My story of how I walked away from Joel’s Army–and joined the survivor community–started, quite ironically enough, with (of all things) Christian heavy metal…because, interestingly enough, it was my first major experience in how coercive groups operate by telling their members a thousand little lies to create a culture of fear.
To make a long story short, when I was eleven both the Sunday school I attended (at an Assemblies of God megachurch which I would eventually discover some 24 years later was one of the fifteen most influential churches in the United States of what was then known as “Joel’s Army” and which has since rebranded as “Elijah’s Army” and the “New Apostolic Reformation”–and which was at the center of a poorly-documented pre-Brownsville “Toronto Outpouring”-style Third Wave event in the 70s and 80s) and televangelists we’d watch in the household before and after church started condemning Christian rock–and they made the mistake of condemning the band Stryper in their missives as “satanic”.
For those who remember the 80s, yes, this is the same Stryper that literally named itself after Isaiah 53:5 (“By his stripes we are healed”), the same one that wrote of Jesus as “The Rock That Makes Me Roll”, the same one that held altar calls at their concerts and tossed out Bibles to the crowd. The very Stryper that was the very EPITOME of Christian metal at the time (and the best-known by far, because they actually got airplay on secular metal stations and MTV’s Headbangers Ball among other things–probably the very reason they were condemned, in retrospect).
Yeah. THAT Stryper.
The claim was that they were Satanists, that all Christian metal was “Satanic” because it used a “rock beat” (in which case I was incorrigibly doomed; I hated and STILL cannot stand the majority of the pap that passes for “Christian contemporary”, and have a similar allergy to “new country” because a great deal of THAT is “Christian contemporary” with slide guitar). And being levied against bands that I knew DAMN WELL weren’t Satanic even according to their claims–they were doing the same stuff but in a far more listenable (IMHO) manner!
That, right there, was the first little crack in the wall for me–my first loss of innocence in finding that supposed men of God could be manipulative and even lie to their members.
And little did they know that–ironically–perhaps I’d either learned or developed a bit much of a sense of personal morality in that even I could tell that such things weren’t right.
. . .
The next crack–and the one that really started tumbling things down–was two years later, after I’d literally ended up on an adolescent psych ward as the direct result of trying to be a good little “God Warrior” as a kid (resulting in alienating myself from pretty much the entire public school body, eventually spending my time in the principal’s office the majority of the time, ultimately being referred to a psychiatrist, and ultimately (post-monthlong-vacation for depression at the age of 12) seeing more psychs and attending a special school for kids with emotional disturbances; I was FINALLY diagnosed nearly 20 years later correctly with complex PTSD resulting from religiously motivated child abuse).
At aforementioned school, I had a rather unusual teacher–among other things, she’d take Amnesty International literature to class, she’d listen to heavy metal (Iron Maiden, as I’d find out eventually, was a personal favourite of hers), she’d tell bits of stories about international goings-on that weren’t heavily covered even in international media (I first learned who Mangosuthu Buthelezi of the Inkatha Freedom Party in South Africa was from her–most people have never heard of him outside of SA), was a card-carrying member of Americans United, and generally did her best to make her kids think.
In other words, the very sort of teacher that would have the average “Christian Homeschooling” and Joel’s Army “Joshua Generation” circles requiring entire truckloads of adult diapers if they contemplated said teacher getting near their kids. (I consider myself very lucky in that regard that correspondence-schooling of the sort now common in NAR circles was not yet the “new hotness” in 1986. I know all too well how things could have ended differently.)
Anyways, shortly after I got her as a teacher, the PMRC (which, as it turned out, pretty much had Tipper Gore as the sole non-dominionist on the board; it promoted abusive “behavior modification” facilities run by Bob Larson Ministries that claimed to “de-metal” and “de-rap” kids, which claimed the Nike symbol and the peace sign were “satanic symbols”, and which are now themselves seen as abusive cult-like groups by experts) got a spot on a national news show essentially claiming the whole modern music industry–especially metal–was out to corrupt kids, and the old dominionist claim that Ozzy Osbourne’s “Suicide Solution” was in fact telling kids to off themselves was trotted out.
Teacher–and much of the student body–were LIVID about this. Teacher, bless her soul, decided to make this into a civics lesson and organised a letter-writing campaign to the creators of the news program (ABC’s “20/20”)…and brought along her own copy of “Blizzard of Ozz” to the school, with the lyrics on it.
I argued this with the teacher…and she noted that the lyrics said NOTHING about kids killing themselves, and she’d offer to show them to me.
