The Bethany Deaton Case: A Blogging and News Roundup

leadThis week I’m very excited to announce that one of my articles is being featured in The Atlantic online.

 

“Seven Signs You’re in a Cult” gives an overview of my time in Tyler Deaton’s prayer group, beginning in 2005 when I met him and Bethany Leidlein and concluding with Bethany’s death in Kansas City in 2012. It was an extremely difficult piece to write, because reliving the emotions associated with that period in my life, and losing her especially, is never easy. There were times when I thought it would never be finished, but I’m pleased with the response it’s been getting. Continue reading

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AIDS, Authoritarians, & the Demon-Possessed Man, Part 2: The Night I Stopped Hating

Tree-of-Life-ShadowIt’s not hard to see how an environment dominated by authoritarians can rapidly take on the contours of a nightmare.

For example, in a 1989 criminal case, psychology student Mary Wegman realized that some of her fellow jurists could not remember important pieces of evidence, invented evidence that did not even exist, and drew faulty conclusions from the evidence that everyone could agree on. (Subsequent tests indicated that each of these jurists scored highly on the RWA scale).

Imagine being the defendant in a trial in which certain jury members, perhaps because of the color of your skin, already presume your guilt and are literally incapable of seeing anything that might contradict it.

It sounds more like a situation out of Franz Kafka or The Twilight Zone, and yet it really happens.

In 1982 seven people died from taking poisoned Tylenol pills. Within two months 31 million bottles had been recalled. The New York Times covered the story over fifty times in the final three months of that year. The FDA immediately established new packaging guidelines and made product tampering a federal crime.

That same year the AIDS epidemic first burst into the national consciousness. Of the 771 people who had been infected, 614 had already died. Yet although this was ten times the number of Tylenol deaths, the New York Times ran only three stories.

The government largely ignored the problem until the end of the Reagan administration. Evangelical Gary Bauer, Reagan’s chief domestic policy advisor, blocked a report from the surgeon general on AIDS in the United States because he believed those who had AIDS deserved to die from it. Nor was this a fringe position. Jerry Falwell said, “AIDS is the wrath of God upon homosexuals.” Said White House communications director Pat Buchanan, “With 80,000 dead of AIDS, 3,000 more buried each month, our promiscuous homosexuals appear literally hell-bent on Satanism and suicide.”

What the media, and the White House, and the general public largely seem to have missed is that actual people were actually dying of a devastating plague, and that a significant number of these cases had not resulted from gay sex. Yet the meme persisted. “People need to awaken to the reality that this so-called love story does not have a happy ending,” said a recent essay, almost gleefully, going on to claim (erroneously) that the average homosexual male has between 200 and 250 partners in his lifetime. AIDS was obviously a gay pandemic (no matter what “science” tells us), and no one who’s gay could possibly be a true Christian… so, largely ignored by the rest of the Christian community, nearly 450,000 Americans died within a twenty-year period.

Here they are, in their own words:

“We were secluded from the rest – sequestered from the rest of the world so it was like where we were living . . . it was war and everywhere else it was peacetime and they didn’t want to know, and that’s how we lived.”

“To be that threatened with extinction and to not lay down, but instead to stand up and fight back – the way we did it, the way we took care of ourselves and each other.  The goodness that we showed, the humanity that we showed the world is just mind-boggling, just incredible.”

index.phpYet AIDS victims and gays continued to be demonized. Just as the Jews were held responsible for the Black Death in 1348, the homosexual community was blamed for terrorist bombings, earthquakes, hurricanes, tornadoes, “and possibly a meteor.” Those who were suffering the most now had to contend with insane allegations about inflicting suffering on others.

The Moment I Realized That Other People Were Human

As one who was raised in a deeply religious and conservative environment, I was good at demonizing other people. Really good at it. In junior high I would gather in the courtyard every morning and give sermons on the dangers of gays, Catholics, and girls in short skirts, which won me a certain amount of popularity. Later in college, the end-times cult that I co-founded aligned itself with a nationally famous, far-right Evangelical ministry that said Jesus was going to return and physically kill thousands of people with his own hands. We were taught to beware the “gay agenda” and to view Christians in other denominations with suspicion. There’s a mass movement of young people doing works of justice, they told us, but because they don’t profess the name of Jesus, it’s a “false justice.”

As I absorbed these teachings my behavior changed radically, and so did that of the cult’s other members. I was belligerent and aggressive towards my gay and atheist friends. My thinking became compartmentalized and I was suddenly unable to have logical discussions. Yet the other cult members told me not to worry about it, said I was being “persecuted” for contradicting “the world’s” teachings. When a fellow student, who had been involved in peaceful demonstrations and interfaith dialogues, was accidentally run over, we celebrated his death as a sign of God’s wrath being poured out on campus.

