Monthly Archives: September 2014

Christianity ‘Lite’ 114

liteweb2There is a version of the Christian faith that in effect says this: ‘Do whatever you like. If you believe in Jesus and that he died for you, then all your sins are taken away.’ In essence there are Christians who believe that all we have to do is to believe and receive. The content of what we are expected to believe is carefully set out in a few sentences. It will always include a version of the typical conservative understanding of the death of Jesus alongside a belief that he is the Son of God. There will also be a statement to the effect that the Bible contains all the truth we need. The particular teaching on the meaning of Jesus’ death is, for evangelicals, non-negotiable. It is a teaching which is commonly described as the substitutionary understanding of the atonement. I have, in a previous post, discussed the content of this belief which is one that sets out how Christ’s death is one that releases us from the punishment that we have deserved.

I have in a few words set out the faith statement of countless conservative Christians across the world. I call this version of Christianity, a ‘lite’ one, insofar as it focuses on the believing side of faith while partially or sometimes completely ignoring the behaviour and ethical teachings of the Bible. Many conservative Christians would immediately defend themselves by saying that there is a great deal about ethics in their versions of the faith. In practice, however, there is a disproportionate amount of attention on issues around sex. Conservative teaching seems to focus extensively on particular aspects of sexual behaviour. We hear from conservative preachers a great deal about homosexuality but very little about divorce. Jesus actually spoke about the latter but said nothing about the former. One is begins to see how the ‘doing’ part of Jesus’ teaching is taking second place to a stress on believing in this presentation of the Christian faith.

From a book I am reading, I can mention a scandal that took place in 1993 at the Mississippi Bible College to illustrate the point I make about the relative unimportance of doing as opposed to believing. The president of the College, one Lewis Nobles, embezzled $3 million from his college and compounded his offence by spending $400,000 on the services of prostitutes. The reaction of many people around the community was to say, ‘But Dr Nobles is a good Christian man.’ They could not accept that his behaviour was thoroughly bad, un-Christian and was undermining the integrity of the faith he was supposed to confess. Somehow the fact that Dr Nobles had said he was a Christian, that he had accepted Jesus as his Lord and Saviour, trumped the disgust that many must have felt. Making allowances for other people, who are signed-up Christians, also appeared in the trial of Eric Rudolph who was involved in a fatal bombing of an abortion clinic. One woman said of him, ‘He is a Christian and I am a Christian. He dedicated his life to fighting abortion. Those are our values.’

In thinking about the implications of this bizarre statement, we may note that such a stand is supposedly based on an adherence to ‘Biblical values’ The anti-abortion position would no doubt appeal to the commandment not to kill. But there is a grotesque irony in the fact that not only that Rudolph himself killed someone, but he seems to have completely bypassed other moral teachings of Jesus. It would be tedious to list all the ways in which the gospel moral commands are being totally ignored by Rudolph but it is hard to see how the command to ‘love your enemies’ is being followed. No doubt Rudolph was receiving support from his fellow Christians for his behaviour and, in particular, the leaders of his church. They were in effect teaching that it was not important to follow the teaching of Jesus but more important to surrender to their highly politicised version of the faith. We might summarise their message ‘Do as we say; don’t do as Jesus says.’

The emphasis of being a ‘correct’ Christian rather than actually doing what Christians are called to be and to do in the New Testament reminds one of the game of Monopoly. Sometimes the player picks up a card which says ‘Get out of jail free’. This can be played whenever you happen to fall on the ‘go to jail’ square. This ‘believe and receive’ version of Christianity is a bit like having a permanent ability to escape the consequences of immorality and evil, regardless of what you do. The kind of Christianity, that emphasises belief along with little sense of responsibility for one’s actions, will also have other unfortunate results. It will do little to encourage the Christian believer to feel any responsibility for those beyond the congregation, the poor, the hungry or the unemployed. On other occasions I have mentioned how these attitudes translate into a political world view that defends low taxes for the rich and a rejection of public funding for healthcare. I am course here speaking about the situation in the United States.

