe in the spiritual dimension, as I do, it connects you with something bigger than yourself. In this context the heart of religion isn't about its rules, its regulations and its structure, but rather the individual's relationship first with the divine and second with the general population.

The negative version of religion is a structure of control. The structure works independent of religion, and can be employed in a secular thought system, but works best inside of a pre-existing group with structure already in place. Controlling people requires a great deal of manipulation and momentum; it's easiest to do that by hijacking something that already exists. If you look at the history of abusive cults, the theme that repeats over and over is the Leader coming to a pre-existing group and progressively taking it over.

(As a side note I believe this makes the notion of removing religion to solve the issue of cults pretty meaningless. Religion provides an easy in, but removing the obvious targets simply points the predator at the next level up. Cult-like groups will always exist regardless of religion. The issue is not the groups. It's the predatory thinkers targeting the groups)

The most dangerous thing we do when we discuss manipulative groups is underestimate the intelligence of the manipulated. We imply that if you are well read enough, with enough innate intelligence and mental flexibility, you can recognize an abusive group before you become involved. We say this because we only begin to see these groups once the abuse is so great, it's begun to self-destruct. But there is a long, slow, complicated process manipulative leaders use to attract and then retain their audience, and it very, VERY rarely varies from group to group. It's a pattern utilized by Jim Jones, David Koresh, Scientology and even Nazi Germany. Insulting the intelligence of people involved in abusive groups is not only unfair to them, it is very dangerous for the rest of us. All of us are vulnerable to this kind of thing. If not through a Christian group, then through a group focused on another religion. If not through a religious group, than through a secular one. Manipulative people prey not on human stupidity or gullibility, but on human nature. It is our very best qualities that leave us open to manipulation and damage.

In other words, this is not a problem that you can easily fight.

So if a person, say, a homeschooling parent, is smart enough to see through this shit, why do they fall for it? How does a genuinely good parent fall for the controlling, manipulative and unbelievably toxic materials pushed by mainline homeschoolers? And once they see the sickness for what it is, what keeps them there?

There's a lot of tools, and I'm going to try to address most of them. But the biggest one, the one that runs across the entire thing, is the rules.

The version of Christianity most homeschooling materials promote is very, very strict, with rules including how one may dress, what kind of music one may listen to, what sort of materials one may read, even what kind of food you can eat. Most of these restrictions have absolutely no basis in the Bible. None. Full stop. You will not find "Thou shalt not Dance" or "Stone anyone who listens to Rock Music" anywhere in the Bible. You will find "thou shalt not intermarry with other nations"...buuuuut you'll also find episodes like Paul and the Ethopian and the time Mariam, Moses's sister, poked fun at Moses's dark-skinned wife for her dark skin and got motherfucking cursed with fucking leperosy. (If you're not a Bible-person, OT God has three "pissed" settings: gentle talking to, your kids are dead, and Leprosy. After that you hit fire and brimstone and you don't usually come back from that one) and how absolutely nobody paid attention to that rule. (Seriously. Kings and Chronicles, both halves, spend more time dwelling on the marital habits of Israel and Judah's kings than most tabloids--and IMHO are much nastier about it.)

But the rules. The restrictions.  The things that make life for homeschooled families borderline endurable at best and laughably horrible most of the time. Once you realize that none of it is Bible-based it becomes intensely confusing as to why, for example, girls have to wear floor length skirts when the bible seems more concerned about what the thread composition is (as blends are kinda verboten) than how low it goes. There are no restrictions on music. At all. Ever. (In fact, most of the times music is mentioned in the bible it's less Dances from Terpsichore and more that rave scene from Matrix Reloaded. There's one story where David got so into dancing before God's altar that his wife said "UH, DIGNITY MUCH" and Samuel AKA Voice-of-God for the generation said "Will you please shut up? Oh, and no kids for you.") It's just not there.

(Also: I bring up Dances for a specific reason: It's music written in honor of a classical greek goddess AND it was pushed very strongly by the "Matthews" AKA the high-profile Homeschooling family I worked for back on 05-06. So Rock music is flat out, but music straight up dedicated to a pagan goddess can be recommended AND sold for profit! RIGHT.)

