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Exiled from Faith

A few weeks ago, I stood on a hill in Edinburgh, Scotland, at sunset. Somewhere on that mound, one of my ancestors was burned as a heretic by the Catholic Church and died as martyr to the new Protestant faith. As the sun fell toward the horizon, the sky turned red – a fitting fiery tribute – and through the blazing clouds a double rainbow formed. A sort of divine apology for whole mess? I couldn’t help but wonder.

I’d only recently discovered this history, but it twins another such story in my family. About a century later, an ancestor in a different line would be hanged as a witch in the small English village of Bury St. Edmunds. She wasn’t done in by Catholics, but rather by Anglicans. I’ve never visited that town, so I’ve no angelic visitations to report.

In the 1670s, a descendent of the Protestant heretic and a descendent of the Anglican-accused witch met in Maryland and married in a Quaker meeting, the least hierarchical and non-dogmatic version of Christianity they could find. Thus began the American story of my mother’s family: self-exiled religious refugees clinging to the watery edge of a great distant continent. They left all they knew and had to make a new life in an entirely new place.

All of this has me thinking about history and trauma, about spiritual memories passed through time. What must it have been like to watch a church burn your father or hang your grandmother? And then know that the specter of their theological crimes would follow you forever – know that if you didn’t show up in church the next Sunday you’d be suspected of their spiritual deviance as well.

If nothing else, I understand why they would want to leave. My ancestors didn’t come to Maryland for fame or fortune or glory. They just wanted to escape the shame to which religious institutions had consigned them. They weren’t running away because some external enemy persecuted them. No, they left the churches that had baptized them, reared them, taught them the Bible, introduced them to Jesus and the sacraments and the hope of eternal life – and then betrayed them. Leaving church – not to mention Scotland and England – was an eminently sane choice at the time. And their stories aren’t singular. As deeply personal and painful that they were, who knows how many immigrants arrived in America bearing similar tales? Such unresolved memories shaped a nation, most likely haunted us – and probably still do.

While the history interests me, these stories also open up larger questions of contemporary religion. Just this week, Catholic bishops were discussing why millions of people have left their church. At the same time, the Southern Baptists were meeting and part of their concern is stemming the loss of young adult members. In both cases – as is often the case when talking about the rise of the “nones” and the decline of Christianity – blame was placed squarely on those who have left and neither the Catholics nor the Baptists offered much in the way of honest institutional self-reflection on the churches’ responsibility in causing these trends.

Four centuries have passed since my ancestors left church. How different is it today? Churches that baptized and reared generations have betrayed their own moral percepts and the teachings of Jesus in countless crimes and cover-ups regarding sexual abuse. If that wasn’t bad enough, they often “blamed” the victims by ignoring them, paying them off, or treating them as if they were unfaithful or even lying. In effect, we’ve been witnessing a contemporary version of inquisition wherein a religious institution casts its own sins onto an unwitting populace – and then punishes those who dare question their authority. The sexual abuse crises in both Catholic and evangelical circles are the most egregious examples, but religious institutions of all sorts do make it a habit to silence critics and project their own shortcomings onto those who dare question the status quo.

In past generations people put up with church abuse because they had little choice. Some, like my ancestors, finally left church by leaving their village or nation and finding a new habitation. In terms of geography, it isn’t quite as hard to leave church these days, mostly because leavers aren’t so alone. Millions are taking leave – spiritually, theologically, and emotionally – moving away from what they knew to make a new life in a new place in a world that seems alien. Today’s leavers depart the village in different ways, and, although they might be physically still present to their families and in their hometowns, they are as much self-exiled religious refugees as my Maryland ancestors once were.

Standing on that hill in Edinburgh, I wondered: What if someone had said, “we’re sorry” to my ancestors? We’re sorry that we accused the head of your family of heresy and burned him to death in public. We’re sorry that his death plunged your once-respected family into infamy and poverty. We’re sorry that we didn’t listen to his complaint that church tithes were too high and the local bishop too high-handed. We’re sorry.

Apologies are the first step toward justice – the making right of a wrong. Perhaps a public apology would have been the first step in a journey of reconciliation and restitution. Perhaps history would have been different in ways unimaginable, like a double rainbow breaking through a bleeding sky.

If nothing else, listen to the exiles. They aren’t to blame for leaving. They are probably just holding up a moral mirror to the church.

Visit Diana Butler Bass’ website here.

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