But then when I moved to Kansas City and started getting punished constantly, something changed inside of me. Something deep and drastic.

It was a long process, but I think the pivotal moment happened one night as I listened to the community praying together from the floor of my bedroom, where I had been consigned following a series of truly disturbing events. Each night the group would gather in a circle and listen for two or three in minutes in silence to hear what “God” was saying. Then they would discuss what they had heard. On this particular evening a woman began the discussion by saying, “I feel like we’re being attacked. There are demons of control coming against us right now.”

The group prayed in silence for a moment longer. Then one girl said, “It’s Boze.” And another girl said, “I just heard the same thing.”

And they spent the next hour praying against me. As I sat there in my room listening to their prophecies about how God was going to “punish” me, at first I wondered what I could have possibly done to upset them. But then I realized: They’re wrong about me, and their prophecies are wrong, and the things they’re hearing from God are wrong. And I can prove it.

And gradually in those next weeks I quit being afraid of them. And though I wouldn’t have said it in so many words, I realized that I could never again single out any other group or person for shame and condemnation. I had been on the wrong end of that, one too many times now. I resolved to become an advocate for all who were trapped in nightmares.

 

We Have to Stop Telling Others That They Don’t Matter

schindlers-listI have a friend who recently came out as bisexual. According to her, there’s nothing particularly unusual or sensuous about it: she just feels safe and warm in the presence of other women.

But when I shared her story with an acquaintance, he dismissed it out of hand. “I see no evidence of genuine love here,” he said. “Just selfishness and lust.”

 It really *hurt* me that he could say such things about another person. To him it didn’t matter what she had gone through. Her story, her experience was irrelevant. He had never felt those emotions, but they were obviously wrong. He didn’t have to listen. He just knew.

A few days later I read the story of a young Jewish woman who converted to Christianity. She’s been routinely dismissed by other Christians because she’s “not like them.” She doesn’t lift her hands when she prays, she doesn’t pray out loud, so she must not be a *real* Christian. It doesn’t matter that these American cultural expressions are alien to her Jewish heritage. Why does she even need a Jewish heritage now that she’s following Christ?

“Everything I learned as a Jew,” she says: “keep prayer to yourself, don’t evangelize because it’s disrespectful, all humans are basically ‘good at heart’ like Anne Frank said in her diary—was not only irrelevant, but *wrong*.”

 I see this happening over and over, and it breaks my heart. Over the weekend when several women were murdered by a deranged man in retaliation for refusing his sexual advances, women on Twitter shared their stories of being harassed, threatened, raped, and then told it was all their fault. The outpouring of grief and anger at a system in which half the population is not safe was, for many, cathartic and healing.

 Yet one very popular blogger dismissed the outcry as a bunch of “liberal feminists” exploiting a tragedy to further their own agenda. The agenda of not wanting to be murdered.

 We have to quit doing this. In a lot of places it seems the only people who matter are white, male Evangelicals. If you’re a woman, gay, Jew, Catholic, artist, writer, Democrat, if you deviate from the “norm” in any way, it’s a safe bet that someone has used the Bible to tell you that you shouldn’t exist, that you’re going to hell. And then when you insist that this is who you are, that you’re a child of God, you’re ignored as though you’d never spoken.

Dismissiveness is dangerous. If we’re able to ignore people when they’re crying out for us to recognize them as people, we would ignore them in situations where their lives are genuinely threatened. We have to start seeing them, caring about them, understanding their stories and being broken over their heartaches. They’re people. They matter. Sometimes the best thing you can do for another person is just to listen and treat them with seriousness and respect.

           

This is What Dangerous Religion Looks Like

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Last year I wrote a post listing the dynamics of dangerous religion. I’ve spent the last year slowly adding to the list as I tweet and write my books and talk to people about the things that really scare them about the churches they’ve come out of. Eventually the list grew so long that I had to divide it into sections, and I’ll probably keep expanding it as time goes on. Please share your own experiences in the comments, and together we can continue to expose all the wrong things in the hope of bringing freedom and justice. Continue reading

Girl At the End of the World: A Review

Girl-at-the-End-of-the-World2-624x469“The most detrimental aspect of my childhood was our preoccupation with End of the World theology.”
— Elizabeth Esther

*        *         *

 

Elizabeth Esther’s new memoir, Girl At the End of the World (Convergent, 2014) is an important book. But it’s also a hard book.

Hard for anyone still recovering from the trauma of being trapped in a fundamentalist cult.

For anyone who has lost loved ones to a twisted ideology masquerading as the one true religion.

