The fifth technique used in spiritual abuse is financial abuse. Financial abuse occurs when members give under pressure, give beyond their means, or give because they are shamed into doing so.
Money is necessary to pay for a designated leader, pay for a building, to keep the lights on and maintain meeting spaces. Money may also be used for acts of charity, printing written materials, and providing education. In healthy groups there is transparency and accountability. Information on expenditures is readily available to members and outsiders. Many members of the group are involved in goal setting at the local, regional, and national level.
In abusive groups, checks and balances are missing. Information is hidden or not made readily available. Only a small, elite group knows what is happening financially and often the leadership is living in luxury, while ordinary members often have few financial resources.
Abusive groups often get financial resources by making quid pro quo promises. Quid pro quo means “this for that” and can be a form of harassment. Members are manipulated into giving by being told they are planting a seed that will grow into financial blessings for them later. Sacred texts or concepts are used to support the plea for funding. Tears and emotions are used to influence decision-making. On the extreme end leaders have said “God has told me to raise this money…or I will die.” A more subtle form of quid pro quo is when a leader teaches that God wants everyone to be rich and prosper. How does a person take God up on this offer? By giving to the preacher or group.
Financial abuse occurs when members are encouraged to give beyond their means. When tithing or donations are mandatory to keep an approved standing within the group, members may be influenced to donate financially instead of paying bills or buying groceries. Members are not told that some people should not give but should instead care for their own needs first.
In abusive groups there can be an anti-education agenda. Members are taught to avoid higher education which can negatively impact their ability to make money for an entire life time. They are encouraged to build treasures in heaven or spend their time or energy on “Kingdom” or spiritual endeavors. They may forego having children, due to the urgency of the work and then in their old age have no financial resources or children to care for them. When they are no longer useful to the group, the group will abandon them.
Apocalyptic groups that wait for the end of the world or the return of the Messiah often teach that it will occur within months or years, so members do not plan for the future; they will not think of their retirement. Members have sold everything or ran up debt, in anticipation of predicted dates. When the end does not come, the family is left to recover from the financial predicament.
Both abusive and healthy groups may suggest that members include the group when writing their wills. But how it is done is different. In abusive groups, the person is taught to give all (time, energy, money) and the only thing of value is the group’s goals. Thus they are encouraged regularly to give and give and give. Many have given all to the group and left nothing to their children. There would be no room for leaving resources to other charities or people.
Some abusive groups have become wealthy by promoting publications or products. These products can be anything from drops of “holy” water, a piece of “holy” cloth, “miracle” wheat, publications like books, videos, brochures, or payments made to attend elite seminars.
Abusive groups may ask for a donation for their work in exchange for a piece of literature. (If they sold a book, it would be a business and be taxable income, so they teach members to ask for a donation to their work.) That same piece of literature may have already been paid for with a “donation” made by the member. The member is obligated to turn in the donation that was made “for the work.” In this way, the group receives double payment for each piece of literature. If that literature was made by unpaid volunteers, the profit margin is huge. To keep profits rolling in, new materials are released and old ones are retired.
To heal from financial abuse, a person can do several things. Start investing in yourself. Maybe it is time to get more education. Use your resources for your future. Start a retirement plan; for even $50 a month a retirement account can be started through a local credit union or bank. Rewrite your will. Decide if you want to give money and to whom. Research how the money is used. Look for transparency. How much of what you give is used to serve the people you want to help?
If you participate in a faith tradition, instead of donating money, can you donate time? Observe what the group says about giving; are there quid pro quo promises? Is there manipulation of your emotions? Is the money used to support activities that help those who are less fortunate?
By taking charge of your giving and your personal well-being, you can recover from spiritual abuse. You can use your resources in a way that seems right to you.
