Theologian Walter Brueggemann weighs in on how God responds to those who are victimized by gaslighting, a method of sowing doubt in the minds of those who are being abused. In this time where many are debating the lived experience of Black and brown Americans (and marginalized people all over the world), this is a convicting message that causes us to pause and reflect on the stories we tell ourselves about God and each other.
by Walter Brueggemann
I watched the interview of Meghan Markle and Prince Harry by Oprah Winfrey. I read about the reaction of the royal family to the interview in which members of the royal family attempted to undermine or deconstruct the memory of Harry and Meghan about how they had been treated. And then I learned what was for me a new phrase, “discriminatory gaslighting,” as it has been exposited by Christy Pichichero, “Meghan and Harry Experienced Discriminatory Gaslighting. Here’s how you can tell.” The term “gaslighting” is a new phrase to me:
Consolidating one’s power by causing individuals to question their own judgments, perceptions of reality and memories, has a name; gaslighting. It is a form of psychological manipulation by which abusers build their authority — and ability to continue to abuse — by breaking down their victim’s or victims’ sense of self and their confidence in their grip on reality (Christy Pichichero).
It is easy enough to say that the victim misunderstood a decision, misjudged a gesture, or behavior, or misinterpreted someone’s words (“recollections may vary”).
The modifying word, “discriminatory” simply means that the gaslighter, for any number of reasons, may claim high ground and become condescending toward or dismissive of the one gaslighted. All of this was clearly operative in the royal response to the interview. The effect is to undermine the self-confidence of the ones critiqued in order to make them more dependent upon the authority and generosity of the gaslighter. So I have a new word for what is an obvious effort in the case of Meghan and Harry, and in many other cases as well. Clear enough!
In the wake of my new learning, it is perhaps useful to reflect on the practice of gaslighting; as our politics becomes less and less principled and more and more aggressively partisan and destructive, we might be alert to the ways in which the biblical tradition witnesses to such a practice. So here is a list of scripture references I could think of in which someone or some group is victimized or blamed in ways that challenge their social significance or social function and seeks to dismiss such persons or groups as socially unacceptable or irrelevant.
In the Exodus narrative, Pharaoh continues to increase the production schedule for bricks made by Hebrew slaves. When the slaves protest Pharaoh’s aggressive imposition, Pharaoh responds:
You are lazy, lazy (Exodus 5:17; see v. 8).
This “verdict” on the lips of Pharaoh, intensified by the doubled term, is designed to focus on the failure of the brick production by the slaves, and to divert attention away from Pharaoh’s predatory greed. If his verdict can be made to stick, then Pharaoh’s verdict will become definitional for the slaves, will protect Pharaoh from criticism, and will mandate the slaves to even more intense productivity. The gaslighting is so that the slaves may perceive their life and role solely on Pharaoh’s terms. In this instance, the verdict did not and could not stick, because of the emancipatory intervention of YHWH that exposed Pharaoh’s gaslighting as phony and without substance. It is YHWH,
who struck Egypt through their firstborn,
for his steadfast love endures forever;
and brought Israel out from among them,
for his steadfast love endures forever;
with a strong hand and an outstretched arm,
for his steadfast love endures forever;
who divided the Red Sea in two,
for his steadfast love endures forever;
and made Israel pass through the midst of it,
for his steadfast love endures forever;
but overthrew Pharaoh and his army in the Red Sea,
for his steadfast love endures forever (Psalm 136:10-15).
In this instance YHWH’s steadfast love (tenacious solidarity) vetoed Pharaoh’s gaslighting.
This dismissive trope of Pharaoh of course permeates U.S. history. The same verdict on white lips has gaslighted Black identity. Thus the Pharonic verdict has served white control and white imagination, and justified white supremacy. That comfortable white verdict has sheltered white people from recognition of the brutality toward and greedy exploitation of Black people, and has required Black people to accept life on white terms. Except of course we know better. We know that Black people, in their “hidden transcripts” (see James C. Scott, Weapons of the Weak) have never accepted that white verdict and have resisted as they have been able. White gaslighting of course continues even now in a fairly straight line from Pharaoh. It is only Pharonic illusion that can take the verdict to be persuasive.
Great efforts at gaslighting are evident in the biblical text that attempt to discredit the prophets who are rightly seen as threats to the status quo in Israel.
