The Personalist Project

Simcha Fischer linked at facebook today a beautiful post by Elizabeth Esther. That led me to her blog, which induced me to read older posts of hers. I'm finding them pretty great.  Take this one, on what not to say to people who have suffered spiritual abuse.  It touches on our ongoing discussion of "unprincipled forgiveness."

She is speaking from the experience of having been raised in a fundamentalist Christian cult.  The abuse she experienced wasn't physical or sexual.  It consisted essentially, it seems, in a denial of her selfhood.

This passage is taken from another post of hers: How to talk to someone living in a cult. [Emphasis in the original]

Here's the thing: it has to get really bad on the inside before a committed cult-member (especially someone in the inner circle) decides to leave. The truth is, there are many benefits to living inside a controlling church group. It's not all bad.

For one thing, there's a powerful sense of community. I have found that it's nearly impossible to replicate the same depth of personal relationships "on the outside." 

There is a special bond forged through multi-generational loyalty, intermarrying and shared history that creates a particular, unique identity. It is a compelling reason to stay and it's a bond not easily broken.

If your family and your church are part of this group, the outside world seems like a harsh, lonely place to be. Of course, inside the cult, there is a price to pay for the uniquely intimate communal lifestyle–but it's just not monetary.

You pay for it by sacrificing your very own self. Your own personhood.

And herein lies the crack in the armor of cult-like groups. Inside a group like this, there is no personhood. The individual means nothing (or very little). The community is everything. In fact, taking care of one's own interest is considered selfish. 

Committed members are accustomed to forsaking all for the sake of 'the ministry,' 'the mission,' the 'work of the Lord.' And by forsake I mean: giving up good jobs, homes, livelihoods, family ties, social networks–anything that hinders full, absolute surrender to their higher calling.

This is why acknowledging the personhood of the individual is a powerful antidote to the soul-crushing machinations of an oppressive religious system.

I can't say how important I think this is—how exactly she nails it.  I want to say more.  You don't have to be in a cult to experience this phenomenon. The identical dynamic is at work in all co-dependent relationships.  It's the same one I found in reading about Maciel's Legion of Christ and the one I found in the Covenant Communities of the 80s.  It's the one Ibsen depicts in A Doll's House between Nora and her husband.
And, when we get right down to it, the same dynamic is at work in those who preach and practice what we've been calling "unprincipled forgiveness."  Instead of addressing a wrong done, i.e. objective reality, it wants to focus on the "problem" of the victim's subjectivity.
Elizabeth Esther draws the link in her list of things not to say to someone who has suffered spiritual abuse.  See especially numbers 4-7.  

4. Have you forgiven the people who hurt you? People who have suffered spiritual abuse are repeatedly reminded that Jesus commands them to forgive. We get it. Really. Also, we forgive you for being so unhelpful.

5. You know, you can wallow in self-pity or choose to move on. The subtext, here, is that people who talk about their abusive experiences are indulging in self-pity. Believe me, we want to move on. This is why we talk about it. Talking about is actually a sign of healing. When we’re really hurting? We stay very quiet.

6. Well, what were YOU doing that was wrong? Were you behaving rebelliously? Dressing immodestly? This is classic victim-blaming. This line of questioning seeks to cast doubt upon the victim’s credibility and motives. It also casts the perpetrator as the noble character who was “seduced” against their will or understandably “provoked” to violence.

7. Are you allowing a root of bitterness to grow in your heart? No, actually. I only allow root vegetables to grow in my heart. Ahem. Look, this is a loaded question. It presumes that people like myself have an axe to grind and that we’re allowing our pasts to define our future. We’re not bitter. We’re bursting full of sweet, sweet boundaries.

This is exactly what I have found again and again in my adult life.  Controlling, co-dependent relationships are exposed as such when you find, for instance, that to make a definite charge, to raise a criticism, to establish a boundary, is taken to be an act of aggression against "a work of God" or "a good person."  To make a truth claim about something wrong is to be labeled arrogant.  To be concerned with your own good, your own integrity, is deemed selfish and small-minded.  
Because you won't conform, you are deemed the problem.  People are concerned for your soul.  They are praying for you.  They are furrowing their brows and shaking their heads over your bitterness and lack of Christianity.  
What they are not doing is looking into the truth of the matter at hand.  They don't want the truth.  What they want is "unity."  And you and your arrogant insistence on truth are interfering with unity.
What's amazing to me is how widespread the phenomen is and yet how still generally unknown and unrecognized.  As a friend once put it to me, "You have to feel it in your own skin before you know it's real."
The antidote Elizabeth Esther offers, too, is convincing: Listening rather than advising.  Receiving a person as they are, rather than explaining to them how you think they ought to be.  
I've been at work for a few weeks now on an article titled "Abusive advice."  This gives me great new food for thought.

Comments (1)

Katie van Schaijik

#1, Jan 17, 2013 9:15am

Reading further at her site since posting this, I've learned that abusive spanking, even of very young babies, was part of her experience.  But it seems that the central wrong was control.  The central demand was obedience.  Forced conformity.  

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