“Bitter” is a negative buzzword in Christian culture: it’s holding on to anger and resentment, refusing to let it go. It’s the opposite of forgiveness.
In some circumstances, what some Christians call “bitterness” is actually trauma, depression, or anxiety. But good Christians aren’t supposed to be “bitter”; they’re supposed to reflect the joy they have in Christ, always.
If this sounds like an unhealthy, warped church environment, you’re right. I could dismiss it as fringe, if only I didn’t encounter it so often, both in study groups and on social media.
Using the word “bitter” to shut down conversation isn’t just being dismissive of others’ experiences; it’s a refusal to look at your own life and evaluate where you might have hurt someone, even unintentionally. Christians, and humans in general, don’t have the best track record for this. It’s easier to play the No True Scotsman card and dismiss the bad apples rather than take responsibility for them.
Having grown up Jewish, I’ve experienced my share of “You’re just bitter” accusations whenever I would bring up passages in the New Testament that have been used to hurt the Jewish community, or cause discord between Jews and Christians in some way. Mind you, I would bring up these verses to better understand how Christians reconcile them with Jesus’ command to love, not to condemn or criticize Christians in any way. I wanted to learn! But handling negativity in any capacity, whether it’s constructive criticism or bringing up Christianity’s turbulent history, is something many Christians need to work on.
Regarding racism and race relations, the inability to accept constructive criticism isn’t so much a Christian problem as it is a white person problem.
It cannot be ignored that Christians (not all, but many) championed slavery, segregation, and Jim Crow. The Christians who took picnic baskets to public lynchings are still alive today, many of them still unrepentant. They are Donald Trump’s fan base, and believe that if black people would just comply with the rules, they wouldn’t get killed by the police.
Many of them claim they “don’t see color” and “racism isn’t a skin problem, it’s a heart problem.”
A little “bitterness” is more than justified, I think.
One reason I don’t completely regret the money spent on a seminary degree I didn’t finish is that it allowed me, for the first time, to hear the experiences of black evangelicals. I was sitting in chapel once with a woman who told me about how she was routinely tone-policed in class by white men who thought she sounded angry when she talked. With tongue in cheek, she told them, “I’m not angry; I just talk like a black woman.”
Experiences like these revealed a culture of whiteness in the evangelical community — something I, a white woman, was completely oblivious to.
I write this post as thoughts from Austin Channing Brown’s new book, I’m Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness, swirl in my head — a book that is already being dismissed as “bitter” in Amazon reviews, when in fact she is pointing out some desperately needed truths to white Christians.
If there’s one lesson I took from Brown’s book, it’s this: white people (Christians in particular) don’t get brownie points for saying “I’m not racist!” Instead, they (and I include myself in this) ought to admit that while they may try hard not to be racist, odds are, they still have blind spots. We all do. And God help us, it’s our responsibility to own them. We can’t call out the “bitterness” in others’ hearts without first examining the biases in our own.