Monthly Archives: June 2015

Stockholm 2015

I am writing this post very laboriously with one finger at Stockhom airport as I want to assure followers of the blog that I am still alive!

Some follwers of the blog will know that I have been attending the annual conference of ICSA (International Cultic Studies Association) at Stockholm. It has been a kaleidoscope of conversations,talks and seminars with around 200 people from different parts of the world. The typical attendee (not me) is someone who has encoutered a high-demand group and is now in the process of recovery through training as a counsellor, organising political activity or writing. As a clergyman merely interested in the issue of extreme groups, I have been in a minority at the conference. I have become aware of how much suffering most of the people at the conference have had to go through before arriving at the therapeutic place of attending a conference of this kind.

One of the highlight moments of the formal part ofthe conference presentations was a seminar on forgiveness. Three women each spoke of their understanding of the meaning of fogiveness in the context of their individual stories of recovery. The atmosphere was,as you would imagine, taut with emotion and everyone in the room was full of tears by the end. That seminar perhaps typified what ICSA is all about, providing space for people to grieve and mourn the loss of time and relationships that their involvemnt in high demand groups had caused them. So many people were speaking about forced alienation from family members which escape from the extreme groups had caused them.

The other part the conference was the study side. This was where my own reflections came in. I was addressing the issue as to what social psychologists have recently had to say on the topic of shunning or ostracism. I was noting that the scholars had not really taken into account the extensive amount of material that cultic studies has revealed. My ‘section’was alongside the well-known cult expert Steve Hassan so my presentation was boosted by his ‘fans’. A video was made of the talk which may appear on his website. I will provide link if and when it appears.

As for the future I met up with a remarkable English couple Marc and Cora,both survivors of the Witnesses. They have an active ministry to the shunned of JWs and their work of producing Youtube videos enables them to contact people all over the world. Through them I have come to see that former Witnesses may find material on thig helpful to their recovery. I shall certainly be keeping in touch with them and their networks in the future. ICSA is meeting in impossibly hot Dallas in 2016.

I come away from Stockholm with a sense that my studying, writing and interest in the topics of this blog are still important and relevant to the Chritian church and the wider spiritual landscape for the timebeing. I shall be referring back to the topics of the conference as time goes by, particularly the main theme, the suffering of children in cults. The noisy crowded setting of airport does not make deep refection very easy.

Hope to get back to my normal rhythm quite soon. I also hope that my conference adventures might help to extend our readership a little more.

Immoral God?

prosperity-gospelThe title of this reflection is deliberately provocative but it raises an area of concern that should matter to all Christians. The question that I should have asked is not whether God is immoral but whether some of our beliefs about him, our theologies, make him seem immoral.

One of the areas of concern for many people, believers and agnostics, is whether we can talk about God being active in the affairs of our world. Does God cause thunder-storms, to use a crude example? More importantly if God intervenes directly in our lives, by stopping us walking into the road when a lorry rushes past, what do we say about people who are not so protected? Are the people who were killed in Glasgow a few months back by a rubbish collector truck, somehow not worthy of God’s attention. I also have in mind the recent story of the retired GP who leapt on to the railway track in an attempt to save a woman from a train. She survived while he was killed. If we claim to believe in an interventionist God, should not that heroism have been rewarded by God?

The claim to believe in a God who directly intervenes in the detail of our day to day lives raises many problems. And yet it is the staple of the way that many people think about God. It is also the backbone of particular strands of theology that exist among conservative Christians. The particular theology I have in mind at this point is the so called ‘Health and Wealth’ gospel. In brief, as I have explained in previous posts, this teaching tells Christians that it is God’s will that everyone should have wealth and also perfect health. Such teaching raises enormous problems both on a practical level but also in what it implies about the nature of God. Everyone knows that in order for anyone to be considered rich, someone else is going to have less. Wealth is never a fixed category. We use the expression ‘wealthy’ to describe those who have more than the typical resident of a particular society. The wealthy of a society in sub-Saharan Africa are nevertheless likely to be poor when compared to the ‘poor’ of developed countries like those of Western Europe. One particular chilling statistic tells us that the wealth of a country like the States, and the levels of consumption that it engenders, is such that the resources of our planet could not cope if everyone were to be able to live like this.

It is clear that whatever else God can be said to wish for our world, he cannot want the destruction of the planet by a massive increase of consumption of resources that a substantial rise in wealth across the world might involve. And yet Western Christians are apparently proud to take the ‘biblical’ promise of material wealth to countries across African and elsewhere. People are being urged to express their faith in God by giving of their modest resources to the church so that God can ‘bless’ them and pour on them the wealth that he means them to have. In fact the only benefactors of God’s ‘blessing’ are the preachers themselves. They feel it important to drive around in large cars and live in fabulous houses so that they represent the embodiment of God’s bounty. It somehow never occurs to the wealthy preachers that there is in this flamboyance, not a sign of God’s generosity, but an obscenity directed both against his will and the poor people who make these sacrifices of money.

The ‘Health and Wealth’ preaching is not just confined to Africa but is preached by the vast majority of religious broadcasters. I have mentioned in at least two previous posts the begging for money that occurs on God TV and broadcasting in Britain and around the world. I would not able to begin to name the range of Television channels in America dedicated to this kind of broadcasting.

