Monthly Archives: July 2016

The power of crowds

CrowdOver my years of studying the issue of abuse in churches, I have found that certain key ideas and theories have become, through my reading, much easier to understand. In the past I would not have been able to fathom or account for the dynamic which creates an impression of ‘success’ for some churches. Some of these apparently flourishing establishments have, as I shall explain, a shadow side, one that all too easily results in both the leaders and the led acting out in unhealthy ways. On the surface many of these congregations appear to have everything – large amounts of money, young people and families attending and a vibrant energy emanating from their worship. But behind this façade of success there often lurks abusive practice. The large numbers involved in some of these churches is often conducive to a situation of chronic vulnerability and danger for both leaders and led. Some of the particular dangers arise out of the dynamics of crowd psychology. When these come into play they are difficult to manage and control, even with goodwill and integrity at work on all sides. The crowd experience, wherever it occurs, is one that sometimes works in quite frightening ways. It has the ability to supress rapidly the rational processes of the individual, while at the same it gives everyone in the crowd a sensation of energy and power.

I invite my reader to reflect back to a time when they were part of a large gathering which was involved in a common purpose. It could have been a football match or even attendance at a concert. Without any action on our part, our consciousness slips into becoming part of the crowd mind. Our thoughts and feelings are, in a sense, taken over. This is not an unpleasant or particularly harmful experience. Nevertheless, the irrationality that sometimes takes over when we are in a large crowd indicates to us clearly that independent thinking is not best conducted in that particular setting. I have read a few of the many studies into the irrationality of crowds, whether they be political rallies or lynch mobs. All these studies draw attention to the way the crowd mind takes on a life of its own. It is as though thinking, feeling and decision making are done by the entire crowd and the individual finds it almost impossible to resist this dynamic and stand outside it.

For most of us the irrational crowd experience is fairly frightening, though it can also be for a short time exhilarating. Any exhilaration that we do experience comes to us from the sense of power that every member of a crowd finds they participate in. In a political context this crowd power can unleash societal changes which have been historically significant on some occasions. But while the individuals within a crowd may find themselves energised by this participation, a greater power is given to the leader, the one who orchestrates these power dynamics through the tools of speech and rhetoric. Through history political demagogues, like Hitler or Lenin, have exploited this power of the crowd with effect. They have been able to promote their ideologies whether left or right wing through certain well studied techniques. It is possible to train to be a Mussolini, a Hitler or leader of a successful cult or church.

It is of course not just the members of a crowd who experience an inrush of energy when they are part of a large event. The leader, or we might say, compere of the event also experiences a gratifying, even intoxicating sense of importance and power. The power and energy of the crowd that the leader has helped to bring into being is in some way is mirrored back to the crowd’s conductor. This front-man in some strange way absorbs much of the crowd energy into himself. He is a kind of representative; he embodies the crowd and he becomes the crowd. At the same time every member of the crowd may feel him or herself merged into the speaker in some way.

Previous blog posts have tried to describe the narcissistic processes which have the effect of pumping up the morale of the speaker or leader in a charismatic church. This boosting is a kind of psychological feeding of the psyche which needs this kind of attention after it suffered damage at some point in early childhood. We spoke in an earlier blog of an insatiable hunger for adulation on the part of the leader and in serious cases it can only be described as an addiction. The typical narcissistic leader will use his skill at crowd manipulation to draw attention on himself to feed his massive and unending hunger for affirmation by others. The psychological historians who have looked the life of Hitler claim that the vast rallies of Nazi power can be understood as, at one level, an attempt to relieve a massive sense of inferiority on the part of Hitler. By standing up in front of tens of thousands of his supporters, the symptoms of his depressive illness were lifted. What we are claiming is simply that being at centre of attention in front of a large crowd is not only enjoyable, but it may also be able to relieve mental distress; in short it is a form of self-therapy. It is likely that whenever a leader, politician or Christian minister becomes addicted to this kind of activity, that they are probably sufferers from a narcissistic disorder. While we cannot ascribe this suggested interpretation to include every Christian speaker or minister who stands up in front of large groups, clearly this kind of situation is an ever present danger. Narcissism and an addiction to manipulating (abusing) crowds of followers will always be an issue to be watched in every church within this culture.

For reasons of space I have to compress my ideas and state here that the needs of a congregation sometimes are very similar to those of the leader. A narcissistic leader will, in other words, create narcissistic followers. Each will seek to achieve a ‘fix’ through the energy that is generated in the crowd dynamic. This dynamic will promote a sense of unity and artificial goodwill, particularly if it is boosted by the use of music and singing. The music that is typically blasted out at charismatic meetings will, like the crowd dynamic itself, do little to promote clear rational thought. The message that is given out by the preacher will normally be reassuring and fuzzy. As long as everyone gives of their money, the individual is told that he or she is safe, free from the effects of the past and able with confidence to look forward to the future, a future ultimately with God.

Many services in Christian churches today in Britain, America and no doubt elsewhere conform to these dynamics and structures. A critical analysis may reveal that such acts of worship are often conducted as a way of meeting psychological needs of the leaders as well as the led, rather than proclaiming a challenging Gospel truth. I have to question whether a narcissistic Christian leader can avoid doing immense damage to the vulnerable members of his flock when he has so little insight into his own psychological profile and the dangerous processes that are potentially present in a crowd situation. There are far too many uncomfortable parallels between large political rallies from the 1930s and Christian gatherings that take place for the purposes of evangelism. Because many people lead isolated and lonely lives there is always a great hunger for crowd events which will allow the individual to be subsumed and swallowed up into a large group with a charismatic leader. No one would suggest that such a longing is in itself unhealthy or pathological. I just find it difficult to justify the way that some Christian groups and their leaders knowingly exploit this common vulnerability of many people in our society. The needs of such people will be complex and various. I fail to see, and Chris is constantly reminding me of this, how what is offered in a typical charismatic service can ever do very much to meet their real needs. The ecstasy of being in a crowd together with words of platitude will do little to resolve the kinds of problems that such people are facing. These will, along with everyone else, centre around relationships, money problems and stress. What is needed to help with these has to be something far more substantial than the fluffiness of charismatic religion.

