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.



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37 thoughts on “The Pastoral is Political: Gaslighting

  1. Thank you for this. I seem to be in this discussion everywhere today, and I really appreciate this clear and concise explanation and encouragement to call it out.

    Now, six days to find the sentence that ever so gently makes the transition for my interim congregation so that the conversation might begin — if they even notice it. Already today on FB I have seen a couple of posts to the effect that “he paid the price” — and from beloved colleagues. I am sure that if I asked anyone in my congregation or in the college class I teach what Jesus was doing here, 100% would answer “he came to die for us.” I am so missing my former congregation, who would have trusted me to lead them into new territory.

    Since my son’s death, this has become the critical lynchpin of Christian theology for me. Jesus’ death did not change anything — we all still die, many of us in terrible ways, and most of us (thank God, actually) leaving behind devastated and in some cases forever changed (and not in a good way) people. But if there was a resurrection . . . if love triumphs over all the foregoing in an abundant new creation — now THAT is a change worth preaching.


    1. Yes! And, for me, it’s helpful to think about God redeeming human systems and institutions. The “salvation” that gives me hope is the power of God bubbling up in and through us so that resurrection grace makes itself known in all kinds of dead places in the world. We can be saved from our shallowness, our smallness of heart, our selfishness into a bigger purpose.


    2. Prayers for your workand the Spirit’s work in the week ahead. May the right words of gentle guiding and persistent hope come to your lips and your fingertips.


    1. Because people killed him. (Or more specifically, suffocation caused his body to shut down without oxygen for a prolonged period of time.)


        1. ah. in the rephrase, I think we get to the root of the problem. The question is not “why did he have to die” but “DID he have to die?”

          When we ask WHY Jesus HAD to die, we begin with the expected answer, and are therefore not asking a question that can lead anywhere other than back to what we already think.

          Here is what we know: Jesus died, at the hands of people who could not imagine something different from what they already thought.
          God overcame that in resurrection.
          We continue to be unable to imagine anything other than what we already think…

          Liked by 1 person

          1. Well, since he DID die, then I still think that my question was valid. WHY did he have to die?
            I recognize that his death was politically necessary, and surely, in order for the resurrection to happen, there needed to be a death.
            I am not trying to be difficult, just exploring.


    2. I kind of felt like that was answered in the piece–people. Total depravity. And then God is able to overcome even the worst that we can do. And, frankly, that we would do again. (probably at least in part because we’ve talked ourselves into believing a horrific death was necessary.)


      1. I didn’t feel that it was answered in the piece. I read the piece carefully, a couple of times, and, based on what I read there, I would not be able to answer the question “why did he have to die?”, should someone ask me.


        1. I guess it depends on where you (or your tradition) stand on the theological precept of total depravity, which names that people are sinful and inclined to reject what is good for them, including the love of God (and would never embrace what is good if it weren’t for God’s grace). In more commonplace terms, for me, the wonder is not that he died; that was simply inevitable due to human nature and the desire of the powers that be to maintain the status quo of their earthly kingdom powers. Without the resurrection, the cross is only bad news. The good news is that God loves and forgives us, that God overcomes death and continues to be in relationship with us, despite the cross.

          Liked by 3 people

        2. Author here: I don’t think he had to die. I think the death was entirely unnecessary. If we believe there is some consistency to God’s character through time, then the grace that we perceive in the resurrection was present before that event. People just did not (or chose not) to perceive it. Furthermore, many who did did not want it to apply to all the people the Word Incarnate seemed to include. The hardest thing to sit with is the answer, “He didn’t have to die.” Especially when we continue to see senseless deaths across the world and in our own neighborhoods.

          Liked by 1 person

          1. I have certainly wrestled with the question of why Jesus had to die, too. What I have vome to believe is because that was the human choice made by a string of human error; from Judas to relgios leaders, Herod and Pilate. But fundamentally I think Jesus gad to die because their choices put him in a position of death or going back on all that he said about who God is. He would have had to revoke his message, and how could he possibly do that. His love, his identity, his continuation of the salvific work God has always been doing would have been sacrificed. He chose to sacrifice his flesh because he could do no other.


            1. I have certainly wrestled with the question of why Jesus had to die, too. What I have come to believe is because that was the human choice made by a string of human error; from Judas to religious leaders, Herod and Pilate. But fundamentally I think Jesus had to die because their choices put him in a position of death or going back on all that he said about who God is. He would have had to revoke his message, and how could he possibly do that? His love, his identity, his continuation of the salvific work God has always been doing would have been sacrificed. He chose to sacrifice his flesh because he could do no other. The responsibility falls on our human error, but God always finds paths of redemption. I just wish that the sustitutionary path hadn’t become exclusive for so many Christians.


  2. In my thought process on all of this, Jesus did not HAVE to die. God could’ve saved us in any number of ways. In the way that I was taught the Hebrew scriptures, we were already “saved” even before Christ, we just did not perceive it and tell the story accordingly, so God came to walk among us and tell the story perfectly. We did not listen well then either. Only after, as we tried to make sense of what we all had done, how we all had fallen short, how we all said “Crucify him,” did we try to make sense of it and we constructing substitutionary atonement. Denny Weaver tracks it well, and shows us the danger of it in society today.


  3. constructed – not constructing. I was never so happy in seminary as the day I found other theories of Atonement. After processing how troubling I found Substitutionary Atonement, I am amazed I stuck with Christianity that long and felt called to go to seminary. Now I can speak about different theories whole-heartedly and introduce others to other ways of seeing and telling the story.