Some of my readers may feel that I am presenting a version of Christianity, which does not really exist except in my imagination. I would ask such people why it is that some Christians have failed to applaud the work and vision of fellow Christians who have laboured to transform the lot of humanity through compassionate service in countries overseas. The readiness with which some Christian groups go to proselytise in areas of the world where the Church has been long established, on the grounds that the people of the area do not have the truth of Biblical Christianity is, to my mind, a disgrace. Surely the work of decades, even centuries to transform a culture and civilisation through Christian teaching and service is something that all should applaud. I am of course thinking of the work of Roman Catholics in South America in particular. Even if we do not agree with everything that this original group taught (and I don’t), can we not perhaps recognise God at work in this mammoth effort of service to humanity?

Post Traumatic Stress

Post-Traumatic-Stress-DisorderOne of the words that commonly came up, when people were describing at the Washington conference their experiences of having been in a cult environment in the past, was the word ‘trigger’. This word signifies an event in the present that evokes very powerfully something from the past that was highly unpleasant or traumatic. The individual, in experiencing a ‘trigger’, has a past event replayed in his mind in a way that is highly distressing. Triggering is a concept that is frequently used in the context of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. The disorder, normally shortened to its acronym PTSD, has been identified and described for some 35 years. Before it was included in the third edition of American Diagnostic Manual of mental disorders in 1980, it had existed as ‘severe shock’, ‘shell shock’ or ‘gross stress reaction’ . The new PTSD diagnosis was able to be used to describe the survivors of the Vietnam war and others affected by notorious disasters in the 80s and 90s. For us in the UK, the Lockerbie plane crash and the Dunblane shooting constituted the most memorable public traumatic events. In such incidents trauma spreads out in waves from those immediately affected to enfold those who are bystanders, members of the wider community, not to mention those who have the task of physically removing the traces of the horrors that have overtaken the communities. To some extent the horror of such events touches everyone in society.

Not everyone who witnesses terrible things or experiences goes on to develop PTSD. But among those who do, maybe through having to experience the endless loop of reliving the traumatic event, it is a highly distressing mental condition. It is in this context that the word ‘trigger’ comes to the fore. The event that sets off the trigger may be of little or no consequence but it powerfully reminds the sufferer of what he or she went through in the moment of trauma. The soldier who saw comrades blown up in war, may react violently to unexpected noise. The woman who has been raped may find that any form of touch makes her freeze and tense up. In both these situations the individual has been forced to experience again an event which had once completely overwhelmed the human capacity to process and assimilate what was happening. Something else that took place afterwards brought the original event to mind, had the power to set up a highly distressing reaction in the individual concerned. This trigger reaction is not only distressing and unpleasant but it is also mentally disabling. Normal functioning and living is put on hold for minutes, hours or even days at a time.

There is much more that could be said about PTSD, (Cindy has sent me details of an up-to-date online presentation The Body Keeps The Score by Bessel van der Kolk, MD) how it manifests itself and how it may be treated, but I want to move on to considering how traumatic stress affects those who have had abusive experiences in a church context. What might these experiences consist of? One whole area of traumatic experience might centre on the moment when an individual found themselves excluded or shunned. This, I have suggested, cuts deep into one’s experience of personhood and sense of self-worth. Although physical violence may not have been involved in the event, feelings of shame and intense abandonment may have been involved in the event. Another traumatic moment might be the shock of betrayal when there is a realisation that the Christian follower has invested years of loyal service to an organisation that is through and through corrupt and self-serving. What had been heard as the word of God was found to be the words of a dishonest and maybe greedy leader. Another area of church life, on which Chris may have something to say, is the constant exposure to guilt and shame. This is subsequently recognised to be part of a subtle and deliberate attempt to control the individual. Even after it has been so identified, the trauma of feeling constantly guilty has been so internalised that it cannot be easily shaken off. There are in fact numerous areas of awareness that are constantly drummed into member of extreme high-demand churches and groups, which continue to cause inner havoc long after the member has left. We might mention the habit of obedience without question so that independent thinking is almost impossible. Some of the particular experiences of belonging may not of themselves be trauma in the narrow sense, but they, taken together, can leave the ex-member with a mountain of baggage and traumas which affect him or her every bit as a survivor of Dunblane.