I accepted (I really didn’t want to create a scene and possibly get demerits)…and what I read can be best described as Impromptu Clue-By-Four Therapy By Brummie.
I discovered that “Suicide Solution”, of note, not only did NOT state a darned thing about telling people to kill themselves, but (of all things), was actually giving a message that my teetotaler church would wholeheartedly endorse if they weren’t so busy condemning Ozzy Osbourne as a devil worshipper:
Wine is fine, but whiskey’s quicker
Suicide is slow with liqueur
Take a bottle, drown your sorrows
Then it floods away tomorrows
I was shocked to find that–of all things–the song was stating alcoholism was a “suicide solution” to life’s problems.
That–and the later discovery, offered by the same teacher, that the Equal Rights Amendment said not a thing about lesbians or merging the Scouts but only mandated equal treatment on the basis of sex–was the thing that first REALLY breached the wall for me, let me see that Outside was not such a horrid place–and that the wall had been maintained by a series of little lies.
It was this that originally inspired me to go into anti-censorship activism.
. . .
The third link that finally knocked it all down came in stages.
The first knock was finding a book by the Simon Wiesenthal League which talked about historical and modern anti-Semitism–including that which was promoted by televangelists my mom still listened to, and groups I knew had close links to the church I ultimately left. (Ironically, the church’s very theology made me quite amenable to arguments by groups like the ADL and Simon Wiesenthal League; the church was heavily Christian Zionist, even stating to never disagree with the Israelis even if they genocided the entire Palestinian population. This eventually led to an exception of “Except when they want to block out Joel’s Army missionaries who want to convert them to “Messianic Jews”; then they got accused of having Satan “Harden their hearts”. In all other ways, though, there was a weird near-idolatry of “God’s Chosen People”.)
I attempted to argue this with my mother at age 16, when a televangelist she watched pulled up stuff about the “Bildebergers” and “Trilateral Commission” secretly controlling the world economy (racialist groups often use these as codewords for “Jews”), and ended up with an impromptu neopentecostal “exorcism” and being harangued about how I was going to hell for two hours–especially when I noted my sense that not all televangelists were really men of God when the “Thou shalt not mock a man of God” line was trotted out.
This was my first experience with “cult mentality”, but would not be the last.
The thing that honestly brought it home to me that I HAD been raised in a coercive group came in the early 1990s, when I was involved in communities trying to reduce network abuse on Usenet (a largely-dead predecessor to web-based chat forums that ended up being wrecked largely by spammers in the same way email is being wrecked nowadays). There was quite a controversy about abuse occuring on alt.religion.scientology in particular; Scientologists were engaging in some fairly massive network abuse (including fake cancel messages, flooding the group with garbage posts, and even attempts to sue web hosts and services that allowed anonymous posting to Usenet to shut them down) and ex-Scientologist walkaways (who were using the group as a support forum before the Scientologists started attacking it) posting informational material like the super-secret scriptures they charged for, warning signs that a groupmwas coercive (showing how Scientology met the criteria), etc.
And was utterly and completely shocked to find that not only did the church I was still forced to attend match each and every criteria that Scientology hit, but even a few warning signs the Scientologists didn’t. (Keep in mind that at this time, outside of possibly Australia and the abuses going on at International Church of Christ and Maranatha, there was very little documentation of “Bible-based” coercive groups outside of a very few exit counseling groups–including, ironically, one that the Scientologists eventually sued into bankruptcy for the purpose of a hostile takeover.)
Shortly after this, the same program that fell for the “Satanic Panic” hokum in 1986 put on a program about documented coercive activity at the “Brownsville Revival” in Pensacola, FL (a very well known “Third Wave” Joel’s Army revival that actually sparked the formation of several new NAR denominations and paradenominations). The church I escaped from was livid; I saw this as confirmation I was onto something.
Later on, more info came out from the now-defunct Institute for First Amendment Studies–including the first walkaway forum for ex-dominionists. On most other walkaway communities, though (and this would remain the case until the early 2000s, when much more info would start coming out about abusive practices within the Australian A/G in particular) there was still the bias of “Oh, it’s just an oddball”, or “Oh, it’s just one bad apple”.
This shut me up for a while…until 2004.
. . .
During this period of walking away, I’d been forced to confront some uncomfortable (at the time) facts about myself–this came to a head at a friend’s house, when a good friend (who I consider adopted family, to be honest) worried about how they were going to come out to their rather Catholic parents as bisexual.
I told them I envied them that they’d ever have that chance–that to do such a thing would be, literally, taking my life into my hands.
They asked why.
