1993, 02/28. Notes on Meeting Dynamics and Life Here.

This section is about a group interrogation session. A new convert was being grilled by long-term church members. I was writing about knowing what it was like to be in the hot seat, having been there myself and having seen others in that position many times before. A brother had to stand up in front of a room full of church members and be cross-examined about his behavior. In the final analysis, there was nothing a brother could do but to agree to all the charges, because to disagree with anything, even in a small way, was considered as fighting against everyone. This fighting was turned back on the brother as evidencee of his guilt and was considered to be even worse than whatever charges they had first brought up against him, and it was used as evidence to condemn him. And they would go on long enough and do whatever it took to get the brother to finally crumble and and admit his guilt.

Sunday, February 28

I got to the meeting in Philadelphia at 4 p.m. I walked into the middle of a brothers’ meeting. A brother is talking to everyone. One of those arrogance things. [A brother is being charged with the “crime” of arrogance.]

I read several chapters in The Organization Man on the way down to the meeting.

[I had begun to read books about cults and religions and on the behavior of people in organizations. It became a nearly compulsive drive for me to find and read these books, because they seemed to describe exactly what I was going through and helped me to identify and clarify my thoughts on the matter.]

I have a problem with wanting to get emotionally involved in these “Arrogant Brother vs. the Fellowship” things. Possibly even the way I phrase that shows a presupposition that he is a victim. But, for sure, I wouldn’t want it to be me up there! The crowd of brothers confronting you can’t always agree on their line of questioning or upon the answers they want to hear from you. But they will say that it’s your fault for troubling everybody by not giving clear answers. They fail to see how it’s they who are not agreeing with one another about what they want to hear from you. They get angry if you point that out to them.

It can be quite frustrating to deal with them. The easiest way is to find out and say what they want to hear without being too obvious about it. Because that is what you’ll be lead to do (and pushed and pulled into doing) anyway. You know that something must be agreed upon and the sooner you agree, the better it will be for you, though this may cost your ego something. Woe to an intelligent person who wants real proofs of the charges being brought against him and answers to his own questions about the charges and keeps the others at bay by intelligently spotting and pointing out the inconsistencies and errors in their line of argumentation. I can’t help thinking that they are seeking something subrational – among themselves and from you.

Warning: do not betray your intelligence. (Maybe you could, if you had somewhere else to go if you got yourself in trouble.)

There is something wrong in their line of questioning; something wrong in what they are looking for, in what they want to hear out of you. You have to condescend to their foolishness in order to avoid getting roughed up. Once they loop into that mode, where it keeps doubling back on you, then no matter what you do, it only increases the “feedback.”

Well, I hope this won’t be my day in court. I always fear it will be. Pete said yesterday, when I told him of my perpetual fears of finally, eventually, walking into my day in court, that it is basically a function of my level of guilt and that if I didn’t have guilt, I wouldn’t fear something like that. I have been fearing an inquisition due to my behavior last night, though it was only in my thoughts and I didn’t communicate it to others. But I did say to Paul that as far as this wood floor work goes [1], that I didn’t “give a darn.” I figured that Paul might testify against me today at the meeting. Then, I suddenly realized that he is guarding the Staten Island house today.

[1] “Wood floor work” meant the church business I was working in. The church had a wood floor refinishing business and a carpet cleaning business and we often worked long hours without much rest. It was wearying, an endless treadmill – though I admit, I was happy to find out after a long week of working, that jobs were also scheduled for the weekend, because then I would not have to go to the Sunday meeting with Stewart, the leader of the cult. In that case, this work, which was often a drudgery, became a refuge. Nothing could be better than sanding the wood floors in a restaurant in New York City on a Sunday morning and taking breaks to drink coffee while the polyurethane finish was drying on the floor. If we stretched the job out long enough, it would be too late to drive to Philadelphia in time to get to the last session of the meeting, and Paul and I often delayed, but were careful to never discuss or admit that to one another.

I continued to write in my journal during the meeting. To the others around me, it looked like I was taking notes, writing down everything Stewart was saying to us, other others there often did. I was writing down my own thoughts as a way to preserve my sanity during meetings that often lasted 4 or 5 hours.]

Stewart is now going through his heavily erudite explanation of what we have been doing wrong here all day. (He says he explained this basic issue to us earlier, but that nobody picked up on it or insisted on it.) I wonder if most of the new people here can understand this anyway, because it’s deeply theological and erudite. I think Stewart’s talk goes over the heads of the great majority of the new people, though they pick up a few buzz-words and slogans.

