Home » spiritual abuse

Category: spiritual abuse

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.

Spiritual Abuse and Female Sexuality

I have this feeling in the pit of my stomach, that intuition so long questioned and quieted, that there is a seismic shift occurring. A shift that is turning back time to a society where women are overtly oppressed and discriminated against rather than the subtext of our culture and conversations. 6.5% of senior pastors and co-pastors in the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship are women. That number is rising even as women were called this past week to serve as pastors and co-pastors. At the same time, the gender pay gap in the White House has tripled in 2017. This is the tension and conflict that is being a woman in 2017, swinging from hope to disappointment again and again and again.

Perhaps it’s Margaret Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale that brings to life how quickly a society can turn, how quickly citizens can lose their rights. Perhaps it’s that I can’t get through a week without being confronted with false views of female sexuality that are tied to theological reasoning passed on unexamined generation after generation. The same theology recycled and reused even though technology has changed, the average age of marriage has changed, and churches are in decline.

Or perhaps it’s my own wrestling to try to overcome the lingering impact of growing up in a purity culture so stringent that my biggest fear as a high schooler was getting pregnant, which transformed into the fear of not being able to get pregnant after I was married because female sexuality was so tied into a woman’s ability to reproduce.

Attributing all of female sexuality to the ability to reproduce is spiritual abuse.

It silences expression and creativity. It silences conversation and questioning. It silences a woman’s voice and choice.

It’s not until women start listening to themselves, to that intuition long questioned and quieted, that sexuality will not be full of spiritual abuse, but wholeness and healing. I experienced spiritual abuse, especially surrounding my sexuality, but I am not a child anymore. I don’t have to keep experiencing spiritual abuse about my sexuality. I can listen to my own voice, my center, myself, the one becoming stronger and more sure-footed with God’s help.

Reversing Your Running Path

This morning, I knew it was time, but I didn’t want to.

I didn’t want to run the 3.5 mile course I run on Fridays in reverse. I didn’t want to because I knew it would disrupt and disorient me. Yes, I know all of the reasons as a runner why you should reverse your familiar paths. I know that if you don’t then your shoes wear down in very specific unhealthy ways. I know if you have a nagging recurring injury that reversing your running path can reverse the negative impact on that injury and reorient any compensating behaviors you’ve accidentally taken on. I know this, but I just didn’t want to.

I knew it would mean not seeing my familiar markers, knowing exactly how much further I had to go. I knew I’d encounter the shortcut option 2/3 into my run instead of 1/3 into my run. I knew that I wouldn’t know the exact number of blocks I had to run before the next turn because I wasn’t as familiar with the path from another angle. More than anything I knew that it would mean encountering a hill that rose incrementally and steadily rather than a steep short hill where I could clearly see the end in sight.

But I knew this was good for me and so I did it reluctantly.

As I ran from the safety of the sidewalk, I realized I couldn’t see clearly what was coming towards me, but rather that I heard what was coming first. As I ran I depended on my ears rather than my sight. I could feel my nagging right hamstring relax with relief as my left hamstring took on more. And I began to realize that reversing my running path was very similar to the discipline of renewing my mind as Paul reminds us in Romans 12:

12 I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual[b] worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.

As someone who experienced spiritual abuse, it is so easy when I encounter something challenging to fall back into the familiar path of dogmatic, closed theology where everything has a reason and everything has an answer. It is much, much more difficult for me to reverse that pattern of thinking and lean into the disorientation of not having the familiar markers of known answers to the unexpectedness of life, but this doesn’t produce growth. This produces an unhealthy attachment to the theology that doesn’t fit and isn’t applicable at best and theology that hurts and maims at worst.

As I rounded the corner to the end of the run, I breathed a sigh of relief. I was finished. Done with reversing the path. Next week I could return to the familiar, known path. I looked down at my watch. I ran 25 seconds faster each mile than I had last week on the familiar, known path.

Maybe disruption and disorientation is what produces strength and growth as it wakes up our other senses and other muscles to something new.

Uncovering Spiritual Abuse: On Needing Control and Order

“So I see your child has your OCD a little bit, eh?”

I laughed at my friend’s comment shrugging it off as a funny quirk, but as I wrestled with this a little more, I began to uncover another remnant of the spiritual abuse I experienced growing up.

There was always a reason. It didn’t matter if a youth died unexpectedly or a minister engaged in an affair or if someone committed suicide, there was always a reason. God always had a plan. God’s will would always be done. Explanations and reasons that brought about an orderly understanding of the unexpectedness you’re bound to encounter if you live in this world long enough.

There was no room for chaos. The unexpected when encountered fit into a nice, neat theological box of certainty. In times of uncertainty and fear of the unknown, I feel myself reverting back; depending on order, not wanting to ride the waves of chaos; clinging desperately to what I was taught rather than leaning into experiencing the Divine.

There have been too many experiences already in my short tenure as a minister where I have encountered people hurting, gasping for breath after the unexpected wave life has thrown at them. As they have looked at me and asked, “Why?” I haven’t been able to offer those boxed answers of certainty; those flimsy, life-preserver reasons that we toss at people to avoid feeling their pain. Instead, I have tried to look at them and say, “I don’t know. I honestly don’t know, but here’s a warm towel and some cold water and I’ll sit right here with you.”

As we near the raging wind that brought tongues of fires to hover over the followers of Christ, I can’t help but wonder how I can avoid the numerous times chaos, the wilderness, the unknown, the rushing wind is a part and indeed central to the narrative of those who follow God. Perhaps in trying to tame Creator God and the Holy Spirit, we are missing the opportunity to participate in the magical, mystical, unexplainable work of the Divine.

Uncovering Spiritual Abuse: Having an Opinion

Elisabeth and I have embarked on a new adventure called The Minister and The Mystic. This new podcast is more real and true to our experiences and our stories . As we have talk each week, I become more and more aware of the impact spiritual abuse has had on my life. It’s overwhelming and scary to admit because I want so much to shed the past and move forward. Elisabeth gives me the courage to recognize and claim the spiritual abuse I’ve experienced as part of my story and yes, even part of my identity.

Part of that identity are leftovers and holdovers from the adherence to a strict set of dogmatic beliefs. One of these beliefs was the idea that women didn’t have their own voice in decision-making whether that be in church or in their families. I didn’t realize how much impact this teaching had on me. I didn’t realize the number of times I still pause in my closet asking myself what impact my decision about what clothes I choose to wear will have on other people; remnants of false teachings of sexuality that a woman is the one responsible for tempting a man by dressing a certain way.

I didn’t realize how I had been conditioned to anticipate and plan for other people’s needs to the point of forgetting my own needs. I didn’t realize how in conversations I had been conditioned to be a silent listener rather than an active participant who voiced opinions and experiences. I didn’t believe my opinions, my perspective, my take on the world mattered because there were absolute truths that superseded my voice.

I thought I didn’t have a choice in forming my voice. I thought I had to weigh my opinions against all the other voices swirling around in my head. These are the voices of spiritual abuse I must silence in order hear my own voice.

“What do you want?” my husband often asks me.

“I don’t know,” has long been my response because what I wanted was so entwined with other people’s wants and needs.

Slowly, but surely I am finding the courage to say what I want. Slowly, but surely I am wading through all the voices in my head that say don’t speak up and am sharing my opinions. Because my voice, my opinions, my story matters.

And so does yours.