This thinking about the survivor of a cultic church and that of a disaster having areas of common experience, no doubt needs further working out. Perhaps in the earlier paragraphs I have focussed on a survivor of a disaster or trauma which has lasted perhaps only a few minutes or hours. The survivor of a trauma connected to a church or cult may be the survivor of a less intense experience, but one that has lasted for years or even decades. These two areas of experience do however seem to share the same effects in the way that past events constantly threaten to overwhelm into consciousness and disrupt and disturb the task of ordinary living. To quote one of the criteria for PSTD, ‘the disturbance must cause significant distress or impairment in social, occupational, or other areas functioning important to the person’. That anything to do with God could have such a terrible legacy in its wake, is a horrifying indictment of the way that Christianity is sometimes taught and practised in our world. Jesus came, not to bring distress and disturbance, but light, freedom and the fullness of life.

Selling Fear

ˇˇˇˇOne of the classic examples of preaching that has come down to us, is the terrifying 1741 sermon of Jonathan Edwards in America. He spoke in a sermon entitled ‘Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God’. ‘The wrath of God burns against them, their damnation does not slumber. The pit is prepared, the fire is made ready, the furnace is now hot, ready to receive them.’ Since Edwards’ time, many preachers have used similar techniques of rhetoric to quite literally terrify their congregants into a state of compliance and passivity.

The use of fear as a means of control within the church is a well-known tactic. Alongside terrifying the individual by the threat of eternal punishment, is also a teaching that sees the hand of God at work in natural disasters. To use an example from the States again, the airwaves and the internet were full of Christian Right pundits believing that they could discern God’s hand at work in Hurricane Katrina which devastated New Orleans in 2006. An anti-abortion activist, Steve Lefermine, declared: ‘In my belief, God judged New Orleans for the sin of shedding innocent blood through abortion.’ Pat Robertson famously saw the hand of God in the events of 9/11 as a punishment for homosexuality, abortion and feminism. Extremist Muslims also claimed to be able to see God at work killing Americans through Hurricane Katrina. ‘The Terrorist Katrina is One of the Soldiers of Allah’ declared Kuwaiti official, one Muhammad Mlaifi. Yet another Christian commentator, Michael Marcavage, declared that God had decided to wipe out New Orleans because of homosexuality.

I have no doubt that I could extract from other sources numerous other examples of preaching that declares God to be in total control of the unexpected disasters which are sent to respond to the sins of humankind, especially the ones that the preacher particularly disapproves of. There are various reactions to such statements that can be made. One is to see an absurdity in these claims and find them almost funny. They are, however, removed far from humour by the fact that some individuals who hear these interpretations presumably believe them to be true. That makes all such statements sinister and conducive to an alarming frightening understanding of the nature of God. Such a theology of fear needs to be confronted and named for what it is, a doctrine whose purpose is designed to threaten terror and keep control over others.

When a preacher uses terror tactics in his messages, two particular things are happening. His target is likely to be people not actually present in the building, people who are identified as enemies of faith, apostates, sinners and those who do not conform to the preacher’s ideals. So, in the first place, terror sermons are about shoring up boundaries with the outside world, helping those inside to feel safe and warning them from straying from the narrow path set by the church. In short the preacher wants to re-emphasise the boundary between us and them. In the second place the preacher is also creating a miasma of fear among his own people. Not only are they forbidden to look too much at the world outside, for fear of having their purity compromised, but they are also exhorted to cling tightly to the leadership of their pastor. He is the one who can protect them from the threat of disasters in this life and the possibility of everlasting damnation in the one to come. The God, who has designed everlasting torments for the wicked, is also behind the arbitrary events of history. His spokesman and representative in the church is the preacher and leader. His task is to declare the Word and Will of God to those in his charge. But as we can see, an important tool in maintaining his control and power is sometimes this weapon of fear.

Many people in the UK may well have never experienced the tools of fear-mongering used in their churches. It is true that all my examples comes from the States where the control of congregations through the weapon of fear is perhaps a more common feature of church life. But I would suggest that fear is used in churches quite frequently, even it is less obvious in this country. A place where there is constant reference to a God who punishes individuals horribly or who sends disasters to repay back-sliders is a setting which will always frighten people. The use of fear tactics, implied or actually uttered, will always be threat to people’s peace of mind and day to day equilibrium.

