Note: Letter writer’s names are changed to protect their privacy.
Kate wrote a long letter, the first part of which I am summarizing:
She was born into a basically non-observant Catholic family. When she began dating her husband-to-be in high school, she was completely uninterested in religion, and he was nominally a Christian. They got along very well, but his parents are very heavily religious. (She did not specify the denomination.) She attended church with them so that they would accept her, and she was accepting and respecting of her husband’s level of involvement as a Christian. Four years ago they married when she was 18 and he 19. Since then, her husband began to lose interest in religion as well. We pick up the story in her own words at that point:
…He didn’t want to go to church or be around religious people. He didn’t even want to be around his own family because all they talk about is religion or what happened at church the other day. Eventually we stopped going to church all together. We tried and tried to appease his parents by doing what they wished but finally we couldn’t take it anymore. So when we stopped attending completely he was of course confronted by his father. After a big argument his parents finally stopped talking about it, and now it’s like an elephant in the room.
The problem we are facing though isn’t really with his parents. They just don’t talk about it and pretend that it never really happened. Other members of the church we once attended are becoming “concerned” about us and whether or not we will go to hell. Most of the people at church now think we are Satanists and are very bad people. We aren’t bad people nor are we Satanists. This is just a rumor about us and it is quite hurtful. I am just as moral as I ever was, and I still treat people as I always did. Religion is not a prerequisite for morality as they say. I have done many things for people at church and outside of church in order to help them regardless of my religious beliefs.
The problem is that one of the deacons from the church is coming to our house soon to talk to us about our beliefs. He is a very nice man and truly concerned but I don’t know how to handle his questions. How do I handle all of these people and their questions without causing upset or a huge family argument? How can I prove to my husband’s family that I didn’t change him and that he made his own decisions? What should I do?
It’s time to turn this around. I’m sure that as you say the Deacon is a very nice man, so you’re going to be like iron wrapped in velvet.
It is very important that you keep your manner courteous, civil, and businesslike. You will actually have more power and command during the discussion. Frequently take deep, slow breaths to keep your composure.
I don’t know who arranged the Deacon’s visit, but you should conduct this meeting as if you called on him. You should take complete charge of the meeting right at the start. Make sure that your in-laws are not at this meeting. It should be only you and your husband, with the Deacon by himself. If he shows up with others, you have every right to politely send the others away. You don’t have to give any reason other than that’s what you want. In other words, never allow anyone to gang up on you.
Don’t be intimidated. He has no authority over you. You’re free of all that. Take written notes of what he says. That shows him you’re really listening, and you’re going to hold him to his word. Remember that you don’t have to justify yourself to him or anyone else. You have the right to frankly ask him why he’s asking these questions before you even begin responding. If his questions are truly only out of concern for you and your husband, and are only from genuinely wanting to accurately understand you, then politely answer any of them with which you feel comfortable. Label any of his questions that you don’t like as not acceptable, and disregard them.
BUT in any of your answers, do not sound apologetic or contrite for the decisions you and your husband have made. You don’t have to sound hostile, but don’t sound ashamed either. Make it clear to him in very assertive terms that neither you nor your husband are bad people or Satanists. Don’t be embarrassed to say that you are moral, and to describe the good things you have done for your community. Say it matter-of-factly, not sounding like a boast or a defense. You’ve done nothing wrong, they have. Don’t be on the defensive.
You can be well-mannered while doing it, but you should put him on the defensive.
In a peaceful, relaxed voice, demand that he take decisive and thorough action to put a complete stop to the vicious and ridiculous rumors that have spread through his staff and congregation about you and your husband. Participating in a rumor without checking it out is nothing less than lying, so you’re glad he’s come so he can put an end to it.
Smoothly make it clear to him that such ignorant and cruel gossip is disgusting, and that you consider it his responsibility to clean up that filth in his flock. Tell him that tolerating such slanderous “false witness” is very hypocritical of his church and his religion, and it poisons both the spirit of his church and the rest of the community. It’s the kind of lunacy that not very long ago brought people to burn the old woman of the village as a witch. Ask him point-blank if he is willing to tolerate that kind of Dark Age superstition in his church, and if not, then exactly what is he going to do about it?
Insist that he tell the clergy and congregation that you and anyone else should have the complete right and freedom to join or to leave the church, and neither the clerics nor the churchgoers should ever, ever penalize anyone socially or any other way for deciding what is best for their own lives. That is one of the major reasons why people get fed up with churches, and reacting with more of it only drives them further away. He should give the assembly some stern sermons about not believing or spreading rumors and about not judging others, and in addition to that, he should give the staff training in challenging and stopping rumors.
Tell him that the most revealing test of how well a Christian has actually adopted the best teachings of Jesus is in how lovingly they treat people who are not part of their church, and who do not necessarily agree with their views. So far his flock is failing that test very badly. The fact that “nobody’s perfect” is not an excuse for them doing this, or an excuse for him to allow them to do this.
Do not allow yourself to be sucked into any debate about the existence of God. If he tries to start that, just say “I’m sorry, discussing that is a waste of our time. I’m concerned about this abuse from your followers in the here and now.” If he asks why don’t you believe, remember you don’t have to justify your lack of belief. In your mind, consider him a salesman who has failed to convince you to buy his product, because he doesn’t have his product to show you, and his sales pitch is full of holes. If you want to respond at all, just shrug your shoulders, and say that you’ve listened to many people for a long time, and no one has convinced you. Then move back to your demands for him to clean up his church’s act.
Assure him that while you’re sure he will do these things to be a better steward of the people he’s supposed to be guiding, you will be watching for the results. Let him finish his tea if he hasn’t already spilled it on himself, thank him for coming, and in the most courtly manner, send him on his way.
Now as for your in-laws, I suspect that they haven’t been quietly “ignoring the elephant in the room.” I suspect that they are at least part of the impetus behind this calumny. The first thing to do is to forget trying to avoid “causing an upset or a huge family argument.” You already had that, and it hasn’t really gone away. If they want to start another ruckus, make use of their door. If they start a quarrel at your house, show them how to use your door. Tell them that when they can act like adults instead of brats, you’ll talk again, maybe.
You should not have to “prove to your husband’s family that you didn’t change him and that he made his own decisions.” He should do that, and just like with the Deacon, he should make it clear in a polite but completely non-apologetic way.
Kate, I hope this helps you to feel more confident and assertive. Remember, you’ve done nothing wrong, they have. Memorize these basic rights of assertion that pertain to your situation:
You have the right to expect respect.
You have the right to act in your own best interest.
You have the right to defend yourself against abuse or aggression.
You have the right to make a request.
You have the right to turn down a request.
You have the right to think about any question before answering.
I wish you and your husband well. Let us know how it goes.