This led to a two-hour talk (complete with some breakdowns into tears) of what I’d experienced growing up–including kids being outed, “exorcised”, and then forced into “Christian mental hospitals” where they were held prisoner until they converted.
I was told by all assembled that I Needed To Write About This; an acquaintance of one of those attending (who now is a very good friend and Adopted Family) had started a new forum on Livejournal to talk about what was called then the “religious right”–one of what would turn out to be multiple successors to the old IFAS, including not only Dark Christianity but talk2action.org, the Association of Former Pentecostals, and–ultimately–this forum itself as well.
I haven’t stopped writing…only now, it’s not just because of myself.
It’s because of someone I know whom, in a sense, Bill Gothard–one of the major promoters of “Quiverfull” stuff within the circles I grew up in back at the church I walked away from–murdered by killing his soul.
. . .
I am lucky I grew up when I did; it’s much worse for kids growing up in that now.
You all might have heard of one of those kids about two years ago–Matthew Murray, who shot up a Youth With A Mission post and a portion of New Life Church in Colorado Springs (and killed several people) before he committed suicide by gunshot to his head.
What was never publicised well–outside of forums like Dark Christianity and Talk to Action, at least, until a chapter on the story appeared in Max Blumenthal’s recent book “Republican Gomorrah”–was that the Youth With A Mission post was in the Assemblies church he grew up in, which was a hardcore Joel’s Army church of the sort portrayed in the movie “Jesus Camp” (which I still cannot watch without the hooboo-jeebies–in part because I was “Jesus Camped” as a kid).
What was never publicised is that his mom was a hardcore believer in Bill Gothard’s system of coercing kids and families, as was his pastor–and when he showed the first signs of questioning, he was literally isolated from everything save the Internet and referred to “Christian counselors” rather than legitimate psychiatric professionals.
What was never publicised is that this isolation meant his only chances for “escape” were essentially from the frying pan into the fire–particularly Youth With A Mission, which is a Joel’s Army group that is almost universally considered a “Bible-based cult” by experts in abusive groups.
What was never publicised is that, for months before he went on his rampage, people on the Ex-Pentecostals forums begged him to seek help–and he refused, in part because he was convinced he’d just end up with another “Christian counselor” who would throw him right back into the pit of abuse. (He was so spooked at this, in fact, that he even refused the help of an exit counselor. I can relate–after a lot of failed psychotherapy in my teens, including a family therapy session with my folks after I’d told the psychiatrist I was afraid if I told him about the abuse I was suffering in front of my parents that I’d be abused worse, I pretty much refused to see therapists until early 2004 when I had a near-crippling PTSD flare that scared me enough to seek mental help. Fortunately, THIS time I knew what to say to the GP to get an appropriate referral.)
He tried–but ultimately he was never able to escape the Culture of Fear, which now has built a very high wall indeed for walkaways to surmount.
Much of why I write is because I know that–had I been born a few years later, right when “Christian homeschooling” was catching on and the trend was accelerating to isolate kids almost entirely from the non-dominionist community–I’d have likely been in a very similar situation, and I can’t say I wouldn’t have snapped either.
I also know Matthew Murray isn’t the only one that this movement has destroyed like this. Most of the time, the suicides and the destroyed lives don’t take others out with them.
But that’s why I write and why I fight. I don’t want to see anyone destroyed like that again.
. . .
And it’s precisely this why this community in particular gives me hope–even with the entire parallel society that these groups have set up to isolate their members and keep them in a Culture of Fear, there ARE still people who escape. Sometimes alone, sometimes with their families, but they’re escaping and not going completely mad in the process.
And–just as important, probably a bit more important IMHO–they know they aren’t alone in this. Others have gotten out and survived and are going through culture-shock of their own as they learn to adjust–or re-learn–to Outside.
The more that people speak out, the more people know they aren’t alone–and the more likely it is they can realise something is Broken and can begin the process of finding the cracks in the wall.
I can say that–in my own case–the discovery I grew up in a coercive group and the later exposes of abusive treatment in the group I escaped from did make me realise I wasn’t alone and that this was a pattern; that this was something that was not normal and not right.
The more we tell our stories, the more the evidence gets out and truth is spoken to power.
It’s people like you–the survivors, the ones who vaulted the wall and are escaping the Culture of Fear that all coercive patriarchial groups set up–it’s you folks who are honestly my heroes.
You prove it’s possible.
Congratulations to you all–you’ve earned it. :3
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NLQ recommended reading:
‘Quivering Daughters‘ by Hillary McFarland
‘Quiverfull: Inside the Christian Patriarchy Movement‘ by Kathryn Joyce