I know “abuse” is being discussed a lot these days. Spiritual abuse is becoming a more recognized reality even in psychology circles. Religious PTSD is a newly recognized and legitimate field of study and therapy.
Some might say that I’m using the word “abuse” too liberally because they would claim that it means a cruel and violent treatment of another person. Certainly this is abuse. But abuse also means the improper use of something or someone. When we don’t respect people as they are and allow them to be who they are freely, this is a more subtle form of abuse, the logical conclusion of which leads to violence against the human spirit.
In fact, this problem will increase. As we become more outspoken against obvious abuse and broadcast it without restraint, abusers will go underground and become less obvious and more subtle in ways that will require a more wisdom and honesty to discern.
No, we don’t tape people’s mouths, cuff their wrists, shackle their feet, put them on a leash, or set them in a cage. Not literally. Rather, how do we silence people, limit their influence, constrict their involvement, prevent their movement, manage their actions, and control their lives? How do we punish people for not conforming? These are the real questions that can expose where subtle abuse is happening.
I get this response from people: “It’s their own fault for being abused because they stay! All they have to do is leave and it’s over!” Possibly. However, this is another dilemma people face: many want to be a part of a community, especially their religious community. There are many people who long to be a part of a church. They have this right.
The choice is to stay and suffer some abuse or leave and suffer profound alienation.
Ask yourself these questions: What strategies are being used, consciously or unconsciously, to keep you under control? What is being done to make you conform to being a legitimate member of the community?
Here are the more subtle ways you may be being abused without you even knowing it. This can occur in any relationship from a spouse and a family, to a pastor and a church, a boss and a company, a leader and a group, or people of influence and a movement.
- You are not allowed to speak your mind honestly and truthfully.
- You can only play if you meet certain expectations.
- You can’t apologize enough.
- You can still give but receiving is limited.
- Your loss of respect in their eyes can never be remedied.
- You live in constant fear of an outburst of anger against you.
- You’re allowed to live but your benefits have been severely cut.
- To criticize them is wrong because you criticize the ultimate good they represent.
- They have a network of peers that will rally around them and protect them.
- You’re warned that your life will get drastically worse if you leave.
There may never be raised fists or voices. There may never be any overt threats or ultimatums. This can all happen behind close doors or in broad daylight with nice clothes and smooth voices. In fact, some people might think you’re hearing and seeing things and maybe a little crazy and unwell. I always encourage people in such situations to trust their gut. Test it. Push that button a little harder or once more and see if it becomes more obvious and reveals its true abusive nature.
I’ve heard many times that it is naive to expect a community to exist without controls. There is a sensitive dance between personal freedom and corporate responsibility. But I claim we have opted for subtler forms of crowd control at the grave expense of providing spaces for personal freedom.
I’ve also heard that I’m being petty to critique so harshly. I’m encouraged to give people, particularly leaders, a break. I’m often reminded that I’m being merciless and trivial, and that I’m revealing my own resentment at not belonging the way I’d like to belong. I’m told I’m angry and throwing stones at a house and people I willingly abandoned and that I need to grow up, return penitent, or finally leave and shut up.
But what if I believe in the value of community and want people to build, facilitate, and be a part of them in healthy ways?
Find or build a healthy community starting with your healthy self. Until then, it is necessary to leave these kind of codependent and toxic relationships and systems. Yes, we will experience a period of alienation. But I’m convinced that over time we will find nomadic comrades who have suffered the same kind of abuse and rejection. We will discover that we are a part of a new tribe that accepts us as we are and gives us freedom to express it. Together we will withstand the powers that have cast us off and rescue others from them.
We will be like a band of sojourners and prophets who live in the desert threatening the authorities that tried to control us.
(If you are having difficulty finding community, have you tried an online one? I invite you to consider such a community, The Lasting Supper.)