Guns and Religion : A Love Story
Mujer Non-Grata: An Ongoing Series on Life in a Cult, Healing from Religious Trauma Syndrome, and Navigating Life After Religion.
I had every intention of having this post be the first post of many finally digging into CSU's real rot: purity culture, complimentary theology, and the idolization of celibacy…
We were going to dig into vocation vampires, chalice chippers, and the lives of the most modest whores the world has ever seen - Catholic side-pieces! Things were going to get XXX in here. We were going to talk about that one time a woman's ankles drove a man to his grave...
But honestly y'all, I can’t. I just can't. Not this week. Not today.
I am so tired.
If any of you reading this are tired too, I am sending you a hug from here because this is all extremely overwhelming and we need community now more than ever.
Today, like so many days lately, I woke up with that heavy feeling in my chest—the same feeling I now can’t remember what it is like not to wake up with.
Sunday morning, while a congregation was praying and worshiping together at First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, 24-year-old terrorist Devin Patrick Kelly rushed into the church and, like too many angry white men before him, shot and killed 26 people, injuring even more. His youngest victim was 17-months-old.
This is so evil, I feel paralyzed by the entire thing. I struggle to understand how this happens now, day after day after day after day. The INFP in me despairs. The pacifists buckles. The woman in me weeps. The activist begins the same litany of resistance that she has performed for years and years and years. The millennial tweets and posts on social media in a angry and manic episode. The broken woman in me just hugs my three (#sorrrynotsorry) dogs and weeps.
But the reality is: this is already old news. A new news story will break today and we will deflect. We rationalize. We move on. We, as a society, refuse to understand the effects of toxic masculinity on every man, woman, and child it touches - and its every single one of us.
Remember the Vegas shooting? Charleston? Tamir Rice? Trayvon Martin? Sandy Hook?
Look how quickly we have moved from Weinstein, Cosby, and Spacey? The Catholic sex abuse scandals?
We always move on. One part is self-preservation. The other is normalization. The later at our peril.
And so I sit here, with this heaviness.
I sit here and I wonder, "How did we get here? How did this happen? Who are we?"
And I know those are broad questions. We could be we “Americans.” It could be we “humans.” It could be we “democrats” or “republicans.”
But I can’t help but bring it back to we “Christians." And for me, it will always be we "Catholics."
Full disclosure—I do not identify as a religious person anymore, but as the saying goes, “Once a Catholic, always a Catholic.” It's funny. I think hardcore orthodox Catholics think this phrase is a good thing. They take it as a badge of honor referring to Catholicism’s universality.
But it’s not. It’s a reminder that even after you leave Catholicism, you are haunted by your Catholic identity—the Catholic lens through which you originally saw the world. We are haunted by our repressed sexuality, our guilt complexes, our internalized biases and racism, our internalized misogyny...
I know I was. I still am. I will always be haunted. That is the whole reason I decided to start this series. I wanted to write about my time in the Catholic Student Union because I had severe trauma from my experiences and theology from my time with the Brotherhood of Hope and their community. I knew of others as well who were also struggling to redefine themselves in this world post-evangelical Catholicism cult. I thought maybe if I wrote about it, even in a sometimes snarky and at best mediocre way, I could work out the trauma that followed me like Pan's shadow and maybe even help some others who saw parallels in their own life and we could talk.
And so, almost a year ago, when I first started writing Mujer Non-Grata, after years of avoiding anything even remotely connected to CSU, I decided to take a look at the CSU website. I wanted to look up the mission statement and get a feel for whether or not the cult I had been a part of and was now planning to write about was still the same.
And it was. The page still had that early 2000's skin and the 2017 kids and brothers looked the same as they did when I was there: extremely white and tragically modest and sexually frustrated.
As I clicked through pages and pages, I saw that one of the seminarians from my time in CSU was now a priest at the Church. Some of the brothers that had been there when I was there had left, some had stayed. And then, as I mindlessly clicked and clicked, I stumbled on the page below, written by not one, but two Catholic brothers from the Brotherhood of Hope:
I don't know how to explain what I felt when I stumbled across the above page. Maybe it was years of watching the conservative right and the religious right act like they were one and the same, or it was the trauma of the ramifications of Trump's election and the normalization of white nationalism that had me on edge, maybe it was my own beliefs as a liberation theologian. Maybe it was the years of ordering Papa Johns pizza at CSU events because he was pro-life (insert 2017 irony here). But I lost it...
Unlike years before, when I would come across an old CSUer railing against trans women in bathrooms or a brother demeaning former students on lgbtq rights and the evils of birth-control (from what he would always refer to as a place of love), I just couldn't shove my fury into my very own religious trauma sunken place.
I (metaphorically) unleashed my fury. In a facebook post that tagged not only the Brotherhood of Hope, but the actual cathedral and the Tallahassee-Pensacola diocese, I wrote:
"I have questions. I have serious questions, actually. I stumbled across this page last night while doing research on the growing evangelicalization of the Catholic Church in the Deep South. As a former parishioner of St. Thomas More in Tallahassee and a former student at FSU, I am honestly baffled by nearly everything on the [above] page. I will attempt to break it down to explain why a page like this is inexcusable, especially at a time like this.
