In May 2011 I requested a meeting with a church leader about the terrible time I had been having.
I hadn’t eaten, really, in three weeks. I could barely sleep. Some nights I would just sit in my room and cry and cry as I thought about my life, about the kind of man I was, someone whose anger and hatred had left him alone and completely friendless. I cared about ideas more than I cared about people; and I realized I was heading towards the same miserable end as my hero, Charles Dickens, who had been so consumed by ambition that he couldn’t even see his own son trying to get his attention as he sat at his desk writing on the last day of his life.
But God in His mercy was trying to reach me. He had punished me for my selfishness. I read aloud the passage in Deuteronomy where He curses the Israelites who walk in disobedience. “The Lord will afflict you with madness, blindness, and confusion of mind; you shall grope about at noon as blind people grope in darkness, but you shall be unable to find your way; and you shall be continually abused and robbed, without anyone to help.”
“It’s great that you have that much clarity,” said *Mr. O’Connell. “But what have you done exactly?”
And I told him about my abusiveness and anger towards the people in my life who were trying to help me, how I refused to listen, how I was always turning the conversation around on them to make it look like they were the bad guys, and how it finally reached the point where, seven months earlier, the community I lived in had decided to shun me until I could learn how to treat people…
“Hold on,” said Mr. O’Connell, and he gave me a very serious expression. “Are you being punished?”
“No, it isn’t punishment,” I said sadly. “They’re trying to help me.”
* * *
Samantha Field had a great post on her blog today about how church can be a dangerous environment, how our theological systems protect abusers by telling their victims that everyone is equally horrible in God’s eyes because all sins are equally deserving of punishment, and haven’t we all done things that are wrong, and haven’t we all done things that have hurt others?
So everyone becomes a victim, and everyone becomes an abuser, and whatever defenses the abused might have had are stripped from them in the name of religion.
And it got me to thinking. There’s an uphill battle that so many abuse victims face, just being able to recognize that they’re being abused, let alone being equipped to resist it.
And this battle is made dramatically more difficult by a cultural environment that encourages people to think of themselves abusively, that rewards virtues like submission and obedience but discourages courage, emotional engagement, and critical thinking.
For example, I eventually realized that the community in which I was living was a dangerous cult; and that our leader was using me as a warning to the rest of the group about the dangers of questioning his authority. But clarity only came because I was willing to swim against the flow of Evangelical teaching, to think outside of the acceptable paradigms and “heart attitudes” that are supposed to characterize a true believer.
I’ve heard prominent small group leaders say you should never complain when you’re mistreated, because no matter what was done to you, it’s better than what you deserve. What you deserve is hell. So you should be grateful for what you’re getting, even if you don’t like it.
When I’m being ignored by everyone else in my house, when people throughout the country are told that I’m dangerous, when I’m told, “You’re being isolated until you get better” but not given any idea what this is supposed to look like or how long it will last, when I’m just sitting in my room waiting in permanent suspension… I should just accept that, because I deserve worse.
My friend who was driven to her death? She deserved to be honored and protected; to be treated with kindness; to be loved. Where I stop taking your religion seriously is when it tries to tell me she deserved what she ended up getting.
So yes, I’m angry about this.
I’m angry that, as one of my friends pointed out recently, our community was able to fly under the radar because we belonged to a larger community that’s also psychologically compromised, docile and submissive, predisposed to a certain ideology and resistant to anything that might challenge the accepted worldview.
I’m angry that real abuses are swept under the rug by people who have lost their capacity to recognize evil. Imagine if Harry and Hermione confronted a member of the Hogwarts faculty with their suspicions about another professor, only to be told, “There’s no need to worry; everyone is evil.” Within the world of the story, we would consider that sadistic. And yet real people facing real monsters are told this every day by pastors, counselors, and teachers.
I’m angry that young people are not given the training they need to resist evil. They’re so busy “battling demons” in the spirit realm that they’re left totally unequipped to deal with real monsters.
I’m angry that a place that should shelter and protect us is often the place where we’re most vulnerable.
I’m angry that the leaders who should have been helping us have left us easy prey for any wolf that passes.
This is not right. This is not just. This is not what Jesus wanted.