The Gift of Empathy

empathyRecently in the news we have been reading the reports on Sir Philip Green who has been enjoying himself on his luxury yacht in the Mediterranean. The account of his stewardship of BHS, which was published on Monday by a parliamentary committee, indicated that his care of the company had been lax at best and cynically exploitative and dishonest at worst. Regardless of the final verdict in this story there was something insensitive in his choosing to be out of the country when the report was published. The company with its 11000 employees and 20000 pensioners has been left in a fairly bad place. We might have expected some immediate positive action on Sir Philip’s part to relieve the plight of these former employees. We are still waiting to hear any words of remorse or genuine regret.

Jesus told a story, not about a man going on holiday to enjoy himself but one going to the temple to make an offering. He like Philip Green had pressing business to attend to but which had been ignored. In both examples there was matter of a brother(s) who had been wronged. ‘First, reconcile with your brother and then make your offering (or go on holiday)’, said Jesus. The situation of a relationship that needs sorting out should always be one that troubles us until we have resolved it. We call this the nagging of our conscience. In Jesus’ example the conscience is telling us that being right with other people is an important issue. When for any reason the conscience does not function well we might be concerned. The reason for a non-functioning conscience probably lies in the same area of a personality dysfunction as a general insensitivity to other people. In other words, as we recognise from experience, there are some people who simply manage to focus so much on their concerns and their entertainment that they can simply push other people away from their minds and from their conscience.

Why are there such people who have a remarkable ability to cavort and enjoy themselves when around them is pain and suffering? We think of the reported words of Queen Marie Antoinette who is said to have responded when told that the common people of France had no bread, ‘let them eat cake’. The story ascribed to the Queen may never have actually happened but it speaks to us of people who live in a cocoon world, detached from the people around them, unable to understand or in any way relate to their concerns. There are plenty of such people living in Britain today but rather than be jealous of people who have more than enough, we should in fact feel sorry for them.

Why do I say this? At the root of excess wealth and extravagance, as Jesus recognised, is often a deformed sensitivity and awareness of others. The ability to enjoy extravagant lifestyles while there is pain and want around takes some effort. Something inside them has been closed down. Whether we call it lack of conscience or insensitivity, it takes a certain panache to pretend that all is well when so often it is not. This is not going to be the beginning of a political rant which suggests that everyone should have the same as everyone else in terms of material wealth. Nevertheless, there are times when the discrepancies of wealth are so great that there is a strong feeling in the gut that something is completely wrong. Normal communications between individuals and groups have broken down. Bonds of normal care and concern for one’s neighbour no longer seem to exist.

A Christian might at this point want to revert to a reflection on the word ‘love’ as being the Christian attitude that can hold people together to prevent the fragmentation of society that excess inequality produces. But there is another word which avoids the potential sentimentality of the word love and that word is empathy. The word empathy is a good word to use in this context because while it includes the idea of love, it also is suggesting practical action by one person on behalf of another. To have empathy implies that one person has attempted to enter into the thought and feeling world of another and based their practical support on the insights thus gained. Empathy is, if you like, skilled love, a love that knows what to do. It makes sure that the love that on offer is not based on the needs of the one who offers it but on the recipient.

The people who find empathy most hard to put into practice are the individuals who are congenitally incapable of reaching out of themselves to other people. These are the same people whose deformed consciences allow them to live in extravagance and excess while those around them have little or nothing. These are the people like Grace Mugabe or Philip Green who seem to have no problem with spending vast sums of money while others, those for whom they have responsibility, suffer and sometimes die. The personality problem that such people have is one we have spoken about often, the Narcissistic Personality Disorder. Such people have limited sensitivity, stunted consciences and an insatiable appetite for wealth, status and power. The most important thing that they lack is the quality we have already mentioned which is empathy. The lack of this quality means that they are condemned to live lives of shallowness and superficiality. Wealth may give them a sense of power and significance but the affliction of NPD will never allow them to remain content with their lot. They will ever be searching for greater and greater sensation, at the same time becoming less and connected with ordinary people.

Thank God for the gift of empathy. May we cultivate it and hold it precious. Through it may we allow ourselves never to be wrenched away from the gift of other people, the people we love and the people for whom we have responsibility. This latter group is a large one as it covers, potentially, the whole of humanity. Through empathy and with empathy may we, however imperfectly, remain connected to the other members of the human race. To have such gift is to have understanding and this is the first stage of the Christian command to love.

