This guest post is by Robyn Shepherd.
Some months ago, as I was preparing to go on maternity leave, the church where 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 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. Since 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 and knew exactly what was wrong with the church, and expect everyone to go along with what he said, since he was clearly right. He offered no qualifications, no space for dialogue, and never allowed for the possibility that he might be wrong. He expected everyone to do what he said, because he spoke 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 and are not 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 difficult for anyone else to express a contrary idea.
Terrorism has become 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 blame them, to scapegoat them, victimize them, ostracize 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 is rather different than our hopes. I can easily imagine the majority of my Christian friends reading about the church member above with a sense of recognition coupled 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 church–or even faith itself–by similar terrorism.
Perhaps it’s time we stopped looking “out there” for the enemy–Muslims or gays or atheists or anyone we happen to disagree with–and started realizing that the threat is often within our communities, within our walls, and within ourselves. If we are not willing to change and to consider the possibility that we might be wrong, we can easily become the ones who inflict terror, without ever touching a weapon.
About Robyn Shepherd
Robyn Shepherd is currently home on maternity leave with her son. Having studied theology with the aim of pursuing a career in the Baptist denomination in the UK, she is now rethinking the direction of her life. She is married and living in beautiful Mid-Wales with her family. She blogs at rsshepherd.wordpress.com.