taking the words of Jesus seriously

Gaslighting is a form of psychological manipulation and abuse in which seeds of doubt are sown in a targeted individual or in members of a targeted group, making them question their own memory, perception, and sanity. Within Christianity, it can manifest as when people are targeted and spiritually manipulated by pastors, theologians, and churches to question and doubt the very words, actions, and character of Jesus.

Would Jesus really help refugees? Would Jesus really help the poor and provide aid to immigrants? Would Jesus really prefer peace? 

For much of American Christendom, it seems, the answer is ‘no.’

When the centrality of loving and following Jesus becomes anything less than the ultimate motivation of the Christian faith, the religion can rationalize almost any evil. Thus today (and throughout history), large segments of the church have spiritualized and moralized xenophobia, racism, sexism, bigotry, abuse, hatred, violence, corruption, and dishonesty to the point where many Christians actually believe these depravities are good and holy things. When this happens, the words and actions and life of Jesus—helping the sick, defending the oppressed, giving generously to those in need, loving your enemies, and doing unto others as you want done to you—become vilified. 

According to Jesus, the greatest commandments are to love God with all your heart and love your neighbors as you would yourself, but Christian gaslighting erodes these two commandments. The diminishment of Jesus’ message isn’t always obvious, but spiritual leaders can manipulate biblical texts, theology, and spiritual practices to no longer be viewed through the lens of trying to follow Jesus, but instead through the lens of trying to obtain carnal power. One’s entire religion can be co-opted for an entirely egocentric purpose.

Victims are shamed, accused of making things up, ignored, slandered, punished, and oppressed using numerous methods and tactics. This leads to incredible feelings of insecurity, self-doubt, and distrust. 

Victims suffering from sex abuse in the church may have pastors tell them “it’s not that big of a deal,” or parishioners say “it was probably your fault,” or perpertrators claim “it was God’s will.” People who care about immigrants may encounter Christian leaders who are dismissive for the sake of protecting a political ideology? People passionate about helping refugees may experience evangelists who spread misinformation to fearmonger and lie about crime, terrorism, and economic ruin?   

People with mental health conditions may look for the church to offer spiritual help, only to have someone from the church say to “get over it.” Churches may even spiritualize mental illness and blame it on “sin,” or proclaim that it’s happening because of a lapse in moral character or because of a lack of faith. Victims who experience racism and sexism at a church may be told that what they’re thinking isn’t real, or that they should try to be nicer. Leaders may try to cover up, and diminish, or even deny their experiences.

Since spirituality and a sense of belonging are foundational values within Christian communities, they’re also used as leverage to threaten victims. A deacon might spew the lie that “You’ll destroy the lives of your friends and family” to a woman thinking about reporting her abuser to the police. An elder might tell a teenager that “God calls us to love our enemies and forgive those who wrong us” because she wants to report her youth pastor for sexual harassment. A pastor might threaten that “we wouldn’t be able to afford to pick you up anymore” to an elderly couple who hasn’t tithed recently, but relies on the church for transportation. The danger of Christian gaslighting is that it disguises itself as faith.

READ: “How the Misuse of Matthew 18 Bullies Abuse Survivors Into Silence”

So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets” (Matt. 7:12). Do to others. The greatest hallmark of Christian gaslighting is a failure to love others, denying one of the greatest truths. Instead of emulating the sacrificial humility of Jesus, Christian gaslighting protects, promotes, and prioritizes the self above all others while the victim is manipulated into believing that the gaslighter is acting as a faithful follower of Christ.

The truth that we’re called to love others—immigrants, refugees, foreigners, political rivals, professional adversaries—becomes “a choice” that’s rejected because of safety, economic, comfort, political, and even legal objections. The excuses are all wrapped up in spiritual jargon and passed off as Christianity. 

Much like the manner in which Satan quoted scripture during his attempt to entrap Jesus, gaslighting promotes partial truths and uses the smallest variations to complete the most drastic of delusions. For example, Christians can be manipulated to believe that you can only truly follow Christ by only following a particular pastor, church, politician, or party. Through a line of psychological doubt, emotional control, and spiritual abuse, a faith in Jesus can be trumped by partisan allegiances, which can then control and define what their followers believe constitutes as “Christianity.”

Half-truths and political preferences are one of its greatest symptoms. For example, one could passionately claim to value the life of unborn children, yet simultaneously disregard the lives of millions of refugee and immigrant born children at the exact same time. To value life, but only to a certain extent, and only for a particular people group. Truth, mercy, grace, patience, self-control, justice, honesty, and love are all similarly restricted and frugally administered to those who share like-minded beliefs, practices, and ideals. Love isn’t for all others, just particular others.

Christian gaslighting pretends to be holy while perpetuating evil. Christian gaslighting was used by Hitler when he wrote in Mein Kampf, “Hence today I believe that I am acting in accordance with the will of the Almighty Creator.” Christian gaslighting also condoned slavery, segreation, the KKK, and continues to defend evil during these modern times. 

“Immigrants are a drain on the economy. Refugees are criminals. Muslims are terrorists. Scientists are atheists.” All of these statements are proclaimed as truth by Christians yet have been proven by data and statistics to be lies. Christian gaslighting rejects facts and instead chooses its own “facts” by whatever fits its opinion. Instead of  using empirical evidence or following Jesus’ example, Christian gaslighting creates its own narrative. 

In this way, “Christianity” can morph into something entirely anti-Christ. Beware, because Christianity employs gaslighting when it prioritizes winning political power over loving others, and when it glorifies politicians instead of wholeheartedly following Jesus. God help us. 

About The Author

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Stephen Mattson is the author of "The Great Reckoning: Surviving a Christianity That Looks Nothing Like Christ." Follow him on Twitter (@mikta)

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