Racism wasn’t about hate, as one living on the inside of this story as a brainwashed kid.
MONTANA, USA — I was around four years old when my family joined the Worldwide Church of God. It coincided with the Nixon Presidency.
One of my earliest memories is watching a Nixon rally from my dad’s shoulders. The energy of the crowd was supercharged and left a series of posterized moments in my brain. My dad, Bill, was a traveling sales rep for Ralston Purina. He spent long hours on Oklahoma’s flats with a bombastic apocalyptic AM radio preacher as his company. Herbert W. Armstrong was a voice of White Male outrage and certainty, contrasting with uncertainty.
Our identity was racial. This cult is one of several that might be called “British Israelism.” Only the (White) descendants of the British Empire are God’s chosen people and can earn salvation. All other races are not in that club. Everybody else is going to Hell to suffer unimaginable torment.
Racism wasn’t about hate, as one living on the inside of this story as a brainwashed kid. It was just the sad facts of life. It was quite painful for me as a kid to think that my tight-assed, fearful fellow congregants and I were going to a better place while all these other sweet folks would have to suffer forever.
The story of our racial superiority did not land as glorious with me. It felt embarrassing and unreasonable. I was special, but no one could know. I couldn’t talk about my Christianity to anyone outside the cult because it would mean revealing that I was chosen and they were not. It was part of the cult-without-a-compound method to keep members isolated while walking through the secular world. Even though the cult was crumbling on the nightly news, the true believers’ reality continued unabated.
I didn’t consider myself a church member so much. For as long as I can recall, I had nothing but disdain for the whole thing. The premise of the specific racial pedigree made it an identity, not a choice. There was what I knew, from school and church, and then there was everything else, which was irrelevant and likely wrong, if not evil.
I was in a suspended state. Thinking beyond the church invited hostility and the threat of physical violence. So, I was under the pall of the cult for years, dispassionately.
There was no questioning the church. It was autocratic by design. It was innovative in running a cult without a compound, using the power of television, print, and radio. [Armstrong] was one of the first mega-successful televangelists with his weekly program “The World Tomorrow.” He was syndicated on AM radio and had a print magazine, “The Plain Truth,” distributed globally by the cult members. I remember seeing them in the grocery store of every town in which we lived.
The cult functioned akin to the Hawai’ian “kapu” system: questioning the word or dictate of the prophet/king meant quick ex-communication from the cult, and communicating with the ex-communicated meant ex-communication for you, too.
Ex-communication meant more than losing your tribe and friend group, which can be devastating on its own. It meant losing the only path to everlasting life in Heaven for you and your family. No one wants to be that guy. The suicide rate for young men in our cult was far higher than the norm.
My oldest sister ran away when I was seven; she was maybe 16. There were long gaps without contact, but she seemed to be sending little notes under the fence. She introduced reasonable doubt and let me sit with it.
Waiting to graduate from high school was like being in a mental prison, serving time until I could finally think for myself. It was a go-along-to-get-along survival strategy.
My family was ex-communicated when I was in junior high school, but I didn’t find that out until many years later. Our congregation pastor wrote a tell-all book called “Herbert Armstrong’s Tangled Web” when I was 11, and the church split into factions. My dad’s beliefs and loyalties were on the wrong side of the split, so we had to go.
Suddenly no more church on Saturday. No post-church dinners with that community. It shook my parents, but I was relieved to have my Saturdays to myself for once.
We only went to church on Saturdays, and it was in Tulsa—an hour away from where we lived. We stopped attending church suddenly when we got ex-communicated, but none of our other religious habits changed. As far as I knew, we were still “Christians,” and all the rules applied.
The relief of not going to church settled into a long silence. The family never really addressed what had happened. The kids were happy not to talk about it anymore, and I assume the parents were delighted not to explain themselves.
Not going to church and not reading the Bible didn’t instantly change my worldview. I was still processing my world through a monolithic lens. Instead of God, I said “Universe” and just assigned my magical thinking another mask. Moving into secular society was like being a foreigner without an accent. I could rarely take for granted that what I was saying was the same as what people heard. The feeling of being other perpetuates beyond the cult. Being other was a way of being. I lived as a foreigner in my country of birth, careful not to blow my cover as an outsider.
