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"I Am" by Skylar Camp

My Kindergarten teacher was sick. I wasn’t sure what she had, but she couldn’t teach us anymore, and a new substitute came to take her place. Mrs. Andrews was my classmate Holly’s mom. I didn’t like Holly very much because she pulled her skirt up to pick wedgies when we walked in line in the hallways. I always had to see it because Camp is only a couple of letters past Andrews, so I was close to her in line.

Even though I didn’t really like Holly, I felt bad for her. Mrs. Andrews was mean. She was especially mean to Holly. She used to take her in the hallway and paddle her with a ruler. In our very small, private Christian school, corporal punishment was still allowed. It was rare, but we heard rumors about kids getting sent to the principal/pastor to be paddled. I was glad that Mrs. Andrews wasn’t my mom, and I hoped I’d never make her angry enough to get sent to the principal.

Part of our curriculum was Bible class. In Kindergarten, that just meant learning Bible stories and memorizing simple Bible verses.

We sat at our desks and chatted and giggled while Mrs. Andrews looked for her textbook. “NO TALKING,” she yelled over us. I tried to remember to keep my legs down, feet on the ground. I usually sat with my legs bent and twisted into unnatural positions.

Mrs. Andrews stood in front of the class, imposing and angry looking. Everyone got quiet. “Today, we’re going to talk about how God used Moses to lead his people out of Egypt.”

She told us how, long ago, the Egyptians enslaved the Israelite people. The Israelites became too numerous, and Pharaoh ordered the baby boys to be drowned. Moses’ mother saved him by putting him in a basket and sending him down the river. Pharaoh's daughter found him and raised Moses as royalty. He grew up, and one day, he saw an Egyptian soldier beating an Israelite. He killed the soldier and fled from Egypt. He found refuge in the desert and became a shepherd. One day, he found a burning bush. The Israelite God was speaking to him through it.

I wondered if God would ever speak to me like that. My teacher said he would; we just had to listen. I thought I must be listening wrong, because I couldn’t seem to hear anything, no matter what I did.

Moses was known to be a quiet and shy man. Shepherding was a sensible career choice. He must have been shocked to find a burning bush on a random mountain while he was out with his sheep. “MOSES,” the bush said. “It’s me, the God of your fathers. Take off your sandals, for you’re standing on holy ground.” Moses did as he was told.

“I’ve noticed that Israelites aren’t very happy being slaves. I want to free them and give them the land of milk and honey (where other people already live, but it’s fine, we’ll deal with that later). Now, go. I’m sending you to free them from Pharaoh.”

“Why me?” Moses said. “Why would anyone listen to me?” He had a point. He was a disgraced former royal who fled Egypt after he murdered someone, now a shepherd with crippling social anxiety. “Who am I supposed to tell them sent me?”

“Tell them that I AM WHO I AM sent you,” God said.

It didn’t matter that Moses didn’t want to do it. All that mattered was what God wanted.

Moses, defeated, agreed to go.

The great I AM had bullied Moses into obedience.

“Oh, one more thing,” said God. “I’m going to harden Pharaoh's heart. He’ll definitely say no when you ask. But then I’m going to do a bunch of cool shit to convince the people that I’m really powerful and they should fear me.”

So Moses went back to Egypt. He told Pharaoh to let the Israelites go. God hardened Pharaoh's heart, and Pharaoh said no. The Bible says, “There was not a house without someone dead.”

It stands to reason that if God had the ability to harden Pharaoh’s heart, he also had the ability to soften it. He could've done that---softened Pharaoh’s heart, released the enslaved people, helped everyone be happy and free. Instead, God decided to inflict incalculable suffering and death upon innocent people. The average Egyptian person would’ve had no influence over Pharaoh’s decisions. Still, they suffered. God tortured and killed people so he could prove a point. “That you may tell your children and grandchildren how I dealt harshly with the Egyptians and how I performed my signs among them, and that you may know that I am the Lord.”

God was a fucking dick.

The Prince of Egypt, an animated cinematic masterpiece, tells the story of Moses and his mission from God. It was released in 1998 with a stellar cast. The music was composed by Hans Zimmer. It won twelve Oscars.

Evangelical Christians in America were greedy for any opportunity to legitimize ourselves in American pop culture, any chance to make ourselves more attractive to nonbelievers. We were thrilled to have mainstream media take an interest in a Bible story, thrilled that such artistic talent was put into a tale we claimed as our own.

