1993, 01/03. Lives and Minds Under Control

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

January 3.

We were still at the weekend meeting with “Brother Stewart” at the church’s city block sized “New Property” in Philadelphia.  I had a guard shift, so I was I walking around the grounds.

Guarding the New Property. It’s good to be outside, enjoying the simple pleasures of life, fresh air and exercise (since I will spend some time pacing and walking). Listening to Pat Metheny music. This is supposedly illicit here, since everything that resembles jazz and is not classical music is off limits, but I guess it’s a matter of one’s own conscience, as long as you don’t do it in front of certain others.

[Classical music was the only acceptable music in COBU. Not even praise and worship music was acceptable. Up to a point I agree, because much of contemporary Christian music is “Jesus is my boyfriend music” with lyrics that say how I want to be close to you, draw me into your arms. Stewart Traill pointed out this “fault” in the Christian subculture, but as usual, he didn’t offer anything better. In earlier years we sang together in our fellowship houses and at meetings. Some of the songs were original compositions by brothers and sisters or songs from the Jesus Movement era, traditional hymns and gospel music.] 

But this idea of living by one’s own conscience can easily be overthrown by the idea that one is not properly scared or alarmed about things, and that our own consciences are defective or invalid, so the group norms and rules take over instead. But at least some of these group rules (which masquerade as individual conscience, though if you examine more closely, you may realize that it doesn’t bother your conscience to do some things) come from the expedience which is necessary to live communally and are not because something is right or wrong, or commanded or prohibited in scripture. It is the expedience of making sure everything runs smoothly, which means there can be no individual differences, no unruly selfish desires, wants or criticisms. It’s easier to move, manage and keep tabs on everyone this way. And with the proper indoctrination into these principles, one can have a sense of doing wrong by even minor deviations from them and have a sense of being faithful and true – and safe – by absolute conformance. It is a sense that can be developed entirely separately from whether one is really faithful to God or not.

Well, I had intended to listen to music and to take it easy. I probably still will. But I feel like I’m getting into this too much and brooding on it too much. These things seem true to me. Sometimes I feel I have an ax to grind. But then also, I sense that my very self is at stake. It’s the difference between being a whole person and an automaton. This also is the only way I can work out and see what I really think about things. I could talk to others about these things and who would be interested anyway? But it could get me in a lot of trouble if I did.

It’s so easy to say the party lines, that unconscious reflex mode where I can go all day, all year, without having one conscious, rational thought. Much less making any decisions as to what I’ll do about anything. There are a lot of “supposed to’s” and a lot of “can’ts.” There is a blueprint laid out for my life. But is it really God’s blueprint? (I suppose if I were to knock me and my “deceitful games” over, I’d have to ask “is it really my plan that I’m after, and that I am just bothered that I don’t get what I want?This, by the way, is one of the principle methods of attack on the individual here. Any request, any desire – no matter how legitimate – can be boiled down to “that’s just what you want!” “Self” is a crime. The way we live together, and our special methods for the control of persons require that self must be done away with. In our totalitarian regime, all wills are subjugated to the will of the master. We sit by, almost passively, while Stewart works on us.

At this meeting, I had the intense feeling that what we are getting is a mix of Christianity with a heavy dose of psychology, of the kind that is used for the arranging and controlling of persons. Yes, that was the general sense I had after last night’s session, that there is something more going on here. A type of deception, Christianity plus (something else). We get these two things at the same time. If we try to say something about that (I wouldn’t dare to anymore), then Stewart lays the Christian and true part on us: “What’s wrong with God’s grace?” But he also uses an intense technique to drum something into our minds. (Maybe because of our total isolation, we’re blind to it.) Last night, I got a definite message, and it wasn’t just “God’s grace.” I was having something drummed into my head, psycho-pressure. What was it?

I am aware that Stewart uses certain “primordial” impulses on us, the use of which he directly mentions sometimes. Last night he talked about what a man is, which is in essence, the ability to say “I am right. You must listen to me.” (And of our lack of ability to do this.) This wasn’t the only thing Stewart talked about and it’s not a matter of whether he speaks of it or not. But I sense he’s coming from it or using it (on us) all the time. He’s holding our strings. Dealing in “cosmic” realities, things that are not always consciously at our disposal, but real things nonetheless, sometimes even the things that can really hurt, or what really bothers people about themselves. I have the feeling that he has all the keys to myself and can operate me at will (whether I am willing or not).