By the time I graduated high school, I had been living with suicidal ideation for years. I was in a kind of theological finger trap, where the idea of considering getting out of the mind control cinched it tighter with a monolithic threat of “game over forever” for blasphemers. Inversely, I couldn’t end it myself through suicide because I might suffer eternal damnation. I settled on a solution of living as dangerously as possible to potentially stumble into an honorable discharge from life: You don’t go to Hell for accidental death.
In college, I spent a lot of time at house parties with the kitchen philosophy majors. I listened to the bewildering prospects of life beyond Good and Evil while playing Spades and pounding 3.2 beer with Anarchists.
I still checked “Christian” on questionnaires. I still voted for Bush because that was what “we” did.
Reasonable doubt was building. Living in the world and being exposed to other secular and theological points helped me understand that someone slipped me a bad God in my childhood, and I had a bad trip.
I dropped out of college and moved to Boulder, Colorado, the polar opposite of fundamentalist Christian culture. It was as though the Cultural Revolution of the ’60s was still cruising along in Boulder. This was a significant step towards growing beyond what I was programmed to be. I was confronted daily with completely foreign ways of being. Hot tea instead of coffee in the morning. Bicycle lanes and food co-ops. Social justice and cognitive liberty. Emotional intelligence. Connection to the natural world. I wasn’t in Oklahoma anymore.
In Boulder, I discovered that my education about drugs thus far was a part of an ideological, racial, and political propaganda campaign to criminalize the radical left and racial minorities. I had been lied to by my government, my educators, and my family.
I defected to the other side of the drug war and became acquainted with LSD and marijuana myths. After several LSD sessions, the binary system began to break down. I needed more information than yes/no, right/wrong, good/bad. I immersed myself in pre-prohibition research and legal debates over the pros and cons of these drugs. I read about the effects of LSD in psychology as an addiction cure, trauma balm, and a truth serum of sorts. I also came to understand that the results were famously difficult to describe to those that had not done it. I made a conscious choice to risk being charged as a criminal to find out for myself.
Intentional uses of LSD helped me take the child-proofing off of the complexity of the human experience. I don’t think I knew how to think my own thoughts until then. I was just perpetually making prescribed binary choices of yes/no, joining a team, opposing a team.
I moved to Los Angeles next. Los Angeles put me in the living room with “them.” The gays, the blacks, the Mexicans, etc. I found meaningful connections with people that were only theoretical in my small Midwest town, people who I was told were my inferiors, lesser humans.
I was warned not to go to East L.A. as a white person. My beautiful Mexican coworker invited me to her multi-generational home in East L.A., and I was treated like family, more openly and warmly than my own blood family. This interaction happened over and over. I wanted no part of a God that would favor terrified white folks over these loving people. The contrast was so dissonant that I could no longer deny the dumb meanness of my programming. I was wrong. My people were wrong.
I headed to L.A. on a suicide run. I figured I would show up, be tall and funny, become famous, live dangerous, flame out, die young.
I stumbled into standup comedy, and through that, landed an agent and some acting gigs. I started emceeing open mics to squeeze more stage time out of an evening. It was the difference between waiting around for five hours to do a five-minute set or doing a few minutes between every act. It was in this role that I found a passion for facilitating events and building communities. I liked taking the random acts that came through the door and spinning them into a cohesive show.
I didn’t take acting seriously at all. Being a very tall person, I would audition for tall people parts. I played an Elvis/Frankenstein monster on a White Zombie video. I wore a Xenomorph suit and had my alien head explode for a theme park ride. I played a Viking King, Rasputin, and the Grim Reaper as the Olympic athletes’ nemesis in Nike commercials.
After four years of a full-time pursuit of fame and fortune, I burnt out. I had a man-behind-the-curtain moment and suffered a profound disillusionment crash and quit standup comedy.