I was eight years old when The Prince of Egypt came out. My family was deeply Conservative Evangelical Christian, with all the beliefs that went along with that. We were opposed to “things of the world.” We were against abortion, against sex outside of marriage, against gay marriage, against divorce, against anything other than the “traditional family.” We went to church and wore purity rings and sang songs about being soldiers for the Lord and scorned the “liberal media.” We were racist, sexist, bigoted, Good American Christians. And we loved that everyone could watch one of our stories in movie theaters. We wanted everyone to know how powerful our God was and what kind of punishment he was capable of bringing down on those who opposed him---those who weren’t like us.

To us, the story of Moses was inspiring. God called Moses to a task that Moses didn’t want to do. He didn’t think he was equipped for it. But God gave him the strength to do it, gave him courage, gave him supporters to help. God could do the same for us! “God will never give you more than you can handle,” we were told. “God equips the called! Just trust him!”

Really, God manipulated Moses and bullied him into this quest, made him feel like he had no choice. He begged God to choose someone else. His consent didn’t matter to God. His boundaries didn’t matter to God. God says and we do; end of story. We don’t get to say no. If we do, we face his wrath.

“Please send someone else,” Moses said.

“I AM WHO I AM,” God said. “Go.”

And Moses did.

God spoke to Moses directly and told him exactly what to do with his life. I’d been listening for years, but I still didn’t know what he expected from me. I agonized over it. In my senior year of high school, I had chest pain from the anxiety of it. I thought I was dying. I had an EKG done and wore monitors for a day.

“The results are normal,” the doctor told me. She gathered her things to leave the exam room.

“So… is it stress, or..?” I asked

She seemed annoyed. “Yeah, it’s probably just stress,”

And that was that.

I didn’t know what I was supposed to do after high school graduation, but I did know that God had called me to be a wife, to support my future husband in whatever he did. When I was fifteen, I decided not to date—to save myself for my future husband, physically and emotionally. That meant no sex, no kissing, and doing my best not to get crushes on boys I didn’t think I would marry. My youth group leaders compared me to a piece of tape: sticky when it’s unused, but every time it gets stuck on something–or someone–it loses a little stickiness. Eventually, it’s useless trash. I didn’t want to be useless trash.

Midway through my senior year, I finally started a relationship with a boy who I believed was supposed to be my husband. We were both Christians and we had similarly passionate personalities. He wanted to be a Republican campaign manager. I thought that seemed like a career that would benefit from a supportive wife. We became very serious very quickly.

We were together for almost four years before we got married. Our relationship was tumultuous. We often fought. We didn’t bring out the best in each other. He wasn’t always honest. Our families weren’t big fans of the relationship. We didn’t care. We loved each other. Besides, I’d given him so much of my heart. I’d told him I loved him. We’d gone further sexually than I thought we should have, and were hanging on to virginity by a thread. I couldn’t imagine ending the relationship and still being worthy of a good Christian marriage with another man.

So we got married. We finally got to have sex, and for three days, I was so happy. Then, on the fourth day, we had sex again, and he rolled over and wouldn’t speak to me. Days into our marriage and I was already getting the silent treatment. Things did not improve.

Marriage wasn’t supposed to make you happy; it was supposed to make you holy---advice I heard many times in my formative years, the years when I was learning what it meant to love and to be loved.

It’s not surprising that I married a man who was very God-like. But he was not God-like in the way that I’d hoped. He didn’t resemble the gentle Jesus as much as he did the angry, irrational, cruel God of Moses. And so my marriage did not make me happy, but I believed it would make me holy. I tried my best to be a good wife to this god of a husband. I had his babies, I supported his goals. I forgave him when he said he hated me, I forgave him when he called me a stupid bitch, I forgave him when he screamed at me, I forgave him when he ignored me, I forgave him when he pushed me, I forgave him when he was unpredictable and mean and terrifying.

God had given me this husband, I believed, and God would never give me more than I could handle. God would equip me to this calling, this marriage. God would make me holy enough to make it work.

I didn’t even think to ask if God could choose someone else. I couldn’t say no, not to this marriage, not to this man, not to God, the great I AM.

I was raised to be a good Christian soldier: in a battle with the world, fighting for God to help spread his love to the world. As a child, I didn’t realize the war had begun long before I was born, that religious and political leaders in the US made very deliberate moves to secure power and influence in the country. How could I have known? I was a kid who thought it was my responsibility to save the world from eternal torment in hell. I followed their rules; I voted for their candidates; I based my entire life on their principles.

But it was never about saving the world. It was about controlling the world, forcing people to adhere to our belief system whether they believed it or not. I shouldn’t have been surprised when Evangelicals unabashedly supported Trump in 2016, but I somehow was. He was the antithesis to the values I thought I was raised with. He was crass, cruel, obviously ignorant about the Bible and the Christian faith he claimed to possess. And yet they worshipped him. Because when it came down to it, they wanted power. They wanted to win. And they’d use anyone necessary to reach that goal.