For anyone who has ever tried to convince her fellow believers that yes, Christians can be sadistic and abusive and scary and cultish, only to be met with confusion and anger.

* * *

Near the beginning, Elizabeth likens her youth in a Christian end-times cult known as The Assembly to the experience of growing up in a mob family. “Except instead of killing people if they stopped cooperating, we just excommunicated them from our training homes. Religious fervor was all I knew, so my holy mob family felt normal.”

A mob family. I’d never thought about it, but that really is what it feels like.

Just as a thought experiment, I sometimes like to imagine how a cult member would react when shown a movie about a group of people doing the exact same horrible things that are being done in his group. Nine times out of ten I think the comparison would fly over his head, because the movie is about the evil World while the cult is about loving Jesus.

Yet it’s hard to imagine anyone in Goodfellas being as cruel to their family as Elizabeth’s family is to her in the course of this book.

Yes, fundamentalism really does erase people. And when it finds a perceptive, artistic, and free-spirited young woman with a passion for truth, beauty, and justice, a woman like Elizabeth Esther, it erases them harder. It can’t allow them to be themselves, because who they are is dangerous.

It’s true, no one was murdered in Elizabeth’s community, but in a way it doesn’t even matter. When you’re in a cult, everything you are is invalidated.

Your body. The women in her community are strictly policed to ensure that not a hint of curves is ever seen through their clothing. “Better to wear a shapeless sack,” she writes, “than risk clothing that suggests any shape whatsoever.”

Your gender and sexuality. In The Assembly, women have no say in how their own lives are directed. A woman belongs to her dad until she gets married, at which point she belongs to her husband.

Your faith. All forms of Christianity other than the kind practiced by The Assembly are viewed as illegitimate. Elizabeth’s dad sneers at the idea of “good Christians” in other denominations, calling them Pharisees. Anyone who begins to explore other traditions of faith is expelled from the community.

Your talents and passions. Elizabeth’s dad is unable to attend her swim meets because he’s too preoccupied with “issues of Eternal Significance.”

Your dreams for your life. For me the saddest moment in the whole book is when her parents force her to give up her dream job on the high school newspaper staff, effectively destroying her chances of going to a private college. Why? Because she’s not spending enough time doing chores around the house. You see, writing and getting an education and being fulfilled as a human aren’t nearly as important as “doing the Lord’s will.”

This is what it looks like when people are erased.

Yet the group continues to congratulate itself on its holiness. No one listens to secular music. No one drinks alcohol.

As the story winds on, as the catalogue of horrors and abuses grows ever longer, I begin to wonder what any of this has to do with being a Christian.

Take away the superficial religious trappings, and this becomes the story of a sick, twisted system where people were controlled and their personalities quenched of all light, all passion.

I begin to suspect that this is all it ever was: a predatory structure for the enslavement of other human beings. That’s its purpose, the thing it was designed to do.

And people submitted to it without question because they thought it was Jesus.

* * *

In an interview with my friend Teryn at the back of the book, Elizabeth elaborates on her eventual decision to become Catholic. Teryn asks her, “Do you see the Catholic Church as less abusive than Protestantism? . . . Do you feel safer now that you’re Catholic?”

Elizabeth says, “I’m glad I wasn’t the one who said that, because I attract enough controversy as it is! But yes, that is a great insight and I absolutely agree. In fact, this was a huge reason why I joined the Catholic Church. I felt absolutely safe there.”

And no wonder. For the first time in her life, she’s in a spiritual environment where the voice of God isn’t being mediated by some renowned pastor; where she can read the Bible on her own without the interpreting voices of authoritarian fundamentalism; where she can seek the wisdom and solace of Mother Mary without fear of rebuke.

This book affected me on a profound level. I read it in a single day, and for days afterwards I felt sick.

You see, I was in a group similar to Elizabeth’s, a group that was going to pray in the End Times and battle the forces of darkness. My best friend was allegedly murdered by the leader of our cult, a man we all trusted and revered as a spiritual leader. For five years he had been the primary authority interpreting the Scriptures for us. We were sincerely convinced that when we opened the Bible, we were seeing the “plain meaning of Scripture.” He had so colored our perceptions that we read his ideas back into the Bible and thought they were the words of God.

And so when Elizabeth says, “I’m going to the Catholic Church because I don’t know where else to find a way to God that feels safe,” I get that. More than anything else, I think that’s the reason I became Catholic.

Because the Church is a place where the voices of writers and artists and intellectuals and, yes, women, are welcomed and not stifled.

Because Jesus offers himself to us in the Eucharist and I can’t think of a more beautiful demonstration of love than to give us his physical presence.

Because for the first time in my life I’m in a place where mystery and mysticism and beauty and questions are encouraged and accepted. Where I am accepted, for who I am.

