Category Archives: Religion

Why calling for Mark Driscoll’s resignation isn’t helpful to those inside @MarsHill church

Through out my 25 years in an abusive church (you can read about it in my book, “Girl At The End of the World”), many people told me what I should and should not do. My whole life was dictated by “shoulds” and “should nots.” And when outsiders started telling me what I should do–even a “good” thing like “leave The Assembly!”–it just felt like another person trying to control me.

I’ve maintained for years that Mars Hill Church is a dangerous and abusive church. Recently, I went so far as to suggest it was a cult.

But I’ve stopped short of telling Mars Hill Church what to do. Why? Because Mark Driscoll isn’t going to resign just because an outsider tells him to. 

I mean, I understand the good intention behind the recent calls for his resignation. Those of us outside Mars Hill Church have become increasingly alarmed by the stories emerging from exiting members. We are trying to find a way to be helpful and supportive!

But I just want to issue a mild word of caution to those of us seeking to “help”: I remember what it was like to be inside an abusive church and outsiders telling us what to do only made that worse.

If outsiders had called for my grandfather’s resignation, I would have felt happy that the abuses were being brought to light. However, I also would have known that outsiders calling for his resignation wouldn’t make a difference in what my grandfather did or didn’t do. My grandfather wasn’t gonna resign just because outsiders said he should. Ultimately–when my grandfather refused to repent–I was the one who had to make the choice to leave.

I get lots of emails from parents, siblings, friends and lovers all asking me the same question: “My child/brother/sister/girlfriend/boyfriend is stuck inside a dangerous church. What can I do to help them?”

The answer is always the same: you can live your own life and be happy in it. You can be a welcoming, loving presence. But you cannot control, change or force a person to leave an abusive church or relationship. That’s not how life works. That’s not how freedom works.

Ultimately, I had to to make my own choice to leave The Assembly. I often feel that I stayed far too long. But that was my choice. The key to my freedom was that I chose it. And furthermore, I chose it when I was ready to choose it.

Freedom isn’t freedom when others force it upon you.

This is why I’m leery about bloggers and outside media telling Mars Hill Church what it’s supposed to do. Do I think Mark Driscoll is a dangerous leader? Yes. Do I think Mars Hill Church needs to drastically re-examine it’s systems and structures? Yes. Do I believe Mars Hill Church has engaged in spiritual abuse? Yes.

HOWEVER. It is one thing to provide information and quite another thing to start issuing orders telling Mark Driscoll to resign.

When people who are not a part of Mars Hill Church start issuing orders, we are doing exactly what Mark Driscoll does to his congregation: telling them what to do.

True freedom means giving those within Mars Hill Church the freedom to do whatever they believe is best for themselves and their church–even if we disagree.

I, for one, fully believe Mars Hill church members are capable of taking whatever action is necessary. Indeed, I believe their freedom to take action is profoundly necessary in order for true repentance to happen.

Despite the rampant abuses, members of Mars Hill Church can still exercise their free will and hold their pastor accountable. They can protest (which they are!). They can spark massive change from within. They can call for Mark’s resignation. And if that doesn’t work (which, in my opinion, it won’t work because the systems were set up by Mark to serve Mark), well, then they can leave. 

I believe the sincere Christians inside Mars Hill Church have just as much access to God as I did when I was inside my abusive church. God is big enough to find us anywhere. Mars Hill Church members have the same free will I had. I know they can make the right decisions. I trust them with freedom. I don’t need to tell them what to do.

And when/if they leave, they will discover there are many spiritual abuse survivors out here. They are not alone.

UPDATE/CAVEAT: One scenario I do think could be helpful is if an outside pastor or leadership team from a trusted, healthy church stepped in to help Mars Hill. If the broader evangelical community sees what’s going on–then yes, an experienced pastor with good credibility could offer some invaluable help. In my humbly bloggy opinion, Mars Hill could use some of THAT outside help right about now.

Sometimes my recovery looks like a miniskirt, sometimes it looks like a maxi dress. Plus a hat. Or a headscarf. Don’t judge.

Guess what? You don’t just “get over” trauma. When you’ve suffered long-term childhood abuse, it’s not like it goes away. It’s so deep inside you, that sometimes it’s hard to distinguish between the pain and the YOU.

