Fundiementals 4 – Spiritual Abuse

So. Spiritual abuse. I take a deep breath before plunging into this one.

The definition of “abuse” is misuse, especially with the effect or intention of harm. For example – physical abuse is the misuse of strength. Strength is not a bad thing in itself; it can be used to protect, defend, build, help, and serve, but in the case of abuse it is meant to inflict pain and to control another person. Verbal abuse is the misuse of words. Words by themselves are not bad; they can be used to reveal, to bond, to encourage, to inspire, to illuminate, to make clear, to edify, etc. In the case of abuse, words are used to demean, punish, control, and inflict pain on another person. Emotional abuse is the misuse of the emotional bond between two people. Normally, and optimally, bonding is a gift, an enrichment of life, satisfying and fulfilling, the food and water of our social and emotional lives. In cases of emotional abuse, the emotional bond, and the threat of its removal or withholding, is used to punish, manipulate, and control people. So it goes with all kinds of abuse, including spiritual abuse.

Whereas spirituality, or your framework for the Big Questions, is meant to widen and deepen your life, set you free from the unhealthy patterns of your family and society, help you mourn your losses and mark your major transitions appropriately, and offer you meaning, spiritual abuse is the misuse of these systems of belief to control, manipulate, punish, and exclude other people.

Spiritual abuse has slippery definitions. There are those who attempt to confine it to particular systems of belief, like the Judeo-Christian-Islamic traditions, or as I once heard Chris Stedman refer to them, the “totalitarian religions.” I get what he was saying, and I believe that the structures for abuse are more immediately in place in these religious systems, but I myself have experienced spiritual abuse in an atheist context, and a friend of mine has experienced it in a yoga context. I really do not believe that there is a system of belief or spiritual practice that is immune from the dynamic.

But it does cause problems of definition, because you can’t just say “the misuse of God’s name and interpretation of His authority to punish, control, and exclude people,” although that certainly does happen, and certainly does qualify as spiritual abuse. But it excludes atheists, yogis, buddhists, and others who do not subscribe to a monotheistic, authoritative God, but who are still vulnerable to spiritual abuse.

So I guess my working definition would be any situation in which there is an appeal to a higher authority that is used to demean, control, punish, or exclude a person. The higher authority can be God, or it can be Reason, or a particular human leader, or it can be a certain prescribed set of practices. The thing that makes it spiritual abuse is that the higher authority is taken to be flawless, and the person or community appealing to the higher authority is taken to be the nearly-flawless mouthpiece of this perfect authority, and any deviance that you show from their interpretation of spiritual or intellectual perfection is grounds for you to be demeaned, excluded, punished, controlled, etc.

These spokespeople for the higher authority may admit to very minor flaws. For example, a small group leader at a church might confess to not spending as much time in the Word as he feels he ought, but he would never confess to doubting the validity or consistency of scripture, beating his wife, harboring gay fantasies, or whatever else is considered across the line of acceptability. And if, God forbid, you confess to something across the line, or are caught engaging in something unsanctioned, there will be strong efforts by the leader and the community to demean, discount, discipline, sanction, control, and/or exclude you, and it will be done in the name of love, in the name of God, out of concern for your spiritual well-being. In my case, the (atheist) abuser in question would give lip service to being a flawed human, but in practice, any opinion that deviated from his was “irrational,” wrong, threatening, “primitive,” “uncivilized,” and/or just did not adhere to the rigors of Reason (a standard which he alone, apparently, was able to navigate). And if you weren’t going to be governed by the laws of Reason, then you were no better than an animal; human trash, excluded from the ranks of “real” people, deserving of “tough love” (discipline, exclusion) so that you could learn just how wrong you had been.

The common thread here, from my vantage point, is the fundie pre-occupation with being Right. It comes back to that idea that the Whole Truth is singular, obvious, and small enough for a single person to perceive in its entirety. There is no room for dissent or debate, no allowance for the possibility of partial and incomplete truths, different paths around the truth – people who evolve into different ideas or have contrary experiences are dismissed as “fallen” in some way; they are immediately perceived as “less-than” or infected, and so everything they say is suspect. So people in these systems (and when I say “systems” I mean things as small as a family or marriage unit and as large as a major religious sect) find themselves in a catch-22. They can continue to toe the party line in order to gain the respect of their peers, but they lose themselves. Or they can be honest (truthful) about their perceptions and experiences, knowing that they will immediately be treated as a second-class citizen (best case scenario) or an outright devil/traitor/threat (worst case scenario), and be kicked out entirely.

You can find a lot more on spiritual abuse in other places. These are all specific to Christianity, where it is rampant:



Filed under personal, religion

13 responses to “Fundiementals 4 – Spiritual Abuse

  1. I don’t call it ‘spiritual abuse’, I call it ‘religious abuse’, because it does not come from the Spirit but rather from the human institution.

    In the case of the religions which have the Old Testament in common, I also call it ‘taking the Lord’s name in vain’.

      • It works both ways. I have a good friend who was put through all kinds of personal and institutional abuse in a ‘Liberal Universalist’ church for mentioning Jesus. Plus some of my Pagan friends (yes, I do have some) tend to post some rather snarky stuff about Christians on Facebook. Some of the latter is, to my mind, fair enough; we’re out there, and like anyone else in the public eye in a world where conscience and expression is (in theory) free, we must expect every form of reaction from serious philosophical criticism to mockery. It goes with the territory.

