Working my way from fundamentalism to freedom (without losing my mind)

Spiritual Abuse Awareness Week: Violences are Connected

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IMAGE BY DANI KELLEY

IMAGE BY DANI KELLEY

Back in February, Sen. Marco Rubio explained why he opposed the Violence Against Women Act:

I could not support the final, entire legislation that contains new provisions that could have potentially adverse consequences. Specifically, this bill would mandate the diversion of a portion of funding from domestic violence programs to sexual assault programs.

Rubio has this idea, apparently, that different types of abuse have nothing to do with one another. Not a surprising conclusion in a world that’s determined to paint all abuse as isolated incidences committed by monsters, but that’s not reality. Often, sexual abuse is present in violent relationships.

No one wants to talk about the fact that different types of abuse are connected because that means challenging the very society–ripe with hierarchies that enforce themselves with violence–that we live in.

Today, I’m discussing spiritual abuse as part of a Spiritual Abuse Awareness Week that some fellow bloggers are hosting. Also this week, Rachel Held Evans will be hosting a more general discussion of abuse (which I will be guest posting for) and Elora NIcole will be sharing the anonymous stories of survivors.

With all these thoughts of abuse in general going through my head, I think about how ridiculous statements like Rubio’s sound. As if we can end violence against women without ending sexual assault.

Truth is, the violences that women (and other oppressed groups) face often stem from the same root–a deeper violence that questions the legitimacy of their very humanity.

I don’t want us to miss this point while we talk about the different types of abuse that people face, inside and outside of the church. Abuse happens, and society either ignores or accepts it because there is an assault on humanity that says certain bodies are objects, or are public property. An assault that paints some bodies as worthless, gross, weird, animal-like, sinful, collateral, too sexual, needing to be taught a lesson, etc. 

Religion is far from the only institution that perpetuates this kind of abuse, but spiritual abuse can be a powerful tool for painting some groups as less important than others and therefore “deserving” of violence.

This happens in obvious cases such as the Southern Baptist Church supporting the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, or in the many church groups that advocate hitting children who misbehave.

It also happens more subtly in ways that I don’t think most leaders (though when you hear stories like Jack Schaap’s, you wonder…) or church members intend.

Here’s where my own story comes in. I grew up in church and grew up learning many things about myself and about my body and about the way the world is. I also ended up in an abusive relationship when I was 16.

I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about how I was physically, verbally, and sexually abused in that relationship, but little thinking about how I was spiritually abused. My ex-boyfriend used my own deeply-held religious beliefs to make me think that what he did to me was okay. It was easy for him to convince me, too, because I had been absorbing abusive ideas from the churches I’d attended my whole life.

I will be writing in more detail about how my idea of who God was affected what I accepted as love. But my churches growing up also fed me dangerous ideas about who was, what my body was, and what my place in the world was.

I was a woman, the church told me, so I had to be passive, meek, submissive, caring and nurturing, and endlessly patient and forgiving. A man, on the other hand, was just naturally aggressive, out-of-control, and sexual. These were God-given traits.

My abuser, knowing this, played on those, even sometimes calling my relationship with God into question when I didn’t live up to my role.

My church also taught me that I was worthless. From the sermons the pastors preached to the books that my youth pastors recommended. Because I was not a virgin I was what the Christian dating book, Dateable, would call “dollar store leftovers.” 

My abuser, knowing this, told me constantly that no one else would want me so I had better stay with him. That I was already impure and couldn’t be fixed so I might as well let him do whatever he wanted with my body.

My church taught me that I was responsible for men’s actions. That dressing immodestly could make men lust after me.

My abuser, knowing this, blamed me when he sexually assaulted me. He told me it was my fault for being too sexy, even in the Baptist school-approved outfit I was wearing.

All violence is connected.

I’m positive that the churches I grew up in did not want their teachings to be used by abusers to support abuse.

Too bad. That’s not how it works.

Those teachings were violence in and of themselves. They did violence to my humanity. And in doing that violence to my humanity, they sent the message to abusers that I did not have to be treated as human.

Churches don’t have to be as cult-like and controlling as Driscoll’s Mars Hill or First Baptist Church of Hammond to be abusive. By using language about groups–whether it’s women, children, LGBT people, or people of different colors, cultures, countries, or religions–that does violence to their humanity, they commit spiritual abuse. And spiritual abuse won’t confine itself to the pulpit. Those abusive words and teachings and ideas leave the church in the hearts and minds and Moleskine notebooks of every church member and are spread throughout society like an infectious disease. 

