I’m reading this Surgeon General’s report on addiction and it suddenly hit me that we have become a culture of intervention in a lot of ways. And it’s not good for us.
This post is part of our Handbook for the Recently Deconverted–see the series here!
We’re fast approaching the holiday season, and as fun as holidays are supposed to be, for a lot of us they bring the potential for great pain. One of the scariest aspects of the holidays, for someone whose family is very religious, is the possibility of a religious intervention. Everyone’s family is all gathered together, they’re all thinking about harmony and group cohesion, and here’s this one black-sheep dissenter wandering in innocently expecting nothing worse than green-bean casserole and Mystery Jello Dessert. The temptation to throw an intervention can be overwhelming!
So I want to show you what interventions are, why Christians like them, and what you can do if it happens to you.
The report that sparked today’s post is the first one released by the Surgeon General on non-tobacco substance addictions. It’s called The Surgeon General’s Report on Alcohol, Drugs, and Health and it’s free to download and read. I think it’s an excellent use of time, especially if you–like me–have been seeing a serious uptick in the news lately about stuff like our national painkiller–addiction problem.
And that uptick is justified. Over two million Americans are estimated to be battling some kind of opioid addiction. These drugs have now overtaken tobacco use nationally (37.8% versus 31.1%), and deaths from overdoses on them have, in Tennessee, overtaken deaths from car accidents or guns. There have been thousands of deaths from overdoses on opioids every year, and yeah, some 75% of heroin users started off with prescription medications. Worst of all, these prescribed medications accidentally end up in the hands of babies, children, and teens distressingly often.
Jesus sure as hell isn’t stopping this addiction and overdosing from happening. You’ll notice that a lot of these links involve states dominated by TRUE CHRISTIANS™: Mississippi, Kentucky, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, West Virginia, and suchlike. You can see a map of prescriptions here at the CDC; I’m sure you’ll notice a few things right away. When one considers how many of these prescriptions get written for workers’ comp injuries–and that in rural areas, alternative pain management sources like physical therapy are way less likely to be available–then this pattern starts making a lot more sense.
In the face of such overwhelming numbers, it’s no surprise that individual people want to do whatever they can to help.
And whaddya know? We’ve got a ready-made available outlet for those feelings of helplessness.
Now, when a healthcare professional uses the word “intervention,” they mean something different from when a mundane uses it. (Sounds like “theory,” doesn’t it?) They mean any professionally-delivered service aimed at preventing or treating addiction. But the Surgeon General knows that most Americans hear the word and think of something else–something very specific.
We’ve been trained, over the last 30 years in particular, to think of intervention as a planned confrontation between a substance-abuser and their families and other loved ones. Sometimes these confrontations are played for laughs, as in Better Off Ted’s “It’s My Party and I’ll Lie If I Want To,” where the nerd scientists, Phil and Lem, get smashed and crash a co-worker’s party only to discover that it’s actually an intervention for her brother (Lem’s reaction: “Oh, come on. Peanuts, people crying, a priest. That’s a party, baby!”), or turned into an entire reality-show series (with the main one of these actually called, simply, Intervention) which are themselves lampooned.
The script is straightforward: the addict is completely blindsided with a roomful of loved ones who tell the addict all about how that person’s addiction has hurt them and made their own lives difficult. In the mythology of addiction, this sudden wake-up call has a deep impact on the addict, who then resolves to enter treatment or do whatever is needed to get healthy again in order to stop hurting their loved ones.
Intervention has actually been around as a concept since at least the 1960s. In the early 1970s, an Episcopal priest formalized the technique and made it less about blaming the addict than about showing love and setting limits. This priest, Dr. Vernon Johnson, gave the new kind of intervention a name: “Johnson Intervention.” (No snerking, now!) There is now a long and well-established list of steps that addicts’ families can follow if they wish to give a proper Johnson Intervention to someone. Interventions have achieved a status of near-religious awe in people’s minds, and are considered by many to be an essential part of an addict’s recovery–especially if the addict has refused other help in the past. They are part of the addiction narrative.
Most of the sites I looked at about interventions barely even mentioned the possibility of failure or advised against it. Narconon, that Scientology-run group, even suggests interventions as an option specifically when an addict is resistant to the idea of change, and further suggests doing them in the morning (when addicts are extra-perky and cheerful, no doubt).
