Group Self Deception

A UK aid supported UNICEF-UNFPA Joint Programme conducted focus groups with community representatives in Burkina Faso on the practice of Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting. They asked the programme to include teaching about FGM/C in pre-schools.  Flickr / DFID - UK Department for International Development

A UK aid supported UNICEF-UNFPA Joint Programme conducted focus groups with community representatives in Burkina Faso on the practice of Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting. They asked the programme to include teaching about FGM/C in pre-schools. Flickr/DFID - UK Department for International Development

By Ralph D. Winter 

February 7, 2003

Our basic commitment here to doing the will of God has all along led us to a serious reevaluation and questioning of both the theology and practice of various new Christian movements on the mission field. Missionaries feel compelled to research the degree of truth and faithfulness these movements have with Biblical truth. Some of this kind of concern is implied by the much discussed term contextualization. The looming danger of both contextualization and non-contextualization is the dread term syncretism.

For our faith to reappear faithfully and authentically in a new culture is not at all simple. For example, the phrase holy spirit when translated literally as holy wind in an Irian Jaya language resulted apparently in the practice of earnest, diligent believers running numerous times around the church building—for maybe a half hour—before entering, thus to be out of breath and already receiving the “holy breath” the Christian faith offered. Further understanding of the Bible by these tribal peoples eventually enabled both an insight into the real meaning of “a holy wind that you cannot predict in its origin or destination” and the awareness of the false assumption that the Holy Spirit is merely a new kind of human breathing.

A somewhat parallel assumption here in this country in some Black churches as well as commonly in Pentecostal and Charismatic circles, is that human emotion is indelible evidence of the Holy Spirit, when the fact is that while the presence of the Holy Spirit is often manifested in emotion, high emotion does not always manifest the Holy Spirit. Yet manufacturing emotion is a common practice in Christian circles. True emotion cannot be manufactured.

On the other hand, many missionaries, after at first bumping on strange customs in the lands of their mission finally recognize, with a start, significant meaning in certain foreign ways and perspectives which they had at first glance considered ridiculous. A good example is the practice of couvad, which is found in more than one country. What happens in this custom is that when a child is about to be born the father replaces the mother-to-be in the family hammock and appropriately groans and rolls around in apparent pain, while the mother goes out and works in the field, the baby being born between rows of crops without the assistance of anyone other than the mother. This practice has gained instant negative reaction from most outsiders. What heartlessness is evident in such a practice! This way of doing things is actually an improvement over the way many cultures pummel and wrestle with mothers in labor, but it is, admittedly, not very easy on the mother in any case. However, the point is that to rush to the conclusion that the people are heartless may well be wrong if you take into account the honest intellectual conclusions of their belief system. That system assumes that devils attack delivering mothers, and that a healthy, thoughtful father is much more likely to withstand those devilish onslaughts, totally sparing the weakened mother from that additional danger.

Now, you would think that missionaries would be able to find some better way for such people. However, that is neither easy nor obvious, since fear of evil spirits is something most missionaries lack, and is widely present in many indigenous societies including for many centuries our own cultural backgrounds.

In the case of what is called euphemistically “female circumcision” missions have made little progress. To this day it is a practice, which includes 140 million women in Africa. Drastically more mutilating than male circumcision, missionary hospitals, some of them, need to devote a great deal of time to sewing up the bladders of women who have undergone what is officially called “Female genital mutilation” the reason being that sewing the vagina nearly closed anticipates bladder rupture during the birth of the first child. Without repair surgery a leaking bladder produces a constant 24/7 stench which forces hundreds of thousands of women completely out of their villages.

The minimal progress missions have made against the practice of female genital mutilation— many do not even address the subject for fear of losing converts—is mute testimony to the awesome power of what we could call “Group Self Deception,” a type of culturally reinforced delusion. Missionaries are legitimately fearful of destructive cultural practices entering into the Christian movement, and of the puzzling power of “Group Self Deception.”