I descended into a “Dark Night of the Soul.” Some might call it a psychotic split. The deep depression after an extended case of pneumonia and a complete unmooring from ambition took me to the bottom. I MacGyvered a patchwork of psycho-spiritual, mystical, and linguistic techniques and tried to capitalize on this ego death by opening up my higher neural circuits. It was in this effort that I finally confronted God. By that point, he had become a bitchy upstairs neighbor who habitually stomped on the floor and yelled at me to keep it down.
Trying to detangle and describe everything that happened during this period has already filled several versions of a book I have yet to publish, “It Seemed Funny at the Time.”
Reconnecting with an ex-girlfriend at the height of my madness created my first daughter. I found myself enjoying and succeeding at being Mr. Mom while struggling through the fraught relationship with my girlfriend, and then everything fell apart over four years in the L.A. Family Court system. After years of fighting for joint custody, all my efforts to spend time with my daughter became so nightmarish that it seemed like the only merciful thing for us both was to let her mom have her.
After close to 10 years in L.A., I dumped everything and headed North with a backpack. I got stuck in Butte for three days in 1998 and fell in love with it — the people, the history. It was a kinder, gentler pace after the rat race of L.A. Twenty years and several lives later, I made it back to Butte for a job remodeling a Victorian. That was seven years ago.
Ainsley and I met in summer 2017. I was in the midst of the “Zulu Summer” story, and she was in town project-managing another independent film. We were both in other relationships at the time. While working at the Covellite International Film Festival in Butte, Ainsley introduced me to her then-girlfriend. We all chatted about mental health and psychosis.
Ainsley and I picked up the dialogue that November and discovered that we each had been cult-indoctrinated as kids. With a 20-year age gap between us, I was a long-time veteran of the deprogramming process while she was beginning. We fell for each other on the spot. It was like finding a fellow ex-pat with a familiar language in a foreign land.
I was in the process of negotiating the end of a 14-year relationship and had already made plans to visit my new South African friends for six weeks. Ainsley had a film to finish, and I wanted to give the end of my previous relationship the respect it deserved. When I finally moved out on my own in Spring 2018, the gravity and connection between Ainsley and me quickly and powerfully brought us together.
A year and a half later, Ainsley produced the “Copacetic Conversations” radio show with Mokai Schux Malope and me as the hosts. When Mokai returned to South Africa in September 2019, Ainsley and I started “Post-Orthodoxy.”
That was Mokai’s first live radio experience. His association with Nongoma FM was mostly off-air.
Mokai came for cultural exchange and wanted to know who we are, Americans, beyond what he learned from South African perspectives. He also has a dry sense of humor in his role as a devil’s advocate. He managed to get folks to explain their views to an alien perspective.
Before the Zulus came to Butte, the news out of the United States was not inviting. Fires in Furgeson over racial strife, a new president that seemed to fuel divides on many fronts, mass shootings, political corruption, and the widening economic divide. Mokai was serving in more of an advisory position to the Prince, someone who could ask all the questions and provide friendly exchanges with locals without having to be beyond reproach.
Mokai had a hard time on the first trip finding people that would admit they had voted for Trump. On the next trip, I promised him that some folks had made a friendly atmosphere for some conversations. He could get along well with Republicans and Democrats because he didn’t have a horse in the race and was under no obligation to one tribe or the other.
I was the founding Music Director of KBMF for the first three years. I helped craft the voice and brand of the radio station. For a while, I was one of only two paid staff members, along with the station manager, but it was just a stipend of a few hundred bucks a month. After being denied after a year of asking for a raise to more appropriately compensate the hours I was working, I resigned from the position and switched to volunteer DJing.
Ainsley and I have been supporting ourselves as gig worker artists. Much of this town’s appeal is the low cost of living, which allows us to spend time on passion projects such as the radio station and our shows.
We covered a lot of the aspects of the pandemic narrative from the beginning. They called us anti-maskers because we analyzed the controversy around the politicization of a health concern. We questioned if meme-shaming people into compliance was an effective tack to use on a hyper-partisan society of individualists. We also did deep dives into the relationship between humans and viruses. We looked at changes in policies and the actual recent change to the definition of a pandemic that allows statisticians to beef up this virus’s data to match previous pandemics. We asked a lot of questions, challenging a growing orthodoxy. It is the show’s premise — not just sorting fact from fiction, but learning how to do so in a post-truth world.
