By Art Z.
I'm a 28 year old survivor of Armstrongism, and haven't realized until recently how rough it was for the folks who were in before I was born. Having been born in 1974, I was but a child during the "crisis period" of the church, when things were falling apart internally. I feel extremely sorry for you guys who were youngsters in the 60s. The SEP stories send chills down my spine.
My parents met in the church and I was born into the cult, so it's all I ever knew. I can still remember, in the late 70's, meeting in a room at the local shopping mall (small town in Alabama), wondering, even at that young age, what the hell we were doing in a MALL for weekly services. The insanity of it is illustrated in the fact that the minister was constantly reminding the flock not to peruse the shops before or after services, as that was not something permissible on God's day. One time my grandmother took me down to get me a doughnut and let me look in the toy store (go mammaw!!!), and some spy had taken note and passed it along, because when services started the brethren got one of those infamous reminders about the holiness of the Sabbath from the podium-pounding minion on the stage. I'd like to go back and ask the assholes why they chose to put the brethren right smack in the midst of such temptation. Unless they wanted to "test our faith".
Maybe that's what it was. Nonetheless, every one of those guys deserve a good bitch slappin'.
We moved around a lot when I was little because of my dad's instability employment wise (which was probably the result of tithing away all of his money and listening to stupid ministerial advice on the subject of jobs--which they knew little or nothing about). We moved from Alabama to Texas, stayed with one congregation there for a couple of years, moved again in Texas, stayed there for a few years, then back to Alabama. When my head stopped spinning, and the dust had settled, it was 1987 and things had changed quite a bit. Armstrong was dead, and "liberalism" had seeped into the church. I attended through 1993, when I finally stopped going after having graduated from H.S.
I'll never forget, though, when I learned in 1991 that our local minister had had an affair with my best friend's mother. That sent shock waves through me. Then, that guy was replaced with another idiot minister--a big fat Germanic guy who probably emulated the Nazis--who was also a womanizer. He even made some passes at my mom a few times (my mom was/is an attractive woman). He also conducted YOU "bible studies" that always seemed to end up about sex; he would go into details and everyone felt very uncomfortable. My dad didn't like him very much, and this led, I think, to his (my dad's) eventually leaving the church. My Dad wanted things to be like they once were, so he left in '94 and sought the offshoots.
Ever since my exodus in '93, I've been on a mission to purge my mind of it all. It's very hard to get across to someone who hasn't experienced it the mental trauma one goes through under such conditions. Especially if you're born in a cult, you're basically handed an intellectual death sentence. Later in life, if you TRY to think for yourself, reach your own conclusions about various things of ultimate importance, you hit a brick wall. The memories keep coming back--it's like your mind is in a box. The box of Worldwide Church of God doctrines and beliefs, and you can't get out of it. Doubting brings on guilt, and guilt often brings on depression.
I am now a Deist, a freethinker, but my mind will never function "normally". It will always hearken back to the rigid structure of my childhood. As Bobby Fischer said, it's terrible when you're taught to fear your own mind; when you're taught that ANY doubt or questioning is the work of Satan. That, to me, is the single most damaging idea that the Worldwide Church of God taught. From that premise everything else followed--mind-control, conformity, rigidity, infallibility of Armstrong, etc, etc. My poor mother has never been a critical thinker, and she swallowed it all hook-line-and-sinker, and passed along to me little quips of HWA "wisdom" throughout the years which pop up ever now and again.
My mother suffers now from depression and guilt, herself. She just can't see that it's the result of her experience in the church. She constantly feels like she isn't living up to God's expectations of her. She continues to follow my father and believe the doctrines. They do not attend any offshoot church, but my dad does receive literature from all of them, and supports them "in spirit."
This brings us to the letter I recently wrote my dad. We had an argument over the church, beliefs, the existence of God, etc. It was quite a showdown. Of course, he's not budging in his views, and I don't expect him to, but as a result of the brainwashing he received in the Worldwide Church of God, he has zero tolerance for dissent and can't even LISTEN to another point of view. It's amazing we can even be in the same room with each other, to be honest. So many lives were screwed up by that organization. In the past I couldn't see that my OWN life, and my family's relations with each other, have suffered tremendously as a result of being a part of the Worldwide Church of God. We're all unstable in some way--psychologically, emotionally, financially.
The following letter was written to my father a couple of nights ago, after we had our fight. I'm embarrassed to publish for the world the childishness in the first paragraph, but it's the truth. I lost my head and acted stupid. Ah, if you could only know my father though...he is SO frustrating. I was so enraged by the whole episode that I sat down and wrote him--something I never do; I'm still enraged. I felt compelled to share it with a wider audience in hopes that it might strike a chord with some other unfortunate soul who has had similar things happen with a parent who is no longer in the Worldwide Church of God but who continues to hang on stubbornly to the beliefs they once espoused.
