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Spiritual Abuse and The Fear of the Outsider

I can remember distinctly the Sunday School lesson in which we talked about Catholics. Their church across the street was expanding and it provided a natural topic of conversation, but that conversation wasn’t one of excitement or shared enthusiasm for their community of faith growing. Instead, it was a conversation of wariness with a clear message: they were outsiders.

The prevalence of this belief in my upbringing made it confusing when someone pointed out that Catholics weren’t, in fact, another faith. They were actually more similar to Christian beliefs than many other faith traditions. I was confused even further when this person explained gently that other denominations were also not other faiths, but just different articulations of Protestantism.

Focusing on the similarities between our community of faith and other communities of faith would confuse the message that we were believers and everyone else needed to be converted to our faith, the one true faith. The fear of the outsider was palpable.

The outsider posed an untamable and uncontrollable influence. The outsider brought questions and challenges to the strict dogma that was taught. The outsider invoked compassion and partnership to solve problems like poverty and hunger and homelessness. The outsider inherently challenged the power and hierarchy that existed.

And so the focus on the outsider was one of evangelism, friendship with the hope of conversion. A conversion which would lead to membership only when this former outsider expressed belief in the dogmatic teachings. Infant baptism would not be accepted; only full immersion believer’s baptism. Homosexuality would not be condoned. Divorce would be strongly be counseled against in any and all cases.

The outsider was welcome as long as the outsider looked, spoke, and acted like an insider. This is spiritual abuse because it reduces humans to numbers. It allows all traces of inequality both economically and racially a simple theological bandaid: “They are in that situation because they are not true believers.” It keeps wealth and power and prestige in the hands of the elite and it teachers disciples of Christ to turn a blind eye to those in need unless they first are converted.

This is spiritual abuse and it has infected our society, our governing bodies, and our churches.

Spiritual Abuse and Standing Ovations

I didn’t realize it was strange to some Christians to clap in the middle of a worship service until I was twenty. Clapping was an expression of gratitude common in worship services I attended as a child, especially at Christmas and Easter. I always understood the clapping to be a sign of gratitude for the experience, but in the churches, I visited there was a quiet reverence during worship. An awe and wonder signified not by more noise, but by silence and solitude. Worship wasn’t about anyone who led the service or led the music. Worship was about encountering Creator God who breathed life into humanity and wondering how on earth that could have happened.

This week, a Memphis megachurch pastor admitted to having being involved in sexually with a minor. His congregation responded with a standing ovation. Their response didn’t surprise me. I have stood clapping more than once in church and during worship. But something about this story didn’t sit right with me. While I admire this pastor’s admission in front of a crowd of people, there is something missing. Calling this a “sexual incident” rather than sexual misconduct against a minor, alleviates the legal ramifications of this pastor admitting to having committed a felony. This change of language was not an accident. This was spiritual abuse.

Admitting to something without accepting the full ramifications and consequences isn’t something we should be modeling as ministers. Instead, this partial admission exerts the power and privilege that he as the pastor of a megachurch holds. He holds the attention of thousands of people. He holds the respect of thousands of people and what he has done with that attention and respect is used it to make himself feel better about committing a crime.

This is the spiritual abuse that plagues our society making congregations feel as if they are the judge and juror of pastors’, polticians’, and president’s misconduct rather than our legal system and rather than God. If there are enough likes, if there is enough clapping, if there is a standing ovation than the wrong and hurt and pain that has been committed is ok.

It is never ok for anyone to harm a child, no matter the position, no matter the power, no matter the number of people they influence. It is never ok for a person in power to seek justification from an audience without submitting themselves to the legal process that governs our country.

This situation is an accurate picture of the country and culture we live in. We applaud spiritual abuse and people using their power and privilege to avoid the legal system because we believe we are the ones who know whether someone is good or bad and whether an act is right or wrong.

Be careful then how you live, not as unwise but as wise…

We’re quick to like and love and retweet. We’re quick to applaud when we are entertained and offer standing ovations when something surprises us. This is what our consumerist culture has taught us. This is what has infiltrated our communities of faith.

It’s up to us to learn the difference between living for applause and living for God.

 

Forgiveness and Sexual Harassment

The #metoo campaign has died down, but it has stayed with me. My stories, the stories I’ve read and the stories I’ve heard from people who weren’t ready to share their stories in a public forum all continue to whisper through my thoughts.

