Tuesday, December 10, 2013

The Culture of Fear

When I started reading Catholic blogs about 4 years ago, I came across the idea of the "culture of death." I think they're onto something, because there is a definite trend towards death in America, whether it's the high abortion rate of Downs infants, glorification of violence, constant war, isolation of the sick and dying, and a general cast-off attitude towards those who are no longer "useful" due to sickness or age. So I'd like to crib the term and say that there is a culture of fear in strict American religious groups.

I say "strict" instead of fundamentalist because it's a broader category. Growing up, I was proudly "not a fundamentalist" even though I had nightmares about going to hell. I couldn't be a fundamentalist, because fundamentalists were Armenian! Likewise, one might say that the SSPX are not fundamentalist because fundamentalists are Protestants. So, in order to be as all-inclusive as possible, I'll be using the words fearful and culture of fear to describe the type of culture I came from.

This is important for those of us who are healing. There is a tendency among fearful groups to see themselves as unique, as totally different from those "cults" and crazies. This is why you have Dominionist groups who proudly smoke pipes (the men that is) and drink expensive microbeers. They need to express their "Christian liberty," to show that they are different from those legalists who abstain from alcohol and tobacco. In fact, the more insistent someone becomes on Christian liberty, the more I look around for exit signs. In my experience, this Christian liberty talk is a smokescreen.

The other way in which fearful groups express their uniqueness is through doctrinal statements. Most of us grew up thinking that cults are defined not by their behavior but by their beliefs. This may sound nutty to the general public, but it's true. My initial training on what constitutes a cult was from reading a book published in the 1960s called "What's the Difference?" I thought for sure this book was out of print - my copy was a tattered paper-back edition from my grandmama's house - but damned if it hasn't been "expanded and updated for the 21st century". This book purported to explain the difference between Real Christians and other religions and cults. The first three chapters were devoted to Catholics, because you can't make this shit up. However, the most damaging section was the grand finale, in which the book listed the warning signs of a cult. As my memory serves, the signs were devoted to particular doctrinal statements such as "Jesus is not fully divine and fully human." Anyone who took this book as Gospel (as I did, and as many Amazon reviewers did) would have not the slightest clue that a cult can believe the Nicene Creed and still be a cult. Not to mention that cults are found in every religious group in the world and that the word cult really just means small religious group, but that's another story. The danger is that in our country, the word cult typically means that a religious group is dangerous to its members - that it engages in mind-control, dictatorship by the leader(s), a lack of privacy, and various other damaging behaviors. Books like What's the Difference? obscure this fact by putting the emphasis on doctrinal purity.

Doctrinal purity is not the end all be all. If I could tell my 10 year old self one thing, that would be it. Love is more important than doctrinal purity. Safety is more important than doctrinal purity. Dignity of the human spirit is more important than doctrinal purity. Freedom of conscience is more important than doctrinal purity.

The culture of fear is a tendency within strict religious groups of any flavor or doctrinal persuasion. There is no doctrinal Creed or statement of belief that will render a group safe from this poison. Being doctrinally correct is no guarantee that you or your children are in a nurturing environment. If that's the case then, how do you know? Outsiders would suggest that "when you know, you know," but this is not helpful for those in toxic religious environments. Part of the package is believing that your group has The Truth, that your own personal feelings are less important than the objective standards of The Group, and that all personal desires are to be subjugated. So it is unlikely that you will simply trust your gut instincts and get the hell out, and it is unlikely that anyone stuck in such a group will take your advice to "trust your feelings." They've been deliberately trained not to.

Since feelings are hard to rely on for those trained against them, perhaps a good hard look at the facts would help. Does any of this sound familiar?

1. Any statements implying that "God is love" are often met with derision or are qualified. You may hear someone say "The Bible says God is 'Holy, Holy, Holy,' not 'Love, Love, Love'." (Direct quote from R.C. Sproul in his video series "Fear and Trembling.") If you mention God's love too much, people become suspect, begin to see you as a liberal or "social justice nut." You may also hear a lot of "God is love, but he is also justice," as if these qualities are at war with one another.

2. Speaking of wars, the words "We are at war with _______" are a constant presence.

3. All of your friends are in that one particular religious group. Not only do you not have any non-Christian friends or close acquaintances, but you don't have any friends outside your denomination.

4. You have been pressured to give up friends or even family members due to their doctrinal beliefs. Or, you have been pressured to shun someone in your fellowship who has transgressed. This shunning can be subtle: it's not always a mass email with a name to avoid.

5. All of your media influences are from a particular point of view. You may have become increasingly particular about your blogs, books, music, etc, to the point that reading anything outside your normal reading list induces fury. This is a bigger problem now than it was when I was growing up thanks to the internet, so even those of us not in fearful groups need to watch out for this.