In my case, I have thirteen years of background and conditioning – both to believe everything Stewart says and also to understand his methods of communication.

A strange thought I have had from time to time is that my life, my previous one, ended back when I was 22, when I first came to the church, and what was constructed over it was this new way of life and that Stewart gave me this new mind and all the preconditioned reactions to it, and that all my thoughts, or most of them, are products of Stewart’s thinking

This talk Stewart is giving us, though not in a loud voice, is a haranguing. “You are never going to do (this or that). I haven’t seen it all day.” Maybe Stewart points out real problems, but they seem so overwhelming or he presents them as so all-encompassing that there seems to be no way out. In this spirit of hopelessness however, brothers will then confess their shortcomings and say the right thing and promise to do it. But no one seems greatly inspired, glad, motivated or overjoyed. Stewart says there is some great problem and we have been shown for the umpteenth time again that we have missed it.

[No one ever seemed glad about the solutions that Stewart gave for what he said our problems were.]

We always have these life and death problems that are going to kill us, and that no one ever seems to overcome. Stewart points the problem out to us, then we go through a week of crossing our fingers, only to have Stewart expose it again at the next meeting. (Or to have another, different problem pointed out.) Stewart always gives us some very involved, intricate formula – which is specifically worded – which is presented as the method necessary to get over on this week’s problem.

What brothers do then, is to memorize the specific sentence Stewart gives us, in its entirety. Then they repeat the sentence to one another all week as a mantra. (And get corrected by others if they miss a word or get it wrong.)

[Stewart always gave us a specific sentence or slogan that he said was the answer for this week’s problem. He told us to say this sentence to one another twenty times a day, or every five minutes, or some such thing. And church members walked around shouting the current slogan to one another. It was repeated word for word, otherwise we were adding our own thoughts to it, and we were not supposed to go by our own thinking – as God said in the Bible: “My thoughts are not your thoughts and my ways are not your ways,” which is true, but we were going by Stewart’s thoughts, which he said were God’s own thoughts on the matter. We were conditioned over many years to believe this.]

This week, the saying is: “I won’t do anything without making sure it’s God’s will, and do it in his spirit.”

(Stewart adds: “That’s a slave, isn’t it? Really go out of my way to test, honestly. Testing everything you do to make sure it’s God’s will. The flesh wants painkiller. How do you get painkiller? By doing what you want to do.”)

[What Stewart meant by this was that we were supposed to be sharing in Christ’s sufferings and to not look for painkiller – that is, to not look for any way to alleviate our suffering. Doing what we wanted to do, instead of what God wanted us to do, as revealed through Stewart, would be choosing painkillers. It was natural to want to take a break from COBU life and Stewart worked hard to make us feel disobedient to God for doing that, so that, even when he was not present with us, we were wary of taking a break.]

This last part of what Stewart says seems imprisoning. The first part – hey, it would be great to find out that marriage and other things are God’s will. [Nobody got married in COBU and there were no dating relationships.] This is always Stewart’s thing, that “we’re not killing what we want to do.” This of course is what makes me irate about this church. This, and things like it, were what made me flip out during the last three years.

The first part, testing everything you do to make sure it’s God’s will, does seem like it would be a great freedom. 

Stewart is now saying, “You are not a slave. You are not suffering with Christ. You are up to the flesh, doing what you want to do,” and “I am a slave, I won’t do anything without doing everything I can to see if it’s my master’s will.” This does seem to be an effective method of controlling people, or it could be used to do it.

[This also was programming. Imagine it this way: “Repeat after me, I am a slave.” Stewart was not saying that he was a slave too, even though he was speaking in the first person by saying “I am a slave.” When Stewart spoke like this, we understood that he was telling us what we should be saying about ourselves. When Stewart spoke in the first person, I especially understood that he was “installing” something in us, and not talking about himself, or saying he was the example we were to follow. Stewart’s first person programming could often be heard in expressions like, “I am going to hell, and I just don’t care.” He wasn’t talking about himself, and we all understood that.]

How could I prove beyond a shadow of doubt that I have turned over every stone to see if something is God’s will, when anyone could raise a question at any time and say I haven’t duly considered it? It seems more like a way to let go of our minds and to be dependent on the church to tell us what to do, so as to avoid any conflict or accusations – because, hey look, we could be doing a lot and burning out besides (though one wonders if that is God’s will!) and still be told we are lazy and doing our own thing. We are subject to being caught at any time. It seems like a way of killing individuality.

