1993, 01/17-18. “We’ve Gotta Get Out Of Here! There’s No Spiritual Life Here!”

These journal pages are part of the source material for my book, Captive Congregation: My Fourteen Years in the Church of Bible Understanding, which is available as a Kindle book or in paperback

Sunday January 17

I went walking today. I had decided to walk over the bridge, but looking down Union Street, I saw a vista all the way to Prospect Park. So, here I am now! What memories it brings! As soon as I stepped in the park, there was the smell of damp earth and grass. I began to notice the clouds above me. I was thinking of how I could walk here sometimes and then go running. I pause to write this. As soon as I write the word “SUN” (above) [I wrote the abbreviation “Sun” for Sunday as I wrote a journal entry while sitting in the park] the sun suddenly breaks through the clouds, bathing me in warm winter sunlight! I am going to walk down the long field and back. It is quiet in here. As soon as I entered the park, the city faded to a quiet, distant hush. I am all alone, walking in a wide grassy field with the expanse of beautifully clouded sky above. There are areas of blue and shifting patterns of shadow, that pondering and brooding play between light and shadow that only happens in a winter sky. A fresh clean breeze blows on my face.

Two times today I have seen or heard about being born again. First there was a sign in a window. (Also a sign that said “Christ died for the ungodly.”) Then at the library, a girl was telling someone about John 3:3-6. She was reading it out of a book.

Also, in Prospect Park, on the hill (Mount Redoubt) there was a crazy lady walking her dog and doing aerobic exercises. On her way down she began shouting and muttering things, some intelligible, some incomprehensible. But she also shouted, “We have to get out of here! There’s nothing but dead wood here! There’s no spiritual life here!” I thought about Peter, who sometimes thinks that the demented things old drunks shout as they’re walking by are tailored for him, and that they are “messages.” But that didn’t counter the original shock, and feeling like a barbed arrow that this was true and was meant for me, for me to hear specifically.

8:30 p.m.

In a meeting in Red Hook. Older brothers (and middle and new brothers) are volunteering to be organizers. Older brothers have sweaty palms, shaking voices. They are making speeches about how they’ve been doing “it.” On God’s basis of grace, and that their group backs them. And that they have been thankful. Parading these things forth as proofs.

[Brothers had to proclaim that they had been “thankful for God’s grace.” They needed to have witnesses to back up their claims, witnesses who had seen them all week as being this way. We were in working groups of three to five men. We worked in these groups and those in the group monitored and reported on each other.]

Bob M., though shaky himself, seems believable to me. But to me, all of this is horrendous, showing grace by saying “here are my works.” Works in this case could be actual activities done, or less tangible things like correct phrases said enough times as if one really meant it, grunting through them by sheer effort. Or, proper attitudes held forth, maintained and cultivated, all hopefully with appropriate witnesses, since all of this has been done before their eyes and also may have been done strictly for their eyes. But I suppose it must be this way because, who can trust the older brothers? That’s why there must be proving and voting. That is the avowed purpose of it all, notwithstanding the way older brothers act over it.

Voting and evaluating groups. The word “social control” is what keeps coming to mind.

The problem with this little diary is that I write what I actually think in it and that gets kind of “pesky.” If only I had no individual thoughts. It would be a release from certain tensions.

Not too much of this is Christian. (Although there are long teaching sessions on Sundays, when there is more than one session.) The big thing now is groups. This is what is being dealt with. There is a lot of evaluating, appraising and control. And I think, secretly: terror, fear, worry and guilt. Also saying as little as possible to get by and to not incriminate oneself. Putting the best foot forward. Especially on the part of those who know, the older brothers. Most older brothers are sitting in the back, hopefully out of sight, out of mind. Those older brothers who are (foolish, sincere, honest, dumb, want points bad enough and/or that’s just their nature) to try, stand up with their groups, not (as) afraid of the limelight. These are the ones we pin our lives and our hopes on. If they make it, then so can we. We let them do all the fumbling for us. They are usually the first to feel the heat of any correction, because they are willing, for various reasons, to be “out front.” They don’t feel it so bad or don’t care so much. Maybe they’re less guilty or it’s just their nature. Then, by the time the correction gets to the rest of us (when we must go through each brother to get a “claim”), it is routine. A yes or no answer or a fast commitment is wanted then. Individual cases are not gone into. Enough is enough, enough has been heard. And those doing the judging just want to get it over with by the time it’s halfway down the line.

