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?

About Stephen Parsons

Stephen is a retired Anglican priest living at present in Northumberland. He has taken a special interest in the issues around health and healing in the Church but also when the Church is a place of harm and abuse. He has published books on both these issues and is at present particularly interested in understanding the psychological aspects of leadership and follower-ship in the Church. He is always interested in making contact with others who are concerned with these issues.

11 thoughts on “Selling Fear

  1. There lies a deep unknown area of fear in the human psyche; as yet it is an uncharted universe. It has been described as an ‘ocean of complexity’.
    When we approach this discussion the sixty four thousand dollar question is this, “Who is going to be honest about this?”
    Speaking as someone who has known the depths of fear and horror in relation to ‘HELL, I note this, ‘Selling fear’ takes place when an individual opens the door of their body, mind and spirit to a trusted source.
    It is at this point that a figurative language can be used to tyrannise and control that individual. The servants and vehicles of this fear are themselves products of a conditioned environment. It is therefore hard to attach blame because; although intellectual enlightenment can help in this area, many carriers of this oppression are reasonably well educated.
    When I was at Bible –School, living in a flat outside the complex, I witnessed a young man (an orphan) stuck in this paralysis, he was attending a hyper- fundamentalist fellowship and he desperately wanted to be freed from this oppressive environment. He could do absolutely nothing to help himself. He truly believed that whatever was happening to him came from God! Years later I phoned him and nothing had changed.

    At that time there existed no counselling service to help him (1977).

    I must try not to follow Stephen’s first new blog so faithfully, however, I do so to try and shine a light on the flesh and blood victims.

    Let me end by saying that we are still very much in the infancy of this whole subject, and I pray that Justin Welby and other church hierarchies’ will seek a way forward to resolving this vexed and cruel practice.

  2. The fear of Hell is one of the things posters on various sites, “comment is free” for example, hold against us. God is a terrible being, he wants to condemn us for eternity just for being the way he made us in the first place. We really have to think more about the way we sound to others.
    Jehovah’s Witnesses do this thing of not allowing people outside the fence surrounding their community. They say that doctors are concealing the fact that the blood free method of operating is better. Doctors, they say, are saving this very expensive treatment for themselves, and that is why they don’t recommend it. You are not allowed to read books written by anyone outside the Witnesses. You can’t go into someone’s house and accept a cup of something. Something might be put in it. So they entrap their members.

  3. There is a real problem with the language surrounding hell. The Witnesses don’t believe in a literal hell, perhaps that is the reason they are so popular? I can’t see a way forward on this; the vast tangle of opinion seems to attract a thousand thoughts. You are so right to talk about unconditional love (In one of your previous posts); I remain drunk with fatigue and cant take the weight of these horrors of human hate.

  4. Readers may be interested in this official description of spiritual abuse written into my Anglican diocese’s new safeguarding policy.

    “As in the case of definitions of abuse for children and young people, we also need to be aware of forms of abuse that are perpetrated in the name of religion, faith or spirituality that do not find consistent understanding and application outside of the church/faith environment:
    Spiritual Abuse may occur when inappropriate expectations are imposed upon adults. It may involve conveying to them the dire consequences of sinfulness so causing them to accept what someone is preaching /teaching /saying through bullying and causing them to be fearful. To say “You won’t go the heaven if you get run over by a bus on your way home” is a form of bullying, exploitation of emotions, manipulation of young minds and a corruption of the Gospel message. ”

    This strikes me as a strong challenge to the kind of hellfire and fear theologies you criticise, and implies that those who genuinely believe it is kinder to warn people may have difficulty with this policy.

    1. Great news Haiku that the topic of our concerns is finally rising on to agenda of the hierarchy. On the rare occasions when I have tackled senior clerics on the topic, they look as though I am talking about something on another planet.
      A week last Saturday I went on a compulsory child protection session for ancient retireds like me. I did make one contribution which was to question the definition of ‘vulnerable adult’. I said that religion can make everyone vulnerable in particular situations bereavement, trauma etc. Why don’t we protect everyone from abusive behaviour, or at least talk about it? Needless to say my comment was off-piste so it was ignored. I note that it is children and young people that are being talked about, so even in your enlightened neck of the woods, they have some way to catch up with the concerns of the blog. But a start anyway. Welcome back haiku. We have missed you!

      1. hi Stephen. Actually I think it was a bit unclear the section that I posted, but actually it was in the adult section of the document, so I think it was more about “this can apply to children too” than ignoring adults.

        In light of your other concern, I’m glad to say that the document makes it clear that “vulnerable adult” is a tricky term, and that we have to be clear that everyone can be vulnerable in different ways at different times, the kind of examples you give. This is also helpful for some adults in not being so much hived off into some possibly stigmatising category.

        I haven’t gone away – I am at times one of those silent readers you mentioned elsewhere. At times I feel I have little to contribute; now and then I think of something.

        1. I am glad I am not the only one who thinks that ‘vulnerable adult’ is a slippery and possibly demeaning (stigmatising) term. I was told that the church has lifted its definition straight out of a government document. That explanation is not good enough but as long as we have to operate within a kind of ‘health and safety speak’ straight-jacket, then this kind of thinking will continue.

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