This is me telling you that I struggle every day. This is me telling you that most mornings I wake up and my default state is despair. This is me telling you that I have to WORK HARD to think normal, healthy thoughts. I have to WORK HARD to believe new things like: I’m loving, lovable and loved.

This is me telling you that it DOES get better and you have permission to craft your recovery in WHATEVER WAY helps you heal.

And because I want to be honest with you, I’m gonna share what some of my recovery work looks like. This is super embarrassing for me to share, but hey. Maybe it will help someone out there feel like they’re not such a freak show. Because guess what? What happened to you? That abuse you suffered? It wasn’t YOUR fault. And sometimes, maybe you need to slap a maxi dress on it.

So. This is what my recovery sometimes looks like.

Safety

My Safety Shield has magical powers. But mostly, it just makes me feel better.

Recently, I had a particularly nasty “Triggering Incident” which turned into a full-blown, batten-down-the-hatches-we’re-all-gonna-die panic attack. Followed by a week of PTSD symptoms, double-dosage medication. And my Safety Shield Outfit.

Well. OK, I guess it’s not a REAL Safety Shield. It’s a long, billowy dress. I wear it because it covers All The Things.

I have affectionately dubbed it my My Safety Shield. Because when I wear it, I feel super safe and calm. It’s like having a magical shield all around me and nothing bad can get inside.

Because sometimes? When panic blindsides me? When the PTSD is so bad I can’t eat or sleep and have to close all the shades in the house and hide under the covers? Well, there’s only one thing that helps me feel safe. There’s only one thing that gives me the courage to get out of the house and back into my life: Head-to-toe clothing. Plus, a headscarf. Or a huge hat.

It’s like my own personal hug machine. Or a weighted blanket. 

I still don’t know WHY wearing an UBER-modest outfit sometimes makes me feel all better, but it does.

Also, it’s very comfortable.

I can sit, kneel, bend over and sit cross-legged with ease. No more pinching. No more sucking in. No more accidental panty-exposure when I bend over to pick up a kid. Just comfortable, safe, CAN’T-TOUCH-THIS Safety Shield.

Sometimes I pretend my Safety Shield has magic powers like: it makes me invisible or lets me hear conversations happening a mile away. Mostly, I pretend that my Safety Shield transforms me into a “normal” person who can leave the house and do normal things like go to the grocery store–even when I’m in the middle of a PTSD Week.

I don’t like to wear My Safety Shield out in public–mainly because I don’t want to run into anyone I know and have to explain things like: “No, I didn’t convert to Islam, I’m just freaked out the Rapture might happen and I’ve been left behind.” Because AWKWARD.

But sometimes, I have to go out in public, even during a hard PTSD week. Maybe we need milk or food or allergy meds and so, I am compelled to wear my Safety Shield outside.

I gotta say, it’s an interesting experience.

People treat me differently.

Servers and cashiers and bank tellers are more polite. Respectful. The first time it happened, I thought it was a fluke. But after it happened EVERY TIME I went out in My Safety Shield, I realized something about my wearing head-to-toe dresses caused people to behave differently towards me. I don’t really understand that–and I’m not sure I’m happy about what this implies (we live in a systemically oppressive, patriarchal society?)–but it IS true that people treat me differently when I’m swathed in yards of fabric.

And wearing my Safety Shield almost guarantees there will be NO no leering or cat-calls from men. No dudes wagging their nasty tongues out of car windows. No unwanted contact. To be honest, it’s nice. It’s just….calm. Like I can go about my business without feeling men’s eyes on me.

All I know is that sometimes my recovery looks like head-to-toe clothing and a headscarf or big hat. All I know is that it helps me feel safe.

Usually, my frayed nerves and anxieties calm down after a week or two. That’s when I can tuck my Safety Shield back into the far corner of my closet and put on my regular clothes again. Or maybe a miniskirt.

These days, I try to live like I’m no longer a victim–even if that means wearing odd clothes, changing my hair color or just setting alerts on my phone that remind me to pray the Serenity Prayer every three hours.