I have learned to strategically place myself toward the end of any line because of this. I will let others go first to get a feel of what’s coming, of what’s expected and the limits and boundaries of what’s being dealt with. For reasons like not overstepping what’s being asked, bringing more trouble on myself. Or for seeing which of the acceptable answers I will choose and why. And what will happen to me according to this answer I give.

[I waited to hear the complete terms and conditions of questions being asked of us. So I didn’t go beyond answering the specific question being asked, or the specific answers they were looking for, as a way to not open up a can of worms by providing any more information than necessary, which could be used against me.]

By the time it gets down the line, (a new thing) it’s already part of the codex, although nothing is new really. It is multiple variations of the same thing. The realization of that helps soften the initial shock of these things. I’ve also found out it “calms the nerves” and gives me a clearer head when I switch over to watching the nervousness of the others. Watching them sweat, go through gyrations, circumlocutions. It takes my mind right off me, which is what I need. I “disappear” and I am aware of the others instead. Then it looks pretty stupid, grown men being that way. They’re all so wrapped up in themselves that they can’t perceive anything outside of themselves, much less what I am doing. I can use a clear head at such moments. Is this wrong? How is standing there, turned inwardly on myself any better? It is acceptable though. It’s only when I forget me and worrying what is going to happen to me that I can think and maybe make a decision. (It’s still thinking of me and what will happen to me, though.) It’s safer than blurting something out under pressure. I’ve done that to my hurt.

But, about this “strategic placement.” It is not really right. It is a reaction, yes. But the idea of staying hidden because of swaying under the insults and name-callinga certain author said that this is childish.

I’m getting some looks because I’m writing. I fear anyone reading this. Maybe I will have to bury these journals in a box somewhere. And make up a fake diary to give to others in case my diaries are requested.

This whole group evaluation is being conducted in a courtroom spirit. Observations: No one is apparently glad or looks that way. Everyone and everything is being “checked out.” It is completely dry, mechanical and tedious. This is the weird thing that goes on here along with the Christianity.

It is almost as if Stewart is spitting venom today. Maybe he is sick.

[I thought Stewart might have been physically ill that day because of the way he looked. He was an angry old man, putting the brothers through a courtroom style evaluation. Each brother stood up and made his anxious claim of faithfulness and was voted and commented on by his group (with Stewart interjecting criticism), and all the other brothers and the sisters acting as the jury.]

Certainly this is a religion of works. This is always a drag. It is never hopeful or motivating. It’s like working with trained monkeys. Stewart is talking to his bad little pets. Sometimes I wish someone from the outside could come to see this. Stewart directs the whole show, operating everybody, like he is working with material. His method involves and demands passivity from everybody, because he is in such control. Is he really interested in the people, or just being in control and running everyone’s lives? It is strange religious psychology, all about not depending on ourselves and getting our lives together our way, versus depending on God and similar themes. But it never seems to work for anybody. Is Stewart just another self-made religious philosopher like Bultmann, Barth, Tillich, etc.? One who has to keep us in the dark and separate from the rest of the world? This is religious psychology. The view that Stewart presents is that he knows everybody, and knows what is going on with them. (I mean, that he knows about the things that matter, not every detail about us. He knows the checkpoints, or crossroads, of our lives. The handles.)

[Bultmann, Barth and Tillich were modern religious writers I read about or read their books, all of whom seemed to try to put the big picture together. But in their case, I could just put the book down when I was done reading it. Here, we lived in it and it was aimed directly against us as a full-time, constant attack. Stewart isolated us – though it is true to say a person decided to remain isolated if he stayed here and did not leave, or did not reach out for new ideas. To stay here and to buy into the COBU way of life involved accepting Stewart Traill as the only determiner of reality and our only influence in matters of religion, life and salvation.]

Stewart says enough of the right stuff, but everybody is so dead and we have a strange life here. “When a life is imposed from above, an underlife develops.”  [This is a quote from Ervin Goffman’s book Asylums, in the chapter called The Underlife of an Institution.]

