1993, 01/01 (b) The Beating at the Meeting: the Bad News about Grace

These journal pages form the background of my book, Captive Congregation: My Fourteen Years in the Church of Bible Understanding, which is available as a Kindle book or in paperback

The second session of the meeting:

Stewart is opening the meeting with the idea that our minds need to be under control, and that we are only partially here. And that we are con-men. And that he doesn’t want to play along with us. Nobody is talking. Now, our strings are being pulled, but nobody wants to get in to it.

[Having our strings pulled meant that brothers were called on by name to speak and that they did not volunteer on your their accord to speak up. In this session, no one wanted to talk or respond to the questions Stewart was asking, so he selected someone to do the job of “pulling strings.” The brother nominated for this job selected individuals by name, saying, “So, what do you think, Chuck?” When anyone’s string was pulled, it was considered to be extreme arrogant behavior to not answer, so the victim had to answer. In this case, the question of the moment was Stewart’s accusation that we were “con-men.”

No one wanted to give opinions voluntarily. These opinions (if we were honest) would have been that we did not think we were con-men. But Stewart was not going to accept an answer like that from anyone. If a brother tried to say he was not a con-man, Stewart would have attacked him with more accusations and “proof” that he was indeed a con-man and also get the other church members to provide evidence to prove the brother was a con-man. 

In Stewart’s court of law, rather than being presumed innocent until found guilty, a brother was already presumed guilty unless he could present overwhelming proof of his innocence, which was not possible, because Stewart would not accept it. Rather than go through this ordeal, the brother called to account threw in the towel immediately and provided evidence (made up if necessary) as to why he was guilty of the charges. After many years, church members came to realize that this was the easiest – and only – way out. They preferred to confess to charges Stewart made against them, rather than to only have to do it later, now abused and bruised, after having tried to “fight for self,” and be “arrogant,” rather than “honestly admitting the truth about themselves.”  

Stewart went on with a brother as long as necessary, even making a whole session about that brother if that was what it took. As I said, church members already knew this in advance and capitulated immediately rather than face additional abuse. Only the newer people, who had not yet become trained and conditioned by this treatment, tried to “justify themselves.”

Part of any new member’s initiation experience into the group was to undergo this treatment. Those who did not put up with this treatment left and those who were willing stayed. By watching Stewart do this the new people, I realized that the same thing had been done to us when we were new, and that this was part of Stewart’s breaking-in process. We had all been trained into it and we jumped immediately to Stewart’s commands and instantly accepted his teachings. Those who did not put up with this did not stay, so this left us surrounded with people who lived according to this way, so that was a great pull on us to do the same. Those who were corrected by Stewart, and had resisted, were followed around all week by church members eager to carry out the same lines on them, to get them to conform. There were NO individual thoughts or opinions expressed by members of COBU, at least not publicly.

When a brother’s string was pulled, he was expected to explain why we, and he, were con-men. No other answer was acceptable. Silence was the only form of resistance available. Through many years of experience, we came to know that resistance to these ideas (at least active resistance, because silence was resistance) was futile, because Stewart then went on to prove whatever his charges were against us, using the others on us to give evidence. Stewart also provided evidence from our empty and broken down lives, such as, “and why aren’t you married anyway?” or any number of other things. If we wanted to step forward and give evidence of success in relationships and our personal lives, good luck, because we didn’t have any. We were dirty, tired, broken down and owned nothing.

The fact that Stewart demanded this self-abnegation and enforced this lifestyle on church members was not taken into consideration. The official line was that if we had been faithful to Christ, we would have all these things we lacked. Who could argue against that? Jesus said, “But seek first God’s kingdom and His righteousness and all these things shall be yours as well.” And if we did not have these things, we must not be putting God first then. So this was the “evidence” used against any brother or sister who Stewart was interrogating in front of the others, and who he was using as an example of what is wrong with all of us.]

My inmost thoughts are, why do this? Though it may be necessary. Nobody wants to talk about it. Nobody wants to have a community honesty session, so the confessions will be forced and constrained and everybody will be glad when it’s over. It’s a weird puppet show. Stewart may have a point, but this is pretty strange. This is surrealistic. But, it’s better to act like a nut than to say this is ridiculous. Stewart is telling everybody what to say. I know of no group honesty session where anybody is any better off for having been honest about themselves. There is no honesty in our church. Just rules, games and irrational impulses. Through fear and coercion, we can be forced to stand up and belt something out. A response can be generated, but we are all just waiting on Stewart. This is like a group interrogation.