September 30, 2002
Contrary to what you may think, I am capable of recognizing my own flaws, and admitting when I am wrong. As a matter of fact, I will do that now before I proceed any further: I was wrong for erupting this evening and spewing soda beverage all over you and the house. I "went off the deep end", acted childishĖand in so doing, lost whatever credibility I had at that moment, in terms of my arguments and motives for arguing. I recognize that, and have willfully admitted my mistake. Unfortunately, you donít seem to possess that same ability; the ability to admit when youíre wrong, or even the ability to admit the POSSIBILITY of your being wrong.
And Iím not speaking here of religious beliefs. Letís lay that aside for a moment. You know at the bottom of your heartĖand you are completely blind if you canít seeĖthat you do not listen to others, and are very, very stubborn when it comes to giving up even an inch of terrain in the field of "power politics." You have always sought dominance, and not the right kind of "patriarchal" leadership, but the kind that seeks to lord it over others at all costs. But this I can understand, given the relationship you had with your father, and the religious cult you became a part of in your young adult life.
Yes, I lost it tonight. I lost it because I let myself be angered by your abrasiveness. Itís a quality youíve perfected over the years. And if you canít see this fault, or your other faults, then you are blind indeed. And if you CAN see them, but wonít admit to them, or, as you say, confess them in private to "someone who matters," then what kind of man are you? What evil beliefs do you hold that instruct you to owe your fellow man nothing (not to mention your own family), but your invisible God everything? Obviously, God is not present in the world; not in a tangible, definite sense. Sure, folks like you claim he IS involved, albeit in a mysterious and reclusive way, with certain "elect," of which you proudly claim yourself a part. All of this aside, though: doesnít your invisible God, who has specially called you, expect you to set some sort of example for the world to see? Isnít that what the Bible teaches?
That seems reasonable enough to me, yet my experience with you has been anything but enlightening, and nothing but demeaning. You exhibit intellectual and spiritual arrogance, abrasiveness, coldness, and lack of love. I therefore see a paradox. You claim special knowledge of God, and intimate understanding of the Scripture, his supposed word, but I see nothing that reflects what would be the profoundest discovery that a son could make: that his OWN FATHER has a unique understanding in all the world, a special, profound relationship with the Creator of the Universe which nobody (or perhaps very few people) has.
You are right when you say everyone has faults, and you should not judge God by any man. I donít think I have ever done that. However, according to your Bible, you ARE to judge a man (or a group) by his/its fruits. When I see your fruits, what am I to conclude but that you are at best, deceived by your own musings, and at worst, a complete fraud who knows that he is wrong but refuses to admit it (this is already a suspicion of mineĖand I base this on your very own words tonight; see the 3rd paragraph again to refresh your memory).
You claim that I am a confused young man, beset by inner turmoil. Further, you believe that this problem is the result of my rejecting "what little truth" I once understood. My mind was all mixed up in college, and I have never been the same since. Well, let me set the record straight. Again, though you may have had the luxury of stumbling upon "Godís true apostle" Herbert W. Armstrong in your strapping youth, when you were craving knowledge, understanding, and a sense of direction in life, I was afforded no such luxury. From the minute I took my first breath of life, the Worldwide Church of God was my world. I did not ask for it, and thus had no choice in the matter. Much the same as the accident of birth might place you in a starving third world country or in a civilized industrial nation. Religiously speaking, the Worldwide Church of God was my ONLY reality from birth until 1993, when I stopped attending services. From the cradle I was instilled with those doctrines and taught that they were the ONLY true doctrines of God; all other churches and beliefs were frauds. Stop for a minute and just think about what that means. Parents have ultimate power over the minds and bodies of their kids. How powerful are these kinds of words, injected into a developing young mind, by the two figures who are the supreme and infallible disseminators of knowledge, truth, and justice to a child?
You may argue, and I know you will, that there is no difference between this and any other old religious upbringing, or non-religious upbringing. There are thousands of different views out there, and dozens upon dozens of different ways to raise a child; my upbringing was no different than anyone elseís in that I, like everyone else, was raised to believe a certain way regarding right and wrong, good and evil, God, etc. I reject this vehemently. The beliefs we held spoke of specific certainties unlike most other creeds. Herbert Armstrong was Godís True Apostle, no questions asked. The Worldwide Church of God was Godís True Church, no questions asked. The ministers were to be obeyed, no questions asked. I could go on. Every aspect of life was put into a category. How you dressed, how you kept your hair, what kind of bread you ate, what you did and did not do on the Sabbath. You cannot deny these things existed. You brush them off now as "silly," or "misguided," but what you donít seem to realize is the effect that sort of paradigm can have on the fragile mind of a developing child.
