Adventures in Proselityzing: It’s Not a Religion. It’s a Relationship…With Someone Who Tears Me Down

It’s been a really long time since I’ve found myself cornered by an Evangelical Christian hell-bent on telling me all the ways that they aren’t “religious” but “in a relationship with Jesus” who, of course, is the best friend, counselor, teacher, etc. that I could have if I would only convert.

This week brought that streak to a sudden halt.

It came out of nowhere…it had to in order to catch me off-guard and prevent my escaping before it happened.

I was surprised by what it brought up for me. Or rather, what it didn’t bring up.

Generally when I have previously been witnessed to, I’ve been able to hold my ground, but inside I’m trembling, triggered, angry, and secretly terrified that the spiritual onslaught will never end. I’ve never been the type to lash out at those who try to slip their proselytizing into a “casual” conversation, but I’ve never felt particularly strong or compassionate either.

Usually it mirrors the way that I feel about getting harassed by a stranger at a bar. I might smile and decline politely, but it’s coming from a place of fear that suspects that things will only be worse for me if I express outrage. It’s a placating kindness.

However, when I suddenly realized I was in a room with someone who was going to “witness” as if my life depended on it (which to her it probably did), I was shocked to realize that it didn’t feel threatening.

I still didn’t want to listen. I’ve heard it all before. Hell, I’ve said it all before!

But the dominant emotion wasn’t fear or rage. It was somewhere on the spectrum of pity and amusement.

Amusement because despite her attempts to sound genuine as hell and to convince me she wasn’t talking about a religion, it was as canned a response as if she had broken out into a Hail Mary. They were memorized phrases that she had been instructed in how to use in her witnessing to convince others that her religious expression was more genuine than any other type of Christian’s.

The pity came in at the way that she couldn’t help but devalue herself in the process. In order to talk about how wonderful Jesus was to her, she had to talk about how unworthy she was of God’s love and how imperfect and depraved a person she was because, for her, the wonder of God’s love and Jesus’ sacrifice was in that it wasn’t “deserved” but given in spite of it all.

She couldn’t build up the object she wanted to share with me without creating a foundation that tore herself down.

I realized at one point that we actually shared something in common. As a Pagan, I also don’t believe I am particularly perfect. I have a shadow side. I have less than admirable motivations and compulsions to work through. I make mistakes.

However, the difference is that I don’t see myself as needing to be “saved.” I don’t see my flaws and imperfections as indications of how worthless I am. I especially don’t think that the answer is to eradicate myself and replace myself with an inner Jesus.

Within her framework, there is no room for anything but shame towards the self.

In contrast, my spiritual inclinations help me celebrate that I am not perfect. Perfection would be boring. Or just nauseating. It’s in the imperfections that growth happens…and growth is part of life.

I have no desire to destroy those parts of myself that are flawed. Rather, I want to engage with them, learn from them, integrate with them, and transform them.

Having come from the same shame that I saw her expressing, I can remember how devastatingly awful it was. Brene Brown says, “Shame drives disconnection.” That is true especially with the existential shame that certain sects of Christianity try to foist on members. This kind of shame drives a repulsion of the self, which in turn drives shallow interactions with others built on judgment and fusion.

I could recognize this time around that this woman posed no threat to me. She wasn’t even fully present in the interaction as she spouted off her memorized phrases. She was speaking from a fragmented and alienated self, and I felt sad that she was caught up in that and desperately thankful that I had escaped.

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Cult Recruitment: An Insider’s Perspective

Even if you don’t know that much about cults, you’ve probably heard about the famous mind-control of brainwashing. It’s the process whereby new members have their identity broken down and cult values and a cult personality implemented instead. It sounds like a sensational process, requiring torture and weird machines.

Remember this scene from Lost?

Karl being brainwashed in Lost

The truth is, it’s not. If it were that obvious, people would be much less likely to join a cult. Brainwashing is a simple process of manipulation that is so subtle that new members don’t notice the destruction of their sense of self.

I know how the process works, intimately. Recruitment is an essential part of most cults (outside of the handful that stopped recruiting in order to kill themselves off), and the IFB is no different. However, I’m finding a disconnection between some of the scholarly understandings of recruitment and my own experience.

It’s not that the breakdown is wrong, per se. The mechanics are all there—targeting emotionally vulnerable people, bombing them with love, and offering them hope. All of that is entirely true.

So where’s the problem?

It always sounds so sinister. In Cults in our Midst, Margaret Thaler Singer describes the process as “deliberate,” and to some extent it is deliberate, but it’s not intentional-deliberate (“I’m going to brainwash someone”) or malicious-deliberate (“I want to ruin her life”).

In the IFB, we absolutely targeted emotionally vulnerable people (children, military, grieving family and friends, the lonely, etc.). We had any number of programs to reach out to those in difficult places in their lives, those less fortunate, or those simply confused and dissatisfied with where their life was going. We promised them answers and meaning and showered them with love. We had both subtle and blatant ways of worming into their minds and planting the idea that their misery and trials were due to their sin. We were trained on how to approach people, how to gauge their receptiveness to the message, and how to gently push them into accepting our beliefs.

I think I still have a bookmark in my old Bible with my script cues written on it!

But we did it thinking we were doing the right thing. We would have never called it “recruitment,” “brainwashing,” “mind control,” or any of the other clinical terms.

We called it witnessing, sharing our faith, spreading the good news, and sharing the love of God. We saw ourselves as missionaries of good. People were dying and going to hell because of their sins, and we had the cure. It was our duty to offer them a chance for salvation.

