Part 13 in the Series:
Questioning Church Authority
By Don Enevoldsen
“You’ve saved so many people,” a woman called out, her comment directed toward the preacher at the front of the large gathering.
“I’ve saved them,” the preacher responded. “I saved them, but I made my example. I made my expression. I made my manifestation, and the world was not ready, not ready for me.” He quoted a line from the Apostle Paul about being born out of due season, then said, “I’ve been born out of due season, just like all we are, and the best testimony we can make is to leave this goddamn world.” They all knew what leaving this world meant. They had practiced many times for mass suicide.
The crowd applauded. As the noise of clapping hands faded, the woman turned toward a man who had been challenging the preacher’s decision. In support of the preacher, she said, “You must prepare to die.”
The date was November 18, 1978, and shortly afterward, 909 members of Jim Jones’ congregation, one third of them children, lay dead from cyanide poisoning.
I’m old enough to remember that news story clearly. The transcript of a recording of Jim Jones came to mind this week as I watched a video from the Sunday morning service at World Changers Church International in College Park, Georgia. Creflo Dollar, the senior pastor, had been arrested over the weekend for choking and punching his daughter in an altercation early Friday morning, June 8, 2012. Everyone expected him to address the issue to his congregation.
As soon as Dollar started walking toward the pulpit, the entire building erupted in a standing ovation that lasted for one minute and ten seconds, punctuated by shouts of support, and culminating with a yell of, “We love you,” near the end of the applause. Dollar responded, “I love you, too.” Another ten seconds of applause followed before thirteen minutes of remarks began.
Unlike the victims of Jim Jones, Dollar’s congregation didn’t even wait for him to speak before expressing their unqualified support—unqualified, uninformed and blind support. Those are the characteristics that reminded me of Jones.
Before you accuse me of an unfair comparison, let me explain the reasons the similarities suggested themselves to me. That requires a review of the details released to the public. Most readers are probably aware of the incident, but for the sake of clarity, many of the details contained in the 911 call, the police report and the later statements by Dollar are significant.
Early Friday morning, Dollar’s 15-year-old daughter placed a 911 call. “I just got in an altercation with my father,” she told the dispatcher. “He punched me and threatened and choked me. It’s not the first time it’s happened. I feel threatened by being in this house. I don’t know, I don’t know what can be done, but I’m, I’m scared. I’m shaking. I don’t, I don’t know what to do.”
The call was precipitated by an argument over a party Dollar’s daughter wanted to go to. Dollar told her no, and brought up bad grades as a reason. According to her statement to police, she walked into the kitchen. Dollar followed her and asked why she was so upset. “I do not want to talk right now,” she replied. She said that her father charged her, put his hands around her throat and began to choke her. He slammed her to the ground and began to punch her, took off his shoe and began “whooping” her with it.
Dollar’s 19-year-old daughter, when she saw her sister thrown to the floor, ran to get their mother. The altercation was over by the time Taffi Dollar arrived.
The younger daughter went to her room and called 911. A short time later, police arrived at the front door. While talking to the younger daughter, the officer noticed a scratch on the right side of her neck, close to her throat, that he believed was caused by the altercation.
Dollar’s 19-year-old daughter, who witnessed the altercation, corroborated most of the story. According to the police report, she said that her sister told Dollar she didn’t want to talk to him. The officer wrote that she remembered “her dad grabbing her sister’s shoulders and slapping her in the face.” She said her sister “tried to break free from him and did not fight back.” Then her dad threw her to the ground. That’s when the older sister ran to get their mother.
An interesting and significant aspect of this incident occurred when the older daughter changed her story. She wrote out a witness statement that said her father had bent her sister over and given her a spanking, “nothing that could physically harm her.” When the officer asked her why she changed her account, she replied, “I thought the situation went out of hand and I didn’t want my dad to get arrested.” She had written the first statement while her parents were with her. The officer took her to another place, away from her parents, and she wrote a second witness statement that agreed with her original story and confirmed her sister’s account.
In his statement to the police, Dollar agreed that he and his daughter were in a disagreement about a party. He also said that he followed her into the kitchen and asked her why she was upset. He claimed, however, that his daughter “became very disrespectful,” so he approached her and tried to restrain her. The officer’s report says, “while restraining her, she began to hit back and then he wrestled her to the floor.” He then began to “spank her on her bottom and the back of her legs.” After the spanking, Dollar said she calmed down and he sent her to her room.
Based on the evidence from the three statements, along with Taffi’s statement and the observation of a scratch on her neck, the officer arrested Dollar on the charge of Simple Battery, Family Violence, and Cruelty to Children.
