Monday, September 3, 2007

Darkness at Noon and church discipline

I had always felt church discipline was primarily mental and social. The defendant disciplines themselves and is torn apart by guilt. While the shunning is painful, remaining in the shunning community and desiring to be accepted by them is what makes shunning ultimately effective. The decision to allow a disciplinary situation to escalate to excommunication is the decision to break with that community. For example all non-Amish are essentially shunned by the Amish, but none of them are bothered by it.

But the people being disciplined don't see it that way. In writing about church discipline one is often struck by the guilt factor at play. Christians who are stuck or are planning on their break can sometimes have trouble seeing cultish tactics for what they are. In email dialogs with people who are discussing their feelings about their own discipline the literary figure they most remind me of is Rubashov from the book Darkness at Noon. The book details the "discipline" of Rubashov who was an elder communist party official, during the time of the Stalinist purges.

Throughout the book the readers, the interrogators and Rubashov all know the story will end with Rubashov being shot. Church discipline cases end with people being humiliated, shunned and emotionally damaged; not with a bullet; so this whole piece will need to be metaphorical. The story starts with Ivanov (a friend and contemporary of Rubashov that runs the detention center, the analogy would be a church elder) trying to convince Rubashov to participate in his own humiliation and not just simply die in an administrative trial. That is in this analogy, suicide plays the role of fleeing the discipling church. Choosing to go for a public trial is allowing the excommunication and the shunning to take place. While the sins are reversed once these two changes are made, I think one can read Ivanov charge to Rubashov as the condemnation that a person under discipline would receive for simply leaving the community and not allowing the discipline process to play out:
"My point is this," he said; "one may not regard the world as a sort of metaphysical brothel for emotions. That is the first commandment for us. Sympathy, conscience, disgust, despair, repentance, and atonement are for us repellent debauchery. To sit down and let oneself be hypnotized by one's own navel, to turn up one's eyes and humbly offer the back of one's neck to Gletkin's revolver--that is an easy solution. The greatest temptation for the like of us is: to renounce violence, to repent, to make peace with oneself. Most great revolutionaries fell before this temptation, from Spartacus to Danton and Dostoevsky; they are the classical form of betrayal of the cause. The temptations of God were always more dangerous for mankind than those of Satan. As long as chaos dominates the world, God is an anachronism; and every compromise with one's own conscience is perfidy. When the accursed inner voice speaks to you, hold your hands over your ears. ..."
Sins are reversed, but I can make minor changes and rewrite the above as:
"My point is this," he said; "one may not regard the world as a sort of metaphysical brothel for emotions. That is the first commandment for us. Pride, fear, lust, the esteem of the world are for us repellent debauchery. To sit down and let oneself be hypnotized by one's own navel, to simply flee and disappear into the world --that is an easy solution. The greatest temptation for the like of us is: to deny the authority of the church, to repent, to make peace with oneself. Most people who fall away did so because they fell before this temptation. Most great reformers fell before this temptation, from Luther to Wesley to Muntzer and Machen; they are the classical form of betrayal of the church. The temptations of ego were always more dangerous for mankind than those of despotism. As long as sin dominates the world, ego is an anachronism; and every compromise with one's own will is perfidy. When the accursed inner voice speaks to you, hold your hands over your ears. ..."
The reason I think this analogy is helpful is that it will allow the person being subjected to the discipline to separate the means from the ends. They will seem similar and analogous means being employed for evil ends. From this they can examine the means and methods without allowing the underlying "sins" to confuse the issue. None of my readers are likely to believe that advocating for larger tonnage submarines deserves being denounced and killed. In the case of Stalinist discipline the people were confessing to serious crimes they couldn't possibly have committed. In the case of Church discipline people are often targeted for non crimes they did actually commit both sides know is a non crime. Orwell commented on Kostler that he so well captured the fact that, "fanatics don't just want you to obey them: They want you to agree with them."

Rubashev is guilty as well, and its his guilt that leads to him to plead guilty to six capitol offenses he never committed. Ultimately there was a "sin" he believes he deserves to be punished for. A few years before the book he had genuinely fallen for his secretary, and while she had trusted him completely he, earlier in the purges, had let her die in an act of cowardice:
"What I don't understand," he said, "is this. You now openly admit that for years you have had the conviction that we were ruining the Revolution; and in the same breath you deny that you belonged to the opposition and that you plotted against us. Do you really expect me to believe that you sat watching us with your hands in your lap--while, according to your conviction, we led country and Party to destruction?"

Rubashov shrugged his shoulders. "Perhaps I was too old and used up. ... But believe what you like," he said.