    Liked by 2 people

        1. I love Denny Weaver’s assertion that we learn so much about God from how Jesus reacts to and goes through the Crucifixion – never reacts with violence or condemning. And I love how DW expands substitutionary theory into today and the troubles in our own societies.

          Thanks for the Helm’s recommendation!

          Liked by 1 person

      1. hmmmm – I’m not exactly sure which part – I remember in Intro to Theology, we went over four main Atonement Theories (The work Christ did on earth – my interpretation): One was Substitutionary – which I found troublesome in the inference that God had to have a Sacrifice – even out of the Godhead, God having to kill part of God, looks like divine chid abuse and an angry God to be appeased (my interpretation). One was Christ replacing Adam – Adam brought the Fall, Christ reverses the Fall. One had to do with Christ’s teaching and actions themselves being the act that redeems us. One was Christus Victor – God could’ve chosen any number of ways but because we humans committed murder, God acted through that. That’s a quick and dirty remembrance and all from my memory, which is faulty at best. I like that they are all “theories” – none of us knows exactly what happened and why because we are not God. I suspect maybe we see a bit of the picture in each of them, but never the full picture on this side of the veil, if ever.


  4. Yes! So well stated and true. You wrote words I was thinking about for my own sermon Sunday. We have been so programmed to believe only in substitutionary atonement that those who proclaim otherwise will be called “liberal” or negated in some way. It is a tragedy. Thanks for naming it!


  5. I believe that the Atonement, being a mystery, is something we’re never going to understand completely this side of heaven. And we’re going to find that different theories speak to us at different stages in our Christian journeys. None of us is wrong – but none of us is completely right, either! St Paul summarizes it beautifully: “God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself.”

    Liked by 2 people

  6. I struggle with Substitutionary Atonement also. I am a former priest of 14 yrs and now a United church minister in Canada. I have never preached that God or that Jesus. I believe Jesus had to die but only in the sense it was inevitable because of the Authorities being threatened to lose their power and stature. They did not like the message nor the messenger.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. after not preaching the first few Good Fridays in my previous placement, i preached on various theories of atonement. basically from my first year theology text Faith Seeking Understanding: An Introduction to Christian Theology by Daniel Migliore. A few people had told me they struggled with the substitutionary theory [not that they called it that], so I decided to preach Good Friday – many people found it helpful. So now my first Easter with a new congregation, preaching a similar sermon.

    Liked by 2 people

  8. I too have struggled for years with a theology of atonement. This is what I come up with: If you are a human parent, and someone kills your son for no good reason, how would you react? Wouldn’t you want revenge? Yet God’s Son, the Beloved, was killed for no good reason, and rather than seeking revenge, God forgave humanity for killing God’s Son. So also are we called to forgive. There’s a theology of atonement! But it’s a bitter pill for humanity to swallow. Most humans have a hard time with forgiveness. A desire for revenge — or at the very least a sincere apology — is the more likely reaction. Substitutionary atonement is easier to accept than a command to forgive others as God forgave us, yes? My thinking on this is influenced by a book I read in a Christian Ethics class in seminary, the late Oscar Hijuelos’ Mr. Ives Christmas, a novel about a father whose son is murdered senselessly one Christmas Eve and who spends the rest of his life struggling to forgive his son’s killer.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Brava! At All Saints in Pasadena we’ve been preaching about overcoming the toxic narrative of the muderous God with an anger management problem for many years — and the gaslighting frame is brilliant! God bless and thank you.

    Susan Russell
    All Saints Church, Pasadena

    Liked by 1 person

  10. one of the problems / purposes? of this gaslighting & substitutionary theology is it allows the body of Christ (us) to ignore the difficulties of taking His life & teaching seriously.

    Liked by 2 people

  11. I have read the original column about three times and this comment thread at least twice. I’m thinking about all of the lazy language that allows the substitutionary atonement theory to continue, largely unchallenged. I am certain that there are more than a handful of children’s messages, sermons, and newsletter columns for which I’d like to have a do-over.

    And “thanks” (with just a tiny bit of sarcasm) to Martha for adding yet another three books to my must-read list. Well, maybe only two new ones; I think I have one of them already, but need to re-read it more deeply. So, I guess, really, thanks.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. We’re all there. Truly, Barbara, we are all there. Even the most hopeful of us sometimes rely on the structure of the language or understanding or hymnody (!!) because it’s easier. This is truly the work to which have been called.

      Liked by 1 person

  12. With the dominance of Calvinism and Arminianism as schools of Christian thought, a great many people just aren’t told that there are other theories to explain it. Most of the time, I read conversations such as this one where some are referred to but not explained – presuming, I suppose, that everyone who sees the phrase “Christus victor” (for example) would know what it is and wouldn’t need it explained to them. That’s how it’s been with substitutionary atonement – people don’t always know that’s what it’s called because to them it’s the “sound Bible preaching” that they’ve grown up with. We also have to consider the propaganda arm of Christianity, I recently turned down an invitation to do a LIfeway Bible Study, before I did, I was able to find the lesson videos online where a passing reference to the Flood was “You have to understand that these really weren’t good people.” Later on, the speaker affirmed: “We know from the Old Testament that a blood sacrifice is required for atonement, which is what Jesus was – just like sacrifice of Passover lambs saved the Israelites, Jesus is our Passover lamb.” When popular Bible studies are crafted to push forward particular interpretations – none of the other ones ever really get explored. It’s as if they say: “We know what’s really sound teaching. You can trust us to tell you the truth. We wouldn’t steer you wrong, we’re talking on behalf of God here.”

    Liked by 2 people

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