Then I wonder, he’s a “man of God,” so does God give him these keys? Does God enable him to understand the laws of life in order to do His will, or is he a pastor who goes beyond his bounds? Have I ever read of Martin Luther, Jonathan Edwards, Charles Spurgeon, even David Wilkerson, doing such things? Not at all. But when I begin to study communal groups – everything from cults to total institutions – I see uncanny echoes. It’s like I can’t get away from this stuff.

[I couldn’t get away from reading and thinking about organizational behavior and social control. I tried to stop thinking about it, but it just kept coming back to me. Of course it came back, because I lived in it. It was all around me and I was observing how it operated. And by this time, I was no longer accepting that this way of life was “God’s will for us,” as I once had. I stopped believing that meetings were for wrong things to be brought out for our correction and healing. I understood now that the purpose of meetings was to break us down and keep us weak.]

An illustration could be that I, represented by a small fortified town, have a water supply within the walls that I consider to be mine by right. Stewart comes to the gates and says, “I want it.” (Or he says, “You’re not allowed to have it.” Or, “Do what I say, or I’ll take it away from you.”) I resist, counting upon my sovereign right of possession to it and also my ability to defend it. Suddenly, I find that the water reservoir in my city has dried up. I find that Stewart took what is mine without a fight or any apparent effort. How? He merely went upstream, beyond my area of control, but in an area that still affects me, and cut off the water supply! (By building a dam or diverting the stream.)

So, he has all my keys, or enough of them. He can bluff the rest. Maybe part of it is, I don’t know – but he knows plenty about me, my past experience and my record. And the fact that the other people, the ones I live with, are important to me, and it matters to me if I am disgraced or knocked down a peg in front of them.

Meetings are like the “theater of the mind.” Intense psychodrama. This is a characteristic of all societies that have lost touch with reality. Maybe we fill an emotional need for Stewart. Or we satisfy his ego. He has people to preach to who have to agree with whatever he says. People to preach to who live in the church and who are required to agree with him. Nobody out there would listen to Stewart, they wouldn’t go for his control of persons techniques. He would be a nobody, or a bit player in a community of pastors. So he forms his own little group to satisfy his need to be someone important. He “helps” us and we flatter and praise his goodness, prowess and concern. (Or else!) When he “discovers” something in the Bible, it is as if it never existed prior to his having learned of it. (For example, in January 1989, “grace was revealed.”) He’s a legend in his own mind and we provide support for that.

Maybe this is why we are constrained to stay in line and not to question. One has a job to do.

Last night, while I was standing outside looking through the windows into the big meeting room and watching one of the meeting sessions, I had a curious thought. This place is like a pulp processing plant. People are ground down into mulch so they can flow through the rollers of the machine better. I can’t help having these thoughts. This also was in connection to my reaction to the meeting last night.

[You could then say that Stewart printed his agenda, or views or teachings on the finished product, that is, the “newsprint paper” that is formed out of the persons in this process. What else is the paper made for, anyway?]

I talked to Bob H. [an ex-member who came to meetings sometimes] last night. He mentioned how Richard Wurmbrand (whether hearsay or actual, I don’t know) says that Stewart is harsh and that he doesn’t bless or allow marriage. I told Bob that this was a “pre-1989” comment. I also told him that all books on cults that mention us use material prior to 1980. Such as the 1979 Philadelphia Enquirer article which, no matter what has happened since then, even if Stewart never confessed to teaching wrong, still couldn’t be accurate descriptions of our life, because it’s too outdated.

[Even though I was thinking all the time now about how wrong life in COBU was, when an ex-member said that a trustworthy pastor such as Richard Wurmbrand had negative observations about Stewart Traill, I countered that these must have been from before Stewart “repented.” But, this “landmark event” of Stewart’s so-called repentance did not exist in anyone’s minds, except in the minds of believing and trusting COBU members, who had the wool pulled over their eyes. In reality, this place was what it was and it had never changed, except to get worse. The date of Stewart’s so-called repentance was significant only to current members, as we waited for things to get better now, but in reality, things went from bad to worse.]

Richard Wurmbrand’s comment is interesting anyway. Certainly the man has perception. I am taught to invalidate my perceptions. I am probably wrong, or angry, or the “devil” is working me over. Or worse, I am contentious. That’s the worst one. It’s better to claim the insanity defense, that is, that these thoughts are wrong and that they are “thoughts from the devil.” Then I’m not responsible for my thoughts and I’m not actively hostile. But really, I know what Wurmbrand said is true anyway. Like when Stewart confessed, it was no big upset, because everybody always knew anyway. It’s just a big game we play, to be quiet about it. Besides, there’s a lot which can be used on me.