6. There is a fascination with Hell. One sure-fire (pun intended) way to tell is that anyone who ventures that maybe hell isn't highly populated is promptly dismissed as a heretic. "Goodbye Rob Bell" etc.

7. Your group likes to make fun of other religious groups, sometimes in vicious ways. Your pastor may feel OK with making sexist remarks as long as it's towards liberal women (or conservative, depending on the group. I'm not giving liberals a pass here either). If hateful words are not always viewed as sinful, that's a huge warning flag.

8. Your group has a list of proof-texts that it uses as the ultimate zingers. A proof-text doesn't have to be hateful on the surface: many health and wealth groups may use "For I know the plans I have for you says the Lord...". These "nice" verses can become weapons towards someone whose mother died because they "didn't pray hard enough."

9. And, your group likes to make fun of other groups' proof texts. You can't make this shit up. We used to joke that everyone in "secular culture" knew John 3:16, and to tell the truth we weren't that keen on that verse because it said "For God so loved the world." I have been guilty of this too, more times than I can count. As a kid I used to "correct" my Baptist teachers' Armenian proof texts with my Calvinist proof texts, and yep, you could cut the irony with a knife. (Has anyone done a comic strip of this? The Calvinist proof text light saber verses the Armenian proof text light saber? This needs to happen.)

10. Your group has strict rules, but they are different rules than other groups, which means that you value Christian liberty. This may sound crazy to an outsider, but this is a real problem in fearful groups. As I mentioned above, it is trendy for Christian men to drink alcohol and smoke pipes (not cigarettes, those are gauche) in the name of "Christian liberty," while in the background their wives plan a purity ball for their daughters. Fundamentalism doesn't always look like a Jack Chick tract, and it probably doesn't call itself fundamentalist. It may go out of its way to be "not legalistic," which makes it hard to put your finger on the problem. There are fundamentalists who sport visible tattoos, cuss, wear jeans to church, listen to rap, wear long hair or shave their heads, and to all outer appearances look like hipsters. By the time you realize that the group is, in fact, a fearful group, it might be too late. And yes, I am thinking of Mars Hill Church in Seattle, but this could apply to other groups as well. The rules may not be obvious when you're joining, because fearful groups excel at subtlety and manipulation. But once you've crossed the line, you'll know it immediately.

11. And yes, I am going to bring up gender and feminism, but with a caveat.  You may remember the raids on FLDS camps in 2008 and 2010, and the discovery of child marriages to men in their 40s and 50s. Well, it doesn't always look like that. It can also be subtle, and to outer appearances it can look like honoring women rather than subjugating them. That's why I would argue that instead of saying "all fearful groups hate women," it would be more accurate to say "all fearful groups obsess about gender." There are million different ways to do this, and not all of them are obvious. I mean, if your group says that women have no greater value than babies and forbids getting a college education then yep, that's your clue. Unfortunately, it's usually not that simple. Not all fearful groups forbid pants, but many do say things like "ladies, let's be charitable to our brothers in Christ who are suffering from lust." This is code for "if a man lusts it's your fault, and we will shame you for it." Not all fearful groups are like the Westboro Baptists, but many do assume that all homosexuals were abused by their parents or other authority.

12. And the biggest tip-off of all? That you are constantly looking at a group that is stricter than yours and mocking everything about them. You come up with names like "rad trad" or "TR" or hyper-Calvinist. You make a big deal of anyone who believes in "work salvation," and you hold up your doctrinal statement of Sola Fide as proof that you are a grace-filled congregation. You believe in "once saved always saved," so it's OK to shun backsliders because clearly "they were never really saved." You like to think of yourselves as hip because your worship team plays the drums, and you make fun of "Gothardites" who forbid rock music. You think that because your group has "denominational oversight" (i.e. isn't congregationalist) that you are free from the danger of a demagogue.

Groups like this are can be as big as a huge denomination or as small as a single congregation. In the days of the Internet, these groups can also be bigger than any one strictly defined group: it can be a publishing company that sells its goods to millions of families, or a highly-influential speaker who is revered by his or her listeners. What these groups have in common is the need for control. They are primarily concerned with worldly success, no matter how "other-worldly" they might seem. I grew up in the thick of multiple groups, with various degrees of overlap, and I have seen first-hand the devastation that can become of the one attitude that holds their members together:

"It can't happen to us."

**Note: I do not endorse the links that I provided, and perhaps it was a bad idea to list them, but I wanted to give examples. These are extremely influential groups that are not beholden to any one church or denomination, and therefore are more dangerous than groups like the Westboro Baptists, which is really just one family in Kansas.

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