Progress in Conversion: From Charles Manson’s Brainwashing to Cultivating Discernment

In my last blog (here) I made the point that peaceful non-violence was the goal, but not yet an established or fully worked out ethic in the patristic period. Tertullian could imagine delighting in watching his enemies suffer in hell from his perspective in paradise, though he was adamant that one should not even be associated with violence by accepting a military honor. Origen failed to see that beating slaves was a form of violence unworthy of his explanation of God’s discipline; a form of violence which he otherwise abhorred. This does not mean that for the first 400 years nonviolent peace was not the goal, it simply indicates obvious blind spots. The point is not that the fathers willfully tolerated and accepted certain forms of violence; rather they could not fully discern what constitutes violence. What we can readily identify as unworthy of Christian thought and behavior, they were somehow blind to.

This entails several implications for how we are to go about the Christian life. First of all, there is no golden age in which the Christian tradition is adequate, in which the kingdom of God on earth is a fully worked out reality. Clearly the Constantinian compromise is one in which we are still enmeshed but it is not enough to “get beyond” Constantine. Restoration or return to the practices and understanding of the first Christians is an inadequate goal and a passive notion of salvation (salvation as return, as simply ridding ourselves of innovations, of passively entrusting our mind to the culture of the church) is sub-Christian. Conversion is not a singular moment but a process to be cultivated and applied as part of an expanding reality. Progress in conversion, in passage from being blind to seeing and to continued exposure of blind spots, must consist in cultivating capacities for discernment. This discernment must consist of several layers, objective and subjective, such that our understanding of God and objective reality will be a coordinate working in tandem with subjective experience. In other words, putting on the mind of Christ through the work of the Spirit is not an abandonment of reasoned effort or of concentrated self-reflection.  

Certainly, there is a model to be had in Christ, there is the supposition of guidance through the Spirit, and there is corporate molding in the Church, such that cultivation of dawning insight is not simply given over to rational thought, the power of dialectic, or the phenomenology of mood and emotion. There is also the original awareness in conversion of an enabling capacity to see. What is it precisely though, that one sees subsequent to having been blind? Beginning with the constituent pillars of blindness, its inevitable convergence with violence, its dependence on oppression, I believe it is possible to identify the dynamic of darkness (to name the violence) and to cultivate discernment of the light (to expand upon peace).

 Paul’s conversion from belief in a God who prompted him to kill, to belief in the Father of Christ which prompted him to lay down his life, contains the prototypical elements of every conversion. The sinful orientation to the law posits a punishing authority (call it god, father, the nation, Charles Manson (see below), or simply the superego) which holds out the possibility of life (presence, being, authentic existence, safety) at the expense of masochistic sacrifice (formal religious sacrifice, oppressive self-sacrifice, or sadistic sacrifice of others). Life is to be had in death and the structure of this dynamic of death consists of a perfect absence or a full darkness. The Pharisaical religion but any human religion, any human salvation system or neurosis, contains the same structure.

For example, Charles Manson, nearly illiterate and almost completely unschooled, might be confused with a gnostic high priest or new age guru: “Time does not exist. There is no good and evil. Death is not real. All human beings are God and the Devil at the same time, and all are part of the other. The universe is one and all that is.” In this world, according to Tex Watson (one of Manson’s “family” members), it is fine to kill because human life is worthless. To kill someone is the equivalent of “breaking off a minute piece of some cosmic cookie,” Watson explained. Death is to be embraced because it exposes the soul to the oneness of the universe. How Manson learned to manipulate people is not exactly clear. Some say it was through reading Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People. Tom O’Neill suggests that Charlie was trained by the CIA (a seemingly conspiratorial claim that he partially backs up). We know he was introduced to Scientology in prison. The mixture of his manipulative powers, LSD, sexual humiliation, reduced Tex and his friends to obedient automatons who killed 9 people at Manson’s arbitrary bidding. Cult, nation state, or run of the mill neurosis, will serve up the necessity of violent sacrifice, an oppressive depiction of god or reality, and a fundamental incapacity for discerning life.