However, we deceive ourselves if we think our own cultural tradition is devoid of “Group Self Deception.” Thus, this same legitimate fear of straying from Biblical insight has also led returned missionaries to look with foreign eyes upon some of the customs of their countries of origin. Even less likely, but nevertheless possible, is for returning missionaries to look critically upon the nature of the very religious tradition in which they were reared. This latter, very rare and difficult kind of reflection could be called reverse contextualization or decontextualization.

My Friday seminars normally hinge on some event of the past week. This is no exception. I realize that I have used a lot of my time already tiptoeing up to this subject, it is as difficult to raise issues of this kind in our culture as it is for missionaries to do so in an African society. I want to address certain major killers in the United States and much of the Westernized world which our society does little about. These are cultural traditions that are very deep and strong in the Western world, that both pervade and complicate secular society, and in so doing, also the cultural tradition of Christianity from which most of us spring.

My first example is the cultural dynamics surrounding the phenomenon of heart disease. It is the number one killer in the USA today. We spend a billion dollars a day patching people up who succumb to this malady. For 40 years our medical people have been telling people that occluded veins slowing down blood flow is the culprit. At the same time I have read for years that 20% of heart attacks occur in the absence of any of the usual symptoms.


Now, however, way back in May of last year, Scientific American ran a cover story whose first few words are:

(Heart disease) causes chest pain, heart attack and stroke leading to more deaths every year than cancer. The long-held conception of how the disease develops turns out to be wrong. As recently as five years ago, most physicians would have confidently described atherosclerosis as a straight plumbing problem: Fat-laden gunk gradually builds up on the surface of passive artery walls. If a deposit [plaque] grows large enough, it eventually closes off an affected “pipe,” preventing blood from reaching its intended tissue. After a while the blood- starved tissue dies. When a part of the cardiac muscle or the brain succumbs, a heart attack or stroke occurs.

Few believe that tidy explanation anymore.

I have brought this quote up before. Now, nine months later I want to refer to the Harvard Medical School health newsletter, which arrived this past week, and use it as evidence of the deep and profound durability of Group Self Deception. Note that this first quote from the article in Scientific American states that the change of view began five years ago. Further on in the article it says that the new radically different view was well understood in some circles 20 years ago.

Briefly, the “new” view is that the build up of plaque in the arteries is a very small factor in heart disease. If it were a main factor, being very gradual, it would weaken people gradually. Fact is that an artery can be restricted 90% with no great problems resulting. Rather, a more dynamic factor is involved. Not gunk in the tube but an inflammation in the wall of the arteries is the real danger. Why? Because when an inflammation grows too large it will “erupt” into the artery and clog the artery totally in a few moments, thus healthy athletes keeling over without warning.

I am interested that now that this new understanding is appearing in magazines and newspapers it is becoming clear that fully 50% of heart fatalities lack the long accused symptoms. Cholesterol tests, which measure occlusion, are fading in significance. C-Reactive Protein, which reflects inflammation somewhere in the body is now considered far more significant. Diet and exercise are also fading in relevance. What in the world is it that causes the inflammation in an arterial wall, that causes the eruption that stops up an artery instantly, that damages even a healthy heart muscle, and often leads to death? This is the difficult-to-admit factor. It is a little understood infection. It is little understood in great part because for 40 years no one has been researching that kind of factor. Heart disease, like stomach ulcers, has been traditionally explained as a condition, not an infection, the result of lifestyle not an attacking pathogen.

This is all very significant but also very embarrassing, and very disturbing of the status quo. Think of the disturbance to the enormous industry that patches up heart attack victims, strives to dilate occluded arteries, surgically creates incredible bypasses, actually cuts hearts out thousands of times a month, replacing them with donors’ hearts or extremely sophisticated artificial hearts. All this costs a billion dollars a day, all the while 2,000 victims die per day even so. Yet the amount of money that is focused on finding the source infection is microscopic.

Our whole nation pauses and grieves over the sudden death of seven brave astronauts, and spends more on a single space shuttle than is spent per year on the mysterious infection behind 2,000 deaths a day every day of every week. If I were to include deaths from other diseases caused by unnoticed and mysterious infections that number would no doubt increase to 10,000 a day. Compare that to 150 American lives lost per day in the Vietnam War for which our whole nation tightened its belts.

