I grew up physically and spiritually in a rural, conservative environment. The church I was part of for most of my childhood wasn’t hyper-rigid like some but it was conservative in its views and teaching. I absorbed that mindset along with the cookies and juice served at snack time during Vacation Bible School.
I don’t think I ever heard a sermon explicitly giving the rules but I pretty much knew by the time I as a teen that “good Christians” obeyed the big three: “Don’t drink, Don’t smoke, Don’t dance.” There were of course, other evils, like anything sexual but Christians didn’t even think about stuff like that so we didn’t need rules in those areas. There were, of course, Christians who did that stuff—but they were always from other churches, not ours. We obeyed the rules.
But even then, I sort of noticed something that I liked to pretend wasn’t there. Some of the “good Christians” from our church actually did some of the big three—occasionally at the same time. How did I know? Well, we were teens in a small town who didn’t have a whole lot to do so we talked and eventually the “good Christian” would get around to telling some of us what they did—or those of us who didn’t break the rules but stood as close to the boundary as possible would see them break the rule.
As long as it was only us who knew about the infraction, they pretty much got away with it—and actually became something of underground heros in the group. The peer group rules wouldn’t allow anyone to tell about the infraction so we would all attend Sunday School and worship pretty much knowing that Mike wasn’t actually suffering from a cold coming on–he was a bit hung-over.
This secrecy would continue until the good Christian was caught breaking the rules by someone important, like another church member or a deacon or the church gossip or, heaven forbid, the minister. Then, well, the phrase “all hell broke loose” was coined just for times like that. The newly discovered sinner would be the talk of the church and town. Their infraction, as well as suggested and real punishments would be the topic of conversation everywhere, including the local barber shop, where the barber was a member of our church.
And the rest of us good Christians, who knew about the infraction before it was discovered, including those in the peer group who were equally guilty but undiscovered? Well, we picked up stones and heaved them as accurately and as powerfully as anyone else. As we stoned the offender, we also prayed. We joined the rest of the church in praying for the soul of the offender and we also prayed with even more fervor that the offender would remember the rules of silence that controlled the peer group.
As I have reflected on all that, I realize that our group, like all groups, actually had another rule, one that nobody ever actually articulated but which was nonetheless as powerful as all the other rules. This unspoken rule was simple: “Don’t get caught!”. In many ways, getting caught was a more serious infraction than breaking all the others at the same time. Getting caught was not just a sign that you were a sinner but even more significantly, you weren’t all that bright a sinner. Getting caught jeopardized the whole elaborate hypocritical structure that allowed the rest of us to indulge in rule breaking while still getting to keep our saintliness intact. Someone getting caught exposed the reality we didn’t want to have exposed and so we needed to attack mercilessly just to protect ourselves—how could someone who threw so many stones so hard and so accurately be guilty of such a sin?
In our current cultural environment, I see a lot of my past. Wrongs are being exposed—and that is a good thing. Much evil has been done and much hurt has resulted and it all needs to be dealt with in an open, therapeutic and cleansing manner. But at the same time, those of us who haven’t been caught need to be wise. We might not have done what is currently being revealed but since none of us is perfect, maybe we should use fewer stones and more mercy when someone is caught.
May the peace of God be with you.