Monday, December 19, 2011

Celebrating Christmas: Understanding the Criticism of “Pagan Christmas” as an Example of the Tactics of Spiritual Abuse

A few weeks ago, I received a letter from someone who had questions about some comments made at his new church. He questioned whether the church taught an abusive version of a chain of command gender hierarchy because of some of the language they used or whether they'd just borrowed a common buzz term from another group. There are no easy answers to such questions, as nothing is a litmus test. A person must become familiar with the problems of spiritual abuse and then evaluate whether the group in question follows those dynamics.

In that discussion which I may end up posting here online, the subject of Christmas Trees popped into my mind. Nineteen years ago, this was a hot topic at the time we were being inducted and love bombed into our cultic church. I wish I understood then what I do now, and the subject of Christmas Trees could have been a warning to us. But isn't that the plight of the young, and those benefits of wisdom that we just have to learn the hard way sometimes?

Within a month or so of a move from half way across the country and into an unfamiliar area, we started attending a new church and found a new great ease making friends. We tend toward introversion, but it appeared that we'd finally found a place that we fit into quite well, as though we found the right match in a “church for us.” We did go out of our way to meet new people and to establish new relationships, as we'd moved away from jobs that demanded the grand chunk of our time, both because of workload and shift work. Everything seemed spontaneous, but in hindsight, we understand now that we were being groomed and manipulated. (The best of skilled manipulators and expert “love bomb systems” create the illusion of spontaneity, and you generally don't realize that you've been taken in until after you've experienced some degree of loss or harm.)

We jumped into the group in the Spring of '93, and we started making friends at the time, significant because of the time of year. We had friends over for dinner and started striking up all kinds of conversations along the way in the Spring. We found it odd when a few people asked us whether we displayed a Christmas Tree. We did not realize that we had been targeted to take over a small, mid-week cell group, and I could understand if that elder at the church who chose us had asked us if displayed a Christmas Tree as a part of their evaluation of us. This elder's wife may have asked us, but if so, she did after we'd been fairly desensitized to the question popping up in May (as opposed to November when one plans to put up a tree). I believe that the elder did not ask us specifically until months later, because I recall being so shocked at his very strong and negative opinion on the subject which I would have definitely seen as a red flag at the time when we were just settling in to church life.

Initially, my husband and I speculated about why the subject of Christmas Trees in May might be relevant or why people would ask about it at all. Don't all Christians put up Christmas Trees as one of many ways Christians celebrate the birth of Jesus? We had several photos and paintings from my husband's home town of Bethlehem, PA round about our house, the “Christmas City USA” that Count Zinzendorf sent Moravian missionaries out from Moravia (Bohemia/Austria/Czech region) to establish. My husband and I took a sense of pride in our many connections to the Moravians who were birthed by Jan Hus (or Jon Hus as the name is sometimes noted), a protestant who significantly pre-dated the Reformation and was martyred in 1415 for rejecting problematic doctrines and abuses within Catholicism. Count Zinzendorf was a nobleman, musician, and terribly interesting character in the 18th Century who had been significantly by the writings of Hus, and he helped to fund the very first large scale Protestant missionary effort

As something religious that makes us unique, we considered that perhaps the Bethlehem and notably Christmas element such as the Moravian Stars and such hanging about in our home put the idea of Christmas in people's minds. (The Moravian missionaries used elements of Christmas celebrations as talking points to introduce the Gospel, even predating the Moravian tradition of the glass star lamps.) This explanation seemed plausible when we were asked about a photo of Central Moravian's bell tower or why we had stars and beeswax candles sitting about about, but it seemed less plausible when people broached the topic away from our home. We figured that it was a regional thing – perhaps people in Maryland had a thing with Christmas Trees? Either way, it didn't quite make sense to us and seemed increasingly less strange, assuming that it has been an issue of discussion among people in that homegroup with a story behind it that was not worth asking about. We were very happy and we didn't see any reason to investigate any further. We were not suspicious and we had a great need to be a part of the community after moving and after our work schedules has limited our ability to get more involved at a church at our previous home.

Now that I've had the opportunity to revisit the Moravian joy of celebrating Christmas, what can be learned from this Christmas Tree example and why did it pop into my mind as I wrote to this gentleman a few weeks ago?

I believe that the provocative nature of Christmas Trees at our church could have been a sign of the legalism within the church and how the church preferred uniformity (over unity within diversity). When we were being wooed and groomed in those first months at our new church which would eventually seem as cultic as any group of Moonies to us at the end of our experience there, the leaders and even the well-trained members don't want to introduce controversy during that process. These types of churches are not interested in providing full disclosure to ensure a good fit for prospective members, giving them informed consent about the church. They're interested in promoting a sparkling and idealized view of the church, so the true elements about the Christmas Tree controversy came through, but not notably. If we had believed that Christians used such tactics to recruit and retain members, we would have approached the odd and seemingly benign discussion differently. But we didn't suspect anything, and more importantly, we didn't want to suspect anything. We had a need to believe that this church was everything we'd ever hoped for in a church, so we let confirmation bias distract us.

I should also note that in addition to the grooming process and love bombing that manipulative religions use to facilitate members' identification with the group and its members, many of these groups often cycle through periods of being more and less controlling, very much like the cycle of abuse that occurs between individuals. These systems are effective, but they are not perfect. These churches need to respond to crises to control damage and doctrine, and to maintain their authority over members. They also need to keep people comfortable enough within the group so that they remain in the group after unpleasant experiences that effect the community.