The point is, I’m fashioning my recovery in a way that works for me. I am no longer a victim to circumstances. I have tools to help me deal with the inevitable triggers of life.

And THAT gives me hope that I AM getting better.

Maybe someday I won’t ever need my Safety Shield again.

 

Top 5 Reasons People Join Cults {hint: it’s not because they’re stupid}

People don’t join cults because they want to join cults. Nobody wakes up in the morning and says, “Hey, I’d love to join a cult today!” Another misconception is that people join cults because they’re stupid or uneducated. THIS IS NOT TRUE. (In The Assembly, we had plenty of highly educated folks). So, please. Check your condescension. If people KNEW what they were getting into, NOBODY would join a cult.

The reason cults exist is because NOBODY believes they’re in one!

Sure, having a good education (and especially exposure to lifestyles other than your own) might render you a little less susceptible to the glittery, sparkling promises of a cult. But pretty much, if you’re a human being–you can be seduced.

And that’s what cults are all about—seduction. Becoming enthralled.

People join cults because they fall in love with a beautiful dream.
They see something they desperately want or need.
They feel like they’ve found The Answer to life’s problems.

If you’re capable of falling in love, you’re capable of joining a cult.

Only later–much later (preferably after they’re married or otherwise “tied down”) do they begin to see it was false advertising.

Growing up in a cult, I learned one big rule: outsiders only see what we want them to see. New visitors saw well-behaved children, wholesome teenagers, intact families. What they DIDN’T see was that from a very young age, I was coached on how to “reach out” to visitors.

In the aftermath of my book being published, I’ve received dozens of emails from people who remember meeting me as a child. Invariably they comment on how “cheerful” and “outgoing” I was. They remember me hugging everyone enthusiastically. They remember me singing at the top of my lungs during church meetings. These sincere people are shocked that behind closed doors I was suffering near-constant abuse. B-b-but! You were such a HAPPY LITTLE GIRL!

I can only shake my head. Oh, yes. They were seeing EXACTLY what The Assembly wanted them to see.

I was TRAINED to be that way. I was SPANKED if I didn’t behave exactly the way my parents coached me. I had to behave like that because it was survival.

So, why do people join cults? Well, like a successful marketing campaign, cults know how to sell:

1. We Have What You’ve Been Looking For: Do you crave meaningful relationships? Are you tired of superficial pursuits? Do you long for abundance, happiness and wealth?

2. Sense of Urgency: TODAY is the day of salvation! What if you die tomorrow? Will you have ANY regrets???? [SIDEBAR: when I was "witnessing" to people, I would get super frustrated when they replied, "Well, if I die tomorrow then I'll be glad I lived a good life." I was like: Nooooooo! BE ANXIOUS! BE VERY AFRAID! Otherwise this whole formula doesn't WORRRK!"]

3. Sense of Purpose: Did you know God has a Great Plan for your life? Do you really want to miss out on that? Join our cause. God is REALLY MOVING in our generation. Together, we can change the world. [SIDEBAR: this whole phrase about "God IS MOVING in our generation!!" really annoys me. Newsflash, guys. God has moved in EVERY generation. God didn't suddenly start MOVING once evangelicals figured out how to build mega-churches. Or win political elections. When I was growing up we were all: yeah, Christianity existed and everything. But it didn't really START until like the 1500's when Martin Luther nailed a letter to a church door. I mean, THAT'S when God REALLY started moving!"]

4. Sense of Superiority: we are the TRUE believers. We are the PURE ones. We are reclaiming what’s been lost. We have uncovered hidden truths. You won’t find this anywhere else. You might be a nobody in this world, but in OUR group you’ll be special. [SIDEBAR: I often call this "The Special-Ness Syndrome." The more SPECIAL a church thinks it is, the faster I run away.]

5. INCENTIVES!!! Look at all these beautiful women following Jesus! Look at all these godly, spiritual men! You could have TRUE intimacy. No more broken hearts. You will find a wife who respects and serves you. You will find a husband who loves and provides for you. You will find a community of like-minded people who will help you and you will never be alone again!! [SIDEBAR: in cults--as in everywhere else--sex sells.]