Reclaiming the word Christian

christian-pI have in a previous blog post told the story of the young mother in my parish who, on the death of her baby, felt she had to go 50 miles outside the area to find a ‘Christian’ undertaker. Having had good relations with other undertakers who lived much closer, I was surprised at this slight to the professional and spiritual integrity of these other firms who served the local neighbourhood. My reader will no doubt be familiar with the way the word ‘Christian’ has been appropriated by particular groups in society to denote what this blog would describe as a conservative legalistic version of the faith. When the UK MP Andrea Leadsom was described by the press as being a Christian, we all knew how to understand the way this word was being used. Her faith turns out, unsurprisingly, to be an extension of her right-wing opinions. To be a Christian in 21st century Britain and America means for many to be a person who knows all the things that they disapprove of. In particular, they deplore same-sex marriage and a variety of other behaviours which are deemed to be unbiblical in some way. We could summarise by saying that a Christian is defined more for the things that they disapprove of than for the things they want to promote. Such a perspective of the meaning of the word ‘Christian’ is not in fact completely false. It is rather, we would claim, one sided and at the very least incomplete.

It is worth reflecting once more on Jesus’ story of the Samaritan. This is a parable that needs to be told over and over again. It is told in the context of a conversation between a lawyer and Jesus. This lawyer who asked the question – who is my neighbour?- knew perfectly well what was the proper answer in terms of Jewish law. But Jesus responded not in legal categories but in terms of practical action. A question that we might well want to ask Jesus today is a similar one- who is a Christian? The story of the Samaritan might easily form the response to this question as well. The lawyer’s question was answered by contrasting good conventional Jewish behaviour which was correct by the laws of the day with the action of a person who was right outside the orbit of the Jewish community. In Jesus’s day the good Jew was someone who kept the laws of purity, worshipped in a correct way and generally conducted himself properly according to the social and religious norms of the time. What today we regard as proper Christian behaviour will involve an individual saying the right things when faced with a number of moral issues. The correct Christian response to gays is, according to numerous Christians, is to avoid them or have as little to do with them as possible. The only reason for talking to someone with a gay life-style would be to try to convert them and convince them to turn their backs on their old behaviour. Such people, the conservative Christian believes, are destined for hell and this involves eternal punishment. That these attitudes held by sincere Christian people, I find puzzling but simultaneously utterly repugnant. In a moment of extreme anger with another person, I might conceivably desire them to experience pain but this stage does not survive for very long. Hatred for another person and wanting their eternal punishment would take energy out of me, and I for one do not have the stamina to attempt to keep it up on such a futile activity. Am I in some way deficient as a Christian because I cannot summon up sufficient hatred towards an individual to want to consign him/her to hell? Everything that I have learnt about the Christian faith does in fact tell me that no one can ultimately escape the orbit of God’s love. I recognise that some human lives are lived in such a way that the process of ultimate redemption will be hard and extremely painful. I do not anyway believe that members of the gay community are behaving in a worse way than those who allow their Christian faith to adopt attitudes of hatred and condemnation towards others whose behaviour they disapprove of.

To return to the story of the Samaritan and our suggestion that Jesus is answering our modern question – who is a Christian? The Christian, according to Jesus, is not the one who merely believes things and behaves correctly according to a written code. The Christian is one who is motivated by human compassion and practical help. In short the Samaritan/ Christian is the one who follows the rules of love. The way that Jesus identifies with the outsider who follows his conscience and his humanity is an important lesson for us today. Our culture loves definitions; it enjoys being able to put people into particular boxes, deciding in a binary way whether they are good or bad, Christian or non-Christian, in-crowd or out-crowd. This creation of tidy boundaries between people seems to be completely subverted by what Jesus is saying. In the parable he shows clearly how the law-abiding Jew, represented by the priest and the Levite failed totally to respond appropriately to the challenge of helping the wounded man. The law forbad any contact with a possible corpse and so the law was the effective barrier preventing effective and human action. In the parable Jesus seems to be telling us that the true law is the law of compassion and love and this takes precedence over everything else.

I was reading a commentary on the activities of Church of England General Synod this week. One well-known conservative Christian was listening to a gay Christian speaking in the so-called ‘shared conversations’. All she could think about was the fact that this Christian man, who was also a priest, should be ‘lovingly’ removed from his position. Her faith, her version of Christianity, could only see as important the rigid application of a law that she had extracted from Scripture. She was blind and deaf, it seems, to the experience of the person standing in front of her. The same motivation, adherence to a law connected with preserving purity, guided the actions of the two men in the parable who passed by on the other side. Legalism in other words was more important than the impulse of love which most of us believe should play a major part in motivating a Christian response to life. Jesus approved of the behaviour of the one who didn’t even claim to be a Christian, the Samaritan. He tells us to go and do likewise.

As a response to the story of the Samaritan let us, rather than drawing barriers about who are ‘true Christians’, celebrate the unconventional and the free spirits who live out an authentic path for their lives. One thing the parable tells us firmly is that none of us has the right to say who is inside or outside the orbit of God’s mercy. It is unhelpful, but also wrong, to declare this or that person to be beyond God’s concern. This kind of categorisation is, I believe, a form of blasphemy. There are many ways of living ‘Christian’ lives. To be a follower of Jesus in terms of acting with love compassion and service is always going to be hard but who is to say that it only happens inside church buildings. We have the challenge to see and work with Christians who, like the Samaritan, are completely beyond the boundaries of our comfort zone and familiar circles.

The Problem of forgiveness

nice-terrLike all my readers, I was horrified at the news coming out of France last Thursday. Coincidentally I had been recently reading a book about the effect of terrible disasters, like the one in Nice, on the bystanders as well as those who are the actual victims of an atrocity. We do not give a great deal of attention to the ambulance-men, the police and all who support them in a situation of some desperate mind-numbing tragedy. A human being when faced with something on the scale of the events which took place in Nice is pushed to the very limits of what he or she can cope with psychologically. All too often a consequence is breakdown or post-traumatic stress disorder. These bystander victims, the professional helpers together with the actual victims and their families, all of whom have to deal with terrible stress, must number several thousand individuals.