Ivanov lit another cigarette. His voice became quiet and penetrating: "Do you really want me to believe that you sacrificed Arlova and denied those"--he jerked his chin towards the light patch on the wall-- "only in order to save your own head?"
When this interrogation takes place he isn't ready to answer that final question "yes". Again with the analogy of death to humiliation this works the same way in many discipline processes. People can't stop obvious injustices within their own church because they are afraid of losing heir social position within the church. They feel dishonest and often they feel they deserve the ostracism once it happens, and this creates guilt along with anger. And just as it does in the case of church discipline these previous acts are what drives the subject to buy into the deceptive process and allow it to continue:
"Listen, Rubashov," [Ivanov] said finally. "There is one thing I would like to point out to you. You have now repeatedly said ‚'you'--meaning State and Party, as opposed to‚ 'I'--that is, Nicolas Salmanovitch Rubashov. For the public, one needs, of course, a trial and legal justification. For us, what I have just said should be enough."
In the end Gletkin is able to tie the sin Rubashov actually committed to the one he is being accused of:
"You doubtless also know that the declaration you made at that time, which you have just described as a lie, was decisive for the passing of the death sentence on Arlova?"

"I was informed of it." Rubashov had the feeling that the whole right side of his face was drawn into a cramp. His head became duller and heavier; it was with difficulty that he prevented it sinking on his breast. Gletkin's voice bored into his ear:

"So it is possible that Citizen Arlova was innocent?"

"It is possible," said Rubashov, with a last remainder of irony, which lay on his tongue like a taste of blood and gall.

"... And was executed as a consequence of the lying declaration you made, with the object of saving your head?"... "And after all that, you demand to be treated with consideration?" Gletkin's voice went on, with the same brutal correctness. "You still dare to deny criminal activities? After all that, you demand that we should believe you?"

Rubashov gave up the efforts to keep his head straight. Of course Gletkin was right not to believe him. Even he himself was beginning to get lost in the labyrinth of calculated lies and dialectic pretences, in the twilight between truth and illusion. The ultimate truth always receded a step; visible remained only the penultimate lie with which one had to serve it. And what pathetic contortions and St. Vitus's dances did it compel one to! How could he convince Gletkin that this time he was really sincere, that he had arrived at the last station? Always one had to convince someone, talk,argue--while one's only wish was to sleep and to fade out.

And it is this sin which Rubashov actually did commit that leads to his deterioration and the distortion of the truth:
For at their second or third meeting already, as it were, an unspoken agreement had come into existence between them: if Gletkin could prove that the root of charge was right--even when this root was only of a logical, abstract nature--he had a free hand to insert the missing details; "to dot the i's", as Rubashov called it. Without becoming aware of it, they had got accustomed to these rules for their game, and neither of them distinguished any longer between actions which Rubashov had committed in fact and those which he merely should have committed as a consequence of his opinions; they had gradually lost the sense of appearance and reality, logical fiction and fact. Rubashov would occasionally become conscious of this in his rare moments of clear-headedness, and he would then have the sensation of awakening from a strange state of intoxication; Gletkin, on the other hand, seemed never to be aware of it.
In the end Gletkin for the discipline process and makes an explicit analogy to Christianity. The purpose of the discipline process is to allow the community to blame its problems on specific individuals rather than its own structural flaws:
"You may be right in some ways," Rubashov said finally. "But it was you who started me off on this question. What use is it to invent scapegoats for difficulties, the natural causes of which you have just so convincingly described?"
"Experience teaches," said Gletkin, "that the masses must be given for all difficult and complicated processes a simple, easily grasped explanation. According to what I know of history, I see that mankind could never do without scapegoats. I believe it was at all times an indispensable institution; your friend Ivanov taught me that it was of religious origin. As far as I remember, he explained that the word itself came from a custom of the Hebrews, who once a year sacrificed to their god a goat, laden with all their sins." Gletkin paused and shoved his cuffs into place. "Besides, there are also examples in history of voluntary scapegoats. At the age when you were given a watch, I was being taught by the village priest that Jesus Christ called himself a lamb, which had taken on itself all sin. I have never understood in what way it could help mankind if someone declares he is being sacrificed for its sake. But for two thousand years people have apparently found it quite natural."
In the case of church discipline people who are disciplined are often told not to go public with their stories. They are told not to simply sever ties. Capitulate to the shunning and just cut the ties they have themselves. Again with the analogy of leaving community and death Rubashov also struggles with the same issue. Legitimate churches should have nothing to hide. "Airing the dirty laundry" is a common accusation thrown at those persons who have decided to tell their story. They are accused of damaging Christ's witnesses. Rubashov is also faced with the same choice. Now discredited the only thing he can do is act as the scape goat:
"I don't see," he said, "how it can serve the Party that her members have to grovel in the dust before all the world. I have signed everything you wanted me to sign. I have pleaded guilty to having pursued a false and objectively harmful policy. Isn't that enough for you?" He put on his pince-nez, blinked helplessly past the lamp, and ended in a tired, hoarse voice: "After all, the name N. S. Rubashov is itself a piece of Party history. By dragging it in dirt, you besmirch the history of the Revolution."