There is an inverse relationship between what Paul (or anyone) is converted from to what he is converted to in Christ. The difference is that the refinements of death and the emptying out of evil blandly converge on violence (a limited prospect by definition) – there is no art, no refinement of sensibilities, no cultivation of discernment, as one simply learns, in Manson’s phrase, to be a “mechanical boy.” The swami on his bed of nails, the monk emptied of self and transformed into a statue, the soldier trained to stifle his humanity, the neurotic compulsively bound by repetition, or the Pharisee set to destroy his enemies, describes those hemmed in by death. Though this death like experience might be confused with self-transcendence, the isolating fixation within the self and the circumstance is definitive.

It is a more difficult task to describe how one subscribes to life and cultivates love and peace, not because these are less tangible but because here there is an infinite breadth of transcendent possibility. Knowing and loving others and the capacity to appreciate their value is the inverse sign of a developing capacity to judge the self and to escape the confines (the law) of a “given” circumstance.  The New Testament links conversion with a refocusing of values as one’s sense of worth is shifted. The pearl of great price or the treasure hidden in a field brings about an exchange, costing all that one has. The discerning pearl merchant, those well trained in the value of things, perceive what the undiscerning and untrained fail to perceive. One must undergo a “training in righteousness,” not merely to instill a new ethic but to be shaped by a new value and valuation system. To perceive God’s Kingdom, to be shaped by its values, will mean shedding the oppressive top down power of the law for a “power-under” or “bottom-up” perspective in which the subtleties of fine pearls and hidden treasures are exposed.

 A primary difference is that there is a substantive reality to be obtained as this treasure is precisely not an unobtainable object (as with the image of the idol or the ego) but is prime reality. There are substantial realities of love, peace, goodness and beauty, that do not depend upon nor are they ultimately overcome by insubstantial evil. As Robert Doran has put it, “this world is intelligible, things do hold together, we can make sense of the universe and of our lives, we can overcome the fragmentation of knowledge, we can make true judgments, we can make good decisions, we can transcend ourselves to what is and to what is good.”[1] The contrast with blindness gives no substantive or necessary role to evil or darkness but it does demonstrate that perception, sensibilities, discernment, and progress are the entry way into an alternative understanding which we must cultivate.

Maybe it is with this moral sensibility that one might appreciate Quentin Tarantino’s reworked ending for the Manson killers in “Once Upon a Time In Hollywood.” Instead of wiping out the innocent goodness of the world, represented by Sharon Tate, a true believer might reimagine a universe in which the good turns out to be the more enduring reality.


[1] Quoted from Byrne, Patrick H. The Ethics of Discernment: Lonergan’s Foundations for Ethics (Lonergan Studies) (p. 29). University of Toronto Press, Scholarly Publishing Division. Kindle Edition.

The Options of Non-Violence or Gnosticism

Two things are clear from the teaching of the early Church prior to Constantine: 1. Christians were forbidden to participate in violence or in those professions connected to violence. 2. Violence is such a pervasive and deeply rooted problem that it often went unnamed and unrecognized even among those advocating its abolition. For example, Tertullian forbids any form of participation in violence for Christians, declaring: “But how will a Christian man war, nay, how will he serve even in peace, without a sword, which the Lord has taken away?” A Christian, must not bear the sword in any circumstance as the Lord, “in disarming Peter, unbelted every soldier.”[1] Yet, Tertullian could also revel in the potential delights of watching his enemies suffer: “What sight shall wake my wonder, what my laughter, my joy, my exaltation?—as I see all those kings, those great kings, unwelcomed in heaven, along with Jove, along with those who told of their ascent, groaning in the depths of darkness!”[2] Tertullian completely rejected violence, in so far as he understood it to be such. He was simply blind to the violence he projected onto God and which he still harbored in himself.