Yes, all of that, coupled with the obscene and grotesque images of people tearing away their flesh during the great tribulation, or lying like ghosts in piles of rubble at the conclusion of the nuclear holocaust that "was only a few years away." Do you remember these pictures? They were given to us kids in our Y.E.S. Bible lessons. Of course, we had nothing to worry aboutĖas long as we stayed right with God, as long as our parents kept attending and didnít stray from the correct path. Those horrible things would happen to the world, but not to those within the Worldwide Church of God. Can you even begin to comprehend what kind of psychological impact this had on kids? And you wonder why I am bitter over it all? I could name much moreĖthe Nazi-like technique of engaging the brethren in lots of social activities, to create the sense of cohesion among the membership as well as to root out those who were "less committed"; the mind-games played by deacons and elders and other little yes-men who questioned kids trying to find out why one of their parents wasnít at services; the threats from the pulpit regarding the tribulation and the lake of fire. These kinds of things were enough to create nightmares. Plain and simple, they were scare tactics to keep adults in line and in the church, to prevent them from asking questions (because the very exercise of the rational mind is seen as the work of Satan), and to ensure that the unfortunate kids were well-indoctrinated so that the organization would keep producing warm bodies to provide income.
Now, here we are, many years later, and you, being one of the "strong of faith," have managed to separate yourself from that organization and continue firm and sure in your beliefs because you never looked to a man anyway. Youíre quite sure of yourself in this, but the evidence looks different from where I stand. First of all, you DID look to a man, regardless of your claiming otherwise. If it werenít for HWA, you would not have the "understanding" of Scripture that you do. When you left that church, you may have been leaving an organization, but you werenít leaving the doctrines he taught you. Had he remained alive, and continued to preach, your behind would have been in one of those steel fold-out chairs until this day. As long as he preached "the truth", that is. When the Worldwide Church of God fell apart, you sought others who would feed you the same spiritual meat he had. So, donít say youíve never followed a man. If the last 30 years of your life isnít following a man, then nothing is.
Now, back to myself. Having grown up with these beliefs, my mind was already made FOR me. I could not choose as you were able to. Not a luxury for me. A paradigm had been established, reality had been set in concrete, and I was instructed not to question. When things began to unravel, what was I to think? What about all the statements that the Worldwide Church of God would be flocking to the place of safety shortly and the tribulation was about to commence? What about the many statements that God would not allow Armstrong to dieĖthat he would be alive when Christ returned? What about the many, many lectern-pounding comments that the Worldwide Church of God was the true church of God, the ONLY TRUE CHURCH OF GOD, and that there was no salvation outside of its doors? You canít deny these statements, they are documented, a part of history now. When I saw the walls collapse, and the only world I knew coming down, what was I to think? Things continued on without the slightest shockwave as a result of Armstrongís death or the later changes in church doctrine. Germany did not rise, the Great Tribulation did not occur, the world remained reasonably intact. But MY world did not. The paradigm was shattered. My father and mother had raised me in a great lie. I say again, what was I to think?
You have something wrong about me. You say that I argue with you and talk against your beliefs and the Bible because somewhere in the back of my mind I think they are true after all. Actually, you have it backwards. Those beliefs are as much a part of my consciousness as the Torah is to any Jew; what is in the back of my mind is doubt. The feeling that they are all wrong. I can never, EVER separate myself from those beliefs. They are forever ingrained in me. Because I was taught to believe that the slightest disloyalty to them, or to those who taught them, was the work of Satan, I am now intellectually unstable. Thereís no greater crime and lie than to teach a man that THINKING is the work of the devil. You may deny that this was taught, but it wasĖand still is, in many of those offshoots of the Worldwide Church of God (most notably in the PCG). I would give anything to be able to purge my mind completely of those beliefs and doctrines, and the ministers who taught them. But, I CANíT. So, when you see the fury or the frustration in my eyes when Iím arguing with you, itís not because I envy your "inner peace" and want to destroy it, or feel deep down that your beliefs are true and Iím just "trying to fight it." Itís because I resent having been given an intellectual death sentence for the rest of my life. Iím forever to be plagued with guilt because I dare to be a free thinker. Thereís no other word for this than "Mind Control."
And you think the Worldwide Church of God wasnít a cult? You are blind indeed if you canít see it. Such power over minds is the classic hallmark of a cult. I ask you to think about this: if Armstrong had told you in, say 1975, that the end was here, that God had told him to take the church to the place of safety, so everyone must sell everything and go with him to the desert in Jordan, would you have gone? If you answer "yes" to that question, then you were in a cult. And I do indeed believe the honest answer to that question is a "yes."
