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.
In defense of fear:
Fear can be a gift: Fear heightens our senses. There are times when we need to be more alert. The rush of adrenaline, widened pupils, increased heart and respiration rate can help us maneuver through dangerous situations.
Fear can be a curse: Fear can cause us to see things that are not there, put up walls between us and things we are unfamiliar with, and lead us into pushing away people that we need as allies.
Are you sure you are not experiencing the same fear reaction of your pentecostal days, just with a different object?
Bill as I mentioned, one fear was based on ignorance–I didn’t know a thing about the Quakers yet I feared them. The other fear–of Palin and the church world that she moves in–is based on intimate long-term knowledge of that same religious world.
I’ve not been keeping up with your blog, sorry. I guess that’s my loss, this post is exactly the kind of stuff I started reading your blog for. Thoughtful, based in your personal experience, and, yes, really scary.
I don’t pray, and I’m not even American, but I’m keeping my fingers crossed this Tuesday. I really hope for a better time.
Aside: you moved to wordpress too! How much does it rock, eh? I should have done it ages ago. 🙂
Willie Hewes! A celebrity among us! So nice to see you and soooo much has happened. Marvin is now OUT of the closet and putting up video (his latest is crazy).
I adore WordPress. Yeah, what was holding me back? Fears I guess. So many fears, so little time.
Lovely to see you again!
Wow, you used to anoint and cleanse your domiciles of demons also? Golly, I can’t believe we used to do that stuff. “Taking authority over demons, and principalities. Gee, the stuff we did “in Jesus name.” Talk about taking the Lords name in vain…
Thanks for this very good post. I think that fear is very often based on ignorance, and for that reason a big part of peacemaking needs to be the work of getting to know the people we’re afraid of, and also – where possible – introducing people who are different from each other to each other.
I was in the same meeting you were yesterday, as I’m a member there. Even though I’m a reader of your blog I don’t think I was the person who “warmly greeted” you, since I wasn’t even aware you were present. I did meet you on another occasion that you visited the Meeting and I like to think I’d have recognized you again – but who knows. I ran into someone yesterday who I’d met and spoken to on the phone just a couple of days before and didn’t recognize her name at first!
– – Rich Accetta-Evans
Peterson, excellent post! I also used to attend churches that were into “strategic level spiritual warfare,” which now strikes me as nothing so much as a kind of “born again paganism.” Those prayers (etc.) so closely parallel many animist practices, it’s not funny.
Palin scares me, too, though more for her willingness to whip people into a frenzy over their fears (I live in PA) than from the “warfare” side of things. The truth is that she’s completely unqualified for high office without even factoring in her beliefs.
I guess I’m trying to say that the racism in this campaign has hit a fever pitch, and that’s she’s willingly taken part in smearing Barack Obama in so many ways that … well, are completely unChristlike. yet people flock to her rallies as if she’s a rock star they can’t get enough of.
One more mention of guns, “socialism” and “far left wing” whatever, and I think I’ll start packing for Canada.
I understand this post, Peterson. I’m still scarred from fundamentalism, and it took me years even to start thinking about God after I escaped from them.
And yes, Sarah Palin scares me too. I didn’t realise quite how deeply, till I heard the election results and burst into tears of relief – and I’m not in the US, I’m in England!
Although we’ve never met, my son, Christopher, speaks highly of your ministry with Gathering youth. I’ve been with Quakers for 11 years this December. I was raised Pentecostal and was influenced by some of the spiritual warfare teachings in the 80s and early 90s. I don’t know if I’ve ever met an ex-Pentecostal Quaker before, but its good to learn more about you.
not so many years ago i was marching (literally marching) around our church with the rest of the congregation reclaiming something or other for jesus. someone had decided we should move the chairs and march around and proclaim things boldly in-the-name-of-the-lord. we should shout and claim-the-victory and other stuff like that.
it was during the marching (maybe shortly after) when i thought of the lyrics of st leonard cohen. ‘love is not a victory march, it’s a cold and it’s a broken hallelujah’.
i’m glad obama won because the alternative frightens me too. and once again i will say i’m grateful for what you do peterson- for your cold and broken hallelujahs that touch so many people. i think there is only hope in world if we dare to have hope and what you have done, what you do, is a great encouragement.
Hi, so glad to see other ex-pentacostals here. Peterson, I was triggered by reading that, but in a way its helpful confirmation that I have PTSD in this regards as well.
I remember being so scared, and then going to church to have more fear and guilt drummed into me. Then back to fight the battle, even more wounded. I remember having my demons named and called, being told that my rape and abuse at 13 (did I really just write that in a public forum? Dang, must be less ashamed these days) left me demon infested. And mostly I remember flinching from those who wanted to “lay hands on me” and pray, as those of us who have been abused tend to not want ANY hands on us, and then being told I was resisting the lord.