——————————————————————

Further reading:
IS MY CHURCH A CULT? 
WHAT NOT TO SAY TO SOMEONE WHO HAS SUFFERED SPIRITUAL ABUSE
IS MARS HILL A CULT?
HOW TO HELP SOMEONE INSIDE A CULT

Top Ten Ways to Misuse The Bible {from an ex-fundamentalist guilty of ALL ten}

a3d8c0bf56354022b2dd9fa459d7029e

The worst use we can make of the Bible is to use it simply as a source of proof verses.
–Matthew The Poor, The Communion of Love (pg. 20)

  1. Read the Genesis account of creation as a science text.
  2. Insist that every verse shall be interpreted literally.
  3. Pick and choose which verses shall and shall NOT be interpreted literally.
  4. Assume your interpretation is God’s interpretation.
  5. Use Bible verses as ammunition in theological debates.
  6. Say: “If it’s not in the Bible I don’t believe it!”
  7. Subject Scripture to an individualistic, Americanized lens; ie. “The American Patriot’s Bible.”
  8. Elevate intellectual assimilation of Scripture over spiritual understanding.
  9. Use the books of Daniel, Ezekiel and Revelation to create charts and timetables that predict The End of the World.
  10. Know All The Words without living a life to back them up.

Top Ten Ways to Use the Bible Respectfully

  1. Read the Genesis account of creation as it was meant to be read: as a figurative story for non-literate peoples, understanding that the point is still the same; mainly: God created the Heavens and the Earth.
  2. Respect the various genres in the Bible and interpret them accordingly: i.e. poetry is not intended to be interpreted literally. However, it IS wise to believe Jesus means what He says in St. John 6 about the Eucharist.
  3. Refrain from picking and choosing which verses to interpret literally; deferring YOUR individual interpretation to the wisdom of theologians who have done that work for you over 2,000 years.
  4. Unless you are God, your interpretation is not God’s. Humility is best served when we preface any statements with something like: “My church teaches…” or “This is what I believe” instead of: “God says…”
  5. Remember that while you may win the theological debate with your battering-ram of verses, you won’t win any hearts.
  6. Understand that before Christians had the Bible, they were Christian. The Bible as a book is a modern luxury for us. But even without it, we can come to a saving faith in Christ.
  7. View Scripture as words for ALL peoples–not just white, Anglo-Americans who vote Republican. Choose a translation accordingly.
  8. Intellectual assimilation of knowledge is ME working, spiritual understanding is GOD working. Remember that sometimes God reveals His greatest truths to children! So, spiritual understanding of Scripture is not about knowing All The Right Verses. It’s about yielding to God’s love and letting God reveal what He wants to me.
  9. Remember that Jesus said even HE didn’t know the day or hour of His Second Return. So, maybe just let go of End Times predictions. What will be will be. And all will be well!
  10. The brightest witness of faith is a life LIVED faithfullyBe a doer of the Word, one day at a time. A heart full of LOVE is far more powerful than a mouthful of words. Love, always.

Screen Shot 2014-04-27 at 6.25.52 PM

p.s. This post will make WAY more sense if you read my book: “Girl at The End of the World: my escape from fundamentalism in search of faith with a future” :)

Not all wire hangers are misogynists. Apparently.

A few months ago, I had an embarrassing incident with some wire hangers in my closet. I had set out to organize! cleanse! make all things new!

But the wire hangers, they were acting all privileged. Hogging too much room. Patriarchal, really. Wire hangers, as we all know, are EFFING MISOGYNISTS, AM I RIGHT????

Ahem. Forgive me, this will all make sense momentarily.

The Wire Hanger Meltdown was followed by The Pool Chair Incident. Because, obviously, Pool Chair is just another way of saying Cult Leader–especially when it refuses to properly recline and instead crashes down, landing your ass on the cement pool deck.

“Mommy, why are you crying?”

“BECAUSE THE EFFING CULT LEADER THREW ME ON THE GROUND!”

“You mean the pool chair?”

“No. I mean THE CULT LEADER.”

And that is what we call “My Rock Bottom Moment.” Clearly, I needed help. Probably this came as no surprise to anyone but myself.

: :

I’d been getting emails. Messages. Tweets.

