Blast from the past…
By Retired Prof
The most important lesson Christianity offers for our daily guidance is that we should treat other people the way we ourselves hope to be treated. Armstrongism smothers that message under a pile of petty rules about what people should eat, when and how they should observe holy days, and how they should behave toward members above and below them in the hierarchy.
The rules about hierarchy are the most damaging. Herbert W. Armstrong repeatedly insisted that democratic principles, which he derided as “government from the bottom up,” are all wrong. “Government,” he would shout, “is from the TOP DOWN!” According to this principle, the duty of church members is to submit to authority. Just as surely, the duty of ministers is to wield it. A name Armstrong never used for church governance, but which nevertheless applies to his style of it, is tyranny. By demanding that people treat others strictly according to their rank instead of their shared humanity, tyranny tramples all over the Golden Rule.
Most of what, as a child, I heard Armstrong say on The World Tomorrow has either faded from memory or never made it there in the first place, but I do remember how he contrasted the behavior of two groups of diners in a German restaurant after the war. The Americans tried to interact with the waiters (or waitresses, I forget which) and treated them politely, saying “Bitte” and “Danke schoen.” The British pretended they were invisible except when barking orders and shouting rebukes at them. Armstrong declared that the British got better service. Only dimly do I recall what his main point was. Probably he meant that you have to get stern with people you have just conquered, especially if they happen to be Germans. However, I clearly remember the satisfaction in his voice, and that tipped his hand: he didn’t just recommend ordering people around, he gloried in it.
In some public presentation or another during my school year at Ambassador College, Garner Ted Armstrong explained how Herbert corrected him for missteps in doing the broadcast. For example, he told us that in one series of programs he had repeatedly used more statistics than listeners could absorb. His father said nothing about the problem at first; he waited till listenership fell off a few points and letters of complaint came in. Then Herbert called Garner Ted on the carpet and went on a long and abusive tirade. One thing he yelled, as I recall the son telling it, was “Are you trying to DESTROY the work of God?” Garner Ted presented the story admiringly, as an example to follow, but I couldn’t help thinking it showed bad management style.
I never personally saw Herbert blow up but once; on that occasion he displayed a zest for chewing people out that bordered on hysteria.
For part of my work-study duty, I worked on the construction crew. On one project, we were restoring a reflecting pool on the grounds of one of the old mansions Ambassador had acquired. For us laborers with little appreciation for the intricacies of restoration, it was merely a hard, dirty job with shovels and wheelbarrows. Our foreman, though, found it fascinating. He set up a surveyor’s transit and eagerly checked our progress. For sealing cracks he experimented with a newly introduced product called epoxy and grinned in satisfaction when it worked. He was a stern and distant boss, but I didn’t hold that against him because it was clear that the church expected him to be. Stern or not, he did treat us fairly. I wish I could remember his name, because he deserves credit.
One day Herbert came out to inspect the project. He brought four or five guys in suits. Since I didn’t recognize them, they might have been men from “outside” that he wanted to impress. He took one look at our work and started yelling. THIS wasn’t what he had in mind! He didn’t want that shabby old pool RESTORED! He wanted a NEW one! Somebody should get some heavy equipment in here, tear everything out, and START OVER! It took him a couple of minutes to reach his oratorical peak, wind down, and stalk off. The suits followed, looking abashed.
Armstrong hurt my feelings a little even though I held no stake in the project other than grunt work. Our foreman, who had invested so much of himself in it, kept a stoic expression. Yet I knew he must have been crushed and humiliated, and I grieved for him. I wondered why in the world someone claiming to be the apostle of a loving god couldn’t manage the decency to make a private appointment with the foreman. There he could have explained with regret and sympathy that the work, fine as it might be, was not what he had in mind. It was cruel to humiliate the poor guy in front of both his crew and a gaggle of outsiders. My coworkers must have felt bad for him too, but we all kept our faces as stony as his, and we did nothing to console or support him. After all, how can underlings presume to offer consolation or support to their superiors? The strict hierarchy robbed us of our common humanity.
It also rendered us inert in the face of abuse. None of us expressed disapproval of Armstrong’s behavior. None of us uttered the name for a person who acts the way he had just done, because in our unwritten church thesaurus that word was not counted among the synonyms for apostle. On every other job I’ve held—as farm hand, mill hand, service station attendant, construction worker, short order cook, gravedigger, office flunky, dialect fieldworker, and college teacher—the accepted term is asshole.
Well, it is encouraging to report that some people can resist pressure to act tyrannical even when standing on their particular rung in a hierarchy. One such was Lynn Torrance, who taught my freshman English class at Ambassador.
One day, a few class members got into a discussion about some minor point of usage. I can’t remember what it was; all I recall is that both options sounded fine and the slight difference between them would have very little effect on either clarity or grace. I sat there scratching aimless doodles in my notebook, waiting for one side or the other to give in or drop the subject. Neither side did; the discussion dragged on.
Torrance had confidence in me. Partway through the school year he had come to trust my knowledge of grammar and punctuation enough to hire me as his grading assistant. When he needed some bibliography work done, he gave me the keys to his car and sent me downtown to the public library. It’s not surprising that he assumed I could offer a worthwhile insight to this discussion. He asked, “August, what do you think?”
I looked up from my doodling and said, “I think we fail to recognize the overwhelming insignificance of this question.”
There must be a way to utter that line so it sounds lighthearted and amusing, but I didn’t manage to do it that way. My boredom and irritation showed through, so the remark just sounded snotty. Nobody—not even a person “of the world,” much less a believer in church hierarchy—could have blamed Torrance if he had pinned my ears back. He did not.
Without either rancor or defensiveness, he explained that he thought the discussion was worthwhile because he was trying to teach us to become careful stylists. He wanted us to understand that even the smallest decisions about sentence structure, word choice, and punctuation are worth considering. When we revise, they are worth reconsidering.
That lesson was a good one. I profited from it. But I profited even more from the lesson Torrance taught by example to this teacher-to-be: when confronted with a young smartass, it is generally worthwhile to exercise a little forbearance. The Golden Rule is not just the law, it’s a good idea. Best to deflect barbs and redirect them toward a lesson that will benefit the whole group. In my own dealings with students, I usually managed to follow Lynn Torrance’s example. On those occasions when I fell instead into the “blow up and humiliate the offender” behavior displayed by Herbert W. Armstrong, I nearly always regretted it.