Most of us are very well-familiar with the routine of an intervention, consequently, if we haven’t actually undergone one ourselves. The terrible thing is, a lot of us have had to deal with one of these interventions in the religious world–and we weren’t even addicted to anything.
Stuff Fundies Like: Interventions.
The concepts behind intervention can be found all over modern fundagelicalism. People joke about it–as in the comments on Stuff Fundies Like–with full expectation of understanding from their peers because it’s such a big part of how right-wing Christians handle dissenters. It’s how they imagine their god deals with them, and they think that means it’s how they should handle each other in turn–since they are like mini-Jesuses in their own minds.
You can well imagine that congregations that already idolized (and abused) Matthew 18:15-17 as a conflict-resolution technique must have seen intervention as nothing less than a formalized instruction manual for how to confront people in their ranks who weren’t behaving themselves. All that stuff Jesus supposedly said about not judging each other flies out the window in the face of deep-seated urges to control and violate other people’s boundaries. Oh, they are very, very careful to advise exactly how to control and violate each other’s boundaries! Mustn’t do it improperly, after all! But that’s still exactly what they’re doing–and they think Jesus told them to do it, so they react quite poorly to suggestions that what they’re doing is unloving.
There’s a preening quality to fundagelicals’ admonitions about how to do a proper intervention. “WE ARE ALL SINNERS,” proclaims one woman’s guide in all caps, before moving on to establish all the different “sins” that would require a wifely intervention against her husband–and you can see the utter muddle of a mess she has created just by looking at the comments there. Indeed, nobody has any idea what to make of this advice, though everyone there agrees that it’s of course totally necessary! The writer takes for utter granted, as does her entire tribe, that of course she is supposed to “confront sin” in this manner. After all, not “confronting sin” would be like condoning it, and gosh, Christians can’t possibly do that, now can they?
There are other reasons for Christians to really like the idea of an intervention in cases of recalcitrant group members. It fits in with their existing canon of “love the sinner, hate the sin” and even feels like a sort of variant of “tough love,” which is a concept they long ago embraced wholeheartedly as a permission slip to be controlling assholes at people while pretending they’re being very loving. Their weird version of “tough love” allows them to wholly ignore the pain and alienation they are strewing in their wake.
But despite everyone being sinners, clearly some sinners are superior to others, aren’t they? And this Christian lady knows that perfectly well. There’s a definite hierarchy of sinner-ness to be seen in these sorts of guides. The people doing the admonition always see themselves as superior to the person being admonished because whatever their sins are, they’re not as bad as those of the person being confronted. One rarely sees a layperson confronting a pastor, or a child (even an adult child) confronting a parent. The writer of this guide here knows that her status is far below that of her husband, so she goes out of her way to be as submissive and deferential as possible. (I thought it was funny to see how seriously exaggerated her suggestions were; it was almost like she was channeling Michelle Duggar.)
She has reason to advise this kind of caution.
The Theory and Pratice of Christian Interventions.
The idea is that in a Christian intervention, the “sinner” is confronted by a set of their peers and authority figures, told that they are sinning and misbehaving, and thus hit by Jesus Power and inspired to change. Since all TRUE CHRISTIANS™ want to be as Christlike as possible, obviously they will be open to this confrontation and will be convicted by the Holy Spirit to fall into line. Thus, harmony will be ensured! Yay Team Jesus!
Everyone doing the confrontation must be as Jesus-powered as possible ahead of time; in my church we called this state “prayed up.” Being prayed up is supposed to grant them a sort of holy aura and special interpersonal powers of perception, discernment, and judgment, a glowing countenance I’ve begun thinking of as a Jesus Aura. Sinners aren’t supposed to be able to withstand it unless they are just completely controlled by demons.
Thanks to the nature of power in fundagelicalism’s broken system, those being confronted, if they do vastly outrank those confronting them, have ways to make their accusers’ lives very difficult indeed, as those Mars Hill elders discovered when they tried this totally for sure Biblical advice on their pastor at the time, Mark Driscoll–and got fired for their trouble!
