“Children are victims. Adults are volunteers.”[i]
When it comes to spiritual abuse, children are the most vulnerable because they depend on their parents to protect them. But spiritual abuse often sets up rules and norms that put their parents in the role of middle managers, and the spiritual abuse that the parents experience strips away their ability to parent in the way they would like.[ii] Thus, parents who are caught up in spiritual abuse, frequently go against their conscience and parent in the group’s way.
Children whose parent’s join a spiritually abusive group, experience the loss of what was normal. The parent joins, and the child loses. The child may lose friendships, family members, traditions, forms of entertainment, and sadly, freedom to be a child. These losses occur as a parent adopts a more restrictive world view and begins to narrowly categorize life into good people, bad people, believers and unbelievers, righteous and infidel, etc. As the parent adopts new ideas about right and wrong, they adopt a literal reading of (selected) scriptures. Often among the selected scriptures are those that focus on inherited sin and the need for corporal punishment to remove it. The child is dragged along.[iii] If the child chooses to leave or to explore, it can result in harsh punishment and loss of an entire family and peer group.
The child who is born in, knows no other way. Their life is one of total indoctrination. They have no other identity than the one their parents and religion has given them. They have been cut off from all means of obtaining a differing world view. [iv] To leave or to explore can result in harsh punishment and loss of an entire family and peer group.
Adults who join spiritually abusive groups, or experience other forms of spiritual abuse are also victims. They may have been love-bombed into joining.[v] After being made to feel special, they join. Feelings of being special may include things like: We are all praying for you. We will help you. We practice the truth, and you are chosen to hear this message. You are leadership material. You are blessed to know this, now, when soon this message will end and others will not have this opportunity. Within a few years, the initial pleasant experience ends as the newcomer is pressured into more and more conformity. They are pressured to stop associating with outsiders including family and friends. They are told that people who leave are particularly dangerous; leavers are portrayed as prideful, malcontents, sinners, and apostates. These techniques serve to isolate the person into their spiritual abuse.[vi]
“Children are victims. Adults are volunteers.” What are we to make of this quote?
The statements are truthful, but incomplete. Children and adults can be victims, and people who were victimized, can choose to no longer be volunteers. Grownups can decide to be neither a victim, nor a volunteer. When we feel stuck, we still have choices.
If you’ve ever been a job that started out good, and ended up sucking the life out of you, you have an idea of what is meant by having choices. To think about leaving a job with good pay and benefits, and coworkers you enjoy, is to contemplate loss. Leaving would result in major changes. You can be a victim, and volunteer to stay. Or you can choose to leave, in hopes of finding an opportunity that brings more joy and maybe even more money.
Leaving involves loss and hope. The group uses emotional manipulation (and blackmail) to keep you involved. They know what a loss you will suffer by leaving, so they create a mythology that leaving is the worst thing you can do, and combine it with a false teaching that leavers are the worst human beings.
In truth, most leavers are courageous. They have often gone through a diligent process of weighing all the evidence, of prayerful consideration, and have made an informed decision. They know what they are giving up, yet their integrity cannot allow them to stay. They can no longer turn a blind eye to abuses, misinformation, or injustices. They can no longer volunteer to stay.
Victim? Volunteer? Third choice?
The third choice is to stop. Exit the painful situation. Push through the fear, loss, and pain, and find those people who will provide support. Seek people and experiences that allow liberation. It’s hard but worth it. The few difficult years will seem small when you look back. In the scope of an entire life time, the journey of leaving is small. The freedom is extraordinary. You do not have to be a victim, or a volunteer, you can be a sojourner, a spiritual hobo, one who journeys and finds their way home.
We might alter the quote and now say, “Children are victims. Adults are volunteers. Life is a journey and we are sojourners, temporary residents in any given situation.” As some have said, life is a journey, not a destination. May you have the courage to stop volunteering and continue your journey.
[i][i] I heard this quote from Ms. Theda Starr, director of a teen treatment center in Sacaton, Arizona approximately June of 1999, and thought about it for many years.
[ii] The book, Breaking Their Will: Shedding Light on Religious Child Maltreatment, by Janet Heimlich explores the various physical and psychological harm brought upon children and outlines how parents lose their parental autonomy
[iii] As one example of this, Brenda Lee, describes the upheaval she experienced as a child when her mother converted to an authoritarian religion in her memoir, Out of the Cocoon.
[iv] Think of children who are born into isolated polygamous groups, the Amish, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Hasidic Jewish sects, Scientology, Pentecostal, Mormon, Westboro Baptist, Children of God, and many other groups who claim to be the true believers and require specialized behavior from their membership
[v] Love bombing refers to the techniques that is used to hook a potential convert into a group. When a new person first attends a group meeting, they a surrounded by members who shower special attention on them as a means of attracting them to the group. During love bombing the positives are highlighted and the negatives are hidden. Information is withheld that would help the person make an informed decision.
[vi] Breaking the Silence on Spiritual Abuse, by Lisa Oakley and Kathryn Kinmond, outlines the process of spiritual abuse in more mainline churches. It also identifies the difficulty of leaving and the role of speaking badly of those who have left.
My blogs take on all topics related to recovery, including commentary on the intersection of spiritual abuse and current events.
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