Stewart is now dealing with a new brother, correcting him. Then older brothers like Kevin follow up on this, always in agreement with Stewart. Stewart can portray anybody quickly, always derogatorily. It may be true, the guy [the new chuch member] may be arrogant, but it’s always a strip down and a beating. Stewart pushed him to agree that he was arrogant. Then he was trapped, because he said so.

The meeting is over. I am perturbed. Not necessarily because of the religious truths presented therein. More precisely, I feel exasperated and like I just got punched in the stomach! How in the world do I arrive at that? It’s mostly because of Stewart’s people dealing techniques. (Here, I will not go into detail because of the tediousness of trying to present a point by point description of it, like a thesis where I back up my views by assertions and proofs.) The method being used tonight, I guess it’s called the Socratic method, where Stewart gets people to admit things, then uses it on them thereafter. When someone gives into the pressure to say something, then make them prove it! They back down. “Oh, you can’t prove what you say about yourselfYou said it.” It’s almost as if this person brought it up on their own, admitted to it, then decided to backtrack. No consideration is taken into account that Stewart laid it on him first. Stewart puts the people he is questioning in a position where they must turn to the right or to the left, but either way they turn, they can be trapped.

[One of the ways this worked was that Stewart accused a brother of something. If he refused to admit to it, then Stewart accused him of being “arrogant.” Because Stewart and everyone in the room was saying this to them (if Stewart asked everyone else present if they agreed, they would say they agreed) and they were “fighting” and disagreeing with all these people. A line Stewart often said during these attacks was,“Who are you to fight against the view of the assembled body, who see something in you that you cannot see, or are not willing to face? Are you saying you know better than all the people in the room?” 

Stewart said that the assembled body was the view of Jesus Christ, because the Holy Spirit worked through Christ’s body. (This “body” was usually getting ripped apart by Stewart for being liars and cheaters. But when necessary, this ragged and beaten assembly of brothers and sisters suddenly became, as Jesus said, “wherever two are three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of you,” and now any disagreement with this body equalled disagreeing with and fighting against God.) That person was now fighting against God by not agreeing with what was being said to them. Nothing they said was adequate as a defense, but instead it was considered to be more proof of their rebellion. Nothing they said was accepted, unless it was information that could be used against them. 

And if they admitted to the accusation Stewart was making against them, they were told to give reasons, in their own words, why the charge against them was true, in order to prove that it was not just because Stewart was making them say it. When the person realized this was a trap and did not want to come up with reasons, they tried to say they were pushed into saying it, and that they did not think it was true. Stewart then called that person a liar, because they had just said a moment ago that they agreed. There was no getting away with trying to say that they were pushed into saying something and just gave into the pressure. Yet if they did not agree to the charges, they were called arrogant and fighting against everyone. This pressure was brought to bear against that person until they crumbled, or walked out and left. Those who had been in the church the longest (the older brothers and sisters) knew that their “best” option was to cave in immediately and accept Stewart’s charges, because it was useless to fight against this overwhelming force.]  

This is a disjoined account. I won’t try to nail everything down, it’s too hard. Yet I think I should write extensively. I think I was directed to keep a journal. What else can I write in it then, than what I think and feel?

Stewart knows a lot about people. This can’t be denied. I see it in action. He can turn anyone upside down and dump them out like a sack of potatoes. I know the feeling. You are defenseless. Suddenly you are presented with things that have cosmic significance. Deeper things regarding human nature, and about your life. Not necessarily specific biographical details, such as skeletons in the closet, but that can be used too. But the things that bother people in general, applied to you, right there on the spot. (And this is not a people control technique? It gets quite embarrassing, or maybe it causes a deeper perplexity. Maybe the way out would be the realization that these things apply to all people, since they usually are generalities concerning human life and conduct, though, laid on us heavily. Stewart also does it to us in the presence of others, which is a crucial part of the process. Don’t care to agree? You are arrogant!)

