Leaving the strict confines of Conservative Laestadianism can be a shock.
A young woman who has abandoned her faith speaks of confusion at what happens next.
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I can remember exactly how I felt on that day. The weather was very beautiful in Helsinki. I walked on the sunny street with my head held high, and smiled at people walking by. I felt incomprehensible joy.
It was me walking there, and nobody else. I was 25 years old, and it was my issue and nobody else’s what I was doing with my life and what I was thinking. The powerful feeling of liberation came from something that was very small, but which had great symbolic significance for me. I was wearing makeup for the first time in my life.
The feeling came back to me when I saw Kielletty hedelmä (“Forbidden Fruit”), a film by Dome Karukoski, which tells about the departure of two young girls from the Conservative Laestadian movement.
My own departure lasted ten years.
I grew up in a Conservative Laestadian family in North Ostrobothnia (Finland). Our everyday lives did not actually differ much from those of our non-Laestadian neighbours, except that we had no television, we did not run our lawn mowers in Sunday, and on Sundays we attended services with the other Laestadians of the village.
At the services speakers read the Bible and interpreted it. The sermon usually took an hour. Then we sang hymns and Songs of Zion. After the singing we got refreshments.
The lectures repeated that the Kingdom of God is a good and safe place to be. The “Kingdom of God” is a term with which the Laestadian community calls itself. The outside world is corrupt and insecure. We were warned not to establish very close relations with “people of the world” because they might jeopardise our faith. Losing one’s faith was the worst thing that could happen, because then you would go to hell.
Contrary to what some other children said, I never took hell very seriously. However, I did feel that losing the faith would be very sad. On the other hand, there were many advantages to living as a person with faith, the biggest of which was that you got to go to heaven.
It was a good idea to preserve the faith by staying away from alcohol, dancing, movies, competitive sport, makeup, hair dye, sex, and so on. There was no official list of things that were not appropriate for a person of faith, but I gradually learned from what adults were saying what the things were that I was expected to stay away from.
Abstinence was not especially difficult, when there were many people around you living the same way. I did not actually refuse anything, I simply stayed far away from things that did not apply to me. In retrospect I thought that the Laestadians largely visualised their faith on the basis of what they do not do.
At school I would have liked to go to dance lessons, but the physical education teacher guided the Laestadian girls to go for a walk. I saw this as self-evident.
The third and most important way to protect the faith was not use one’s own sense of reason. We were told that reason can take our faith away. If one’s reason or experiences conflict with faith, one needed to become humble and to see the blessings of the common line of the congregation.
At about the age of 15 I noticed that I had started to think differently from what had been taught.
For instance, I began to wonder why Laestadians would go to heaven and others would go to hell. I also wondered why I should not enjoy the music of Aretha Franklin. It seemed unlikely that God would appreciate only the classics.
However, it was very important for me not to hurt the feelings of any other Laestadian with my views. It was emphasised at services that those who violate the unity of the congregation act against God. This is why I shared my thoughts with very few people.
I tried to clarify to myself what the Laestadian way of life was based on. Other practices, such as total abstinence from alcohol, had emerged in the late 19th century. Negative views toward television and popular music, for instance, had come up in the 1950s and 1960s. The linkage of these practices with God, faith, and morality began to feel inconceivable to me. I wanted to distinguish between cultural habits and faith.
For me, faith meant Christian thoughts of how a person can experience redemption through faith. I thought that I could be a Laestadian as long as I believed that. Even in sermons it was emphasised that a desire for faith was enough.
At the same time I was quite knowledgeable that on the practical level it was not possible to separate practice from faith. If I were to go to a service with makeup on, my friends would be shocked. The makeup would communicate to the others that I am no longer a Laestadian.
As I did not want to leave the Laestadian community, I committed to observing practices that I felt were without foundation.
I was headed for a great conflict.
No open discussion had been held within the movement about the true significance of cultural practices, and it is not happening even now. Privately, Laestadians have many opinions about lifestyles, but according to the public Laestadian line, things like not having a television is a “fruit of the spirit”, or a sign that a person is a believer of the right kind.
It was emphasised at services that it is not about rules, but rather the fact that a Laestadian wants to operate in a certain way. I recall how I preferred to speak about desires, rather than rules. I was pained to read newspaper articles about things that Laestadians “were not allowed to do”. The question was about what I wanted to do or to choose!
But whose desire was it really all about?
I was not asked what I wanted, or what I felt was important. For instance, the negative stance on birth control was taken in the late 1960s at a meeting of preachers, where only men were present.
