The hostages were strapped with dynamite and held in a bank vault until finally rescued on August 28. After their rescue the hostages exhibited a shocking attitude, considering they were threatened, abused, and feared for their lives for over five days. In their media interviews, it was clear that they supported their captors and actually feared law enforcement personnel, who came to their rescue. The hostages had actually begun to feel that their captors were actually protecting them from the police. Clearly, these hostages had bonded emotionally with their captors.
What is it about the human mind that allows this syndrome to take place? Is there anything Christians ought to take note of here? We’ll think through both these issues today. I’m going to give some characteristics to the Stockholm syndrome so that we know what we’re talking about:
- People who are caught up in this syndrome have positive feelings toward their abuser or controller.
- They have negative feelings toward family, friends or authorities trying to rescue, or support them, or win their release. Go figure on that. Pretty hard to believe, isn’t it?
- Support of the abuser’s reasons and behaviors are part of the victim’s mentality.
- Positive feelings by the abuser toward the victim.
- Supported behaviors by the victim, at times, helping the abuser.
- And then lastly, the inability to engage in behaviors that may assist in their release or detachment.
Now, here are some situations that might foster Stockholm syndrome and has in the past:
- Prisoners of war, sometimes, take on this mentality. There are stories of some prisoners of war who changed sides.
- The second one: concentration camp prisoners. There were some prisoners in the German concentration camps who became guards.
- Sometimes, a part of criminal hostage situations. Elizabeth Smart, a fourteen-year-old girl, was kidnapped from her home in Salt Lake City in 2002 by two members of a fundamentalist polygamist sect – the homeless preacher, Brian David Emmanuel Mitchell, and his wife, Wanda Barzee. At first, she was kept tethered to a tree in a wooded canyon, dressed in white robes and confined to a twenty-foot long trough with a lean-to over it. But after two months, the couple was able to take the girl with them to restaurants and other public places – her face veiled – and she no longer tried to escape. (You wonder why seeing a kid with a veiled face wouldn’t draw some attention.) The trio traveled to San Diego, California and Las Vegas, Nevada, with Smart claiming to be the couple’s daughter. By the time they returned to Utah, she’d become so attached to her captors that when she was finally approached by Utah law enforcement officials, who had been searching for her for nine months, she told them she was eighteen years old and Mitchell’s polygamist wife. Only when she was shown a picture of herself, as she had looked before her abduction, did she admit that she was, in fact, Elizabeth Smart.
- Another situation where this takes place is with cult members. Years ago, I watched Larry King interview authorities, attorneys, parents of the children in the case that went on in Texas, where the state took 413 children from a polygamous cult. Some of the parents said they thought it was unfair that all the children were taken when there were just a few cases of abuse. He also interviewed two women who’d left the cult. They said it took years to get past the effects of isolation and lack of social skills needed to function in a free environment. So this is very common thing that happens in these kinds of abusive situations.
- Incest victims, quite often, would fit into this syndrome as well.
- Battered and abused women. It’s not uncommon for women to turn on police when they come to intervene in domestic abuse, even though the woman was being severely beaten.
- This can also occur in somewhat less intense situations – controlling and intimidating relationships, for example. I have a friend, whose sister married a guy after a whirlwind courtship, and it now appears that he’s poisoned her mind against the rest of the family, denying the family access to her children. So she’s willingly buying in to this paranoia that he has about her family.
Now let’s think about some causal factors here:
- There is quite often a perceived threat to one’s physical or psychological well-being on the part of the victim. And that can be because of abuse, threats, or witnessing the abuse of others.
- There’s also the presence of a perceived small kindness or reward from the abuser. The woman who is beaten by her husband is often given a birthday card or flowers, for example. She reasons that he’s not all bad. The Stockholm prisoners saw bathroom “privileges” as a kindness on the part of their captors. “Wow! They’re letting us go to the bathroom! Aren’t they great?” One woman Stockholm hostage later became engaged to one of the criminals, and another developed a legal defense fund to aid in their criminal defense fees – loyal to their abusers to the end.
- Another thing that occurs in this syndrome is isolation from perspectives other than that of the abuser. Most of these more extreme cults have compounds where everybody is kept away from the outside world. I didn’t realize it for many years, but for a long time I only heard one perspective of Christianity. I was aware that there were others, but saw all of them as incorrect, so I never investigated. So, even though I was free to do what I wanted, I didn’t want to explore. Stockholm robbers told their captives all about the wrongs they had suffered at the hands of society. And before it was over, the captives saw them as victims. So how does that happen? It has to do with the power that they exert over the victim. It’s easy to go along if you think going along is going to save your life. The same kind of thinking also happens in abusive relationships.
