Friday, 18 June 2010

Facing down the bullies

Spiritual bullying is a problem in most Christian communities. It often happens when a congregation is split - whether formally or informally - into an A-team and a B-team. In many churches the A-team consists of those regarded as members in especially good standing. The titles vary, as do the responsibilities. In one community I was once part of there were the ministers (themselves graded in merciless order of hierarchy), the deacons (the acceptable local suck-ups) and the "deakers" - wannabe deacons who set out the seating, were entrusted with hymnal distribution at services and were called on regularly to deliver opening and closing prayers. To aspire to such lofty heights you had to have a penis, use it in the bonds of marriage (or at least appear to), have a modicum of dress sense, carry a wide-margin leather-bound KJV, and show due deference to those above you in the food chain.

Then there's the B-team. Again, the markers vary from denomination to denomination. In the community we're describing here, the B-team consisted of women (except those who shared the marital bed with the high-up males), non-assertive males (married men naturally were ranked above singles) and minors. For these folk the appropriate behaviour was to pray, pay and obey. Occasionally one of the peón-level married males might aspire to a spot of "deaking," which was the only form of upward mobility open and involved a huge commitment of time and "greasing" behaviour. Did the minister need a hand digging out a space for his swimming pool? The wannabes couldn't wait to arrive early and dig enthusiastically!

Naturally this led to a sense of privilege for those who had successfully clambered part way up the greasy pole. Sermons assumed the people in the pews (except for the front pew, which was where the favoured few usually sat) were near-imbeciles who needed to be told how to correctly comport themselves on the day of worship, dress for services, tithe... the list goes on.

Needless to say, I was not one of the favoured few, for which - in hindsight - I thank God. There came a day when I realized that it was all a case of the Emperor's New Clothes. The whole sorry structure depended on the active cooperation and acquiescense of the great unwashed at the bottom of the pyramid. It was a Yertle the Turtle moment!

When local churches preach about respecting "leadership," when the people in the pews are directed to do as they're told and even think as they're told, the claxons should be going off louder than a vuvuzela. There are really only two options:

1. Run like hades. Get outa there!
2. Face down the bullies. Refuse to be intimidated. Make a stand.

On balance I prefer the second option because it can inspire others to stand up for themselves too. There's nothing like a subversive role model! Gentle laughter at a preacher with a sense of entitlement is an act of self-confidence by the doer, and enormously deflating for the pompous bully. These guys love to be taken seriously, and when they're confronted with the ludicrousness of their own behaviour (and we're not talking about being angry and obnoxious, but using reason and humour reasonably) it's a moment when I suspect even the Good Spirit cracks a broad smile.

Facing down the bullies also forces them to either follow through on their threats or look stupid and ineffectual. These guys would much rather you walk away; much easier on them.

My anecdotes come from the fringe, but bullying ministers appear in dog collars and with crucifixes as well. The specifics may change, but the issues are usually the same. And so is the response. That's not to say all ministers are abusive, which is absolutely not the case. Good ministers need to be treasured. But that doesn't change the fact that all ministers are open to the temptation to throw their featherweight "authority" around - with or without a funny collar. The onus is on you and me to not let him (and it usually is a him) get away with it.

There are Yertle-like poseurs in all kinds of places - not just ponds. It was a little bloke named Mack who brought his reign to a precipitous end.

May your inner Mack be with you.


  1. Now, if only this post had been published by In Transition, and posted up on congregation bulletin boards EVERYWHERE in 1994, what a different world(wide) we might be living in, eh?

  2. Fundamentalist religion is one of the few places where obsessive compulsive behavior is viewed as a sign of zealous righteousness and thoughtful reflection a sign of a weak mind.

  3. I certainly could relate to this posting. Growing up in the church I looked up to those who gave sermons, sermonettes and opening and closing prayers.

    As I matured it started to puzzle me that every opening and closing pray just had to mention the name of the leader of the church.

    Then as I went through the men's club I realized that it was only graduates of that men's club who gave the opening and closing prayers. Somehow I managed to avoid ever graduating.

    Recently I had a devout christian try to religiously bully me. I was quite proud that i was able to recognize the bullying and shut it down much more quickly than I ever could in the past.