Gaslighting is a strong word.
It’s a strong word with psychological triggers for many people, including me.
Gaslighting involves the perpetrator trying to convince the target (the one being gaslighted) that what they perceive is not actual reality. By convincing the target to doubt herself, the gaslighter gains power through distortion, lies, and misinformation. Soon the target may come depend on the gaslighter for “truth”, since the target no longer trusts his senses, perceptions, or even basic reasoning ability.
Donald Trump has been accused of gaslighting the entire United States of America. By doubling-down when caught in a lie, Trump makes his accusers doubt themselves, rather than backing down and admitting to the truth. His supporters refuse to see the lies because a gaslighter convinces his targets that only he holds the truth. If he says it’s true, it is true. If he says it is not, it is not.
How did we get here? Is this really the to-be-expected results of reality television, endless undeclared war, and a disappearing middle class? Is this the natural result of denying climate change, ignoring global political crises, pretending that we were post-racial, and arguing that the poor are poor due to lack of motivation as opposed to systematic and specific reductions in services and aid?
That’s a short list of topics on which people are gaslighted every day, through various media outlets and from the mouths of leaders. We are hardly able to have conversations with friends and neighbors any more because we have been presented with a specific set of facts in a certain way so many times that we are unable to process contradictory information.
Which brings me to a very difficult question and its answer. Does gaslighting happen in theology? That’s a different question to “Does it happen in church or the Church” to which the answer is, regrettably, yes.
Does gaslighting happen in theology? Is there a line of “truth” that has been presented for so long that no one dares to question it, even though it’s very, very wrong? The answer to this question, as with almost every question in a children’s sermon, is “Yes. Jesus.”
I do not mean that Jesus was or is a gaslighter or that God was or is. However, I believe that the church has been gaslighting Jesus’ story for close to 1800 years or more. We see the worst products of gaslighting in this week, which we call Holy Week.
I once asked a congregation in an open discussion time if Jesus had to die. They all, to a person, said, “Of course. That’s why he came.” For a second, I felt crazy, since I thought otherwise. In that situation, I had the authority, but I was being presented with 60 voices unified (with some, perhaps, afraid to say otherwise), something that I patently held to be false. Yet, the theology of substitutionary atonement had sunk in, somewhere and somehow.
Almost everyone in that room believed that Jesus came to earth with the specific task of getting to the right spot at the right time so that he could die in the right way. And to what end? So God’s honor would be avenged? So satisfaction could be attained? So Christ’s holiness could be swapped for ours in a cosmic deal between the Satan and God?
The Church, or most of her priests and theologians, has promoted some version of this for years. This theological gaslighting comes to a head in Holy Week wherein we feel that we see the culmination of God’s love for us on the cross. We beat our breasts, say we’re not worthy and dare to walk away, telling ourselves we would have been different. We can’t see the truth because the gas lights have been changed so many times that we doubt ourselves.
Good Friday is the depth of human depravity. God did not have a thing to do with it, except to grieve our inability to perceive the Holy. Jesus did not have a thing to do with it, except to forgive whom he could as long as he had breath. The Spirit did not have a thing to do with it, except to shake the earth, rip the curtain, and generally raise a ruckus in frustration at human cruelty. We have been gaslighted into years of believing that there was goodness in the death penalty being applied to the Word Incarnate- another brown man, with a shoddy trial, accused of being an enemy to the state and the establishment.
When we believe this about Holy Friday, we completely miss the point of Easter. It becomes about God being indulgent: “They’ve been punished enough.” We are gaslighted into downgrading the extravagant, holy, uncontrollable power of grace that brings life where breath and hope were gone. If we aren't able to realize the depth of total depravity, then we aren't actually able to hope in the heights of grace. When we’ve been led to that trough, it’s not hard then to drink the waters of works righteousness and apply them in our secular life, as well as our religious practice.
If we believe that our Creator requires a blood sacrifice to avenge honor or expectation.. if we put forward that God gets angry enough to kill a human being (even one who is also fully divine)… if we believe that God makes deals with Satan and they have to engage in a little horse-trading now and then, we do not have very far to go, then, in being gaslighted by leaders and would-be leaders.
Resisting the forces that oppose God (we renounce them!) means being truthful about God’s character and where we have gotten it wrong in the past. It means being honest about the failures of historical theologies and the shortcomings of present ones. It means freeing our Holy Week practices from the hair shirts of reenactments and groveling and being honest about the depravity of people and the amazing-ness of grace.
We must stop theological gaslighting, which can occur in even the most mainline of congregations. If we begin to be honest about the expansiveness of grace, then we will come to look for it in our daily lives. We then will recognize its opposites for what they are and can point them out with confidence and we will not accept being silenced. We will then be closer to working side by side with and for our neighbors for the good of creation and all. The truth will out. Out of the tomb, out of the evangelists, out of our mouths, out in the world.