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.

 

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AIDS, Authoritarians, & the Demon-Possessed Man, Part 1

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In the 1960s and ‘70s, Northern Ireland was a nation at war with itself. Loyalist Protestants, seeking integration into the United Kingdom, took up arms against the Catholic republican majority. There were car bombings, gun battles, and random acts of butchery. Demagogues like the Reverend Ian Paisley fueled the fires of resentment.

 

 The song There Were Roses by folk singer Tommy Sands tells the true story of a tragic thing that happened to him. Growing up in the townland of Ryan, his two best friends were Allan Bell, a Protestant, and Sean O’Malley, a Catholic. Allan loved to dance; Sean loved a girl named Agnes. Some nights they would stay up late playing music. When the noise of guns disturbed the tranquil peace of the countryside, they swore their faiths would never come between them. Continue reading

The Bible Was Clear on Slavery (But Not in the Way You Might Think)

postfull-see-a-free-screening-of-12-years-a-slave-fassy_sarah_detIf you had lived in the days before the Civil War when the battle for abolition was heating up, whose side would you have been on?

It’s important to remember that for thousands of churches, this conflict was a religious conflict – with God and the Bible “clearly” defending a person’s right to own slaves.

It was a serious moral issue: the idea that slaves should be freed was dangerously immoral.

“The right of holding slaves is clearly established by the Holy Scriptures,” said the Rev. Richard Furman in 1823.

“How this question can at all arise in the mind of any man . . . that is acquainted with the history of the Bible, is a phenomenon I cannot explain to myself,” said Rabbi Morris Raphal in 1861.

Verses like Ephesians 6:1-5 and 1 Timothy 6:1-2 were marshaled by the pro-slavery forces, who in most cases were decent, God-fearing Christians who sincerely believed they were following the “plain meaning of Scripture.” (The Southern Baptist Church was actually founded on the belief that slave-owning was biblical).

Slave owners had the stronger biblical argument. To accept the arguments of abolitionists, our ancestors had to look beyond the literal reading of the Bible to its overall message about love, justice, and compassion.

Would we have done the same thing? To really see the heart of Jesus in the Scriptures may require tremendous moral courage and a willingness to resist the enormous social pressures to believe what everyone else does. In the 1860s when your pastor and your entire congregation said abolition was “immoral,” in the 1960s when Martin Luther King was condemned as a heretic in pulpits across the country, would you have had the courage to defy the convictions of your own religious community in defense of justice and freedom? Would you have that courage today?

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

Tonight, All the Children Are Crying: A Lament for Nigeria

malala-yousafzaiThree hundred girls.

 

The hope of their nation. The brightest young women Nigeria had to offer. They were going to be teachers, doctors, lawyers, politicians. They had dreams of leading their country out of the darkness.

 

But that’s not how it’s turned out. They were carried away. Awoken in the middle of the night to the noise of gunfire, forced out of their beds by sweaty, dangerous-looking militiamen, with AK-47s primed at their backs they disappeared into the night and haven’t been seen since. The darkness swallowed them up.

 

It swallowed up the hope of Nigeria.

 

The hope that a woman could get a real education and grow up to be something other than the twelve-dollar bride of a tribal warlord.

 

The hope that a country racked by violence and religious militancy could look towards the future and begin to heal itself.

 

Those dreams were taken away, into the jungle where three hundred brilliant, talented women were tallied up and sold like the cheapest of human commodities.

 

This need not have happened. It shouldn’t have happened.

 

And as I join with people of faith throughout the world tonight in praying for their return, I wonder why I live in a world where these things do happen, why they seem to happen so often. Why men with Bibles and Korans and machine guns are trying to destroy everything good and beautiful in this world. Why they throw acid in the faces of little girls who have the courage to attend school and determine the course of their own lives. Why they shoot strong women, brave women, in the back of the head, for the crime of being strong and brave.

 

I keep thinking of the lines to an old song we used to hear on Christian radio growing up. Tonight the lyrics resurfaced, more poignant and powerful than ever:

 

            Little child

            Dry your crying eyes

            How can I explain the fear you feel inside?

            For you were born

            Into this evil world

            Where man is killing man

            And no one knows just why

 

            What have we become?

            Just look what we have done

            All that we’ve destroyed

            You must build again

 

Yes, some humans have made this world a truly terrible and hellish place to live in. We have to do better. We have to create a better world for our children, a world not characterized by the deafening roar of bombs and ceaseless cacophony of bullets but by the quiet hum of students thinking, reading, writing poetry, creating model UNs—free to dream and discuss and flirt and fight and fall in love in peace and safety.

 

A world where the “threat” of peace doesn’t scare us.

 

A world without drones or guns, where the state no longer wields the grisly instruments of torture and death.

 

A world where women are not seduced and exploited by twisted religious perverts—in America or anywhere else.

 

Where they can study astronomy and biology and literature and math and politics without fear of reprisals from men bearing scriptures and machetes.

 

Where they can be anything they want to be, live any dream they want to dream, and no one can ever again take those dreams away from them.

 

So many have been hurt; so many have died. Tonight I pray against hope for the return of these young women, even as I mourn the possible loss of all they might have become. But I realize that in a much larger sense this is just another tragedy in a world full of them. It seems like every time the world has a chance to go right, someone comes along to wreak harm and destruction. And no one knows why they do it. Maybe it’s the twisted feeling of control and power it brings them, or maybe they really do just want to watch the world burn.

 

There are times like tonight when I feel scared and overwhelmed, just one feeble voice in the darkness. But this experience has galvanized so many, and I know I’m not the only one who thinks this world could be so beautiful. There is much to rebuild. But as hopeless as it seems, I haven’t given up yet. I hope you won’t, either.

 

Why I am Not the Antichrist

Tree of Life 4

In the two years since I left abusive fundamentalism I’ve been called some really interesting things – “son of the devil,” “deceitful teacher,” “enemy of all righteousness” etc.

And I took it in stride because I figure that’s the price you have to pay for speaking the truth.

But! Never until today has someone openly warned me that if I continue down my current path, I’ll be encouraging folks to get the mark of the Beast during the last days.

And I found this person’s reasoning fascinating and instructive. The reason he pegged me as a future worshiper of the Antichrist is because I believe in love, compassion, and helping the poor.

That’s not a cheeky re-contextualization. “This new world leader walks in love and cares for the poor and has made a peace treaty with Israel,” he imagines me saying. “Take the mark!”

The Antichrist, he adds, “will probably be a humanitarian type and people will love him.”

So I wanted to get this out on the table because this is exactly the kind of thing I’ve spent the last two years trying to warn people about.

If your eschatology teaches you that love, peace, and caring for the poor and needy are preparing the world for Satan, your eschatology is wrong.

If your eschatology leads you to cheer when there are wars and natural disasters, your eschatology is wrong.

If your eschatology inspires you to pray for violence and destruction rather than an end to armed conflicts, your eschatology is wrong.

And one more thing – to the extent that the Bible talks about a figure called “the Antichrist” appearing in the last days, it always, always refers to a deception that emerges within the Christian community. Not in Europe or liberal America or in some out-of-the-way place.

What is his deception? Simply this: that we can create a new and better world by taking up arms and cleansing the earth of unbelievers – meaning anyone who doesn’t embrace his twisted faith.

“The time will come when anyone who kills you,” said Jesus, “will think that he is doing God service” (John 16:2). The greatest threat, the greatest danger, the greatest deception in our world today, is not humanitarians wickedly pursuing an agenda of peace, love, and social justice, but zealous believers willing to commit bloodshed in the name of righteousness.

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.