Faith And Works

An awful story from the Washington Post:

“Rob Foster was 16 when his family unraveled.

He had told his parents that he wanted to leave Calvary Temple, the Pentecostal church in Sterling the family had attended for decades. But church leaders were blunt with his parents: Throw your son out of the house, or you will be excommunicated. And so that December two years ago, Gary and Marsha Foster told Rob that he had to leave. They would not see him or talk to him.

“I was devastated,” he said. (…)

Under the leadership of longtime pastor Star R. Scott, Calvary opened a school, television and radio ministries, and satellite churches around the globe. The local congregation at one point numbered 2,000.

Scott’s followers see him as an inspiring interpreter of God’s word. Members pack the church most nights, united in their desire to live as the Bible intended and reject what they view as society’s moral ambivalence. (…)

In his sermons, Scott teaches that his church is scripturally superior to others and views keeping people in the fold as a matter of their salvation. “Anything that’s other than a member in harmony has to be identified and expelled,” Scott preached in May 2007.

Don’t be afraid of “social services” if you throw rebellious children out of the house, he told the congregation in an earlier sermon, because “you obeyed God.” In an interview, he cited scriptures: “Deuteronomy says if your kid doesn’t follow your God, kill ’em. That’s what we do, but not physically. To us, you’re dead if you’re not serving our God,” he said.

Scott describes those who decide to leave the church as “depraved,” and Calvary’s practice is to cut them off. When parents have left the church, some young children have been urged to stay; a few have been taken in by pastors. Scott’s family has been divided, too: Scott is estranged from his 36-year-old son, Star Scott Jr.

“Jesus said, ‘I didn’t come to bring peace, I came to bring a sword,’ ” the elder Scott said about the divided families.”

He also said: “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” Also: “Judge not, that ye be not judged. For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again.” And: “My little children, let us not love in word, neither in tongue; but in deed and in truth.”

And that’s one of the things that puzzles me about this story. This sort of thing doesn’t happen only in religious groups; really bad therapists can do similar kinds of damage. But Christianity has texts, and those texts speak of love, and of justice, and of compassion. How could you be told that Christ required you to throw your child out onto the street and not know that whoever told you this was not speaking for God?

More puzzling still is this quote from the pastor who told these families to throw their kids out:

“I’m the one who is in authority, and I’ll have to answer to God for that.”

In his position, that thought would terrify me. Suppose you believed in a just and loving God, a God who had said the things I quoted above. And suppose you had taken it upon yourself to tell parents to throw their kids out onto the street, children to stop speaking to their “apostate” parents, and the various other things detailed in the Post story. The thought that you might be wrong might not worry you much if you didn’t take God seriously — if you just took Him to be a name you could toss around at will. But if you imagined that He was real — a real other person who might or might not approve of the things you had done in His name — then how could you not lie awake at night, wondering whether you had somehow mistaken His will?

And if this thought did trouble you, how could you go on to do what this pastor did?

(And yes: I know about Abraham. But read the story and tell me whether you think it covers this case — whether, for instance, you really think that it was God that inspired his racing ministry — apparently, church funds paid for all those cool cars — not to mention the instruction to take a “virgin bride” 35 years his junior less than a month after the death of his wife. Again: taking God’s name to justify all this wouldn’t worry you if you didn’t believe in God. But if you did, it would be terrifying. This is one of those cases in which I think that the actions of a religious person, though justified entirely in the language of faith, can best be understood on the assumption that the person in question does not really believe in God at all, in any serious sense.)