Spiritually abusive groups talk about discipline as an act of love, but the reality within the group is much different. Discipline is meant to be a loving way to redirect behavior, provide education, and bring about a positive internal shift. The idea of discipline is to help a person grow. Loving discipline is age appropriate, done in kindness, and is not prolonged and endless. It is done not as power over, but as gentle guidance. But spiritually abusive groups do not administer loving discipline; they administer punishment. They use their power to bully, manipulate, cause guilt, and cause shame.
Punishment that is a part of a spiritually abusive group affects those with the least power. Children and women are subjected to misuse of power. Children are beaten to make them obey. There is no regard for their age, or their stage of development.
Psychologists have observed how children grow and learn. They can tell us what is predictable behavior for each age and why a child will do it. They can tell us at what age a child can begin to remember rules and know that yesterday’s rule is still good today. They can tell us when moral development begins.
Abusive religious groups ignore all of this information. They quote bible passages and encourage corporeal punishment. Often, tiny children are expected to behave in ways that are beyond their development. Tiny children are publicly beaten and a culture of acceptance allows adults to turn away and not interfere. Such beatings are considered raising a child in the way of the Lord.
Psychologists will tell us that toddlers need to move around, to play, and to explore because it helps them to learn and to develop coordination. Toddlers cannot recall from day to day what the rules are, and they cannot make mental connections as to where else a rule might apply. Toddler can be distracted away from something unsafe. Toddlers tell stories and like to use their imaginations. They have to become independent and saying no is a natural stage they go through.
Psychologists tell us to use loving discipline to help children learn safety, and that saying no all the time can be damaging. They teach us that different children need different discipline and that we need to teach children to express their feelings. We need to be role models of how to be polite, how to share, how to express anger appropriately. We need to understand that young children may not remember what they were told earlier in the day.
Abusive groups ignore all this information and apply moral judgments. Imaginative stories may be identified as lying. Saying no as rebellion. Forgetting as defiance. Trying again as stubbornness. Asking questions as independent thinking. The rod is meant to remove all these so called moral failures. Parents have one tool to use-corporeal punishment- and it can cause children to live in fear.
For people who have been raised in an abusive group, it can be empowering to read about childhood development and to understand the gravity of the disservice that has been done. Understand that the things that you were shamed for doing may have been a normal developmental stage that all children go through. For example, “playing doctor” as a five-year-old was likely a part of learning about bodies and not sexual perversion as abusive groups teach. Asking questions is a part of developing critical thinking, weighing evidence is part of integrity. Wanting to go to prom, is a natural event in the process of leaving childhood and entering adulthood. Wanting to hang out with peers is healthy. Children have to be able to leave their parents. Healthy parents are able to help in this process. Parents stuck in abusive groups cannot.
Women are also powerless and at the mercy of the males in the group. Elders or leaders monitor and watch them for submissiveness and modesty. Husbands have free reign to rule at home. Domestic violence is prevalent, and if a woman seeks help, she may end up being punished for failing to obey, or for having a Jezebel-like attitude. She may be excluded from the group for being a victim of domestic violence or rape because of speaking up and saying that what happened was wrong. This brings about the ultimate form of punishment and bullying, being booted out of the group.
Being cast out of the group is full on bullying, where by the entire group denies all show of human decency and love. An invisible wall goes up, all affection is withheld, and gossip flourishes, unchecked. Those who are shunned can experience PTSD, suicidal thoughts, and long term depression. The effects are ongoing and impossible to escape. This is called a loving arrangement, but inflicts severe pain upon the recipient. Such punishment is not loving discipline.
We may never know what motivated the individual shooter at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando this week, but we can be reasonably certain that spiritual abuse had a role in the lives of the victims and the shooter because spiritual abuse always leads to exclusion. Spiritual abuse separates humanity into us and them. Once “they” are defined, it becomes possible to dehumanize and justify the oppression and murder of “them.”
The sad truth is the sacred text can be twisted into an interpretation that is used to abuse others. Individuals and leaders choose which texts to emphasize. Passages that promote love, gentleness, and mercy are overlooked in favor of passages that rage and condemn. Individual reward can become the focus above everything else. Love and cooperation could be used to solve many problems on our planet, but religious leaders often teach people to focus on earning a divine reward or waiting for a divine rescue. Too bad for those who are outside the group.
When people commit to the message that others are evil, they can be motivated to cut them out of community both literally and figuratively. People who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender have received the brunt of disdain from abusive religious people for too long. Why? It’s because LGBT people break the rules that abusive religions rely on to maintain control.
Abusive religions rely on compliance to a strict hierarchy and set of rules developed around a nuclear family. Rules dictate dress, behavior, thinking, relationships, and sexual expression. LGBT people break the rules and create families of their own choosing. They live lives that ignore the hierarchy and its set of rules.
If you have experienced spiritual abuse, you have been told a specific set of interpretations of scripture about LGBT people. Those interpretations will linger unchecked, unless you challenge yourself to think differently. Have you considered other passages of sacred texts (such as those that speak of love and justice) that might hold more weight in your life? Have you dug deep and looked into why some members of your faith are open and accepting of LGBT people? Have you ever asked yourself what you can learn from them? Have you ever considered that sacred texts reflect the views of nomadic people from thousands of years ago, and do not reflect the knowledge and culture of our time?
These questions are important for people who could become allies of the LGBT community. They are equally important to people who are LGBT.
Coming back to the shooting in Orlando, we have to ask what role religiously-fueled rhetoric played in the life of the shooter. It is possible that he wanted to attain glory by taking out the “enemy.” It’s possible that he was gay and unable to come out of the closet. Maybe it’s both. We cannot change his circumstances, but we can use our voice now.
We can shed beliefs that exclude others. We can choose which passages, if any, that we will apply in our lives. We can become healers who confront teaching that excludes. We can welcome all “outcasts” and raise our children to work for love and justice. We can replace us and them thinking with we and us. May the tragedy in Orlando lead us to help create a more loving world. The shooter meant this for evil, let it motivate us to spread love.
My blogs take on all topics related to recovery, including commentary on the intersection of spiritual abuse and current events.
Suicide Prevention Lifeline 1(800) 273-8255