I wrote recently about some of the junk I’ve went through in church. One of the easiest things to do would have been to portray myself as a victim and bail on church completely. But I didn’t. As I wrote in that piece, I believe healing from religious abuse lies in giving grace, not mockery; letting go, not hanging on. Of course, there is nuance. Each situation and person is different. There’s no simplistic or cookie-cutter approach to processing extremely toxic, deeply traumatic, even cult-like religious experiences. The point is to not fossilize in a state of perpetual victimhood, but to be restored to God and the church. To become, pardon the cliche, an overcomer.
Which is why I am so leery of some of the religious abuse watchdogs out there.
On one end are those groups (which I’ve labeled the Anti-Evangelical Hate Machine), “an entire movement bent on cataloging, ridiculing, scoffing at, lampooning, and mocking evangelical culture.” Some suggest their satire is meant for “healing.” I don’t doubt their good intentions, nor that healing occurs in many cases. However, these recovering religious victims occasionally seem to foster ongoing animosity, if not a genuine hatred for anything “Christian” and organized religion in general). Just read through some of the comments on their sites if you don’t believe me.
At the other end, but not so “in your face,” are groups like The Spiritual Abuse Survivor Network, which highlights and champions bloggers who are “working together toward a shared goal of increasing awareness of [the] issue of spiritual abuse.” They aim to end religious abuse “not through vitriolic campaigns, or hate, but through thoughtful, honest communication. ”
Frankly, I tend to be suspicious of groups like this. Why? It’s not because I don’t believe spiritual abuse occurs or that the effects can be devestating. Please understand me here. Having been active in the Church for over thirty years, a staff pastor for eleven years, and publicly disciplined for “personality issues,” before watching our church disband, I think I have sufficient first-hand experience of the power plays and psychological manipulation that can occur in Christ’s Body. So why am I suspicious of the “spiritual abuse survivors” movement?
For one thing, I’ve read many of these “spiritual abuse survivors” blogs and often struggle to see the non-vitrioloc, non-hateful, “thoughtful, honest communication” they aspire to. Of course, any sampling of blogs / bloggers will render different findings and everyone is definitely at different places in their detox. Sometimes being mad as hell and saying so is good therapy! But reading some ex-Fundamentalist blogs you’d get the impression that ALL Fundamentalists are extremists and all ex-Fundamentalists never actually get well.
Once again (and I dislike having to qualify everything, but it’s almost necessary when discussing this issue), I am not trying to minimize spiritual abuse or diminish the work of good people helping souls overcome trauma and get on the right path to God. I am questioning whether or not Fundamentalism is as widespread a threat as often portrayed, spiritual abuse is a label far too easily applied, and the “success rate” of such groups justifies their existence (a squishy measurement indeed).
Charles Clark, in his article Overemphasizing Spiritual Abuse? suggested that “…Fundamentalism is a vice from which we millennials are in very little danger.”
Sociological studies suggest that the real danger for millennials is not “spiritual indoctrination.” On the contrary, we are perhaps the least catechized, the most theologically and ethically illiterate generation ever. We are in less danger of being dominated than of being hopelessly (and even unconsciously) adrift. This unmoored way of living then, in turn, opens us up to all kinds of more subtle social control, though advertising and other consumerist cultural liturgies. This is not to say that fundamentalism is a preferable alternative to our present fecklessness, simply that of the two ways of straying from the Golden Mean, we seem much more prone to the latter but spend more time worrying about the former.
Instead, Clark warns of something potentially more destructive than fundamentalism: Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. MTD is a moralistic approach to life that embraces a generic view of God and Scripture (“all roads lead to God,” “good people go to heaven,” “Jesus was a great prophet like Buddha, Mohammed, etc.”), and teaches that living a good and happy life, and being a good, moral person, is central to life. MTD is a low commitment, minimal dogma, highly emotive mode of living.
The blogosphere should be outraged by the accounts of spiritual abuse that brave survivors are bringing to light, and the church should make every effort to bring healing to these individuals. At the same time, we should not be distracted from the less overtly offensive, watered-down, undisciplined Christian derivatives, like the Moralistic Therapeutic Deism that is rampant among millennials.
In other words, Millennials have more to fear than Fundamentalism, and are far more “victimized” by a screwy view of God, Scripture, the Church, and themselves, foisted upon them by secular culture and/or well-meaning believers.
Which brings me to my second point.
I wonder that the spiritual abuse survivor movement feeds into the victimhood culture that permeates the United States. Nowadays, we are conditioned to see ourselves as potential victims of numerous groups, races, organizations, institutions, chemicals, climates, and people. It’s almost humorous the degree to which some will go to apply the label of “victim” to themselves, despite the harm it does to those who genuinely have been victimized. Nevertheless, I fear that some spiritual abuse survivors, rather than encouraging forgiveness, promote antipathy; rather than long-term spiritual and relational healing, condone a sort of perpetual state of victimhood; rather than build bridges back into the church, they pave the way for a justifiable exit.
Even worse, is when these help groups tap into Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, framing Man in humanistic psychological terms rather than biblical terms, and portraying the path to healing as a path to a very wishy-washy, undemanding, un-Scriptural deity. After all, to assert any sort of dogma is a turn-off to the over-dogmatized.
Anyway, I’d love to hear your thoughts. Am I misreading this? Or do some ex-Fundamentalists over-emphasize spiritual abuse and potentially lead astray those they seek to help?