Why The Good Guys Can Do No Wrong
As long as criticism is coming from the "enemy", religious institutions will never understand the harm they're causing
I’ve been getting overwhelming feedback these last few weeks. These last few months, really. From New Zealand, from Australia, from America and Canada. The UK. It goes on.
I guess it all began when I started writing about the conspiratorial ramblings of City Impact megachurch. From there, I dove into Arise — the megachurch that left hundreds of victims in its wake. Despite these being New Zealand examples, cookie-cutter versions exist everywhere in the West. So the stories I was telling were universal.
After Arise’s leaders resigned, I wanted to take a breather from all the shit. It’s heavy, it stinks, and it makes me hate people. I don’t like hating people.
Then came along Bethlehem College, my old high-school — and what the state-funded school thinks of people in the LGBTQI+ community (spoiler alert: not much).
Throughout my reporting of BC, it’s struck me how all these religious institutions react in exactly the same way when they’re criticised.
They claim they are under spiritual attack, centering themselves as the victim. The actual victims — the young and vulnerable ones, left broken and scarred — are barely a blip on the radar.
This was the case (and continues to be the case) at Arise, and it’s certainly the case at Bethlehem College right now, where urgent prayer meetings were held to pray off the “attacks” on the school.
From the church’s perspective — and from Bethlehem College’s perspective — this reaction makes perfect sense.
Because you’re the good guys, and you hold the secret truth the rest of the world doesn’t understand. The only logical conclusion is that anyone complaining has an agenda against you, and is ultimately wrong — because sometimes people get hurt when they’re on the wrong side of the truth.
There’s absolutely no penetrating this militant, deeply ingrained perspective unless they’re willing to actually listen to the voices on the other side of their actions.
And they’re not.
Bethlehem College’s Paul Shakes refuses to engage me as a journalist. His last missive to me was a masterclass in gaslighting. He says this is not personal, before making it personal. He’s proud of me, but he doesn’t trust me in any way whatsoever:
As I mentioned last time we’re only engaging directly with NZ journalists responsible to a code of ethics and NZ media law. As I am sure you can appreciate we have a lot to deal with at this time and we need to balance our competing priorities. We know this may seem personal but it’s not, so please don’t take it that way.
If you have a formal complaint about the way you were treated at Bethlehem College please do feel free to be in touch so we can deal with your complaint appropriately.
On a personal note, we read your first blog about your nice memories at Bethlehem College with fondness, your name is still on the plaque on the wall. We’re still proud to have your name there and we’re proud of you for the notable things you have gone on to achieve.
“God bless” says Paul Shakes, while he and his school dig their heels in.
“We appreciate that, for some, Christian beliefs can feel personally hurtful. Our message to those people is that our intention is certainly not to be hurtful,” he said last week.
If the results of someone’s actions are hurtful, then it doesn’t matter what the intent is. The intent becomes null; a void.
And a sidebar here on the language being used — because it’s deliberate, and calculated.
These institutions almost always use “hurt” — but never, ever “damage” or “abuse”.
Hurt is a great word to use — from the institution’s perspective — because it instantly diminishes the severity of the accusations, and obfuscates who bears responsibility.
“Hurtful” could just as easily mean that those making these claims are just overly sensitive. It’s their fault for feeling hurt.
Arise megachurch went particularly bonkers in this department — former Arise pastor John Cameron saying things like we have heard that people have been hurt.
Weird John didn’t catch that when he was physically grabbing people.
What does it look like when a school or a church writes into its DNA statements that “other” a minority? Statements that say LGBTQI+ people are not worthy of marriage, or that trans people are not real?
For many students, these statements will mean absolutely nothing. They won’t clock it personally.
Then there are the LGBTQI+ kids affected. The school’s beliefs make their experience at school hell. And it sends them out into the world feeling like hell.
I talked to an ex-Bethlehem College student this week, Ro Bright — a playwright who, amongst other things, wrote the breakout hit Daffodils, which was adapted into a film.
Ro was at Bethlehem College when I was there. We were a few years apart, so I didn’t have any idea of their specific experience at the school.
Now I know.
Ro Bright on What It’s Like at Bethlehem College
There has always been queer and gender-diverse kids at Bethlehem College. I know this as I was a non-binary/trans kid there in the late 90s.
The school’s statement pulled me back into that younger toxic paradox that many young queer kids of faith are told — “Jesus loves you… but only if you look, act and be a certain way” — a way that is different to who you fundamentally are.
If you cannot be yourself, your mental health suffers greatly. Mine did while at Bethlehem College.
I did not feel as a student a “strong sense of wellbeing and belonging”. I felt the opposite. And for those who say “well you can send your kid to another school” — not all kids are out. Some mask. Some do not feel safe to show their true gender expression. I didn’t feel safe until I was in my 30s.
It breaks my heart to think of these beautiful queer kids reading BC’s statement now, who are at this moment internalising self-hate. Self-hate that will turn into depression and suicidal ideation.