In declaring that God does not want all of us to be wealthy in the style of Wendy on God TV or Jimmy Swaggart in the States, I am not preaching a form of socialism. Somewhere in the future, and it may not be very far off, we are going to discover that any more growth of consumption by the inhabitants of this world is likely to destroy the world. Resources like water, trees and energy need to be conserved carefully if the human race is to survive. Somehow against this background of the depletion of the world’s resources, the pursuit of individual wealth, whether by preachers or by their followers has an obscenity about it. The God of the Health and Wealth gospel seems to care nothing at all for the good of the wider population of the world, but focuses entirely on individuals, each of whom, through their increasing wealth, is doing more than most to consume a disproportionate part of the world resources.

The God of Health and Wealth preaching is an immoral God. He is thought to do the opposite to the God of the Magnificat by exalting the rich and sending the poor empty away. In talking about an immoral God I am not attacking him; rather I am challenging a particular fringe but powerful segment of Christianity to revisit the Bible and find there a God who stands for justice, care for others and concern for the whole of nature. As a Christian individual I feel uncomfortable at the high standard of living we enjoy in Britain. Giving money away may help this discomfort but it will never solve the problem of what in practical terms I and other Christians should be doing about the poverty of so many areas of the world and the inequalities that we see around us. I suspect that were I really wealthy, which I am not, my sense of dissonance in the face of poverty would be far greater. Small things, like being extremely reluctant to throw away food and attempting to recycle as much as possible, helps to relieve conscience but it does not solve the problem of being relatively wealthy in a world of poverty and pain.

Pilgrimage – a reflection

pilgrimageLast week-end my wife and I attended a family gathering down in Kent so that we could meet up with various relatives who live in the south. Some of them we have not seen for a long time, as we moved up to live in Scotland and the North of England some 12 years ago. One of the people I met again was a nephew in his 30s and he told me of his interest. He was, with a friend, walking the old pilgrim routes of England, singing traditional music, sleeping rough and generally trying to enter the experience, both physically and spiritually of the pilgrims of long ago. He was now acting as a consultant to help an interested group who want to put pilgrimage on the map for a new generation.

Pilgrimage is something that has always interested me but my interest has focused more on the early pilgrimages to the Holy Land. I have always been intrigued by the way the early Church’s liturgy, from the fourth century onwards, has been influenced by the accounts of pilgrims who went to the Holy Places in Jerusalem. They brought back not only details of the liturgies they observed taking place in Jerusalem, but they also made sketches of the lay-out of the buildings in which these liturgies took place. There are a number of church buildings in France from the 9th century which use the layout of the churches of the Holy Land as their inspiration. This copied architecture made possible a reproduction of the distinctive Holy Week liturgies that the pilgrims had seen on their journeys to the Holy Places.

After the conversation with William, my nephew, I began to reflect on the power of pilgrimage in the way that it encourages and fosters a distinctive spirituality. Various ideas had occurred to me in the course of our conversation and subsequently. I feel that some of these are worth sharing with my readers. One thing I particularly responded to was a comment by William that pilgrimage has a resonance with younger people. One of us made the point that being a pilgrim was something that one did for oneself and this was quite different from sitting passively in a church pew. Each and every person on a pilgrimage was putting in effort and time to make the experience real, something hard to avoid when you were walking 10 -15 miles in the course of each day. This physical effort was combined with focusing of attention towards the destination. The destination, whether it be a holy well, a collection of sacred bones or the setting of a significant event in the Christian history of the nation, gave the journey its particular structure. Whatever we might now think about relics and holy wells, it is still possible to enter, through our imaginations, into the hope and expectations of the early pilgrims and the way they looked forward to entering a numinous space. Each and every pilgrimage destination had been made holy or set apart by an association with a spirit-filled individual, a martyr or saint. It might also be a place where miracles had taken place. Whatever the reason for the holiness of the destination, the mediaeval pilgrim was going to be able to participate, even for a moment, in a movement out of the ordinary into a dimension touched by the transcendent. Whether through kissing a reliquary or drinking holy water, this was a moment when each pilgrim believed him/herself to be meeting the divine. What could be taken home was a sense that God cared for each and every individual. Pilgrimage, in other words, brought the transcendent down from the control of the priests to the level of the common person. Such experiences are still enjoyed today.

The actual experience of pilgrims, past or present, I feel, is also a metaphor for a different way of being a Christian. While on the physical journey to a holy place, the pilgrim will surely become sensitised to life in ways that are not part of everyday experience. The thought of the destination, while it might not inspire constant prayer, would lead a pilgrim to a level of meditation and reflective thought. The sort of questions that might be raised internally would be ones that concerned individual purpose, direction for life and decisions for the future. Idle chit-chat would seem less appropriate when the pilgrim was trying to take the whole process seriously. I would also expect the pilgrim to pay a great deal of attention to his/her surroundings. Something of the wonder and mystery of creation would inspire a new appreciation for beauty in the natural world. Finally the pilgrim would be open to the new encounters with people that he/she might meet on the road. There would be an openness to a new relationship, a readiness to give and receive of oneself to everyone who passes by.