Oh yeah. And it was my fault. It was my sexual sin to repent from. And I was further sinning by not forgiving my perpetrator. Convulted. Why was I needing to forgive if I was responsible?
I do have a funny story about one of my sons, my fireball Aaron Elijah, during a most holy, highly overblown pagent one Sunday. We were all given flags representing the nations under the mighty power of God, and told to sway them in unison as we prayed in tongues and prophesied and whatever. Someone gave 4 yo Aaron a flag. Someone who didn’t know my kid, obviously. During the most serious part, while the pastor was invoking god and all that stuff, Aaron’s flag started to swing to its own beat, and his little voice rang out “SHAKE SHAKE SHAKE, SHAKE SHAKE SHAKE, SHAKE YOU BOOTY, OH YEAH!”
Made as much sense as what the whole lot of them were doing, and I happen to think that if there is a god he got a bigger charge out of then anything else that Sunday.
Oh yeah. My third out of four sons, only redhead, and funny prophet. 😉
Shirley & Britanicals, thank you for sharing from your personal history. Although painful, I think it’s helpful to revisit our Pentecostal past and shed new light on it.
This isn’t a binary question. It’s not as if we have to choose between (100%) pro-spiritual-warfare or (0%) it’s all poisonous christofascist deception. I’m certain that there are valid insights in spiritual warfare, and also certain that as with anything that has spiritual power (including sexuality for that matter), many of us will find a way to misuse it, manipulate it, get addicted to it, or gain power over others with it.
Years ago, I appreciatively read Tony Campolo’s How to Be Pentecostal without Speaking in Tongues, and still appreciate how he used the Pentecostal experience to shine a light on the emotionally and spiritually truncated religiosity that some of us settle for.
It’s really important that those who’ve experienced spiritual oppression speak out clearly and persuasively about the dangers of that oppression, including the symbolism and rhetoric that led to that impression. In my many pre-election conversations with evangelicals in Oregon and Washington states, I was disheartened to see how often it was simply ASSUMED I’d vote for McCain/Palin. I really had to wrestle with this question: how could I see a complete disconnect where they saw a natural alliance, even though we shared a supposedly overarching belief in the sovereignty of God and the active gifts of the Holy Spirit?
There must be other factors operating than simply the merits of the theology of spiritual gifts and spiritual warfare. And to me, one of the biggest factors is the nature of authority and mutual accountability in the church. When we honor all of the gifts of the Spirit, including the gifts of prophecy that open our eyes to injustice, and we’re humbly accountable to each other in local and global webs of interconnection, can’t we avoid the oppressive use of powerful spiritual concepts?
Without that mutual accountability, and the resulting respectful spiritually-grounded division of labor, too often Protestants (I’m including Quakers here) tend to become dependent on persuasive speakers, control freaks, intellectual fashions both liberal and illiberal, cultural mating calls of all kinds, and unexamined biases to do our thinking for us!
No matter where we root our spiritual commitments–whether it’s in the mystical, prophetic, or evangelical streams (to use John Yungblut’s categories of the “Quakerism of the future”) or yet others–it is possible, without that mutual accountability, to warp those commitments into cliches and factions. The answer isn’t to seal ourselves into a righteous faction of our own, but to seek and confront that distorting spirit. I think you’ve made a big contribution, but on behalf of those who find valuable insights in spiritual warfare, I hope my comments have kept open a useful space for discussion.
Good posting Peterson; highly reminiscent of my own experiences within fundamentalist/charismatic circles as well. I remember sitting in Chapel (within the private religious school I went to) and listening to the pastor’s long diatribe about the evils of Unitarianism and the rampant demonic possession that runs within ecumenical circles… also encompassing subjects such as toxic thinking and subversive literature. It was then, in my mid-teens, when I began to see parallels between the environment I was in and the Nazi propaganda machine which we had read about in history class. On a slightly random, yet still related subject. Have you ever read the book “Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit” by Jeanette Winterson? It’s quite a brilliant and quirky little work of fiction which is based on the author’s actual experience within similar types of religious circles.
I just stumbled on this much older blog of yours, and was really excited to read it. It helped me to understand the language and actions of the pentacostalist and to put it in the framework of something I can understand: fear.
It also helps me understand something I encounter more and more: how fruitless it is to try to discuss or convince someone who is full of fear, to try something new.
By detailing the language and action, the warlike preparedness of your earlier religious involvement, you have caricatured something that I have often experienced when I have tried to describe liberal Friends to others….that sense that people are arming themselves, or backing off in fear of the unknown.
This further helps me to understand the importance of our gentle way of convincement, that people had rather better be attracted to us through viewing our manner of living than by our method of speaking.
Jesus did command demons out of bound people with power of the Holy Spirit. Please agree with me that spiritual warfare is about subjecting demonic influence under the feet of Christ.
Chairman Friends Intercessors Kenya
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