I will start with the low hanging fruit. This page begins with the sentence, "Don't be afraid to be known as a man of faith." This sentence is innocent enough, but it is situated alongside the accompanying text, next to a white young man holding a rifle, a religious brother by his side. So is this a picture of a man of faith? A man with a rifle? Is a gun now as synonymous with Catholicism as a rosary? And if I could go further - could we deconstruct the overly essentialized image of masculinity this post shares? "Their [the young men] focus for the weekend was recapturing their identity as men and gaining a vision of what the life of a Christian man should look like. Firing shotguns, eating meat, and doing vigils around an all night bonfire provided the backdrop for a weekend dedicated to showing these college men the adventure of a deep, personal relationship with Jesus Christ."
Wait, so to recapture the mythical "lost" male identity (similar to the war on Christmas we are all still looking for), these young men need to shoot guns and eat meat? I am not attacking hunting or even the second amendment (though, as Catholics who claim to be pro-life, there seems to be a disconnect in regards to which lives actually matter #PhilandroCastile). I also have no problem eating meat--you may be surprised to find out that some women also own guns and eat meat and have managed to not turn into men. Its a miracle, right?
What I take issue with is that the masculinity being alluded to is directly connected to the violence of the weapon itself. The implication is that men need to embrace their dangerous side to be men. Men need to remember that they are wild and a force to be reckoned with. Masculinity is being conflated here with force, violence, and aggression. That is an extremely dangerous theology to push upon anyone, but especially young adults who are still forming their worldview in one of the most polarizing and dangerous times in our history. It is also a theology that will have consequences for anyone in a relationship with these men--girlfriends, wives, children, strangers, coworkers, parishioners...
Towards the bottom of the page one of the students reflects that he "learned how to be closer to God, how to battle evil in our day-to-day lives, [and] about being adventurous and getting out of my comfort zone." So how do you battle the evil that plagues male lives today? My memories of my time in the diocese was that modesty was the balm for all attacks on my dignity as a woman. Is this simplistic message the one size fits all for your Catholic men? Or is it to teach them to not participate in rape culture and the denigration of women? Could you encourage your youth to be socially active in civil rights and environmental justice, as so many inspiring Catholics were in the 50s and 60s? Could you instill in them a sense of responsibility and accountability for the poor and disenfranchised?
I'll be honest. I don't know if you talked about these things at this retreat. I don't. But neither does anyone else reading that page. What we do know is that you titled your post "Guns and Religion" (telling how guns come first). And you finish with a quote that cannot and should not be taken lightly.
"Testimonies to encourage the men to embrace a life of courageous witness to Christ. Guns and Religion. It's about directing our masculine hearts to a worthy aim and never being afraid to pull the trigger."
What a powerful and Christ-like message for the future men of the Church. Never be afraid to pull the trigger. You are entitled to pull the trigger because you are a man--a man of God. This is exactly the type of message that has become so mainstream, no one from either of your organizations thought, "Hey, that is some heavily loaded imagery that probably has no place in our ministry," Its not about guns. Its about the message behind it--and that message is the antithesis of everything good about the Catholic Church and it is a sign of a ministry that has lost its way.
I can't even imagine what it must be like to be a person of color in this particular community, after these last violent and traumatizing years, seeing Christianity and guns lumped into one singular identity.
I will leave you with the names of just some of the people we all owe much more to. It's not about me. It is about them. I am purposefully picking the following two examples of devastating losses to gun violence because the shooters were motivated by toxic religious rhetoric and their need to fight "evil":
Cynthia Marie Graham Hurd
Ethel Lee Lance
Clementa C. Pickney
Stanley Almodovar III
Amanda L. Alvear
Oscar A. Aracena Montero
Rodolfo Ayala Ayala,
Antonio Davon Brown
Darryl Roman Burt II
Juan Chavez Martinez
Luis Daniel Conde
Cory James Connell
Tevin Eugene Crosby
Deonka Deidra Drayton
Simón Adrian Carrillo Fernández
Leroy Valentin Fernandez
Mercedez Marisol Flores
Peter Ommy Gonzalez Cruz
Juan Ramon Guerrero
Paul Terrell Henry
Miguel Angel Honorato
Javier Jorge Reyes
Jason Benjamin Josaphat
Eddie Jamoldroy Justice
Anthony Luis Laureano Disla
Christopher Andrew Leinonen
Alejandro Barrios Martinez
Brenda Marquez McCool
Gilberto R. Silva Menendez
Kimberly Jean Morris
Akyra Monet Murray
Luis Omar Ocasio Capo
Geraldo A. Ortiz Jimenez
Eric Ivan Ortiz-Rivera
Joel Rayon Paniagua
Jean Carlos Mendez Perez
Enrique L. Rios, Jr.