- Also, another thing is, the perceived inability to get away. They feel like they’re walking on egg shells. One of my clients was telling me that her father would often come home drunk and angry They could tell, by how hard he slammed on the brakes and how far the truck slid in the gravel, how bad it was going to be. And they would scramble to make sure that all their work was done, clothes folded, homework done, etcetera. It was that threat there constantly. Often domestic abusers try to insure that their mates don’t have a way to survive financially, or deliberately get so deep in debt that divorce would be financial ruin for them. In many cases, victims talk about how to avoid trouble – scan mail, serve food on time, avoid certain topics, certain family members, etcetera.
- Another aspect of this is what we could call cognitive dissonance. People, generally, don’t like to hold differing views in mind at the same time. We want to come down on one side or the other of an issue. And that’s especially true when a person is under stress and filled with anxiety about their physical well-being. If you husband or boyfriend, for example, becomes abusive or assaultive – I could say, girlfriend, as well – we’ve had cases of that here in New Mexico, for sure – you can’t leave, due the finances, the children, or other factors. And through cognitive dissonance, you begin to tell yourself, “He only hits me with open hands,” or “He has a lot of stress at work,” and that, somehow, makes it okay in their minds to hang around. So it’s this inability to grasp the abuser’s viewpoint, and hold on to their own perspective, that allows people to fall into this sick perspective. There was a cult in the 50s that thought God was going to come and take them all away to another planet in flying saucers. And that would be on a certain date so they would be protected from the wrath of God. When the date came and went, and the saucers didn’t come, what do you think happened? Did they say, “Oh, we were wrong.” No, they claimed that because of their faithful activity, God wasn’t going to have to send punishment on the earth. They had saved the planet. By the way, does that sound vaguely familiar to anybody?
So that’s a bit about how Stockholm syndrome works and what it can cause. I mentioned earlier that we were going to talk about the spiritual ramifications of this syndrome. Let’s look at a scripture. It’s in Matthew 20:28.
Matthew 20:28 – Even as the Son of man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister and give His life as a ransom for many….
So who are the many to be ransomed from? You know, when somebody pays a ransom, that’s because somebody has been kidnapped. Right? Acts 26, starting in verse 9, Paul said:
Acts 26:9 – I, too, was convinced that I ought to do all that was possible to oppose the name of Jesus of Nazareth. And that is just what I did in Jerusalem. On the authority of the chief priests, I put many of the saints in prison. And when they were put to death, I cast my vote against them. Many a time I went from one synagogue to another to have them punished, and I tried to force them to blaspheme. In my obsession against them, I even went to foreign cities to persecute them. And, on one of these journeys, I was going to Damascus with the authority and commission of the chief priests. About noon, O King – he was talking to a Roman governmental official and king – as I was on the road, I saw light from heaven – brighter than the sun – blazing around me and my companion. And we all fell to the ground, and I heard a voice, saying in Aramaic, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute Me? It’s hard for you to kick against the goads.” And then I asked, “Who are You, Lord?” The fact that he said, “Lord,” would indicate that he already knew. “I am Jesus, whom you’re persecuting,” the Lord replied. “Now get up, and stand on your feet. I have appeared to you to appoint you as a servant and as a witness of what you have seen in Me, that I will show you. I will rescue you from your own people and from the Gentiles. I’m sending you to them to open their eyes and turn them from darkness to light, from the power of Satan to God, so that they may receive forgiveness of sin and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in Me.
So ransomed from the devil, right? The adversary. And freed from what? Well, in the book of Revelation, we see a picture of the domain of the devil. The beast and the false prophet cooperate to do what? To control human beings – financially, at first, and then physically later. There’s a thing called the mark of the beast that gives them this power. And what does that do? Well, it controls their ability to buy and sell and when they can worship – for that part, later on, everything. So every time we have an outbreak of this system in history, many people died to get rid of the control of others over them. It’s a system that abuses people, holds them down, chews them up and spits them out. The governing body is not there to serve the people, but the people are there are cannon fodder to serve the government.