The fourth technique used in spiritual abuse is interference in family relationships. By exercising undue influence in a person’s core relationships, the group controls members at the most basic level. [i] Interference in the family can result in the group becoming more important than one’s parent, children, or siblings. It puts a wedge between individuals where they are forced to choose between God and their own salvation, and that of having a relationship with their loved one. It can place them in the role of policing the behavior of another family member.
Long before the marriage, teachings are used that set the couple in a spiritually adversarial position. There is little to no chance of the couple developing a healthy relationship with equality and mutual accountability. In spiritually abusive groups the male is taught from the cradle to the grave that he is the head of the household. He is the decision maker and he is the leader. He is also taught that females are less than him. At the same time the females are taught that they should yield, obey, and surrender. An imbalance of power becomes deeply ingrained.
Through lectures, studies, and modeling, girls and boys are taught powerful lessons. When women are required to wear head covering around men, are denied leadership roles, and are reminded to be modest, it teaches daughters that they have no power or choice. When boys are exclusively afforded privilege and taught that women are unable to attain an eternal reward without their leadership, it can teach them a sense of entitlement and a “my way or the highway attitude.” This attitude, when full blown in a relationship, leads to emotional abuse and domestic violence.
In high control groups, individual members are taught to police each other’s behaviors. This carries over into the couple’s relationship. If one person in the couple errs or has a secret “sin” the other will feel obligated to report it. Then the leaders of the group become enmeshed and overly involved in the couple’s relationship. It can be anything from, “she isn’t submissive,” to “he wants oral sex.” Matters that should be up to the couple, are regulated from the outside. In worse case scenarios, the advice can be deadly; women can be told to stay in abusive relationships and pressured to hide physical abuse and not report it to the police. They may be pressured to stay and not leave, putting them and their children in danger.
Abusive teaching can pressure couples to not have children; due to an apocalyptic worldview, the only thing that matters is to do the work of the group. Then what happens as time passes and the couple grows old, with no one to care for them? On the opposite end of the spectrum, abusive teaching can be used to pressure couples to have large families. Women may keep having children regardless of medical risk. All to prove faithfulness. Abusive teaching, may interfere with the couple’s choices on birth control. The problem may not just be the teaching, but may include what happens if a couple deviates from the expectation. The couple may be looked down on or labeled as lacking faith. They may face long term or unintended consequences, such as children being raised in poverty, or the loss of the mother during a high risk pregnancy.
The group will further regulate how the family functions, affecting how parents raise their children, how they discipline, and what medical decisions they make. Abusive teaching can lead to child abuse when it leads to a culture where corporal punishment is promoted. Parents are led to believe that children are born defective and need to have sin whipped out of them. They save the soul while destroying the child’s self-esteem. When teenagers make mistakes, the leaders may respond, and the parents may be removed from having any influence in the situation.
Sometimes through the application of one verse of scripture, families are pressured in their medical decisions. Prayer is promoted and anything but prayer is seen as unfaithfulness. Or one verse about blood is used to deny a lifesaving transfusion. Elders and leaders apply pressure so that compliance is obtained. People sometimes die.
Some of the most insidious forms of interference come through group teaching or pressure that leads one to expel, abandon or to shun one’s own family member, in order to prove faithfulness and to protect their own good standing. The one expelled is labeled and dehumanized through the use of derogatory language. All natural feeling and love must be shut off. This is by far the most damaging thing a person can be pressured to do or to experience.
To heal from this kind of interference is not an easy thing. It helps to recognize the way you were groomed to treat your family. There can be feelings of shame and guilt for the choices you made and the things you did to your children, siblings, or parents. Therapy may be helpful. It can be powerful to apologize, to forgive yourself, and to concentrate on the present moment. Concentrate on the relationships you have now. Establish a relationship that is free of strict gender roles, and focus on equality, respect, and mutual accountability. Raise your own children with a freedom you did not enjoy. No one gets a do over, but moving forward you can follow your conscience and do what makes sense to you. That alone can be quite liberating.
[i] To read more about the term undue influence, please see the work of Steven Hassan.
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