Nobody seems too glad. [Nobody was glad about hearing this “good news” about grace, at least not in these terms and conditions.] Stewart can turn even grace into something terrifying. Somehow I don’t have the feeling I am being enlightened, lifted, forgiven and given hope. What Martin Luther wrote about grace is different, but that never did help me either.

[I could read books by Martin Luther about grace and believe what he wrote, but I lived here in the COBU system. No matter what I read about in books about God’s love and grace, I was still subject to the pressure and abuse which Stewart aimed at me.]

Stewart: “What’s missing with you? Love covers a multitude of sins.”

We come down every week for meetings. Meetings and beatings. The first session was a meeting, now we’re getting a beating. Stewart is really just haranguing us. He doesn’t really talk to us and we definitely don’t talk to him. I guess he imagines he is helping us.

This reminds me of all these meetings with Stewart in the Rescue Mission [another era in COBU, in 1983] where we all used to sit there for hours in silence. I guess I didn’t know so much what I was doing back then, but I do now. Of course, there was false teaching back then and Stewart has admitted that he was not treating us right back then. But, I keep wondering if he is not dealing rightly with us, even right now.

Stewart: “If you’re not working at God’s plan with your whole heart, then grace is not at work in you. If you’re not fully there…”

Sometimes I think this is all just the intense theater of Stewart’s mind. He arranges all the points and writes all our lines. We are like metal shavings on paper drawn along by a magnet, so that we outwardly manifest the theater of his mind. (He needs to do this to satisfy himself in some way.) The players can’t help but follow the parts they are corralled into. There needed to be a beating of the enemy tonight. Hitler had to exterminate some Jews in order to show his greatness and to be seen as a glorious hero before his people, so that they’d be more closely knit to his leadership. The victorious gladiator has his foot on the neck of the defeated gladiator. The crowd sees his greatness. He is a great leader. I feel like the older brothers are now gutted and lying on the ground. Stewart is now probably done with us.

***

I was walking around the New Property this morning doing a guard shift, in a state of reverie, which is probably inappropriate considering the meeting last night. It was a real grinder. I was spared having to make a confession, only because Stewart said, “The sisters don’t want to hear this.” Saved by the bell.

I had a dream last night, which was probably a re-hashing of the meeting, in which Chuck blew up and was leaving. He said this is a cult, and maybe he was going to hit Stewart. I wonder that no one does blow up. I am not looking forward to today’s session.

I wish we could take sabbaticals. It might do a little good. I was reading a book about the Bruderhof[The Bruderhof is a live-in group similar to the Church of Bible Understanding, though not necessarily an abusive group. This book explained the processes in their meetings and about members’ obedience to authority. This was very helpful to me to understand my own situation in COBU.] The author suggests that the members take mandatory sabbaticals so they can live outside of the group and support themselves, and then come back, showing that they live in the group, not because they need to, but because they want to. (Among us, the idea is that we need to live in. But, I think the point is a good one. How many of us are here by virtue of inertia? Or because, in my case, I have nowhere else to go and that if I did, I might have left long ago. (But maybe I would come over anyway, showing that I want to. Then it would be by choice and not by compulsion. I have to come to this meeting. If I don’t, it will be noticed and I’ll incur trouble.)

[Another point in this book was that Bruderhof members didn’t dare speak their minds. If the leadership gave some new teaching on the Bible at a meeting and a member said he didn’t think it was true and gave his opinion, he would be considered to be arrogant and corrective action was taken against him. If later, the leadership changed their minds and said that this had not been the truth and that they were changing their opinion, and the dissenting member pointed that out to them, asking why then had he been disciplined, he would be told that the facts were not the issue, but that his sin had been that of being “critical of leadership.” This lead to people not wishing to speak their minds and believing whatever they were told to think or told to do. When you live communally, the hassle and trouble that is generated by trying to swim against the tide of communal life is too great, and most people will sue for peace to preserve order in their lives, rather than being branded as a dissenter and being shunned and denounced by all those in the community. This pressure will be aimed against you until you either conform, or leave. There is no middle ground.  Bruderhof members considered themselves too stupid to think for themselves and waited for leadership to tell them what the truth was and what to do with their lives.