In speaking about ‘selling fear’ I am referring once again to a style of church life that, at best, is uncomfortable and, at worst, cruel and abusive. Even though in this country when it occurs, it normally remains at the uncomfortable end of the spectrum, I would challenge everyone to become sensitive to what I called the ‘miasma of fear’ that clouds the life of many churches in every part of the world. Most of the responsibility for lifting this cloud rests on the leaders. They should be challenged every time they use, directly or indirectly, fear tactics in their conduct of church life. One of the key biblical passages which can guide in this is the one that says. ‘There is no room for fear in love. Perfect love casts out fear’. To sow fear in any form within a congregation is a direct denial of the commandment to love. Is there any greater way that a church leader could fail in his or her responsibility to love and care for the sheep?

Exploiting the need to belong

belongingI am sure that somewhere among my posts are some observations on the need of every human being to belong to a human group. This theme has recently become of greater interest to me as I delve into the realm of social psychology and social rejection. My focus today is to suggest quite simply that some churches and abusive groups have exploited this need to belong in their followers. Having offered individuals a home to satisfy their belonging needs, particularly when they are young, the cultic group then is able to hold on to them for a considerable period through continuing to exploit these same belonging needs. The ability to move on from, or leave, the group when the individual perhaps starts to encounter abusive and exploitative behaviour from the leaders, is achieved only with great difficulty. It is because this member has become so thoroughly entwined with the group through the need to belong that separation is achieved only at the expense of knowing real trauma and distress.

The need to belong, as the social psychological textbooks tell us, goes back to the time in human evolution when survival depended on the ability of groups to gather food and defend themselves from rival bands who might be competing for the same food supplies. From a psychological point of view the human infant has to make secure bonds with a caring adult in order to physically survive. We call this bond ‘attachment’ and many books have been written to describe how this process works and how failures to obtain attachments can result in severe dysfunction in the emergence of the adult. The psychologist Winnicott beautifully sums up this idea of attachment when he said something to the effect that there is no such thing as a baby. There is only a baby in close emotional and physical proximity to the caring adult, usually the mother.

Many young people grow up with unfinished business with the family. No parent ever get things totally right in offering exactly the right amount of care that is needed by their off-spring. Some parents give too much and some too little in the way of parental care. Most children, thankfully, have sufficient ‘good-enough’ care for them to be able to move to adulthood without serious problems. But even if parents are near perfect in rearing their children, few young people do not experience pangs of worry and concern as to whether they can indeed go it alone in the journey towards maturity. The picture that comes to mind is the butterfly emerging from the chrysalis. For a few moments the butterfly, even though perfectly formed, has to dry itself in the sun so that its wings will function properly. So the young person may have several months of uncertainty as to whether he is a child or an adult. That time is one of uncertainty and vulnerability.

Every young person has to pass through the transition from being dependent on parental figures and peer groups to the independence of adulthood. This period of ‘wobble’ may happen at any time between the ages of 16 and 25. It is a bit like a car changing gear. It may be a smooth transition or we may hear the gears grinding horribly as they struggle to go at the new speed. But the need to affiliate or bond is strong and powerful right through the process. The object of dependency is constantly changing. In younger teenagers the need to belong is focussed on membership of gangs or strong peer groups. Many churches are important places for young people to gather in what is hopefully a healthy environment while they are exploring the loosening of parental and home ties on the way to a new adult identity. The cultic or high-demand church that appeals to the almost adult of 18+, is however working in a different way. They use the need to bond or belong as a way of drawing the young person deep into the group. This is done so that the individual will want to give away their financial and emotional soul for this reassurance of ‘belonging’ and being on a journey to salvation beyond the grave. The ‘conversion’ process, however it is done, will hook deeply into the psyche of the individual so that he/she feels an overwhelming sense of safety in the new package of belief and belonging that is being offered. The depth of conversion, is, in my thinking, proportionate to the degree of vulnerability being experienced by the young person as they are moving from one stage of their lives, that of dependence, to independence. The cultic institution, however, in practice stops that process from being completed. The young person swaps one sort of dependency, parents, peer groups etc., for another, that of depending on the cultic group and its leaders.

