Freedom had been hunted round the globe; reason was considered as rebellion; and the slavery of fear had made men afraid to think. But such is the irresistible nature of truth, that all it asks, and all it wants, is the liberty of appearing.
~ Thomas Paine, Rights of Man, 1791 ~

Monday, December 29, 2014

It's all about fear, power and control

What sort of personality do you have? Are you confident, extroverted, and unafraid of conflict? Or are you shy, introverted and try to avoid conflict? Or perhaps somewhere in-between? Or something else entirely?

I have long hypothesized that your personality type is the single biggest influence on how successful you will be as a Christadelphian. So much so that many Christadelphians seem to fit into a couple of distinct stereotypes, not unlike the ones I mentioned above. What do I mean by "successful" ? In my opinion, the most successful Christadelphians are those who are self-confident, perhaps even a little arrogant, and can throw their weight around and get others to do things for them. These people are often on committees and sometimes enjoy celebrity status within a wider group. Perhaps this is true of any community, but it is certainly true of Christadelphians. Christadelphian ecclesias are the perfect "small ponds" for these "big fish" to thrive in.

As a young Christadelphian in my late teens, I gradually became painfully aware of this very dark side of the Christadelphian community. My experiences of Suburban Young People's activities were mostly unpleasant. I went along because my parents gave me no other choice, and spent most of the time trying to be invisible and just get through. Eventually I would be baptised and my life as a member of an ecclesia would follow much the same course. Something didn't fit. I stayed because I honestly believed the dogma, but it was an uphill battle the entire time. I wasn't the model Christadelphian. I wasn't cut out for public speaking. I was extremely nervous doing anything at all in public, even performing steward duties. I felt enormous pressure to conform to the expectations placed on me - pressure to be someone I wasn't. I pushed myself ever harder, thinking I was doing it for God. Then I beat myself up with guilt when I didn't meet others' expectations. I wasn't good enough, I told myself. It's no wonder I developed symptoms of depression by the age of 14.

At around the age of 20, I started to become aware that life as a typical Christadelphian didn't match up to what the Bible described. What did public speaking have to do with Jesus' teachings? When did Jesus command everyone to attend 3 long talks every week? In what verse did Jesus give people the right to put pressure on others to give talks? When did Jesus advocate bullying tactics to get people to do what you want? Where in the Bible does it say that wearing a western business suit is required in order to impress God? Instead of a life as humble servants of God, what I saw was a very human community where the most important factor was not how spiritual you were or how strong your faith was. No, the most important factor was the personality you were born with, how confident you were in front of other people, and how capable you were of getting other people to bend to your will. Not much different from the outside world then, I suppose.

Over the years, I tried to push these thoughts to the back of my mind. I told myself it was just that ugly human nature getting in the way - just like we were taught about from the Bible. In the kingdom it would all be different. All those nasty bullying traits would be magically removed from all those people and they would finally be nice to others and pleasant to deal with. In the kingdom I would be more confident, I imagined, and no longer intimidated by these nasty people. Oh how I prayed for God to change me and help me to cope. Of course I received no answers besides the ones I imagined in order to comfort myself. Christadelphians learn from a very young age to look for coincidences and interpret these as answers to prayer. God works in mysterious ways indeed...

Then it started to dawn on me what was going on. I began to see the bullying behaviour of the AB's and others for what it was - Control Mechanism.

The psychology behind the conformity to Christadelphianism is complex, but once you become aware of the ways in which Christadelphians wield power over their members, especially their young people, you will begin to see these control mechanisms everywhere you look. It's time you were enlightened...

Fear of change
You've no doubt heard the joke: 
Q: How many Christadelphians does it take to change a light bulb?
A: ch-ch-ch-change?!
Being a relatively young religious sect, Christadelphians haven't had to deal with as much social change as some other religions. They lack the experience to deal with it, and instead try to fight it. Any change is perceived as a departure from the One True Way, and is thus viewed as heresy and dealt with accordingly. By instilling this fear of change into their members, they isolate those who think differently, and remain insulated from the outside world.