What I think is wrong is that there is no drawing power or desire involved. There is nothing from the heart (maybe it’s just my heart), but it is a heavy system of laws. It’s not like our hearts are meshed to God in love and he has given us a new life and we are thankful for it, and that the deeper things in us are met and satisfied. Instead, it seems like an extensive system of traffic rules and a map that is hard to follow. I have to kill everything in me. If something I want to do feels good, or I if like it, it obviously must be wrong. That is our yardstick and guideline. And the way to find God’s will and make sure I am doing it is to be certain that whatever I’m doing, that it is something I can’t stand and wouldn’t do for another second if I didn’t have to.

What I see is that the best response that can be gotten from everyone about this is formal speeches and repeating the point and saying that this is how they are going to live.

[When we were given a new teaching or directive by Stewart, we were expected to talk about how we were going to commit ourselves to it and to talk about how we agree and see how this is God’s plan for our lives.]

The older brothers are being notoriously quiet. A new law has been enacted or reiterated. Nobody really wants it, or believes it, or understands it or thinks they can live this way – or a combination of this, and maybe everyone has a sense of being snared and smothered. The new brothers really don’t know what is happening to them. Stewart states all of this in such universal and comprehensive terms that nobody can get a handle on it to agree or disagree. And the older brothers have been conditioned over the years with such an extensive background on this, that it would be ridiculous for them to disagree.

The comprehensive, universal terms in which Stewart speaks to us about life, death, God, and hell – you could probably put anything over on people in these terms and get away with it. Just talk this way about eternal issues and damnation, and interchangeably plug in the desired result he wants from us this week.

Somehow, this fails to inspire me. The correct thing to say (and it may be) is that I am just so into doing my own thing, into my flesh, that I just don’t want to hear the truth. All I know is that I feel caught in the net and that I learned long ago to understand what Stewart was saying to us and to obey it. The last instance was about a year ago, in the meeting that lead up to me moving to Red Hook, which actually is a move I don’t regret.

[A move to live in a warehouse with the other men in the church who were considered to be performing badly and being rebellious was a blessing in disguise, because I got to move out of 162 Woodruff Avenue, which was a crowded apartment building with many people sleeping in each room into which we crammed new people we “swept up” off the streets, where we had meetings till 2 or 3 in the morning and was located on a street where there were often gun fights and shootings. I was now living in a warehouse by the waterfront, in a quieter area where I could sit outside at night and I no longer had to be in those meetings in the Woodruff basement till late at night.

Note 2: In the comments above, I was talking about the correct thing to say in response to what Stewart was telling us, and noting that what he was telling us might be the truth according to the Bible. Although now I can clearly see what he was doing was wrong, at the time, it felt very real and it was hard to separate myself from it and see it for the lies it was. I went through periods of believing and fearing it was all true. The difference now was that I began to doubt. Before this, I almost always believed everything Stewart told us. This was my last year there and I was undergoing an intense period of conflict. The conflict was based on whether to accept what I was becoming aware of, and what that would imply and require me to do, or whether to keep believing what Stewart was saying, and all that implied. Or somewhere in between, to believe what I do, but stay here, which became impossible, but was the temporary solution.]

There is now a new brother asking for permission leave and visit his wife, with the usual results. And yes, the record is true, that all these new ones really go out and indulge [when given a leave of absence]. But “our” reaction comes dangerously close to forbidding people to see their own wives.

What Stewart told this brother, besides recounting the record of all the others who asked for the same thing, but went out and did drugs instead, was, “If you were so into your family, you would have never left them in the first place.” Though one would think there was some validity to the idea that maybe now he has changed somewhat and that he has new attitudes. But, who can argue against the evidence? This seems to me a clear case of not being able to consider all alternatives or voice residual doubts, even if I don’t wish to insist I am right, but just want to have freedom of inquiry. Nothing is even really discussed among us.

Something is severely wrong here. All I know there is severe pressure to agree with “the man” and no one would dare to do otherwise. (Equal time though, it is clear that there are obvious problems and troublemaking with some of these new brothers. I certainly don’t trust many of them, nor would I want to deal with them on my own.)

Now, with Stewart’s statement about absolutely checking to see if what we’re doing is God’s will (by the way, it’s true, nobody will actually thoroughly check anything, Stewart has even said this of his own accord, though it would be great to prove you can get married now), I had begun to study Spanish. Now according to this, I have to go through extreme mental gymnastics to decide if it’s okay to do that or not.

