As a former fundamentalist, I’d like to comment on another aspect of the recent Jim Wallace episode.
It’s probably perplexing to many that Wallace seemed unable to acknowledge the inappropriateness of his remark, indeed, that he seemed blind to all but the attack of his detractors on himself and, in his view, everything he holds dear. This article by Bill Muehlenberg is similar in tone. But Muehlenberg ups the ante by using the truly disgusting term ‘gaystapo’ to describe what he identifies as one of ‘the usual suspects’: the ‘homosexual lobby’ and their ‘stalinist agenda’.
Because of my fundamentalist experience, this sort of language is uncomfortably familiar. Indeed both of these men are communicating precisely the way I would expect, although I imagine their pigheadedness must be incredibly frustrating for those who have never sat on that side of the fence. So let me try and cast a little light on it from an ex-fundy perspective. But be warned, what I am about to say may offend both Christians and perhaps to some atheists (thus pretty well knocking out all my friends in one fell swoop). I apologise for that in advance.
Being a fundamentalist is like living inside a stainless-steel tunnel. Truths that may seem perfectly obvious to other people just bounce right off without leaving a mark. Fundamentalists simply don’t see stuff they don’t already agree with. By and large they peer at the world through the very narrow hole at the end of their gun-barrel hidey hole and need to expend very little energy rejecting ideas that are contrary to their firmly-held views. These views are so staunchly inflexible because they are based on an unchanging document which they take to be the Word of God.
Try and see it from their perspective: The Book explains how Christians should understand the world. It tells them about God, about man, about heaven and hell, how to think and feel and act about pretty well everything. Many Christians hold an absolute belief that the words in the Book literally are directions straight from the God they love and serve. If the book says that all homosexuals will suffer hellfire, or that women are to live subordinate to men, who are they to argue? In fact, to do so would be unthinkable. It’s only logical: If God is real, and that really is his book, then the only sensible course is to obey whatever it says, to learn to think as God apparently thinks. He is God and therefore the one who gets to make the rules after all.
Although I appreciate that may sound silly to someone who has never thought that way, my purpose is not to ridicule those ideas or to suggest that people who hold ones which differ from mine are stupid – I know that is not the case. It is simply to say: Those ideas are beliefs. We all have them. And nobody is going to change our beliefs by shouting us. In fact, in the case of fundamentalists, it tends to have to opposite effect: It can make them go all Branch Davidian on you. Looking out of that stainless steel tube as people scream obscenities and throw poop at things that you know for sure are precious to God just makes you surer that moving into you and your kids into a bullet-proof metal abode was a good plan. After all, the Book says that if you are getting it right, ‘the world will hate you‘. Remember Waco? Believing they were under attack just made those poor cult members super-glad they had had the foresight to collect an arsenal, and more determined than ever to defend themselves and their children come what may. Nobody said, ‘Oops, yep, you were right. We’ve been pretty silly about all this. Coming out now. Thanks.’
I understand completely why people find men like Wallace and Muehlenberg and everything they stand for so deeply offensive. And I fully appreciate that offence provokes a deep rage that often finds form in a spluttering, obscenity-peppered response. I’ve indulged in more than one splutter myself in the past few days. As a catharsis, I admit its efficacy; and if you feel you need to do it, far be it from me to suggest you stop. But I do want to point out that screaming at men who have built such a sturdy wall around themselves will achieve virtually nothing…but make them more likely to repeat their offensive actions – and worse – at a later date.
And, I imagine, each time they find themselves the victims of twitter sprays, Wallace and friends rub their hands together with glee: It’s a PR free kick: they know they are likely to gain at least few new followers who sympathise with them in their sad persecution. This is why Wallace would focus on the attack and not his comments during his Sunrise appearance: He is ignoring us. He knows who he’s trying to reach and what they want to hear. There are a lot of disenfranchised Australians who agree with these fundamentalist commentators. Shouting abuse at Wallace will probably effectively stop most of those people from openly standing up and voicing their views for fear of becoming a target for attack – but it won’t alter their beliefs. The more Wallace is attacked, the more support I believe he is likely to gain.
I’m not suggesting that views such as Wallace voiced on Anzac Day should not be challenged. Of course they must. I’m not suggesting that everyone should go out of their way to be polite. Wallace and Muehlenberg’s views stink and that needs to be said. My object is not to chastise those who were understandably disgusted at Wallace’s tweet and vented their rage. But I believe it’s worth understanding what the likely effect of hurling abuse will be on Australia’s fundamentalists and the even more numerous moderate Christians: The leaders will hunker down, toughen up and become more hateful in their communications; the followers will quietly grow in number and resolve.
And we shouldn’t think we’ve seen any more than the tip of the iceberg of Wallace and Muehlenberg’s frothing zeal. Their views are almost indistinguishable from those of Westboro Baptist Church and many Australian Christians feel a strong connection to some other pretty scary US-based zealots as well. I suspect the ugliness has not anything like peaked.
My point is, you aren’t going to reach someone who lives in a bullet-proof cave no matter what you say. My advice is to forget about trying. If those fundamentalists are ever going to change their beliefs, it will not be because someone abused them into it. However, there are a lot of Australians who are sitting in the middle of issues such same-sex marriage who will listen and so may be influenced. Frankly, I think they find it difficult to sympathise with the more extreme communications from both camps. Those who want to influence this large, silent public might like to consider that undecided moderates are watching, and beginning to form their own beliefs.
I, at least, think that’s worth considering.