Whereas the mainstream churches have adapted to new scientific discoveries, and to social change, many Christadelphians insist on remaining stuck in the 19th century. Unless they do learn to adapt, this will be their ultimate downfall.

Dress Code
This one is obvious. The signature dress code of Christadelphians was for a long time suits and ties for men and long skirts or dresses for women. This is a symptom of the fear of change above, although the dress code does seem to be slowly adapting to more modern times. However, this is seen as a drop in "standards" (oh how I hated that word!) and often prompts more extreme behaviour from those trying to enforce a strict dress code. History tells us clearly who will win, but the die-hard fundamentalists won't go down without a fight. Worse, they honestly believe that God is on their side and that he cares deeply about their petty little fight. This is the same god that supposedly provided animal skins for Adam and Eve, and the same god who in 1 Sam 16:7 said that he doesn't look at the outward appearance, but never mind that.

Fear of disfellowship
Christadelphians view disfellowship as a harsh punishment and a thing to be avoided at all costs. It is used as a threat to those who might be tempted to stray from the One True Way, and it is a means of enforcing the power and authority held by the Arranging Brethren. It is the ultimate "ban stick". Christadelphians are not free to form their own beliefs, but must believe exactly what is spelled out in the lengthy statement of faith (most commonly the BASF or similar), otherwise they will be disfellowshipped. Each ecclesia also maintains a list of "doctrines to be rejected", just to be doubly sure. For a sect that claims to have found "the truth", it reeks of insecurity if you ask me.

There is an inconsistency about it too. Among those who have actually read the BASF, almost no one really understands it, and among those who claim to understand it, almost no two people agree on how it is to be understood. If you're an AB and want someone disfellowshipped, it's not too difficult to find a way. In fact the BASF isn't the first iteration of the Christadelphian statement of faith and there have been a number of divisions due largely to different interpretations of this document. Not only do we have tens of thousands of Christian denominations, there are also at least three distinct branches of Christadelphians, all claiming to have "the truth".

Given the strong penalty for holding any belief that disagrees with the BASF, there is a very strong disincentive to question said beliefs. Should you happen to find that any of the doctrines does not hold up to scrutiny, you would find yourself in the uncomfortable position of having to choose between the truth and your religious community (often including friends and family). Having been faced with such a decision myself, I can honestly say it is a most horrible thing to have to go through. I still encourage people to question their beliefs because I still value truth, but the journey of doubt and discovery is not for the faint hearted.

Other ways to invite the disfellowship treatment include getting divorced, or behaving in any number of ways that the AB's disapprove of. Whilst I agree that the community in general should be protected from those who might cause harm or disruption, our society already has a police department and legal system that is capable of dealing with such individuals. For all other cases, it's surely time for the AB's to lighten up and forgive a little, you know, just like Jesus said.

Fear of social exclusion
This ties into the fear of disfellowship, but it is also felt by young people long before they become baptised members. Christadelphian children are indoctrinated from a very young age to keep separate from "the world". Being "friends with the world" is frowned upon and may even be considered a sin by some. Thus, any children who have friends at school are advised to place little value on them, and to make friends within the Christadelphian community instead. This can lead to young people feeling socially isolated, or living two lives, and so the pressure to fit in and conform is strong.

Fear of disappointing family and friends
It seems that every Christadelphian parent wants nothing more than for their children to grow up as Christadelphians and be baptised. Never underestimate a child's desire to please their parents. Most children want nothing more than to make their parents happy and proud of them. What a burden these children must carry if their entire belief system is part of that! What freedom do these children have? When are they allowed to form their own identity and choose their own path in life? What support will they receive if they choose a path other than Christadelphianism? Will they lose their parents' favour? Will they lose their friends? Maybe it's safer just to keep going along, even if they don't believe? You can start to see how this plays into the Christadelphians' hands, and creates unnecessary anxiety for young people.

