Bitterness: the new religious B-word

“Why are Jews still bitter about the Holocaust? It was over half a century ago; it’s time to move on.”

“You’d have a much better relationship with God if you got over your bitterness and forgave people already.”

grumpy-cat-definitely-did-not-make-100-millionBitterness: a much-feared word in Christian and Jewish circles. This word is used when a consensus is reached that no one should be angry anymore, but if one still has degrees of trauma, bouts of anger, PTSD, or anxiety, it’s clearly a spiritual issue. Worse, it’s a stubborn refusal to grow.

In my experience, “bitterness” is something that takes root in one’s heart when their feelings are patted down with platitudes: “Just pray harder, you’ll feel better.” Bitterness takes root in my heart when my feelings are not being taken seriously.

Need I say that this is incredibly invalidating? This process is called gaslighting, and though it’s not a uniquely fundamentalist problem, it is obscenely prevalent in fundamentalist Christian circles. But I don’t think Christians do this because they don’t care about people who are hurt; I think they do this because many are not well equipped to deal with anger in a healthy way.

I can’t help but think of Jesus furiously tipping those tables on which people exchanged money in the temple, and I can’t help but think, Now that is a Jewish response! That is how you deal with chutzpah! But who would accuse Jesus of being “bitter”? When moral codes were being violated, when underdogs were being mistreated, anger prompted Jesus to act accordingly. But try suggesting in bible study that flipping tables is an appropriate response to the question What Would Jesus Do? and see what happens.

There must be more than one way to “flip a table,” so to speak. Anger by itself is not good or bad. Harvested properly, it could even be a good thing – but how many of us know how to do that?

If I ever figure that one out, I’ll write my next book about it. For right now, the best I can offer is what doesn’t work:

Responding to accusations with accusations. “You’re being bitter”; “Well, you’re just stupid.” Calling someone “stupid” is obviously unproductive, but substituting “ignorant” isn’t very effective, either. That’s another conversation-stopping word that basically says, “You’re telling me I don’t know anything.” The last time I heard someone say Jews are bitter for not “getting over” the Holocaust, as if it were the same inconvenience as a downpour at a picnic, I wish I had said, “Yes, Jews are still bitter, because there is still genocide happening in the world, and there are still people choosing to look the other way. That does make me bitter. It should make everyone bitter.” The accusing person is not being put down, but is hopefully challenged to rethink their approach (obviously, “bitter” is too tame a word to describe completely justified fury over genocide, but if that’s the word being used, I say just work with it).

Revealing the story beneath the label. I am a Christian who is frequently tired of other Christians. I’m worn out when I am asked about the most effective ways to convert Jews, since I have an insider’s perspective. Most of all, I’m exhausted at having to explain the connection between my rape and my feminist identity. It was the rape, the humiliation, and excuses I accepted that made me realize how desperately the world needs this cause. I’m tired of having to explain that I am not a feminist because I want to usurp men, or otherwise don’t value them.

But, I have built bridges with Christians by explaining some of my abusive history – just enough to get my point across, since much of it is intensely personal. This approach yields greater understanding, even if we still end up agreeing to disagree, than flatly spitting, “Quit yapping about something you clearly know nothing about.”

Accepting when someone is simply not ready to talk. It does come across as bitter by forcing a conversation that’s not meant to be had at a particular moment. I have never heard of a successful conversion story, be it to a religion or some other ideology, which involved forcing a viewpoint down someone’s throat, ignoring clear signals that this is not the time. There may not ever be a right time. Save your energy for people who are truly invested in learning. Those are the ones will become your allies.

These suggestions aside, I still have unhealthy bitterness in my heart. I pray not to get rid of it, necessarily, but to mold it into something productive. Some of history’s most successful revolutions grew from bitter unrest about the way things are. Choking down artificial happiness only masks a problem, resulting in – surprise! – harder-to-penetrate bitterness that will inevitably destroy anything it touches. Bottom line: being fake has rarely solved anything, but authenticity has been proven to go a long way.

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6 thoughts on “Bitterness: the new religious B-word

  1. Crystal says:

    Another thing – sorry for being a little self-centered with the first comment.

    I have heard before that the Jews have been “bitter” over the Holocaust from both Christians and non-Christians and I find that position odious. Who would NOT be bitter over the pain caused by such an event? Why shouldn’t people remember these things? Are the Jews just supposed to forgive and forget, turn the other cheek, and allow it to happen again? Anyone who wants to tell Jews they are bitter really should take a tour of the death camps. I hope it would change their minds forever, because what happened to Jewish people was so disgusting, odious, and such a reprobate crime against nature that it is not something that people should say “don’t be bitter about”.

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  2. Crystal says:

    I struggle with this bitterness thing myself. I’ve had terrible things happen to me, and when I tried to explain my perspective or voice my pain, I was told “You are bitter.” I am tired of it. Tired of being told “to forgive means to forget” when others won’t do the same for me. Tired of people running from issues just because they hurt them, because they stated their view and that view is gospel no matter how much my feelings are undermined in the process.

    What is forgiveness, anyway? If someone could please explain the concept to me. Is there no way to refuse to hold a grudge without invalidating your pain?

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  3. jesuswithoutbaggage says:

    This is Pure Gold!…

    “I have never heard of a successful conversion story, be it to a religion or some other ideology, which involved forcing a viewpoint down someone’s throat, ignoring clear signals that this is not the time. There may not ever be a right time. Save your energy for people who are truly invested in learning. “

    Liked by 1 person

  4. @LatelaMary says:

    Beth, your post is on point. I am concerned that there are too many things pulling your attention from taking care of yourself. You do not have to explain Jewish-Christian experience to anyone. Most of us have enough challenge trying to figure out our own spiritual stuff. And church people are not often the ones who understand abuse… I would be careful about those with whom you choose to share this. Therapists specialize.
    You are welcome to communicate with me directly. mlatela@outlook.com
    (@LatelaMary)

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  5. TheUnmaskedAvenger says:

    Quoting from another blogger who had something to say on the subject: “Feeling bitter about a bad experience about anything does not invalidate or lesson the severity of the experience that caused the bitterness. In fact, it’s a part of the healing process.” We need bitterness and anger as much (if not more) than that Christian smile plastered on peoples faces that betray some emotional conflict hiding beneath the surface. We have to give ourselves permission to feel all of our emotions completely, but all too often the conservative churches only allow ‘happy’.

    I’m just tired of seeing ‘bitter’ as minimizing the root cause of the problem. When there’s something wrong in Christianity, minimizing it’s impact is often the first thing that happens. Whenever the ‘bitter’ card is played, it’s as if the thing that caused the bitterness has to be filtered as if it’s ‘not that bad’. The church often makes the mistake of declaring all bitterness to be unhealthy, but that is wrong. I think it takes someone with a certain amount of aged bitterness to be able to successfully minister to someone with fresh bitterness gnawing at them – so it’s necessary and can be a force for good so long as we keep it in check.

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