Monthly Archives: September 2017

The Road to Hell

Last Sunday, along with many churches throughout the country, we celebrated Harvest Festival. In the Anglican church there are three or four harvest hymns which are only chosen for this particular Sunday. One of them is ‘Come ye thankful people come’. Although I have sung this hymn every year for the past 60+ years, I have never paused to consider the meaning of all the words in the verses. The first verse speaks of gathering in the harvest before the winter storms begin. But then the tone of the hymn shifts. Humanity is likened a massive planting of seeds in a world which is ‘God’s own field’. But the planting contains both wheat and tares. We are thus exploring the parable told by Jesus in Matthew 13. 24-30. Verse 3 of the hymn introduces us to the prospect of a final day when a large section of humanity (the tares) will be cast by angels into the fire. What began as a cheerful celebration of the harvest becomes a hymn that sets out the horror of eternal damnation for some.

The idea that even a part of humanity is to be purged and cast into an eternal fire is, when we think about it, a shocking thing to believe. Like most of my readers I have not really before dwelt on the meaning of this well-known hymn. Although the parable of the wheat and the tares is familiar to me, I had always read it as a story. As a story it seemed to be expressing a hope that in God’s Kingdom justice would prevail and his will be done. The binding of the tares and their burning was not the part of the parable that I dwelt on. Certainly, I did not read it, as the hymn writer has done, as a literal description of what God intends to do, either now or in the future.

The question of whether the New Testament is ever describing a real literal place called hell is a debate that continues to this day. A majority who wish to soften the harsh edges of this teaching point to one constant refrain in the teaching of Jesus, ‘do not be afraid’. If Jesus had in any way focussed on the possibility of hell, his disciples might well have reacted with terror to such teaching. It is a topic of teaching that can make anyone who hears it and believes it utterly demoralised and afraid. The best words to describe the likely state of fear is to speak of abject terror. Sometimes I suspect that some preachers want to produce this state of fear as a deliberate tool of control over their congregants. It was certainly a constant theme of teaching in the notorious ministry of Michael Reid at Peniel Church Brentwood.

Today even among evangelical writers there has been a tendency to soften the teaching about hell. One approach has been to suggest that those who do not reach the state of bliss we call heaven, enter a state of extinction. But equally there are writers like David Pawson who want to maintain the belief in a literal hell complete with flames and eternal torture. Back in the 90s he wrote a complete book, The Road to Hell, promoting the idea of everlasting torment as being part of God’s plan. This was to answer the teaching of other evangelicals who had gone, in his estimation, soft on the issue.

I am fully aware of all the passages in the New Testament that seem to speak of everlasting pain and damnation for the unsaved. As I have already indicated the fact that Jesus speaks of eternal torment in the context of a parable does not lead to a conclusion that he regards this as part of the nature of God. Reward and punishment in the context of a story may just be part of a metaphor about good and evil. This metaphor may be a way of struggling with the conundrum that we live in an imperfect world. Some things we have to leave in God’s keeping. Human sin as well as natural evil are allowed to exist in this world and perhaps it is futile to believe we can understand its meaning this side of the grave.

The belief that some individuals are destined for a place of eternal torment also can create an utterly repulsive attitude among ‘good’ Christians. As a writer, Carol Meyer, has said: ‘We can readily see the arrogant and callous self-righteousness that a belief in hell engenders. The “saved” proudly assert that they are going to heaven, with nary a care that everyone else will suffer for eternity. They might even glory in the damnation of others’. Any group of Christians that spends time or energy speculating about who is going to hell and who not may develop attitudes of smugness which can only be described as obscene.

What are the arguments that allow us to take a gentle, even liberal, attitude to the question of what happens to individuals when they die? In the face of the quotations that appear to promote eternal punishment for some, we have two New Testament principles that argue definitively against the idea of a God who is waiting to punish human souls. The first argument is one we have already mentioned. Jesus constantly calls on his disciples not to fear. We can go further than this and say that his call always seems to be one of encouragement and support. We get the feeling that Jesus wants his disciples to be men and women of adventure. We never get the sense that those who turned away were destined for eternal punishment. Rather we have the feeling that Jesus is focused on getting people to live life in a richer, deeper or fuller way than simply living according to selfish desires. Not to follow him is seen somehow as the missing of an opportunity. The Greek word for sin, as many of us know, has nothing to do with evil. It has the meaning of missing the mark. Those who do not follow the message of Jesus can be said to be missing out on something, the opportunity to live better lives.