The prophets are uncredentialed voices, so that it was (and is) always easy to be dismissive of their dangerous presence. From the outset, Elisha was seen to be a threat to the sociopolitical status quo in Northern Israel. His work did not take long to evoke resistant hostility. In the odd narrative of II Kings 2:23-25, Elisha is assaulted by a gang of young boys. They jeer at him concerning his bald head. The double use of “baldy” again shows the intensity with which the prophet is attacked. It may be that this jeering is innocent and only the silliness of young boys, a view taken by some commentators. But maybe not!
The scene calls to my mind the aggressive jeering at the election board in Florida in 2000 urging that the vote count be stopped so that George W. Bush would be elected president. The loud jeering looked on TV like the spontaneous action of young enthusiastic people. It turned out, however, that the young people making the loud scene on TV were paid performers for the Republican Party. Such a scene in our own day allows me to think that the young boys mocking the bald prophet may have been dispatched by their elders who hoped by this mockery to discredit the prophet. The gaslighting of Elisha is because his appearance does not “measure up.” The prophet of course remains unintimidated by the jeering. Thus his curse of the boys evokes two she-bears who savagely stop the gaslighting of the prophet (v. 24). The prophet will not and need not succumb to such an assault.
A similar attempt at gaslighting concerns the prophet Hosea who likewise is perceived as a threat to dominant society. The threat voiced by the prophet is countered by what may have been a popular form of gaslighting, the kind that now is phoned in to talk radio. We are not told who speaks the gaslighting here. The dismissal of Hosea is in two parallel lines:
The prophet is a fool,
the man of the spirit is mad (Hosea 9:7).
On the one hand, a “fool” is one who is out of touch with reality; on the other hand, a meshuga, a crazy man. Who but a fool would say such outrageous things as Hosea is saying? Who but a crazy person would dare to assault the time-honored institutions of society? And because he is a crazy fool, no attention should be paid to him. This same gaslighting verdict is likely to be to be conveniently reiterated concerning anyone who speaks beyond accepted social reality.
This dismissive verdict concerning Hosea is readily paired with a dismissive verdict against Jeremiah who has so much in common with Hosea. Jeremiah’s primary theme in the book of Jeremiah is that Jerusalem will be destroyed by Babylon; more than that, this destruction of Jerusalem is the will of YHWH. In this reading of history, obedience to YHWH amounts to a willing surrender to Babylon. That counsel in the midst of the military crisis faced by Jerusalem is enough to evoke the active hostility of Jerusalem “officials.” The officials brought Jeremiah before King Zedekiah with a verdict already clear in their minds:
This man ought to be put to death, because he is discouraging the soldiers who are left in the city, and all the people by speaking such words to them. For this man is not seeking the welfare of his people, but their harm (Jeremiah 38:4).
The Hebrew has it, Jeremiah is “weakening the hands” of the soldiers; that is, he is undermining the war effort. (This accusation has been echoed many times, for example, in the case of Eugene Debs who was imprisoned [1918-1921] for his opposition to World War I.)
Amid the fever of war, those who sponsor or support or benefit from the war effort are characteristically vigilant against any who think otherwise. Jeremiah was an outspoken critic of popular opinion that supported resistance to Babylon, a resistance that in the long run was sure to fail. What the supporters of the war could not tolerate was Jeremiah’s expansive version of YHWH’s governance that included Babylon as well as Israel that thereby compromised the easy “chosenness” imagined in Jerusalem.
In this case the prophet was rescued by a eunuch in the royal palace (38:7-13). Subsequently he was captured and eventually carried off, against his will, to Egypt (see 43:1-7). Even in Egypt against his will, however, Jeremiah refused to be silenced. He anticipated that Babylon, with its strong (he would have said “God-given”) military capacity, would wreak havoc even in Egypt:
Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel. I am going to send and take my servant King Nebuchadrezzar of Babylon and he will set his throne above these stones that I have buried, and he will spread his royal canopy over them. He shall come and ravage the land of Egypt (vv.10-11).
In his purview there was no place to hide from the reach of YHWH’s governance, not even in far off Egypt.
These three instances concerning Elisha, Hosea, and Jeremiah together attest to the ways in which established ideology sought to fend off prophetic truth-telling.
As I began to think about “discriminatory gaslighting,” I was surprised to see that the rule of “clean, unclean” occurred everywhere in the biblical text to sort out those who are acceptable or unacceptable. Those unlike “us” who constitute a threat to a homogeneous normality are easily labeled as “unclean” or an “an abomination.” A choice example of such exclusionary rhetoric is voiced by Ezra in his prayer. The exclusionary verdict is in the mouth of YHWH:
The land that you are entering to possess is a land unclean with the pollutions of the peoples of the lands, with their abominations. They have filled it from end to end with their uncleanness (Ezra 9:11).