The feature of pilgrimage that appeals to me, in particular, is the throwing off of the trappings of role and convention while on the road. In day to day lives, as we are aware, we are forced so often to fulfil the expectations of others, be a particular kind of person so that we can earn a living. On the road there is an enforced equality. No one is taking a position of teacher or leader. ‘We are pilgrims on a journey’ are the words of a well-known hymn. Would it not be wonderful if the freedoms glimpsed by the pilgrim could be something that our churches offered? So often the membership of a church feels like a straightjacket. We are not allowed to travel onward, discovering who we are and what might be our particular role as Christians. So often we are presented with a list of correct things to believe, correct things to do and the exact formula for our financial contribution. Instead of movement forward, there is a sense of being tied down to the pews. The congregation can make no contribution to what is said or taught in church. There is no opportunity for articulating a person’s unique insight and particular journey. It is as though no one’s voice is ever valued except the one who is authorised to preach. The ‘pilgrimage model’ of church life, on the other hand, would encapsulate the vision that the abilities and insights of every single person would have a role in the onward journey of the whole. I would love to see a large sign outside every church which reads ‘Pilgrims welcomed here’. Working out what this invitation will involve will take some unpacking but it would be an exploration that would be really exciting to be part of.

Theology and Violence

1359564497_muslim-riotsIn the Times today (Tuesday) there is a leader trying to respond to the news of two young men from Britain killed in Syria and Kenya respectively in the cause of radical Islam. The crux of the article appears at the end when the writer appeals to Muslim leaders to face up to ISIS recruiters with vigour, stating what is and what is not acceptable in Islam. The leader notes that only one national leader, Egypt’s President Sisi is calling for a ‘religious revolution’ to counter the ISIS ideology. This appeal is somewhat vitiated by the fact that thousands of suspected Islamists are being jailed by his regime, only to encourage the recruiting of thousands more to the extremist cause.

The issue for Muslims is ultimately a theological one. The question for every Muslim is to face up to what they believe about truth. Does their grasp of truth require them to battle against and kill other people who differ from them in the way that truth is expressed? Is the only way that devotion to a truth can be expressed to be through militancy? Of course we recognise that differences between Sunni and Shia have become over the centuries a tribal and nationalist division, but the battles between them are still articulated in a theological language. If there were another narrative available which did not stress the theological gap between Shia and Sunni, then no doubt a political compromise might be far easier to achieve in the nations of the Middle East. Instead we have the online hate preachers corrupting young minds with their endless propaganda. They will be talking about devotion to God and the costly sacrifice that is required of all true devotees. This kind of language will be heady stuff to a young, possibly unemployed, young man. He is being offered a focus for an otherwise chaotic life, something which will give it meaning and direction.

Christianity itself has not been free of the rhetoric of extremism and violence. The preaching that preceded the Crusades in the 11th century dwelt on the importance of regaining Christian lands and killing infidels in return for divine forgiveness. It also gave the younger sons of the nobility, those who would not inherit land from their families, a chance to make a fortune from the plunder that might come their way. Historians will tell us that people went on crusades for a multitude of motives, some possibly honourable, many not. Nevertheless whatever the true reasons, the official script was that Christianity was superior to all other religions and this ideological dominance over all its rivals needed to be expressed by military conquest. Both Crusaders and members of ISIS are bound together by a conviction that they are in possession of an ultimate religious truth. Because, in each case, their faith is the best and purest form of religion, their rivals must give way to this inbuilt superiority. The fanaticism of the beliefs of the ISIS is such that they have convinced themselves that they have the right to kill, not only infidels who are not Muslims but also their fellow Muslims who do not follow their particular interpretation of the Koran.

At the heart of fanaticism, whether Muslim or Christian, is a belief that the believer possess the truth because it is contained in a holy book. A book, through the fact that it has written content, appears to have an objectivity about it, making it superior to other ways of mediating religious truth. It is obvious that an experience, orally transmitted, will change over time. A written document, on the other hand, will not change and will thus seem to preserve a fixed meaning. Since the Reformation in West, many of us have got used to the idea that the words of Scripture do not in fact have a single interpretation and the proliferation of denominations and churches bear witness to this fact. But something of the mystique of words in a book, especially the Bible or the Koran, as having a supreme authority, has remained part of the thinking of many people today. This respect for a Holy Book is such, that, to this day, some people seem reluctant to read it for themselves but leave it to the pastor/minister/iman to read and interpret it for them.

Fundamentalism, whether in Islam or Christianity, maintains in each case a highly dependent relationship with a written text. With a devotion to words that was more understandable in an illiterate society, it maintains the fantasy that the written text is a gateway to an objective expression of truth. The particular version of truth within the book is so compelling that other people must be forced into agreement. In the case of Islam that force is sometimes expressed in cruel violence. In the case of Christians physical violence is not used because the traditions of our modern democratic societies would not tolerate anyone using force against another to further religious ends. When, however, you listen to extremist groups within Christianity talking about other people who disagree with them, you wonder how close to the surface are murderous and violent thoughts. Every time I hear Christians speaking about demonic possession existing in those they disagree with, I hear the language of violence. The whole obsession with the gay issue on the part of those who campaign against it has the marks of a crusade with all its negative and cruel connotations.

My final comment in this reflection about theology and violence is to suggest that we listen carefully to the rhetoric of Christians to identify the underlying violence in the language that is sometimes used. From the beginning, Christians, like Muslims, have shown themselves capable of being able to be inflamed to the point of violence in the defence of their vision of truth. Every time a Christian wants to trash and discredit another Christian for not agreeing with their vision of truth, they are committing violence. It may not be physical but the intemperate language of Ian Paisley or many other conservative preachers can also be seen to be violent. It has as its aim the destruction of other people and their words and ideas. As I said in my piece on ostracism, people can also be destroyed by silence every bit as effectively as by weapons. It is easy to trot out at this point Jesus’ injunction to love our enemies. But perhaps we should indeed spend time reflecting on this command. Above all, it should make us sensitive to the need never, never to regard people who think differently from ourselves as people to be attacked with words of violence. Difference never justifies violence of any kind.

