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Home arrow General Information arrow What Qualifies as Extreme or Extremist

What Qualifies as Extreme or Extremist

submitted by Cheryl Lindsey

It's always tempting to attempt to define exactly what is meant by "extremism" or to list extreme groups by name. We could all probably do that, of course, but lists like that tend not to serve a useful purpose over the long run. For one thing, such lists leave the impression that groups outside the "extreme" list are non-extreme, or that extreme groups are some kind of specific, aberrant "other" led and populated by folks who aren't "normal", aren't "regular", who are, in other words, one letter short of an alphabet.

We have all heard about cult atrocities as in Guyana or Waco; they make the front pages of newspapers, and rightfully so. But the tendency can be, in view of those horrible atrocities we've heard about, to consider that all extreme aberrant groups/cults are characterized by the sensational or the bizarre, by criminal practices, by orgies, molestations, accumulation of arms, suicide pacts, etc. The tendency then becomes to dismiss such groups as weird and to rest in the comfort that normal Christians are not usually touched by the kinds of leaders and groups which create wounded pilgrims.

The truth is, instead, that extremism and the seeds of extremism are found within the boundaries of what we might call "orthodoxy," i.e., within fundamentalist/conservative/evangelical circles, as frequently -- maybe more frequently -- than outside those circles. The quest for an authentic expression of church life frequently results in the creation of or participation in extreme groups by devout Christians.

The sincere, the zealous, the sold-out, the committed, the trusting, those with distorted views of spiritual authority, often find they have unwittingly placed themselves at the mercy of unscrupulous, if charming, leaders (brambles) who have either cashed in on the opportunity to lord it over God's people or who have succumbed to the temptations of power once they have achieved a position of prominence within the group.

Rather than making lists of extremist groups, it's helpful to develop criteria, to establish characteristics common to these groups. Such criteria help us to evaluate practices, doctrines and leadership to determine whether a given group is extreme or is headed that direction. But more than that, such criteria enable us to look carefully at ourselves and at our own church situations, whatever church we might attend, however sound it might appear to be. Does the group of Christians with whom we meet carry within it the seed of spiritually abusive doctrines or practices? More importantly, do we, ourselves, possess characteristics which might lead us to spiritually abuse other Christians? Most cult leaders and many of their followers, began as orthodox, apparently harmless, but zealous, Christians. Jim Jones began as an ordained Assembly of God pastor. David Koresh was, in the beginning, a rising star amongst Seventh Day Adventists. David Berg of the Children of God began his ministry as a full-time evangelist for the Christian and Missionary Alliance. But all had beliefs and personality traits which eventually led them to spiritually abuse those who followed them and looked to them for spiritual leadership.

I found something called Biderman's Chart of Coercion in a book I was reading, and I couldn't help but notice how the methods described apply to methods commonly used in spiritually abusive groups. The Chart of Coercion is actually from an Amnesty International publication, "Report on Torture", which depicts the brainwashing of prisoners of war.

The book says, "Most people who brainwash...use methods similar to those of prison guards who recognize that physical control is never easily accomplished without the cooperation of the prisoner. The most effective way to gain that cooperation is through subversive manipulation of the mind and feelings of the victim, who then becomes a psychological, as well as a physical, prisoner."

The list of brainwashing methods functions pretty well as a list of criteria by which groups and individuals can be evaluated for evidences of or tendencies toward extremism.

I thought I'd list the methods of coercion, then try to give examples from my own experience of what those methods might look like.