“The most sobering reality in the world today,” Bob Jones III would often prompt in chapel.

“Is that people are dying and going to hell today,” the students would chant back to him.

I would have never admitted it because it was horribly taboo, but I never liked witnessing. I hated approaching a complete stranger and trying to find a way to trick them into talking about God. I hated asserting that they were sinful and needed to be saved or else they would go to hell. I even hated knocking on apartment doors and asking parents if I could take their kids to my Bible club when I was at BJU, often wondering what kind of parent would let a complete stranger take a child away simply by claiming to want to tell them about Jesus?

Every time I witnessed, I felt like a pompous jerk.

But I did it because I was led to believe that I was responsible for the lost souls of those I failed to witness to. Choosing not to try to recruit someone was tantamount to murdering that person. How could I possibly bear the guilt of watching them burn in hell for all eternity simply because I was too embarrassed to approach them?

Today, when I watch documentaries like “Jesus Camp,” I shudder to see the brainwashing tactics in play. When I hear about how Missions to Military (which has connections to the IFB, for the record) waits until soldiers are at their most broken point in boot camp before approaching them to witness, I get sick to my stomach to see vulnerable people being targeted.

But not for a single second would I ever think that the people doing the recruiting had bad intentions at heart. They believe in what they are doing 100%. That’s why they’re so seductive. Cults are insidious and destructive because victims believe in them. Brainwashing doesn’t end when you join—it’s just beginning. You can lay out a map of behavior for cult members to look at and point out exactly how they fit into that map, and they still won’t think they’re a cult because they’re convinced they’re doing the loving thing, the right thing, the only thing they can do.

Why am I writing about this?

Because it’s not good enough to just identify the behavior of cults and how they are destructive or even how that behavior is used in the grand scheme of control.

Cults are monsters, and the people in them can be monsters. But if you’re looking for a monster under your bed or hiding in the shadows, you’re not going to find it. All you’re going to find is a smiling face and a human being who desperately believes they are doing the right thing.

If researchers are truly going to expose cults and protect people from them, they need to be able to recognize that the most important part of the recruitment process isn’t the part where they break down the recruit’s identity—it comes long before that, when they lull the recruit into letting his/her guard down. The claws and fangs are there, hiding under the mask, but no one will see them until they try to leave.

Recruitment is a golden road to a physical hell paved with someone else’s good intentions.

Conversion Stories: Happy Eternity in Hell!

I must say, this is one of the more unusual and amusing conversion attempts I’ve ever had! I was “blessed” with the opportunity of having a political conversation turn to the Bible. It never ceases to amaze me how quickly expressing any political opinion outside of a conservative one will bring out the Jesus freaks.

In this case, I was discussing marriage equality. Interestingly, it didn’t start out with the usual pro- versus anti- marriage equality for lgbt. In fact, no one was really disputing the fact that same-sex couples should have the right to marry. The deeper question, instead, was whether polygamy should be legal.

I probably take a more radical approach to marriage equality, believing that the government really doesn’t have any business defining or determining what a legitimate marriage is. If someone wants to marry fifty consenting people, that’s their business. If another person wants to marry as a contractual agreement to get health insurance or gain access to citizenship, also their own business.

We didn’t actually get that far in the conversation though. I had barely expressed my support for marriage equality for polygamists when new guy jumps on, calling me a witch.

I didn’t assume it was serious. I thought it was a joke at first, perhaps a petty attempt to shame me. Since an insult first requires a negative view of the label, I wasn’t insulted. I responded with a light-hearted comment about being proud to be a witch if that meant standing for marriage equality.

After a few more random and incomprehensible comments, this guy asked, “Have you read your Bible lately?”

I love that he assumed I have a Bible (or want one), but I let that go. “No, I’ve had enough of that for one lifetime.”

Then he said, “And you guys will lose . . . Bible prophesy, actually Bible code!”

I can only assume he was talking about the election here. Still trying to keep things light, I joked that I might win if I hexed him. I even pulled out the big guns and dropped a few names of people I know in high places. “I’ve got a pretty good relationship with Santa. We met under the Christmas tree a few times last year, and he owes me some favors.”

By that time, I was practically wetting myself laughing because this guy was taking me seriously! It was like a mouse being handed to a cat. I just couldn’t resist the play.

“I’m not afraid of you!” he cried back.

Seeing an opportunity to end the conversation somewhat amicably, I replied, “Nor I of you. That’s the point.”

But did he take the point? No, or course not. That would have been too boringly easy.

“No,” he admitted, “but you are afraid of my God.”

I suppose he felt he was making one hell of a zinger, but in what universe does my scoffing translate to fear of his god? If I were afraid of his god, I would still be a Christian. I really shouldn’t have had to point out the obvious, but I did.

Then this oh-so-kind-and-godly Christian told me, “Happy eternity in hell!”

Looking back at the exchange now that the election is over, I have to smile at the fact that his predictions proved false. I wonder if he thinks I really did hex him or if he’s still trying to convince himself that his god didn’t somehow fail him. I’m sure he’s able to comfort himself to some extent with the idea that I’m still going to hell for all eternity.

And I can comfort myself with the promise of peace and happiness down there while all the Christians like him are safely contained up in heaven where they can eat each other alive over their doctrinal differences. I get the feeling that God might come down and join us heathens just to get away from the snarling piety. The tolerant Christians are welcome to join us too. But hell doesn’t put up with conversion attempts, so leave the proselytizing at the gate.