I was getting really tired of feeling controlled.

Modern archeology tells us that the story of Moses likely never occurred. There isn’t evidence to support the idea that the Israelites were ever enslaved by the Egyptians. There were no signs and wonders, no horrific, miraculous plagues proving how powerful this God was.

I wish I could succinctly describe losing my faith. But it didn't happen in one defining incident. It was a series of small things: tiny cracks that grew bigger and bigger until one day I realized that the foundation I’d built my life on was totally useless to me. Life taught me that the Conservative Christian values I’d been raised to believe didn’t make sense outside of my own experience. I started to ask questions, and the answers I’d been given over the course of my life didn’t cut it anymore.

How could a God claim to give free will if he outright said that he purposely hardened Pharaoh’s heart? How could God be good while allowing so much suffering? How could God claim to be all-powerful if he let evil and Hell exist? Was he capable of eradicating it but chose not to do so? Otherwise, didn’t that imply the greater power of something else, some reality that God himself couldn’t control? Theologians have argued and explained these things for centuries. I’ve heard the apologetics. I knew how to witness to people who asked these questions. The thing is, I never really heard an answer that made sense. It came down to faith. But my faith was breaking.

Slowly, agonizingly, my whole faith fell apart. I simply didn’t believe anymore. And I got really tired of being hurt by people who claimed to love me.

So I left my bullies---my abusive ex-husband and my abusive God. Fucking dicks, both of them. Love doesn’t manipulate or make demands or make you feel like you aren’t enough.

“Pleeeeeeease. It’s for research.” I said.

I’d spent the last hour pouring over the story of Moses in Exodus. I had pages of notes, notes on how big of a dick God was and how weird it was that he had such strong opinions on yeast but seemed pretty unconcerned with human life. I really wanted to watch The Prince of Egypt.

My partner sighed. “Okay, I’ll watch it. But I’ll probably play a game while we do it.”

“That’s fine!” I was so ready to rip the movie apart.

We sat next to each other on the couch, him with his Switch, me prepared to take notes, legs twisted up under me. But I found myself too immersed in the story to care about notes. The cast, the music, the way they take a horrifying story of unspeakable cruelty and turn it into a film appropriate for children---it humanized the characters and felt truly inspiring. God seemed powerful, mighty, incredible.

Zipporah, Moses’ pagan wife, is the only character I ever thought was pretty in The Prince of Egypt. That adds up though. I’ve recently come out as bisexual. I’m also divorced, polyamorous, in relationships with three beautiful people who are kindness personified. I’m an angry feminist. I’m raising two kids who will never remember a church service. I am no longer a Christian. I am the opposite of everything I was raised to be. And yet, I still had to admit that the song “Through Heaven’s Eyes” is pretty damn catchy.

I rested my head on my partner's shoulder as I watched Moses lead his people out of Egypt. Pharaoh had finally relented after God killed his firstborn son. The Israelites sang a song of celebration, blissfully unaware that God would once again harden Pharaoh’s heart and make him chase after them. How horrible, that a God would play so unpredictably with people’s hearts. How could I have ever trusted that God with mine? How was it possible that I’d believed my heart was safe with God and my ex-husband?

My eyes closed slowly and I drifted to sleep on the shoulder of a man who has never once made me feel afraid or manipulated or bullied, who loves me in a way that doesn’t hurt.

“Come on, babe,” he said gently. “Let’s go to bed.”

I wish someone would have told eight-year-old me that Moses was just a character in a story. That it’s a cautionary tale of why it’s important to be kind, why we should respect boundaries, why we should stand up for ourselves. I wish that I knew it was okay to do what I wanted, to be who I am. That I’d learned to value happiness over holiness.

The God of my childhood was mean. The faith I used to hold was oppressive and cruel.

I no longer believe that God is real.

I am no longer holy. But I am safe, I am loved, I am at peace, I am happy. I am flesh and strength and sensuality and bravery and hope and humor and love and joy wrapped up in one person. My power is on display every day that I am alive.

Why was God allowed to say it, but not me? Fuck that.

I am who I am.

Skylar Camp lives in Columbus, Ohio, with her two young kids, her partner, and their fuzzy kitty. Her writing focuses on deconverting from Evangelical Christianity, divorce, polyamory, parenting, and

more. Her work appears in several anthologies, Bi Women Quarterly, and is forthcoming in The Viridian Door. She shares her thoughts on Instagram at @skylarcampwrites.

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