      • Yes, you can find religious abuse anywhere, even in a liberal universalist church. I’m not sure that public critique counts as religious abuse though, even when they get snarky. (And I have some lovely snarky Pagan friends too!) Certainly you can have abusive behavior by trolls and other such persons, but that’s more internet abuse, and/or internet stalking, which isn’t to be taken lightly, but I don’t think it’s quite the same as religious abuse. To me, religious abuse takes place within a community, and it is perpetrated on members of the community by members of the community. When I get a critique from a non-Christian, it’s not coming from someone who has a stake in the community, or someone that I see as having spiritual authority over me (I’m not a big believer in spiritual authority the way it’s practiced in many churches anyway, but that’s a discussion for another time), or at least authority within the community to make my life awful. Mean critiques from those outside the faith may lack basic manners and human dignity, and I’m not saying they can’t be serious, but it’s something that easier to walk away from or just shrug your shoulders and say, “I disagree, and I’m wondering why you feel the need to disrespect my religious practice,” and the only thing you’re risking is that one relationship, not the whole community. I’m not sure I’m being clear, just sort of thinking out loud. Or maybe I’m just wrong. 🙂 Need to think through this one some more.

  2. Mom

    Really made me think, reviewing my history. Don’t know that I’d ever considered myself as abused or maybe just never wanted to think it. So sorry you went through it too.

  3. Stephen River Smith

    Trying to bring sanity, understanding, correction, and healing to those being hurt and to those doing the hurting in the Church seems to me to be a cry for reforming an institutional reality rather than simply dismantling the structure that allows such abuse to occur in the first place. How can we deny the fact that Christianity is known more for its forms, rituals, structures, methodologies, i.e. its visible attributes, than for its heart? It will always be in the DNA of an institution, by necessity, (Corporations, Bureaucracies, ‘Totalitarian Religions’), to both function and succeed by its efficient use of ‘Chain of Command’. There has never been, not in this man’s study of Human History, an institution, (anything larger than a man and his neighbor…Jesus and his friends) that hasn’t grown beyond the ability of the best of intentions, the most benevolent of activities, to restrain the need to lead by force of will, charisma, and control. The very word ‘Church’ rings with Corporate clarity and Theological precision. No matter the size of the local church, the survival and success of the institutional form is the same across the board.

    I have been hurt and I have hurt others. From the small churches of my boyhood pastored by my Father, to the popular growth of churches during the Jesus Movement days of my early, striving, ‘training’ years, to the successful churches pastored by myself, my brother and others, some of them achieving the dubious distinction of mega-church status. Quiet abuse, unseen abuse, subtle abuse, even the kind of abuse that hides itself in the self-effacing humor of a man or woman convinced in their rights as overseers of the sheep–overwhelmingly consistent and penetrating abuse because it derives its ‘rightful’ power from the very institution it purports to ‘serve’.

  4. Stephen River Smith

    All that said, (too much, I’m sure), my heart goes out to the abused AND the abusers. In most cases, they do NOT know what they’re doing. But it is now in MY DNA to hold the builders of the historical institution responsible for building a framework for the egos and self-satisfied whimsies of Man. Our very best intentions, our most lofty dreams for a better world, have no defense against the power of an institution to steal the soul and replace it with religious success. (The Kingdom of God had come far before Man devised his own means of controlling it and taking credit for it. And we, alive today, would have done no better. I’ve proved that once and for all in my own life.)

    • I can put it no better than this. Every institution, every sect, every church from the most magnificent hierarchy to the lowliest house-church knows and quotes the words from Matthew’s gospel: “where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.” But what does each sect mean by them? Is Jesus there in a figurative sense? Is he at the back tapping his foot to the happy-clappy chorus? Is he sitting, nodding sagely to the words of the prepared sermon? Is he there contentedly lapping up the adulation? Is he there in the business meetings, with the sharp-suited, sober hierarchs?

      In reality, theses are rhetorical questions, because the moment I begin to answer them is the moment I begin to put in place just another religious methodology. Would it be glib to say the following, therefore? That ‘name’ in those words from Matthew implies not just ‘label’ but ‘power’ – there is power in a name. The quotation also says ‘are gathered’ – passive – therefore it is the Lord who does the gathering. And not only the gathering, but all the leading and teaching in that assembly, the feeding with daily, spiritual bread. “Before all churches and sects were,” The Lord might be saying, “I AM.”

      Oh to be gathered, and to STAY gathered in that name, in the peaceable kingdom where the works of the hand of man (including abuse) are no more, where man’s childish things are put away.

      • And……..I’m packing up my blog now and going home.

        “Our very best intentions, our most lofty dreams for a better world, have no defense against the power of an institution to steal the soul and replace it with religious success.”

        ““Before all churches and sects were,” The Lord might be saying, “I AM.”

        Oh to be gathered, and to STAY gathered in that name, in the peaceable kingdom where the works of the hand of man (including abuse) are no more, where man’s childish things are put away.”

        You two leave me breathless and speechless and feeling hopelessly inarticulate. I mean that in the very best way.

      • I can’t let such praise go by without turning it down. 🙂

  5. Stephen River Smith

    I felt the very same way reading Kvennarad’s response. I am in awe of having tripped on your blog, My Lady. Hearing, through the unique gifts of others, the sound of your own heart at work, is something that can make a grown man laugh and cry at the same time, (and we’re talking an “ex”- Marine here, people!). 🙂 Few writers I have read over the last few years have moved me in the way you have, whoever you are. 🙂 Thank-you for going down this little road. It aint so little to some of us.

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