We’ll go to someone’s house, or out to dinner, or even for a walk, and discover that our companions have decided to spring an intervention upon us. I faced this situation myself while riding in a car barreling down the freeway, with fundagelical friends screaming in my ears about BORSHUN–and I wasn’t even deconverted at the time. I’ve had other friends who deconverted and got the full meal deal, such as Neil over at Godless in Dixie, whose own intervention lasted ten hours. You can find other accounts pretty easily; here’s one at Bruce Gerencser’s blog, in the comments (you may recognize the name!), and some of our very own commenters here at R2D have shared personal stories of similarly harrowing and disastrous encounters.
Christians clearly love this idea, and I’m just glad that my own personal circumstances happened to make an intervention impossible for me (or my then-husband would very gladly have held one, I’m sure!).
The Christians running these interventions tend to ask tons of horrifyingly invasive and mean-spirited questions of their victims, demand that they defend their sinful decisions, accuse them of the very worst motivations, and fling threats at them willy-nilly. These entire ordeals sound simply exhausting–and infuriating–in great part because of the sense of violated boundaries and betrayal that almost always accompany them. The fundagelicals involved use sheer blunt-force social coercion to try to compel compliance and agreement because this kind of coercion is a weapon that comes very easily to their fingertips.
The orderly sweetness of Matthew 18 this is most assuredly not, and you will search in vain for spiritual fruits in these rotten, disease-riddled orchards.
The Problem with Interventions.
The main problem with interventions is that they don’t work.
Oh, sometimes someone responds decently well to them, but usually the victim involved (and I use the term “victim” very deliberately here, because I think most of these interventions get interpreted as aggressive actions) becomes very defensive and withdrawn–as one would expect to happen in any situation where someone feels attacked by a vastly-superior force.
In the world of substance addiction, legitimate professionals know very well that if someone isn’t strongly motivated to seek help and make real changes, then an already-difficult situation becomes downright impossible. The Surgeon General’s report says definitively that “planned surprise confrontations of the latter [intervention] variety. . . have not been demonstrated to be an effective way to engage people in treatment” and refers interested parties to a paper you can download and/or read here: “Engaging the Unmotivated in Treatment for Alcohol Problems: A Comparison of Three Strategies for Intervention Through Family Members,” written in 1999.
This paper has some surprising news for those who favor the intervention model: namely, that there really isn’t a lot of evidence pointing to its effectiveness. The researchers involved with this study actually pitted the Johnson Intervention model against another one called CRAFT, which teaches loved ones how they can help with the addict’s triggers, improve communication, and care for themselves whether or not the addict ever seeks treatment. It is not in the least confrontational, and the folks who are working with it say that it absolutely isn’t meant to be aggressive or challenging in any way. (And BTW, I’m not saying that anybody should feel obligated to change or fix anybody, just that this model was clearly chosen because it’s a competing system that has similar goals.)
To their surprise, loved ones in the study who tried CRAFT were more than twice as likely to get their addicted person into therapy than the people who tried the Johnson Intervention!
In fact, only a third of the addicts confronted by loved ones in the Johnson style even completed the confrontation meeting itself.
By the time I finished reading the paper, it seemed to me like Vernon Johnson had a very limited and poorly-selected sample of people to study–and subsequent studies regarding his method’s effectiveness seem to suffer similarly-serious methodological issues. Given his worldview, though, I’m sure his idea fit very well with his religious worldview, and the people he was testing it on probably fell into that worldview more often than not.
Things have changed since his day. It doesn’t take long to scare up professionals and other experienced folks who are sharply critical of the intervention-model of confrontation, though. The New York Times says that the hosts of the reality-TV show Intervention “trick” addicts, while The Daily Beast is upset about Dr. Phil’s interventions being “despicable, exploitive television.”
Psychology Today doesn’t think that interventions themselves make the actual addiction worse, but they do pose a risk of seriously hurting the addict’s relationships with those around themselves–those who have staged this elaborate trick and attack upon them. And I’d agree.
I see the exact same fallout in Christians’ intervention efforts, with one exception: a glaring lack of success. I have never, even once, heard of an ex-Christian being thusly confronted and falling back into line, or even agreeing to return to church (it might happen… I just sure as hell haven’t heard about it). Far from creating greater love and harmony between friends and family, these affairs almost always result in shattered relationships. The feelings that erupt from betrayed trust and violated boundaries are not easily repaired. It’s a true testament to the real power of Jesus, all right, just not in the direction fundagelicals would like.
