There are two primary accusations brought against Christians today: hatred and hypocrisy. Over the past year, though, I’ve come to see the apparent hypocrisy and hatred (or bigotry, as many people put it) as occasional symptoms of a much deeper problem, a disease that is rotting out the heart of modern Christianity: codependency.
Codependency is when the center of gravity in someone’s life is unhealthily oriented towards another person or group of people. A codependent’s energy, sense of self, motivation, are no longer generated internally from an authentic and healthy place, but from their entanglement with someone else. Codependency can manifest itself in a variety of ways: it can be pitiful, whimpering, caught up in a rescue fantasy, or it can be domineering, unyielding, ruling over others with an iron fist. A codependent either tries to find a higher power in another person, or tries to be that other person’s higher power. Sometimes both. No matter how it manifests itself, though, the heart of codependency is always the same: a desperate obsession over another that blocks authentic self-care and growth, and an all-consuming need to control other people.
I know all this because I myself am a recovering, raging codependent and, as is the case with alcoholics, it takes one to know one. When I look at American Christianity, I no longer see the hateful, bigoted, hypocritical monsters we’re all told the church is. I see a church torn apart by codependency.
It starts early, I think. In a myriad of ways, codependency is intravenously fed to us from our first days in the Christian world. A common theme in the lives of codependents is not being free to be honest or authentic as a child. Many codependents were raised in settings where they had to control the environment, and themselves, in order to feel safe. This is particularly true for children like me, who had to hide our gay feelings to feel safe, but nearly everyone experiences this to a tremendous degree in church. Church is not safe for children to be the messy, sexual, confused, beautiful people they are, and that hiding can create a lifelong habit of controlling others.
We are also taught that there is a dangerous “other” (gays, progressives, liberals, feminists, whatnot) that threatens our world, and we must fight against this other, convert this other, or be destroyed. Soon, we are no longer defined by our own joy, passion, and love, but by our response to this “other”. As the old criticism goes, we are not known for what we are for, but what we are against, and this is because we, as a church, do not have a solid sense of self. We do not have an identity outside of the “other” that we are afraid of and are trying to control.
And then there is evangelism. I was a missionary in YWAM (Youth With a Mission) as a young adult, and the whole experience was an exercise in codependency. In this traditional, evangelical setting, all of our grief and joy was based on manipulating others to agree with our theological position in an effort to save their souls. There was little trust involved – little understanding that we can’t control what others believe, we cannot manipulate, we cannot cajole. There was no breaking of bread in peace because we are all children of God, unable to manipulate one another, but only free to trust God with each other’s lives. We children on the mission field failed to see that we could only work out our own salvation with fear and trembling, and then – and only then – speak from the authentic place built up in our hearts. But we had no authentic place in our hearts, because it was all built on saving others.
So now great swaths of the American Christian world is a codependent nightmare full of anxiety: a world where pastors try to control their congregation, from how to dress to how to vote, where Doctor Dobson teaches parents how to manipulate and control their children, where Tony Perkins and numerous others compel us to control the LGBT world and those who do not share our beliefs. We try to control governments, schools, “nonbelievers”, children, and one another. Our identity is built upon that need to control – without it we have very little sense of self, no mystical center. We have little trust in the God we profess to follow to care for us and the world we all share.
Codependency is different from genuine helping and caring. But, in this day and age, I don’t think the American church can tell the difference. The great tragedy here is twofold: the Christian world loses their sense of authentic self, and codependency ends up hurting everyone: those who wield it, and those who are victims of it. When it comes to codependency, nobody gets out alive.
The way forward, for me, has been to turn my gaze from the church and the world, and to myself. I cannot control others – I am powerless over them. I can only treat my own fear, and my need to control, and trust God with the rest. I can speak with truth and passion and conviction, but I cannot rebuild a broken church. I can, however, work with God to rebuild myself, and that might be the most important and redemptive step any of us can take.