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Curses And Churches
My Earliest Memory of the dark side of prayer dates back to childhood, when I was five years old.
I grew up in a farm family in the bastion of Christian fundamentalism, the cotton-growing farm belt of central Texas. Community life in those days oriented around the one-room, country Baptist church, which sat at a dusty crossroads. The preacher was a ministerial student from Baylor University in Waco, forty miles away. One miserably cold Sunday night in December, the young preacher warmed things up with a fiery sermon on hell. Only a dozen or so stalwarts had braved the weather, including my grandfather, a deacon in the church, with whom I had tagged along that night. The young evangelist had a dramatic flair. After a horrifyingly vivid description of the eternal agonies of hell awaiting the unsaved, he began to pound with his fist on the pulpit to simulate what he called "the drums of hell." Although I was already sufficiently terrified, the steady BOOM! BOOM! BOOM! of the drumbeat plunged me even further into the depths of fear. Then the preacher gave a signal to someone at the back of the church, who puffed a lever and plunged the church into total darkness. As the drumbeat and graphic exhortations continued, now in pitch-black surroundings, I descended further into paralytic terror. When the lights were turned on again, the preacher began to pray earnest, desperate pleadings watered with a river of tears- or lost souls. Then the invitational hymn was sung, and I found myself moving, like a stupefied zombie, down the aisle to give my life to Christ and escapethe horrors of hell. Everyone was overjoyed that I had decided to accept Jesus' love and forgiveness, but I realized later that no choice was involved. I was functioning as an automaton, literally out of my mindwith fear, having been tortured psychologically in the name of Jesus, just as the heretics of earlier days were tortured physically.
The justification for this strategy has always been that the welfare of a soul is at stake and any means are permissible to rescue it. The practices that are employed, which I experienced as a small child, are not too different from those used by sorcerers worldwide. In both cases the victim is cursed (in sorcery, by the sorcerer's ritual; in the church, by original sin and the fall). In both situations the victim is prompted to imagine all sorts of horrific outcomes that will prevail unless certain conditions are met. I am assured by many churchgoers that this type of mind manipulation is less common these days, although I know of no data supporting this claim. These customs are not limited to Christianity, of course; I mention them in a Christian context because that is the tradition I know best.
It is ironic that we are so repelled by curses when they so thoroughly permeate our religious life. I'd say we have become blind to the elephant in our living room. In truth, virulent condemnations are right at home in Christianity and often rival the darkest curses of sorcerers and magicians. Perhaps the most obvious example is the condemnation of the unsaved to eternal, unimaginable suffering in a burning hell.
As an example of an official curse that is still on the books, consider the commination ritual in the Book of Common Prayer, the official prayer book of the Church of England. Commination comes from Latin words meaning "to threaten" or "to menace." Although the ritual is considered a relic by many Anglicans and does not appear in the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer, it is intended to be enacted on Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent, the season of fasting and penitence. It includes nine specific curses based on the twenty-seventh chapter of the Book of Deuteronomy, among which are the following:
Cursed is he that curseth his father and mother. Cursed is he thatmaketh the blind to go out of his way. Cursed is he that perverteth the judgment of the stranger, the fatherless, and widow. Cursed are the unmerciful, fornicators, and adulterers, covetous persons, idolaters, slanderers, drunkards, and extortioners....
At the end of each of these curses, the congregation replies, "Amen."
The minister then reminds the congregation of "the dreadful judgment hanging over our heads, and always ready to fall upon us," and "that it is a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of the living God," who shall "pour down rain upon the sinners ... fire and brimstone, storm and tempest...." The ultimate result of the curse is eternal agony and punishment "Go ye cursed, into the fire everlasting, which is prepared for the devil and his angels" unless one opts for repentance through Jesus Christ. The Reverend Ted Karpf, of the Episcopal Church of the United States of America, states, "This is an example of ritual cursing to remind the faithful of the tenuous nature of their condition...a psychodrama of our fallen state that we might prepare for the season of penitence and fasting called Lent."
As we venture into the domain of negative prayer, let us bear in mind that religion has always kept close company with the sinister side of things. The briefest glance at the history of any religious tradition shows that the divisions separating spirituality and magic, light and shadow, have always been permeable. Paying attention to history is one of the best safeguards I know of resisting the temptation to reject the evidence for negative prayer without a hearing.
In his critically acclaimed biography of the apostle Paul, A. N. Wilson states that what made Judaism so attractive in the eyes of many Gentiles was the "superior potency, when compared with the other spiritual systems, of its magic powers." powerful words and symbols were at home in the Jewish tradition. Be Careful What You Pray For...You Just Might Get It
copyright © by Larry Dossey. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All Rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.