I know, because I have been there.
Discrimination against LGBTQIA+ kids is so insidious because when you’re young you don’t have the language, or the means to process what’s going on. All you take from it, is this devastating sense that there must be something wrong with you.
I remember one seemingly insignificant moment at BC that has stayed with me over the years.
I had pulled together a monologue for the Sheilah Winn competition. It involved Shakespeare, which I loved because of the way my teachers shared their passion for the bard.
I played Pompey from Measure for Measure as a 70s Drag King pimp, with my hair slicked back, fake hairy chest and perfectly shaped bell bottoms. I looked goofy as, still I did well, as I was the one BC student who got selected for the national team.
After nationals, the other BC kids who did a scene — I think it was from Othello — were asked to perform at assembly. I was told that I was not allowed to, without an explanation why. I couldn’t tell if it was because of Shakespeare’s content, or if it was because I was up there expressing a masculine side of myself that was deemed too shameful to be seen. I had no idea.
In that moment I felt deep shame for my gender expression.
There were so many other moments where I felt confused and othered. But what was abundantly clear was that I could not talk to anyone. Even when I was in a lot of pain as a 14 to 17 year-old experiencing gender dysphoria, I knew I had to hide myself.
Like I said, I know depression and suicidal ideation because I was taught as a kid in my church and at my school to hate myself. But I have so much hope because as an adult I have learned from other non-binary/trans people how to love myself.
What I continue to struggle with is how BC — and those supporting their discriminatory statements — seem to not care at all about how their comments directly cause young people to take their own lives.
You can’t say “God loves everyone” and “We’re all precious in his eyes”, then completely ignore the human rights of queer kids of faith.
If BC continues to do this, I think it’s time they also acknowledge that by doing so they have blood on their hands.
Another sidebar: Of course Bethlehem College isn’t the only state-integrated Christian school in New Zealand to push these beliefs.
Matamata school — state-integrated — has this to say:
“Marriage: Marriage is Biblically defined as being between one man and one woman (Gen 2:24, 1 Cor 7:2-16, Eph 5:23-33, Matt 19:5-6). It is recognised as being one person united to a person of the opposite sex as husband and wife in a consensual and contractual relationship recognised in law. Homosexual, lesbian or any other relationships or partnerships are seen as the outworking of mankind’s rebellious nature (Lev 18:22, Rom 1:26-27, 1 Cor 6:9) and therefore are not consistent with the school’s Special Christian Character.”
Taxpayer money goes to this school to help it enforce these views.
Then there’s Cornerstone in Palmerston North, which has this to say:
“Marriage is between one man and one woman as taught in the New Testament scriptures. Families are ordained by God and are to be encouraged, upheld and supported.”
It is also state-integrated and gets taxpayer money.
There are plenty of other schools. I could go on.
I said earlier I had no idea what Ro’s experience was at Bethlehem College. And of course the school wouldn’t have known, either. Not the teachers, or the Board, or the principal.
That’s the thing — you suffer in silence, pushed down by those tenets the school pushes. The casualties are not obvious, and so they’re easy to ignore. As BC is doing now.
And there’s another group affected by the school’s messaging, as well — students who bully queer kids. Because what the school believes simply emboldens them.
While a bully knows the school may not explicitly agree with their bullying tactics, they know their school implicitly agrees with their sentiment: That LGBTQI+ kids shouldn’t expect to be treated the same, because they are not the same.
The school might wrap them over the knuckles — but these students know that the school is more serious about protecting their right to believe what they want, than making sure there’s no room for violence against queer students.
Someone yelling “kill the gays” doesn’t happen in a vacuum. This behaviour exists in a space that it is safe enough to do so.
I’m genuinely unsure how you snap an institution like Bethlehem College and Arise — both deeply rooted in certain warped ideas within conservative, Evangelical Christianity — out of their inability to care for those that need it most.
For the likes of Peter Mortlock of City Impact Church, he just openly states that he doesn’t give a fuck: “Any high achiever, unfortunately, by their on sheer giftings and drive, run over a few people along the way.”
For John Cameron at Arise Church — I think his narcissism makes it near impossible for him to care for anything other than himself, or things that bring him pleasure and power.
For Bethlehem College — I don’t think they’ve clocked how the statements built into their school’s DNA are messing people up. Maybe I’m being too kind. I am actually, because they know it’s fucking people up: “We appreciate that, for some, Christian beliefs can feel personally hurtful,” the school has said.
It’s strange to see an institution like Bethlehem College clock that they’re being “hurtful” — yet refusing to change a Goddamn thing. Instead they huddle and pray, distraught their school is under attack.
But hey — they’re only hurting half-people. Sinners. Degenerates. Enemies. People who don’t deserve what normal people deserve.
And so it goes on.
PS: You can share this — it’s www.webworm.co/p/goodguys
One of the pleasures of writing Webworm is the community that exists here — you — often coming together in the comments to share their take on things.