Now, by contrast, we are told that God’s way is free. We’re told that Jerusalem above is free.. Now remember, neither the devil nor God, are limited to any one organization. It’s a war of ideas and concepts. Anyone can be doing God’s work one minute, and the devil’s the next. It just depends on what your focus is. Look for the application of tight control on one side, or the free flow of the Spirit on the other. That’s how you can tell the difference. The devil is about controlling people. God is about giving them freedom.
I know people are confused about God’s law. They think it’s restrictive and it’s God’s control over them. But you know, even a summary survey of the Bible will show that the law of God is there to keep us out of trouble, not to control us.
Now, think with me about the Stockholm syndrome for a minute. What were the causes of the whole syndrome itself? Well, there was a perceived threat of harm. The Stockholm robbers had dynamite strapped to the chests of their victims.
I once worked in a congregation that was next to a very troubled congregation in our church. Their pastor was being accused by a neighboring pastor of sexual misconduct. Some of the members came all the way down from their congregation to mine to tell me about their terrible minister. And I carefully asked every one of them to tell me how they knew this was happening. No one had any firsthand information. Every bit of it came from one place, when you tracked it back. That was from another minister. All these people saw this other minister as the solution to their problem. Eventually, enough of them complained about their pastor that was supposedly evil, and they eventually – the powers-that-be – removed him, and amazingly, the new minister was the minister that replaced him. And interestingly to me, the new minister was the minister that started the whole thing. It was all a plot to take over his congregation. He coveted control of a bigger congregation. Of course, everyone was overjoyed! Finally, they had a pastor that was good! And that lasted about thirty days. He threatened people with disfellowshipment if they didn’t do what he wanted. And everyone soon saw that this guy was an abuser, and, he was, as one of them put it, he was mean as a snake. Some of them rode Job’s horse all the way to my house to complain again. “So, if you think he’s mistreating the people,” I said, “why don’t you do something about it?” “Well, he’s going to disfellowship us!” So they perceived a threat of harm. Right? And I would say to them, “If you were to be disfellowshipped, would you still be faithful to Christ?” And they said, “Yes.” “And would you still obey God rather than men?” And they said, “Yes.” I said, “Do you work for him?” They said, “No.” “So, your salary is intact, right? Could you go to church somewhere else? Could you come down here to church, for example? I wouldn’t turn anybody away.” And they’d say, “Yes.” I said, “Okay, so what’s the big deal?” But there was still this perceived threat of harm. They’d been totally intimidated by this guy.
I hope that there are no people sitting here listening to this that fear leaving a controlling group because you’d somehow be isolated – you know, no longer a part of God’s true church, or something like that. That could happen either by the church leadership or by your friends or family. If you’re in that position, you’re suffering Stockholm syndrome and don’t even know it. It’s also true that the victims in the Stockholm situation became very compliant. They couldn’t stand the dissonance.
I heard about another situation, where in another robbery, a sniper shot a wounded robber, and two hostages propped him up in the window, so the sniper could finish him off. Nobody has to fall for the Stockholm syndrome. No one has to. It’s about strength of character and determination to be free.
Also, think about the issue of the presence of a perceived kindness. In the church I was mentioning, the pastor let those in the ministry continue to have their perks. They were still allowed on the speaking schedule and allowed to clean the toilets and stack chairs, for example, as long as they towed the line. “So it all goes okay, as long as I do what I’m told.”
Another aspect of it is isolation from the perspectives of others. We read that already, right? So this minister always wanted everyone to come to church and listen to him. He couldn’t actually make them do it, but he put a lot of pressure on people to come to church every week. And that meant they wouldn’t be going to church somewhere else. Right? He’d hold a lot of meetings and pound away on his agenda. He did the best he could to isolate people and feed them only his perspective. And regular attendance was rewarded with small benefits. Inconsistency was punished.
I was talking once to an elderly woman, who’d fallen prey to a very cult-like group, and she told me that, if her pastor found out she’d ordered any of our LifeResource CDs, he’s disfellowship her. What’s it like where you are? Is your excuse for staying there that you love the people? Well, do you love them enough to help them get free of that kind of control? Or, are you just reducing your own dissonance by going with the flow? – you know, just like that woman, who lives with the abuser and tells herself she couldn’t make it without him, so she stays and lets him beat the kids and herself.
I was talking to one of my clients some time ago, whose father, when she was fourteen, came into her room drunk and wanted her to undress. Her mother was in the house, but she wouldn’t protect her. She told him that if he ever came in her room again, she’d call the police. And he left. Her mother was weak, and she, even though she was only fourteen, was strong.