I knew already at the age of 13 that I did not want to be the mother of a big family. It was not until I was over the age of 20 that I said out loud that I cannot stand the idea of a big family. My friends answered that “you can’t know in advance what it will be like”.
I was supposed to simply trust that God would give me exactly the right number of children, even if I did not use birth control.
I knew that my mind could not handle such an experiment. I simply did not want to become pregnant reluctantly. My thoughts did not find resonance, because they resounded with the voice of reason, not that of faith.
Some felt that faith is that people are encouraged to push their reason aside in big matters. For me rejecting reason would have been an abandonment of my own psyche.
I was not ready to bend at all in the birth control question, or to hide my opinions. The security of the Laestadian community began to turn into insecurity.
At the age of 25 I decided to leave the community. it was the most honest and most sustainable solution.
However, the most difficult days were still ahead. Leaving Laestadianism takes place by telling about it to one’s family and friends. I had the words of the father of my friend in my mind: “For one’s own child to leave the faith is worse than the child’s death.”
I could not cause such great sorrow to people close to me without going into a state of protective shock. Emotionally numb, I told my family and my friends: “I no longer have the faith.”
I will never forget those moments. I remember the expressions on the people’s faces, the silence, the first words.
My decision briefly shook the basic sense of security of people close to me. A few of them were also in shock.
It is a few years since the event, and I have good relations with my family. My decision nevertheless raises such deep emotions in my family that I cannot write about it under my own name. I also want to protect my family from the talk that the publication of this article will raise in the Laestadian community.
Leaving a religious movement is often described as a liberation from stressful rules. That is certainly the case to some degree. I was liberated from representing people other than myself. I was able to go to an Alko to buy a bottle of rum for a cake, and I didn’t have to explain to other Laestadians why I was doing it.
I was also able to think freely whether or not I believe in God, and if so, what kind of a God I believe in.
The film Kielletty hedelmä describes well how liberation is not merely a positive experience.
Instead of liberation I mainly experienced confusion. When nobody was defining my limits on my behalf, then where are those limits, and do they exist at all. This phase included some comical excesses.
I took full advantage of being able to have a different opinion about things. I might tell my colleague at work that her idea was “complete crap”. At times I would hurt people, and at other times amuse them by being rude and blunt.
In many situations I felt like an outsider. Maria, one of the main characters of Kielletty hedelmä, orders her first drink in a bar, saying “Two … something with alcohol in it”. The scene is as if it were straight from my life. I still have to concentrate in a bar to remember what kinds of drinks actually exist.
Maria, the more reckless of the girls in the film, is eager to break through the boundaries set up by Laestadianism (concerning alcohol, makeup, sex, dance) but finally, in the grip of great emotion, she wants to reform.
The more cautious Raakel observes Maria’s experiments from a distance. Raakel is like I am. Like Raakel, I first went through disengagement from Laestadianism in my mind. I lost my faith in the ways of thinking that maintained the boundaries.
I have many Laestadian friends who have thought the same thoughts that I did, but who do not want to leave the community. For some of them, the mystery of the faith is important, and for others, it is the sense of community. Some, for their part, say that they are there out of force of habit, or because they do not want to disappoint their parents. These are all understandable reasons.
I also know one person who claims to be part of the “leftist wing of Laestadianism”, women who define themselves as “Laestadian feminists”, and even one “Conservative Laestadian atheist”.
The subcultures are not seen in public. The old men who speak in the name of the revival movement, on the other hand, appear to be blissfully ignorant of the diversity that exists inside Laestadianism. For that reason, they can give statements leaning on sharp polarisations, and claim that the Laestadian community is a a unified group of people who think alike.
Kielletty hedelmä depicts the unravelling of a world picture focussing on duality. Maria urges Raakel to drink alcohol, saying “you have to understand what all of this is”.
When Raakel asks what it all is, Maria says “Nothing, Just ordinary!”
According to Conservative Laestadian doctrine, Maria has lost the ability to recognise what is sin.
Recognising the ordinary was a relief for me. The Laestadian world was not inherently good, and the rest of the world was not inherently evil. It was also not the case that the Laestadian world would have been insignificant, and that life outside would have been exciting to the point of intoxication.
There is just one world common to us all. Some things are good, and some things are bad. Most of them are somewhere in between.
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Author: Anna-Stina Nykänen, Helsingin Sanomat.
First published in Finnish; in print 22.3.2009. (Exceptionally, this article was published anonymously in Finnish.)
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Artikkeli julkaistiin alkuaan Helsingin Sanomien sunnuntainumerossa 22.3.2009, suomenkielisen tekstin löydät täältä