Some months ago, as I was preparing to go on maternity leave, the church in which I had been training as a student minister was preparing to make a very important decision. This decision came after years of conversation, but the opinions in the church were still deeply divided.
One Sunday morning an elderly member of the congregation cornered me after the service to assure me that he had been given a message from God, and he would set the meeting straight. Accustomed to his language, and certain no words of mine could alter his purpose one iota, I adopted my usual response – smile and nod – as he described his plans with all his usual passion and depth of conviction. Within myself I could only be grateful that it would not be my job to counter his “message” or to deal with the fallout of his words.
Not that there would be much fallout. I expected that the result of whatever he felt compelled to say would be silence, the unspoken reactions to his words ranging from bewilderment to frustration. As he had done similar things at other meetings, but never succeeded in providing a coherent argument or a discernible plan, his “messages” tended to amount to a rant about his convictions followed by a judgement on the church for failing to be led by the Spirit, or something similar.
It is not my desire or intention to mock this man or dismiss his deeply-held convictions, but his way of sharing his beliefs about the church and its future had all the subtlety of a sledgehammer.
In venting my frustration with this particular congregant to my spiritual director, he suggested that such behaviour might be termed “spiritual terrorism.” That is, this man would show up to a church meeting, announce he had a message from God/knew exactly what was wrong with the church, and expect everyone to go along with what he said, as he was clearly right. He offered no qualifications, no space for dialogue; he allowed no possibility that he might be wrong. The logical conclusion must be that everyone else is expected to do what he says, because he speaks for God.
Such a person uses no bombs or guns, beheads no one, sheds no blood, but the basic pattern of terrorism is there – my belief is the only true belief. I intend for you to act in accordance with my belief. If you do not, you are not in communion with God/a true believer. Such an approach shuts down any dialogue that might have been possible, elevates the speaker above the rest of the people in the meeting (as the true mouthpiece of God), and makes it very difficult for anyone else to express a contrary idea.
In our times terrorism has become a bit of a buzz word. It is associated with Islamic fundamentalism, but can also be found in extreme forms of other ideologies – such as Irish republicanism or, yes, Christian fundamentalism. It is founded on the unshakable conviction that one’s belief or cause is irreproachable and infallible. From that conviction it becomes all too easy to judge others, to blames them, to scapegoat them, victimise them, ostrasice them. All these become possible when I believe that ‘we’ are right or ‘we’ know absolute truth and therefore ‘they’ are wrong or infidels or heretics or evil or the enemy.
We don’t like to think there is terrorism in our churches or other Christian circles, but I suspect the reality would be rather different than our hopes. I can easily imagine the majority of my Chrisitian and particularly my ministerial friends reading about the church member above with a sense of recognition coupled, perhaps, with frustration or amusement. I wonder how many church meetings have been shut down by just such an attitude, how many wise or even prophetic voices have been silenced, and, worst of all, how many valuable people, so worthy of love and affirmation have been driven away from churches or even faith itself by similar terrorism.
Perhaps it’s time we stopped looking ‘out there’ for the enemy – persecution or Muslims or secularism or gays – and started realising that the threat is often within our communities, within our walls and within ourselves. If we are not willing to change and believe we might be wrong, we can easily become the ones who inflict terror, without ever touching a weapon.