Stewart is berating everyone. Stewart and all the little guinea pigs. He says a lot of right things, but I really don’t believe a lot of what is put forth here – right or wrong. (In saying that, I am demonstrating my own doubts as to my own viewpoints.) How can I say it, that which I am not supposed to say? This irate tyrant, standing over and berating everybody, proving how they are wrong, condemning them out of the words of their own mouths. Not in a loving way, but a demanding way, like a courtroom lawyer. The crowd joins in, almost eager for blood. Any slight hesitation when answering or getting upset or irritated is considered to be a sign of arrogance on the part of the defendant.

We are now dealing with Morris. Others are shouting at him. (They can shout all they want, but they are only as plugged in as Morris is. They are shouting one-liners at Morris and Morris is basically one-lining back in response.)

Yes, another gameplayer is about to bite the dust. Maybe he needs it. But the whole thing starts to make me sick. What is it all for? What is the purpose of this? Maybe what Morris is saying about himself is true, that he fears God and knows he’s forgiven. But the brothers’ questioning has shifted to, “How do you know you’re not deceiving yourself?” There is always some other thing to go to, maybe valid, maybe not. Always a question. “How do you know…?” Actually I think Morris is performing magnificently well for a new brother without the shouting arrogance that some do. He is doing pretty well for a cornered rat.

Any of these ones shouting at Morris could just as easily be put up on the stand, and be just as cornered.

They get Morris on a point. He thinks there is something good in him, because God always helps him. It’s almost as if this is the goal, to find out what’s wrong with somebody or their thoughts. We will go until we find something wrong enough. It’s like the Gulag system, needing a constant supply of fresh meat. In our dealing with people, we seem to need to come to this. We will find what is wrong and then corner someone. Certainly he is a criminal, and if he doesn’t look like or talk like one, we will go on long enough with him until he slips up or shows it in some way. What is the purpose in the way in which we deal with people?

[An example of this was to go on long enough with a brother until he became irritated, and then turn their anger back on them as proof that he was an arrogant person. And that was only level one. The next step was, “Are you fighting with everyone?” The brother would deny it. He would then be asked, “So, raising your voice with and yelling at everyone is not fighting?” And it would now go on to this next level. And it would continue to get deeper and more involved, turning a brothers’s reactions back on himself as proof of what he was being accused of. (Without ever proving him guilty of the original thing he was accused of). They would nail him for not perfectly submitting to the questioning, or nail him with a double bind in which, whichever option he admitted to, he would be guilty of something.

This often went on until the person crumbled, or in some cases, walked out of the meeting and left. This method of attack was used by Stewart Traill, and others learned it and used it on each other, even when Stewart was not there. I began to realize that this was the polar opposite of due process and the rules of presenting evidence in a legitimate court. Anyone accused of something was not receiving a fair trial, but was undergoing an intense shakedown and a beating. These underhanded methods of dealing with people in the name of correcting their behavior or seeking the truth were diametrically opposed to Stewart’s claims to be a man of truth and fairness.]

I wonder if a new person here learns through a succession of these events to be docile and to know his place. People are just machines to be put in their place on an assembly line and used. The ones who learn how to display the proper deferential attitudes can succeed here to some degree. Part of this deference is to look like you are not interested in whatever it is that you want. (The others are trained to shout down whatever it is that you seem to want.)

It’s obvious to me that Stewart’s methods are highly manipulative. A problem is that when a person wants something, those who succeed in getting what they want are those who become adept at talking the “God’s will” talk and other kinds of deception and ruses that involve claiming to do something for the good of the others in order to get near(er) to what one wants. But this is almost like saying we have a training school in hypocrisy in which the more adept or even desperate ones come to learn that they must get what they want through indirect, more acceptable means. It seems wrong to come right out and ask for what you want, so this leads to hiding your motives. One learns that direct requests are likely to be turned down as being the “flesh” or doing ones’ “own thing.” Even if they are requests that seem right and normal. The new brothers, I think, through a series of such frustrating encounters (either involving themselves or by watching it being done to the others) come to know what is acceptable here and what is likely not to be acceptable here.

Now, another mini-trial is in progress. This is all very insane. This is obviously a spirit of mercilessness. You either make it, or you break it. It’s all “the law.” And according to what I know about the “law,” is that nobody can make it on that basis. The best I could do with this is to say, Jesus help me, because all this serves to show my shortcomings and I know I can never live up to it! I really can’t handle this inquisitional method. The audience just seems to serve as a “where were you on the night of the fourteenth” thing and all their efforts are to place you at the scene of the crime.