This also was the expected behavior for members of the Church of Bible Understanding. These were not only opinions on the Bible. Every so-called Bible teaching that Stewart taught was used to get us to do certain things and to manifest certain behavior, such as living in constant fear of hell. We were supposed to consider all else in life as nothing in comparison to the threat of spending eternity burning in hell. This induced us to give up all of our claims on what we wanted in life and to do what Stewart wanted us to do with our lives. We served as worker drones in Stewart’s empire as cash generating machines for his personal fortune and as a captive and admiring audience for his theories on life and the Bible.  

Stewart also broke down all relationships in the church, while maintaining his own harem of about 10 or 15 devoted women who lived with him in his building on the “New Property.” How much sex went on between Stewart and these women, I can only speculate. It will take one of these women who are former members to speak up and tell the story. This would take a lot of bravery, since they would be speaking of things they took part in and knew that others were taking part in, and it would be self incriminating. Stewart told these women that the men in the church could not marry them. And they did not want to go out into the “world” to find a man, because that would be spiritual death. (Even if the men were Christian, because they did not have the only true teaching from Stewart.)  

And Stewart told the women about Old Testament polygamy and “half-wives,” having carefully selected young women from the church who seemed vulnerable to this approach. He created a tension between living with him and the privileges that came with that, and life back in the other centers of the church, which were usually dirty apartment buildings in slums. And the men in these houses were too broken down and tired out to have relationships with them, he said. The women were offered an “escape” from this bleak situation by coming to live with Stewart as a “Gayle Helper,” to help his wife Gayle with projects. Though there probably was little they helped Gayle with. However “Gayle Helper” sounded better than “Stewart Helper,” which might be too obvious in terms of some of the services required. 

If a sister did not live up to her contract as a Gayle Helper, she was sent back to live at Woodruff. So, this was great motivation to be a faithful servant of Stewart Traill. 

I experienced these pressures to a lesser degree, as the same kind of techniques were used on the men. I can understand why people did what Stewart wanted, once caught in his web. I only experienced this manipulation from afar, and at meetings. And even then, it was overwhelming. So then, what about those women who lived with Stewart full time? There was direct pressure and manipulation, constant watching, voting and evaluation of one another. I understand why those who lived with Stewart did what they did. I understand the power of the forces used on them to get them to do everything Stewart wanted them to do.]

I am a 35 year old man who lives more like a not-quite person; as a child or inmate to be ordered. Not out of free choice. I think this is one of the more damaging problems in our church. I think it affects the quality of my “service.” My life is ordered, like a military barracks, insane asylum, prison or concentration camp. I have lost any sense of autonomy and self-determination. Like I used to write before, about how I’d feel late for the bus, running for it after it left the stop. Never able to catch up or get a handle on anything and finally giving up. When you’re always behind, you can’t plan for anything. You’ve just got to hustle to complete your tasks in time before the next task starts. Life becomes getting one thing done in order to get to the next thing in time to not be too late or behind in starting that. I can never think, plan or make choices. Also, I’m wiped out. I slip, let go. I stop thinking, stop living. There are no new choices anyway. There is only work, meetings and sleep. Meetings on weekends. Never enough free time to consider anything. (I rarely think about anything for any length of time. Life becomes the big routine. A cog in the wheel. A prole in the authoritarian society. It’s Nineteen Eighty-Four all over again. Big Brother is watching me. Even my thoughts, my private moments are monitored.) I’m always kept within the confines of the compound, inwardly and outwardly. My body is corralled. I must be on jobs, in meetings. It would cause quite a stir to be an absentee without good reason. The trouble I’d get in for that would far outweigh any supposed benefit. This is one of the ways I’ve given up. I just do things to avoid punishment.

I also compare it to being on a merry-go-round. Wishing to get off sometimes.

I have the deadening routines working on me from the inside and outside. In and around me. Much of my attention and efforts go toward keeping this up. Thus, much of me, my mind, energy and strength and my thoughts and life become centered on it so that it becomes my reality. Any slacking off on it brings trouble, because it gets noticed when I do.

Also, there is a self-abnegating and nihilistic view being handed down from above from Stewart that gives force to and helps the wheels turn round. So much of this runs me. What am I really? I’m like an irrational animal, run by irrational impulses, quotas and obligations. But, it’s important to never THINK. To never let my guard down, never be me, never be honest. (Not in the sense of dumping, but being genuine.) The censorship factor is immense and I willingly take part in this, basically to avoid unpleasant “stimuli.”

You can read then next part here: The Next Session at the Meeting: Insults and Nasty Names.

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