A further argument which goes against the idea of a vengeful God bent on punishing those who do not turn to him is indicated by many of the parables. Many of them picture a God who is patient and loving. The character of the father in the story of the prodigal son is one who waits patiently. God as represented by this father has an infinite capacity, not only for patience but also for forgiveness. The same characteristics are seen in Jesus himself. He spent a great deal of time in the company of individuals who were being utterly rejected by the Jewish spiritual establishment.

The arguments about the existence of hell do not depend on particular quotations that can be extracted from the New Testament. They are answered far more clearly by our realisation that Jesus came to reveal a God of love, forgiveness and patience. God also wants to arm us against the paralysing fear that would make life in all its fullness so difficult to find or to live. It is for these reasons that I found myself unable to sing most of verse 3 of the harvest hymn last Sunday.

The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump

On the 3rd October, there will be an important event in American publishing. That is the day when a book entitled The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump is published. It is the work of 27 psychiatrists, psychologists and mental health experts who have cooperated to assess President Trump’s mental health. This book is thus not one individual sounding off with his pet theory about the president. It is the psychological community coming together to express a consensus about what they see in their president and why it is they are fearful for the future.

The full contents of the book have obviously yet to be revealed. But, one of the contributors is a distinguished academic who has been writing for 55 years on such things as brain-washing, cults and the behaviour of groups. His ideas have influenced many other writers and researchers who have come after him. His name is Robert Lifton and long-term readers of this blog will know that that I have discussed his ideas before. In describing something about the book, The Dangerous Case, Lifton gives us a statement of what appears to him to be the fundamental problem with the psychological functioning of the president. It is this short summing up of the problem of Trump’s mental health which I want to share with my readers. I do this, not least because it describes a pathology sometimes found in religious circles and among church leaders.

Lifton uses a word which I have to confess was unfamiliar to me until I looked it up on an on-line dictionary a month ago. The word is solipsistic. It means focusing only on things and people that protect and work for the interests of the self. This reality that is created by concentrating on the self and its needs is described by Lifton as the solipsistic reality. In every decision made there is the same question. ‘What is in this for me? How can I gain something from this?’ If the reality presented has nothing to offer to one’s advantage, then it is ignored or pushed aside. Solipsism is perhaps a normal part of being a business man when you make rapid calculations as to whether a deal will profit the company or firm. But, as Lifton points out, it is a disastrous position to hold when you are running a huge country and have responsibilities for the whole world.

I thought about the accusation against Trump and realised that a lot of people think in the same way. The ‘what’s in this for me?’ question is likely to dominate the awareness of many people, from small infants onwards. Nevertheless, the hope of Christian education is that when love comes to be internalised, the possibility of true altruism becomes actualised in the individual. Developing altruistic motives for our actions is a gradual process. All too often we find ourselves slipping back into making decisions that ultimately benefit only ourselves. But even if we fail the solipsism test from time to time, I think it is true for most of us that we have at least the imagination to know what an utterly unselfish action might look like. We can normally imagine what another person is thinking or feeling. Our response towards them, at least sometimes, is conducted in such a way that our own feelings or interests are put firmly to one side. In short, the solipsistic reality is not the only or even the dominant reality in our lives.

According to Lifton, every decision made by Donald Trump seems always to involve something calculated to benefit him. Sometimes the benefits are financial; on other occasions, the reward is emotional. A speech given in a political rally seems to be about making Trump feel loved by his supporters rather than serving any serious purpose. Even his recent consorting with Democratic politicians seems to have been effort to curry favour with his liberal critics. But the point of this post is not really to be talking about Trump. His name comes up once more because he reminds us of a type of leadership which we find among religious leaders who exploit power for selfish ends. Lifton’s category of people living in a ‘solipsistic reality’ seems to embrace this band of leaders as well.

