Post Traumatic Stress WARNING: If you attended a pentecostal or charismatic church, you may find this post hard to read.
I attended a Quaker meeting for worship today in Downtown Manhattan (where a regular reader of this blog gave me a very warm welcome–thanks!) One person shared a message about fear and how we can fear those we do not know.
As the meeting continued in blissful silence, I reflected on fear–the things that once frightened me and the things and people that fill me with terror today.
From 1985-1995 I lived in NYC as a born-again Christian with a strong Charismatic bent that bent even further into the world of Pentecostal Holiness. Evil spirits, doctrines of demons, spiritual warfare filled my church experiences and my prayer closet. Ours was a warlike religion where we had to fight for ground “the enemy” had won–the enemy being Satan and his minions–the ground being schools, the media, government and even large sections of Christendom.
At one church we routinely railed against unseen, but to us very real, spiritual warlords who firmly controlled their assigned zones of the city. Standing up as a tribe of holy warriors we did battle in our weekly prayer meetings against the principalities and powers in the North, South, East, and West of the city. We felt powerful as we cursed out these evil spirits–demonic officials presiding over their prescribed neighborhoods, boroughs, counties, states and countries in a complex spiritual hierarchy that mirrored our civil system (or was it the other way around???)
Our church leaders trained us to sniff out false doctrine, to stay alert to demonic strongholds, and to reclaim ground given over to the evil one. Whenever one of us moved into a new apartment, we conducted ceremonies to drive out the devilish remnants of the last occupant. In what now seems heavily influenced by pagan practices, we laid hands on the walls, anointed the doors and windows with oil, and prayed a strong hedge of protection around the new abode. We reclaimed the ground in Jesus’ name. You see we lived as warriors for Jesus at home and abroad, anywhere our feet touched we took back for Jesus and his triumphant ever-expanding kingdom.
In 1990 I married a sister from the church, and on our honeymoon we traveled to England and Wales. One Sunday morning we looked for a place of worship where we might feel at home. Despairing of finding our typical pentecostal holiness style worship center, we stumbled into a Welsh Quaker meeting house. We had heard of Quakers and knew that like a house church we had begun to attend, traditional Quakers did not have a planned program of worship. Anyone could contribute as they felt led. We believed we were progressive pentecostals.
We arrived about 20 minutes before the start of the service, which gave us time to look over the literature the meeting had on display. After only a few sentences we felt uneasy. They didn’t speak of Jesus in the way that we spoke of Jesus. They seemed to suggest that we could find our way to God by looking within. Terror gripped us as we realized we had unwittingly entered enemy territory. We immediately branded these “Friends” as heretics placing them under the subcategory of New Agers, which was another way of saying demonically deceived and therefore spiritually toxic. We fled as we pleaded the blood of Jesus much like rescue workers hosing themselves as they escape a noxious bio-hazard site.
These quiet Quakers threatened me and stirred up the fighting instinct drummed into me by my religious leaders. The fear I felt came from my ignorance though, not from understanding. I have since met Quakers, attended Quaker meetings and gatherings, read Quaker books and have become a member of the Religious Society of Friends. No demons, no evil empire, nothing to fear. I have found friends and Light and a deeper understanding of myself and the world. (I do admit I fear modern Quaker fashion–Birkenstock sandals with socks! Yikes!)
Sitting in the meeting this morning, I asked myself, What do you fear today? The immediate response–Sarah Palin, the Republican vice presidential candidate. I genuinely feel afraid of what could happen to this country and the world should she take federal office. (If McCain wins, she has a high likelihood of having to take over the reign, um reins at some point.)
Why am I afraid? It is not the same fear that I had with the Quakers back in 1995, a fear based in lack of information and unfamiliarity. No my fear of Sarah Palin comes from nearly 20 years attending churches very much like the ones the governor of Alaska has attended since she was a young person.
Not only do these churches believe it is wrong to be gay and that gay folks need to repent and change, not only do they believe that only a proper Christian (their kind of Christian) will enter the Kingdom of God, not only do they believe a minister can lay hands on you and protect you from witchcraft (as Sarah Palin experienced at her church,) they believe that the countries of the world and the institutions around us are under siege by evil forces that need to be broken and forcibly subdued through prayer and fasting and “taking ground.” They speak to evil spirits binding them in Jesus’ name. They fight imaginary wars in their prayer closets that they then take to the streets.
I know, because that is what we did in my church and what happens in thousands of other Protestant churches that have traveled in time back to medieval Catholic Europe with incantations to ward off evil and the firm belief that if you are not for them you are against them–you are working for the devil.
This terrifies me because I know how violent and irrational and other-worldly these churches and church leaders can be. I suffered at their hands for years. I remember how we scoffed at science and reality believing in an alternate reality based on a particular reading of the Bible and the testimonies of a few men (and even fewer women). We had a plan for world domination in Jesus’ name. We prayed leaders into the highest offices possible always seeking the biggest prize, the White House. We sought and fought to get people placed in the media, schools, city councils anywhere and everywhere so that we could expand the kingdom of God and make a stand for what we declared was righteous.
We believed we could turn the United States into a Christian nation, a theocracy, an all conquering religious movement that would get prayer back in schools, criminalize abortions, outlaw homosexuality and raise up an army of young men and women to turn the world upside down.
Sounds crazy? It didn’t to me when I was trapped in it, when I first went to war against myself and my own sexuality trying to de-gay myself then turning my righteous fury on the world around me as I picketed in front of abortion clients in Midtown Manhattan and terrorized gays and lesbians and trans people in Greenwich Village. Of course I believed we were saving the world, bringing a new dawning of understanding and enlightenment. All the while I shut my ears to reality and harmed myself and those closest to me.
Why do I write this post? Perhaps it is to metaphorically exorcise the demons from my religious past–the fear. I hate fear. I hate what it does to our brains. I hate that I have these fears of Sarah Palin and the religious movement that wants her desperately to win (and may be hedging their bets on McCain’s old age and health problems to open the door for Sarah to rule in Jesus’ name.) I am sure my fears are slightly exaggerated. We have checks and balances and such. But still, if Sarah Palin becomes vice president, I will be afraid, very afraid.