[Stewart used our alleged sins and faults against us to keep us quiet and backed into a corner. In fact, most meetings were about this. We were constantly on the defense from Stewart and from one another, so we did not have a chance to think of anything else, other that about what Stewart said we had done wrong and how to get ourselves right.

If someone did question Stewart, he instantly accused them of being unfaithful to Christ and he used their past sins against them, coming from the idea of, look at the way you are, who are you to say anything to me? It was very effective. Church members who had any concerns, doubts, disagreements or misgivings usually did not voice them. And if they did, they backed down immediately because of the way Stewart treated them. It was impossible to fight against this. People either towed the party line, or left COBU.

Of course, it was good to leave COBU. However, my last several years there, I vacillated between wanting to leave and hoping I could fix things by speaking up about them. I hoped that by telling the truth, there could be change. It was by coming up repeatedly against this force, and gettting smashed by it every time, that I began to understand that it was necessary for me to leave. With Stewart, life was a zero sum game in which he had his way with us 100% and we got 0%. Unless basic food, clothing and shelter – and the feeling of belonging to an important group of people – can be considered adequate compensation and worth giving your life over to, with nothing to show for it in the end. Stewart made no concessions to our wants and needs. We were there to be used by Stewart to achieve his goals and to amass his personal fortune. This meant working for no pay, living in squalor and foregoing normal relationships with the opposite sex. There was no pairing up, there was no dating, and there was no marriage. No families were started and no children were born. All church members devoted their lives to directly serving Stewart Traill’s wants and desires.]

But, I think it has happened according to the true proverb, “The more things change, the more they remain the same.” Stewart is still harsh and still forbids marriage. Though it’s all based on what is wrong with us. This is part of – besides invoking his wrath if we try – why we can’t touch it with him.

My idea of how it works is something like, “I cannot buy or sell without Stewart’s mark.” In a closed society with definite borders, Stewart can control the whole thing. Not by being there every moment, but just by controlling the points of exchange. He doesn’t stop brothers and sisters from speaking to one another. He just controls the “crossroads of commerce.”

The best description of this I can come up with is the idea of tolls on a road, or checkpoints, or controlling intersections. To get from point A to point B, I have to travel a road. The whole road is open and free to me, but at some point, there will be a toll booth with a gate and no way around it. I either pay the toll, or I can go no further.

Or, to put it another way, in a circular area of territory, which is the “sphere” of church life, I am at point A on this side and want to go to point B on the other side. To get there, I must go through an intersection at the middle. This intersection is heavily guarded. So, I can live here and do many things. Much of the space may be free. But, tiny little spots, smaller than the open whole itself, are inaccessible. But these spots are highly strategic. This is how I can be in a jail without walls or bars, which looks free and open to outsiders. And I may even be deceived into thinking so. Or want to tell myself so, because I can’t handle it.

[Having relationships was one of these controlled areas or “intersections” in COBU life. Brothers and sisters were free to talk to one another. There was always mixed company in the church office. But if it became known that a brother and sister were spending too much time together (and that could mean being seen talking with or walking with someone two times), it got noted and those involved were talked to by the other brothers and sisters, often long before new of it reached Stewart’s ears.]

(In the meeting):

I really can’t take all this. I did not take the Lord’s Supper, under the pretext of [Stewart telling us not to if], “If I am not genuinely thankful for what Christ has done, but only know it as a set of facts” and so forth. I fear though, being found out as someone who did not particpate in the Lord’s Supper (and why didn’t you?), due to having seen this before. I feared taking it because of the scripture “and some have died.” I thought, “I’ll be honest for a change and face facts according to my conscience,” having to face I am severed from Christ. That I got this way by my own doing and it’s only appropriate that I do not take the Lord’s Supper. The fact that I had the bread in my hand and crumpled it up and concealed it in my pocket and will throw it away when I get outside is a graphic reminder of what I’ve done with Christ and with his opportunities. Maybe it’s better that I face myself that way, though I am not very good with facing myself.

[About my worry about being found out for not having taken the Lord’s Supper (which is what we called communion): I was worried about an inquisition to find out who did not take it. This happened before. In one meeting, Stewart explained that it would be better for those who had various issues of conscience to not take the communion. So, a brother named Lou decided not to. When we were done, Stewart asked for all those who did not take communion to stand up. Lou explained to Stewart that he had only taken his advice about certain persons being better off not participating. This answer was not good enough and Lou was charged with refusing to take the Lord’s Supper and Stewart gave him a verbal beating. It was very unpleasant to watch and I would not want to have the same thing happen to me, so naturally I was worried about being found out.]

In the next section, you can read about a long lost brother who came back to the church during this weekend: Culture Shock for a Returning Backslider.

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