One thing we do know is that it was a single individual who perpetrated this monstrous act of driving a lorry into crowds of people with the intention of killing and maiming as many as possible. It is difficult to find an adjective to describe the depth of depravity that was involved in such an act. I do not propose here trying to enter into the mind of someone capable of such behaviour, but I am aware of one enormous problem that arises for Christian theology. The question is: is it ever possible to forgive an act as horrific as this one? The question is made so much more complicated by asking the further question. Who in this situation anyway has the right to forgive such a perpetrator who has damaged and destroyed the lives of so many? Even if one person could forgive this action, would they have any right to speak on behalf of the other thousands affected by this terrible deed?

The Nice incident helps us once again to recognise the fact that forgiveness is never going to be a straightforward matter. The simplistic rule that says that we must always forgive can be seen not to resolve the complexity and evil of this situation. One person choosing to forgive anyway does not do very much to bring any kind of closure for the majority. Thousands of other people are still left struggling with their terrible memories and their grief and this, at the very least, will continue to have a lasting effect on their lives. If all evil could be restricted to something that concerned a single perpetrator and a single victim, then it might be possible to put into practice the simple gospel challenge, forgive as you are forgiven. Most evil acts against others, in fact, involve far more people than in a one-to-one encounter. Also, organisations, as we have seen recently, are capable of committing evil acts against individuals and groups. In their turn individuals can commit evil against others and this may affect large numbers of people. Whenever even a single person is damaged as a result of another person’s malevolent action, then all the people close to the victim may, to some extent, share in the pain and the damage which is done to that individual. For forgiveness to be fully effective, all victims need their pain recognised and individually dealt with.

Two things follow from this reflection. The first is a warning to each of us when we are tempted to do something harmful to another person. The damage that we do, or try to do, will be potentially be like a wave which moves beyond the single event to affect many others. There may be echoes of the original act of malevolence which are felt years or decades later. It is like throwing a pebble into water; the ripples spread out in every direction and we have no control as to what they affect. The story of Trinity Brentwood, to which I have given a lot of space to on this blog, is also an account of evil rippling outwards from past actions to affect negatively countless individuals. One man, Michael Reid, persuaded a group to give him absolute power in his church in the 1980s. As a consequence of that power exercised in a selfish, self-seeking way, hundreds of people were damaged and their lives radically changed. That damage has affected not only them but also their families, both the immediate family and its extended members. This damage continues right up to the present. Things said and done 20 or 30 years ago are still affecting the present. People still suffer; people still experience their lives as being damaged and incomplete.

One of the most obscene statements to come out of Peniel/Trinity is that the victims should forget what has happened and move on. It is an indication that the remaining members of the church still hold to a cheap forgiveness doctrine, ‘forgive and forget’. It is cheap as well as insulting. It simply does not engage with the full horror of what many people went through under the leadership of abusive leaders. Damage is easy to perpetrate but very hard to put right.

One of the things that I picked up from a network of churches in America, is the idea of ‘safe haven churches’. I am still trying to absorb all the material from that lecture and I shall be sharing further insights that I learnt in future posts. The speaker did emphasise one point about these churches, and this is my second point, that it is vitally important to be able to forgive. Obviously the individuals who had escaped abusive churches might have specific things to forgive but it was also emphasised that forgiveness is a fundamental attitude for a Christian that needs to be constantly flowing even when there is nothing obvious to forgive. In saying this the speaker was in no way underestimating the cost of forgiveness but it still remains as fundamental to Christian faith as love. I shall be speaking further about the path to and cost of forgiveness in a future post when I explain further what is taught by the ‘safe haven churches’. Here I can mention two points, first, the importance of acknowledging and dealing with the experience of anger and rage that exist within abused individuals. The second point is coming, albeit slowly, to an imaginative understanding of the inner experience of the perpetrator. It is at this point that one may find the grace to let go of the wrong and the pain and leave them with God.

Nothing I have said really helps me to come to terms with the monstrous horrors perpetrated in Nice. All kinds of emotions are aroused and all the words that can be used seem hollow against the enormity of what happened to so many. Perhaps all we can do is to keep silent in the face of all the pain. Among our prayers must surely be one that asks God not to allow the events of last Thursday to erupt into a search for vengeance and the projection of evil on to whole groups and members of other nationalities and faiths. That would be catastrophic and lead to an entrenched state of inter-communal hostility that could last for decades.

Trinity Brentwood News

TRINTIY-BRENTWOODFrom following the Trinity Brentwood blog run by Nigel Davies, it appears that Trinity School, formerly Peniel Academy, is closing, at least the senior section of the school. No reasons for this closure have been given but the school has seemingly been operating below the level of viability for some time. It is also suggested that the large building, Brizes Park, where the school is housed, may have to be sold to pay for all the legal claims arising from the abuses of Reid’s era that are continuing to haunt the church.

The actual reasons for the senior school’s closure in one sense are unimportant. What is more interesting is to reflect on why a cultic church like Peniel (now Trinity Church) should ever have gone to the trouble of founding a school in the first place. In fact, the reasons for founding a church school by Michael Reid seem to be clear. The creation of a church which would function as a ‘totalistic’ community required that the leader controlled the inflow of information and influence from outside. If you are going to create a new community bound together by a ‘bible-based’ vision, you have then to stop other views getting into the group. Parents and children had to be repeatedly assured and convinced that the leader, here Reid, was the reliable interpreter and mediator of gospel truth. He could thus be trusted in every area of life because he spoke for God himself. The task of convincing everyone that a leader, such as Reid, is a spokesman for God is made much easier if all information available to the membership is carefully filtered. There has to be one message, one narrative, that is accepted across the board.

