Monday, October 25, 2010

Investigating Spiritual Manipulation

This is a true story; it happened right here at YWAM Tijuana, just this past spring.

Background/Context: The speaker was advancing the argument that new Christians in (for example) Muslim countries should be encouraged to continue to attend mosques, and participate in all Islamic rituals and practices, but be secret followers of Jesus within the Muslim context.

It was an intriguing idea (which I'd heard before a few times), and I wanted to keep an open mind and consider it carefully. As someone with a Christian up-bringing, I had been raised on Cold War-era stories of the persecuted church behind the Iron Curtain, and how they were "incognito Christians" in the U.S.S.R.

I had also read a lot about the current underground church in China, and wondered if the principles of an "underground" church in an atheistic worldview like communism could be transferred to an Islamic context. All that to say, I wasn't buying the speaker's thesis without question, but neither was I rejecting it out of hand.
(And it's my job, as a school leader, to evaluate and if necessary, correct any of our guest speakers who go "off the map" theologically.)
A couple of instances where the speaker had already played fast and loose with church history: claiming that the Arians "were basically orthodox" but had been called heretics by "the institutional church". Reality: the Arians denied that Jesus was God.

Or that Nestorius had been excommunicated for believing that Mary was not the "mother of God". Reality: This is partly true. Nestorius didn't believe Mary was God's mother, but what got him labeled "heretic" was that he also didn't believe that Jesus was God. (oops)

So maybe I was getting a little more skeptical as the lectures went on, but when the speaker declared that if only the poor, benighted idiots in the early church had realized that they could be "incognito" Christians under Rome, then they would never have been martyred in droves over three centuries of persecution (crucified, fed to lions or wild dogs for sport, burned alive, or exiled), I had to raise my hand and ask a question:
"Wasn't the problem really an issue of changing allegiance, from 'Ceasar is Lord', to 'Jesus is Lord', rather than just cultural observance?"
The speaker just stared at me for a moment, then got all red in the face, jabbed a finger in my direction, and loudly demanded, "Do you know what's happening right now in Indonesia? Missionaries are forcing Muslim converts to eat pork while standing on the Koran in public, to make sure they're ostracized so they can't go back? Is that what you want?!?"

And without waiting for me to respond, he turned to the rest of the class, made a "well, duh..." gesture in my direction, and raced on with his thesis.

Predictable outcome: No other student ever asked a question again during that lecture week.

Let's examine the manipulative methodology:
  1. Failure to answer or even acknowledge the original question, resorting instead to deflection and silencing dissent.
  2. Physical cues of intimidation: Combative posture (literal finger-pointing), combined with angry, exasperated tone of voice, obvious anger (red in the face), and raising of the voice.
  3. Mocking response: he created a "straw man" argument (an opinion not actually held by the questioner), immediately shot it down, and by his "well, duh" gesture, communicated "shut up, stupid".
And by invoking the pejorative code-phrase "the institutional church", the speaker instantly won over anyone who had a beef with church, and they simply accepted whatever he said after that.

And, amazingly, it worked. Everyone agreed that forcing new converts to stand on the Koran while eating pork was a horrible thing to do, and my question was immediately forgotten. And since few of the students (or staff, for that matter) had much background in theology or church history, how could they have known how much twisting of both was going on?

Spiritually manipulative teachers are scary. Because their methods work. Intimidation, mocking, deception, and deflection (to name a few) are powerful tools to keep people in line, prevent freedom of thought, and silence (or discredit) any who would dare to stand up to them.

All the more reason that more of us need (A) a strong sense of biblical discernment, and (B) cojones (if you'll pardon my español).