A quote from Jonathan Sacks which concluded the Times leader: ‘We have little choice but to reexamine the theology that leads to violent conflict…’ That would apply to Christians as well as Muslims.

Books, words and power

booksThere is a story on the BBC website recently about a teacher in Italy, Cesare Cata, who set his pupils some unusual homework for the summer break. Among other things, they were instructed to ‘wander beside the sea in the morning’ and ‘dance shamelessly when the mood strikes’. It was not these unconventional instructions from a teacher that caught my attention but what he said about reading. His recommendations struck a chord with some of the issues around words that I have been talking about over the past months. He told the pupils to read widely and use all of the new terms they learned in the last year. His comment went on to say ‘the more things you can say, the more things you can think; and the more things you can think, the freer you are’.

I immediately warmed to this idea about the use of words. We have in this blog touched on the profound social disability and disempowerment that arises from illiteracy in our society. The number of words that are used in conversation is only a fraction of those used in writing, even by ordinary people. The writing of classical authors will use far more words again. To access these major classics one has to be able to recognise the rarer words that are in use. The reason why authors who win awards and recognition for their work have such a large vocabulary is a simple one. The more words you have at your disposal, the wider and deeper can be the way you express the huge of human experiences that are explored by great literature. Cesare was aware of this in his instructions to his pupils to read. He knew that the more that they understood, the greater would be their ability to understand what we summarise as the culture of the written word.

How does this all relate to our theme? It relates to our concerns because Christians are among those who sometimes reduce deep and complex matters to formulae and even slogans. I have had reason to question an expression like ‘giving your heart to Jesus’ because it sounds like a shorthand for an experience. There is no means of knowing from the words used whether the experience is a shallow one or something profound and life-changing. Those people, like myself, who don’t like the expression, want to find out from the person using it to discover what it, in fact, means. It is not always easy to discover what lies behind such formulaic language because it has become a slogan. A limited grasp of language may here have come to involve a inability to communicate. The culture that surrounded the individual when he/she converted has failed to provide the tools of language and expression through which to reflect on it and communicate to others.

I am one of those people who has been around long enough in the church to believe that charismatic and conversion experiences are sometimes real and transformative. People do also sometimes receive profound healing. For me the problem is that the whole culture of the charismatic is also imbued with tendency to use language and expression in a somewhat banal way so that the inner reality seldom communicates itself to people outside. Banal is also a good adjective to describe the lyrics of many ‘worship songs’. People who respect the power of language cannot easily enter a culture that they feel is using language in a superficial and shallow way. It is no coincidence that there are divisions in the church that are defined, in part, by class and educational background. A preference for the ‘traditional’ in terms of hymnody and biblical translation may reflect the educational background of the individual.

The power of language to free us to understand and express ourselves as well as communicate with the ‘greats’ of the past is well understood. The opposite is also true. A limited language is one which restricts our experience and our ability to understand cultures and people different from ourselves. The problem, that I am identifying, is that church communities sometimes want to push people into a small cultural space where communication among them is conducted with a desperately restricted vocabulary. The people in that space, because the words and concepts that are allowed to them is limited, cannot experience certain things that a wider tradition would afford to them. For someone like myself, with a reasonable theological education behind me, I am filled with a frustration at my inability to communicate what I understand of both Christian spirituality but also the entire Christian tradition. I can say the words, but the words may not connect with the strictly defined boundaries of language in the audience. This has been laid down by the culture they inhabit and the teachers within that culture. As a matter of record, I frequently use visual symbols or picture in my preaching to articulate what I think Jesus was on about in his teaching. But, I fear, that my avoidance of the many Christian slogans and expressions – words like salvation and substitutionary atonement – will alienate me from many Christian audiences. It is not that the words have no value or meaning; it is rather that they need to be understood with enormous care and removed from the category of slogan and cliché, which is the place they occupy in many preacher’s armouries.

To return to the efforts of Cesare in Italy. He is seeking to help his pupils to find freedom through a greater command of language and ideas. They would then be able to think more things and break out of the tramlines of other people’s restricted vocabulary and culture. They would glimpse the uplands of being their own people, rather than individuals who can only think thoughts dictated by others. The person I meet in the New Testament was also, in a different way, encouraging us to break out of boxes of convention and custom. The particular boxes were then the Jewish law and the restrictions that that law placed on everyone. Jesus encourages each of us to meet God and, in meeting him, meet ourselves in a new way. The ‘life in all its abundance’ that is to be ours, will come gradually apparent over a whole lifetime. It is not wrapped in a box, able to be opened after a moment of ‘conversion’. No, it is revealed gradually over time as experience and, yes, new words help us to identify through people and events the fullness that is God. Each person will travel the journey in their own way, but they will be the sort of people that will be open to receive assistance in making the journey in many ways. Let no one ever say to you, here you have arrived because you belong to this or that church. That will be a kind of prison every bit as limiting as only having a vocabulary of 2,000 words.

Why do people join cultic churches?

why do people join cultic churchesAs my readers will know I am a fairly regular reader and contributor to another blog about Trinity Church, Brentwood, I do this for various reasons. The first is that I am learning an enormous amount about the dynamics of this one particular church, past and present. I did once visit the church in the late 90s while researching my book, but the accounts of people, who have been involved recently, are fascinating. A second thing is that by making a blog comment from time to time, I am able to get a sounding board for some of my own ideas and insights. Some of my comments are also an attempt to reach out to the victims of this frightening cultic church, while other comments are aimed at encouraging the blog master, Nigel Davies.