So what do you do when you realize that you are surrounded by glittering-eyed fundagelicals who have begun to pepper you with threats and demanding questions?
A Gently Suggested Action Plan.
Hopefully nothing bad will happen and the worst thing you’ll deal with is some iffy food, but if not, some forethought might help you stave off trouble. (You do you–if these ideas sound useful then great; if you think something else will work better, obviously do it. You know your family better than I do.)
First, think ahead.
Most of these interventions are sprung upon their victims, but you might get some warning signs ahead of time. If your family has not taken your deconversion well at all, if they are very fervently fundagelical, or if your deconversion was fairly recent, one might be on the schedule. Make sure you have your own transportation to the event in question, or else have a way to get your own transportation back home.
I know someone who actually had a friend call her while she was at a holiday function–as if she were on a blind date!–to give her an easy “out” if she needed it. I’ve heard of other people who brought sympathetic friends with them so they’d have people on their side at the event (just make sure the friend knows what might go down). Other people have explicitly warned their relatives ahead of time that an intervention will result in drama and them leaving immediately and without notice.
Second, practice your responses at home if you’re the type of person who doesn’t easily overcome this kind of overreach.
If you’re easily flustered, then a little roleplay in a safe space can really go far toward helping you recapture your equilibrium if a confrontation begins. Practice refusing to answer questions; rehearse your warnings and goodbyes. Do it till you’re comfortable saying it.
Third, remember that YOU OWE THESE PEOPLE NOTHING.
Nobody is entitled to your time. Nobody gets to abuse you. If you start feeling put-upon, you’re allowed to call a halt to the festivities and demand that your attackers leave you alone. You don’t owe them explanations of any sort, and you certainly don’t have to convince them you did the right thing (you won’t be able to anyway, and you know it).
One of fundagelicalism’s greatest evil powers is its ability to make people feel like they are obligated to endure whatever fundagelicals on a Jesus-rampage choose to dish out, or else they don’t have valid reasons for deconverting, or aren’t being a good friend/child/sibling/whatever. This is absolutely not true and is a form of gaslighting besides. If you’re being harangued by one of them and you decide to walk out of there, you are completely allowed to do it. You can hang up the phone in mid-sentence; you can stand up and walk right out the door without further comment. You can do whatever you feel is necessary to keep yourself safe, and you can do it without even feeling that you owe anyone an explanation of what you did or why.
If they get upset that you stood up for your rights, remember that they are the ones who stomped on your rights in the first place. They are the ones who should be apologizing to you for pushing you into that position.
Fourth, if you are victimized, take care of yourself afterward.
Sometimes, despite our best intentions, we end up being hurt by those we love. Breaking the patterns of emotional abuse can be very difficult, especially if you’re very fresh off of your deconversion and not totally steady on your feet yet. If that happens, it is not your fault, your deconversion is still valid, and you are not a bad person for not doing whatever you think you should have done in hindsight. (That’s why we call it “hindsight,” you know. If the idea came to us when it was needed, we’d just call it “perception” and be done with it.)
Take time to care for yourself. Interface with other ex-Christians in RL or online. Seek professional help if the situation was especially painful or disastrous. Try to put together an action plan for next time.
Be gentle with yourself; it takes time to learn habits, especially if they run really counter to what you’ve lived with your whole life. And even when you’re a master of Assertiveness, with extra levels taken in both Biting Wit and Searing Profanity, you can still get blindsided.
Last, remember that you did nothing wrong.
The main difference between a Christian intervention and an addiction intervention is that in the the former case, the person being attacked did absolutely nothing wrong. You are blameless (not that I blame addicts). You evaluated the evidence before you and came to an unapproved conclusion. That’s all. It’s not like you could have stopped it from happening. There’s no “help” you could even get for deconversion–beyond having evidence for Christianity’s claims, and let’s face it, none exists or they wouldn’t need to stage interventions to try to force us back into line.
Keep that in perspective. Don’t blame yourself for something that was totally not your fault.
Stay Safe This Holiday Season!
I don’t have any great hopes that intervention will fall out of style with fundagelicals. They’re only getting more brusque, boorish, rude, and entitled with the growing polarization of their culture, and they’re just too in love with those sorts of grand dramatic gestures. But knowing what role it plays in fundagelical culture, and what we can do to protect ourselves from it, can go a long way toward keeping ourselves emotionally safe.