I don’t like your tone, Elizabeth. You sound different. You sound angry. Not all churches are cults, Elizabeth. Not all men are cult leaders. You’re being unfair, unkind, preposterous. Sometimes you have good things to say, Elizabeth, but your tone is so harsh. Why are you so bitter? Why can’t you just move on? Stop being such a victim, Elizabeth. Maybe you should write a disclaimer before you share your experiences because your abuse is not the norm. –Signed, A Caring Reader.

I mean, enough people tell you the same thing and you finally gotta check yourself before you wreck yourself.

Which I did. I checked myself right into an Online Timeout. I’ve been quiet lately.

: :

Back to the story. I was angry. Very angry. Mostly, at God. And pastors. And churches. And apparently, pool chairs. Little League. Citibank. Wire hangers. Cult leaders. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Let’s start with the anger.

Anger is exhausting. I think I read that in the book of Revelation. Which is to say, when you’re angry, you view all of life through an angry filter. It was like I put on my angry glasses each morning and went hunting for Bad Pastors, Bad Churches and Bad Theology.

This is an exhausting way to live.

I don’t know whether my rock bottom was burnout, anxiety or generalized hysteria but I’m pretty sure it was a combination of all three. The Interwebz can you make you batshit cray, this we know.

Point is, I put my ass in timeout—oh, wait. I’ve already said this. This, you see, is what happens when you’re angry: you forget you’ve already said things and then you start repeating yourself over and over until people are like: yeah, yeah, we GET IT. YOU WERE ABUUUUSED.

: :

I’ve been working a 12 step program. This is uncomfortable. Mainly, because at some point you have to stop talking about All The Ways You’ve Been Hurt and start taking responsibility for the ways you hurt others.

This is annoying. Also, profoundly difficult. I would really rather skip this part.

But I won’t. I’m gonna work it.

: :

I’ve been wrestling with questions:

At what point does the victim become the abuser?

At what point does my anger no longer serve me?

: :

I read this article about survivors of the Holocaust. The researcher was trying to find out why certain survivors went on to live meaningful, productive lives after all they’d endured? I can’t remember the details, but basically, it was that the survivors who lived long, meaningful lives maintained a deep faith and an optimistic spirit. They didn’t just define themselves by their awful experience, they proactively sought ways to make the world a better place for others–even if it was just their families.

: :

A whole person cannot be solely defined by what she stands against. A whole person must stand for something, too.

: :

I have lashed out, criticized, deconstructed, questioned and chided the religious powers that be. This was an important part of my journey and I honor it. But I made mistakes along the way and despite my good intentions, I have hurt people. I hurt myself.

I set out to organize! set right! cleanse! make all things new!

But I got entangled somehow. The weapons that were used against me I used against others.

The problem was not so-and-so-pastor or so-and-so-church. My mistake was playing whack-a-mole with every suspicious church or pastor that came across my radar. Sure, I can react, react, react all day. But then what?

In other words, what am I doing to build up the Church? What am I doing to edify and create new, healthy culture within the Church?

Criticism is necessary but it’s not enough.
I can’t build a culture of love and peace using weapons of hate and warfare. 

: :

I don’t have all the answers, here. But I want you to know I’m taking time to examine myself, to check my motives and sincerely seek to understand how I can use my words to effect positive change. Thank you for being patient with me…..

Elizabeth Smart & the life-threatening danger of shame-based purity culture

*trigger warning: rape, victim blaming*

I read an interesting line in the New Yorker yesterday, describing an important characteristic about one of the kidnapped girls who was recently rescued in Cleveland:

…she had to never forget who she was, and that who she was mattered..

She had to never forget that who she was mattered.

This line haunts me, especially when juxtaposed against the despair Elizabeth Smart felt after she was kidnapped: 

 …Smart spoke at a Johns Hopkins human trafficking forum, saying she was raised in a religious household and recalled a school teacher who spoke once about abstinence and compared sex to chewing gum.

“I thought, ‘Oh, my gosh, I’m that chewed up piece of gum, nobody re-chews a piece of gum, you throw it away.’ And that’s how easy it is to feel like you know longer have worth, you know longer have value,” Smart said. “Why would it even be worth screaming out? Why would it even make a difference if you are rescued? Your life still has no value.”