In the past week I made a comment in response to someone who was describing the endless use of certain tell-tale words and phrases which have become commonplace in Trinity Church. There was one particular word that was mentioned, ‘tirelessly’. This was used to describe the efforts of the present senior pastor, Peter Linnecar. But it was also pointed out that the same word was used to describe the work of the former discredited leader, Michael Reid. I began my comment by saying how this kind of repetition of words was a form of sloganising. This suggested a lack of originality in the thinking of a church which practised it. Were I to be a member, I would find such a church, which repeated words like this, utterly boring and lacking any sense of vision for its future. I then went on to wonder out loud why people remained in churches that went in for this kind of sloganised thinking. I suggested that one reason was that they had invested so heavily into the church over the years, through their time and money, that they could not now leave it behind. All that now remained of their ‘investment’ were familiar faces on Sundays and, what I described as ‘jolly music’ provided by the choir. Leaving would be a final abandoning of their investment

I would not normally comment on my remarks on this other blog but it was the response to my comment that struck me. It came from a member of the church who has recently left and who had some pertinent things to say. He began his reply with these words: ‘ The other motivation (for being a member) is the drug of superiority, pride, arrogance and all that Trinity entices the flesh with, because by joining, or by staying, you can buy into aspiration, more status and instant acceptance or belonging.’ I realised instantly that this was a very helpful insight as to why people join not only a church like Peniel/Trinity but many other churches as well. I also realised that ‘superiority’ applies not just to a social reality that a church seems to promise, but it is also a theological category.

A person observing small children will notice how, from a very early age, the child develops a strong competitive spirit. Much of the time the competition with other children will be over fairly trivial things. Which child has the highest pile of bricks or whose is the better painting? There will also be competition to be the ‘favourite’ of the parent or the carer. All this competiveness will ultimately be about feeling superior. It is from a place of superiority that an individual feels safer because other children have to look up them as the winner, even if only for a brief time.

As part of growing up, most people discover that the value of cooperation over competition. But the competitive spirit never completely leaves people. You see it in the lining up of cars outside peoples’ homes. In buying a car that is bigger and grander than the others in the street, the competitive adult feels that he/she is gaining an edge over the neighbours. Looked at in a detached way, it seems as trivial and unhealthy as when a toddler fights to get on to the top of the climbing frame first so that he/she can taunt the ones who are left behind. Cooperation, on the other hand, delivers many advantages, but even when these are experienced, the need to win seems to be a very powerful urge for many, particularly the members of the male sex.

It is not surprising that churches that feed into the competitive addiction shown by so many, do well in the world. ‘Come to our church and you will mix with and associate with successful people. We guarantee that they will befriend you, thus making you a person of significance.’ That seems to the subliminal message picked up by the former member of Trinity, Brentwood. But it is not just a feature of churches of a conservative bent. I can imagine people being attracted to churches of all kinds which, because, when they do things well in some area or another, they help to exalt the status of those who attend. There is a process of osmosis. ‘Our church has the best choir’, or ‘our church is run by the best leader in the area’, or ‘we do the liturgy properly in our church’, might be the cry. It is hard to keep out a competitive spirit from the church, and in this respect conservative churches are no worse and no better than others.

The claim to exalt people socially on the part of this particular church, Trinity Brentwood, is not the only claim implicitly made. There is what I would describe as theological one upmanship. Although some of the churches I have belonged to have subtly played the ‘social card’, none have claimed superiority over the matter of truth. As I have said before, truth is something to which we aspire, not something we own. A typical claim of many conservative churches, like Trinity, is that they preach the ‘pure’ gospel, unlike any other church. If members of the congregation buy into such an arrogant claim, it is not surprising that they are doubly addicted to a desire to belong to that particular church. They believe themselves, not only to be part of an upwardly mobile social group, but also the owners, through their leader, of a unique access to God and his truth. This is an intoxicating as well as toxic combination. It is not hard to see, the other blog contributor does, how hard it is to let go of such claims. It needs a massive dose of humility to come down from the place of arrogant superiority to a more realistic place. Realism and humility are, in fact, both in short supply in many churches, not only the conservative variety.

I have now exceeded my word allowance, so I need to conclude with a final remark. Is not the cure for our addiction to feeling superior in our Christian life, a proper and thorough understanding of the word ‘repentance’? That word, when it is understood in the context of Mark’s gospel, enables a Christian to eschew artificial superiority of any kind and come humbly into the presence of God and be one who knows that we ‘have no power of ourselves to help ourselves.’

Ostracism and Church – further reflections

ostracism2The paper on ostracism I am proposing to give in a couple of weeks time is more or less completed. I thought my readers would not mind, at the risk of repetition, if I share some more of the insights I have gleaned from my reading. In my linking of ostracism, as newly defined by the social psychologists, to the cults and churches, I appear to treading a fairly new path. We have of course long known that the silent treatment has been freely dispensed by some churches to their ex-members. All kinds of passages from the New Testament have been milked to ‘prove’ that Christians in good standing in a congregation should not associate with former or non-members in any way. I am not going to examine these except to note that an obsession with purity and separateness does not seem to justify in any way the attempt to treat former members with what can be, in effect, pathological cruelty.

