Skip to content

Animal Farm and the Boxer Submission

Cover of

Cover of Animal Farm: Centennial Edition

More than an absorbing part of the 11th grade English Literature canon, Animal Farm by George Orwell is perhaps the most instructive allegory of the rise of totalitarianism and mind control ever written.  As such, there is much to mine from this clever book that applies to our own experience in our high-demand and abusive groups.

Led by two pigs, Snowball and Napoleon, the animals of Manor Farm revolt against their owner, Mr. Jones, and establish their own utopian society.  Based on the teachings of Animalism, and shrewdly led by the more intelligent pigs, Animal Farm goes through a cult-like transformation as the pigs use many tactics to exploit and enslave the animals for their benefit.

In future postings I wish to relate many of the insights that Orwell gives us through this classic allegory to the experience of corrupt religion and the oppressive spiritual leaders who have used our idealism to feather their own comfortable lives.  Today I want to focus on one character:  Boxer the horse.

I love Boxer.  I was Boxer.  Boxer had two mottos:  “I must work harder,” and “Napoleon (the leader) is always right.”   Boxer found in Animal Farm and Animalism an opportunity to use his strength to build something of worth and to improve the lives of his fellow animals.  Boxer had a calling on his life that demanded hard work, sacrifice and vision; he provided the first two, the pigs the vision.  Boxer hauled the massive stones from the quarry for the farm’s windmill, sometimes arising several hours before the other animals, and whenever faced with a setback he would remind himself, “I must work harder.”

Trusting,   not questioning, exploited and unaware, Boxer focuses on the cause and never questions his leader, even as Napoleon drains him of his resources and his life for his own selfish gain.  As a reward for Boxer’s lifetime devotion and obedience,   Napoleon sells the exhausted Boxer to the glue factory under the guise of carting him to a veterinarian, in exchange for a case of whiskey.

In the early 20th century, China had a Boxer Rebellion, in which the Chinese rebelled against the Western influences that had come to dominate much of Chinese culture.  That is what Boxer himself needed, a rebellion.  Instead, he submitted, driven by his two self-destructive creeds.

I did the same thing.  “Brother Evangelist is always right.  I must work harder to please God.  I am not praying enough.  I don’t witness enough, fast enough, act humble enough.  I don’t love God as I ought to.  I must work harder.  If I question my leader I am sowing discord.  God wants unity, not division.  If I question the leader and his judgment, I am just being proud and God resists the proud.  If I want God’s grace, I must be humble and do what I am told.”

Sound familiar?  What is the upside to this thinking?  Where do I profit from submitting in this way?  Simple:  I could be a child again.  Once I decided to submit, I did not have to make any more decisions.  My leader was closer to God than I was and he could more perfectly discern the will of God.  It was safe to submit.  I did not have to think or take responsibility for my life.  I surrendered my will so that someone else could take care of me, make my decisions, dictate my life doctrine, and make me safe.

I would not have to wrestle with the deeper things of life, the gray areas, places where I could get confused or have to make an unpopular choice.  Everything was simple, black and white, no shadows or uncertainties.  We had the truth, we were laboring hard to be saved, and as long as I obeyed my leaders and stayed in the group, I had a chance that God would accept me.  A chance.

Many Boxers came and left my group, including me, and life has not been easy on the outside.  For years, and sometimes still, it is hard for me to make decisions.  I still think at times that I have to earn God’s love through my devotions and works.   My image of God has been distorted by the spirit in which they condemningly applied the Scriptures to my life.  I still avoid certain passages from the Bible just to avoid hearing Jim Robert’s voice manipulating and condemning my conscience.

I am hurting like you.  But my sweetest times are when I latch onto a passage of Scripture that exhorts me to trust in God and believe that He will bring it to pass.  He’s the Healer and through our dialogues and fellowship and comparing notes, we are mutually healed as a body.  You are not alone.  We have each other and we have God.   As we examine our experiences together, and survey the damage to our faith, know that He will, through His truth, restore the years that the locust took from us. (Joel 2:25)

(George Orwell’s Animal Farm is a necessary read for anyone who has been hurt by a cult or an abusive leader.  You can read it here for free:


In the New Beginning. . .