Only two comments from Dollar came over the next 24 hours. He released a statement through his attorney in which he said, “As a father I love my children and I always have their best interest at heart at all times, and I would never use my hand to ever cause bodily harm to my children. The facts in this case will be handled privately to further protect my children.”
The second statement was a barely audible response to a reporter the next morning when Dollar was released from jail. As he walked from the building to a waiting car, a reporter asked for a word from him. He replied, “No comment.”
Then the reporter said, “Pastor, can you say what happened?”
Dollar muttered, “No comment. Discipline my kids. Love em.”
Then came the Sunday morning statement. As the applause finally died out enough to speak, Dollar presented what was not so much a defense as a self-justification that wreaked of evidence of an abusive family dynamic. I have had several years now to learn about how abusers think and act, and how families in which abuse occurs function. My wife Christina and her daughter have both spoken out about abuse they endured as children. Through sharing their experience, as well as the findings of their research, and from listening to the stories of many others and reading considerable material on my own, I am now able to hear Dollar’s statements through the ears of abuse survivors. Here’s some of what he really said.
One of his first statements to his congregation was, “Raising children in our culture of disrespect is a challenge, and a responsibility for all of us who are parents.” In other words, “I had no choice. I had a responsibility to do what I did.”
Then came the statement, “I want you to hear personally from me that all is well in the Dollar household.” In other words, “I have silenced my daughter and she is now behaving herself with proper submission.” More to the point, it seems that when your daughter feels threatened and upset enough to make a 911 call, whether her accusations are true or not, all is definitely not well.
Dollar then referred to “what the Bible says about teaching and training your children.” In other words, “God told me to whoop my daughter. I not only had no choice, I had a divine directive. If you question my actions, you are in rebellion against God.” He expanded the divine justification with an allusion to “an awesome divine assignment on the inside of each one of my children.”
With the context of a “culture of disrespect” juxtaposed with the “responsibility for all of us who are parents,” and with the exclamation of the high spiritual calling and expectations of “an awesome divine assignment” for each of his children, Dollar gave his side of the story, a version that espouses a belief that extreme disrespect plus an extreme calling necessitates extreme parenting measures.
“The truth is that a family conversation with our youngest daughter got emotional, and emotions got involved and things escalated from there. The truth is she was not choked. She was not punched. There were not any scratches on her neck, but the only thing on her neck was a prior skin abrasion from eczema. Anything else is an exaggeration and sensationalism.”
The words, “She was not punched,” were accompanied with a twisting of his mouth to the side that expressed supreme contempt for any other version of the story. It is said that only 7% of our communication is verbal and the rest is body language. Dollar’s physical appearance sought to establish a position of superiority. There is also a subtle suggestion that the words escaping his mouth at that moment, words extremely important for understanding the events of that night, were crooked and twisted. The words coming from his mouth at that moment came out sideways, not straight, both literally and symbolically.
In addition, the manner in which Dollar distanced himself from his daughter by speaking in the third person (“She” was not punched, rather than “I” did not punch her) is another layer of distancing from the truth. His listeners are discouraged from getting any closer to the truth by emphasizing that any other opinion was nothing more than “exaggeration and sensationalism.”
From Dollar’s explanation of events, it sounds like the arrest was made on the basis of a ten-year-old mark from eczema. From the police report, it is obvious that without the corroborating statement from an eyewitness account by the older sister, the arrest would probably not have been made. The scratch was only a part of the decision.
Dollar then painted a picture of the horrible wounds that would result from him doing what he had been accused of. “If I punched my kid,” he declared, as he graphically pounded his fist into his palm, “it would hurt her. If I choked my kid, you would see visible signs on her neck.” Thus he implied that there was no physical evidence of punching or choking. Of course, the physical scratch on his daughter’s neck had already been discounted and was now conveniently ignored, as was the statement of his other daughter. If the punches were actually slaps in the face, as the older daughter stated, they would not be likely to leave any marks, either.
Dollar next insisted that he would never intentionally inflict bodily harm on his children. “I love my children enough to establish proper boundaries and to help them make right choices.” In other words, “I punched and choked my daughter for her own good.”