Social psychology has examined the concept of ostracism in great depth in the past 20 years and has attempted to show how another person confronting silence or studied ignoring is affected. The writer of a key book on the topic, Kipling Williams, set up various experiments to test his theories as to what happens to people when they are deliberately ignored. These simulated stagings of ostracism were of a relatively trivial nature. They involved, for example, getting people to play a game, passing a ball to one another, and then deliberately leaving someone out. Another experiment involved the use of the internet where a conversation within an online community consistently ignored a contribution coming from a particular individual. More serious examples of ostracism are reported, such as a cadet in a military academy being given the silent treatment over a number of years or marriages where one party refuses to speak to the other. It is out of these scenarios, experimental and anecdotal, that Williams creates his model for ostracism. It is this model that is at the heart of my paper. It is also one that fits poignantly with the experience of those who have been expelled from their Christian or cultic group.

Ostracism, according to Williams’ model, has as its intention the undermining of four fundamental human needs. Each of these needs contributes significantly to human flourishing. Because they are actually things everyone requires to function successfully as human beings, the attempt to destroy them can create massive unhappiness. This unhappiness can be so great that a person under this kind of attack might be tempted to surrender to despair or even suicide.

Williams’ four needs that are attacked by ostracism are a) belonging b) self esteem c) control and d) meaningful existence. In regard to the first, which is perhaps the most important, the ostracised person will feel rootless and ignored if all his/her belonging is taken away. Of course, we might think, such a person will immediately attempt to establish contact with other groups and find new ways of belonging. But the irony of this is that the group doing the ostracising had typically taught the individual that he/she was to cut off all contact with family and friends who do not belong to the group. Having made the individual totally dependent on the cultic group for their belonging needs, the same person is then ruthlessly cast away.

Self-esteem is the next need to be under attack. The silent treatment will have the effect of undermining an individual’s confidence and encourage him/her to think of themselves as being permanently in the wrong. Over a period the inner sense of self-value will plummet and the individual will lose all his/her confidence and morale.

The loss of control will happen, once again, because a silence, which is never-ending, will leave one with a sense that the barriers that exist with the ostracising group cannot be negotiated with or overcome. The individual will be left in deep sense of uncertainty, living in a kind of profound enveloping mist.

Finally the deliberate isolating of the former member by the group will be effectively a kind of social death. According to another sub- branch of social psychology, known as terror management theory, people need each other to fend off their fears of death. Without good human contact which gives a sense of meaning and a way of warding off primeval fear, people can easily sink into an abyss of heightened despair because they are being faced with their extinction.

In this abbreviation of a lot of material, it can be seen that ostracism, in whatever setting it is practised, can be a terrible weapon of coercion and terror. Without a word being spoken or rather because no word is spoken, terrible injury can be caused to people. As I stated in a previous blog post, the weapon is also terrifying as a threat. The person contemplating the possibility of being shunned or ostracised will live with this fear all the time. It is no hard thing to be controlled with this kind of threat hanging over you. In churches and cults that use this weapon, when in fact or as a threat, there will often a pathetic gratitude to the leader that they are still in ‘good standing’. The conditioning process works so well that the individual does not usually realise that they are living in a state of permanent fear. They have managed successfully to suppress the terror of possibly losing friends, family and everything that the cultic community offers to them. They have also managed to be unaware that they are being day by day controlled by an individual, who is their guru or leader. The fear of entering the hell of ostracism has effectively stopped them from a full awareness this control. It has also prevented them from growing up and maturing as either a human being or as a Christian.

I think I have said enough to communicate my profound horror at the existence of the weapon of ostracism being used or threatened within religious communities, especially Christian ones. What we are left with is the right of people to disagree with one another. We must celebrate, not conformity and mass opinions, but difference and disagreement. People must be allowed to argue and have different opinions without being made to feel any threat coming from those who think differently. Within my own Anglican church, the rhetoric has been sometimes upped to the point that those who do not agree with conservative ‘orthodox’ opinion feel that they may one day be expelled. The GAFCON/Reform group claims to speak for the mainstream Anglican position just as ISIS claims to be the proper voice of Islam. Neither claim is of course valid. Debate, discussion and disagreement must be allowed to flourish and this blog will always support this privilege to hold different versions of truth within one church communion. Dignity in Difference is the title of a book that appeared five years ago. That is what I seek and will fight for. Anything else would be a surrender to the tyranny of an abusive monochrome form of power which has no place in a Christian church.

Sally’s story part 4

Conflict-Serves1In the account of Sally’s contact with the Pastor and his wife over the issue of her husband’s verbal abuse, I recounted how ineptly the two dealt with her on a pastoral level. Two principles guided everything they had to offer. The first was the likelihood that there was some demonic influence at work in the situation of her marriage. This was suggested partly by the fact that Sally was of Latino appearance, opening her, no doubt, to demons that specialised in people of a non-white heritage. The second principle was the assumption that every problem in a Christian partnership can be solved if the woman simply submits to the man. That is her God-given role.

The recording of Sally’s treatment on this blog has helped her to have a clearer understanding of the poor pastoral practice and even weaker grasp of theology shown to her by the Pastor and his wife. I had hoped that she would not be going to see them again. In this I was wrong. Her husband, Tod, still continued at their church and so when things turned unpleasant again in their relationship, he looked to the pastors for immediate support.