The confusion is not in regard to the Church’s stance toward violence. There is a unified voice in the first three centuries of Christianity ruling out this possibility. “Christians could never slay their enemies. For the more that kings, rulers, and peoples have persecuted them everywhere, the more Christians have increased in number and grown in strength” (Origen Contra Celsius Book VII). “Wherever arms have glittered, they must be banished and exterminated from thence” (Lactantius’ Divine Institutes IV). “Christians are not allowed to correct with violence” (Clement of Alexandria).  As Justin Martyr (110-165) explained to Emperor Antonius Pius, Christians cannot be guilty of sedition as the Christian notion is a kingdom of peace, fulfilling the prophecy of Isaiah 2:4, in which people “will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks.” Citizenship in God’s Kingdom, Justin informed the Emperor, is a present tense reality which renders Christians nonviolent: “That it is so coming to pass, let me convince you. We who once murdered each other indeed no longer wage war against our enemies; moreover, so as not to bear false witness before our interrogators, we cheerfully die confessing Christ” (The First Apology of Justin Martyr). There is an unequivocal stand against violence in the early Church.

The problem is not in determining whether violence was acceptable (it was not), the problem was in determining what constitutes violence. For example, is it acceptable for a Christian to accept a laurel crown as part of a military ceremony (the problem Tertullian deals with in On the Military Crown)?  A soldier, perhaps recently converted, refuses the honor and accepts martyrdom rather than to wear the crown. Tertullian argues that martyrdom is the correct choice, rather than to be associated, even by implication, in violence. He asks, “Shall it be held lawful to make an occupation of the sword, when the Lord proclaims that he who uses the sword shall perish by the sword? And shall the son of peace take part in the battle when it does not become him even to sue at law? And shall he apply the chain, and the prison, and the torture, and the punishment, who is not the avenger even of his own wrongs?” His answer is a resounding “no.” To be associated with such things, even through a laurel crown, is not an option. One could argue the point – as some did. It could even be pointed out that there were Christian soldiers (occupied nonviolently or recently converted, as is clear in the example). What cannot be argued is whether Christians rejected violence, as they clearly did. The problem they were negotiating is determining what constitutes violence.

The conflict is not between pro and anti-violence but with how to follow Jesus, how to recognize violence and evil. Tertullian’s opponents are arguing that “a peace so good and long is endangered for them.” Their fear is that obstinance, an unwillingness to recognize nuance, is being confused with nonviolence. Tertullian argues, “they have rejected the prophecies of the Holy Spirit” and “are already turning their back on the Scriptures.” He suggests a certain cowardice is at work: “in peace, lions; in the fight, deer.” One might argue either side of the equation, but the lack of clarity is not in regard to whether one should be violent but how to best avoid violence.

The first Christians had recognized that shedding blood, no matter the circumstance, is sin. Even vague association with violence, or the improper curbing of anger which leads to violence, they considered sin. What they had not recognized is that oppressive treatment (including physical punishment) of social inferiors, of women, of slaves, was violence as well. Origen, in making the case that God employs discipline, uses an unfortunate example: “And just as when you, punishing a slave or a son, you do not want simply to torment him, rather your goal is to convert him by pains.”[3] That beating one’s slave might count as violence seems to escape this one who railed against every form of violence. The point is not that the early Church accepted forms of violence, but the sense of what counted as violence had yet to be fully and clearly articulated. This is the proper task Christians are to continue to engage.

 We, I would hope, have no problem in recognizing the incongruity of Christians advocating beating slaves. That incongruence or blindness points to the need in the Patristic period to continue to develop a nonviolent sensibility. It also suggests the possibility of a similar blindness among contemporary followers of Jesus. The incomplete non-violence of the Fathers is not an excuse for violence. It should not serve to convince us that we can indulge in violence but indicates that the work of the Gospel continues, through the ages, to penetrate notions of authority, relationships with others and even within ourselves.