Following crises, be they crises that affect the church or those that only affect leadership, such manipulative churches will cycle through periods when the leaders present a more laissez faire attitude and level of control. But as in many abusive relationships that operate under passive aggressive rules instead of through healthy communication and mutual respect, eventually tension will build, and leaders will shift back into more controlling behavior. In our personal perfect storm of involvement with this cultic evangelical church with the Christmas Tree issue, we entered into the system shortly after a large scandal when an elder left the church against the wishes of the other leaders and the pastor. We came in at the least abusive phase in the cycle of the life of this church, so our first impressions of it were quite different than if we happened to first visit there when the leaders were preaching against “independent spirits” and pounding fists on the podium during Sunday morning sermons.

In retrospect and after much study about the dynamics of manipulative religious groups, I see those early questions from rank and file members of the group as a cue to how the church taught Christian liberty and how they offered liberty to members. It told a story of the issues with dogma and control within the congregation and how it affected everyone in the congregation (when it later proved to be a hobby horse for some leaders in the group and not a primary issue for the whole church). The strong opinion of the elder with whom we had close contact initially concerning the celebration of Christmas would later put the questions of concern about Christmas into perspective for us, but we were not as sensitive to the odd nature of those questions as we could have been when it first came up as a matter of concern. We could have been more sensitive to that gut feeling that something was wrong. Rather than assuming that we were being too critical, we could have paid attention to our feelings and honored them by not completely dismissing them. Though I'm glad that the history can now be an object lesson in how to pick up on how liberty and manipulation work within a church, I wish that both my husband and I had not assumed that we were looking at the situation in the wrong way. I wish we had maintained more of a mindfulness of that dynamic as an example of how problems were handled in the church instead of dismissing it as an issue of a new culture.

I learned at our ladies Christmas meeting that year that the church displayed the very first Christmas Tree in the building for the first time in many years, and I chose to see it at that time that the church worked through a matter of concern for them and came to a conclusion that was healthy (because it was consistent with my preferences). If the elders had decided that Christmas Trees and other German Moravian traditions that we loved were verboten, I would have interpreted the matter as a sign of legalism. The truth is that the church suffered serious problems with legalism, but as luck would have it, that particular decision at that time fell in well with my own comfort zone. After more experience with that group, many other decisions would be made that were not consistent with my own preferences or my comfort, and worse, many were inconsistent with my convictions about what the Bible teaches.

If you find yourself in a group or a church where things just seem a little odd, I encourage you to pay attention to that feeling. Don't make premature assumptions about what is happening, especially if you have a vested interest in ignoring those little checks and lack of ease because you really like the other elements, characteristics, and benefits of the group. Use them to remind yourself that nothing in this life is truly ideal, even though that some places and systems will be a better for you than others. Use them as cues to pay greater attention to just take in information as opposed to a cause to dismiss information. You don't have to make a rash decision. Self awareness and paying attention to that feeling that something seems a bit odd or off center does not demand an attitude of cynicism or a response. Just take in that which seems inconsistent and keep it instead of throwing it away. This is one of God's gifts and a function of discernment, and from place of good and wise discernment, you can use this kind of information to make wiser choices.

Another consideration in terms of spiritual abuse concerns how peripheral doctrines can invade and distract your church leaders from the central elements of the faith and the gospel. One of the elements or criteria of spiritual abuse as David Henke defined it concerns a focus on doctrines or practices that eventually become more important than the Gospel message and the central elements and practice of Christianity. Spiritual abusive groups strive to prove that they are different and better than all other Christians, and they use hobby horse issues like Christmas traditions (or protest of them) to prove to others and themselves that they are special to God. No one is as seriously committed to God as we are, and you can tell because we are so committed that we oppose Christmas. This is quite a bit different than speaking out about postmodern commercialization of a holy day in the liturgical year, or even that the liturgy might be a tradition of men. Those discussions point out that the affection of our heart should be fixed on Jesus and not outward things. These hobby horse doctrines concerning pious abstinence from or vehement denouncement of the traditions practiced by committed evangelical Christians focus not only capitalize on fear, shame, and condemnation, they are designed to make a sensational statement to others to prove that the religious group is special and better than all of the others.

At this time of year, perhaps the discussion of the strengths and weaknesses in how Christians celebrate Advent can give you some clues about how your church or your leaders respond. I tend to be less influenced by what people think about my traditions and whether they measure up to expectations of preference and whether they honor God and bring glory to Jesus. Christmas may have been set in December because of some pagan festival or the evil “Catholic” calendar , but I am quite reluctant to let any of that rob me of the celebration of Christmas. I know it as home, history, and as a tool of evangelism which great men and women used to share the message of God's love and grace in the town where I was born. I encourage you to follow your own convictions, but I challenge you to consider whether they are your own convictions and not just something you've assumed or taken for granted. I choose to embrace the liberty afforded us in Christ to see Christmas as a cause for celebration, and if Christmas did have some pagan origin, the Moravians, Zinzendorf, and Hus have certainly redeemed it for Christ and for me.

Embrace and enjoy liberty this season, and may yours be blessed.

The traditional "Putz" (the Nativity display) at Central Moravian Church, Bethlehem, PA