Growing up in a literalist Christian church, I was taught from a young age that people are born inherently sinful. Man is born with a sinful nature which makes him deserving of hell, hence the need for a redeeming savior who bore the punishment for us. This concept may not seem all too radical on its face (at least if you’re accustomed to religion), but it gets a little disturbing when you start peeling back the layers.
The idea that man is inherently sinful led to me being taught by our pastor’s wife at the age of seven that babies that die (including aborted or miscarried babies) go to hell because they never had the opportunity to ask for God’s forgiveness of their sinfulness. Isaiah 64:6 was oft quoted (“All of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags…”) to remind us that we were so awful and disgusting that even the good things we did were like filthy rags to God. Innocuous and natural emotions were sins against God — worry was the sin of failing to trust God, desire of any kind was the sin of greed or of feeling like God wasn’t enough, sexual arousal the sin of lust. Nothing you could ever do, think or feel wasn’t sinful in some way because you were sinful. It was who you were.
Now, as an adult who has left the church, I find it very disturbing when I hear of Christians teaching their children that they’re filthy, evil and deserving of hell. I know from personal experience that when you’re shamed on that level, no amount of, “but Jesus loves you anyway, and he’ll take away your sins,” is enough to make the shame go away. That’s the kind of shame that runs so deep it becomes a part of you.
As alarming as it may be to think of adults shaming children in this way, filling them with such guilt for their mere existence, for who they are, it isn’t only happening in the church.
We, understandably, do everything we can for our kids. From infancy we use every trick we can find to build their brains and get them on “the right track.” We drill them and prep them so that they will be “advanced” when they start school. (Let me be clear here — I am using the dictionary definition of advanced: “far on or ahead in development or progress.”)
We move to neighborhoods we can scarcely afford to get our kids into the best schools. (“Best” meaning: “of the most excellent, effective, or desirable type or quality.”) We push them and hire tutors so that they will graduate top of their class, and then we do everything necessary to get them into the best college. Naturally, we want our kids to have a competitive edge in life.
And while we yell in one ear to “Do better!”, “Work harder!” and “Get ahead!” we whisper in the other, “You should be ashamed of yourself. You have advantages you didn’t earn. You have everything while there are others that have nothing. The world has been handed to you on a silver platter and it is utterly unfair to everyone else. It’s wrong. It’s evil. Fix it.”
I once read in a New York Times article about a boy who won a national poetry contest with a poem he wrote about the shame and guilt he felt over his white privilege. I imagined his parents, beaming with pride at his writing skills acquired at school, at his accomplishment in winning a national contest, and at the shame he felt about it all. They’d done well.
You may bristle at what I’m saying, because inequality is unfair. It’s not right that some people get things handed to them because of their race or their status, while others work themselves into the ground and never seem to get anywhere. Systemic racism, advantages due to class, these things aren’t right. But is it right to teach our children to feel ashamed of themselves for things that are out of their control? Is it right to say to a child, “You should be ashamed because of the color of your skin, because of your family, because of the circumstances into which you were born”? Is it right to give our children everything we possibly can, and then tell them to be disgusted with themselves for it?
The world is not a fair place, and the fact that we are working toward making things kinder is a beautiful thing. It is on our and our children’s shoulders to do this. However, our current model of driving change through guilt, shaming and self-loathing is not only a poor model in the long-term, but it will do irreparable damage to the little humans that are our future. Hate will beget hate, even if the hate originates directed at oneself. We must start driving change through love, respect, acceptance and empathy. If these are the fruits we want to see, then these are the seeds we must plant.
Note: My above reference to growing up in the church was my personal experience, and does not reflect that of every Christian or of every church.