What is the difference between a kidnapped girl who actively looks for escape and the one who does not? One possible answer: she knows and owns her inherent worth.

I realize there are many contributing factors but we can’t underestimate the importance that a girl believes she is important. She believes she matters. She never forgets who she is and that who she is matters. She has an unshakeable belief that no matter what happens to her in captivity, SHE is always valuable.

When I started writing about the harmful effects of purity culture, I overlooked one of the most terrible, unintended consequences: when you teach young women that her identity and worth is tied to her virginity, you make her more vulnerable to despair if she is raped and thus, reduce her chance of survival.

A despairing rape victim is less likely report her rape. A despairing kidnap victim is less likely to actively seek escape. Because what would be the point? Why would it even be worth screaming about? Why would it even make a difference if you are rescued? Your life still has no value.

A girl who is raised in purity culture and then is raped may eventually realize that the parenting methods her parents used essentially conditioned her to be… a victim of non-consensual sex. And why would a purity-culture-girl report her rape when, as Jori’s story shows, she’d just be blamed for it anyway: “This sort of thing doesn’t happen to godly girls,” [her parents] told her. “You put yourself in a situation for this sort of thing to happen.”

Even for girls who are not raped or sexually molested but who grew up hearing the shame-based messages of purity culture, the resulting despair can have long-term negative effects on their married sex lives. I’ve received emails from young women who, because they had so internalized the message that My Worth Can Be Measured By My Virginity, felt horrifically guilty after “losing their virginity” on their wedding night. Some of these women still do not enjoy sex. Others have yet to experience an orgasm.

As one of my own friends said to me: “If you’ve been told your whole life no-no-no about sex, how do you just flip that switch after you’re married to yes-yes-yes?”

Ultimately, purity culture  isn’t about sex, it’s about control. It’s about burrowing inside a woman’s heart and soul and mind to control how she views her body, her worth and whether she is lovable. Of course, this is done with the best intentions: protecting young women from unnecessary heartbreak.

But by using shame-based messages about sex, purity culture proponents actually expose their daughters to other kinds of danger: learned helplessness and a debilitating despair that prevents them from believing they are inherently valuable, no matter what they do and no matter what happens to them.

Believing she is valuable–no matter what–may literally save her life.

The New Misogyny: “bro-culture” pastors, sexist Christian comedians and abuse apologetics disguised as female empowerment

When I was growing up, the Christian misogynist wore a suit and tie, poured on enough cologne to slay an elephant and toted a Bible the size of an encyclopedia. This pastor boomed Biblical pronouncements from the pulpit and quoted lots of Scripture to defend his abusive, anti-woman teachings.

You know, I kinda miss the Old School Misogynist. At least he was obvious. At least he didn’t pretend to be all pro-woman.

These days, the Christian misogynist is far more subtle. He probably wears hip clothing and may even use feminist jargon to disguise his underlying sexism.

These are the pastors who tweet and talk endlessly about their smokin’ hot wives.   These are the “Christian comedians” who write dating manifestos about why Christian “girls” don’t have boyfriends. Apparently, reading your Bible at Starbucks is NOT attractive to these men. Maybe you should try wearing white shorts to a prayer meeting.

What makes me ill is that these are men are my peers. These guys are not my Dad’s age. These guys are not my grandfather. These men should know better.

It’s even more discouraging when you call their views offensive only to be told by their yes-men, “Hey, can’t you take a joke?”

This is the New Misogyny: when huge bloggers like Jon Acuff claim that sexist jokes about women help “clear away the clutter of Christianity so we can see the beauty of Christ.”

This is the New Misogyny: when bestselling Christian authors tell “girls” how to live a better love story by being a supporting character in a story a man is writing. [Note: Don Miller took down that post, but I never heard him recant his harmful view of women.]

This is the New Misogyny: when Prodigal magazine publishes sexist articles under the guise of satire and “truth telling.” Oh, yes.  John B. Crist believes his sexist humor is excusable because he’s JUST TELLING THE TRUTH.

 

[Note: Prodigal removed that post w/o explanation]

This is the New Misogyny: when a popular author of many books on Christian ministry and spirituality asks women why they don’t comment on his blog and then he dismisses their answers.