The Langlois report documents some of the ways in which the information control was kept in place. As far as schooling for the children was concerned, the parents who wanted to join, found that sending their children to Peniel Academy was virtually a compulsory part of their membership. The fees that had to be paid were additional to the tithe of the family’s pre-tax income. Consequently, the financial investment in the church by these families was massive. It seems that the more that was spent, the more the parents found themselves locked into the orbit of cultic control. ‘Encouragement’ of church children to join the Academy was helped by Reid declaring that the local Brentwood schools were infested by satanic influences. It was thus not just a matter of offering a good education in small classes but protecting the souls of church children from hell!

Once in the school it appears, according to the Langlois report, that the children were used by Reid to control the parents. If a parent displeased Reid for any reason the child at the school was to be given a hard time of it by the teachers. A few children, those favoured because their parents were rich and major benefactors of the church, escaped these techniques of harassment. It does seem that the happiness or unhappiness of the children at the school depended on the view of Reid towards the parents. Either way, the school was a major part of the way that Reid was able to wield such enormous power over the church. Also by putting pressure on many of the parents to offer voluntary labour at the school and in the church grounds, he was able to ensure that quite a large proportion of the congregation spent most of their waking hours in and around the church. Many of these parents reported that they were permanently exhausted by all the hours put in at the church and this lack of time meant that family life, time simply being with their children, suffered severely.

My time in Dallas also brought me face to face with this aspect of cult life, the way that family life was undermined even destroyed by the demands of leaders. The demand for total loyalty and obedience on the part of the membership meant that, not only were adults submitting to the demands of leaders on matters of belief, but they were also allowing leaders to dictate to them how to bring up their children. The acronym which is used to describe the children who grow up under the control of a cult is SGA or second generation adults. These are the adults who were born into a group or whose education and upbringing was largely in the hands of a religious/political cult. The individual SGAs I spoke to in Dallas were those who were in recovery but it was apparent that it had been a tough journey. Some had escaped while still in their teens while others had only got out of their respective groups in early adulthood. In the first place they were entering a world which had numerous cultural norms and their lives in the group had not prepared them to cope. I asked one woman SGA which was the issue that she was still working on with her therapist. Her answer was ‘boundaries’. I did not have the opportunity to question what she meant by this exactly but I surmised that she was referring to the fact that her cult had always minimised the importance of privacy and personal space. The group leaders, in their desire for total control of their members, demand that any desire for privacy be broken down through public acts of ‘confession’. In the case of Peniel, there was also the control being exercised by public acts of humiliation from the pulpit directed at individuals. Also being taught from an early age that it is essential to be totally open about your feelings, the young person or child allows the unscrupulous leader to exercise a lot of power over him/her. Such power binds the follower to the group and makes it difficult to discover a proper identity which is distinct from the identities of others. One of the key concepts in cultic studies is the idea of the ‘cult identity’. This is the notion that a ‘successful’ member of an extreme group acquires an identity which is in some way created by the cult. Recovery consists in burrowing back into the personality to discover the true self that has been buried by cultic membership. This can be a long journey.

To return to the affair of Trinity School. It seems to be true that recently the school has not been operating in anything like the same way that it did in Reid’s day. Nevertheless, from the evidence given to John Langlois during his enquiry, the school used to be very much in the business of creating Peniel clones. Many of these alummi of Peniel Academy will be suffering the same psychological scars as the SGAs I met in Dallas. One importance difference will be that in the UK there are virtually no therapists who specialise in the task of helping people to shed a ‘cult identity’ in favour of a normal one. The trauma in these young adults of having had their thinking and feeling dominated by an ugly combination of fear and even terror will have left its mark. To say that there are probably some victims of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder in and around Brentwood is probably an understatement. While the closing of the school is a closing of a stable door long after the horse (Reid) has departed, it had to be done even if the education of some innocent pupils is being regrettably disrupted. It remains to be seen how this part of the Trinity saga is eventually resolved. You can be sure that this blog editor will be watching the situation carefully, even though from afar.

Politicians and the Bible

LeadsomBut nevertheless my own view is that marriage in the biblical sense is very clear from the many, many Christians who wrote to me on this subject, in their opinion, can only be between a man and a woman.

These are some careful words uttered by a contender to be the UK Prime Minister, Andrea Leadsom. As a self-identified Christian in the House of Commons, she evidently has received a full post bag of opinions on the subject of gay marriage. If we look carefully at her words, we see that she is able to offer a partial identification with the opinions of the religiously conservative people who have written to her, while being able to avoid going all the way in making this her own opinion. In short she agrees with them up to a point but allows herself the freedom to take a different opinion when it might be politically expedient to do so. One way in which Andrea Leadsom does put herself firmly into the conservative Christian camp and their use of the Bible is through the implied assumption that choosing particular scriptural texts allows one to discover decisive moral teaching, binding on Christians and society in general. The Bible-believing letter writers evidently believe that Scripture is totally unambiguous as to what it says about marriage. It is believed to promote heterosexual marriage to the exclusion of any other pattern of sexual behaviour.