I have been recently once more studying the Langlois report on Peniel Church and ministry of Michael Reid and I see solipsism as a key reality there too. Without laying out in detail all the crimes of which Reid and his henchmen stand accused, the naked examples of abuse of power in that church over a long period of time are classic examples of self-serving behaviour. Imaginative altruistic care of others became impossible when there was so much concentration on the amassing of wealth and gaining power. We might speculate that when the possession of a power which cannot be challenged is achieved, those who wield this power adopt a solipsistic personality disorder. It will always be highly dangerous for those around. Lifton’s conclusion is that Trump’s ‘solipsistic reality will be the source of his removal from the presidency.’

We will see whether the book due out on October 3rd will have any impact on the political scene in the States. Meanwhile I have acquired a new word to describe a temperament which has utter contempt for the true feelings or needs of another person. When such behaviour creeps into the church we find that we are in a dark place. Evoking the power of God to prop up human solipsistic tendencies is a hard thing to battle against. The person we face may well have lost his or her connection to any altruism they may once have possessed. In the place of human love, we may see the dark face of an utterly inflexible exercise of power. This is the power which seeks to do nothing more than to serve the emotional needs of the bully.

Can we find forgiveness for abuse?

Today, following the Joint Lectionary followed by many of our churches, we heard the parable of the man who was forgiven a huge debt by a king. He then went on to harass a fellow servant for a relatively modest sum of money. The story ends badly with the indebted man being sent off to be tortured in prison till the vast debt was paid back. Clearly this was never going to happen. A recent document has been published by the Faith and Order Commission of the Church of England which discusses another story in the Bible which ends without resolution. The paper, entitled Forgiveness and Reconciliation in the Aftermath of Abuse, consists of some 80 pages and asks how whether forgiveness is ever possible in the context of child abuse. To make the point about how difficult forgiveness can be in such a situation, the reader is reminded of the story of Tamar in 2 Samuel 13. The episode of her rape is clearly the beginning of a period in King David’s reign marked by violence, injustice and a general sense of moral disintegration. The story of Tamar has nothing in the way of a happy ending. Although the reflections on Tamar’s story are only part of the Commission’s report I want to look at this biblical passage because it raises issues which will be of concern to readers of this blog.

Tamar was one of the daughters of David who met the cruel fate of being raped by her half-brother Amnon. It is quite clear from the account of the story in 2 Samuel 13 that Tamar was tricked by her abuser. Amnon pretended to be ill and Tamar was forced to come to him in his bedchamber to bring food. This was the opportunity for the vicious sexual attack. The Faith and Order Commission Report helpfully discusses the episode beyond the actual rape event and shows how all the other characters in the story responded in a less than helpful way. David as the father of both victim and perpetrator might have been expected to demand justice for Tamar in this situation or at least offer some kind of emotional support. Even if the results of the sexual attack could never be undone, some reaction was called for. David would have known that the rape rendered Tamar unclean, unable to marry and without any future within his court. Her shame and disgrace were complete even though she played no part in creating this situation. After covering herself with ash to signify her state of dishonour, Tamar simply disappears from the biblical narrative. All that we hear of David’s reaction is that he was angry but he takes no action.

The reaction of Tamar’s other brother, Absalom, was somewhat different. He nursed a desire for revenge against Amnon for over two years. Eventually Amnon was invited to a feast and Absalom orders one of his slaves to kill him. This naturally set up a strained relationship with David his father. This was one of the causes of the eventual civil war between father and son.

The story of Tamar is still one that should be considered today. We need first of all to note that the story’s outcome as recorded in Scripture is somewhat bleak. As we have seen, there is no happy ending or any kind of moral resolution. Severe abuse happens and everyone skirts around the real problems that need to be resolved. Similar events happen in churches today but often cowardice, denial and even niceness take over. From our perspective of today we recognise that certain things should happen in this kind of situation. Tamar was clearly a victim but she failed to receive either support or any kind of access to justice. Even the anger that David is reported to have expressed seems to be more about his own failure to manage his family than any feeling for Tamar’s predicament. It reminds one of a bishop appearing to care more the reputation of his diocese than any compassion for a suffering victim. A daughter had been cruelly treated but the only concern of the father seems to have been that fact that he was being made to look bad. Absalom’s reaction was equally unhelpful. No support to his sister was offered. He went off to nurse his murderous rage. Such anger was not going to help Tamar or further the cause of justice. Thus both Tamar’s close relatives failed. She was condemned to a living hell of social and psychological shame.