Thatís why, as hard as it may be, I must think for myself. I must reach my own conclusions in life, unaided by suspicious characters who tell you they have all the answers. My mind is the only tool I have to understand the world I live in, and with it I must attempt to make sense of lots of things. I do not worship it, for it is finite, and fallible. But it is still the best, and only, tool Iíve got. If God speaks to man, it must be through this vessel. There can be no other way. It is blasphemous to take another manís word for something as important as communication with God. You claim to know God, and you claim to have an unshakeable belief in the Bible as the very Word of God. I believe that you reached this conclusion via the spin of a master salesman who found a way to make himself a fortune by preying on manís most vulnerable weak spot: his longing to understand why he is here on this earth. Itís interesting that numerous people observed Armstrong, throughout the years, to be an abrasive, self-centered, worldly man. Not what you would think of Godís Only True Apostle, a man leading Godís One True Church, teaching Godís Truth. Yes, men are flawed, but do beliefs not reflect in the real world at all? If HWAís theology was truly the "original gospel of Christ," and God was truly leading that church, and that church only, then why did he not reflect such profound beliefs more in his behavior? Why are there so many wrecked lives as a result of those teachings? The original gospel of Christ being taught wouldíve translated into a group of people who were more like Christ supposedly was than any other group of people present or past (the NT defines how you will recognize true believers). Yet, thatís not what I saw. Beliefs do matter, and they do reflect in a personís life. But the reflections Iíve seen lead me to conclude that there was something sinister, not Christ-like, about the Worldwide Church of God and its beliefs.
Therefore, donít blame me if Iím more than a little skeptical about your so-called "truth." If I shall know them by their fruits, Iíve yet to come upon them. Donít get me wrong, I am not holding you or mother to any higher standard than I hold the rest of humanity. You are both flawed human beings like everyone else, and Iím not a child anymore, so I am no longer under the delusion that you are both infallible. Please pardon me if I donít take your word for it that youíve got the truth, that your understanding of that most famous of books, the Bible, is correct. Forgive me if I seem "blind" to you, unable to see with spiritual eyes the hidden, coded truths of that ancient text. Donít brush me off by calling my outlook carnal, rooted in the physical. And most of all, donít assume that I am miserable BECAUSE of my rejection of your truth and your Bible. If I am miserable, it is because I was raised under abnormal circumstances, and taught to believe abnormal things about the world, and I am only now beginning to be able to shake them.
I have a number of good friends; none of them had the misfortune of growing up in a cult. They all lead stable, happy lives. Yes, HAPPY lives. They are intelligent, well-adjusted, and content. They donít claim special knowledge of God or anything else; they simply live their lives, have a solid ethical base, and enjoy each day. They have profound hobbies and interests, possess a meaning and a purpose, and leave it at that. So please refrain, also, from telling me that your way (what you believe to be Godís truth) is the only way that can make a man happy, because that is a plain lie. There are many paths to "true" happiness in this life; perhaps yours is one of them (which I ultimately doubt), but it is not the exclusive one. Whether or not yours is the only way eternally is another matter, and one which we all, including you, will have to wait and find out.
On a final note, do not take my harsh words here to mean I do not love you or mother, or that I have no respect for you whatsoever. That is simply not true. A son who did not love his father would not have badgered him into going to the doctor to possibly save him from an unnecessarily early death. Furthermore, I know that you did what you believed was right as parents. And, in all honesty, most of my childhood memories are very positive. While the church aspect played an overwhelming role, I was able, even then, to segregate my life in the church and my life outside it. I do have some positive memories, even, of some things within church lifeĖsuch as Feast memories. My criticisms here, ultimately, are not of you or mother at all. Theyíre of the hierarchy of men who dominated lives and the false and dangerous framework they provided for the living of those lives. Donít beat yourself up over this, feeling that youíve failed in transmitting "Godís truth" to me, or that youíve been a rotten father. Much of my anger with you now stems from my comparing you to the father I once had. A child blocks out bad stuff when itís happening, and only reflects on its totality later in life. At the time, the church structure was reality for me, and the only truth I knew. I never viewed you and mother as bad parents, and I still donít. My perspective on what was happening way back when has modified, to be sure, but not my assessment of you and mother as parents. Letís get that clear: this is about the church, nothing else.
I will honor your words tonight and not make an appearance at your abode again, unless you call me and say that I am welcome. If refraining from religious talk is the prerequisite to my being admitted back over there again, then so be it. I disagree with that, but I will abide by it. Maybe I am the instigator of most of the arguments, and perhaps it is a topic I stay on too much, but it is one of importance to me, otherwise I wouldnít bother talking about it at all. The least you could do as my father would be to listen and argue positively and constructively, rather than talk down at me and beat me over the head with booming, never-ending sentences that prevent me from ever getting a word in edgewise. You know, Iím at least willing to admit that Iím fallible. Canít you? If youíre right about something, let your words prove themselves. They will stand or fall on their own, and do not need abrasiveness and arrogance to justify them.
THE END (not really)
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