The model I am offering for the vulnerability of young people entering extreme churches or cultic groups, also explains why many find it so hard to leave. As long as they are in the group, their belonging needs are being satisfied in much the same way that a child ‘belongs’ to his or her parents. It is when they leave through expulsion or unhappiness that they discover that the growing up process, the movement to independence, has never been completed. They cannot, to use the butterfly analogy, fly on their own. The task of supporting such people who have recently left high demand groups and churches is hard precisely because the task of growing up has been left incomplete or short-circuited. The group has taken away something extremely precious from the former member. It has deprived that member of the context and setting in which to grow up and mature. By latching on to the common human need to belong, it has betrayed that member, for the time being, of the chance to escape the dependencies of youth for all the possibilities of mature adult living and awareness.

Ostracism – some reflections

ostracismWhile writing the piece on shunning for this blog, I experienced a degree of passion that made me realise that this area of suffering by ex-members of abusive churches needed more investigation. I started to do a word search in Amazon books to see what had been written on the subject. As might be expected I was directed to some novels describing the Amish experience where they have a special word ‘meidung’ to denote it. As shunning in a religious context is much wider than the Amish, I looked at other synonyms for the word. What came up was the word ‘ostracism’. This did produce a number of books but it appears, as far as I can determine, that no one has written a study on either shunning or ostracism in churches or cults. It is also intriguing to note that a new body of literature on the subject of ostracism has emerged over the past twenty years to look at the subject from a social psychological point of view. A book that I have ordered, looks at this same area of study but it uses the expression ‘social exclusion’ in its title. We tend to think of social exclusion as being the fate of people who through poverty, age or illness fall outside the usual networks of social support and thus become isolated. The book, however, seems to treat ‘social exclusion’ as a synonym for shunning and ostracism, i.e. a deliberate act on the part of groups or individuals towards others. The chapter headings in the book do not indicate that any of the scholars who are looking at the problem have considered the church as an area worth studying. So this may be a topic that I can give some further attention particular in my presentations to people interested the problem of cultic matters.

The book that I am now reading on ostracism has given me (and you the reader) a simple model from which to work. It suggests that ostracism, although operating at different levels of severity is a method through which to exclude and control individuals or groups of people. Most typically ostracism involves ignoring others, giving them the silent treatment and pretending that they do not exist. The most effective (and most cruel) forms of ostracism take place actually in their presence. Silence, not speaking, avoiding eye contact and speaking over them are all ways through which an individual can be made to feel utterly scorned. The book makes clear that the individual receiving this treatment, the target, is deeply wounded by this behaviour. It is far worse to be ignored than to be hit in the face because the human need to have their existence acknowledged is at least present when someone chooses to punch you.

I want now to list the four areas of human well-being that are undermined by ostracism according the book I am reading. There are, according to Kipling Williams, an Australian social psychologist, four areas of need that are important to every individual and each of these come under threat through being ostracised. They are respectively the need to belong, the need to have self-esteem, the need to have control over your life and the ability to make sense of life, to have a meaningful existence. Each of these human needs is undermined by the experience of being the object of ostracism. The picture that comes to my mind as I record these four human needs is that of a tent. The human individual, in order to function properly, has to have four guy ropes tethered to the ground for the tent to stand up properly. The ropes are connected to four tent pegs and these are symbols for these four fundamental areas of need. Ostracism effectively is an attempt by others to pull up the tent pegs, so that the tent collapses. In other word the ostraciser is effectively trying to make our fundamental sense of who we are collapse by this cruel and barbaric treatment.

I refrain, for reasons of space, from giving examples of ostracising behaviour because I am sure my readers have encountered it somewhere, whether in church or in another institution. But I want to mention the fact that being the giver of ostracism is also a fairly unhealthy experience for the individual. It may not become quite as bad as being ostracised but it is certainly harmful to well-being in a variety of ways. It hardly enhances a happiness or a sense of belonging if your leader instructs you to cut dead or ignore people that were until very recently your friends and part of the group. To put it mildly, shunning or ostracism is very bad news for both the target and the perpetrator. That it should ever be practiced in a religious organisation, let alone a Christian one, defies comprehension.

I concluded my review of shunning by asking whether anyone should every join an organisation which practised such horrible barbaric behaviour. I need hardly give an answer to this question but asking it helps to enable us to see how corrupted and evil certain Christian organisations have become. I certainly want to continue to study this question because, as I said before, it lies right at the heart of abusive Christian behaviour.

