an open letter to those who have experienced abuse at the hands of religion
I have every reason in the world to hate religion. And after 20 years of only talking about this subject with very very few people I thought it was high time to face myself a little and open the door to my experience to those who have been abused in the face of religion, and if I can, to ferret out as to why I still love religion itself, why I study it, and why I feel that beauty can be found in matters of faith.
On March 21, 2009 At 3:14 am
Responses : 31 Comments
I have every reason in the world to hate religion. And after 20 years of only talking about this subject with very very few people I thought it was high time to face myself a little and open the door to my experience to those who have been abused in the face of religion, and if I can, to ferret out as to why I still love religion itself, why I study it, and why I feel that beauty can be found in matters of faith. Above all, I hope that my personal experience will help victims of abuse, particularly victims of spiritual, physical and mental abuse in conservative Christian churches. A recent study found that abuse in conservative Christian churches is five times higher than in secular society because it is not reported. Clearly, a mission exists for Christians to do the work of God and help our brothers and sisters who are victims and perpetrators. Christian counselling is not enough. Christian counselors are often only certified after a short course, and most have no experience in serious marriage counselling on issues of serious abuse and substance abuse issues. For guidance in choosing a competent Christian counselor, the Christian Broadcasting Network has this article to aid you. Pastors as well are often schooled at church centered colleges and get very little, if any training in serious marriage issues. Yet pastors are often the only recourse couples have as divorce is not an option for many conservative Christian churches.
I grew up in the Worldwide Church of God during the period 1979-1992. Worldwide is a non-denominational church that used to be fairly restrictive, very conservative, and, I suspect, like many conservative non-denominational churches had a dirty secret that nobody talked about–spousal abuse. Spousal abuse is a difficult subject to talk about anyway, but when you add religion to it, it becomes a prison like no other for the faithful who are abused. For the woman who is faithful, abuse becomes a matter of faith and submission a religious maze that is impossible to navigate through. And by the time an abused woman navigates it, she uses precious time that she could have been using getting help.
My mother was severely beaten for the entire time we belonged to Worldwide. My father claimed he was beating her in order to "get her under submission" to him because the church taught that men were head of the households under Jesus Christ. My dad would try to explain to me while he was beating her that he was "saving" her soul for God by "beating Satan out of her." He was always careful to not touch her face. He left bruises where they could be covered up. And lest you think my dad was somehow justified for beating her, he would also call her a whore. He called her a bitch. He called her every filthy name under the sun while he beat her. He held her and me hostage while on a religious retreat in South Dakota. He held us hostage in our hotel room for 12 hours, with no food or water, threatening us with further violence if we tried to leave. To this day Mom and I have no idea why he held us hostage. When my dad beat my mom, he used his hands, he used object, and he even beat her with the Bible, beat her with a book that is supposed to be holy. he beat her so hard he broke the binding on one of his Bibles. He abused her psychologically, when he wasn't beating her, and the mental headgames that went on was like walking through a minefield. You never knew what would set my dad off. Ever. Yet my dad's public face was quite another matter. In public, he was kind, and courteous, and helped out many church members. In public, he complimented my mother, and was really, just a completely different person from the madman we knew at home. No one would ever have believed in our church that my dad was a wife beater. No one did for a long time.
My mother tried to get help. She appealed to the pastor. The pastor made more trips to our house than he made to the grocery store. And the result was not ever in my mother's favor. The pastor told my dad that my dad was in the right. He told my dad in front of my mother that my dad, as head of the household under Jesus Christ had the right, even the duty to "do whatever it took" to get my mother to submit. Over and over for 15 years my mother heard that tired litany, not just from one pastor, but from three and four pastors. Our pastor even made a public example of my mother in church telling the congregation that she had a problem submitting, and then, after services, locked my mother in a room with himself and the associate pastor there as a witness, and screamed at my mother for an hour. My dad never got screamed at. He got invited to the pastor's house and they watched football games together. They were best buddies. While my dad was off palling around with the pastor, my mother was figuring out just how to submit. And she tried. She stopped talking about anything controversial. She stopped offering opinions. She stopped drawing, because drawing annoyed my dad, because pursing anything she was personally interested in took time away from him. She stopped being a person and became what she would nervously jokingly term "a puppet." She cooked, cleaned, worked two jobs, and handed over her paychecks to my dad, never getting any of the money for herself. If she refused to hand over her paychecks, Dad would beat her, and did beat her, with the breadboard. He spent the money on tools, and toys for himself and gave large offerings at church, while we went without food (which is why she tried not to hand over all the money to my dad). When my dad was around she did exactly what he told her to do and said exactly what she thought he wanted to hear. The difficulty was in my house, saying "pass the salt" could start World War 3. The violence escalated to the point where there came a day that my dad nearly killed her. He picked her up and threw her under the kitchen table and he threw her so hard she slid across the kitchen and hit her head on the kitchen sink cupboard doors hard enough to render her unconscious. I lived in fear for years, and suffer from anxiety today, which I take medication for. I lived in my room, with books, because I couldn't bear to see that evil played out, and because I felt so powerless to stop it. We'd go to church and be all happy and normal and the abuse was effectively–hidden. But not really. Worldwide broke up in 1996, and people I used to go to church with came forward and confessed they knew "something bad" was going on, but didn't know what to do about it. I also heard stories of horrors going on that nothing was ever done about–spousal rape being near the top of the list. Again, nothing was done, because in most Christian churches "rape" doesn't exist if you're married.
