May 15th, 2010

The Persecution Gambit

I learned a great deal about tribalism in the past few years, watching a Colorado Springs drama unfold. The former rector of Grace & St. Stephen’s cathedral downtown fomented a split in the congregation, one of the largest in Colorado. His faction quit the Episcopal Church entirely and hooked up with a crew of African Anglican bishops who collect disaffected American Episcopalians like I used to collect bus transfers. Their choice and no great loss, but the group tried to take the property (including a marvelous Gothic church building, school and offices) with them. After a two-year court battle, they were thrown off the property in April of last year, and occupancy returned to the parish group that remained loyal to the Episcopal Church. During the investigation, it came to light that the rector had allegedly been siphoning off church funds to pay for his children’s college educations, and he is now facing 20 counts of felony theft that could land him in prison for most of his remaining years.

What I found fascinating is that throughout the entire period, the man claimed to be the victim of deliberate persecution, that he was merely defending all things bright, beautiful, and virtuous, and that the Episcopal Church was trying to squash him like a bug. I boggled and boggled until my boggler was sore: Beyond the surreal notion that the Episcopal Church persecutes its opponents, anyone who read more than the shallowest accounts understood that the property had always been owned by the Diocese of Colorado and not the church community itself. (This is a matter of public record.) The more the rector yelled “persecution!” the weaker and sillier he looked—and the more scrutiny he called down on himself.

I’ve touched on this a time or two here before. Sad as it is, this sort of thing isn’t unique. Leaders caught in fibs or with their hands in the cookie jar scream “persecution” more often than you might think. I had an insight recently that explains what had seemed pretty counterintuitive to me: This technique isn’t about persuading outsiders that they’re innocent or deflecting suspicion. It’s all about rallying the base, according to primal tribal instincts that we inherited from our killer-ape ancestors. Every tribe has honest members, and when tribal leaders’ misdeeds come to light, there’s a very real risk that the honest ones will bolt the tribe. The cry of “persecution!” stirs deep feelings, implying that it’s not entirely about the leaders. The tribe itself is under attack, and the defensive poo-flinging had better begin right now, or the tribe could be crushed by its evil and hugely powerful attackers. (Even if they’re just a few noisy bloggers.)

The tactic is a gamble. It works well on the tribal foot soldiers who are basically owned by the tribe, but those loosely bound to the tribe can easily see through it. Much depends on how much flingable poo those owned by the tribe can summon. Run short of FPUs (Flingable Poo Units) and the tribe can shrink, lose power, and suffer humiliation from which recovery is not assured.

If your tribal leaders are accused of wrongdoing and respond with howls about “persecution,” odds are overwhelming that they’re guilty as charged. They’re not trying to defend themselves. They’re trying to keep the tribe’s honest members from drifting away. Don’t fall for it. You gain a lot more by tearing them down, humiliating them via brutal public honesty, and throwing them to the wolves. Never allow a dishonest leader to remain in power. The Anglican tribe in Colorado Springs is now fading away. Yours could be next.