The Commission Report explores how costly it is to resolve a situation of abuse. The Old Testament account of Tamar gives us no suggestion as to how we should move forward in this kind of situation. It is hard to know in the context of the time what should have happened to Amnon for his crime. Perhaps exile might have been appropriate. Anything would have been better than the disastrous fractricide that did take place at the command of Absalom. In a contemporary setting we also know that punishments and reparations really only make sense when the full impact of the original offence has been owned up to by the perpetrators. Our gospel reading this morning speaks about forgiveness as though it is always an option for us to choose. The sexual abuse of children or the act of rape are in fact difficult to forgive because the effects can be so long lasting. When are we right to suggest that a survivor or victim of such abuse should forgive the perpetrator when they are still suffering decades later? Clearly forgiveness is something to aimed at but any suggestion that the process should be in any way hurried is an insult to the needs of victims and survivors.

The Tamar story with its failure to reach any kind of ‘happy’ ending is a salutary lesson for us as we grapple with the horror of abuse wherever it occurs. When abuse happens in the context of a church, there should be a recognition that there are no magic short cuts provided by the fact of Christian discipleship. There is the same need for justice to be served; the need of support for the victims is paramount. Also, the Christian may need to recognise that real evil is being encountered in many of these situations. It needs to be named and confronted squarely. Forgiveness of sin can never be divorced from the hard struggle to tackle the reality of evil and power abuse that exists in the psyche of so many, even Christians. That will always be a tough challenge.

The Christian pilgrimage and the pursuit of joy

People who attend authoritarian churches do not necessarily get abused in ways we have described in this blog. But the fact remains that when there is an authoritarian dynamic where spiritual power is used to emphasise constantly sin, salvation and eternal punishment, there will likely be an oppressive and heavy atmosphere. It is difficult to draw the dividing line between an oppressive atmosphere and one that should be named as abusive. That is something that needs to be debated. Nevertheless, there is one generalisation that is safe to make. In most, if not all, authoritarian churches there is an absence of joy.

In a conversation, someone once spoke to me about the facial expression that he most associated with a conservative Christian. He described what he called the ‘evangelical grin’. I knew exactly what he was talking about. It was an individual making a deliberate effort to indicate to the world that his opinions, beliefs and way of life were perfect. Given this perfection of his church, his minister and the teaching that is promoted there, the conservative Christian has a duty to give expression to his happiness, hence the evangelical grin. Those of us looking into the eyes of a Christian with this expression can see that this grin does not necessarily denote any real joy. Although this Christian has been given a promise of eternal salvation, uncertainties and real fears still abound. All the safety acquired through conversion can be lost if the relationship with his/her church is in any way changed. Any kind of disagreement or falling out with the minister could also place in jeopardy a hard-won salvation. Likewise doubts or uncertainties on doctrine would have potentially drastic consequences. Although I personally have never been in this situation, the experience of many Christians in this authoritarian tradition must be a bit like walking along a tight-rope. Unless one is tremendously careful, it is easy to fall off the rope and plummet to a place of abandonment and utter despair.

The gift that should be on offer within every Christian church should be the gift of joy. When I speak about joy I am of course not thinking about what lies behind the evangelical grin. Joy comes, not as a result of having the right beliefs and belonging to a church which is thought to be near perfect; it emerges from a sense that one is on a journey which is in some way within the will of God. The Christian pilgrim, if I may describe him/her as such, is not defined because they are Catholic, Protestant or conservative evangelical. A pilgrim may be any of these but the journey he/she is travelling will be marked by an inner freedom to follow the path which is believed to be given to them by God. In that journey is the gift of joy. Joy represents a complete opposite of the kind of coercive control that marks the life of many Christians who belong to authoritarian communities. So much teaching in these churches is based on terror. If you do not believe what we teach or conduct your lives as you are told, you are destined for hell. How can joy ever come into that environment? How can a Christian grow spiritually or emotionally when the whole setting of their Christian life is rooted in this fear?