Provoked by this idea that the Bible is very clear in what it says about marriage, I went to my Bible and opened up at Deuteronomy. My Jerusalem Bible conveniently entitles one section of this book: ‘On Marriage’. Here we have a number of laws set out about marriage and how it was to be conducted in ancient Israelite society. From a modern perspective this section, chapters 21 to 22, is a thoroughly misogynist text. Not only does it allow men to marry more than one woman, it also allows a husband to stone a young wife to death if she fails to substantiate her claim to be a virgin. The horror of this act is enhanced by the fact that it is to be accomplished at the door of her father’s house. There is also no suggestion in this section of Deuteronomy that a woman ever has any real choice in the matter of finding a husband. Two scenarios for a man finding a wife are given. Neither speak of love or free choice. The first is a marriage after a woman is taken captive in war and the second is a relationship when a woman is a victim of rape. She is then expected to marry her violator. No doubt marriages were entered into without this background of violence, but the author of Deuteronomy here seems to have no interest in the idea that marriage could be a relationship between equals.

Before we try to bury these texts of Deuteronomy concerning marriage as being of no relevance to today, we should recall that key texts against homosexuality are cited from another law book in the Hebrew Bible, the book of Leviticus. It would seem wrong to claim authority for Leviticus on what it says about same sex relationships and then reject offensive passages in other parts of the Old Testament concerning the conduct of family life. How many conservative Christians would suggest that the solution to dealing with a ‘rebellious son’ is to take him to the gate of the city and have the inhabitants stone him to death? Clearly there are no Christians who would now want to follow such instructions over the way they manage their marriages and families.

When we read about King Solomon in 1 Kings 11.3 we discover that he had 300 concubines. It is easy to gloss over the impact of the institution of concubine, but we should realise that a concubine is simply another word for sex slave. The horror of slavery is found throughout the Bible, and Paul no doubt was aware of the implication of telling female slaves to ‘submit’ to their masters. The constant abuse by male masters of their female slaves makes a secure settled and committed gay relationship seem thoroughly innocent by comparison. The treatment of Hagar, Sarah’s slave, after she became pregnant by Abraham was cruel and unjustifiable. The Bible text records Hagar leaving the dysfunctional household on two occasions. The first time was when she ran away of her own accord after being treated badly by Sarah. The second occasion was when she was deliberately expelled from the family unit by Abraham at the request of his wife. To send Hagar and Ishmael off into the desert with some bread and a skin of water was tantamount to wanting her dead. The fact of her survival does not let Sarah off her vindictive and jealous behaviour. Such family dynamics were clearly extremely unhealthy and hardly offer us a biblical model for family life today.

It is obvious that I am bringing out from the text passages which show that family life and marriage in biblical times was quite often far from ideal. Choosing these particular sections to make my point is however no less legitimate than the extraction of passages which support the conservative view that there is within Scripture an ideal structure of marriage between one man and one woman. Once again I want to repudiate the idea that we can gain definitive wisdom about the will of God by choosing any single passage from Scripture to make a point of moral teaching. If we are to use the Bible to find some model or pattern for morality today, we need to have the honesty to say that there is there a variety of practices and understandings of relationships. The Bible does not have a simple formula. From my own perspective the dysfunctions revealed in Deuteronomy and in the book of Genesis, particularly in what they reveal about the mistreatment of women, are all about the abuse of male power. We can go further than that and say that the Bible contains plentiful evidence that men in past generations used their physical and social power to dominate and in many cases abuse women and children. Even if we claim that Jesus saw through this male dominance and reasserted the rights of women and children, we can only do this after acknowledging the horror of much of what went on before.

The trite claims of politicians as well as church leaders who tell us that the Bible teaches this or that must be constantly challenged. I somehow doubt that most of them have ever actually grappled with the text. What is true is that if we treat the Bible as a mine for pre-selected texts, then certain emphases and teachings for moral ideas can be found. A thorough study of Scripture will however reveal both light and darkness, particularly in the part which is known to us as the Old Testament. It is crucial that we read this part of the Bible with a sense of history together with a sensitivity for the social conditions of the period. Even when we read the New Testament we need to be aware of how Paul was himself a product of his age. A study of Scripture, a critical study of Scripture, can reveal to us what we believe to be spiritual insight. This insight has the power to transform the one who reads it. We must, nevertheless, always approach the text with a discerning and critiquing of what we find there. We must constantly be on our guard against becoming victims of a legalistic and fundamentalist mind-set in our approach to these texts. If God is truly to be encountered in the words of Scripture, he will be found in and through this kind of sensitive, discriminating and imaginative engagement with the text of the book we call the Bible.

Chilcot -some reflections

John-Chilcot-the-Chairman-of-the-Iraq-InquiryToday the long awaited Chilcot enquiry was published. Obviously there are very few people who will have yet read the 2.6 million words in this report which covers the events surrounding the British involvement in an invasion of Iraq in 2003. I am dependent on newspaper and internet summaries of what has been written. It might thus seem a little previous to make any comment at this stage about the report. Also my readers might also wonder what possible relevance this report has to the concerns of our blog. What does concern us in this blog is the behaviour by men with power. This report has a great deal to say about how power was used and misused, particularly by our former prime minister Tony Blair. His actions and motivations have all come under intense scrutiny in the enquiry and there is material enough on which to offer some observations of our own

About a year ago I made some comments about an article written by Michael Owen, a prominent and much respected politician who also trained as a medical doctor. He was writing about what he described as ‘hubris syndrome’, an expression that he seemed to have invented himself, to describe the behaviour of powerful politicians when given access to enormous amounts of power. Hubris is a word that denotes a kind of pride which exists alongside the availability of great power. It allows the one so affected to be somehow above a need to be concerned with the dictates of morality and a concern for others. This hubris, as Michael Owen describes it, is not dissimilar to the personality disorder which we have often described, the narcissistic personality disorder or NPD. One of the words that is used to describe both these conditions is the interesting word, ‘messianic’. This is a word which, I would claim, links the behaviour of Tony Blair over Iraq to that of the religious leaders we have identified as abusive.

