Toxic Faith and the Tiller Murder

The murder of George Tiller in his church this past Sunday has sparked horror and grief across the political and religious spectrum, as persons on both sides of the abortion debate have condemned the killing as senseless and wrong. Once past the universal condemnation, though, pro-choice advocates have been quick to cast the attack on the well-known abortion doctor as the logical outcome of the rhetoric of some pro-life groups and right-wing bloviators, while pro-life spokespersons have been just as quick to distance themselves from such rhetoric.

A secondary discussion has emerged in some quarters, and the heat and passions generated by this discussion have become, in some cases, bigger and hotter than the original story. Here’s the question:

Can Tiller’s murder be blamed on Christianity or on Christians? In other words, does adherence to the Christian religion make someone more likely to carry out an act such as this?

When I saw that question posted, my first thought was “not any Jesus faith that I’m familiar with.” But my second thought was: “Toxic Faith.”

The Book

Toxic Faith is a book I read many years ago that helped me begin to address my own unhealthy religious baggage. The book “distinguishes between a healthy faith and a misguided religiosity that traps believers in an addictive practice of religion. It shows how unbalanced ministries, misguided churches, and unscrupulous leaders can lead their followers away from God and into a desolate experience of religion that drives many to despair. Toxic Faith shows readers how to find hope for a return to genuine, healthy faith that can add meaning to life.”

The book talks about “spiritual abuse” — the use of religion as a means to power. It also discusses religious addiction, where persons use religion to satisfy emotional needs within themselves in an unhealthy manner.

One of the key points of the book is that many persons caught in a toxic faith system begin to confuse obeying the church, or the pastor, with obeying God. In fact, persons in such a trap will do things that they themselves believe to be wrong in order to follow the wishes/orders of the leadership.

Here are some symptoms of a toxic faith system (special thanks to Bill Jackson and his summary of the book):

  • “Special” claims by the leaders of knowing God’s will
  • Authoritarianism
  • An “Us versus Them” mentality
  • Punitive in nature
  • Overwhelming service that feeds on compulsive followers
  • Legalism
  • Labeling

So What Does This Have To Do With Tiller’s Murder?

Some commentators have talked about “Christian Fundamentalist Terrorism” and pointed out (correctly, I assume) that the person who murdered Dr. Tiller most likely called themselves a Christian and believed that what they were doing was the moral, ethical, and Christian thing to do.

Here’s the money quote from the second link above, though, that led directly to this overly-long blog post. Sorry, but I just have to quote it all for you to get the gist of it:

I have no idea of religion-this, religion-that, since I’ve been an atheist for more than half my 36 years, and a cynic for most of the rest. I am not Anti-Christian (or of any religion) either, but still, kindly refrain from throwing Biblical (or any other religious) passages at me – it will go way over my head and I’ll be none the worse for it.

Please stick with “reality”, since I understand that is what this community is based on.

The reality is that people are getting assaulted, murdered, or otherwise prejudiced against in this country because of their sexual orientation, race / ethnicity, apparent social class for hundreds of years now. The motives have been slightly different, but what is the common thread what binds together most of the perpetrators of such hate crimes?

Not race, that’s for sure. (Heck, if anything, a sizable number of the mass murderers who are making the news in the past couple of years have been of Asian origin… who woulda thunk?).

Not atheism, that’s for sure as well. Neither is it Islam, Hinduism, Taoism or any other –ism. Not even Scientology, even.

What belief system drives them on, then?

Y’know, it’s too damn easy to refuse to own what is broke, and cast out a “believer” from the flock once he/she strays, so that the genus stay pure and everyone can go on with their happy-peaches-n-cream-apple-pie lives. So whether it’s Eric Rudolph, or Ted Haggard, once a Christian fundamentalist is busted for straying from the official “outward appearance”, the problem is instantly “solved” by calling the person “not a Christian”.

Well, it’s just never been that easy.

For others at least.

This country, and most of the world, have never let the Muslims get away with the “those people that do those atrocious acts are not following what the Qur’an preaches” line. We call them Islamic terrorists, Islamic fundamentalists, Muslim terrorists, whatever. The official and unofficial news media casually name-checks their religion thousands of times every day.

These things ingrain in people’s minds, y’know. Which is why this whole Muslim = Evil meme has taken hold so pervasively.

We can hold their religion “accountable”. So why not make sure you’re out of the glass house before you do something about that stone-throwing itch?

“Accountability” never hurt anyone who is trying to make themselves better.

I do understand that this heinous act hurts your decent religious self and I do recognize that you are on the side of what is right and I do apologize to you, in advance, for sounding maybe a bit too harsh
than what I really am…

… But in return, I want you to call it for what it is. ….

This is an act of “Christian terrorism”, and by extension, it was carried out by “a Christian”. Whether anyone is proud of it or not.

If calling this for what it is can at least start a dialogue among true believers that were heretofore afraid or unconcerned to use the thinking, conscientious part of their brain, Dr. Tiller’s horrendous death will not be completely in vain.


What about it, fellow Little Christs? Do we own this, or not? Does this writer make a good point, or not? Does our belief system lead inexorably from the cross in Jerusalem to the gun in Kansas City? And if you recoil in horror, as do I, and protest “of course not,” then answer me this:

CAN our belief system lead to such an act? And if so, how and where and why?

My Take On It

I think it is obvious to anyone that has studied the New Testament that the Jesus we meet in the Gospels is not into killing people who disagree with him. I know, I know — he curses the fig tree, and pronounces Woe upon the hypocrites. But for the most part, he’s pretty adamant about his New Way, the way of love and acceptance, not only of those who disagree with you, but also those who abuse you. No, the Jesus I find in the Bible would not have killed George Tiller, and would not have encouraged others to do so either.

I think it is also obvious to anyone who studies modern Christianity in all its multitude of manifestations that there is a strain of Christianity (virus reference chosen intentionally) that is more focused on the God of Exodus 32 than the Jesus of Matthew 5:44. This version of the Gospel is only “good news” to the ones who agree with it and become part of it; for everyone else, it is very bad news indeed, starting with eternity and working backward. Add to that the distortion of hyper-Calvinism, and you have a perfectly designed closed-loop system: if you were destined for heaven, you would be part of us, but since you are not, you are obviously destined for hell, and we are justified in dismissing you, attacking you, or condemning you. We are Us and you are part of the Them.

And if you believe that you know, without a doubt, the eternal destination of another person, then it is a small step in some minds to simply carry out what has already been decided.

The point of this post is simple: while I reject the broad-brush view that the entire Christian religion is culpable or even suspect in the Tiller murder, I believe we have to admit that there are elements within the range of faith systems that call themselves “Christian” that are, in fact, in opposition to the Good News that Jesus came to share. They are not unique to Christianity; every religion has adherents willing to commit violence in the name of their god. We who claim the name of Christ, though, are not called to deal with Jews or Buddhists or Muslims who are in that place in their religion — we are called to preach the gospel of peace, and lead others to do the same.

It is time for all of us to reject not only Dr. Tiller’s murderer, but also the belief systems that person represents.

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