Another way Stewart does it is to debase everything to the lowest denominator, to purge it of aesthetics or other possible legitimate reasons. Anything we want to do will then become merely: a painkiller, something we did for motivation, hiding, pride, a substitute for reality, or done for deeper slimy and shameful reasons. Any of our legitimate complaints become: just complaining, or pointless because really, the person with the complaint is not putting his flesh to death, or why should he be allowed to talk if he is not uniting with his brothers? Conversely, those who are trying to be good know how to steer clear of such things and to put their best front forward. Because if not, Stewart will expose something primevally nasty about them.

It’s a strange method of coercion and crowd control. It’s easy for Stewart to strut his stuff and be coarse with people when he knows they will support whatever he says and that they are expected to do so. Especially if they are trying to be right. (Imagine all the things that would be levelled against me, if I were not outright thrown out. Stewart knows a lot of what makes me tick and he would use it accordingly.) Stewart told someone tonight that, “He really doesn’t like the way he is.” This is general and can be applied to everyone. But it’s blasted right at this person in full view of all the others. Remember, the presence of an audience is critical. “Added leverage” is the word that comes to mind about Stewart’s use of the audience. A brother is suddenly confronted with something he’d like to avoid and has been avoiding. Now he has a sick feeling. It may be overdoing it to say, “now he sees his life pass before his eyes,” but, this is the dirty linen. These things are like screws that are turned into a person tighter and tighter. The person’s sore spots. Only the newest and inexperienced here would try to say, “No, it’s not true. I like the way I am.” Even so, Stewart could quickly defuse that by saying things like, “You mean you like being this and that?”

This is where I get the idea that Stewart has people firmly in his grasp, by his use of these things. With us older ones, compound it with the way we’ve been recently, and all along. But these things are sometimes pulled out for fresh purposes, like what Stewart says about not being a man, etc.

About the audience. A person under correction will be repeatedly asked, “Ask everybody what they think.” (This is usually when the person being questioned disagrees or won’t go along with the line of reasoning.) “Ask everybody if you are being arrogant right now.” (Or fill in the blank with something else. Stewart asked the new brother mentioned previously three similar questions in a row, with different subjects in the blank.)  It was not the new brother who was asking because he really wanted to know. It was just a hammer used on him.

But if the brother doesn’t ask, he’s being arrogant. “Oh, so you don’t care what other people have to say?” That’s another one of those general human things. Every conscientious human being does and should care to take the thoughts and views of others into consideration, especially when it directly concerns his own conduct. And all the more when one professes Christianity. Not wanting to be considered strange, the brother will ask what the others think about him. But he asks the question he was told to ask, and it is not from his own desire to know. Also, a person couldn’t short circuit this technique by asking ahead of time, hoping others would back you up on your own assertions. The audience is like a jury in a Soviet court, which exists to back up, ratify and carry out the administration’s agenda. So, the whole thing, while supposedly based on an elevated principle (truth and independent witnesses) is a sham. Though I can’t deny that it is shrewd.

The ultimate one is, “Ask everyone if they see you as arrogant.” Now the brother is in a bind. Everyone will say “yes” if asked. And if he won’t ask, then he’s being arrogant! (He’s arrogant for not asking and just trampling all over everyone by saying they don’t matter and that he does’t want to hear it!) So he’s just proving that he’s arrogant.

Also, with these questions, everyone is being lead into what to say! “Ask them if they see…” Stewart is telling them what to see. It is the same as if he were making statements or giving orders and directives. This was not a session for inquiry. It was just for finishing someone off who didn’t capitulate immediately.

These rhetorical questions are like Stewart’s right and left hand. Stewart talking directly was like hitting with the right. Asking questions through the others was like hitting with his left. And he was doing it through the others. They were merely a channel through which Stewart hit the new brother from another angle where he was off balance. (The new brother had begun to come back with, “You’re abusive.”) The brother can’t attack all these people, especially when they “seem” to say quite freely of their own accord that which they are prompted to say. Now, what was he going to do?

Kevin and the sisters were also getting in there, doing this to the new person, who was being subjected to this treatment for his first time. What can I do? I see the coercion techniques. How should a man, a pastor have this power? Is this why we are isolated (by him) so he has complete freedom to do this? It really was a “social control” meeting. Keeping the rats in place. Otherwise, what was the purpose of it all? Then after the meeting, everyone was chatting so excitedly and amicably. Once we’re out of the ring, the sisters, who would have to bring us down with this or that evaluation (and vice versa, if necessary), now chatting so amicably with the brothers.