This is the New Misogyny: when a woman engaging theology blogs under a male pseudonym is treated with greater respect than when she comments as her female persona.

This is the New Misogyny: when “Biblical Marriagists” claim they’re empowering women while defending the very theology that oppresses them.

You guys. What is happening, here?

It’s not that I doubt the sincerity of all these Christians. In fact, it’s their sincerity which troubles me. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from all my years in an abusive church, it’s that the most dangerous abuse apologetic comes from a sincere heart and good intentions.

And the most subtle form of spiritual abuse is cloaked in messages of empowerment.

I guess when you’re hip and sincere, nobody suspects you of misogyny. You can tell the same lies about women that have been told for thousands of years and all anybody will see is the sincerity of your heart and your precious nerd glasses.

*due to an anti-feminist website sending an influx of trolling commenters, comments for this post are now closed.*

A former religious extremist explains how radicalization happens {plus, a theory of how suspected Boston Marathon bombers were radicalized}

How do two sons of a political asylum refugee grow up to be terrorists? Their father loved America. Their uncle and aunt and everyone that knew them–including their neighbors and school mates–were shocked to hear these young men were suspected terrorists. In fact, it was so shocking, that the aunt and father quickly began saying the boys were “framed.”

The suspects in the Boston Marathon were brothers. Their father, by a neighbor’s account, was brutually beaten by KGB and fled to the United States. He loved America.

So, how did they become suspected terrorists?

A neighbor described the boys as helpful, the family as hospitable. She said when she saw their picture on TV, she fell on the floor. Her only thought? Somehow they were “poisoned along the way.”

The suspects’ uncle, in a brief appearance on CNN, said his guess was that “somebody radicalized them.” He said this had nothing to do with Chechnya. And historian Charles King agrees, citing reports from journalists interviewing family members in Dagestan:

In other words, the focus now should be on the Tsarnaevs as homegrown terrorists, not on the ethnic or regional origins of their family. Journalists’ initial conversations with family members in Dagestan amplify that point: a sense of shock that two nice boys who had gone to America for their education could have been involved in such a brutal act.

So, how did these young men become terrorists?

The best article I’ve read is from a Reuters journalist who spent seven months in captivity in Pakistan. And although the radicalization process he saw happened in Pakistan, the underlying conclusions are, in my opinion, spot-on: 

militants had created a sophisticated system of schools, training camps and indoctrination videos that slowly severed young men’s bonds with their families.

The only relationship that mattered, recruits were told, was their relationship to God. The only cause that mattered, clerics preached, was stopping a vast – and nonexistent – Christian-Jewish-Hindu conspiracy to obliterate Islam from the face of the earth.

No matter how long I spent talking with him, I could not alter his attitudes. Radicalism gave him a cause, a community and an identity.

My own extremist religious past resonates with this. Here’s how radicalization happens:

  1. Cut off from family. New recruits to my childhood cult found our extremist way of life attractive because they had never made a genuine connection with the “dead” Christianity of their childhood. It was easy to persuade new members to cut off their families because outsiders were “worldly, hypocritical and compromised.” Outsiders didn’t appreciate the HIGHER CALLING that our TRUE religion offered. Effective radicalization requires a rejection of the outside world which many times includes family members.
  2. Relationship with God is the only thing that matters. Extremist religion is narrowly focused. It elevates one thing; ie. “relationship with God” above all else. The trick, here, is that what ACTUALLY matters is the group. The group becomes God for the new recruit. Whatever the group leader says and believes is what the new recruit says and believes. Effective radicalization requires a rejection of previously held values; ie. the American dream is no longer valuable but martyrdom for God IS valuable.
  3. Radicalism gives identity, cause and community. For those disaffected by the disappointments of modern life or crushed by poverty or suffering a heartbreaking loss, extremist religion provides a nearly irresistible solution. Identity, cause and community are a POWERFUL trifecta–especially for young recruits.

Now, here’s my theory about how the two young terrorist suspects experienced their self-radicalization:

My guess is that the older brother was disaffected first. His father had returned to Chechnya. The older brother had a criminal record–beating an ex-girlfriend. Perhaps he’d become disillusioned with the American dream, with American values. Perhaps it felt like no matter how hard he worked or no matter how good an education he had, he was not going to Make It in America.