If you find your way to this blog post, you might want to watch the lecture I gave at the International Cultic studies Association in Stockholm in June 2015. Type in Stephen Parsons 2015 on the youtube search.

Islands – images of longing 109

island fantasyMy wife and I have recently returned from a few days away in Scotland. Our time away included a brief day trip to the islands of Orkney. I do not propose to inflict on my readers a geography lesson but rather reflect on the way that islands have a deep attraction for many people at quite a profound level. The island represents a place that is away from it all, a place of escape, a place of peace. How many people nurture the fantasy that, if they won the lottery, the thing that they would buy would be an island so that they could live out that fantasy of escape and retreat?

The urge to escape and find a place of peace and rest is something that is found in all religions. Many of us can hear the music of Mendelssohn and the words from Psalm 55 sung by a boy treble, ‘O for the wings of a dove, far away would I roam…’ Church appears to offer such a sanctuary and we could say that part of the attraction of church is that it remains a place that is unchanging in a changing world. To attend church is to retreat, to some extent, to somewhere safe.

To return to our picture of islands as the place of refuge from a world that makes many demands on us, the salient feature of the island is the fact that it surrounded by water. This surrounding water makes it difficult for anyone to land on our island. The owner of the island will make sure that he or she restricts the access so that it would be very unlikely that anyone would called unexpectedly. Thus the home that is built on the island would be a place of peace but also one of isolation. The very security of the boundaries would shut out the wider world. Just as the world outside finds it difficult to land on the island, so those on the island have to make some effort to maintain contact with those on the mainland.

I imagine that my reader may have already guessed that I am seeing the island to be like a cult-type church that has closed itself from contact with the wider world. The world outside this ‘island’ church is variously seen as apostate, heretical or generally hostile. The surrounding barrier of water is needed to protect those within from contamination and wrong ideas. The higher the barriers, the greater the expanse of water around our island, the more those on the island are thought to be kept safe. Their safety is however only possible at the expense of a loss of contact with all that lives beyond the island. The longer they remain in this ‘island’ church community, the more difficult they find it return to their old lives on the mainland. Let us suppose that the people in the ‘island’ church have had to learn to speak a new language to enter this community. How difficult it will be to return to speaking the language of the people they left behind years or decades before.

The rich owner of a small island paradise may revel in the isolation that his territory brings him. But there are few individuals who are able to stay for long periods of time without becoming imprisoned by this isolation from other human beings. The tight barriers are liable to become prison walls very quickly. In the same way the church with tight boundaries can quickly become a prison. The special ‘island’ language, the jargon that Christians often indulge in, is barely understood outside their circles. ‘Island’ churches are wonderful places to join but very hard to leave. The sense of disconnection from the mainland of ordinary human living is attractive but ultimately detrimental to our emotional and spiritual health.

Chris is often reminding us of the marginalised people in society and how such people feel little for a church that ignores them and their plight. If this complaint is a valid one against mainstream congregations who support food-banks and give generously to good causes, how much more valid is it against those churches that revel in their ‘island’ status and their success in keeping their members ‘pure’ from the contamination of the world. The ‘island’ cultic church has become doubly disconnected from people with real spiritual and social needs. It is so concerned with the issue of ‘saving’ individuals from what it sees as a wicked and corrupt world that it feels no responsibility of any kind towards those left behind. A few years ago I read some of the literature connected with beliefs about the Apocalypse among conservative Christians in America. It appeared that those who believed that they would be raptured, taken up into the air with Christ had absolutely no compassion towards the 98% of the human population who would not be saved but would by contrast meet a horrible and fiery end. There is something deeply pathological about such beliefs. There is a whole series of fictional books written by one Tim LaHaye, the Left Behind novels, to feed these bizarre and unwholesome notions.

