*Trigger Warning:* Bad religion, abuse, suicide.
It’s been a tough week. Couple of weeks, really. About a month ago an old friend of mine suicided. He’d been having trouble for quite a while. Long story.
He’d been dealing with some of the same issues that trouble me, with depression and so on. The hangover of church indoctrination.
My friend, I’ll call him “John,” had a lot going for him as I remember him when we first met, probably 25 years ago now. He was reasonably intelligent, fairly well educated, not bad looking and quite friendly. A chirpy little green eyed blonde with braces and a bit of a lisp. Great sense of humour. His family hailed from Sydney and both parents were professionals, so he had some resources available on top of his education to get him sorted and on his way in life. Unfortunately he got involved in the same church I had become caught up in during a vulnerable period. I can’t imagine what his parents feel. Ugh. All that potential. All that life, derailed and crushed. Christ, I’m gonna cry again.
One might call it a church, but it would be more honestly described as a cult. Not that they call themselves cults, of course. They talk about living a better life, being a better person, making the world a nicer place and all the loving god and loving your neighbour stuff. It’s not until a way down the track that you start having trouble, things don’t add up and you find yourself realising the devotees have cut off contact with family and friends. Or sold their car or house to give money “to the church”. Which actually means handing over cash to the pastor’s family. Who all have their own quite nice homes and cars, and make a tax free living off the church members, mind you.
This church runs the “Bible college” that John and I attended. It’s a private affair like many of the pentecostal/fundamentalist groups have these days. They teach western fundamentalist traditions, trying to read the bible literally as a scientific or factual document which is hugely problematic since it wasn’t written as such. But far more troubling than the detail of the teaching is the emotional manipulation with which it is enforced in the members. I’m a bit at a loss as for how to describe it, but imagine someone being so caught up in a belief that they get it into their heads that if they sell their family home, the roof over their and their children’s heads, they’ll be demonstrating their love for god and separation from the carnal and corrupt natural world. Imagine someone who feels that they might be in danger of spending an eternity in hell, boiling alive forever in a lake of fire, if they continue contact with family members who are not also devotees of the church. And of course there’s the demon possession and exorcisms.
Anyone who questions the church’s teachings or seems to be thinking for themselves may be hinted as having a contrary or rebellious spirit. Any woman who displays anything like a spine is probably possessed by the spirit of Jezebel. Women have to be seen to be obedient to their husbands and/or church leaders. The medieval gender roles are strictly enforced. I can recall the trainee pastors being instructed to always refer to a couple’s children as his children, as that made it more difficult for an abused wife to leave. It was known that it was hard for a woman to leave her children and that was exploited in order to keep them in the group and subservient.
After about ten years of this, thinking I was doing the right thing but somehow going crazy, I had to leave behind my two very young children and flee pretty much with the clothes on my back. The guilt I felt was horrific, but trying to live with the church and its teachings was so much worse.
Like many others, including John, eventually I went back to study. I needed some way to make sense of what had happened and sort out what I had been taught. Or have another go at “serving god” and acting out the programming. It’s pretty telling to note that the professors and tutors in the “progressive” college that I attended later went out of their way to put people in contact with counselling services and to speak openly and frequently on the emotional difficulties that students often experienced when they started learning the rest of the story.
Calling the history and archaeology of the church and its early origins “progressive” is probably a bit misleading. It’s not going anywhere forward, it’s simply not entrenched in blinkered tradition. “Progressive” theology is merely theology as distinct from misogynist, homophobic, exploitative fundamentalism. The reason why so many students have so much trouble is not the information itself. No one in their right mind really believes that stone age property laws really apply to women today or that they’re inferior to men. Given the chance to have a good, clear look at it, people don’t actually believe they were possessed by a demon when they thought twice about selling their car to give money so the pastor could go overseas. It’s the emotional exploitation that is involved in all this. You have to feel pretty bloody guilty or fearful to believe that you might be in danger of burning in hell if you don’t sell your car. And it requires a whole group of people surrounding you, enforcing the views and interpretations, in order for it to seem real. When everyone’s crazy, crazy seems normal. Hence cutting off contact with non-members. When that contact is restored and one sees one’s behaviour in the light of day, it’s a painful time. A lot of people have enormous trouble with it. They find out that everything they’ve based their lives and beliefs on is essentially a fabrication. A lie. Not only have they been suckered into believing something that has no basis in fact, it’s irrelevant as far as their spiritual life is concerned. And they may well have spent years, wasted years of their life, following in good faith, teaching that is in someone else’s interest at their expense.
