I am going to share an experience I had on Twitter this week. On Twitter, Ashley Measter asked, “What responses have you heard when disclosing abuse?” She was asking about how spiritual leaders respond to domestic violence. I added two tweets with my own experiences.
First Tweet: They told me and my mom it would disgrace God's name (Jehovah) if we went to police; this was 20 years apart.
Second Tweet: I was told to be obedient and render my due (have sex) when I brought up spousal abuse.
Kenny Stubblefield responded to me with the hashtag, #victimshaming. His comment set me thinking about my experiences and how abusive religion shames believers. If anything goes wrong, the victim of the misfortune is to blame. Here are some examples:
If you prayed for healing and the person stayed sick or died, you didn’t have enough faith. You didn’t believe hard enough. There must be hidden sin in your life.
If you go through a divorce, and you are a man, it was because you weren’t a good leader over your household. If you go through a divorce, and you are a woman, chances are, you are to blame because you were not submissive.
If you were sexually assaulted, what did you do leading up to it? How did you respond? If you were raped, you must have put yourself in danger. If you didn’t scream, you must have liked it.
If you question the leadership, you have a spirit of rebellion. If you question leadership, you must not have God’s spirit; you must have weak faith.
If you are gay or lesbian and not interested in changing or being celibate, you are choosing a path of disobedience. If you remain celibate, and are still gay, it must be because you secretly sin.
Children are not immune to victim blaming. The bible is sometimes used to support physical violence against children. Scriptures like “the heart is deceitful” (Jeremiah 17:9), and “the lips of the stupid one enter into quarreling, and his mouth deserves strokes” (Proverbs 18:6), and others promote the use of a rod to discipline children. Good children obey their fathers and mothers, bad children don’t. Bad children should be stoned to death, according the Torah. These messages are carried into adulthood and affect the person’s self-esteem.
These kinds of responses lead to shaming of the person. The person becomes a victim of the spiritual abuse. Shaming involves several techniques of spiritual abuse like intimidation, emotional abuse, blaming, and minimizing. As author and researcher Brené Brown has said, shame sends the message you are the problem, not that there is a problem. In other words, the person being shamed internalizes the message and turns it into, “I am a problem.” Instead of “I made a mistake” it becomes “I am a mistake.”
Victim blaming is used as a cover up for deficiencies in the abusers’ theology. A spiritual leader who learns discernment will not use Scripture to put others down or to blame them for their misfortunes. they will inspire their listeners to live with integrity and will help them access resources that can bring about behavior change.
When I experienced domestic abuse, I wished above all else for an elder to say to my father, “Brother, you are out of line. You need to stop immediately.” Then to my mother, “Sister, do whatever it takes to keep yourself and your children safe. Here are the resources in our community that can help you.”
As an adult, I attended multiple churches as a visitor and a participant. There were only two who made it clear that domestic violence was not okay. Both had posters for domestic violence shelters in the women’s bathrooms. They went out of their way to treat men and women as equals. Yet, I would have loved to hear a well thought out sermon that addressed family violence. Churches can send a strong signal by what they put in their bulletins, on their walls, and by what comes out of their mouths on Sunday mornings.
Dealing with feelings of shame is not an easy thing. But there are several good books on the subject. Brené Brown, who is a foremost researcher on shame, has several here: . If you have never heard of her, and have only a few minutes, her TED talk is here.
Part of healing is to realize it wasn’t you. You belonged to a faulty system that sent abusive messages. Healing starts with identifying the messages and replacing them with kinder ones.
We are all human. We all make mistakes and we change and grow. Sometimes prayers are not answered. Sometimes people leave us because of who they are, not who we are. Questions are necessary to faith development. If a leader cannot let you ask questions he or she is the problem. You are not a mistake, even if you have made mistakes.
My blogs take on all topics related to recovery, including commentary on the intersection of spiritual abuse and current events.
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