"To that I can also reply with a citation from your own writings. You wrote: " ‚'It is necessary to hammer every sentence into the masses by repetition and simplification. What is presented as right must shine like gold; what is presented as wrong must be black as pitch. For consumption by the masses, the political processes must be coloured like ginger-bread figures at a fair.' "

Rubashov was silent. Then he said, "So that is what you are aiming at: I am to play the Devil in your Punch and Judy show--howl, grind my teeth and put out my tongue--and voluntarily, too. Danton and his friends were spared that, at least."

Gletkin shut the cover of the dossier. He bent forward a bit and settled his cuffs: "Your testimony at the trial will be the last service you can do the Party."
It is only right before his death that Rubashov ultimately repents of the sin that drove the whole process, "A sentence swam vaguely in Rubashov's memory: "It is the Revolutionary's duty to preserve his own life." Who had said that? He, himself? Ivanov? It was in the name of that principle that he had sacrificed Arlova. And where had it led him?"

Christopher Hitchens wrote an interesting book review where he comments that Ivanov and Gletkin were so well presented in their interrogation that Darkness at Noon converted some to communism. Its my hope that the book offers a level of insight for those people trying to understand what happened to them. As an aside, seriously Sandeep blog has a similar take on the book to what is presented here.

7 comments:

Jen said...

I can relate, CD-Host. When I would talk to Doug Phillips sometimes, I would first become confused about the situation and then I would start to question myself, to wonder if I had maybe done what Doug was accusing me of. Not until I had time to step back and regroup could I get my wits about me again. That is one good thing about the shunning. I believe that if Doug had kept on hammering and hammering on me, I would have cracked and done what he wanted, guilty or not. 'Tis the power of persuasion.

Jen said...

“In the case of Church discipline people are often targeted for non crimes they did actually commit both sides know is a non crime.”

Now this is an interesting way to describe it. I actually committed a non-crime. Maybe I committed lots of non-crimes. And apparently non-crimes are excommunicable offenses. In fact, you don’t know they are a non-crime, subject to discipline, until you commit one of these nebulous non-crimes.

IOW, don’t rock the boat!

CD-Host said...

Glad you like and think it fits and helps! Gletkin I guess was more patient.

Well in your case the non-crime was not having the family situation improve (in fact it seems it got worse) under Doug’s care quickly. As I mentioned way back when I first talked about your case, this unfortunately is very common. People who go in for counseling that don’t almost immediately get better are often put through a discipline process. You demonstrated that Doug is not a competent social worker and isn’t able to handle standard marital problems.

Like the communist party being unable to admit that their flaws in factory production were structural Doug was unable to admit that his system of family life would work badly for some people — I’m still of the opinion that his system works badly for the vast majority, that his system really works well for a very small percentage of woman and about 15% of the husbands they are likely to marry.

Cindy said...

Gotta love the Russians. I've never read "Darkness at Noon", only the Russian Moralists, though they have their same parallels.

This dynamic of domination of the will is true of all of these thought reform oriented groups. If this is of interest, especially the nature and dynamics of interrogation, you might be interested in this book. It includes a review of a case wherein a Christian was accused of molesting his daughters. The daughters conceived the idea while in altered states of consciousness at a church retreat. The father admitted that the crimes were possible since "all of us" are fallen in nature and thus we are all capable of terrible sins due to the deceitfulness of our human hearts. He even served prison time despite they proved that no crimes were committed. The book speaks of many other aspects and reports other types of thought reform settings, but this vignette was especially insightful and informative. (And disturbing on many levels...)

From a Christian perspective, one might say that Satan, although fixated on stealing, killing and destroying things, he is also most interested in getting man to worship him rather than God. The recurring theme of the domination of the human will in all these instances goes beyond mere power into domination which implies worship. Hmmm.

White Man said...

I can't relate. I'm pretty close to the Amish community here in Michiana, and it's not accurate to say that the Amish basically shun outsiders. They are basically recitent toward outsiders that they don't know, but they can become very close to those they do (for instance, neighbors whose kitchen telephones they use several times a week). They only fully shun those who are under church discipline, including those who have left the church.
As I become closer involved with some who are being shunned, it will be interesting to see if secondary shunning kicks in against me.

CD-Host said...

You are raising a good point about my phrasing. The intent was to say that being excluded from the community didn't matter to a non Amish person. But it is a bit inaccurate to portray the community as quite as closed as I am doing. Can you think of a better phrasing?

John Immel said...

CD … this is sooooo true.

“In the case of Church discipline people are often targeted for non crimes they did actually commit both sides know is a non crime. Orwell commented on Kostler that he so well captured the fact that, "fanatics don't just want you to obey them: They want you to agree with them."”

This is the fundamental preoccupation of Christianity. This preoccupation has killed more people in the name of God than anyone would be willing to count. I submit that the tragedy is, Truth has an amazing capacity to bear itself out. If we’d pause and let truth percolate itself to the top, agreement would come. But the Zealots are not content to be patient and let God point people in the right direction.