Jean Carlos Nieves Rodríguez
Xavier Emmanuel Serrano-Rosado
Christopher Joseph Sanfeliz,
Yilmary Rodríguez Solivan
Edward Sotomayor Jr.
Shane Evan Tomlinson,
Martin Benitez Torres
Jonathan A. Camuy Vega,
Juan Pablo Rivera Velázquez
Luis Sergio Vielma
Franky Jimmy DeJesus Velázquez,
Luis Daniel Wilson-Leon
Jerald Arthur Wright.
Do better. Demand more from the men you are asking to lead your flock. This is shameful."
And then I did that thing everyone tells you not to do when you are angry. I hit send.
And less than 24 hours later:
The page was wiped. It was gone (or as gone as a page can by, clearly). And for a second -- it felt like a victory. And in a way it was.
Not because I think CSU had suddenly come to its senses and understood its toxic masculinity problem or how strange it was for a Catholic order to participate in America's gun worshipping culture and white male supremacy issues. Their recent picture for a fundraising campaign highlights a diversity problem that is so ingrained in CSU and the Brotherhood theology they don't even see how their message could not and was not ever meant to reach POC (or women or anyone other than white cisgender straight male). This is not only reflected in their order, but in their students communities.
The win was the fact that my public denouncement was worrisome enough to require action to avoid scandal. And Catholics hate scandal. Look how far they have gone and continue to go to hide the rampant sex abuse issues within their own ranks, silencing victims for years and years. Fear of scandal alone was enough to have the Brothers take "Guns and Religion" back into the shadows. Trust me, it wasn't shame and what the post stood for. But in Catholicism, avoiding scandal is as important as knowing when to kneel and when to stand at mass.
Its chilling to think that if I was to update this post today, my list of victims would be so long I would eventually get tired of typing. I also wonder if I had had never stumbled across it, 307 mass shootings later, would it still be up? Would they still not see the disconnect, the callousness?
I've thought a lot about this exchange in the last couple months. A brother reached out shortly after the page was erased to say he was sensitive to my observations and had taken the page down. But sensitive to what? Me causing scandal? Me being, well, me? Or did he and the brothers actually have a conversation about what was wrong with their message?
Yesterday, before hearing the news about the Texas shooting, I saw a Facebook post from a former friend from CSU -- one who currently lives in one of the covenant communities I have talked about in previous posts. The post was her and her family on vacation, pictures of her very young children holding rifles at a shooting range front and center. This is a woman who lives and dies for the "pro-life" agenda. She is proudly a one issue voter. She has gone to Africa not to combat child hunger or abuse, but to hand out pamphlets and thermometers as alternatives to birth control. She is celebrated as a "warrior for life" within her community and wears that badge proudly and obnoxiously. And yet, her toddler holding a gun is not at odds with her beliefs? Her toddler cradling a weapon meant only to kill is not at odds with the gospel? Somehow, America's obsession with guns -- 300 million guns for a population of 325 million -- has now woven itself into the fabric of christian identity, including the Catholic identity. I wonder what Merton would think? What would DeMello think? What about Mother Theresa? The juxtaposition of her beautiful children cradling guns like rosaries honestly hardened my heart to hope yesterday. It shames me to say that, but I am honestly just struggling to see the light here and I want to be honest. This is all so dark and sinister.
The Roman Catholic Church and it's priests remain silent. Christian leaders are silent. And as long as they remain silent, the laity -- confusing their religion with patriotism (now nationalism ) -- will continue to defend the indefensible. And they will feel completely empowered to do so. They will not see the connection between their love of guns and white supremacy, misogyny, or racism.
It ALL connects.
It always has.
It always will.
But people like my former friend won't see that connection. They will talk about mental health (while voting against anything that would help
healthcare expansion). This is not a joke: they will connect mass shootings to reproductive rights and the gay agenda. They will blame immigrants. They will willfully ignore any and all the logical connections, unable to bear the weight of what accepting them would feel like and what that could lead to. They will wipe their hands clean of the blood of so many, put those blood stained hands together, and pretend that this is a problem they can pray away. Any sacrifice, even a 17-month-old child, is acceptable at the alter of the 2nd amendment and white male supremacy.
My head and heart are heavy today. They will be heavy tomorrow. I dread waking up lately because I know we are always two beats away from the next horrendous piece of news. Human carnage has become the human experience and I am just sitting here, wondering, "How many guns will make Americans feel safe? 400 million? 600 million? 10 per citizen?" I honestly wish someone would tell me how many guns would make anyone feel safe now? We pretty much have one for every man, woman, and child.
And then I think of the CSU gun page and realize this:
All it took was one gun to make Devin Patrick Kelly feel powerful.
The key here is power. It always will be.
It took exactly one gun for him to find and "act" on his lost "masculinity" after a domestic dispute.
And with the type of toxic masculinity espoused by the Brotherhood of Hope that has become the prevalent Evangelical American male identity, it was one gun too many.
I promise, next time on Mujer Non-Grata: the dangers of side-hugs. We will keep it light.