The fantasy of living on an island whether literally, or metaphorically through your church, would make living the Christian life far from easy to achieve. Jesus spoke of his followers being those who feed the hungry, clothe the naked, care for the sick and visit the prisoners. I have had little experience of the last of these, but in my brief time as a part-time army padre, I always made it my business to call regularly on those locked up in the army barracks cells in Dreghorn, Edinburgh. My reflections on the stories the confined soldiers used to tell can be recalled on another day. But however we understand our response to these words of Jesus at the end of Matthew’s gospel, it is clear that it will involve, not our separation from the wider world, but our readiness to get our hands dirty at times, to go to places that we would rather not go. Whatever it involves, it does mean that we are not called to live on islands, however attractive they may be, but on the mainland where the rest of humanity lives.

Shunning – a barbaric practice

One of the ways in which religious and political groups keep control over their members is by erecting high barriers that distinguish the ‘in’ crowd from those outside. These barriers are not, of course, physical barriers but they act in just as an effective way. They show those inside an organisation, as well as those outside, where the boundaries lie. In extreme groups, the person inside will think little about those who are not part of the group because they are conditioned to look only inside for their social support, emotional needs and source of teaching and guidance. The people outside are in some sense ‘infidels’ or heathen. Either way they are not worthy of any attention or support.

Such boundaries are of course to be regretted when they undermine cohesion within a society. Multiculturalism, as we have suggested recently, does little to challenge what are effectively ghettos. But a greater evil can be seen when individuals are pushed out, for whatever reason, from the tightly knitted security of a religious group. In the process called ‘shunning’, an individual is expelled by all those who had, till then, been the source of social and emotional support. This is a cruel and barbaric practice and not infrequently leads to depression or even suicide. The more an individual had obtained his identity from being part of the group, the greater the sense of total desolation when he is cast out. Shunning, either as an implied threat to all members of a group or as an actual punishment, is something that a blog like this should name as utterly contemptible. It certainly should be outlawed in any group which identifies with Jesus, the man who did so much to welcome the ostracised and the shunned in Jewish society.

In my reflecting on the implications of shunning I have begun to see that it is much worse than an act of hate. When we hate someone, we are consumed by an intense dislike. However much we may dislike the individual we still recognise that he exists and will continue to exist. Shunning takes hatred to a different level. Within the act of shunning there is an implied pretending that he/she has somehow ceased to exist. The person concerned has become such a threat to the organisation, that we have to treat him as a non-person so that the equilibrium of the organisation be not disturbed. If he could be made to disappear, then that would be the best solution. The person who makes the decision to shun someone is probably not fussy as to how they should be made to disappear, even if actual murder is, inconveniently, not a practical option as far as the law of the land is concerned.

I hope that I am not exaggerating when I suggest that the act of shunning is form of psychological murder, the desire that someone should cease to exist. All feelings, all sympathy and the memory of former communication with them is to be withdrawn. This total turning the back on another human being is shocking and reprehensible. My studies on cultic-like churches have brought me face to face with the victims of shunning and the effect on them is far more torrid than if they had just incurred the hatred of an individual. In primitive cultures we see the effect of being hexed by the local witch-doctor. When someone actually dies after such a hexing curse, we speculate that the practitioner had somehow managed to destroy the invisible bonds that link an individual into their community, thus rendering them defenceless and their ‘soul’ totally vulnerable. Shunning is the equivalent in the West of being ‘hexed’, even if our Western culture and upbringing affords us a greater level of psychic defence than is found in primitive societies. We are of course dealing with approximations of what seems to be happening in these actions, but I hope my reader can at least follow my line of argument.

I have mentioned the experience of being shunned by individuals at Trinity Church, Brentwood. I am sure my readers have other experiences of this horror to add to this discussion. The crossing over the road to avoid speaking to someone, forbidding your children speaking to their children; all these are far more cruel than insulting them to their face. To tell someone by your actions that you would prefer it if they disappeared off the face of the earth is a pretty terrible thing. And yet this is the daily experience of tens of thousands of ex-members of religious groups of all kinds across the world. The group, in order to protect its purity, has to deny a voice, or even existence, to those who criticise it, or worse still decide to abandon its version of truth.

As a final comment, I would want to say to anyone who belongs to or considers joining a religious group, whether Christian or otherwise, how does the leadership deal with those who leave? Do they practice shunning? Do you really think that your spiritual welfare is going to be furthered if you get caught up with having to, along with everyone else, shun ex-members? Do you really want to be a person who practises ‘spiritual murder’? There is no other way to describe such a horrific denial of Jesus’ command to love our enemies. There is also no better way to destroy our integrity as human beings than by forcing us to become part of a baying mob who wants to psychologically murder or destroy someone for the ‘crime’ of having left our group.

