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The Ugly Truth of Spiritual Abuse

BNG posted an article this week recounting the story of CJ Mahaney being asked to preach at a preaching conference called Together for the Gospel. Mahaney’s focus for his Sunday sermon was on how churches should support their pastors and not question them. The reason his sermon was so controversial was because Mahaney has been accused of multiple accounts of child abuse since the 1980s and using the leadership of his church to cover up this abuse. Should this man be allowed into the pulpit to preach with these allegations?Unfortunately, this isn’t the first time we’ve heard about spiritual leaders engaged in child molestation or abuse. The Catholic Church has been brought to task for this very same issue.

The vast majority of cases where this church leaders are convicted of sexual abuse and molestation of children are in patriarchal systems of religion. This isn’t coincidence. Patriarchal theological teaching, interpretation, and doctrine are the breeding ground for spiritual abuse i.e. the use of spiritual or biblical interpretation in order to justify sexually molesting, abusing, or raping another person.

When we as members of congregants deny that sexual abuse, molestation, and rape are possibilities in our congregation, we deny that 1 in 6 women have been the victims of rape or attempted rape in their lifetimes. Perhaps the reason we are seeing a decline in church attendance and spiritual affiliation, is because of the rampant spiritual abuse that is taking places in our churches (yes, is taking place) with multiple church employees and congregants involved in coverups.

This is an ugly truth. We don’t want to admit that our churches are the places inflicting pain and hurt on people. We want to believe our churches are places of hope and healing.

Church can be that, but not until we bring to light the ugly truth of spiritual abuse.

Why I Ask the Awkward Questions Others Won’t

I was recently being interviewed and in the course of our discussion, my interviewer remarked:

“Well, you have gotten the reputation of talking about hot button issues, people usually don’t want to talk about.”

I laughed, but after the interview was over I thought a little more earnestly about that statement. Why did I ask those awkward questions about hot button issues that many churches, ministers, and lay people get nervous even mentioning?

Why did I feel compelled in a recent gathering of ministers and lay people to bring to light sexist and patriarchal language? Why do I write in this space about how churches need to have the difficult conversation around inclusion of the LBGTQ community? Why can’t I appreciate the heart of a message and forget about the racist, sexist, and privileged subtexts? Why can’t I keep my mouth shut around touchy topics that make people uncomfortable?

Perhaps it is because there have been so many times I haven’t said or done anything, but instead have tacitly condoned discriminatory language, practices, and patterns through my participation and silence. Perhaps it is because I hope that by challenging men who tell me at professional gatherings that it “looks like I’ve lost all that baby weight,” I am trying to expose sexism so my daughters might not have these types of experiences as professional women. Perhaps it’s because when I do speak up, I hear voices of others who wanted to say something, but thought it was just them who felt the sexist and racist subtext of the conversations. Perhaps it is because I am beginning to understand my own privilege and how it impacts others when I make decisions haphazardly without analysis or reflection.

Unless we are willing to fight against discrimination both systemic and unintentional in our language, in our worship, and in our churches, we are perpetuating the belief that Creator God is only available to some types of people and not all people. When we allow discriminatory patterns, habits, and language to enter our sacred spaces, we miss the opportunity to hear of the power of God working in the lives of God’s people. We miss miraculous evidence that God is still transforming lives. We miss the glimpses of wholeness and hope and healing in the midst of brokenness and hurt and pain.

We miss the opportunity to bear witness to God’s work in and among us.

And I don’t want to miss that.

Looks Matter

I sat in the pew preparing for the service: marking my hymns and making sure my phone was turned off. As the organ started, I stood with the rest of the congregation glancing ahead still nervous about the liturgical-style worship. The minister lead us in the Call to Worship, we sang another hymn, and sat down.

From behind me, I heard, “Well, they didn’t pay much attention to who was up this week did they? Four gray-haired men doesn’t make us seem so welcoming and affirming.”

I looked up and noticed the person behind me was right. The church had female ministers and ordained female ministers, but you wouldn’t have known that if this was the first time visiting the church because four white, male men over fifty who occupied the four chairs on the platform.  I hadn’t noticed it because growing up in a Southern Baptist Church, there were always only men on the platform, most of them were my parents’ age or older. That was just the norm.

But this church was supposed to be a moderate or, actually, a progressive baptist church. As a young, female seminarian at the time, I wondered who was in charge of noticing not just the elements of the worship service, but how the church looked on Sunday morning.

Looks matter.

Whether we like it or not, first impressions make all the difference to people who are seeking a moderate or progressive experience. If churches claim to be moderate or progressive but don’t have women participating in the service, then their words and actions don’t match. If churches claim to be invested in developing young ministers, but don’t have young ministers participating in the service, then their words and actions don’t match.

We can say all we want to that we are moderate or progressive, open and affirming, but until we do something to include all people in our churches and in our worship services, then our words are meaningless.

Actions speak louder than words.

The Leering Look at the Stoplight

I could feel the stare before I saw the eyes in the car next door leering at me. He gave a wide-mouthed grin and then a wink.

Really? I thought to myself. He can’t even see me. 

If it wasn’t about looks, then what was the leering look about?

And then it dawned on me. He does it because he can do it…Because no one is stopping him from winking at a woman at the stoplight.

And he’ll just keep on doing it to as many women as he wants to.

The light turns green and a wait just a second before pushing the gas pedal.

I hope I’ll never see him again.

Gender Relations: Unsolicited Catcalls and Whistling

As I got out of my car in the Walgreens, I heard the low whistle. I had already noticed the two men sitting in the van, but honestly I hadn’t thought twice about their attention. After being pregnant for nine months, I had forgotten what it was like to be whistled at and catcalled. I’m not sure if it was just me or not, but there was something reverent or holy about being pregnant that catcalls and whistling indecent.

Now that I’m three months postpartum, I remember distinctly what it’s like to be a woman in 2016. It means dealing daily with the sexism that results in catcalling and whistling at someone you don’t know. It means that when you relay these experiences to another person, you run the risk of hearing, “But you should take that as a compliment, especially since you just had a baby.”

Really? That’s the best we can do in 2016? Advise women to unsolicited comments from men as a compliment? That’s the best I can hope will be modeled to my son in today’s society?

And I know I’m not alone. Women experience this much too often and while we might smile or laugh it off, if you really ask us, you’ll understand that we have to have a coping mechanism because we deal with it too often.

The reason this is such an issue is that same mindset that allows for catcalling and whistling at a stranger in the parking lot with a baby in her arms, allows for the reasoning that women don’t need to make as much as men, or that maternity leave is a vacation. We have told ourselves this isn’t a big issue. We have dubbed women who bring this issues to light as alarmists or pot-stirrers, but until it isn’t acceptable to catcall or whistle at a woman in public, there’s no hope these other things will change.