Suppression of individuality and independent thought
I've already touched on the requirement for members' beliefs to conform exactly with the BASF. Christadelphians are instructed to read the "pioneer writings" when attempting to understand the Bible. They are instructed to read the Bible when attempting to understand life. They are taught from childhood to "Trust in the LORD with all your heart, and do not rely on your own understanding" (Proverbs 3:5). When will these children learn to think for themselves? When will they learn to trust their own intuition?

When life gets difficult, they are told to pray, and submit to God's will. When are these children going to take ownership of their life? When will they learn positive and helpful coping mechanisms? Deferring to a parental figure might be useful when they're young, but adults should be learning to shoulder their own difficulties, not helplessly cry out to a Daddy in the sky. It's no surprise that when faced with conflict some Christadelphians behave like children. They simply don't know any better.

As they get older, Christadelphian young people are told that the highest ideal in life is to emulate Jesus. There is no room for individuality or being different. This leads to young people trying to be good Christadelphians in order to fit in and be accepted. Those who find it more difficult to fit in may eventually become isolated and leave, perhaps feeling worthless and unworthy of attention.

Not all Christadelphians
It's important to point out that there are many Christadelphians who do not attempt to control others, and do not assist in the spread of fear and the abuse of power. By no means am I claiming that all Christadelphians are evil or controlling. Such a view would be easily refuted. In fact, many of the control mechanisms I've listed are enforced with good intentions. Parents want their children to be saved. Christadelphians want "wayward" members to repent and return to the fold, likewise to be saved. However there does come a point where "good intentions" is not a sufficient excuse for poor behaviour towards our fellow human beings.

By pointing out the ways in which many Christadelphian young people and baptised members are guilted and pressured into conforming and discouraged from having a voice and mind of their own, I hope that you will be able to see these control mechanisms for what they are, and take steps to avoid or remove them.

What can be done about it?
The solution to all of this is actually very simple, but perhaps difficult to put into action. The problem is that too much power and authority is given to people who will abuse it. The simple reality is that these people only have power because everyone else voluntarily gives it to them.
Change will happen when people make it happen. Young people especially hold a lot of power in this area - much more than they realise. If you are a young person, realise that you have a voice. Let it be heard.

Dress how you like. There's not a lot anyone can actually do to stop you. The worst they can do is prevent you from entering their halls, but let's face it - there will always be other places you will be accepted. Just go there instead. Don't waste your life conforming to the wishes of people who don't respect you.

The disfellowship issue is an interesting one because it is self-correcting. Every person the AB's disfellowship is a person they no longer have control over. They need members to have authority over. They only have authority if those members give it to them. Think about it.

The social issues are much more difficult. I could be blunt and say that if your friends won't be friends with you if you don't attend Christadelphian meetings, then (a) they're not really friends, and (b) you're better off without them anyway. However, I recognise that it can be very difficult, especially when you're young. My advice would be to spend more time with your non-Christadelphian friends and keep a balance. That way if one set of friends rejects you, you'll have the other to fall back on. My guess is that your non-Christadelphian friends will be more accepting of you than your Christadelphian friends anyway.

The fear of upsetting parents and family is also very difficult to deal with. It can have a very real and direct impact on your life. The point I do want to stress is that it is your life, and ultimately it is your choice how you want to live it. Live the life you want, not the life others want you to live. Don't let people make you feel guilty for who you are. They are only expressing their inability to accept you, and it should reflect badly on them, not you.

Finally, don't conform if you don't want to. You are a unique individual, and that uniqueness should be celebrated. Don't let other people dictate who you should be. That right belongs to you and you alone. When faced with decisions or difficult situations, first ask "what do I think?". You have a voice, and it deserves to be heard. Use your own intuition, and your own reasoning. You will make mistakes. Learn from them. Don't try to be someone you're not. You'll only end up frustrated and unhappy. Be yourself, and people will respect you for it. It's a common cliché, "be yourself", but sometimes it takes real courage to do it.

If someone is trying to control you, it only works if you let them. So don't let them. Live by your own rules instead. Be the best version of you that you can be, and don't compromise for anyone.