And yet by putting problematic behavior into arbitrary, non-biblical rules, the people behind those rules--all of whom are terrible, by anyone's definition of behavior--manage to cement an attitude and outlook receptive to their version of control. For example, many of the arbitrary rules against music are rooted in a deeply racist perspective, one so repellant that most parents would refuse to comply. Instead of stating that Black People are bad because they're Black, the leaders state that Black culture is bad because it's devil worship and you could go to hell just by association. The emphasis here is not on "black culture is bad" but rather on "hell by association", which means the audience only hears "If I do this, I die." By doing this, the leader has actually prevented the audience from ever questioning his racist attitudes, because this is no longer an issue of race or Other, but of self-preservation. A bonus is if the audience members even start to question the line of thinking--ie why are we saying aspects of Black Culture are devil worship--they either get pitched out of the group or threatened back into compliance. See, by questioning, they're going to hell, which means anyone listening to them may go to hell by association. It's a downward spiral that is very, very ugly.

Dressing up the attitudes you want your group to have under the guise of "right living" nets abusive systems an audience five times larger than they would have had, were they open and honest about their goals. An incredibly good modern example of this is GamerGate--the goal is to hurt people, but by dressing it up in terms most people can agree with (ETHICS! IN JOURNALISM!) they prevent anyone from uncovering what those goals really are. And Homeschooling Culture is a far, far more attractive demographic for this nonsense because it means the leaders can hijack an entire generation of children and indoctrinate them without anyone realizing what the hell is going on.

The thing is? If you look at the Bible, and I mean really look at it, put it in cultural and historical context, not just of the age it was written but of the ages of its translation (something that absolutely no one does, and something that ought to be just as critical a history period, given the MASSIVE number of biases the KJV cemented into stone), you'll see that not only is all this shit completely unbiblical, it's the perfect antithesis to what the religion was intended to be. 

If you ask your average homeschooler/conservative Christian type why they follow these arbitrary and exhausting rules, they'll have a quick, pat answer for you. It's one that gets drilled into your skulls from very early on in your time in the faith: 1st Thessalonians 5:22.

Are you ready for this shattering, human-breaking, awful burden of a bible verse?

You sure?

Here it is:

22 Abstain from all appearance of evil 
Yeah. It's one of the short ones. Which makes it very easy to take out of context. Most verses used like this, you have to cut them into smaller pieces. This one is nice, short, sweet, easy to memorize, and even easier to twist into a pretzel. And as a bonus, it's one of the ones where the immediate context is still obscure enough to make deception possible.

Now we exhort you, brethren, warn them that are unruly, comfort the feebleminded, support the weak, be patient toward all men.
15 See that none render evil for evil unto any man; but ever follow that which is good, both among yourselves, and to all men.
16 Rejoice evermore.
17 Pray without ceasing.
18 In every thing give thanks: for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus concerning you.
19 Quench not the Spirit.
20 Despise not prophesyings.
21 Prove all things; hold fast that which is good.
22 Abstain from all appearance of evil.
23 And the very God of peace sanctify you wholly; and I pray God your whole spirit and soul and body be preserved blameless unto the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.
 Even there, it's kinda hard to see the context. It looks like a list of rules and instructions for the individual to follow to the letter without any wriggle room. And there's also a couple really problematic things in there (Despise not prophesyings is troubling when you realize that David Koresh styled himself as a prophet and he was about as biblical a leader as I am a bird.)

But that idea of "HERE ARE RULES YOU MUST FOLLOW" just doesn't cut the mustard. This is not an Old Testament book. This is New Testament, which is really light on rules given the whole "Jesus Died so we don't have to" theme. AND it's a Letter. Again, if you're not a Bible person, The New Testament has your History books (The Gospels+Acts) your Letters (everything between Acts and Revelation) and your "What is this I don't even John are you Okay?" book (The Revelation of John) And like most of Paul's letters, the Thessalonian letters were written to a beleaguered and persecuted religious body from a leader who was in prison awaiting trial and execution, and that prison was also Rome's sewer system. Not too long after this, the Roman Emperor started using Christians (Nero=white guy, Christians=Middle eastern brown people) as torches to light up his garden parties. The church at Thessalonica, like most of the churches Paul was writing to, weren't worried about pot lucks and cotillions. They were kind of preoccupied with not dying at the hands of their neighbors. And what does Paul write about while he's waiting to be beheaded and also ankle deep in literal shit?