The ones that are the most difficult for me to hear are the stories that involve the victims of sexual harassment, sexual abuse, and sexual assault being forced to sit in the same room as the person who abused them and forgive them in front of a third party. More often than not, these stories of forced forgiveness take place in the church with a spiritual leader, which couples the sexual harassment, sexual abuse, and sexual assault with spiritual abuse in a way that doubles the impact of the victim’s trauma.

This is difficult for me as an ordained minister. I believe strongly in reconciliation and forgiveness and am actively trying to teach our children that when you harm someone with your words or your actions it’s on you to make peace and to restore that relationship. I also strongly believe that a victim of sexual harassment, sexual assault, and sexual abuse should be given the choice to seek sanctuary away from the person who victimized them.

And maybe that’s why these stories of forced forgiveness burden me so much. The victim’s voice and choice is again taken away in these instances creating not a restored relationship but another layer of abuse on top of what the victim has already experienced.

I do believe people can change. I believe that some of those who have participated in our culture (because it is ours, all of ours) of sexual harassment have participated because of learned, unexamined language patterns. I believe there’s hope for us to overcome this toxic culture we have created (because we all have created it together) not with forced forgiveness, but with time to heal and become whole again and that we can create a culture where all people are valued, not shamed and abused.

At least that’s what I am going to keep working towards.

Spiritual Abuse and The Power of Silence

Since I started writing about spiritual abuse two years ago, I’ve been asked more than once to stop. I’ve been encouraged to stop talking about spiritual abuse because it causes questions and conversations that people are uncomfortable. I’ve been encouraged “to think about the people this impacts” and “to think how people will respond,” but the gnawing understanding that sweeping things under the rug and allowing these instances of spiritual abuse be handled internally only perpetuates rather than eradicates the occurrence of spiritual abuse in communities of faith is something I have to write and talk about.

Each time I’ve encountered this pushback, I am reminded of the times I was told to doubt my instincts, to question my gut, to keep silent as a child and teen. It happens in subtle ways as Michelle Obama points out in her recent address to a marketing and sales event called Inbound:

If you have been socialized to think your voice doesn’t matter…there’s so much going on that shushes us and it’s hard to overcome when you need to defend yourself because it’s hard to drum that stuff up…and keeps us from fighting the fights we need to fight for ourselves and for our children.

We have to overcome the socialization that has taught us not to talk about those things that we see and experience like spiritual abuse that people don’t want us to acknowledge, wrestle with, and ultimately overcome. We have to be open to hear people’s stories of being abused and molested in our communities of faith in years past and in the present if we have any hope of making it stop in the future, but the vast number of people who have shared their stories with me after sharing them with leadership in these communities of faith have been encouraged to do one thing:

Be silent.

Keep this quiet so that we can protect the community. Don’t talk about this because his reputation is on the line or the church’s reputation is on the line. Don’t share what you’ve experienced with anyone or we will take legal action. Again and again the recurring message: We don’t talk about this.

I do. This is spiritual abuse.

I hear you saying, stop talking about it and focus on the good things in communities of faith, but that’s what we always do. We always look for the good overlooking the systematic, entrenched culture of spiritual abuse in our communities of faith that causes a lifetime of trauma in children and teens and adults. Until I stop hearing story after story of spiritual abuse, I can’t stop talking and writing and asking questions trying to restore hope for those who have survived spiritual abuse.

Hope in a God who doesn’t use silence and oppression as tools for submission, but invites us to join in the work of healing and wholeness here on earth.

 

 

The Power to Condemn and Spiritual Abuse

I’ve been condemned to hell more than once. I’ve been on personal prayer lists, Sunday School prayer lists, and prayer lists of communities of faith because I have “stepped out of God’s will” and “off the beaten path.” When I expressed a call to preach and pastor, it caused quite a few theological crises because as a woman I wasn’t supposed to be called to preach or pastor.

There are a couple of possible reactions that someone, like me, who presents a theological crisis to an individual or a community of faith, receives: acceptance or condemnation. If an individual or community accepts the “wanderer”, then the others within the faith community may also begin to question and challenge the teachings of that community causing more to wander away. If this “wanderer” is condemned by an individual or a community of faith, then the equilibrium is kept. Power is kept in the hands of the powerful. Followers are reminded of what happens when you step out of line: you become an outsider. The power to condemn is a purposeful use of language that maintains control and order.