There is the need, as John Howard Yoder recognized, to overcome the Constantinian error of fusing state violence with the Church. Certainly “the entire Christian gospel” cannot be restored without recognizing this error. But this overcoming – this recognition that violence is evil – is not itself the restoration of the entire Christian gospel. Prior to the failure of Constantinian Christianity we do not, as Jennifer Otto points out, encounter a golden age of a perfect worked out pacifism.[4] This, however, is not a license to read Constantinian violence into the first centuries, it is simply the recognition that naming and overcoming violence is not easy but is the primary Christian task, and failure in this task is the greatest of temptations.

The hard stance against violence in the early Church explains the looming gnostic temptation in Patristic Christianity. The temptation is to concede the physical realm to the logic of this world’s kingdoms, an unnecessary concession where a clear delineation is not drawn between the two kingdoms (that of Christ and the world). The threat of martyrdom, of not striking back, of not offering resistance, is a temptation to concede to the logic of violence. As Tatian recognized, following his master Justin Martyr, a stark choice is posed: “I do not wish to be a king; I am not anxious to be rich; I decline military command.” I must “die to the world, repudiating the madness that is in it.”[5] Tatian recognized the “death to the world” Christ requires, but he could not endure it. With the death of his teacher, he takes up the gnostic religion of Valentinian.

Dying to the world, it turns out, is a continual process of repudiation. It is the process of the ages of cultivating peace, of continually recognizing and overcoming violence.  A Christianity that has relinquished this task of extending peaceful non-violence has already conceded to gnostic madness.


[1] Tertullian (145-220 AD) in On Idolatry

[2] Tertullian, De Spectaculis 30. Translation by Carlin Barton in Barton and Boyarin, Imagine No Religion, 68. From https://uwaterloo.ca/grebel/sites/ca.grebel/files/uploads/files/cgr_35-3_otto.pdf

[3] Origen, Homily on Jeremiah, 12

[4] Jennifer Otto, “Were the Early Christians Pacifists? Does It Matter?” https://uwaterloo.ca/grebel/sites/ca.grebel/files/uploads/files/cgr_35-3_otto.pdf

[5]Tatian (120-180) Address to the Greeks.

Christ Defeated Sin, Death, and the Devil – Not God’s Wrath

The predominant New Testament and early Church picture of atonement, Christus Victor, is that the death of Christ defeated the powers of evil and brought about liberation from the bondage of sin, death, and the devil. For a variety of reasons Christus Victor was displaced.  The rise of Constantinian Christianity left no room for identifying state powers, the emperor, the principalities and powers, with real world evil as the archon or ruling prince, which would have normally been identified as a minion of the world archon (the Prince of this World) was now a Christian. Maybe it was simply that Christus Victor was sometimes ill conceived and poorly illustrated. Origen presumes that if we were bought with a price then it was the devil who demanded and received the payment of the blood of Christ. Gregory of Nyssa pictures the devil as a “greedy fish” and Jesus as the bait; “For he who first deceived man by the bait of pleasure is himself deceived by the camouflage of human nature.” God “made use of a deceitful device to save the one who had been ruined.” Augustine’s original sin mystified sin (see here) and opened the way for a semi-mysterious theory of atonement (divine satisfaction). The crude depiction of a too powerful devil and a deceitful God, the political and sociological shift with the rise of Christianity as the state religion, the development of a competing notion of sin (original sin), resulted, in the West, with a displacement of Christus Victor.

Anselm’s notion of divine satisfaction bears the allure of reasoned argument couched in the implicit metaphor of Roman law.  Anselm’s genius is often overlooked, coming as he does between the giants, Augustine and Aquinas. However, it is Anselm who marks the shift to a philosophical-like argument which, like his ontological argument and his cosmological argument, functions in a necessarily closed system (pure reason).  Both divine satisfaction and penal substitution are focused on an exchange between the Father and Son: an infinite offence against the infinite honor of God requiring an infinite payment so as to avoid infinite punishment. The infinite and divine exchange (between the Father and Son) is such that it tends to leave out finite human concerns, lived reality, and permits no further insight but it succeeds in shifting focus to pure reason. Instead of being ransomed from sin, death, and the devil, the focus shifted to reasoned abstractions – law, the mind of God, justice – so that we are saved from transcendent categories rather than pressing realities. Salvation becomes an exchange removed from the sickness unto death, as the wrath of God (certainly in Calvin but wrath and anger play a key role also for Anselm) is presumed to be the real problem.