Faith. Hope. Unconditional Love.

 Believe, have hope, and love one another. Again: He's ankle deep in shit and he's waiting to be executed (and FYI the only reason Paul was alive to write these letters is that he was a Roman citizen and thus privileged enough to rate a trial before he got dragged out and murdered. Yes, standing in shit for months on end was a privilege) and he's talking about how important it is to believe. To hope for things to get better. To take care of one another without condition (agape, remember?) and above all to endure until the end.

That list up there isn't a list of by-the-book formula instructions. They are the closing wishes from one man in the process of dying to a group of people being actively hunted down and murdered by their neighbors.

The mindset one has when one is going through a trial, be it IRL persecution or online harassment, determines how well one can weather the crisis-es one goes through. Maintaining a positive outlook when things are only moderately awful creates the margin you need to make it through the incredibly shitty low points. The whole focus of Thessalonians is "Hold on, it'll be okay." And when he closes it, Paul re-enforces the message with a list of ideas and touchstones the church can hold onto. Anchors so that when they try to climb up the mountain of horror and persecution and anguish they all faced and the world falls out from under them, they'll have something to cling to.

Do these things, because they'll keep you happy. Do these things, because they'll give you hope. Do these things, because they'll keep you sane when the world loses its mind.

Abstain from all appearance of evil, in this context of hold on, is about not burdening yourself with bad behavior. A guilty conscience adds to stress and overwhelm. There's also the aspect of witness, which is one of Christianity's more loaded phrases. It means, basically, that you behave in a way that brings merit to your belief system. And while that interpretation of 1Thess 5:22 is valid, and should be followed, it doesn't fit the letter's message of Hold on, one day it'll be okay. This letter is not about evangelism and witness--the Thessalonians were already doing that. All the early churches were. And they were dying for doing that. They really didn't need to be told "Oh, that thing that's getting so many of you killed? Go do more of that." They needed to be told hold on, one day it'll be okay. This letter is about taking steps to build the endurance of the individual and the group--tell the negative voices to shut up (not the critics, just the gloom and doom types) and the toxic people to stop abusing each other, have the mentally able support the disabled, and to try, whenever they can, to find joy. It's not asking the early Christians to be content with their lot or to be generally happy, but to find joy. It's almost legit to call it an instruction to find joy in spite of the circumstances.

It's a controversial idea, and sometimes difficult to understand (and a thousand times more difficult to do) But Speaking from personal experience...when you are in a situation that you cannot escape from, if you rejoice in your suffering, if you tell God "I'm going through this for your glory, thank you for this", you diminish the power suffering can have over you. "Grave, where is your victory, Death, where is your sting" doesn't negate the fact of death, only the depth of the agony it causes. It's not about making the suffering an obligation, it's about taking the victory away from the people who are hurting you and turning it into your own. You cannot change the suffering. You cannot change the pain. What you can change is how you and others look at it. You can take control of the narrative. But that attitude takes a lot of discipline and a lot of endurance. This letter, and most of the other letters in the New Testament, was correspondence between individuals and groups on the edge of survival, who wanted to tell their tormentors to get fucked without losing the essential spirit that made their system of belief worthwhile. Fighting back with violence would destroy those beliefs, turn the message of Christ into another violent, toxic cult doomed to horrific self destruction, not because Rome would respond with more violence, but because the violence would destroy the believers from the inside out and make them into the very thing they despised. Christ said It's not what goes in, but what comes out that defiles a man. Violent defense was not an option. Their only alternative was to make their endurance a victory in and of itself. To let the events and the hell they were going through pass through them like light through a stained glass window--to color the events and the horror and the pain with the triumph of enduring until the end, no matter how it ended.To make sure that no matter what came into their lives, all that came out was joy, peace, beauty and love. That was how they lived, and that was how they won.

In other words: They weren't worried about following a whole bunch of rules.

