One of the young people I know and admire who left the Laestadian Lutheran Church before I did, facing up to its vicious eternal threats and doing a reset on their social lives, is a recent law school graduate named Emerson Beishline. [Edit: Now a lawyer; congratulations on passing the bar!] He left the church while I was still a struggling believer, and was an understanding voice on the other end of the phone as I confronted my doubts and those who judged me for expressing them.
Emerson attended a Laestadian cousin’s wedding this past weekend in Minnesota. A preacher went up to him before leaving and, in front of the entire extended family, told him that he prayed for Emerson often, that he needed to come back to “God’s Kingdom” because he’s living a life of sin. Then, right after this uninvited bit of sugar-coated condemnation, the preacher warned Emerson that he’d better not be saying bad things about the church.
Sitting at a table trying to enjoy a family occasion, Emerson didn’t even bother turning around to face the source of this hypocrisy and arrogance. He coolly asked over his shoulder if he was being accused of speaking ill of the church. This was denied, and Emerson pointed out that he’d been falsely accused of deconverting many former Laestadians. He didn’t appreciate being told how to live his life.
No less than three people that evening told him just how sad they were about him, how they wished he had a believing spouse, and how sad it was that he was living a life of sin, i.e., dating a non-Laestadian, watching movies, listening to non-Laestadian music. These same people warned him not to criticize the church. One person even went out of her way to tell him that she loved him even though “you’re pretty crazy” and “you should jump off a cliff.”
After taking this all in, here’s what Emerson did. It’s exactly the kind of thing that will be needed in order for this abusive behavior to stop:
I took the floor and proceeded to point out the hypocrisy in telling me how to live my “sad” and “crazy” life while bawling your eyes out about criticisms I haven’t publicly repeated since shortly after I left the church three years ago.
As dozens of kids and multiple sets of parents gathered in the room, the discussion quickly moved into one focused on the doctrines and beliefs of the church generally. They would come up with some stuff about childlike faith, etc. and continue to tell me how sad my life was. I would respectfully explain my positions about life and my understanding of their doctrines. I responded to everything they fired at me for the next hour.
He explained to them that he is an agnostic atheist, and what that means. They were naturally horrified and incredulous that he could possibly be happy with such a choice. When he said he found their uninvited criticisms of his “ungodly” lifestyle offensive in light of their admonishment to abstain from criticizing the church, they responded that they were doing it from a place of love. Well, he’d love to see everyone be an atheist, he said, but that would be unnecessarily selfish. It is also a massive waste of time on everyone’s part to pray for his soul, he pointed out, because
Luther’s predestination has already determined my fate. I told them that I’m comforted with the knowledge that if an all-powerful Lutheran God actually does exist, I have no power whatsoever to determine the fate of my soul. By definition, God can’t be all-powerful and all-knowing if my pathetic prayer could bring “salvation” contrary to his original, ever-unchanging plan.
This excellent point, which Emerson mentioned to me long before I had written much of anything about Laestadianism, is covered in Section 4.7.2 of my first book, An Examination of the Pearl:
Often the opening prayer asks God to allow those have left the fold–sometimes also the unbelieving world in general–to see the light. I have always puzzled over this entreaty, given the claims that God is both loving and omnipotent. Predestination means that God has already sorted out the sheep and the goats from the beginning of time. The preacher’s solemn intonation of a few words about the lost is directed to the caring and concerned ears of the congregation, not an omnipotent and omniscient God. On the other hand, if God isn’t happy about all the damnation that is going on despite his desire that all would be saved, is the public request of a preacher going to give God an extra boost of divine power to correct the situation? I can just picture him nodding his head with a thoughtful expression: “You know, that guy down there in the suit has a point–let’s inspire a few converts today.” Both cases are clearly nonsensical, and that is a direct reflection of the dilemma of predestination versus free will, discussed in 4.9.3.
In response to one question about whether or not he remembers how sweet the forgiveness of sins felt, he said, “Yes, it felt very powerful. However, we differ in our explanations of the source of that power.” I can attest to this, too. In Laestadianism, you are judged for a multitude of sins and then regularly hear a magic incantation that promises to wipe away every last stain of guilt.
For a while, that is. It is an absolution-delivery system with no less impact on the brain than the pulsatile nicotine-delivery system of a cigarette. For me, its effect is so ingrained that I still feel a slight glow of fuzzy relief when hearing the proclamation of forgiveness in the recorded sermons to which I still listen at bedtime. Obviously, there is no theological effect going on with me: This is more or less classical conditioning. I am one of Pavlov’s dogs, salivating at hearing the bell of forgiveness being preached.
There were inquiries about certain semi-public struggles of former Laestadians, to which Emerson readily admitted that almost all apostates have had major struggles leaving the church. He’s worked through it on his own, he said, but everyone who has ever left the church probably should seek counseling. He was, he said, “spiritually damaged as a child”:
I feared hell like crazy. I feared that I would commit blasphemy. I would wake up in the middle of the night as a child and find no consolation in the gospel because as a five year-old kid I didn’t understand what “name sins” were, and I thought I would go to hell for some stupid sin. They turned and pointed to all of the little children in the room and asked me if I thought these children were damaged. I said “not yet, but when they do eventually leave, the damage just manifests itself during the process of deconversion.” They essentially accused me of being ungrateful to my parents who did a very good job of raising me. I emphatically agreed that my parents did a fantastic job raising me, but I made sure to explain that my parents just didn’t know any better when it came to spiritual issues. I said that this was society’s fault more than anything.
