A few months ago, in a fit of curiosity I googled a few names of people who had been a big part of my life in the past. I came across one pastor talking about the current church he was involved with, discussing a small number of young men in his church – deeming them to be ‘good men’, while sagely nodding and stroking his chin. Using the defining of people as a manipulation tactic was rampant among church leadership, producing anxiety and competition among those not deemed worthy of being declared ‘good’, while the superiority felt by those declared good, fostered an attitude of looking at others as being in need of their help and guidance, encouraging neediness and helplessness in others in order to give themselves significance. They would discuss the private lives of the people they presumed themselves to be helping openly with other leaders, which amounted to nothing more than gossip and slander, under the guise of spiritual concern. Exposing other people’s vulnerabilities and using it for self gratification in this way always struck me as obscene and utterly devoid of any integrity.
The church environment was not unlike the famous Stanford prison experiment in which students had been arbitrarily divided into groups of prisoners or prison guards for the purpose of seeing how readily people would conform to roles they’d been assigned, which you can read more about here: https://www.simplypsychology.org/zimbardo.html In the church no one got stripped naked, but they were stripped of their self worth, their autonomy and their ability to set boundaries and have them respected. Power can be intoxicating to those who haven’t developed the maturity and character to wield it. Unmarried young people in their early twenties were assigned the task of giving marital advice to a middle-aged couple with teenage children (that ended in divorce for the couple), a young person who had never had a child was given the task of ‘counselling’ a mother dealing with the death of her baby son, which basically amounted to her being told she must have done something awful for God to treat her like this. These are not exceptional examples, the abuses were many. So why did people go along with it? Why not just walk away? The answer is that people were imprisoned by their own beliefs because they accepted what someone they deemed to have authority over them had told them.
The lengths people will go to in denying their own inner voice when responding to someone who they believe to have authority is quite breathtaking, and is illustrated perfectly in the famous Milgram experiment in which people were willing to administer fatal levels of electric shocks to people they could hear but not see, simply because they’d been asked to by a man wearing a white coat and speaking in an authoritative tone. You can read more about that experiment here: https://www.simplypsychology.org/milgram.html.
In the prison experiment the students involved were all free to leave at any time and yet they didn’t. The ‘prisoners’ allowed themselves to be subjected to inhumane treatment, when they could have just said ‘hell no’ and insisted on leaving. They had been told that they would need a lawyer in order to leave, but as they were just students and not real prisoners that was clearly untrue, and yet they accepted it as fact because it was spoken by a Catholic Priest.
Disconnect someone from their inner self, the bigger part of them, and you can make them violate their own conscience and work against their own best interest in favour of the interests of those who are self-serving and power hungry.
Coming next: Defining myself