It seems rather silly to have spent so much time on one verse, but Abstain from all appearance of evil is the linchpin for all the rules that conservative Christians have to follow. The attitude is literally one of "Yes, we're forgiven and yes it's from God and not something we can earn, and yes it happened so that we could live without the terror of restriction, but we're  gonna do all that old shit anyway because REASONS." This cognitive dissonance between what the Bible actually says and what Christians practice is actually a major reason why many Christians leave the faith--they realize that they put a great deal of energy and guilt and emotional unpleasantness into absolutely nothing. This is an attitude that breaks people, and an interpretation that allows manipulators and abusers to acquire an audience that deserves so very much better. And of the few verses that support this attitude really doesn't support it at all.

This attitude of "RULES! Follow the RULES!" negates everything the early Christians went through. One attraction to the early church was that they didn't have to follow religious systems that had become political tools for oppression and yet could still have the benefits of religion, faith-based community and connection to God. The two major systems in place at the time, the Roman Empire's pantheism and the Jewish traditions of sacrifice and ritual cleanliness, were no longer things that worked for members of the Early Church.

It wasn't the pantheism that a great many of the Gentile Christians disliked, but it was the politics attached. Offering incense to the Roman Emperor--a major point of dispute between Roman authorities and the Early church, and one that got an awful lot of people killed--acknowledged that the Emperor and Rome were better than you. No, you didn't have to lose your gods. You just had to acknowledge that Rome's gods were better than your gods. The Jews got away with cultural monotheism because they had a long history of saying "fuck that shit" and Rome didn't want to deal with a freshly conquered people exploding. Other cultures did not get the same exemption and gaining access to meaningful Jewish practices were so difficult the religion was, to all intents and purposes, closed. Christians, thanks to their Jewish roots, had taken a stand that made monotheism as much a political statement as it was a religious one. Early Christians were telling an oppressive conqueror "We no longer respect your religion. We no longer respect your 'benevolent' oppression. We are taking back our lives."

 Electing to leave the rules of Jewish ritual cleanliness and sacrifice for Christian practice had the same motive; it wasn't the ritual itself that Christ objected to, it was how the rituals and practices had come to be a form of oppression within Hebrew society. The leadership could, and did, use the rules of ritual cleanliness and the cycle of sacrifice to oppress those who were unable to adhere to it. The law of ritual cleanliness was intensely ablest, excluding those who had deformities, defects and illnesses from the right to fully worship God. Christ's attempts to rectify this--to point out how the entire point of the Jewish law was to support the disabled and vulnerable population--were met with scorn by the leadership but with overwhelming support by the community. Choosing not to adhere to these laws, to accept everyone regardless of how "clean" they were, was stating that everyone counted and everyone mattered.

What marked Christ as different was how inclusive his teachings were, and also how subversive. He prioritized the lower classes--the tax collectors, prostitutes, beggers and lepers--over the upper, the ritualistically unclean over the priesthood. He chose a lone woman, Mary Magdalene, to be the first evangelist and carry the news of his resurrection to the world when he knew that no one would believe her, because it validated the witness of women. He advocated a form of non-violent resistance that emphasized equality and forced abusers to either acknowledge their victim as equal, or stop being abusive. When you realize that a lot of the early martyrs weren't just making a religious statement, but a political one as well--in essence, Fuck you Rome--you realize why so many people chose to die. Yes, it was for Christianity, but Christianity was the tool they could use to get back their lives. The established system was no longer doing what it was meant to do, and Christ came to fix it. The established system put people down, and Christ built them back up. The established system was the method of oppression, and Jesus threw it out of the temple in his one, sole, singular fit of utter fucking rage.

So why, then, do Christians do this? Why do we choose to redefine a faith that was about holding on and inclusive bodies into a faith that is all about rules and oppression?

Because when you follow Christianity the way it was back in the early church, those who would have power lose control. The only way to regain it is to establish themselves as teachers. With that authority, they can act. They erect rules like fences to keep out the people they can't benefit from, as well as the people they can't control. Christianity from its inception was intended to break the methods of control, and for the first several centuries of its existence proved that its adherents could not be shouted down, pushed into violence, or erased. And since the Powers that Be couldn't make it go away, they moved into the leadership instead and started chipping away at what made the religion inclusive and effective. And now, 2000 years later, the manipulation and control is literally written into the blueprints. Even the words of the bible are suspect, because the approved translations came, not from the oppressed who needed it, but by the kings and leaders and abusers who needed control.