The bottom line, Emerson told his shocked audience, is that
you are required by your faith to think that I’m proud; that I think too much. I’m not meek enough. My understanding is anything but childlike in your minds. In contrast, I don’t think you care enough about your doctrines and your religion. You don’t care enough because you don’t ask questions when it’s blatantly obvious that your doctrines are completely un-Laestadian. Laestadius wouldn’t recognize you if he were alive today. That doesn’t signify to me an unchanging church.
Nor, might I add, would Christ recognize them, either. At least not the one who is supposed to have said the words in the epigraph at the beginning of this essay.
I have heard many of these same sad experiences, from people who have left the church and even from some who hesitate to judge those who have left. This is not an institution that does as it would be done unto, nor one at all hesitant to judge lest it be judged.
There is a positive note on which to end, though. Another ex-Laestadian, Brett Salahub, says this sort of thing has never happened to him:
Recently a believing couple who were very long-time friends from Canada purposely stopped in to visit me here in Finland while they are traveling around, after not seeing me for 5 years and they never once brought up faith matters.
A year or two ago, another believing couple from the USA visited with me, and they only asked me politely to explain where I stand on some doctrinal matters and that was it. No challenges or telling me how sad they were, and so forth.
It can be done, and it ought to be. Nobody is being led back into the fold by the frowning piety of condemnation and condescension. We have heard it all, found it unworthy of our belief for a hundred different reasons, and acted accordingly. And Emerson has made it very clear that any Laestadians who want to say how sad and pathetic his life is had better be comfortable with taking it as much as they dish it out. This is, he concludes memorably, “a two-way street. If you don’t respect my right to an ungodly lifestyle, I don’t want to hear you telling me that I can’t tell you exactly what I think about your religion.”
Update, July 16, 2013: Here is a response by Emerson’s mother. All I will add is that the love and respect Emerson and his family have for each other has been very evident to me, and I’m happy to give her a chance to express that along with various concerns about the posting.
As Emerson’s mother, I feel compelled to write a post here. I will preface it by saying that Emerson is loved very deeply by his family, and Emerson in return has great love for his family as he has expressed to me in so many ways. It is very difficult for me to formulate my words here, as I fear potentially offending either parties involved in this conversation. As a mother, and as any mother will testify, my heart sorrows when my children hurt, and my heart rejoices when my children are happy. So naturally my child’s hurt burns deeply in my heart in any given situation.
Having said that, I will also acknowledge, and painfully so, that I am deeply anguished and troubled that this type of deeply emotional and personal conversation has been placed here in a public blog setting for scrutiny by any number of individuals. I want to assure all readers of this blog that our family is not without faults, for we say things and do things that often may offend others even unintentionally, or perhaps even offend others by not saying or doing things that might be desired of us. I think this is the human experience, especially in family settings, where conversations and actions are not what one typically would present in a more public setting.
Who of us feels that we act exactly the same in public as we do in more personal family settings? Having said that, I don’t intend to excuse hurtful words or behavior on either side of the issue. But I really do feel that unfamiliar communication style and family dynamics coupled with cultural variables that influence message delivery can result in unfair scrutiny, thereby depicting our family as an entity of hatred and intolerance. I hope no one comes away from reading about our private family affairs here on this blog with a false impression like this.
In our family we have much love, deep-seated love in our hearts, such that we sorrow and rejoice with one another like other families do. Of course with variances in each individual’s decisions, choices and belief structures our personal experiences of what produces joy and sorrow are different from one another, but overall we all want the best and much happiness and success for all of our beloved immediate and extended family members. It troubles my heart and my soul very deeply that a sorrowful experience in our family is posted here in an unveiled attempt to intentionally propagate bad publicity and hurtful commentary.
It is my heart’s deepest desire that we could all choose to live a life of mutual respect and love. I would say especially to those who are in the church that Jesus teaches us to love and forgive, and as such it is our duty. To those who have left I would encourage you to love and respect in return, even if sometimes it feels like an insurmountable battle. I wish that all this hurtful dialogue could be turned into something more constructive, and that we could remain on loving and happy terms. Think how much that would decrease the angst and pain and hurt and wounds for both parties. Let us have love and respect, that is the good and decent human experience.
As I say to my children, take the high road and love and forgive, even if the person does not see their own transgression. Why live life in bitterness and pain? Why continue the battle that cannot be won? And I will again reiterate here, that Emerson is loved most deeply by his family. And I know, with great certainty, that Emerson deeply loves his family despite our faults and failures, mistakes and shortcomings. Let us have a new outlook on life here, one with peace, love, forgiveness, tolerance, respect. Let us stop tearing one another down and hurting and exploiting other people’s pains and sorrows. Would this not be the right thing to do? Please, I want anyone reading this blog to understand that our family has great and deep and unfaltering love for Emerson and all of our family members.
And it is my heart’s sincere desire that I can also be that person of whom I preach here: kind, respectful, tolerant, forgiving, gracious, honorable. I ask any reader here who finds my comments offensive or somehow reprehensible to forgive my grievances, and to carry me in their hearts with peace.
Update, August 15, 2014: See my positive review of a presentation at the LLC’s 2014 Summer Services, which advocated neighborly love and respect for others, even others of different beliefs. It was a huge step up from the behavior Emerson had encountered a year earlier.