This is all so surrealistic. What part is real, what part is what? Nobody really talks to Stewart. He is not on intimate or friendly terms with anyone. He just shows up, goes through everyones’ brains with this weird searchlight technique, shuffles and sets one against the other. Everyone plays. The courtroom begins, then ends. He flies out quickly, and everybody is standing around talking. But, I guess, he’s done what needs to be done. (In order to maintain things. To set everyone on edge. To define them in front of one another.) Certainly there is a purpose to what he does. Control is a word that comes to mind. (Also threats? Punishment?) Also to give the directives for the week. This is the direction. This is the currency. Next week it will be evaluated. Stewart never cracks a smile, never seems too glad to be here himself, or for anything really. He just “thunders,” though not necessarily by yelling, keeping everyone at a respectable distance and wrapped up in themselves and wrapped up in each other. (Wrapped up in ourselves with respect to what trouble we’re in or what we did or didn’t do, or what we have to do.)

[Stewart used to tell us we had to be “overwhelmingly thankful” for God’s mercy and grace, yet I never saw the man look happy or joyful about anything. Yet, he condemned us for not demonstrating overwhelming thankfulness.]

I’ve done it again. I don’t know how not to think about it. A course I thought to take is to forget it all. But the problem is, this is when the thoughts come in their purest form. Because when I’m not trying to figure how I’ll write them down, they appear like a bell ringing. Distinct and clear.

A good point from the meeting. Relying on God to save you from the mess you are. I will attempt it.

Andrew and Kevin are working us over about the closet. [See elsewhere about the wood floor supply closet Paul and I used for a room.] I was surprised to hear Chuck say, “Are we acting in love? We shouldn’t get into this mocking thing.” Then Andrew and Kevin redefined their effort not as the “physical” closet, but the wrong agreement they say we have. This is easier to deal with, rather than having to accept further privations.

[The “wrong agreement,” as manifested by this private storage and living space that Paul, Peter and I shared, rather than sleeping on the floor or on shelves out in the common area in the warehouse with the other brothers, and the rats.]

Monday January 18

I walked in to the city today. I see how it’s needful to walk away from my usual surroundings. As soon as I left Red Hook. There was fresh air, exercise and open spaces. It seemed to take a while to walk off, or to wear off, these thoughts. I had the sense I had to rush in to the city, that I was already late. In order to do a redo, then prepare for a 6 p.m. job. What if I just walked anyway? I felt I needed this, even though it takes an hour to get to City Hall. I need to get outside. When I used to run, it was a kind of refreshment, a temporary stepping out of the boundaries of my life. Even though I had to step right back. A kind of independence. The minute I step out of the shop, it’s a different world. “Laisse la colère, abandonnne la fureur; ne t’irrite pas, ce serait mal faire.” C’est vrai, selon ma propre expérience.

I am not really looking to prove anything or to write in a polemic tone. Really, I just want to keep a diary like I did from April to August 1988. The ups, downs, the facts – as is. Without contriving or presenting anything. This is why I like to read that diary. The best I can say is, it was me. I liked that. Perhaps this is a fantasy. I remember the problems, the warnings or reminders of death I’d get back then. I’m not saying it was a great time. I jotted notes in it when I was behind the wheel. I could get quite honest at times, like the time I wrote about how I always have put my life on a program, a schedule, hoping that I’d become a finished product simply by being there or by attending. I didn’t write polemicisms or theses. I just wrote about what was going on at the time. My life was different back then.

8:30 p.m.

Working at Hermès now. I feel so weary. Although, really, I didn’t do much actual work today. But this all feels so tedious. I just want to get away, to prolong the time I spend away from the routines. To read a little longer at night. To get up sooner and spend more time out walking. Though you can say these things are also part of the routine.

I bought new Nike walking shoes today. I hope they will help my feet and make walking a more pleasurable sport. I already envision walking much further than City Hall.

The tedium at work is probably a sign I don’t like what I’m doing.

You can read the next section of the journal here: Captain of the Battlefield.

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