If you find your way to this page, you might wish to watch my Youtube of my lecture given in Stockholm for the International Cultic Studies Association in June 2015. Type Stephen Parsons 2015 in youtube search


creatintyThe idea of creativity is one that has fascinated me for many years. It suggests that it is possible for an individual to make some something that is entirely new – something that has never existed before. Creativity may apply to musicians, artists or ordinary human beings. We recognise that an individual is a creator, when, out of the material of paint, clay, music or words , something comes forth, which is an object of wonder, something that has never been seen or even imagined before.
Before my reader gets the idea that creativity only belongs to the gifted and the talented part of the population, I should mention that all of us can be part of this process. Every time a relationship or friendship between two people is formed, there is the potential for it to become something beautiful and expressive of our creativity. The particular involvement in creativity that most of us enjoy is the joy of parenthood. Creativity is involved in the act of becoming parents and also the long demand made on our skills of nurture. There is nothing automatic about being a parent but the successful outcome to the process of rearing a child is a source of true pride, every bit as important at the completed statue or piece of music.

The thing that links every product of human creativity is the fact of its newness. What we have created has never existed before. But we had to cooperate with the act for it to happen. There was nothing inevitable about the act of creation. It demanded of us effort and hard work. We also recognise that it is an act where we express our freedom. We sense that if we had been under any external pressure, the desire to create would in some way have been suppressed. We contrast our acts of creativity with the other parts of our lives where we have to do things, either because other people require us to do them or because they form part of the need to make a living. The fortunate few in society are those who have occupations which allow them to express their creativity and earn a living at the same time. The rest of us have to express our creativity in our free time, in our family life or through our interests and hobbies.

This reflection on creativity brings me back to a verse in the Book of Revelation where the risen Christ states: ‘behold I make all things new’. This verse opens up a variety of potential meanings to the reader. Is he talking about the transformation of the present or is he referring to a change in what is going to happen in the future? As far as I am concerned, the lack of precision in any interpretation of this saying allows it to be one of the most exciting sayings in the entire New Testament. It suggests that Jesus is alongside all of us who are busy uncovering the creativity in our lives whether through art, music or relationships. He is involved with us in the constant newness of the process we call creativity. He not only sees it but encourages it in us. At the same time he is, we believe, involved in the work of newness and transformation of the lives of those who come close to him. We sense that a lifelong attachment to Christ brings us into a deeply creative relationship which is itself a gateway to constant newness, both in terms of what we experience and what we understand.

I have already hinted at a reason why this reflection on creativity links into a blog on Christian abuse. Coercion, compulsion and control are all things that destroy creativity in the same way that they have already destroyed the possibility of experiencing freedom. The loss of freedom is not just about institutions of slavery and the like, it can also be found in any situation where the possibility of newness and the unexpected is denied. There are of course many manifestations of Christianity where the new or the unexpected is seen to be subversive, because such things cannot be controlled. Even the suggestion that is a single interpretation of a passage of scripture removes the possibility of any creativity or freshness of approach. In Britain and the States there is a form of education for children known as ACE (Accelerated Christian education). This style of teaching enables unqualified parents to take their children through a conservative curriculum which requires the child to learn entirely through box-ticking. There is no possibility of having answers that have involved the child in developing the gifts of imagination or lateral thinking. Behind this method proposed by ACE is an entire philosophy that presupposes that the answers are always given. There is never any room for doubt, ambiguity or paradox. Newness is kept out the process of learning. In that world view, devoid of newness and creativity, I see a place which is sterile, lifeless and utterly without any excitement. It is a world that is completely without any attraction and I do not believe that Jesus wants us to go there. By contrast he is inviting us to travel with him to a world where all things are new, everything is in the process of being revealed. These are the things that, as the collect, puts it, pass our understanding.

O God who has prepared for them that love thee such good things as pass man’s understanding; pour into our hearts such love toward thee, that we, loving thee above all things, may obtain thy promises, which exceed all that we can desire.