I am going to continue Sally’s story using her words as far as possible. What I find striking is the way that this blog has helped give her a new confidence to stick up for herself. The reader will also find instructive, once again, the appalling level of pastoral skill shown by Pastor John and his wife Cat towards Sally. If this is the level of loving care that is being handed out by any professional pastor, then we have a lot to be concerned about.

Sally speaks: ‘In the earlier email that I sent I stated that my husband had not been physically abusive toward me. This all changed the Friday after I sent the email. We had a fight and my husband raised his hand to me in front of my two small children.

I left the house with my kids and went for a drive to an area where I grew up, some 60 minutes drive from my home, a place I had always loved. I had had a wonderful childhood in a beautiful area and my instinct was to go there. I wanted to be able to think while driving, ‘what do I do now? I don’t want to let my parents know for fear of intervention and I can’t trust the church. I came home put my children to bed and saw that I had many missed calls from my mother and sister. I called them and would you believe that, in God’s goodness, (he knew my heart was NOT to tell) my husband had called my mother to confess what he had done. Everything. My mother immediately was able to tell him that what he had done was inexcusable and that “Sally is not alone”. He said he knew that he had failed but he was sorry and would seek help from HIS pastor.

I realise that, had he not told my mother, I would never have done so. But, because he told my mother, it was as though God intervened and the event came out into the open. Tod effectively shot himself in the foot because he could not subsequently deny this confession. Nevertheless when I got back home there was no welcome. I was hoping that at least he would be sorry and express some remorse. But in fact he was as cold as ice and I went to sleep in tears.

What was to happen now? My father and mother both came over to see me the next day and I told them both in detail what had happened. My mother then spoke to Tod but his story had now changed and this time he started to talk about how I had provoked him. He also told my mother that he spent most of the morning talking to Pastor John. She asked him: ‘Did you tell him what you had done?’ He had admitted to Pastor John what he had done and my mother immediately commented on the fact that it was strange that a caring Pastor seemed to show no interest in what Sally was going through after the assault.

A few months have gone by with a continuation of the fighting but without the physical violence. Sally feels the unhappiness of the situation in the pit of her stomach. She wants to forgive her husband but also to hear some expression of remorse on his part. Although she stopped attending church after the disastrous events recorded Sally’s story part 3, she still felt that someone from the church could easily have checked up on her to see how she was. Eventually she decided to contact the pastors to ask for a meeting. She also wanted to hear from them how their previous advice was thought to be in any way helpful to the task of dealing with an abusive husband.

Before going back to the scene of her former pastoral abuse, Sally decided to ask for the Spirit to lead the meeting. Once she arrived she began by telling the Pastor’s wife, Cat, how hurt she was at being called a liar at the previous meeting.

Once again in Sally’s words: ‘She started again talking about the SPIRIT of Rebellion I have. Then something happened. I was energized and stopped her mid sentence and said “excuse me, what evidence do you have about what you are saying? Where is your proof? What in my behaviour reveals this ‘spirit’ to you??’

She was shocked and she said “ah no, nothing I see, but it is there?” I replied, “What is there, be specific?” Her response came back, ‘Ah I don’t see it in your behaviour but I know it’s there, from your family. I responded “what behaviour” …. again she said nothing she could see.

Pastor John joined us and his wife reported to him: ‘ I was just telling Sally that I think she has a rebellious spirit that sets her husband off.’ Pastor John then said “Cat no, that is wrong, it is not a spirit at work – she has character issues.

Ok, I think, I am saved from one thing, the Spirit of Rebellion, and Cat has been shut down. Now I have to tackle round two and deal with my character issues! So Pastor John launched off into his understanding of how I was going wrong. I was setting my husband off and if his wife did what I did, he would lose his mind as well! He then described to me how Tod, my husband, had visited him crying his eyes out. He had put up with my behaviour and he couldn’t control it and had finally lost it. He declared that I was sending him annoying texts, waking him at night to talk to him when he is tired and following him around the house when I need an issue resolved. Also Tod declared that when he gets home from work, I attack him with issues that I want him to deal with then and there.

Pastor John, I am so sorry, this is a lie! But he stood very firmly in believing my husband, that in some way I push all the buttons in him, making him explode and then get upset when he snaps. What happened is that Tod went to Pastor John to throw all the blame on me for his act of violence and he was believed. The pastor was now getting angry at my denial. Someone is lying, he said. So I replied ‘let us pray that the Holy Spirit will reveal to you who is lying. ‘ He then changed tack. ‘I’m not here to talk about Tod; it is you who has major issues that need dealing with.’ Feeling the same energy that I had felt in responding to his wife earlier, I responded ‘What issues?’ His reply shocked me. ‘You are not ready to hear it.’ ‘Yes I am’, I replied. ‘It will hurt you’ but I immediately replied ‘Yes I am ready.’ Then he repeated ‘you are not ready, I won’t’. So I said: ‘If you see and are sure and the Spirit is showing you, don’t you have to tell me? But he then responded. ‘The Spirit is not showing me’.

At this point the Pastor was extremely angry at being challenged and having his insight questioned. Then he tried to re-establish control by yelling at me: ‘You two need to separate. There is no hope. In my 35 years, I’ve only two other couples like you and both ended in divorce. Pack up your stuff and get out of there. I told him that is what my husband had said too, but no I won’t. I love my husband and I don’t trust you or him but I trust God and he is in this.

After I went off to check up on my small children, I came back and Pastor John was very quiet and sweet again. He claimed not to be favouring my husband even though he had clearly chosen not believe my version of events.’