When we unpack this word ‘messianic’ we can see that it is a word that can raise an individual into a realm of behaviour that is exalted above ordinary people. The Messiah is one who it is believed will come to change the world. He will have, according to his followers, infallible access to truth together with a knowledge of what is right for other people. As a word with religious overtones, it has the implication that whatever is said by a messianic figure will be impossible to contradict or even discuss. Also when anyone is accused of hubris today, there is also this implication that they have raised themselves up through pride and reckless ambition to become a person who cannot be in any way contradicted. Both these words, messianic and hubristic, imply that an individual feels himself to be always right. Their convictions sweep all before them and no one dares stand in their way.

From the little I have read on the Chilcot report, it seems that Tony Blair can indeed be accused of hubristic behaviour and messianic pretensions. He made promises to President Bush and also committed himself to decisions which were not shared with any advisers nor were there prior discussions with others. He had, we would claim, a messianic conviction that the hand of history was on his shoulder. He and he alone had to put his decisions into effect. From the perspective of a religious commentator, such as myself, there was an almost religious fervour in the way he operated in the events of 2002 and 2003. Religious messianic fervour, as we all know, does not make for good and wise political decisions. It is never wise to make decisions without allowing them to be scrutinised by a trusted group of advisers and experts. On the eve of the Iraq war, a group of retired British ambassadors to the Middle East wrote to The Times and cautioned delay before going headlong into war. This was a group of people who between them had an enormous experience of the language, customs and political realities of that part of the world. Such men were surely worth listening to and their advice carefully heeded. The reasons for ignoring them can only be put down to a kind of recklessness and impetuosity that goes with hubris and messianic fanatic fervour.

The reality of religious leaders who behave in a similar way in imposing infallible truths on their followers, is familiar to readers of this blog. Heinz Kohut, the original describer of NPD, uses the word ‘messianic’ in his attempt to denote the nature of the condition. The sufferer of NPD has such a strong sense of his infallibility that he ceases to have any sensitivity to the thoughts and feelings of the people around him. He occupies a world which is above that of ordinary people and their opinions have long since ceased to matter. The other salient word in the narcissistic literature is ‘grandiosity’. Once again this is a word that captures well the detachment and remoteness of the person and his thinking when compared with ordinary people below him. Perhaps we all recognise individuals who fill this particular description. The irrational, as we would see it now, behaviour of Tony Blair has all the hallmarks of a rash impetuous religious leader as well as a politician who has lost his grounding. He has ceased to believe in a need to consult and exercise judgement with the help of others.

The Chilcot enquiry was set up with the knowledge of all that took place after the ill-fated invasion. It seems extraordinary in retrospect that preparations for the post-war situation in Iraq were so little thought through. The Iraqi people had been the victims of a cruel repressive regime. Also if we had to invade, much more work should have been done to allow them to feel that we were in their country as liberators and not as a new enemy. The number of convinced supporters of Saddam Hussein probably only numbered a few thousand. It should have been possible to have identified far more of the professional classes and the civil service, not to mention the military, who could have taken over the running of the country. Much ink will be spelt over the days and weeks that are ahead in examining this report. Here we have simply reflected on the way that a single individual, Tony Blair, seems to have taken over some of the worst aspects of a dysfunctional religious leader. May this situation never arise again.

Notes from Dallas 3

Dallas2As I write this at 5.00 am American time while waiting to leave the hotel and travel home, I realise that if I leave writing something till later, it may never get written. I am expecting a two day recovery period from jet lag when I reach the UK and that will not be the best time to be putting things on to the blog. So once again I am going to try and assemble a few scattered thoughts from this conference.

One of the things that I have noticed in random conversations with conference participants is the way that much of the ‘cult’ experience seems to centre round ‘bible-based’ groups. In other words, there seems to be a shift from the old style Hindu-based cults to the new evangelical groups which exist in their thousands here in the US. It is not surprising that not a few of these are cash cows and narcissistic vanity trips for their leaders. When I speak to individuals about their journeys, they often start by using that familiar expression ‘bible church’. Having heard from quite different people disturbingly predictable accounts of these groups, I find that my interest is far more in the recovery process that may have been going on for a year, five years or ten years or more. Just as the tools of enslavement in a cultic group seem to be fairly universal, so the recoveries told speak of the unique properties of every individual. In summary cults create clones but recovery allows the blossoming of individual personality.

The seminar on conversion and de-conversion was not as profitable as I had hoped. It was an attempt by the organisation to see whether it could draw together the expertise of the participants to see if a ‘product’ could be identified which could be offered to government agencies in their fight against terrorist extremism. My only contribution was to point out that there was in the Christian tradition such a thing as healthy conversion. It is important to recognise amid all the aberrations of ‘mind-control’ and extreme influence that there is a healthy model of being taken into a more open loving mode of functioning that does not require a surrender of reason to a powerful personality. One thing that did become clear is how difficult governments are finding it to fight terrorism when the mental processes involved in becoming an extremist are so poorly understood. Both the British and American governments have, over the years, operated an extremely tolerant attitude towards religious ideas and they do not know how to cope when that same religion turns toxic and dangerous. When we heard about the ‘Prevent’ strategy in Britain, I wondered how the dominant model that has existed for decades in the UK which describes all religion in sociological detached terms is able to adapt to a new reality.

