I want to talk about the idea of “conviction” in some fundamentalist Christian circles. Particularly I want to talk about how it is used by some Christians both as a gas-lighting technique and as a method of manipulation. However, I have not really had time or the ability to put my thoughts together in a coherent fashion. So instead, I think I will just tell a couple of stories. These stories occurred while I lived as a woman, so I am using those pronouns and terms since they are relevant to the stories.
Note: for those unaware of this particular Christianese phrase, I am referring to the following definition: a feeling of guilt or shame that God inflicts on a person that comes with the recognition of having committed a sin.
When I was outed as gay to my family, I was living overseas and working on my Masters degree in Astrophysics. Needless to say, I was already under a lot of stress, even before dealing with my family keeping me up til ungodly hours on the phone arguing, laying enormous guilt trips on me for hurting the family, or sending me books and articles and pamphlets about how I am deceiving myself into thinking that I can be gay and Christian and about how lesbian relationships are all just co-dependent and unhealthy and guilting me into reading them. (And yeah, according to these sources, gay male relationships are all about lust and sex and lesbian relationships are about emotional codependency. I can’t even start to unpack that sexist and homophobic load of shit).
Anyway. I was quite religious at the time. Having this crisis regarding my family’s rejection of my sexuality had actually driven me deeper into my faith rather than away from it; I suppose I was looking for some stability and comfort which I found in god. I would often go to church to find some solace. One Sunday morning, my parents called me and we had a bad argument that ended in them telling me “we don’t even know you anymore.” I was really upset when I left the conversation so that I could take the train down to church. During the worship service I tried to hold things together but I was so overwhelmed I just broke down and started sobbing uncontrollably. One of the women in the pews noticed me and very kindly asked if I was okay and if I needed to speak to someone. I had a friendly relationship with the current pastor, so I said that I would like to speak to him, thinking that maybe I would admit that I was gay to him and tell him what was happening. I was hoping that, even if he disagreed, he would be loving and supportive in the difficult time I was having and maybe would pray for my family and I. However (as is common in churches) women are apparently only supposed to seek counsel from women, so I was directed instead to the pastor’s wife, whom I had barely met before. This left me feeling a bit scared and vulnerable, but I followed her to a back room where she sat me down and got me a glass of water and tried to make me comfortable. Finally she sat down across from me and waited for my tears to subside.
I was still sobbing and was a bit scared about coming out to a total stranger, but I slowly calmed myself enough to begin trying to speak. “First, there’s something you should know about me. I’m gay, and I’m dating a woman,” I said. I then began to tell her that things were going very badly with my family, but she was not looking at me anymore. She was flipping through her bible. She opened it to Romans 1, and then tilted it a little so I could see it while she watched me intently, clearly gauging my reaction. I started to get shaky and nervous again, trying to ignore it, trying not to look at those pages that she obviously wanted me to see. I kept talking but I felt I wasn’t really being heard. And indeed, as soon as I paused, she interjected and began to tell me that I was living in sin and that god was disgusted with my lifestyle. She asked me if I’d read Romans 1. I said yes, but that I didn’t interpret it the way that she clearly did, that I hadn’t come here to talk about whether or not homosexuality was a sin, and that I didn’t believe it was wrong to be gay.
“Yes you do,” she said.
“No, I don’t think it’s wrong,” I stammered, rather flabbergasted.
“Yes you do. You know it’s wrong. Otherwise you wouldn’t be crying. You’re crying because God has convicted you and you know you are guilty.”
Never mind the stress and anxiety I was under. Never mind that my family was pressuring me. Never mind that people I loved and trusted were attacking a deeply important part of me. Never mind that my family had just told me that they didn’t know me anymore. No, I was apparently crying because I had been convicted. And, you know, I half believed it, because when you’re that mind-fucked by your family and your church and everyone around you, it’s hard to have any sort of perspective besides “well, everyone is saying it so maybe they’re right.” You lose your ability to judge your own feelings and values. It’s disorienting.
I felt like the breath had just been sucked out of me and I mostly just sat there for the rest of the next hour while she read me Romans 1, she talked to me about how I was disappointing god, my relationship was disgusting, I needed to stop running from the truth, etc. I put up a few weak arguments here and there, but I hadn’t come here to argue about sin. I just wanted advice and comfort and safety. I was in pain and I was crying, and she had chosen to use that expression of my pain as a weapon against me by deciding that my tears were “conviction.”
A very similar experience occurred a few months later at my sister’s church, which she had pressured me into going to in an attempt to convince me to break up with my girlfriend. By this point, my parents had threatened to ban me from coming back to their house if I dared to go visit my girlfriend, and I was in a lot of turmoil about what I should do. My desperation and fear left me vulnerable, so my sister talked me into speaking to an elder that she trusted and having that person pray for me. I feared a repeat of the previous time, but I agreed.
I tried to explain to this woman that I was dealing with a difficult family situation and that I could use some prayer or guidance. I avoided admitting the full circumstance at first, but when she kept asking (and in retrospect, she may already have been informed by my sister) I admitted that I was gay. As soon as she heard that word, she stopped listening and started telling me to pray for god to “release me from this sinful relationship that had a hold on my life.” I told her that I wasn’t going to pray for that because that’s not what I felt was needed. This seemed to bewilder her and she continued to insist that I needed to pray for god to cleanse me of sin. At the time, I started to think that maybe she was just very dense or maybe hard of hearing, because nothing I said really seemed to register. Every time I told her “I’m okay with being gay; this isn’t about that,” she just looked really confused, stammered a bit, and then went back to encouraging me to renounce my sin. I think now that she was not being intentionally dense, but she was doggedly convinced that I knew that I was wrong. She was just waiting for me to drop the pretense and admit it. Why else would I be asking for prayer? Why else would I be in a church? I must have been convicted by god.
It couldn’t possibly be that I was dealing with a traumatic family situation. It couldn’t possibly be that I was about to be kicked out of the house. It couldn’t possibly be that I had been strong-armed and manipulated into coming. It couldn’t possibly be intense pressure and guilt from other people that drove me here. Nope, I was convicted and I just needed to admit it. And so she continued to badger me to pray for the strength to “give everything over to God.” Eventually, I half-heartedly did so because I was tired. At least in this situation, I was less emotionally vulnerable, so I mostly felt frustration and disappointment. I guess that’s what you get when you keep believing people who tell you that a “spiritual authority” will know how to fix your problem and you can’t possibly know how to handle it yourself or be trusted to find your own support.
You know what? Neither of these experiences changed my mind about my sexuality. They didn’t teach me that being gay is a sin. They didn’t show me the light. They didn’t convict me. What they did do was capitalize on my suffering to try to manipulate me into changing. What they did do is drive the knife deeper and teach me that church is not a safe place to be. I have never unlearned that lesson and maybe I never will. I am no longer a Christian (for fairly unrelated reasons, actually) but even if I did choose to explore spirituality again, I’m not sure I’d ever feel comfortable in a church. Maybe with some more time and distance that will change. For now, my conviction is that I would rather be anywhere than sit in a pew and anything is safer than being vulnerable in a church.