Because the beautiful crucified God, the God on a cross, the weak, suffering Messiah, gazes down at me from the crucifix at the front of the church, and I know that the mechanisms of power and control that enslaved me for years are brought to nothing in the presence of the God who became powerless.

And I’m so grateful to Elizabeth for putting words to that, for taking us on her journey out of the darkness of toxic religion and into the light of a faith that is warm and welcoming and stable and biblical and traditional and safe.

This is a brave book. Not an easy book to finish, but it’s worth it, because the hope at the end is brighter than the blackness of darkness that scarred her youth.

It’s a necessary book.

For anyone suffering under the shackles of dangerous Christianity.

For anyone who has a friend who’s enslaved and doesn’t know what to do about it.

For anyone who’s ever fled from a cult into the safe, warm arms of Catholicism.

A harrowing, disturbing, tremendously sad, yet ultimately redemptive book, illuminating, timely, and prophetic. The kind of book the Church needs to read, now more than ever. A true godsend.

 

Why the Bible Is No Longer My Final Authority

Chained BibleWe have to find a new way of reading the Bible.

I’m talking about the practice of dividing it up into chapters and verses, finding the ones we like, and using them to defend our beliefs.

Do this often enough and you won’t even notice the hundreds of verses that seem to contradict those beliefs. Arguments devolve into scriptural slugfests in which both parties hurl their chosen verses at one another while insisting that the other team’s verses don’t really count.

For example, a lot of us grew up believing that there wasn’t a single speck of goodness inside of us. We were shown verses about how the heart is desperately wicked and our righteousness is filthy rags. But how many of us knew that we were made in the image of God, that Jesus declared some people to be “good” (Mt. 5:45; Jn. 1:47), or that Noah, Josiah, Job, Enoch, and Cornelius, who were not Christians, were considered righteous?

The problem with reading the Bible this way is that over time it can make us blind to much of what’s actually written in the Bible. A Christian could be led to obsess over the six verses on homosexuality while literally not even being able to see the over 2,000 verses on how to treat the poor. How many times have you heard those six verses quoted? What about the other 2,000?

The other problem with reading the Bible this way is that it makes us susceptible to unscrupulous leaders who can easily twist the Scriptures to their own advantage.

A famous political theorist, Erik Voegelin, wrote a study on the violent Puritan revolution in England, which he considers a classic example of brainwashing. Puritan leaders would introduce an idea they wanted implemented. Their followers would then read this idea *back* into the Bible, regardless of whether or not it was really there. Once they became convinced it was “biblical,” there was no use convincing them otherwise. (If you tried to argue with them, they would say only *they* could read the Scriptures correctly, by virtue of being the chosen people.)

The reality is that “proof-texting” verses in this way seems designed to allow spiritual leaders to control and manipulate. There’s evidence that this “traditional” method of reading the Bible was invented by slave owners before the Civil War who used the Bible to justify owning slaves. The Bible has also been used to defend polygamy, murder, racism, and genocide, by people just like us who thought they were being *totally* biblical.

More recently, when it was revealed that leaders of Bob Jones University had been silencing and harassing rape victims, the faculty kept quoting Matthew 18 to shame those who spoke out. According to them, conveniently, the “biblical model” is to meet with the leaders in private. But you won’t find BJU leaders quoting 1 Timothy 5:20, where Paul says to rebuke a sinful leader “in the presence of all,” or the other places in the New Testament where an apostle is openly rebuked (Acts 11, Galatians 2).

Proof-texting verses makes the Bible into a Rorschach test onto which we can project our own opinions and then berate anyone who disagrees for being “unbiblical.” Taken to its extreme, it can create an “alternate Bible” saying whatever the reader wants it to say, and nothing in the world can convince him otherwise—not commentaries, not pastors, not even the *actual* words of the Bible. This alternate Bible can easily reinforce a person’s own prejudice and hatred, leading him ever further away from the Christian religion into a hell of his own making.

10 Great Books on Spiritual Abuse & Mind Control

5129ufB6BEL._AA278_PIkin4,BottomRight,-49,22_AA300_SH20_OU01_The summer after I left the dangerous group, I read a ton of books on the dynamics of spiritual manipulation within Christian cults. Books are a great way of finding one’s way back to reality. Through them I was able to get a better sense of the nightmare in which I had been living for the last three to four years of my life. And when tragedy struck at the end of that year, I wasn’t wholly unprepared to deal with it.

Tonight I wanted to share some of my favorite resources on spiritually abusive groups. Some of these are fictional and some are not. Stories are invaluable to a right understanding of cults because it’s so hard to grasp conceptually how these groups function unless you can see it laid out. Continue reading