In the 80's, spousal abuse was just starting to be widely publicized. My mother never called a crisis counselor. She never sought outside help. The reason why was because Worldwide told everybody that psychology was bunk, and if you trusted psychology, then you weren't trusting God. Marriage counseling was only for pastors, and seeking outside professional counselling was taken as a lack of faith not only in the pastorate, but worse, in God. How many countless abused women hid their abuse like my mother did, never daring to seek outside help, because they feared what God would think of their lack of faith? Never mind that the pastorate was woefully undertrained in issues of abuse, even in marriage counselling. The pastorate of Worldwide never went to a secular college; Worldwide had their own college to train ministers and ministers' wives, and I can assure you that Abuse 101 was never a course you could take. It got to the point where our pastor didn't know what to do anymore. And so byhis poor counselling, which effectively okayed the abuse anyway, and by turning his back on us, and this elephant in the room that nobody talked about, he allowed a great evil to perpetrate itself for years on end.
And the worst part was watching my mother punish herself. If she could be more submissive, the abuse would stop–or so she thought. She prayed more, she submitted herself to the point of subjugating who she was until she no longer knew who she was. For her the abuse was a matter of faith. If she had enough faith, she reasoned, God would stop the abuse. And of course, this never happened. I prayed too. I prayed to God to make the violence stop. And he never did stop it. And so the abuse was looked at by our family as a test of faith. Suffering makes a person more holy according to Christian tradition, and this was the very thing that enabled the abuse to continue and escalate.
The pastor eventually lost his job due to escalating complaints about him from others in the congregation. I consider the loss of his job well deserved karma. He was never a man of God, and should never have been a man of God. He was a one man dictator, and he hurt a lot of people because of the way he wielded power. He got to decide everything, from what we wore to what we ate, what we participated in outside of church. For my part, I was never allowed to participate in school activities because most of them were on Friday night and Saturdays, and Friday night to Saturday night was the Sabbath. It was that way for all the youth in our church. Girls were told their great goal in life should not be education, or self improvement, but to be married. The pinnacle for girls was to be married to a minister, so many girls went to Ambassador College to get, a lot of us joked, their MRS. degree. Women were second class citizens in that church, and I notice in conservative churches that women are second class citizens in those churches too. The focus on Quiverfull, the conservative church in which women function as baby machines is only one example of spiritual abuse that goes on in conservative Christian churches today, which is finally starting to get attention by the media. Alternet has this to say:
Escaping an abusive marriage is no easy task for many evangelical women, many of whom have pastors that say physical abuse is no reason for divorce.
What is a good enough reason for divorce? Well, according to Rick Warren's Saddleback church, divorce is only permitted in cases of adultery or abandonment — as these are the only cases permitted in the Bible — and never for abuse.
As teaching pastor Tom Holladay explains, spousal abuse should be dealt with by temporary separation and church marriage counseling designed to bring about reconciliation between the couple. But to qualify for that separation, your spouse must be in the "habit of beating you regularly," and not be simply someone who "grabbed you once."
"How many beatings would have to take place in order to qualify as regularly?" asks Jocelyn Andersen, a Christian domestic violence survivor and advocate, author of the 2007 book Woman Submit! Christians and Domestic Violence, an indictment of church teachings of wifely submission and male headship. As she sees it, by convincing women that leaving their relationships is not an option, these teachings have laid the ground for a domestic violence epidemic within the church.
Andersen writes from personal experience, describing an episode of being held hostage by her husband — an associate pastor in their Kansas Baptist church — for close to twenty hours after he'd nearly fractured her skull. Andersen was raised in the Southern Baptist Convention, where she heard an unremitting message of "submission, submission, submission." She saw this continual focus reflected in her ex-husband's denunciations, while he detained her, of women who wanted to "rule over men." Though Andersen was rescued by her church's pastor, who had his assistant pastor arrested himself, she says other churchwomen aren't so lucky, particularly when churches tell couples to attend joint marriage counseling under lay ministry leaders with no specific training for abuse survivors, who instead offer an unswerving prescription of submission and headship, often telling women to learn to submit "better."