A final comment from Sally: ‘ I left feeling like I had been in 10 rounds with Mike Tyson and full of strength. Never had I stood up to authority this way. As it stands there is not one single accusation against me they were both given opportunity to state their ‘defense’ and both cracked. There was nothing!!

God is good.

The situation is not resolved and indeed remains critical. But we do see in this story an example of an individual reclaiming their power which two church leaders were trying to wrest from her. Perhaps our blog can claim a little of the credit for helping Sally to find her voice and stick up for honesty, truth and courage.

Spiritual murder

OstracismIn three weeks time I am due to give a paper at a conference in Stockholm on the topic of ostracism or shunning and its use by some religious bodies. It is a topic that interests me and is closely connected to the overall topic of this blog. In my thinking about the harm that Churches and cultic groups sometimes do to their members, I have also become aware of the power of the threat to exclude a member if he or she does not toe the line and follow the leaders. Such a threat is a powerful means of control. Every member knows that to leave the group whether voluntarily or through expulsion may be followed by the horrors of being ostracised forever. Actions taken against a departing member can be vicious and of the upmost cruelty. It is no exaggeration to describe them sometimes as attempted spiritual murder.

In many high-demand religious groups, both those in the church and outside, members have to sign a contract. It may not be a literal written contract, like the absurd billion year contract of the Scientologists, but it still makes serious demands on the membership. Each member is promised inclusion within whatever the group is, whether it be a cult or more mainstream religious body in return for financial and emotional commitment to the group. What does the member receive in return for his commitment? The advantages of being a member of whatever church or cultic group may include the following. First of all the member is promised emotional and spiritual support, instant friendships and whatever spiritual guidance that the group, in the person of the leader, has to give. The implicit promise is also that the formerly worrying issue of going to heaven or hell is now sorted. As long as the member is in good standing, he or she is guaranteed to be in a right relationship with God and thus able to claim a place of eternal bliss. But there are costs and these may be said to be fairly high. Among them there might be included the following:
• The church expects that each member will give ‘to God’ a tithe of their income. This money will be used to maintain the church building and pay whatever salaries that the leadership team requires.
• There are also requirements over what the member may or may not do. The member may not question the teaching or instructions of the leadership on any topic. It is assumed that he/she will fall in with any pronouncements that are made, including guidance on moral issues. The idea, for example, that there is more than one approach to the issue of gay marriage would be considered very alien in many Christian and cultic communities.
• In some churches there is a ‘purity’ teaching which strongly discourages members from mixing with others outside, even members of their own family. They will be referred to the passages from Matthew about ‘hating’ members of their own family in favour of following Jesus. Few Christian churches pursue this teaching to the lengths of the Jehovah’s Witnesses or the Scientologists but there is still a strong sense of ‘us and them’ even in many Christian congregations.
• The person in the high-demand group will be unable to grow socially, spiritually or professionally beyond the bounds of the group. If the leader is, for example, lower middle class in education and cultural aspiration, then that limit will extend to every member of the group. Any desire, particularly among the young people of the group, to explore new forms of musical and artistic expression will be squashed and suppressed because it might show up the cultural poverty of the group. In many cultic groups, no young person is allowed to go to university in case they learn things which might challenge the claims of the leader to mediate truth of every kind to his flock.
The main benefit that we have identified in being a member of a closed group, whether Christian or otherwise, is that one is part of a intimate friendship circle which allows close emotional support. This is combined with an assurance about one’s ultimate fate in the place beyond the grave. Both things because they have been bought at a very high cost (see above) , will not be surrendered easily. To lose them is to lose almost everything one has worked and struggled to receive over years, even decades, within the particular religious institution.

The threat to expel individuals who do not conform to the will of the minister or religious leader of the group is a real one. Expulsion is sometimes chosen by the individual themselves in preference to continuing in the abusive or suffocating atmosphere that the church or group has become for them. But the costs of leaving will often be appallingly high. One’s social life is ripped apart as the human contacts, built up over a long time, have to be let go. Family members who remain in the group are sometimes no longer allowed to be in contact. If the social costs of leaving the closed group are extremely high, the spiritual aspect is just as devastating. Having lived within a group that promised salvation for so long, one now hears that they will henceforth be outside that salvation. The ostracism process, in summary, casts one out of contact with human beings that one has loved and with God. What more terrible fate could befall someone? The effect of disfellowshipping, disconnection or expulsion, or whatever it is called, is shattering. Coming through that experience without suffering deep depression and trauma is difficult to envisage. In some situations this experience will lead to the literal destruction of the individual through the act of suicide.

My blog is dedicated to the handful of people who have been through the full horror of spiritual murder through an act of ostracism by a cult or church but somehow have found their way to reading these words. I have not unfortunately, I am sorry to say, met many people who understand when I try to describe the horrors that are involved in the deceptively simple words, shun or expel. Ostracism, as my conference paper will emphasise, has, as its aim, the rendering of a person to become invisible or simply cease to exist. In my understanding, ostracism thus becomes a type of murder. Murder and ostracism have the same purpose, which is to eliminate another person. Can it ever be right for a Christian leader to suggest that all that is implied in shunning is an appropriate action for a follower of Jesus? Even when ostracism is not in fact practised but is kept as a threat to control the members of a group, it is still an obscene weapon and should be condemned as utterly unworthy of any human being, particularly one who claims to follow Jesus.