We were trying to follow and understand the reality and the narrative of SARS-CoV-2, sharing what we had researched and crowdsourcing data from our live audience to be as timely as possible.
At some point, we shared CDC data that undermined other CDC data. They censored and gag-ordered us. Even though we complied with the unreasonable requests, we were then terminated and scrubbed from the station website within 24 hours.
Our new home studio has both good audio and video and the added ability to bring in remote guests, which vastly increases our range of material and expertise and audience participation.
This new iteration may have a new name even, but the program’s spirit remains the same. A new audience coming alongside those that have supported us through this shift will be a factor in what the show becomes.
We are launching our website this month with a subscription option for listeners to support the studio development and projects and access subscriber-only content and interviews.
The last time I checked, the most heinous aspects of the WWCG live on in “The Church of Philadelphia,” based in Oklahoma. I found videos on YouTube of public cries for help from kids in this cult. Some preachers promote pulling teeth over spending money on dentistry, as the End Times are near, and the church needs that money more than your dentist.
I know from growing up in the cult and experiencing the contrast between that and being out of it, the people there are not having a good time. There’s a lot of suffering that goes on when you’re living in that kind of fear. My experience there was so bad that I had to get out or kill myself.
Having it so bad was my salvation. With just a little less fear and a little more love from the environment, I don’t know if I could have gotten out.
On the other side, I can see how much my parents suffered throughout their lives. Being able to move from a fear-based reality, I was able to see them with love and compassion, as humans, instead of my parents. The difference was profound.
People who have never been in that kind of environment, who have never had their minds twisted by people they were supposed to trust—parents, preachers, politicians, and their media sources—can easily see these folks’ suffering as hate. While hate is a component in that experience, it’s a side effect of fear.
“Bad” people don’t do bad things for no reason. Those people who stormed the Capitol are afraid for themselves, their children, and the larger tribe of their country.
The act of openly questioning a tribal orthodoxy (the existence of a god, a generational political identity, sexual orientation) seriously threatens one’s ability to remain in the tribe. Being uncertain can easily be perceived as instability, as a threat to brokered peace and agreements among the orthodox.
The show is about changing our minds, but not prescriptive in the how of changing our minds. We actively explore the practice of acknowledging our biases and reasonably entertaining doubt.
In a politically correct world, you can apply the phrase “check your privilege” to class, race, sex, etc. On “Post-Orthodoxy,” we often invite people to check their privilege of cognition because there is a sizeable cognitive gap in American society. In the same way that it would be shameful for a mathematician to mock a seven-year-old for not knowing trigonometry, I feel it’s disgraceful and dangerous to judge people from the position of cognitive privilege. Tribal identities exploit binary thinking and use it to snare adherents.
I work from the premise that we can only be held responsible for what we know. My parents’ way of processing the world is very much an us-versus-them model. It’s strictly binary. There are no gray areas.
In my dad’s words, “you have to pick a lane. If you’re not on one side or the other, you’re going to get yourself killed or kill someone else.” (I imagine he formed that thought model decades ago when he lived in Oklahoma and the roads only had two lanes.) It’s the Axis or the Allies. Nothing else matters. There is nothing in between right and wrong. That’s his reality, based on his faith. From that perspective, there is no need to understand “them,” there is no need to understand people who have opposing views because they must be wrong if we are right.
I would ask people who consider themselves compassionate and empathetic people to look at how they view folks like my parents, people who process the world in black-and-white terms, and if they see them as “them,” and therefore “other.”
If you are someone who has the benefit of nuanced perspective, who can have their ideas challenged, without feeling like you are being attacked, you have the cognitive privilege. You have a power that binary thinkers do not know — and to judge them by your vantage point, in my opinion, is an abuse of that power.
I don’t frame things in terms of being right or wrong. Robert Anton Wilson said, “The border between the Real and the Unreal is not fixed, but just marks the last place where rival gangs of shamans fought each other to a standstill.”
Reality is what you can get away with.
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