When I stepped off the plane on Aug. 26, 1986 at Baltimore-Washington International, just hours after leaving the cult that had bound me for ten years, I felt like a new life lay before me, like I was returning from a war to the grateful arms of those who had done so long without me.  The fog that had been home for so long was lifted, I was triumphant and ready to begin life anew, fueled with energy to put my mistakes behind me and to move forward freely to determine my own destiny.

On the plane trip I had told my story briefly to a Christian flight attendant. Although I sat in the cabin with my tucked-in lab coat, my long untrimmed beard, and perhaps the scent of so many days gone by (still hadn’t purchased deodorant!), she affirmed my decision and entered my air space to welcome me back to the tarmac.

I noticed something when I recounted my story to herIt was cathartic.  As I explained my experience, I learned as I spoke.  I began to feel more assured that leaving Jim Robert’s control was the right decision.  Besides, after spending ten and a half years not talking to women, it sure felt good to open up to one and receive positive, almost admiring feedback.  “You have a great story to tell,” she said. “Make sure that you tell others what happened to you.”

From the moment the web of twisted scripture began to fall apart two weeks earlier, I began to heal.  Camped in Portland, Oregon, near the area formerly known as the Kingdome, I was still reeling from  Jim Roberts’  harsh rebuke against my integrity.  I had contradicted his twisted scripture and he turned on me, telling me how ungrateful I was for all that the “church” had done for me and how they had rescued me from that abomination called “Harvard,”  and that I had always been “an unstable brother.”  Since the rebuke came pay-phone to pay-phone (in the old days before cellular!), he was not in town to watch what I did next.  I had been camel-strawed!

I tucked in my long modest lab coat, a palpable act of sweet rebellion.  (If women wanted to lust on me because my shirt was tucked in, that was their business.)  Then I broke another taboo: I began to sing a “worldly” Bob Dylan song my left-wing camp counselor taught me when I was only eight and still plagued by my long-distance and unrequited love for Leslie Suddueth.  (She sat all the way across the classroom and I was too self-conscious about my teeth to woo her).

How many roads must a man walk down, before they call him a man?

I had been with the group for over ten years; when was my opinion going to mean something?  When would I be considered mature enough to interpret scriptures without his permission?  When would I be considered a man? I had slept in refrigerator boxes, in snow banks, and under bridges, and foraged   through dumpsters for ten years; when would you stop treating me like a baby?  I had paid the price; when would I be called up to the majors?

How many times must a man turn his head and pretend that he just doesn’t see?  The answer my friend, is blowing in the wind, the answer is blowing in the wind.

How long would I shut my eyes to the abuses of the leadership?  How much longer would I invent excuses lest I have to take them off the pedestal and become responsible for my own life?  Did I really want to continue to be a child, letting others make decisions for me and telling me God’s will, or was I ready to grow up and move on?

The healing began that day when I cut the umbilical cord.    I am responsible for my walk with God.  Pastors and leaders can counsel me but they cannot choose my life for me.  They can open my eyes through the Holy Spirit to my gifts and possibilities, but they cannot in their flesh mold me any more into their image.  I am free to grow, free to love, free even, to fail. What God permits, let no man forbid.  What God forbids, let no man permit!

I am shaped by the Spirit, not by the guilty manipulation of my leaders!  If the Holy Spirit doesn’t convict, you must acquit!

No more will a group or an unaccountable spiritual leader ever force me, against my conscience, to surrender my reason and will to do things that are not directed me to do by God, just to ”keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.”

I love my pastors now, since they feed me and lead me to God’s grace.  Instead of condemning me, they encourage me.  Their corrections may sting, but not discourage; and their truth sets me free and helps me break from unhealthy patterns that are hindering my growth.

