People are not broken

I was on vacation last week, so I didn’t blog until Friday.  I missed jumping on the train with the rest of the people who responded to Steve McCoy’s tweet about teaching our children they are “deeply broken.”  There are still ripples from that tweet, and at no point has Steve bothered to apologize for his tweet.  Instead, he’s chosen to troll Stephanie Drury on her Stuff Christian Culture Likes Facebook page, and he’s responded to the criticism (which has been vast) with defensiveness.  He’s claimed that what he meant was that he personally does teach children that they are loved, though still sinful.  The problem is, he tweeted something which had no context and wasn’t followed up with anything further.  Plus, you know, the fact that what he said is wrong in the first place.

People screw up, make mistakes, do terrible things, hurt each other, sin, whatever you want to call it.  We’re not perfect, and none of us can claim that we always do the right thing in every situation.  But we are not “broken.”  Objects can be broken, but humans cannot be.  The word broken implies a need to be fixed or changed or repurposed in some way.  It doesn’t make any sense to apply that to people.

Since that tweet and its fallout, I’ve seen many people talking about the shame they’ve felt because they were taught from a young age that there was something fundamentally flawed about them.  This is common in Reformed Christianity, though it appears in various forms in all sorts of denominations.  It’s based on the first premise of Calvinism, the doctrine of total depravity.  While I don’t actually agree with that particular theology (or Calvinism in general), I can see how it could be taught in a less threatening manner.  There is no excuse, on the other hand, for teaching anyone that they are “broken.”

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, because I’ve been doing some reading from autistic people.  And yes, I’m referring to autistic people rather than “people with autism,” because this is how many autistic people choose to identify.  The reason for doing so (in their words) is to emphasize that it is not something separate or external to their core as people–it is a vital part of their existence and make-up.  It is this specific thing which makes me angriest about the “deeply broken” tweet.

After reading this excellent post by Michael Scott Monje, Jr. about person-first language, I began thinking about my son’s ADHD.  There is only “person-first” language to describe him–he’s a boy with ADHD.  I wish there were a different way to describe it, though, because without his ADHD, my son would be an entirely different person; he wouldn’t be himself.  The urgency for such language increased after reading Steve McCoy’s tweet.

My son spent fourth grade in a classroom with a teacher who viewed him as, in a way, broken.  I’m not necessarily criticizing her; it’s a common perspective in educational settings.  I’m bringing it up because it’s the same thinking that leads to telling children they are broken in church settings.  It’s a view of people–particularly those who don’t fit some expectation of “normal”–that leads to shaming them and turning them into “others” with whom we’d rather not associate.

The problem with that is that we can easily rationalize poor treatment of anyone we see as “broken.”  When we teach children from a young age that they are broken, who they are at their core becomes irrelevant.  My son’s ADHD and my friends’ kids autism are part of their “brokenness” rather than being something of value that makes them uniquely themselves. Rather than helping them understand their own identity, the language of brokenness shames them into thinking that they require fixing.  Even for children who do fit into cultural and religious norms, these words are damaging and can lead to years of struggle to feel whole, particularly for those who develop physical or emotional challenges later on.

Instead of defending this terrible language, why aren’t people like Steve McCoy listening to those who have been deeply hurt by this teaching?  Why aren’t they apologizing for the use of abusive, triggering language?  And why in God’s name aren’t they urging us to have a view of our children that emphasizes their worth?

My son is not “broken.”  He is not flawed, damaged, or otherwise ruined.  These are not words he needs to hear, particularly as a child who does not fit with what’s expected.  My daughter also has some things about her that make her different from other girls her age, and she does not need to be told she’s “broken” either.  Failure to tell them that they are “deeply broken” will not lead to a belief that they are perfect and sinless.  That concept is not necessary; they already know that everyone messes up.  They are learning that who they are is not the same as what they do, and they are learning that there is a big difference between behavior some people don’t like and behavior that actively hurts someone else.

Instead of teaching our children that they are broken, I propose that we love them, cherish them, and teach them that they are precious, beautiful people.  Instead of raising them on the doctrine of total depravity, how about we simply correct behaviors that are hurtful and harmful?  How about we seek their forgiveness when we do the wrong things?  We don’t need to make children–or adults, for that matter–feel ashamed of who they are at their core; they will meet plenty of people willing to do that for them.  It’s our job to assure that they know how deeply loved they are.


34 thoughts on “People are not broken

  1. Beautifully said. In my opinion, the paradigm of “broken” and “depravity” feels familiar to people who have internalized self-hatred because of abuse, and churches with this approach reinforce that damage instead of helping to heal it. Have you read Andrew Solomon’s book “Far From the Tree”? His TED talk about it was amazing. I am planning to read it. What you said about autism, ADHD, etc. is very similar to his research about parents of children who would be considered “different”.

    • I haven’t read that book. I’ll have to check it out.

      “…the paradigm of “broken” and “depravity” feels familiar to people who have internalized self-hatred…” This. I didn’t hear that doctrine until I’d been a Christian for a few years, but when I did, it resonated because of the bullying I’d been through as a kid. It made sense that I was too broken to be loved by people. The problem was, I couldn’t wrap my head around being loved by God, either by that point.

  2. I remember in seminary one of the professors was teaching everyone that we were terrible sinners before we were even born. One of the men in the audience spoke out and interrupted and flatly disagreed with the speaker, saying that there was no way he should talk about his Downs Syndrome son that way. That was an eye-opening exchange. Great in theory until you apply it to real living people. Great post Amy!