And that’s a lingering pain. A “long, dark night of the soul.” Some people heal to a degree and go on with their lives and jobs coping with the continuing sense of emptiness and exploitation. Others are so betrayed that they suffer much, much more. The student of theology who moves on from fundamentalist or charismatic tradition to an academic study of the cultures and era of the origins of the bible discovers that the tradition is simply that. A fancy. A set of teachings handed down by word of mouth, largely, from one ignorant or fraudulent preacher to the next. Loose interpretations and misreadings of the words of the bible with no attempt to put them in context. Twisted to serve political purposes. And the brainwashing, abuse and manipulation is required to con people into accepting what is patently unbelievable and harmful.
But what is worse. What is so much worse, is that after a time one discovers that people know. They know. Those who teach these regressive, malignant traditions know that they’re only made up teachings and that they do damage. But they do it anyway. And they’re allowed to go on doing it because it’s politically expedient. The politicians who fund the churches and who are elected by votes from the devotees… They know.
The church that caused a breakdown and marriage breakdown for me, that caused so much heartache for John, has not only not been called out and investigated as a cult or shut down, it now has government funding to continue its teaching. Other groups with similar fundamentalist beliefs, whether conservative in appearance like the Brethren and Sydney Anglicans, or loud and demonstrative like Hillsong, continue to teach these traditions and bludgeon people’s minds into the stone age, with government approval.
In our most recent State Government budget we saw cuts to funding for trades and health while church schools and prisons were given hundreds of millions of dollars more. With a smile on his face, our Premier speaks of these policies. Support of the groups that are sticking with teachings that have been known to be both false and harmful for hundreds of years. When Darwin’s Origin of the species was first published, rather than there being an outcry about it, the church of England said nothing much, because they’d been teaching for some time that the bible was a mythological work and its importance was one of meaning and Jewish national origins, not anything rational or scientific. There was no conflict. Now though, many groups propose creationism and reject evolution on the grounds that it isn’t biblical. That’s not even traditional, it’s outright regressive. It’s gone backwards. And these teachings are taking our whole society backwards. Putting pressure on education boards to teach creationism and stone age ideas about an eye for an eye.
In the 21st century when the human species could be dealing with issues of global pollution and sustainable living, these groups are getting themselves funded and elected by insisting that gay people are an abomination and should not be permitted to marry or raise children or that men are the head of the house and family violence only occurs when women don’t submit properly. Ideas that became part of the New Testament that had their origins in Roman legal codes. In Roman politics. As is apparent with the agendas of fundamentalist and pentecostal groups that support the idea of “dominion”, in which christian soldiers lord it over the rest of us and enforce their beliefs on society at large, the whole thing is about politics, power and money. They go to great lengths making themselves look good, doing charity work and counselling school children, as a vehicle to promote their organisation and world view. It is deceptive and insidious. It’s not even like any of their work is purposeful. Any of that stuff can be done by secular or public organisations without the strings.
There’s a large body of research into the structure and practice of these groups, the way history has been twisted into their traditions and the way emotional manipulation and abuse is used to con people into supporting fundamentalist ideals and dominionism. Many studies, many papers. And stories by many survivors.
In the end, after more than a decade trying to deal with all this, John came to the end of his tether and checked out. He OD’d and his body was found in a motel room. A human sacrifice to the ghost of Roman politics.