I hear a different Spirit now.  The one telling me I wasn’t doing enough to please God, that someday through my prayers and fasting and self-denial and cross-bearing and dying to myself, I might achieve perfection and become accepted by Him, that voice is whack-a-moled whenever it pops up.

I am not a worm; I am a son of God. (Please note the indefinite article so that you don’t think I am the Antichrist!)

To be healed, I have to learn who God really is.  I must learn to hear His voice.  And I must stop listening to the voice that causes me to run from God and hide in guilt.  A sound mind does not run from Love in any of its expressions.

Recovering from Spiritual Abuse: Your Greatest Allies

In 1976, as a sophomore at Harvard, hungry for God and looking for a way to give myself radically to His work, I encountered two young men with the same passion.  Dressed in long lab coats, untrimmed beards, and carrying backpacks and bedrolls, they were years ahead of me, having forsaken all to travel the country, flee Babylon, and pay the necessary price to be true disciples of Jesus.

Or so they seemed.  Convinced by their long strings of Bible verses, I threw my glasses in a snow bank, forsook my school, dreams, family, and hitchhiked out of Boston with them in March of 1976.  In the following ten years I was subject to the most devious type of scripture-twisting, legalism, peer-pressure, guilt, shame, and mind control that was ever served up with fava beans and a nice chianti.

Separated from my family, forbidden to marry, isolated from society, terrified to question my leader, I endured excessive spiritual abuse for almost a decade.  Since leaving in August of 1986, I have learned that no one just walks away from an abusive experience and seamlessly reintegrates with family and life.  We have to understand our spiritually abusive experiences and grow from them; otherwise, they live like gremlins on our aircraft wings, which only we can see, but who slowly drive us mad by trying to crash our lives.

Enough of the esoteric.  Now some stuff you can use.   I will focus on one thing that helped me tremendously:   swapping war stories with other former members of your church or group.

These are your greatest resources.  They know better than the most highly trained shrinks what you have gone through.  When I left the Jim Roberts Group, the first thing I did was to contact those who had left the group before I did;  (you know, those who had “fallen away” or “lost their understanding,” or who had “gone back to the world.”)  While in the group, I saw some awful things, but I kept my mouth shut so that I would “stay humble,” and avoid   “becoming rebellious” or “sowing discord.”

It is time no more to bury those experiences!   Find a former member and talk, talk, talk!  What lies were you told?  What abuses did you observe?  What does Scripture really say about spiritual leadership and was that exhibited in the group?  What were your struggles as you reintegrated and separated yourself from your abusers?  What convictions have you kept and which ones have you thrown in the trash?  What things make you guilty and is that guilt really from God?

While I was in his group, Jim Roberts forbade us to speak with former members.  They were “fowls” who would devour the seed of God’s word.  Although I suspected that something was not quite right, I did not have the courage or confidence to trust my opinions.  Once liberated from his control,  however, I  could compare my experiences with those of many former members,  and their stories validated mine.  “Yes, he did send unwanted members to distant cities and abandoned them.”  “Yes, he did forbid marriage and had no right to take that liberty from us.”  These true witnesses cleared my head, relieved my guilt of leaving and disarmed the lie that God had rejected me.

In all honesty, I was reluctant to speak to them at times because I was afraid they were still living under legalism, and the evil things Jim Roberts said about them still played like a script in my conscience.  If you are lucky, you may find a loose network of  former members  who are supporting each other.  They can help you find those who are safe to open your heart to.  But if such a support system does not yet exist, then form one yourself!

One caveat: not everyone who has left or been damaged by the group is a good source of counsel.   Some have put God on the back burner and have not processed their experience.  Rather than reliving the pain, they feel that they were the problem, or that they were not worthy of being in this high-demand group, and their own hearts are feeling condemned.  Such precious people need to be directed to God’s love, his grace, and the meaning of the cross.  They need to be loved unconditionally and to return to God.  But before they can return, they must learn from you how the God of their group is not the God of the Bible.  I will write more on this next week.  In the meantime, find your fellows and fellowship!