What kind of Group Self Deception is going on here? How could something known 20 years ago take so long to surface? How could the Harvard Medical letter acknowledge some of this but deliberately skirt the role of infection?

Let’s take a different example.

Hitler, 75 years ago decreed that certain whole cities would give up smoking in order to test the strong evidences clearly understood that long ago that smoking led to cancer. It took 40 more years for Americans to come to that conclusion, although all we have really done is to cut civil governments in on the profits, while thousands of young people begin each day a habit which will drag them down into premature death. We are spending billions to reduce the use of other drugs, destabilizing whole countries like Colombia in the process, but like Jimmy Carter said, we kill more Colombian citizens by American cigarettes than Colombian drugs kill American citizens with hard drugs. It is projected that American cigarettes will kill 50 million Chinese in the next few years. Our government defends and promotes the nicotine industry overseas. It has pressured South East Asian countries to open their borders to our cigarettes and our cigarette advertising (only Singapore is a hold out) and already in those countries we monopolize this death dealing market.

I speak of the role and deeply rooted function in our society and churches of an addictive and dangerous drug called alcohol. Delissa last night made a passing reference to “all of these girls are in prison because of alcohol.” Maybe she meant “most.” All those who join the FMF are required to abstain totally from the use of any hard drugs, including both nicotine and alcohol. In the case of milder drugs like caffeine (whether in tea, coffee, or soft drinks) we close our eyes to their use, yet do not institutionally promote their use.

Within days of each other both Newsweek and Christianity Today have devoted a full page to this issue. I thought I could piggyback on their content and do so from a missiological point of view.

Here at the Center only once before in my recollection have we ever discussed the matter of alcohol in a seminar or missiology hour. We simply wrote into our manual the idea that in view of the fact that avoidance of alcoholic beverages is part of the main stream of the global, missionary culture, we have therefore, as a Fellowship, chosen to abide by that particular cultural norm in order to be able best to minister within that same global missionary culture. We have held all renters, all visitors, all dorm residents on campus to this same norm. Actually, for nearly 90 years this campus has been an alcohol-free campus.

But moods are changing. A more trivial example: there was a time when Evangelical students at UCLA could be identified by their not wearing lipstick. In a lag of change they finally adopted the bizarre custom. By that time, in the ’60s, the secular students were slavishly avoiding lipstick, and so at that point Evangelical UCLA students could be identified by the fact that they did wear lipstick. Still more recently, the wearing of lipstick has become an optional item in the secular culture and it is no long possible to detect an Evangelical student by such a clue.

Especially in the last 35 years, in a desperate effort for second-and third-generation Evangelicals to cast aside superficial divergences from contemporary culture, and to enable a more ready assimilation into the church of people with secular backgrounds, there are now very little if any observable clues to the presence or absence of Evangelicals in our culture, even in terms of divorce rate. The entire range of secular behaviors is by now evident within the Evangelical tradition, in the USA, that is. By contrast, on many mission fields there are still many large national church movements, which reflect earlier thinking. Coming to this country such nationals have a hard time getting used to the great gap of difference between the Gospel they heard from missionaries and the milieu of the sending churches today.

I recall one time at Fuller an African student was shocked by the amount of drinking in the seminary dorms. It was especially bad on the weekends. One Saturday he held his peace throughout the noise and disorder of the Saturday evening boozing time, but when it got past midnight he felt sure that respect for the Lord’s Day should make a difference. He did not realize that that had changed, too, and so just after midnight he called up Dr. Glasser, who was the dean of the School of World Mission, to protest. Of course, Glasser could not do anything about a culturally approved drug either—not at an Evangelical seminary priding itself on being avant garde.

My reason for this lengthy background to the pressures of culture vs. the influence of the Bible is, as I say, partly to introduce two items from the press: one is an Evangelical writer in Christianity Today. The other is a secular author writing in Newsweek.

The Evangelical writer walks on pins and needles and yet at first glance seems to come out reasonably. He says:

Christians who do not commit to a principle of total abstinence should follow a guideline that would represent both discernment and Christian freedom by allowing limited use, now and then, within the context of family, friendship, religious celebration, and diplomatic protocol.