But it says a lot that even with the biases of kings and leaders, even with the obscured history and abuse and control, the message is still there. In a world so focused on merit-based individual value, the fact that love your neighbor as yourself made it through the centuries relatively un-scathed says a great deal for how good the truth is at enduring. The Bible is still a valid source for believers. It even still explains how it can be used--be discerning, and pay attention to what kind of effect your doctrine, teachings and behaviors have on both your life and in the lives of others. AKA "By their fruit shall you know them." 

As an example, one relevant story is Peter's vision about the animals. There were two big divisions in the Early Church--one group, headed by Peter, wanted Christianity to be a Jewish thing, because Jesus was a Jew and so were all his disciples and there was this whole "Chosen people" thing.  Paul headed a group that wanted to evangelize to all people, pointing out that Jesus might have been Jewish, but he wasn't exactly checking credentials of the crowd before he preached (Given that the credential was circumcision, that'd be kinda icky if he had) A guy named Cornelius wanted Peter to explain things to him. Cornelius was not a Jew. Peter did not want to go.

And then this happened:

About noon the following day as they were on their journey and approaching the city, Peter went up on the roof to pray. 10 He became hungry and wanted something to eat, and while the meal was being prepared, he fell into a trance. 11 He saw heaven opened and something like a large sheet being let down to earth by its four corners. 12 It contained all kinds of four-footed animals, as well as reptiles and birds. 13 Then a voice told him, “Get up, Peter. Kill and eat.”
14 “Surely not, Lord!” Peter replied. “I have never eaten anything impure or unclean.”
15 The voice spoke to him a second time, “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.”
16 This happened three times, and immediately the sheet was taken back to heaven.
And Peter interpreted this as God going "I want these people. I say they're mine. Stop being a moron and go talk to Cornelius, his people are downstairs," and Peter made Cornelius the first Gentile of many.

This, my dear readers, is one of those stories that I NEVER WANT TO EVER READ AGAIN. It gets covered A LOT in bible studies, sermons, pamphlets, pictures, you name it. If you hear this story five times a year you're probably slacking off in your reading and attendance. It gets repeated a lot because we Gentile Christians use it to justify how a message given by a Jew in front of other Jews can apply to the rest of us. But by narrowing our focus to our own justification, we lose the entire fucking point of this passage, which is verse 15:

 The voice spoke to him a second time, Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.”

Not clear enough? 

Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.

And yet that is exactly what we do. Every time we meet something we don't understand, something out of our culture's frame of reference, something that doesn't follow the rules we define as "good", we demonize them, call it evil, and do our best to either exclude the Other, or to erase all the differences that make the Other who they are. The sheer fucking wrongness of all these restrictive rules should become obvious once you factor in that, within the context of these beliefs, this is what Christ died to end. Not just the rules, but the oppressive nature of them. The rules that, through compliance, erase the differences that give humanity its fullness. It's these small statements--wear your skirt this long, your hair like this, wear these colors only, listen to just this music and nothing else--that blot out culture far more effectively than an absolute ban would. You can say with absolute honesty that you're not against, say, African culture--better stated as Masai, Zulu, or one of the many other ethnic groups--while you simultaneously attack every single thing that culture actually has on the basis that it's evil. You can say you support women while you confine them in a cage. You can say you support the weak, and then accuse the mentally ill of housing demons. Because the rules have divorced the religion from your life so effectively, you might as well not follow it at all.

It is a system that is absolutely manufactured and artificial. And while some of it absolutely IS the fault of the individual, a great deal more is the fault of the teacher. The individual's choice is to accept the rule and be a shit to others, or reject the rule and risk hell and damnation. The teacher's choice is to first verify that their information is correct, to pass on what is verified truth, and to correct inaccurate information their students may have. 

The history of ATI, Vision Forum and the Pearls is one of exclusion, repression and misery. By any biblical standard, it is a form of invalid doctrine. By the most basic of human standards, it is the ultimate definition of failure.By anyone's definition, it is not something that should ever be followed.

And just because I'm in the mood for awesome music: 

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