The power to condemn is a purposeful use of language that maintains control and order while keeping power in the hands of the powerful. This is spiritual abuse.

Because I was born and raised in this theology, I know the line of reasoning. So, when I am condemned to hell, I don’t merely accept this conclusion but attempt to diffuse it.

“But I thought only God could judge or condemn someone.”

“That’s right, He is the ultimate judge.”

“Then, why are you condemning me to hell for answering a call to pastor and preach.”

“I’m not. I’m just…I’m just saying you need to be careful.”

“Ok, thanks, I will be.”

My response may sound flippant, but these encounters have been intense and painful experiences for me. In more than one instance after I have been condemned to hell, I have ended up in my closet crying and doubting myself and my call wondering whether I was indeed “off the beaten path” and “out of God’s will.” The reason spiritual abuse is so powerful is that it produces self-doubt, shame, and insecurity. It cripples those who have experienced it from being their true and whole selves.

If you haven’t condemned a fellow human to damnation and warned them of the danger of the path they are taking, it would be hard for you to imagine this conversation or interaction. But as someone who has both condemned fellow humans to damnation as well as wrestled with the inhumanity of that use of language, I understand the impact it can have.

As Hurricane Irma draws near, people are looking for something or someone to condemn; they are looking for a theological reason for Irma and Harvey to have hit where they have hit. “Ahh Orlando, isn’t that where the Pulse nightclub is?” I hope you haven’t heard these types of theological explanations for the disaster and devastation as I hope you haven’t heard them for you being yourself, but if you have, know that you are not alone.

I’m here “out of God’s will” and “off the beaten path,” ready to welcome you and affirm your courage and bravery in being who you are.

The Ghosts of Our Past

I just finished reading Toni Morrison’s Beloved part of my commitment this year to read more books by women authors, authors from different socioeconomic backgrounds, and authors of different ethnicities and races. Morrison weaves a devastating tale of African Americans trying desperately to find freedom from slavery. Her main character Sethe is beaten when she is pregnant to the point that she will wear scars on her back for the rest of her life. In a pivotal moment, Sethe’s old owner finds her in Ohio and intends to claim his property back: her and all four of her kids. What is she supposed to do? That moment of decision plagues her for the rest of the book. Ghosts from her past keep her up at night, make her question who she is, and make her wonder whether she is a good mother.

I’ve often said I wish I could go back to the community of faith I grew up in now that I have found my voice and speak into the sexism and spiritual abuse I encountered. I wish I could stand up to that power and privilege protecting the hierarchy and often times missing opportunities to meet the desperate needs of the community. These ghosts of my past keep me up at night, make me question who I am, and make me wonder whether I am a good mother as the theology I grew up in taught that a woman’s most important role was to raise her children, not share God’s word, especially from a pulpit.

This weekend, we saw the ghosts of our past as a country in broad daylight in the violent protests of Charlottesville, VA. We saw the hatred and enmity as one woman was killed and nineteen others were injured. We saw the racism, sexism, and elitism that are usually subtexts and passive aggressive comments broadcast in public. We were confronted with the reality that our country was founded on the backs of treating people like property and animals. We discovered there are still some who believe that the past is not only ok but the way things should be.

The thing about ghosts of our past is that we don’t want to seem them. In fact, most of convince ourselves that ghosts don’t exist brushing aside the missed opportunities to offer a helping hand to someone in need, excusing the privilege we have enjoyed with defenses of why we deserve what we have (forgetting this means others don’t and can’t have what we have), and forgetting that what we saw this weekend, we helped create.

But being confronted with the ghosts of our past reminds us of where we have been and challenges us to ask the question who do we want to be. Do we want to be the kind of people who try to ignore the racism, sexism, and elitism that abounds in our country limiting the possibilities of other people? Are we going to brush aside people’s stories of racism, sexism, and elitism when we hear them blaming the victim? Or are we going to be the community that surrounds these ghosts of the past and exposes them?

At the end of Morrison’s book, there is a beautiful scene of the community gathering at the edge of the property where Sethe lives. They sing, they pray, they stay until she comes out of the house and they stop her from repeating her past. This is the power of community.

We can’t face the ghosts of our past alone. We need the power of community to help keep us accountable and courageous to become something more than who we used to be.