Of course “unclean” has been a racist trope from the outset. Already in the Joseph narrative,
They served him by himself, and them by themselves, and the Egyptians who ate with him by themselves, because the Egyptians could not eat with the Hebrews, for that is an abomination to the Egyptians (Genesis 43:42).
The verdict “abomination” is a generic dismissal of those unable to qualify. Richard Beck, Unclean: Meditations on Purity, Hospitality, and Mortality, himself an evangelical, offers a stunning inventory of what constitutes “unclean” in contemporary religious life. He lays out a helpful; taxonomy of five “moral foundations:
Purity/Sanctity (pp. 58-59).
He concludes that religious conservatives have a much larger catalogue of “unclean” than do religious liberals:
Liberals tend to restrict their normative judgments to the Harm/Care and the Fairness/Reciprocity foundations. That is, liberals will tend to cry “That’s Wrong!” when someone is being harmed/not-cared-for or when something is unfair/unjust. Liberals don’t, as a rule, often make appeals to the foundations of Ingroup/Loyalty, Authority/ Respect, and Purity/Sanctity. Although liberals are not insensitive or unmoved by the warrants of Ingroup/Loyalty, Authority/Respect, and Purity/Sanctity, liberals appeal to these foundations much less frequently when compared to conservatives. By contrast, conservatives deploy all five foundations when they make normative judgments. This means that a much wider range of stimuli will offend conservatives (59-60).
In his ministry, Jesus regularly defied and transgressed the conventions of clean and unclean.
For that reason, surely, the vision of Peter in Acts 10 attests to an overthrow of the popular dominant categories of clean and unclean, in this case concerning Jews and Gentiles:
What God has made clean you must not call profane (Acts 10:25).
Thus an end to that particular form of gaslighting that has been operative in some forms of Judaism! Clearly gaslighting about uncleanness and impurity is no monopoly of Judaism, but has been much more virulent in some forms of Christianity. It is surely ironic that the immediate case of gaslighting with reference to Harry and Meghan turns, yet again, on the issue of race!
These five instances of Pharaoh, Elisha, Hosea, Jeremiah, and Peter are prominent efforts at social delegitimation by gaslighting:
Pharaoh: You are lazy lazy!
Forty-two young boys: baldy, baldy!
Popular judgment concerning Hosea; fool, madman!
Jerusalem officials concerning Jeremiah; traitor!
Religious authorities concerning many folk: unclean!
In each case the gaslighting is done by established power against those who are manifestly powerless. In each case the one attacked is perceived as a threat to the established order.
This evidence — that could surely be expanded—is enough to see that the primary trajectory of the Bible is on the side of those who are regularly gaslighted, and against those who gaslight in order to maintain power and status. In the end, this is what distinguishes the God of Israel — the God of the Gospel — from all other gods. Conventional gods are on the side of the status quo and are easily allied with such gaslighting. They rock no boats but legitimate established human power. The God of the gospel, to the contrary, shows up otherwise.
This God shows up in the slave camps of Egypt;
This God shows up in the transformative narratives of Elisha;
This God shows up in the subversive utterance of Hosea;
This God shows up in the large vista of sovereignty voiced by Jeremiah;
This God shows up among those now declared to be clean.
This conclusion is, to be sure, a version of the liberation signature: “God’s preferential option for the poor.” It is a recognition that the God of the gospel is not inured in the religious or secular version of established truth. In all these cases I have cited, the truth enacted is not impressed by or deterred by gaslighting, even in its boldly discriminatory forms. It is the work of truth-telling to debunk the gaslighting that serves only to sanction privilege and advantage when they are under threat from below.
This trajectory of truth-telling from below culminates, for Christians, in Jesus of Nazareth. Of course Jesus, in his refusal of all gaslighting, posed an unbearable threat to established order. Terry Eagleton summarizes:
The morality Jesus preaches is reckless, extravagant, improvident, over-the-top, a scandal to actuaries and a stumbling block to real estate agents; forgive your enemies, give away your cloak as well as your coat, turn the other cheek, love those who insult you, walk the extra mile, take no thought for tomorrow (Reason, Faith, and Revolution: Reflections on the God Debate, 14).
No wonder this trajectory of truth-telling perennially constitutes such a threat to treasured socioeconomic arrangements. No wonder, moreover, that human agents situated in this trajectory, in its many articulations, draw to themselves these various gaslighting efforts such as “lazy, baldy, crazy, traitor, or unclean.” No wonder indeed!
This post was originally published on Church Anew.