Pastor Holladay takes care in the taped sessions to explain that enduring abuse is not a part of a wife's call to submit to her husband — a principle that Warren and Saddleback espouse. "There's nowhere in the Bible that says it's an attitude of submission to let someone abuse you," he says in the audio clips. Nonetheless, Andersen finds it telling that the issue of submission always arises in church discussions of domestic violence, "subtly reminding women of their duty to maintain a submissive attitude toward their husbands..here are more blatant examples of excusing abusive male authority among stricter proponents of complementarianism and submission theology. In June 2007, professor of Christian theology at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary Bruce Ware told a Texas church that women often bring abuse on themselves by refusing to submit. And Debi Pearl, half of a husband-and-wife fundamentalist child-training ministry as well as author of the bestselling submission manual, Created to Be His Help Meet, writes that submission is so essential to God's plan that it must be followed even to the point of allowing abuse. "When God puts you in subjection to a man whom he knows is going to cause you to suffer," she writes, "it is with the understanding that you are obeying God by enduring the wrongful suffering." [emphasis mine]
Spousal abuse in conservative Christian churches is difficult to track because women aren't coming forward, and it's not being reported. It is the darkness that hides in the flock of Christ, as evidenced by one researcher's frustration:
"In saying that my literature review produced inconclusive results, I want to expand on what I think "inconclusive" means and doesn't mean. First, my review DID NOT deal with fundamentalism of the more cultic variety. I think there is little doubt about that one. As has been stated crazy, sectarian, fundamentalist religious groups (such as polygamous Mormons) are clearly wife abusers. They seem to be unrepentant about it. They think it's just part of life. Men in such groups seem to believe that they have the prerogative to abuse women.
But, my interest is elsewhere. My work related to fundamentalism has always dealt with fundamentalism as it is represented in popular culture. My attempt is to paint an accurate picture of everyday, garden-variety fundamentalism– like that of the Christian radio "family life experts," the many popular televangelists, or maybe "the little church down the road" where your next-door neighbors attend. I have always been interested in that population, likely because I was once a part of it.
So, here is the evidence, as I know it:
1. In fundamentalism, men are seen as authority figures.
2. Women are expected to "submit" to their husbands– a promise my wife wrote into her vows when we were married 32 years ago.
3. Women are, for all practical purposes, second-class citizens.
4. Men are encouraged to "take charge."
5. Fundamentalist churches can hardly be called bastions of the principles of non-resistance and non-violence. They don't support a "gentler way."
6. Fundamentalists are quick to support coercive and lethal means of punishment such as corporal punishment for children, punitive civil justice, and, ultimately, the death penalty.
7. Fundamentalists tend to support a position of civil retributive justice as opposed to distributive or restorative justice.
8. Fundamentalist churches take passages concerning a wrathful God at face value.
9. Many of these principles are preached on a regular basis from fundamentalist pulpits.
10. Sadly, somehow, fundamentalist churches, husbands, boyfriends, and preachers manage to brainwash women into thinking this system is from God and that it is in their best interest.
11. All of this points to a subculture that is male-dominant, rigidly authoritarian, obedient to religious leaders, and fairly accepting of violence as a method of social/personal control.
Taking the above observations as reasonably accurate, it is easy to construct a theoretical model of wife abuse at the hands of a fundamentalist husband. In fact, a simple example illustrating that model can be given in just a few short paragraphs. Imagine that a wife doesn't go along with a husband's decisions. Or, imagine that she stops believing in the male authority point of view. You can see how that might cause a quandary for a fundamentalist husband.
He's been told repeatedly that he is "in charge." He has been told that this position is given to him directly on the authority of God. Likely, the wife has agreed to be submissive, if the marriage took place when they were both fundamentalist adherents. Also, he is probably getting regular "booster shots" of the authoritarian dribble at church and from coreligionists on a regular basis. Divorce is taboo, or close to it.
Might not such a husband become very agitated, frustrated, and angry? Additionally, might he not view his anger as a type of righteous indignation? In such a case, is it not possible that something just "snaps" and he lashes out at his wife? Perhaps physically, but if not, certainly with all kinds of psychological pressure and abuse?