We are experts at finding out what a person did wrong. I see ones subordinating their persons, getting a short shrift. It must have a wearing down effect on people so that eventually, they learn to give up.

I can’t handle all this, all this martial law. Obviously I am a guilty sinner, obviously I deserve hell.

These are my rough “field notes.” I am following up on my realization of the other day that I should write more extensively, as I wish I had done before. If such is the case, it is probably good to write everything down now, and sort ‘em out later.

Right now, I have a ripped up and sick feeling about this meeting. This is horrible. Nobody really helps another person. They just give orders, command, rebuke, expose and corner.

I don’t think I would fare too well in the thick of such a situation. My pride would get to me. I also know too much about the ridiculousness of most of this. The inane questions and the equally inane expectations. I would have to sacrifice my mind – and also use it to protect myself.

We are now in a pre-prayer scolding. Stewart is talking to us about the meaning of prayer. Sure, he’s got some points, I may be constrained to admit, but I hardly feel a “come and welcome to Christ for the vilest of sinners.”

G.O.A. L. [An acronym I made up, describing what we were really learning here.] Gospel of Absolute Law. With a beating like this, how can Stewart expect any kind of response? It’s the master beating the slaves.

Stewart is now launching into an accusation: “How come you have an agreement to never discuss prayer among you?” We are getting a big screwing right now. Stewart is launching into a tirade, like Hitler did toward the end of his speeches. Okay, all the little bunny rabbits, all the little squirrels seemed to be sluggish and it is now time to pray. Any pastor could say to any congregation that their prayer life is dry. It’s a common problem. Other pastors would take other approaches perhaps. This would never make a tape series. An intelligent congregation (with means to go elsewhere) would just leave. I think that only people with nowhere else to go would stay around for this kind of stuff.

::

We’re now in the second session of the meeting. I have that strange detached feeling that one gets when he thinks he is starting to lose his mind. Ready to snap, ready to admit Stewart’s lordship – or at least control – over my life. If I snap, maybe then I will be free.

We’re doing a review of the brothers’ meeting. The brothers are telling the sisters about what Stewart told us, not about what we discussed. Now the sisters are telling us about their meeting—or rather, what Stewart said them. What is the point of this? Then Stewart says to the sisters, “So, you say you want to hear from the brothers who is turning and repenting?” Then they say yes, but it wasn’t, at least initially, of their own accord. It’s like we are being operated. But either no one sees this, or wants to see this. But at the same time, Stewart seems to be trying to be positive, conducting this part of the meeting in a “snappy” spirit.

Stewart said something about the meaning of a verse in the book of Romans in the original Greek version that I don’t think is true. I considered the cost of trying to say something. Obviously, it is not worth it. It is like the scenario of the slave who knew how to replace a broken wagon wheel, standing by and watching while his master struggled with it for hours. He could have helped, but he counted the cost of revealing his knowledge and found it not worth the price.

[This was a passage I read in the Autobiography of Frederick Douglass. A slave who was skilled as a wheelwright stood by for hours as his master tried to repair a wagon wheel, because he feared upstaging his master with his knowledge. When the master finally figured it out, he praised his master on his skill.

In my case, as someone who understood foreign languages reasonably well, I understood that the meaning of the passage “you have been saved,” in the original Greek states an accomplished fact of what Christ has done for us. Stewart Traill, who frequently botched his so-called interpretations of Greek New Testament passages misunderstood the verb tense as “you are being saved,” which conveniently fit his theology of conditional salvation which depended on our performance. Only if we were desperate, panicked out of our minds for the rest of our lives and never resting for a moment, could we have even the slightest hope of salvation, subject to revocation at any time for even the most minor fault. No one was safe, no one could rest on the finished work of Christ!]

Those living under absolute tyrants must know how to overlook things now and then. If I don’t like that, consider the treatment I am likely to get. The slave considered the cost of upstaging his master and realized it would be better to hang around and wait (and let the master make the mistakes and finally figure it out himself and then to compliment him for his skill).

Pete sits here silently. I realize that he never would try to stand up and challenge Stewart. Obviously, he is a lot smarter than I am. I have this compulsion that I have to do that to prove my manhood or to preserve my freedom, as in: if I don’t protest against this, my freedom will be taken away from me. If I let this go by, then I don’t preserve myself by “speaking the truth.” This probably comes from the old days and its expectations.

You can read the next section of this journal here: Communal Living. Sleeping On A Shelf In A Supply Closet.

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

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