Every Christian has a right to experience joy. If such joy is absent in a particular Christian community then that Christian has every right to move on elsewhere in order to find it. The gift of joy is providing every Christian pilgrim with a sense of direction, freedom and independence. A leader who provides these gifts is a bit like a parent who strives to provide the children with the means to live independent lives. Such a parent is constantly finding ways to surrender the power that he/she had been given at the beginning when the children first arrived in the world. Parental power to protect and guide was then a necessity for the flourishing of the children in those early years. Now the same power has to be surrendered so that emerging adult/mature Christian may claim for him/herself the freedom and joy of the individual who wants to make their own way in the world.

Readers of this blog will recognise this much-repeated theme. Spiritual abuse is possible when church leaders retain the authority and power of parents who cannot let go. In contrast, the freedom loving parent will be anxious to lead children into a way of joy. I would like to suggest that every church should take a test to see if they are promoting joy. Over the door might be an invisible slogan. ‘In this church we teach joy’. Underneath the slogan there could be further words. ‘In this church there is no cause for us to teach fear, control or power games. If you enter here we shall try to bring you to an experience of Life in all its fullness; you will be doing this with fellow pilgrims who are also making this journey. Come and join us. In the name of Christ, you are truly welcome.’

Church as a family

When I began my study of the phenomenon of abusive churches some 20 years ago, there was no conceptual model around to help me see what might be going on in these communities. Two questions loomed large. One was why anyone would want to attend a church where they might come to harm. The second question was why there should be Christian leaders prepared to exploit their followers. My reading over the years has helped me towards answers to both these questions. While I obviously cannot rehearse all these answers in a short blog, I wanted today to share a very helpful model that I came across as I struggled to begin to understand the mystery of church abuse. One very helpful book that I came across early in my studies was entitled Righteous Religion. This book likened and compared the church to a human family. Just as the good healthy family allows the children to flourish and grow to maturity in a safe, secure environment, so a dysfunctional family cramps and restricts the personalities of the children through a regime of fear, control and coercion. The same contrast can be found in churches. Some allow their members to grow to spiritual maturity while others control the development of their members so that there is little in the way of spiritual flourishing or joy.

In describing two models of family, church or human, Righteous Religion describes the difference between conditional and unconditional love. Conditional love is the kind that is only offered when a child (parishioner) pleases the parent by a rigid conformity to the parent’s wishes and desires. Unconditional love on the other hand, is one that allows a child to grow through mistakes as well as pursue his or her own interests. There is never too much in the way of control over these emerging events. The love that is expressed for the child will never be destroyed however much the child may appear to rebel and chafe against the discipline of living in a family.

The positive experience of church for many people is much like the experience of growing up in a family. Some things that a family offers are also offered by a church. A human family offers (or should offer) protection, love, food, shelter, and education. Although these needs are not precisely the same as those offered by a church, a growing child might well understand a church as being like a second home. The church will be an important part of the way that a child comes to be socialised and educated in learning to be part of the wider community beyond the home. The church community in turn is a prelude to recognising we are part of a worldwide community. It does not need to be emphasised how important church belonging can play in the rearing of a child.

An abusive church is likely to have much in common with a family where love is conditional. Some styles of Christian teaching seem to imply that God’s love is somehow conditional to our believing and behaving in a defined way. Although most of us find in Scripture the central proclamation that God loves us unconditionally, there are many churches where the message received is that God is preoccupied in punishing eternally those who do not turn to him. It is of course possible to read certain passages in this way but this is not the teaching of the Prodigal Son or the central thrust of Scripture. The model for human families that we applaud is one where love is offered unconditionally. Can we really believe that God is like an angry parent who withholds his love except for those children who successfully negotiate a long narrow list of commands?

The family model that seems to be followed in certain conservative Christian communities is similar to one known in Victorian times. Then the ideal father was one who maintained strict authority through the exercise of fear. This whole process of comparing the church to styles of family life and parenting models is one I have found helpful. Just as we rightly shrink from a model of child-rearing which emphasises terror, fear and threats, so we should also purge church communities of the message that God’s love is withheld from individuals and groups that a minister does not approve of. Exclusion of despised minorities was never something that Jesus did. We also should uphold at every point the message that God includes all and that it is never for us to declare that his love is anything other than unconditional.