His advice, if followed on college campuses today would certainly eliminate the binge drinking which now plagues half of all college students. Note that he mentions two alternatives: total abstinence and limited use. However, he goes on actually to recommend limited use over abstinence, since, as is already present in what I quoted, limited use is the path of “both discernment and Christian freedom.”

The secular author, unrestrained by the Evangelical panic to conform to this world, says,

Booze and beer are not the same as illegal drugs. They’re worse.

She speaks of

America’s most pervasive drug problem ... Alcohol is a factor in more than half of all domestic violence and sexual assault cases. Between accidents, health problems, crime and lost productivity, researchers estimate alcohol abuse costs the economy $167 billion a year. In 1995 four out of every 10 people on probation said they were drinking when they committed a violent crime, while only one in 10 admitted using illicit drugs. Close your eyes and substitute the word blah-blah for alcohol in any of those sentences, and you’d have to conclude that an all-out war on blah-blah would result.. She adds,

A wholesale uprising in Washington doesn’t seem likely against Philip Morris, which owns Miller Brewing and was the largest donor of soft money to the Republicans in 1998, or against Seagram, which did the same for the Democrats in 1996.

I further quote:

When members of Congress tried to pass legislation that would make alcohol part of the purview of the nation’s drug czar the measure failed. Mothers Against Drunk Driving faces opposition to both its educational programs and its public service ads from principals and parents who think illicit drugs should be given greater priority. The argument is this: heroin, cocaine and marijuana are harmful and against the law, but alcohol is used in moderation with no ill effects by many people.

She does not agree, and goes on,

Here’s the counterargument: there are an enormous number of people who cannot and will never be able to drink in moderation.

Strange, isn’t it, that when the drug, Rezulin, which is enormously helpful to most diabetics turns out to harm one out of 100 who take it (but not their families or other drivers), it is withdrawn from the market on the grounds that you cannot tell which diabetics it will harm. Meanwhile, alcohol, which brings premature death to one out of 10 who employ it, cannot be placed under the supervision of the Federal Drug Administration for the purely political reasons of hefty drug payoffs.

One of the partially redeeming virtues of the Evangelical piece is the reference to the use of diluted wine in Roman times. In Roman times it would appear that only the Teutonic tribal people drank fermented grape juice straight. The natural level of the alcoholic content of fermented grape juice when mixed with drinking water (at 1 to 7 or 1 to 15 in proportion, and left for a period so as to kill off germs) no doubt saved millions of Romans from diarrhea and even death, and Paul urges Timothy to take this factor into account.

But today wine has a much higher, and unnatural alcohol content, and our contemporary word wine cannot properly be the word used to translate any Biblical beverage, whether what most translations call wine (diluted) or strong drink (undiluted, but yet only natural alcohol content). Thus, there is no reference in the Bible to the kind of beverage we possess in contemporary “fortified” wine, much less even higher content liquors, none of which can be produced without the use of a distillation process which was unknown in ancient times.

However, totally lacking in the Evangelical piece is any awareness of the killing ratio, the inevitable tragedy for a very high percentage of those who follow its suggested social use of alcohol. Years ago Upton Sinclair, a social prophet of his time, observed that few home owners would keep a dog around if it leaped upon one out of ten dinner guests and dragged them down by the throats to their deaths, yet that is what we do when we serve a deadly drug that does not seem to harm nine out of ten who use it, but condemns one out of ten to years of difficulties, and gradual degradation leading to premature death and, in that process is by no means a victimless crime, since it leads to violence, crime, child abuse, wife abuse, and highway deaths to others who are totally innocent.

However, here at the Center, since we are not radicals, we feel we must recognize the immense power of the cultural upbringing in the lives of some our members. We thus do not go out of our way to change anyone’s beliefs in this area. We merely require abstinence from addictive drugs in terms of behavior. This policy is in the category of our very few non-negotiables, since it is a prominent feature of Third World Christianity (in time past missionaries rejected cultural alcohol and produced churches with there convictions).