At my core, I’m a story-writer, a truth-teller. I’m not really an advice-giver. My approach has always been to listen to your story and do my best to uncover what that story reveals about you, about what you want– and to help you see it. When you ask me “what should I do?” my response is almost always “what do you want?”
But, today is about advice. Today I’m answering questions like “why should people care about spiritual abuse?” or “how could someone help?” or “what do you need for church to be a safe place?”
And my answers feel lost in this space inside of my head. I’m afraid, really. Giving these types of answers always terrify me, because I don’t want to be responsible for what happens if someone actually does follow my advice. But, in this, I’m in a unique position. I’ve experienced an entire childhood of institutional spiritual abuse. The church-cult had its leader, and the leader demanded more and more from the members . . . but the members also participated in creating an atmosphere where spiritual abuse could thrive.
The important thing to remember in this is that spiritual abuse happened not because everyone had some secret desire to hurt, dominate, or control. Spiritual abuse existed here because of an earnest, honest desire to be godly. They followed the authoritarian dictatorship of the leader– and, at times, parroted him. Many of us were there because we already believed in fundamentalist principles. We deliberately chose this church-cult because it fit a checklist– high standards, modesty, no youth group, KJV-only, conservative music, harshly enforced gender roles, homeschooling, separation . . .
These beliefs, on their own, are not capable of causing spiritual abuse. However, what many people don’t know is that this checklist has an entire system running underneath it– a system entirely based on control. They control women through modesty and gender roles. They focus on controlling youth, viewing them as ideology incubators instead of people. They control scientific and historical facts by perpetuating misunderstandings.This is why, to me, it’s paramount to examine ideas. The why of what we believe is so much more important than what— because it’s the why that ultimately creates the rules for the system.
But, very often, fundamentalists and more mainstream conservatives readily accept a huge list of what. The what seems so simple, so straightforward… but it’s not. Focusing on why, I think, could be a solution. It could bring healing.
For me, one of the first signs that a church is a “safe place” is when they are willing to confront why. The first time I chose a church to attend, I chose it because one of the first sermons I heard was focused on answering one of these “whys.” He spent his entire sermon examining why he believed in a balanced approach to Sovereignty– but he didn’t just explain his point of view. He fairly talked about different approaches to the same issues, and why other people believe differently. That was the moment I started feeling like this might be a place I wanted to be. Because there was open acknowledgment that no one person has the only right answer.
This, I believe, has to start at a personal level. If you are safe and comfortable in what you believe, that’s fantastic. But realize that there are many people who are not safe and comfortable. Keep in mind that someone who has been spiritually abused probably comes from a background where “having all the right answers” was a viciously defended doctrine– and hearing someone innocently speak in terms of “well, of course,” or “obviously,” or “it’s just very clear and plain” might be incredibly threatening, damaging language. Those who have been spiritually abused might be experiencing intense uncertainty and doubt, and they come from a place where any sort of doubt is vilified.
And there’s no way to spot someone who comes from a background of spiritual abuse. It could be anyone you know– and it might not look anything like what you expect. Sometimes, they live a contradiction. If you had asked anyone who knew me in college, when I had completely rejected Christianity, no one would have been able to tell you that. I walked the walk, talked to talk. I knew all the right answers and could regurgitate them on command. This might be what a spiritually abused person looks like– or it could be completely different.
Not only should we care about spiritual abuse because Jesus asks us to– we should do it for spiritual health everywhere. Because patterns of spiritual abuse are embedded in nearly every arena of modern conservative evangelicalism. It’s not isolated to those crazy fundamentalists, or other denominations where it seems “obvious.” The ripple effects are everywhere, and they permeate so many areas of public discussion. Asking why could help us see that.