    • That idea of sinful before birth has led to some incredibly destructive parenting methods based on the idea that we need to break our kids’ natural wills because babies are manipulative and cry to get what they want due to “sin nature.” Well, no, babies cry because they don’t have other ways to tell us that something hurts or feels wrong or is upsetting. And of course they like being held–so do lots of adults! Sheesh.

  3. Pingback: Steve McCoy’s broken babies born in sin

  4. Pingback: Steve McCoy’s broken babies born in sin - Your The Man Jesus

  5. Thanks for the post. I’m chewing on this issue from a semantics perspective, and I promise I’m not trolling, just thinking out loud. I work at our church where we just hanged out vision statement to “we are a community of broken people, who learn and live grace a truth”. I’m not a huge fan of vision statements, but I fought for the inclusion of the word broken. A contextual issue that we face (in my opinion) is people who view themselves as “decent Christians” and everyone else as “those people” (being anyone fighting a particular issue of sin/morality). So, the idea was to embrace that we are all far less than perfect, and its only when we are willing to own this “brokenness”, that we are able to not just love others, but also to begin the inner work that is left behind when we ignore out issues. Would the Pharisees have identified as broken people? Did their failure to do so create their legalism? I don’t know, but these are the questions I’m asking.

    Could be have chosen a better word that broken? Perhaps messy would have been better.

    I appreciate the perspective you bring of those who might struggle with, or be offended by the term broken. Ill have to give some thought to changing that.

    So. I’ve had cancer twice. And I continually sin. So I see myself as broken, not just from the “I do not do the things I want to do” perspective, but also from the “my body is jacked up” one. I need restoration on many levels. But, I think an important distinction for myself is that I’m not defeated, and I have great hope despite my issues. I have incredible value in the eyes of God no matter what my brokenness looks like.

    My usage of the work brokenness in our vision statement was to help with the idea that “We are only as sick as our secrets”.

    Sorry for the long post, my thumbs are going to fall off now. Any of that make sense? Push back is welcomed!

    • I suppose a big part of my problem is the way the word “broken” is used. I think I can understand your use of it, particularly since you’re referring to adults and people who have been through a lot. Where I particularly bristle at the use is with children. I’ve seen it used in all sorts of inappropriate ways, because in the context in which Steve McCoy uses it, it refers to Original Sin–not the things people have done or experienced or suffered in their lifetimes. It’s also been used to shame people the church just doesn’t like or approve of. It doesn’t come across well, even when simultaneously saying, “But I’m broken too!”

      I’m not a fan of word-policing, because I think it borders on tone-policing, but in this case, I think what’s needed is either clarification of the word or perhaps various words that are more specific. For example, sinful instead of broken, or in need of restoration (for illness/infirmity). Much gentler language is needed with children.

      • I agree that children need to be at the forefront of our discussion here locally. Shame is a terrible beast, and I see them hearing “messy” better than “broken”. I struggled with the word sinful, as I’ve seen it used in a much similar way as you have described the word broken. Word-policing is indeed anti-fun, but in regards to shame related issues, I think clear distinctions are essential. People who are still developing their shame filter have words arrive to their ears with all sorts of baggage. Come Lord Jesus.

        • I like “messy.” I think it covers a multitude of things, including relationships between people. Certainly a concept of “sin/sinfulness” can be part of that, but so can unintentional hurts as people work things out in community. Also, my kids DO know what “messy” means in all sorts of ways–from the state of their rooms to the complications of friendship. I think it’s a pretty good way for them to begin understanding that no one does the right thing all the time. Then, within the framework of messy, there’s all kinds of space for more descriptive language depending on the circumstances. Plus, the good part of that is, it’s something even non-religious people (or people really hurt by the church) can understand, because it can be used in a non-religious way. Wow, thanks for that.

  6. I just wanted to tell you thanks for posting this.. i have many friends with autism and Aspergers and have been harassed all there lives, i am a part of group of gay disabled people and i am going to share this with them because one of my closest friends has autism and has always thought he was broken… i know he will love this.!!!

    • I have friends and family who are gay, autistic, and both. I can’t imagine ever telling any of them they’re “broken,” nor can I imagine any of them saying it to me. I’m glad to have written something you want to share with your friend, and I hope that it helps him.

        • I am so glad it was meaningful for your friend. It’s sadly common that people grow up being told they’re not good enough in some way. It’s heartbreaking.

  7. Thank you thank you thank you. As someone who is close to someone who was sexually abused by her father, perpetuating the idea of brokenness is not good. She felt broken b/c of the abuse which of course in her child mind was her fault. Here she was a sinner and broken and any sex acts before marriage made her dirty did not serve her well.

    • While I didn’t specifically talk about those situations in this post, I also know people who have been in similar situations. Like the person close to you, many have lived their whole lives feeling the shame of being “broken.” It’s a word that has been used far too often to belittle people. We really need new language and a new way to talk about these things that doesn’t cause the long-term harm of “brokenness.”

  8. Wounded people, wound people.
    Loved people, love people.
    Hurt people, hurt people.
    Blessed people, bless people.

    There is a shattered humanity in the world, as people really do inflict pain upon others

    And there is also healing, by the power of the Spirit, flowing into humanity, an amazing drenching of goodness. Henri Nouwen talked about “wounded healers”

    So I do see brokenness, yet it is found when we scapegoat others. The victims are not the problem. It is the inflicting of pain for one who seeks to “get ahead”. That is the “sin,” the will to win at the cost of putting another down.

    I’m a little sleepy, but I hope you may receive this from my kind intention, even if I am failing you.

    • Absolutely. I think where I’m coming from is, like I said in a previous comment, the use of “broken” to refer to children–who have certainly experienced the broken aspects of the world, but who don’t need to be told that THEY are broken.

      And yes, I see your kind intention. :)

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