The church is not the only source of this disease, again, but it is a powerful one because battling it means battling ideas and perceptions about God (something I will discuss more in my guest post for Rachel Held Evans later this week).

A church that claims to worship a man whose purpose was “to set the oppressed free” should be horrified to learn that its teachings are being used by abusers to support abuse.

Is it though? Are our churches concerned about how their messages are received? Are our churches concerned about abuse survivors? Or are they more focused on so-called sound doctrine and on giving “grace” to abusers?

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18 thoughts on “Spiritual Abuse Awareness Week: Violences are Connected

  1. Thank you for this pearl of great worth. The value of a pearl is measured not by the wound that formed it, but by the light that reflects from it.

  2. Pingback: Healthy & Abusive Spiritual Dynamics (Part 2): Demolition & Reconstruction | Spirit 2 Recover

  3. I’m positive that the churches I grew up in did not want their teachings to be used by abusers to support abuse.

    The question here is not “is this something they wanted?” but “is this something they cared about at all?” Would they have done anything differently if someone had pointed out to them how their teachings were being used by abusers and predators? Are they doing anything differently NOW, as the connections between their teachings and abuse are being openly discussed at last?

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  5. Pingback: Victims raise profile of ‘spiritual abuse’ | Queer Church News

  6. Thanks, Sarah, for being transparent and making these connections. I was just chatting with a friend who lived through the death of a child and how people revert to Job’s “double blessing” as some sort of consolation… as if two subsequent children ever make up for the loss of one.

    Our tendency to take sanctuary within the golden calf of god-language creeps into the rest of our physical lives manifest by reckless language of power, race, privilege, gender and eventually into disembodied confusion between what is really happening around us, in our bodies, and in our relationships. Spiritual abuse is physical, because our spirits manifest themselves in physical ways: be they loving or away from love. Love casts out fear. Spiritual abuse feeds off of fear.

  7. I just want to say thank you for this – I am someone who is very much outside the church because of my abuse experiences, and so I often can’t engage with discussions about Christianity at all, but people like you speaking up and advocating for change give me hope. It is so hard for me to explain to dear Christian friends of mine why certain beliefs and even phrases are triggering for me because of how they were used to abuse and to justify that abuse, to keep me in a relationship I should have run away from very early on.

    I wish what you describe didn’t sound so familiar because I wish it were less common, but I am glad that you are speaking out so that we can know we are not alone. Thank you.

  8. Thank you for posting. You can find my story at findingellen@wordpress.com

  9. Your story resonates strongly with my own dealings with spiritual, physical, sexual, and verbal abuse. The sad thing is that my abuser (who was a college student at the time) is now a pastor of a large church!

  10. Thanks helping me (and so many others) see how dangerous teachings about God/people can directly result in dangerous situations for the people we love. I sincerely hope that your voice is heard and continues to make an impact.

    I know this wasn’t the focus of your post, but I’d love to hear your thoughts on whether a church’s support of “just war” has an impact on the safety of it’s most vulnerable members. In other words, if a church tacitly encourages violence overseas, is it more likely to tacitly encourage domestic abuse?

    Again, not really the point you were making, but a connection you raised that I had never considered!

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  12. May your courage to retelling your story be a point of light for you today

  13. Crying. Like all the times I read your blog. <3

  14. Pingback: Spiritual Abuse Awareness Week: Day 1 | The Profligate Truth

  15. Sara,
    If one looks closely at the person and life of Jesus Christ one will be hard pressed to find any references that condone abuse of any kind. Some where along the line religious zealots, more than likely beginning with the clergy have decided that male should be the dominant one. My take is that so much time has passed and so much has been done to fashion religion in a way to suit the people in power, the clergy.

    My question is, if Christ were to return, would he recognize Christianity today to,in any way be related to what he lived and died for? Most of what we see as religion is man-made not “God made”. Everything God created is good….prejudice of any kind be it racial, gender,economic, educational…. Has no place in to the Creator. So for the church to condone the abusive treatment of ANYONE is a man made concept.

  16. Thank-you for your courage, Sarah.

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