“I will never put any fault on my children,” he continued, “as Jesus would never put any fault on me. I love her with all my heart.” Of course, he had already placed a stigma on her by everything he had said up to that point about living in a culture of disrespect, blatantly implying a disrespectful and emotional daughter. In the eyes of the congregation, she is now branded forever as a disrespectful child who needed to be put in her place. Every time she walks into the World Changers building, everyone will look at her with self-righteous judgment and she will be made to feel shame for being a bad child. Those who do speak to her will do so in condescending terms, assuring her that God has an awesome assignment for her and that they are praying for her, implying that they know she will straighten up as she gets older, in spite of how bad she is now.
Having built up to the main point, Dollar continued with a strong, pointed tone. “I want to say this very emphatically. I should have never been arrested.” He was interrupted by applause. “Never,” he continued. “And when the facts of this come out, you will be appalled.” In other words, “I am completely justified. The culture of disrespect produced a rebellious daughter. I had to be physical to keep her in line. Anything that tries to say I should not have done what I did is exaggeration.”
Finally, Dollar shifted the blame yet one more step away from himself. “It’s not as much against me as it is this message of grace. The devil knows, in order to discredit the message, you have to first of all discredit the messenger.” To emphasize the point, he read a lengthy passage from Psalm 35, filled with language of persecution brought on by standing for truth, and God’s vengeance on any who would dare attack him. In other words, “This has nothing to do with bad parenting. It is the devil trying to stop me from preaching. And if you don’t support me in this, you will be destroyed by the wrath of God.”
Response from the members of the church was overwhelmingly supportive, even before the sermon. News reports were filled with quotes such as the one from George Blake, a member of the congregation. “It’s not up to me to be satisfied with what he had to say. This is a man of God spreading the word of God.”
Or Phyllissa Wolley: “When I first heard what he was accused of, I didn’t believe it. I knew there had to be more to the story. I felt like he addressed the accusations today, and I believe what he said. To hear from him personally, I really appreciated that. I was glad to hear his side of the story.”
Or Naomi Lyles: “He did not commit the crime… It was what I thought it was, it was blown out of proportion, and I believe his word.” Then she added, “You just can’t imagine the lies people explore trying to bring somebody down.”
Or Keith White: “He told us what really happened, and not what we’ve heard in the press, I just believe him.”
The question seems to be who should you believe? On the one hand, a 15-year-old girl’s statement, corroborated by her older sister, in statements made to the police, is that she was struck, choked, and thrown to the ground, and whooped with a shoe. In addition, a physical mark on her neck was visible to the arresting officer.
Against that, Dollar himself admitted to physically restraining his daughter. He merely denied that he punched or choked her. There is no evidence presented other than his assurance to the congregation that he is a man of God with grace and integrity.
So what do we believe, the evidence or the man of God? The congregation made their choice before even hearing the defense.
I find it very difficult to discount the story presented by Dollar’s daughter. Aside from the direction the evidence leans, I want to present a few thoughts gleaned from my experience with abusive family systems over the past few years. Abusers and abusive families follow a remarkably consistent pattern. As I look at the reports concerning Creflo Dollar and as I listen to his personal defense, I see exactly the patterns of just such a family system. Here are a few of the reasons why I believe the daughter’s story. No single thought is conclusive in itself, but taken together, they paint a pretty complete picture.
• Abuse victims desperately want to be heard. The overwhelming majority of anti-social behavior in our society attributed to rebellion and disrespect is nothing more than an attempt to have a voice in some form. It is not uncommon for teenagers to make 911 calls after an altercation with their parents. Contrary to general perception, however, when a child has been abused, the purpose is not retaliation, but rather a deep desire to be heard. Through all of the media attention and the outpouring of comments on Creflo Dollar, I have yet to hear his daughter’s voice anywhere but the 911 call. And there it is clear. “I feel threatened and I’m scared. This isn’t the first time.”
• As an adjunct to that point, abusers silence any criticism or expression of the truth. I have no doubt that the silence from Dollar’s daughter is because she has been silenced by a number of means, reflected in the statement released after the arrest: “The facts in this case will be handled privately to further protect my children.” Undoubtedly she has been told in many ways that she has damaged the family’s reputation, that she has been a tool of the devil to disrupt her father’s ministry and that the whole thing is entirely her fault. “Culture of disrespect” is used as a synonym for “victim blaming.” If Dollar could say the things about her that he said from the pulpit, he would be ten times as forceful in the privacy of their home. Through guilt and intimidation, she has been convinced that she had better keep her mouth shut from now on or she will be thrown out of the family. That threat is the most terrifying and effective means used by abusers to control children. It is also likely the threat has been enforced by removal of access to a phone or a computer until she learns to behave.
