The dark side of Charisma

In thinking about what we call charisma in the setting of history, it is hard not to notice two extremes. On the one hand, we can speak about the charisma of St Francis of Assisi. He changed the spiritual atmosphere of the entire Christian world during his lifetime. At the other extreme we see a dark charisma at work among the German people through the work of Hitler. Whether we like it or not, these two individuals are in some way linked. They both had the ability to change people’s thinking and imagination through the use of rhetoric and charisma.

In this post, I want to think about the way that this power we describe as charisma is simultaneously immensely creative as well as sometimes enormously destructive. Many years ago, I listened to a sermon given by Archbishop Michael Ramsey when he was preaching at a confirmation service. No doubt he was using an image which he had used many times before but it was no less powerful for his hearers. He spoke about the Holy Spirit as fire. Fire, he explains, has various properties. First, it has the capacity to give light in a dark place. Secondly it is a source of warmth for a place that is cold. Thirdly flame can transform water into energy, as we see in a steam engine. There may have been other facets of fire which he spoke about but I only remember these three. Each of these facets of flame are good examples of the way that the Holy Spirit can energise and empower a Christian individual who is open to receive this divine energy.

While remembering this simple Christian image from decades ago, I have also come to see that there is a further aspect of fire which Michael Ramsey did not speak of. Fire, of course, has the capacity to destroy and consume anything that gets too close to it. I am wondering whether this negative aspect of fire should be added to our likening of fire to the Holy Spirit and the so-called Charismatic Movement. When I review the history of spirit filled Christians over the last 50 years, I see a story not just of transformed spiritual individuals, but also of leaders who have been led astray by power. To use the metaphor that we have from Archbishop Ramsey, we might suggest that destructive aspects of fire also can be seen in the abusing of power by some charismatic Christian leaders. Both the leaders and the led are in some way scorched and damaged by being caught up in the primal dynamic of charisma when it shows us its dark side. Self-aggrandisement and self-serving behaviour by charismatic leaders can lead to a situation of terrible harm being perpetrated on the followers in a congregation.

In thinking about this way that Christian charisma has sometimes revealed its dark side, it is helpful to retain this image of a flame that burns. Every parent teaches their child to avoid an open flame. Flames are dangerous and we need to keep our distance at all times. The same lesson is true for an involvement with a charismatic event. An encounter with God the Holy Spirit is something to be treated with awe and a considerable amount of respect. Sometimes the charismatic experience can touch the individual in positive ways, allowing through that experience the discovery of new gifts. Even when charisma is linked to such things as gifts of healing, discernment or prophecy, these gifts do not create supermen or women. Still less should we assume that the acquisition of charismatic gifts gives an individual a right to an authority to take power over others, purely on the grounds that they feel important.

In my past writing about the abuse of power in the church, I have been very conscious of numerous examples where charismatic power in an individual has changed to become a tyrannical abusive power over others. Over recent weeks the blog which looks at the terrifying history of the Peniel Church in Brentwood has sprung back into life. Once again, the readers of the blog are being reminded of the history of a church where hundreds of church members were abused or betrayed over 20 to 30 years. Michael Reid, the former leader and chief abuser, is probably now a spent force. Although he claims to run a congregation, he suffers from ill-health as well as isolation from his own family. While Reid has been publicly shamed for an extensive list of abuses, he still regards himself as a powerful Christian healer. Somehow the memory of his claimed miracles is supposed to mitigate or even excuse the abuses of which he is accused. It is clear to me that even genuine unexpected healings do not excuse evil abusive behaviour. Through a combination of hypnosis, crowd dynamics and the exercise of charisma, Reid was able to effect changes in individuals. Some episodes, even allowing for exaggeration, might be objectively claimed as genuine healings. This power of charisma has a strange way of being able to work even with those who abuse it or seek to use it for their own selfish ends.

I call this post the dark side of charisma as a way of exploring the fact that something normally good can quite easily slip into something evil or abusive. Power can be used to empower others, but equally it can be used to exploit. Words, as Jesus reminded us in last Sunday’s gospel, can be used to articulate the evil flowing from the heart of individuals. We also know how words can and do the opposite.

To return to Michael Ramsey sermon, it will always be important to recognise how something that is good can be easily distorted or damaged. The same flame that gives light, warmth and energy is the same as the one which can destroy. May all of us recognise the capacity of the good to be swiftly turned into something that can be evil and destructive. Our selfish hankering for self-importance, power and dominance can so easily overtakes our desire to love, serve and respect others.

About Stephen Parsons

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

2 thoughts on “The dark side of Charisma

  1. Thanks Stephen. This links in with thoughts I have had since your last post, on the UCCF claim that the Bible is ‘infallible’
    I noted that the Bible itself makes no such claim, but that the word of God is often described by metaphor. It is like a hammer which breaks the rock in pieces (Jeremiah) or like a sword which sifts the purposes and thoughts of the heart (Hebrews).
    The fire metaphor which spoke to you is another example. I think you are wise to note the destructive property of fire. Metaphors and images invite reflection , as did the parables of Jesus.
    Also on the claim to be infallible, I cannot think of any other context in life where the word is used. The handbook for my car is good, but I am always aware that the car I actually have may have been changed a little since the book was printed. And even the hand wash on our sink only claims to remove 99.9% of germs . . !
    Can we see a principle here that the Bible writers wanted to encourage thought, whereas a doctrinal statement wants to channel it, set up boundaries and the like?
    I have never been keen on doctrinal statements, and perhaps this is why.

  2. Within the church, the idea that an individual, usually a priest, is “OK” because he’s a fine preacher, or a faithful visitor of the sick, is frequently used to excuse abuse. Either to say that he can’t have done it, or to say that it’s not so bad because of his evident gifts. (Or her evident gifts) So silly. A thief is still a thief if he is kind to his wife and children! I think I remember last week’s gospel, but I’d like a mention of what it was, in case! And it would also be useful for those who are not on the Common Lectionary, and those looking in another week.

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