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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.


  1. An astute observation I hadn’t considered before. Also, flingable poo units made me smirk. 🙂


  2. Bruce C. Baker says:

    FPUs–a meme is born? 😀

    1. I sure hope so. We need one, given how high the PIP (Poo In Play) factor has been in recent years.

  3. Tom R. says:

    Thanks Jeff. I guess this is another way of saying the best defense is a good offense — and much of what I see in public life these days is pretty offensive.

  4. Darrin Chandler says:

    Crying “persecution” is indeed an old trick. It’s also very, very common. While many times it’s as your describe, there are times when persecution is claimed from a position of strength. Pick any of several “War on …” propaganda campaigns where the populace at large is the victim. Near and dear to me is the persecution cry that comes with trying to defend the 1st Amendment’s establishment and/or free exercise clauses. Almost any such defense engenders a label of “War on Religion” or “War on Christmas.” I’ve had intelligent and thoughtful people support such “War on…” ideas simply because the dominance of the Christian viewpoint makes it difficult to even fathom another viewpoint. So someone calling for fairness and equity in governance is seen as threatening, though a strong interpretation of the 1st Amendment would not diminish religion one whit.

    Moving on from religion and the 1st Amendment, it’s easy enough to find examples in political ideology where the position is a majority or significant minority and crying persecution pays a fine bounty in rallying support and shifting focus away from pesky facts. Even the honest, intelligent, thoughtful people are already predisposed to see persecution in such cases.

    I don’t mean any of this as correction to anything you wrote, but just as food for further thought.

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