There was a vacuum in his soul. Moderate, peaceful Islam was no longer attractive–or perhaps, he had never truly connected with his Muslim faith.

Slowly, religious extremism began providing answers. He began watching terrorist YouTube videos. He was looking for something purposeful, some kind of higher calling.

The only relationship that mattered, recruits were told, was their relationship to God.

My guess is that the older brother’s values began shifting. A good education, a nice house and a car, a good job–these things no longer held value for him.

Radicalism gave him a cause, a community and an identity.

Slowly, martyrdom and/or jihadist insurgency became increasingly attractive to the older brother. He started talking to his younger brother about it. They didn’t want to die, necessarily, but they wanted to inflict righteous judgment on the Great Oppressors–the United States.

Whether or not the older brother had real connections to terrorist groups remains unknown. I agree with David Rhode, the Reuters journalist who spent seven months in Pakistani captivity. The enemy is not religion. The enemy is extremism.

And let’s be clear, extremism isn’t just happening in Islam. It happens in all religions. In fact, what has disturbed me the MOST since leaving my childhood cult is that Christian fundamentalism is growing in popularity. My cult used to be considered “fringe” and “weird.” But now, fundamentalism is hip.

Contemplative, mystic, “moderate” Christianity is derided and dismissed just as contemplative Sufism is dismissed and derided among fundamentalist Muslims.

The enemy is fundamentalism because fundamentalism is very attractive to people looking for Definitive Answers. Extremist religion provides a rigid, black-and-white framework for understanding the world.

For those disaffected by the disappointments of modern life, extremist religion provides a nearly irresistible solution.

**DISCLAIMER: although my childhood cult didn’t promote violence toward outsiders (we just beat up each other, ugh), it’s not a huge leap of logic to see the similarities between hard-line religious groups. Also, these are just my opinions and theories based my experience in extremist religion. When new information comes to light, I’ll probably change my theories and opinions. WHICH IS TO SAY, no need to get all crazy up in da combox, k? Good. Thanks.**

The price of religious shaming, the redemption of love {review of “The Whale” at South Coast Repertory}

The Whale logo courtesy of South Coast Repertory

I took a break from book writing this week to catch a play at South Coast Repertory. I walked into The Whale knowing nothing about it and walked out feeling completely known. And more than that: unconditionally accepted—simply for being human, for being here, for being me.

I laughed, I wept and I trembled all the way home. I woke up the next morning with scenes still running through my mind and snippets of dialogue still wrenching my heart. I can’t stop thinking about it. I can’t stop talking about it.

The Whale is the story of a morbidly obese man trapped in his apartment and dying of congestive heart failure. It the story of being trapped in one’s body, trapped by shaming religion, trapped by failure, trapped by mistakes and miscommunication, so helplessly trapped that all Charlie can keep repeating is I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry.

Helen Sadler and Matthew Arkin in South Coast Repertory's production of The Whale by Samuel D. Hunter. Photo by Scott Brinegar/SCR.

On the surface it seems like a depressing story. But like Charlie’s body, outward appearance belies inner beauty. At its heart, The Whale is a story of ridiculous hope and a relentless longing for true connection—a connection that can happen against all odds when we simply allow ourselves to be radically honest and unconditionally accepting.

It is a story that rejects the superficial standards by which our modern society measures honesty, faith, love and success. It is a story that asks us to reach beyond what we see and value the truth within.

Rejected by his hateful, rebellious teenage daughter, blamed by his ex-wife, suffering from the heartbreak of losing his partner and having eaten his way into moribund obesity, Charlie shows us that devastating setbacks are not what define a life.

What matters in life—what truly matters—is being so totally honest with ourselves and with others that we see through to the beauty within each human person and accept them just as they are.

The Whale is graphic and raw and desperately honest. It is at times brutally heartbreaking, also irreverent and unabashedly LOL funny. But as Charlie lurches across the stage toward his daughter, we find ourselves gasping for breath along with him and suddenly we understand: love conquers all.

If you’re local to Southern California, go see “The Whale.” Shows run through March 31.