This may be a phenomenon very difficult to document empirically because it depends on self-report regarding both behaviors and religious beliefs. I believe that this was the downfall in my original methodology." (A Theoretical Model of Spouse Abuse by Christian Fundamentalists)
For me, as the child of an abusive household that was also a very deeply religious household, seeing and article like this is a confirmation that we were not alone. But it comes 20 years too late. How much suffering could my mother have avoided if we'd stood up against the abuse and just left the church? How much suffering could have been avoided if our own church would have stepped in and stopped the abuse immediately? How much spousal abuse goes on in fundamentalist conservative churches today? For me, the costs have been heavy. I have never had a successful relationship because I don't trust men. The relationships I have been in have all been with men who were mentally or physically abusive. I fear men, and seven years of counselling has been very slow in helping me trust them. I especially do not trust "religious" men from any religious background, and I do not trust churches. Consequently, I don't go to church, and I don't miss church. I don't feel the need to find a "church home," and I credit that experience at home with my more liberal beliefs. I am not a Christian, and I am not an atheist. I follow an alternative faith that speaks to love, to respecting nature, and to seeing God in everything. And surprisingly, I also credit that experience of religious abuse for my interest in religion today. At first my scholarly interest in religion was to answer the question "Why does religion make people do things that they would never do if someone off the street told them to do it?" And in answering that question I also discovered what a lovely thing religion can be, how much beauty is inherent in all the world's religions, and how far we have to go in order to use religion wisely. For religion in the hands of the wrong people is a loaded gun pointed at the heads of the people who follow religious leaders, including pastors. Religion has the great ability to destroy lives for it encourages people not to think for themselves. It brainwashes people into believing that they should put up with anything, any difficulty, in order to be close to Christ. Laws are followed, and much of the time it seems to me that the love is left behind. Men of faith love the scriptures that point out they are the spiritual leaders of their home, but forget about the verses in which they are directed to love their wives and treat their wives as they would treat their own bodies.
If you are a woman in a spiritually abusive situation, please know that God never meant for you to live a life of pain. God means for you to live a life of bountiful love. If your husband is hitting you, or psychologically/mentally abusing you, that isn't love. That's abuse. You don't deserve it. You will not be disobeying God by getting yourself, and your children out of that situation. Please have the faith that if you leave God will take care of you and your children. God is not a God of abuse. He is a God of love, and of justice, and pastors who tell you that you have to endure abuse to love God are NOT of God. Pastors who condone abuse and tell you it's God's way are pastors of Satan, not of God. God has special disgust for pastors who lead their sheep astray:
Woe to the shepherds who are destroying and scattering the sheep of My pasture!" declares the LORD. Therefore thus says the LORD God of Israel concerning the shepherds who are tending My people: "You have scattered My flock and driven them away, and have not attended to them; behold, I am about to attend to you for the evil of your deeds," declares the LORD. Then I Myself will gather the remnant of My flock out of all the countries where I have driven them and bring them back to their pasture, and they will be fruitful and multiply. "I will also raise up shepherds over them and they will tend them; and they will not be afraid any longer, nor be terrified, nor will any be missing," declares the LORD. Jeremiah 23:1-2, (NASB ©1995)
If you are a pastor condoning domestic violence in your church,by your inaction and using any of the above Biblical "excuses" to blame the woman for getting hit, then you ought to quit pastoring. I would not want to be you when it comes time to be held accountable to Jesus Christ for the way you are pastoring your church. Violence is ALWAYS wrong. Domestic violence is ALWAYS wrong, it is not of God, and if you think it is, then you need more help than you are giving to your pastorate. I credit one pastor in 17 years who tried to stop the violence in my home. I credit him with saving my faith in Christ and in God. If I have any faith at all it is because one man tried to stop the abuse; but by the time he got to my family, it was too late. My parents, thankfully, ended up getting divorced, and when my dad contracted terminal cancer, he apologised to my mom. But an apology, however heartfelt, does not wipe away the damage caused by the years of abuse. My mother no longer goes to church; she does not trust any church, and like me, distrusts men of faith who are in positions of power. Yet, unbelievably, she still retains a strong faith in God. And that is to her credit that she does, for women of faith who endure abuse with no end in sight prove that women are strong. The thing is, women of faith who are being abused have nothing to prove. They suffer needlessly, their faith suffers, and the church suffers as long as abuse goes on hidden, the elephant in the room everyone can see but does nothing about. I have only managed to retain the belief that religion has beauty in it through extensive counselling, medication, and my own willingness to study and discover for myself what religion should be. And I am grateful to God/Spirit for the ability to believe at all.
If you are a woman of faith being abused, or know of a woman being abused please call the following number:
Help is confidential. Help is available to callers 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Hotline advocates are available for victims and anyone calling on their behalf to provide crisis intervention, safety planning, information and referrals to agencies in all 50 states, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Assistance is available in English and Spanish with access to more than 170 languages through interpreter services. If you or someone you know is frightened about something in your relationship, please call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) or TTY 1-800-787-3224.