People from all over the world, from a variety of backgrounds. Students to doctors, the religious to non-religious. People at school, to those well into retirement. All polite, informed and kind — even when we disagree.
I want to start sharing some of that feedback now and then — and these words from a reader really resonated with me this week:
“To the parents and prospective parents… some food for thought:
Can I start by saying that I am not a parent of a past or present student at Bethlehem College — but I have seen a close family member go through the decision to send their children to a ‘special character’ integrated school.
In that case, the decision on what school to send their children was made on a number of factors including; proximity/access, child’s preference and where their friends were going, educational reputation, personal connections with staff, money, alumni… and Christian values.
I also get that by the time many parents get the documentation to sign, the decision has been made, people told, other options declined, uniforms bought… essentially it is too late.
For this couple (and many of their friends) — “Christian values” is about education with a moral compass, giving the children the opportunity to establish their own values and doing so in a (hopefully) more caring environment.
Having read the Bethlehem College statement of beliefs, I can appreciate that many parents thought “what a lot of gobbledegook”, started to glaze over, and just signed it to get it done.
What I’m getting at with this long introduction is that in my experience not all parents are as ‘hard-core’ in their Christian beliefs as the board is promulgating.
Actions like the ‘kill the gays’ fiasco was probably exactly what they were hoping to keep their children away from.
I can imagine that quite a few Bethlehem College parents are now in the position of realising that the values and inclusion they thought they were getting (and paying for) are far from caring… or even honest.
You love your child(ren) and you want the best for them. But you also know that EVEN IF your child is heterosexual with no specific gender issues, there is likely to be a time during their schooling when they clash with one or other school policies — and you are called in to support your child.
The communication that David has published has given you a strong clue into how you will be treated.
It is patronising, passive-aggressive, and has no problem with quoting scripture at you or blatantly lying.
This is the leadership you are paying for, and these are the values that are seeping through the school.”
Congratulations — you made it to the end. If you like what I write and are on the free Webworm list, consider becoming a paid subscriber.
Let me be clear: Only do this if you are sitting on excess money. You’re a landlord with three houses. You won the lotto. You’re a lawyer bathing in cash. I don’t want students or people on the edge paying for this — ever. Your eyeballs and enthusiasm are enough. The important stuff will always remain free.
This thing takes a lot of time to write. I love doing it — this is a passion project as much as anything — but some income helps justify it. And helps cover things like legal fees when they come up (yes, cease & desists are a part of Webworm life).
So if you’re rich and are sitting on the free list, or don’t subscribe at all — consider becoming a paying subscriber.
As a sister, cousin, niece, and friend of gay individuals places like BC hurt my heart. The problem I have with religious institutions, especially Christian based, is that they throw out bible verses claiming they are the word of God. God didn't write the bible. Man did. Man is fallible. Also, it's always some how lost on today's Christians that the bible has been edited so many times over the years to suit the agenda of whoever was in power at the time. Most of the real works have either been surpressed or edited so many times that the real meaning has been lost over time. I do agree with the basis of Christianity and I also believe in the basis of a lot of other religions. However, religion has always been used as a scare tactic to keep people in line or to push a certain person or persons agendas. We don't need the bible to tell us how to live a good life. It's simple. Don't be a dick. Respect other people how you would like to be respected. It's not hard to be a good person. Being a good person is not about being perfect. It's about doing the best we can, admitting when we mess up, and trying to be a better person today than you were yesterday. 💗✌️
Growing up in Auckland in the 1970s I hid my true gender identity. My parents were religous and I had to go to church every Sunday (until I rebelled aged 16). Luckily I went to a state school but had to do religious school night once a week at our local church (at about age 14 I got in trouble for questioning the logistics of all the animals on Noah's ark). Except for a year when I went flatting before returning home, I hid my gender expression from almost everyone almost all of the time. I was sometimes depressed and suicidal-thinking there was something wrong with me. The only real life trans role models were prostitutes and strippers and glamourous TV acts who were treated as a bit of fun. Trans and gay people were objects of ridicule on TV shows and in movies were depicted as perverts. There was no legal protection-police could harass you and arrest you if you dressed differently to the norm of your biological sex. Midnight screenings of the Rocky Horror Picture Show at the Hollywood in Avondale were one of the few opportunities to be free. Without that, a few sympathetic close friends and counselling from Youthline I would have been dead long before now. In my early twenties I moved to Wellington. Outside work hours I sometimes pushed the restrictive boundaries of what was acceptable for men to wear. I finally came out as trans at the age of 55 (over 5 years ago). Not to everyone in my life, but at work and to most people. No young person (or adult) should have to hide that they are trans or gay today for fear of ridicule or violence. It is shameful that religious schools are getting away with anti gay and anti trans rules. That is illegal under current laws. They need to lose all of their state funding and be forced to drop the clauses from their contracts. Sadly in Aotearoa/New Zealand we are now visibly seeing the same type of anti-LGBTIA+ people, racists, conspiracy nuts, anti-vaxxers, gun rights proponents, etc., as in the USA.