I Choose

Yasmine Mohammed (ex-Muslim, author, woman of valor, google for more info) tweeted a photo of a woman disfigured by acid this morning, with this comment:

“Please stop equating hijab with a nun choosing a career or a woman choosing to wear a scarf or men choosing to wear a kippah. You sound dumb. People are abused, attacked with acid, imprisoned and killed for not wearing hijab. They are not the same.”

I think she was pushing back at some people on the left side of politics who, in their zeal to battle Islamophobia somehow end up supporting pro-hijab campaigns. But what she said also challenges those within radical religious communities who claim to embrace lifestyles and beliefs out of free choice.

The way to discover whether you have actually CHOSEN a behavior or belief, versus it having been imposed on you, is to ask yourself: if I stopped doing/believing this, what would happen?

Would I

  • Be shunned by my family?
  • Be given the cold shoulder by close friends?
  • Lose my job?
  • Be barred from/asked to step down from ministry?
  • Be publicly shamed in congregation?
  • Be excommunicated?
  • Be told I am going to hell?
  • Be beaten by my father/husband?
  • Be threatened with divorce?
  • Be threatened with the loss of child custody?
  • Be arrested?
  • Get acid thrown in my face?

The thing about choice is that it can only happen WHEN THERE ARE GENUINE OPTIONS and WHEN COERCION IS NOT A FACTOR. And you don’t have to be a member of a radical Muslim community to need to hear this. Let’s bring it right into our own “New Testament church” experience. Let me tell you I have no lack of examples, especially as a woman within the Plymouth Brethren tradition, but I’ll stick to a couple:

I remember being fully convinced that I chose to wear a headcovering. I was equally convinced that I chose homemaking over a career, and I showcased these things, along with others, as personal choices.

But what would have happened if I had chosen NOT to wear a headcovering, or if I had said that what I really wanted was to pursue a career?

The answer, quite simply, is that my father would have cracked down on me and that our community would have stood by him. There was never a flying chance I would have gotten away with sitting through a church meeting without a headcovering, or that I would have been allowed to continue studying after high school.

And yet I believed that these were my choices.

I thought about that when my daughter told me about one of her classmates, who (during sweltering weather) insisted that she loved wearing hijab and did so out of free choice. I think about it when I hear friends toting headcoverings or dress codes as matters of personal conviction. I think about it when I see LGBTQ Christians saying they choose a life of celibacy.

Could they choose not to?

Whistleblowing in the Church

After a friend shared some articles about the ongoing situation with James MacDonald & Harvest Bible Chapel – one of which contained a charge from one of the (resigning) elders on his staff concerning cult-like behavior – several people threw their hands up in horror at hearing the word “cult” associated with a church.

It may come as a surprise that even evangelical churches can become cultic groups. But so it is. Quoting Steve Smith :

Can a group affirm the Bible and still be a cult?
What makes some groups destructive is not their doctrine but rather their practice. Jesus said, “By their fruits you will know them,” (cf. Matthew 7:15-20), and destructive groups have a way of twisting scriptures and practicing coercion which results in damaged followers. Ironically, groups like this are often intensely concerned about the fruits of salvation in their followers, yet their own fruit is rotten.

In his paper, “Cult Formation“, Robert J. Lifton, M.D. listed three primary characteristics of a cult as follows:

a) A charismatic leader [or, I add, nucleus of leaders] with no meaningful accountability,

b) A process of coercive persuasion or thought reform, and

c) Economic, sexual, and other exploitation of group members by the leader and the ruling coterie.

When the whole Harvest situation came to my attention, and I read MacDonald’s version, members’ testimonies and Roys’ investigation (which I did, not out of morbid fascination but because James MacDonald is a familiar name and several of my friends follow his ministry), what stood out immediately to me were those basic cultic characteristics.

Some people are taking exception to the fact that the situation is being made public, and that Christians are sharing links to the investigation on the social media, something they call “participating in a smear campaign”. They think we are bound to only speak well of other Christians, protect their reputations, overlook facts and cover up any sin in the interest of love & good testimony.

But reputations are not sacred – in fact, as Rebecca Davis pointed out in her outstanding article, “The only thing a person deserves when it comes to reputation is to have his reputation match his character.” If Christian leaders or groups are engaging in cultic behavior, they SHOULD be exposed – in the interest of all. Those being wronged should be helped. Those wronging should be stopped, and they should receive the opportunity to repent.

Silence (the no-whistleblowing policy) is not always the spiritual option – not when:

It replaces truth-telling;

It is inspired by fear;

It keeps wrong unchallenged;

It covers up harm;

It enables harmers.

There are situations where Paul’s directive applies: “Have no fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness, but rather EXPOSE THEM” (Eph. 5:11).