On Laying Low

Yesterday, The State Newspaper released an article on the interactions between the homeless community and the new residents of the Main Street community. The article was supposed to report on aggressive interactions between the homeless and these new residents, but the residents who were interviewed couldn’t think of any incidents in which they felt threatened. The article has received pushback for overgeneralization of a population comprised of unique individuals and unique circumstances as well as being poorly researched.

In my experience with the homeless population, I think the question was correct but addressed to the wrong population. The reporter should have asked whether the members of the homeless community had ever had an aggressive interaction with a member of the population who live in homes and apartments (this sounds odd to generalize all the population who live with a roof over their head into one big category, doesn’t it?). His article would have been filled with the stories of people desperately trying to survive and save for a hotel room, an apartment, or a room at a nursing home facility being victimized again and again. Not only do people who are homeless experience aggressive attacks, but then shame and guilt are heaped onto them for “getting themselves into this position.”

But that’s not what the story concluded. Instead, it reinforced the false belief that people who are homeless are homeless because of their choices or laziness. It reinforced bias of a group of people filled with unique individuals with unique situations. It failed to mention that the homeless population in Columbia is comprised of individuals and families who are chronically homeless, situationally homeless, and seasonally homeless.

The bi-product of this article is not only the reinforcement of bias but a reminder to The State readers that they are released from the responsibility of caring for their neighbors in need. The article will have ripple effects for non-profits who are working in and with the homeless community. They will see more critique, reduced funding, and lack of participation. The article will also serve to send a message to the homeless community to lay low: they are being watched. But more than any of these effects, the article will reinforce the privilege laced into our society that created the haves and the have nots.

Until we can come to the understanding that some of us have been given opportunities others have not had and will not have, we will continue to thrive as a people and as a society by exploiting and oppressing other people. 51% of children in SC will continue to be food insecure because they live in low-income situations and over 17,000 people in SC will continue to be homeless 20% of whom are children.

You might be able to sleep at night in your bed when it’s raining outside and not think or worry about the people and children who are trying to find a warm, dry place to sleep. You might be able to look at these statistics and understand that over half of our population in SC is living in low-income situations and say you deserve what you have because you worked for it and they deserve what they get. You might be able to drive by someone begging for money without wondering if they are begging because they didn’t get picked for the limited day laborer pool or because it’s raining and they can’t work construction, paving, or painting today. These realities might be ok with you because they are the realities in which you have a place to sleep and food to eat without concern.

These realities are not ok with me. I think there’s enough for us all. I think when we believe we deserve what we have, it clouds our vision to what we could do if we worked together and shared our resources.

I am only one
by Edward Everett Hale

I am only one,
But still I am one.
I cannot do everything,
But still I can do something;
And because I cannot do everything,
I will not refuse to do the something I can do.

 

The Physical Impact of Spiritual Abuse

It is difficult to ascertain the lasting impact spiritual abuse has on victims. Although we are beginning to understand that prolonged anxiety and fear have an impact on victims as well as having a long-term psychological impact on victims, it is difficult to understand how this impact manifests itself in overall health.

Whenever an emotion is triggered in us, our bodies are instantly and unconsciously affected in very specific ways….To be healthy and functional, we need to be able to feel and connect to all of our emotions at different times, even to the less pleasant ones.

For victims of spiritual abuse who have experienced prolonged periods of anxiety and fear (i.e. stress-filled emotions), the journey to becoming healthy and whole emotional beings is often a long road. Victims of spiritual abuse must first identify themselves as having experienced spiritual abuse, then they must begin to understand their own triggers, then and only then can they work their way towards controlling their emotions in these trigger areas. This process may take years to implement.

In the meantime, their bodies and minds have experienced “survival mode” emotions:

Biologically and evolutionarily, all “negative,” or distressing, emotions, like fear, disgust, or anxiety, can be thought of as “survival-mode” emotions: they signal to the body and brain that our survival and well-being may be at risk, and are specifically designed to motivate behaviors and bodily responses that can most effectively deal with those risks and threats.

Being in a surivial mode for long periods of time greatly affects a person’s ability to truly feel love and joy:

when we’re in homeostasis we tend to experience positive emotions and feelings, like joy or love, and when we’re in survival mode we tend to experience negativeor distressing emotions and feelings. Indeed, the activation of a negative emotion like fear is precisely what throws our brains and bodies out of balance, into non-homeostasis or survival mode.