The shift that I mentioned above that cults are more commonly to be found in ‘bible-based’ environments allows me to feel that I have a place in this assembly. Speaking personally, I find that the dynamics that operate in these groups is far easier to understand than say, ten years ago. Most people I discussed the question of these dynamics seemed to understand about narcissism being involved in the process and everyone seems to have watched a lecture on Youtube by one Daniel Shaw, a New York psychiatrist, on this topic. He has coined the now fashionable expression (in these circles at least) of ‘traumatising narcissist’. This captures the fact that narcissism is normally involved in leader-led dynamics and that it is simultaneously harmful to those caught up in it. This point is not just true for some Christian leaders but for all cultic leaders. A book that I used in writing Ungodly Fear called the Guru Papers was known by two people who were survivors of Indian cults. This book pointed out the further point that all leaders, however apparently holy and detached, still needed to be needed. In other words, no human being can ever escape the dynamics of human attachment. The claims of being able to avoid such attachment are, in other words, false. In short the spiritual claims of all religious leader need to be scrutinised and the cant and hypocrisy of their claims needs to be grounded on a more solid and honest foundation. The narcissistic literature explores well the inner processes that are going on when people gather together to submit to a leader. That statement would probably apply as well to political gatherings as to religious.

Next year we are meeting in Bordeaux which will be a far easier journey for Europeans that this epic journey to Dallas. Still it has been a really worth-while experience as I have been allowed to connect with a group of people who share with my readers an understanding of how religion can go toxic and harm rather than heal people. While the present preoccupation of church leaders in Britain and elsewhere over sexual abuse of children in churches or cults has received attention, the focus here has been mainly on all the other ways that spiritual abuse happens in a church context. In summary, spiritual abuse damages the soul, the individuality and the creativity of the person. It is that that continues to exercise my concern and the focus of this blog. With the encouragement of my readers I shall continue to reflect and write on these issues. Perhaps in a small way we can shift opinion so that every church becomes a place of safety and healing. Let us pray that this may one day be a reality.

Notes from Dallas 2

icsaAnother day of conversation and sitting on conference chairs listening to various presentations. Two of the speakers that I mentioned yesterday gave a further presentation on the topic of forgiveness and how it is handled in their work with former members of cultic groups. There was an emphasis on recognising how hard it is to forgive. The action is nevertheless still essential if a victim is not to remain in the continuing grip of all that has been laid upon him by an abusing perpetrator. Another panel I attended looked at the effect of cultic ideas on children. There were four words mentioned that summed up the effect of certain extreme groups and their capacity to harm the healthy growth of a child. The words that sum up childhood emotional abuse are these – spurning, terrorising, isolating and exploiting. Abusive religious leaders are very good at using fear as a weapon through which to control their members and such fear is especially effective when used against children. One participant spoke of a dysfunctional childhood which was the result of her mother taking on a range of wacky ideas from a Pentecostal group. Another spoke of her work in educating churches to be safe places for children. Once again safety was not just about freedom from sexual exploitation but it covered the right not to be emotionally abused and generally mistreated by adults. Fed by some strange religious ideas these abusing adults misguidedly think that they have the best interests of children at heart.

In the afternoon I gave my paper which I think was well received. It was an exploration of how a heretical group in Roman Africa called the Donatists became, in certain areas, a death cult. They came into direct conflict with the Roman state who wished to enforce church unity. Their courage was inspired by a belief that martyrs would always obtain a place in heaven if they had died fighting for their faith. This fanatical wing of the Donatists, called the Circumcellions, did not care how death was achieved to achieve this martyrdom. There was thus for a time a culture of suicide which obviously was extremely disturbing to all who witnessed it. Another speaker on the panel spoke in brief about a number of cultlike groups across the ages. He mentioned a group who came into being in 1651 after the English civil war. The last member of this group, the Muggletonians, died only in 1979. We also had a presentation about cultic aspects that were present in Nazi ideology.

Following my panel I went to chair a presentation about a group in Austria called the Friedrichshof commune. The speaker, an Englishman now working in Holland, had been a member for nine years. He had witnessed the way in which the group was transformed from a radical left-wing group into something which was cultic and severely damaging to all those who were members. The level of damage particularly became apparent when these members had to try and live in ordinary society when the whole group was dissolved. The theme of recovery was something I took up in several conversations that I had during the course of the day. More than 90% of the conference participants have been members of extreme groups of one kind or another and so there is a common journey of recovery that is being made by most of the people here. I have found the information that I have obtained about this recovery process far more interesting than details of life in one or other of the various cults. There are many predictable similarities about cult life for those who have experienced it, whether political or religious. The path to health and recovery is however endlessly varied. In one of the presentations it was mentioned that while a member of a cult was still within the group, he was unable to dream. Following his departure, he found that dreams returned. I am still trying to work out the significance of this information but it does indicate that cult membership effects the personality at a very deep level.

On a very mundane level I am learning how to avoid ordering meals that are simply too much for one person to eat. The restaurants seem to pile up food and then provide polystyrene containers for the customer to take much of it away. Today the temperature is expected to reach 100° in the shade. Within the hotel the air-conditioning is so very effective that I have to go outside from time to time to warm up!

Today I am attending a seminar on conversion and deconversion. Because this is an invitation only session, I am hoping that the other participants will have some expertise in this area. It remains to be seen whether my interests will allow me to make a contribution to the discussion or whether I should be there simply to listen and learn. More of that tomorrow, if the frenetic pace of the conference allows me the time to write another blog post. Meanwhile I hope I have encouraged a number of people to join our blog. I hope that they will find the material here and in the future helpful in their particular quests and journeys of discovery.