In any hardline church, gang, corporation, military group or cult, there is an emphasis on loyalty. The command to be loyal seems to trump all other commands. For instance imitating the early church in the New Testament was held up as the primary goal of the church I grew up in. But when I started pointing out inconsistencies in the way that principle was interpreted, I was deemed a danger, not a helpful person, as true followers of the main principal would have deemed me. No, a danger. So what was the principle that was bigger than following the New Testament? Loyalty (because the church holds our faith and salvation).
Jesus specifically pointed out that when we join his journey to seek out truth, we have to forsake our father, mother, sister and brother. But the opposite commandment holds sway in the church I grew up in. To be respected in the church meant to ignore obvious inconsistencies and to toe the line. You can’t land a job at a big church, or be invited to preach a gospel meeting or deliver one of the lectures if you question the status quo. Of course you could be innovative by using a new fangled medium to snazz up your sermon; powerpoint, color illustrations, a movie clip, a new book on Hebrews or marriage. But don’t question the doctrines that hold our faith together.
Any organization that uses shame and humiliation as a regular part of their training is going to have this same attitude: the military, police academies, youth gangs, football teams, churches that mock other faiths, any place that keeps members in line by mocking and humiliating is going to have this same attitude of loyalty. And the organization will have lots of watchdogs to hold people in line. This loyalty is not a thought out policy, it is something that grips us at the heart and grounds us with paralysis.
I watched a documentary of a Boston man who had been molested as a child by a priest who had been moved from parish to parish by the bishop instead of protecting the children. They went to interview the current bishop and he refused to speak to them, so they just filmed the diocese headquarters grounds until a priest came out and mocked them: “You are a sad little man…” Later they found out the mocking priest was the current Catholic bishop of Boston. Unable to see how mocking will make him look, and unable to see how disrespectful he is, he shows that he believes it is appropriate to mock people investigating problems in their church. And he shows how he was raised: mock the ones in the family or community who are disloyal; it is an automatic response.
Where do we learn to be Loyal?
We learn to be loyal in our families at the earliest age. In order to survive we have to have food and love. We bond with our caretakers, to form our identities and to survive. Fairbairn said that when our caretakers are cruel or neglecting we use the Moral Defense: I must be bad in order for my caretakers to be cruel or neglecting. I cannot permit my caretakers, whom I identify with, to be judged as evil, or I have no hope of getting the love I need to survive.
At age 12 healthy pre-teens begin to let go of their caretakers, and question the way we were raised. Those of us who are stunted and too damaged to question things remain unquestioningly loyal. In fact Kohlberg found that a majority of the population is stuck at a conventional level of morality, unable to question the status quo.
Almost everyone who has been raised in a nurturing, respectful environment has been able to question and examine the values they grew up with, and to find their own identity. These people are not loyal to organizations, they are loyal to principles. Fowler teaches that our principles of faith go through the same transformation, at the same time.
But no person raised in a mocking, humiliating, threatening church or family environment is able to find their own identity easily. Most choose to foreclose or postpone finding their identities (Erikson). They vote the same way as their parents. They go to the same church, which assures them they are going to heaven and not to hell. They go home for Christmas and Thanksgiving every year and don’t rock the boat.
The only converts to these hardline churches are those that are vulnerable to mocking and threats from their own childhoods. Those who have been raised in strict Catholic households, or children of sarcastic alcoholics are the most likely to be converted to a hard line fundamentalist church.
How to Heal
If you are wanting to heal from the trauma of growing up in a mocking, threatening church (and family), it is important to surround yourself with respectful people. This is the true nature of church: respectful support to grow into a respectful, loving person. In other words, stop spending time with disrespectful sarcastic people. At first it will be hard to find respectful, mature people to spend time with. They have different scary opinions that threaten our equilibrium.
Secondly, stop talking to yourself in disrespectful ways. Stop calling yourself names. Stop berating yourself. If you make a mistake, especially a mistake that hurts someone else, say, “I regret that. I don’t want to do that again. I need to make a plan.” Then envision yourself not making that mistake again, see yourself being successful in your quest to be kind to others.
Thirdly, accept forgiveness. Whenever someone came to Jesus broken in spirit, they received forgiveness, because Jesus believed that forgiveness empowered broken people to move forward and be successful. That forgiveness is still freely available. Live your life accepting God’s constant forgiveness, and extending that constant forgiveness to those around you.