• Abusers are more interested in control than in healthy relationships. Abuse is about power. Physical retaliation for a perceived lack of respect is a very common reaction. Abusers are convinced that their victims are there to fulfill the abuser’s purposes. Any time a victim resists or sets a boundary of any kind, the abuser genuinely believes something has been stolen from him. He will react. That Dollar would use force in the way he did is typical of abusive families. Choking your child is not appropriate discipline, biblically or otherwise, but it insures that everyone in the room knows who is the boss with all the power. Abuse is designed to restore everyone to his or her proper place in the abuser’s world.
• Members of abusive families do anything they can to keep the abuse secret. No matter how violent the abuse, they still feel guilty for calling attention to it. Abusers constantly warn them against violating a trust or destroying the family, and communicate that they deserve and ask for whatever abuse they have experienced because they are of no value. Because this sense of shame and guilt is so ingrained in a victim’s thinking, she (or he) will protect the person causing the harm or pain in the hope of gaining some degree of approval. Dollar’s older daughter displayed classic abusive family behavior by telling the police officer what she saw, then changing her story while her parents were present, then changing it back again when she was away from them. This dynamic alone is so prevalent in abusive family systems that if I knew nothing else about Dollar’s case, I would be inclined to believe his daughter on this fact alone.
• Dollar’s statements after the fact demonstrate an attitude of moral indignation and a refusal to admit or even recognize that he did something wrong. When he said, “I should never have been arrested,” I have no doubt he genuinely believed that. His conviction of his own rightness oozes from every comment he made. “Discipline my kids. Love em.” “All is well in the Dollar household.” “I love my children enough to establish proper boundaries and to help them make right choices.” “When the facts of this come out, you will be appalled.”
Abusers never believe that their behavior, no matter how heinous, is inappropriate. Christina’s daughter was sexually abused by her biological father multiple times per week from the time she was in diapers until she was 12 years old. The evidence included a taped conversation in which he discussed what he had done, in addition to Christina’s testimony that he had confessed his guilt to her more than once. He ultimately agreed to a plea deal that put him in jail for 15 years. In his statements to the probation officer, he said he had been mistreated by the criminal justice system because he had done nothing wrong, and he did not feel that he must change his life. That attitude is typical of all kinds of abusers, including Creflo Dollar.
• Abusers paint themselves as the victims. Their abusive behavior is always someone else’s fault. Dollar blamed God, who requires that a man of God discipline his children, blamed his daughter, who was disrespectful, blamed the culture, which is also disrespectful, and blamed the devil, who wants to stop Dollar’s preaching. He choked and punched his daughter, but it was not his fault.
• Abusers protect each other, presumably because they believe that they are all justified and therefore they must defend the entire club or run the risk of admitting their own guilt. It should not be forgotten that Dollar actively defended Bishop Eddie Long, who was accused of sexually molesting boys in his congregation. In spite of the fact that the evidence against Long was substantial, Dollar told his congregation that they were required to forgive the man of God. “I don’t know what it is with the church. When you have a wreck, you expect for God to forgive you and everybody else,” he said. “Don’t let the preacher have a wreck now.” A wreck? That makes it sound like an accident. It’s a crime, not some petty thing that should be overlooked or pushed under the rug. But that didn’t matter to Dollar. He defended Long anyway, which is what abusers do.
Which brings us back to Jim Jones. I don’t know of many people who would not consider Jim Jones as an abusive man who developed an abusive religious system. The similarities in his methods with those of Creflo Dollar are striking, as are the similarities in the reactions of their respective congregations. Both used the fear of being ostracized as a tool for control. Both claimed divine authority for their actions. Both silenced criticism. Both portrayed themselves as victims.
And more to the point of this series, both congregations applauded their words without any consideration of the truth. For the most part, the members of World Changers International displayed that Sunday morning the same characteristics of a group that will drink poison if their revered leader tells them to. Whether the threat of poison would be enough to wake them up or not, the fact remains that they have an egregious and dangerous aversion to facts. To listen to the facts would mean questioning some things, and questioning in an abusive church family is every bit as frowned on as questioning the status quo in an abusive biological family.
The biggest difference between the members of the church family and Creflo Dollar’s youngest daughter is that the church member can choose to leave. For at least three more years, she is trapped in the isolation and the shame produced by her family, with no voice and no one to listen to her frustrations, her fears or her pain. If you want to pray for someone, pray for her.
Next, Part 14: Enemy of the Human Race
Go to the beginning of the series, Questioning Church Authority: Part 1: False Prophets
Do you have an additional thought on this subject that will assist our search for truth? Please join the discussion and share your insights.