As Gustaf Aulén has noted, penal substitution and Christus Victor present opposed views: the Son bears the anger of the Father (the focus of the Cross) in penal substitution, but in Christus Victor the Father and Son are united in the work of the Cross in defeating evil, death, and the devil. Where the resurrection is a natural consequence as the sign of this accomplished defeat, the resurrection seems to be an addendum to the main event in penal substitution. Instead of a ransom price paid to the devil, it is now God who requires and receives payment – a failed or mistaken notion compounded. Though Satan is depicted as “the prince of this world” (Jn 12:31; 14:30; 16:11) possessing “all the kingdoms of the world” and deciding upon who administrates his power (Lk 4:5-6) as “god of this world” (II Cor 4:4), penal substitution seem to leave this power in place. The state (including legal, political, and administrative apparatuses) is now part of the divine order rather than minion of the prince (archon) of this world.  Roman law and Mosaic law are so integral to the logic of both systems that rather than displacing the law (summed up by Paul as the law of sin and death) both divine satisfaction and penal substitution leave the law in place as it is the logic of these legal systems which called for the death of Christ, rather than the death of Christ suspending, displacing, or rendering the law unnecessary. In Paul’s language this would amount to a continuation of the rule of the law of sin and death.

Where penal substitution renders the teaching of Christ pre-Christian and thus not an integral part of the salvation of the main event – the Cross, Christus Victor joins the narrative of the Gospels as Jesus casts out demons displacing the Satanic (Math 12:22-29), challenges the principalities and powers at every turn – Roman and Jewish, heals the physically and spiritually sick under the power of evil. This is the inauguration of the displacement and defeat of the dark kingdom with the kingdom of light (continued in the Church). Gospels and epistles are joined in a singular narrative movement of the defeat of evil, death, and sin through Christ and the Church. Instead of sin being a mysterious guilt posing a problem in the inaccessible reaches of the mind of God, sin is here understood to pertain to enslavement to death and evil as administered by the Evil One. We can witness and explain the hold evil has upon us as the Cross exposes the working of the sin system.

Paul describes sin as a fearful slavery from which Christ defeats and frees us (Ro. 8:15). As Hebrews puts it, he freed “those who through fear of death were subject to slavery all their lives” (Heb 2:15).  The Gospels picture Jesus confronting this enslavement in myriad forms: for Nicodemus and the Pharisees the security of their religion provides life (life in the law); for the woman at the well the security of sexual love is life (looking for love and life in all the wrong places); for Pilate security is provided by Rome (life through state identity). All have entered into a covenant with death in which pride of place, of identity, or of association, wards off death (death as the loss of pride (shame), the loss of place, the loss of identity). In each instance, the encounter with Christ exposes the emptiness of the covenant with death.

In his life and death Christ continually enters that place or circumstance violently resisted by all. His is the poverty of no place (Nazareth, a peasant, a Jew), the humility of being a nobody servant, the shame of associating with social outcasts. As he enters the jaws of death by walking into Jerusalem his walk of death acceptance overcomes and defeats the myriad forms of death denial that would kill him. Peter’s denial is precisely a refusal of death, but so is the betrayal of Judas who most obviously illustrates denial of death as a succumbing to evil.

The Cross is a confrontation, not between the Father and the Son, but the forces of evil (the Jews, the Romans, Judas, and the Judas in all the disciples) which killed him. It is a defeat of the death resistance which would kill the one (the scapegoat) that the Nation might be saved. It is precisely a defeat of nationalism, racism, ethnocentrism, egocentrism, and all forms of evil that would deal out violence and death as salvation.

It is not God’s violence that kills Jesus but the violence of evil. His death confronts and defeats evil and binds the evil one whose singular weapon is exposed as empty by the empty tomb.