Do you remember what the children of Israel said when they got hungry? “Oh, we wish we were back in Egypt, where we onions, and leeks, and garlic to eat.” They wanted to go back to be slaves, instead of being free. Being free was too hard. They had to think and have faith in God. They wanted to go back and let Pharaoh kill some more of their babies. See, it’s all through the Bible, too. This has always been going on with people. Abusive people know how to cow and control the people that they are abusing. And the one thing they can’t tolerate is freedom and strength.
Also, the perceived inability to get away. This congregation I’m telling you about thought they’d never get rid of their narcissistic pastor. They just had to live with him. And about a year later, he was removed. Their perception of helplessness was all a self-created illusion – or maybe even a delusion. You don’t have to cooperate or go along. You can resist. It doesn’t matter if he is somebody in authority. If he’s not doing what God wants, he’s in the wrong! You know have to disassociate – you know, “I just ignore what people at the top do so I can still be with my friends.”
Years ago, when John McCain was a prisoner of war, after he’d been imprisoned for year, they told him it was time for him to go home. And he said, “There are guys here who have been here longer than I have. Send them back first.” I mean, they just can’t tolerate that kind of thing.
So breaking the spell – you know, it’s almost like what it is. The two women that had come out of the polygamist cult down in Texas talked about how hard it was to break free. They had no frame of reference – no information about what was going on in the real world, no job skills, no social skills. But once they got free, they found that there were people who were very willing to help them. The spell was broken. And the key to it all was a difference in perspective.
Did you know that God has given each Christian a calling and a spiritual gift to help them – and help Him? Those gifts come directly from God, not from human leadership. When you’re in a free church, the ministry teaches you about that and encourages you to learn what it is and how to use it. When you’re in a cult, no one wants to talk about that, because it cannot be controlled by the people at the top. Only the Holy Spirit does that.
If you have responsibilities in your congregation, are they significant perks for towing the line? Or, are they the result of you being free to use the gifts God has provided? Big difference. Maybe you stay away from your gifts because you don’t want to rock the boat or cause trouble. Well, that can be spiritual Stockholm syndrome as well.
Look at Titus 2:13.
Titus 2:13 – While we wait for the blessed hope, the glorious appearing of our great God and Savior, Jesus, who gave Himself to redeem us from all wickedness, and to purify for Himself a people that are His very own, eager to do what is good – right? To purify a people that are His very own, eager to do what is good. You know, sometimes, doing good is not easy, but God’s people are willing to do that.
The truly free people of God are free to obey – to join in with the whole church, not just their little isolated part of it. And they are free to eagerly use their gifts to pursue good works, because they’re free.
The apostle Paul tells us something important, for those who want to shake off stagnation and slavery – for those who want to grow. It’s in Galatians, the first chapter. Paul explains how he was called later – separate – from the other apostles. He knew he needed to be joined to them and cooperate with them, but he also knew that he was a free man in Jesus Christ to do the work God gave him – Galatians 1:10.
Galatians 1:10 – Am I now trying to win the approval of men or of God? Am I trying to please men? If I were still trying to please men, I could not be a servant of Christ.
When we are caught up in spiritual Stockholm syndrome-like situations, we fear what people will do to us. Some have said that it takes courage to resist abuse. As crazy as that is, it’s true. The fourteen-year-old girl had a lot of courage to resist her father, who – I didn’t mention this earlier – had punched her nose many times in her past.
But with spiritual Stockholm syndrome, it’s more about faith. If we have faith that God will take care of us for doing the right thing, then the courage takes care of itself. Another way to say that is this: to remain in a spiritually constricted situation happens because of a lack of faith.
Well, I’d like to conclude by saying that there are some people who think they’re being abused when they’re not. That’s the other side of this story. They have immaturely assigned to themselves gifts, when in fact, they don’t have these gifts. And if they’d ever ask for feedback, they’d learn that. And that can cause just as much trouble as being afraid to find and use our gifts.
So the next time, we’re going to take a look a look at the relationship that forms these controlling situations. It’s called the trauma bond. This will further identify the whole situation and help us understand what to do. Then, after that, we will talk about the solution to it in spiritual setting. And that solution, in the Bible, is called freedom in Christ.
This is Bill Jacobs for LifeResource Ministries, serving children, families and the Church of God.