Guilty of guilting

Over the years I’ve learned that guilt can be an effective tool. I’ve been on both ends of it too; being guilted into certain things and guilting others. Sadly, most of my experiences with guilt were in the context of the church. The church I grew up in was quite conservative and as I look back on my time there now I see just how vital a tool guilt was. Maybe I should call it peer pressure, or maybe I should call it conviction. It all depends on your perspective, I suppose. Whatever we call it, it was effective at getting me to read my Bible a certain number of days per week, it was effective at getting me to make a weekly 6 a.m. accountability group meeting, it was effective at getting me to go to every service the church offered and then some, and it was effective at getting me to “live out my faith” in a certain way.

It really wasn’t all bad. It brought about some positive: I read the Bible a lot, I prayed a lot, and I was very active in my youth group. But there was also some negative: I was arrogant, I was always right, and, as a result, I got into numerous heated arguments with family members about the “right” way to be a Christian that were rarely edifying for those relationships. The worst part, though, was that whatever conviction I had that this was who I was supposed to be was only superficial, for that is all it ever could be. I had been guilted into being a certain type of Christian because it’s how everyone around me was. It was, I was told, the “right” way, the most “Christian” way.

To be sure, I was not a wholly passive actor in all of this and I take full responsibility for my actions and words that caused hurt and damage. Yet, as I have grown and have looked back on those years of my life, I see just how important the guilt factor was. Guilt is rarely explicit and often takes the form of group identity formation. That is, groups, especially religious groups, are concerned with who is “in” and who is “out.” Definitions are necessary and boundaries are drawn. Those on the inside praise themselves as being serious, deep Christians who believe and do the right things, while those on the outside are rebuked (though usually behind their backs) as being superficial or misguided or just outright heretics.

I’ve learned an important lesson in the past few years, though. Conservative Christianity doesn’t own guilt. I’ve experienced almost as much guilt from moderate and liberal Christians. I don’t drive a hybrid. I drive an SUV. I haven’t sold all of my possessions and joined the Peace Corps. I don’t buy Fair Trade coffee (disclosure: I don’t drink coffee).

What’s tough about guilt is that we don’t always know when we’re being guilted or when we’re doing the guilting. And this allows us to talk about how other Christians should live out an “authentic” faith or be “real” Christians, forgetting the fact that we have constructed just what counts as “authentic” and “real” and it invariably looks just like we do.

This is not meant to be a grandiose claim for all Christians to stop employing guilt as a means of getting others to conform in their beliefs, speech, and action. Though, mainly it isn’t that because I think it would be ultimately fruitless. Moreover, this is especially not a call for us to recognize when others may be guilty of guilting. Instead, I think we could come a long way if we simply tried to recognize for ourselves when we may have been guilted into doing something rather than being genuinely called to do it and, more importantly, if we tried to recognize when we’ve guilted others. I don’t expect us to rid our religious interactions of all forms of guilt, but I do hope to become less complicit in its survival.

Thomas Whitley

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Thomas Whitley holds a Master of Arts in Religion and a Master of Divinity from Gardner-Webb University. He is currently working on a PhD in Religions of Western Antiquity at Florida State University. He regularly writes on religion, technology, and politics at thomaswhitley.com.

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