This only touches the emotional impact of spiritual abuse. The physical impact of spiritual abuse can include sleeplessness, digestive issues, migraines, heartburn, difficulty breathing, social withdrawal or isolation, and a myriad of other possibilities.

I have many people who come to me who are experiencing physical issues. As we talk and I get to know their story I begin to understand that the physical symptoms they are experiencing are unresolved spiritual abuse they have experienced. We are connected heart, soul, and mind. When we have experienced abuse in our souls, our spiritual selves, this can’t help but impact our minds and our bodies.

It’s a difficult thing to analyze and come to terms with who we are and what we have experienced, but doing this hard work leads to becoming more whole and healthy beings: in body, mind, and soul.

 

Spiritual Abuse and Failure to Follow Up

Last week I wrote about another story of spiritual abuse. This story involved the woman being told to keep quiet and to let the men handle things. It’s not an uncommon story. I know it’s happened to many people who have experienced spiritual abuse, sexual abuse, and physical abuse, but this isn’t the only thing that happens to victims of spiritual abuse, sexual abuse, and physical abuse.

In many cases, victims are strong and resilience. They don’t listen to the people telling them to keep things quiet and to not report what has happened to them. In many cases, these courageous and brave victims report their experiences. They share the abuse they have been through even though it’s painful and traumatic to recount. They overcome their fears and their shame in order to make it better for someone else.

Even though they show incredible courage and bravery, these victims are often met with people who fail to follow up. Over the past couple of weeks, the tech industry has been reeling from story after story of  women entrepreneurs who have sought advice and investment from men. The story for these women was that they had to endure sexual harassment, groping, and unwanted sexual advances in the midst of trying to grow their businesses and procure funding to make their ideas become reality. When they reported these investor’s and advisor’s behavior to their businesses or firms more often than not, the business didn’t take their accusations seriously or follow up at all. Years of reporting, bravery, and courage on the part of these victims has finally brought to light the engrained sexism and privilege that exists in the tech industry.

But it’s not just the tech industry.

Women who are in fundamentalist and conservative communities of faith often are counseled and encouraged to stay in abusive marriages in order to protect the sanctity of marriage and avoid divorce. Women who are beaten, raped, and told they are worthless again and again are told to remain with their abusers because it is “God’s will.” This is spiritual abuse. There is never, never a reason to tell a victim of abuse to stay in an abusive relationship. There is never, never a reason to blame God for the abuse a woman is experiencing. It is not an exaggeration to say this is a matter of life and death:

 More than half of female homicide victims were killed in connection to intimate partner violence — and in 10 percent of those cases, violence shortly before the killing might have provided an opportunity for intervention.

It would be easier if we just continued on our way without worrying about these deep issues and how deeply engrained sexism, sexual harassment, and spiritual abuse are in our churches, in our business, and in our country. It would be easier, but it would be failing to follow up and we’ve had enough of that, haven’t we?

Spiritual Abuse and Keeping Things Quiet

I heard another story of a young woman sexually harassed by a minister of her church who brought the sexual harassment to the leadership of the church and was told, “Just keep this quiet. We’ll take care of it internally.”

This is spiritual abuse.

This is what perpetuates a culture of sexual harassment, sexual abuse, and spiritual abuse. Churches and communities of faith should not operate as if they can handle clergy misconduct internally, especially when a law has been broken. This thinking is how communities of faith become hotbeds for sexual abuse and spiritual abuse.

There have been more and more people interested in the clergy misconduct and the sexual abuse and child abuse that has taken place in evangelical churches, but these stories unfortunately are not getting the press and attention that the Catholic church received as they did the hard work of uncovering decades of sexual abuse and child abuse.

This is something we must expose. We must be willing to share our stories. We must be willing to end our silence. We must be willing to listen to the stories of the number of people who have been impacted by a culture of silence and shaming and spiritual abuse. We must be willing to confront the hard truth of uncovering just how many people have been impacted by spiritual abuse and sexual abuse in our churches.

We must read the stories of child sex abuse and the resulting cover up. We must read the reports of task forces seeking to find best practices. We must read the stories of young women and men who were brought into sexual awareness in an abusive situation by a man of God. We must come to terms with the fact that by keeping things quiet and “handling it internally,” we have created a place for abusers to keep abusing again and again and again.

This is spiritual abuse.

This must stop for the sake of our communities of faith and for the sake of our children.