Monday, August 4, 2008

Refocusing on the Basics of Spiritual Abuse

Over the past two months, I’ve addressing several different and specific aspects of the patriocentric or the so-called “Biblical patriarchy” movement. That group in particular was the primary impetus for my online discussion and writing about the larger topic of spiritual abuse. There are many other different groups that fall under this main category, but my most disturbing experiences originated within the roots of what has become patriocentricity.

Most recently, I mentioned the topic of spousal abuse, preceded by a great deal of material on covert/emotional incest because I believe that both of these topics prove very significant to the patriocentric movement, not necessarily all those who suffer spiritual abuse. There are many such additional aspects to this specific movement that have been discussed here: kinism, neo-Confederate idealism, what some (not me!) call “hyper-Calvinism” (which I don’t think qualifies as Calvinism at all), the cult of domesticity, “militant fecundity,” a neo-gnostic/Pelagian quest for an “Uber Adam,” formulaic and simplistic plans for Christian living, etc. It is a diverse collection of beliefs all worthy of discussion.

But I’d like to revisit the general topic of spiritual abuse and reorient a bit, putting all these things into perspective. There are many more groups who fall under the general category of spiritual abuse, though most discussion here had concerned the specifics of a particular group.

What is Spiritual Abuse?

In very general terms, as there are many definitions for these types of things, spiritual abuse is the process by which a religious group or individual misuses the system, their authority and influence over followers for some advantage, but at the follower’s expense. There is always some degree of deception involved, though it is often impossible to know where the deception originates. The group leader may be deceived by the system of teachings himself as a true believer of the religion that was thrust upon him at an earlier time. It may be that the group leader and others within the group use the idea of the greater ideological good and their intended goals to justify their manipulative means, but this element most always comes into play: “the end justifies the means.”

In terms of Scripture, Jesus talked about these same concepts, using different language when discussing the Pharisees and “wolves in sheeps’ clothing.” The Bible touches upon all of the modern elements of the double bind, cognitive dissonance and some of these more complicated sounding terms, but the dynamics and techniques are nothing new. And I believe that Jesus was deeply moved with compassion for the spiritually abused when he discusses scattered sheep without a shepherd. None of this is anything new, though the language applied to it is.

You can select older material about spiritual abuse from the list of tags here, and I recommend listening to thatmom’s podcasts on spiritual abuse – seven in all. We discuss Henke’s definition, Robert Lifton’s criteria, Cialdini’s work regarding what he calls “Weapons of Influence” (often used by salesmen), ideas about manipulation, etc. There are several lists of some of these resources listed in the sidebar. Some are listed directly with links to additional information and the recommended links to more resources provide a whole universe to explore on this topic. And I believe that there is enough material to keep me busy documenting here for the rest of my days before covering all the different types and varieties of spiritual abuse, but I am primarily concerned, at this point, with patriocentricity.

Perhaps one of the most difficult aspects of considering spiritual abuse is the message that the techniques used by Christian groups and manipulators do not differ from other, non-Christian religious groups or cults. Though we are all very different from one another, basic human nature does not differ. Though each group practices the core techniques of manipulation differently and the degree to which one particular technique is used in comparison with others varies greatly, the same core characteristics of manipulation and coercion are present in every idealistic and totalistic group. The minute we add our own plans and programs to the Gospel, we start to head down this idealistic path of good intent while using very human means of accomplishing that “greater good.”

Who Gets Pulled Into Spiritual Abuse?

Anyone. Everyone is vulnerable. That is perhaps the most disturbing aspect of the topic: we are all vulnerable. The process of spiritual abuse is fairly simple. When we have unmet needs and during times of great stress or transition in our lives, we become more susceptible to influence. One is more likely to listen seriously to and consider the beliefs of a Good Samaritan after he has cared for us and bound our wounds. If we have a threatening problem, and someone offers a seemingly viable solution, we become well-disposed towards them and disbelieving of information that demonstrates that they are anything contrary to what we’ve understood about them. Many people become involved with cultic groups and get pulled into spiritual abuse after a major life transition or a period of grief that destabilizes them. Identifying the problems, issues and pitfalls of a new group of people or ideas becomes much more difficult and less important when we are stressed as well as during the process of their meeting of our needs.

The process of the very subtle manipulation used by individuals and groups seems quite harmless during this time of “honeymoon” with the group. Several aspects of manipulation sweep in during this phase – primarily that of milieu control and mystical manipulation. The environment is highly controlled to the advantage of the group (love bombing), making a fair and rational evaluation of the belief system and the facts about the group very difficult if not impossible. Robert Lifton states that the hallmark techniques are actually based upon clever use of logical fallacies and capitalize upon our inherent human weaknesses and tendencies. Cialdini’s writing helps us understand some of these tendencies and how our human nature aids in the process of deception about the belief system and the group.

Spiritually abusive systems capitalize upon shame and inherent weakness. All people have a degree of guilt and shame because we are fallible human beings. We are not perfect and cannot attain perfection, however much we desire it. This type of shame describes something very different than true moral guilt over one’s specific actions, almost a general sense of disappointment in one’s self because of our limitations. In her book “Hurt People Hurt People,” Sandra Wilson states it this way: “As I see it, shame is rooted in the lie that human beings can and should be perfect. And being perfect includes the ‘take anything’ factor, (that is, endure any circumstance without feeling anything but ‘fine’ and without behaving any way but ‘nice.’)” So in that respect, all people have shame potential that a system or individual can exploit. Some potential and degree of shame is a universal human trait. Abusers of all types, not just spiritual abusers, exploit this human trait to gain undue influence over others.

For those who have unresolved shame issues in their pasts that they continue to carry with them, the degree to which you can be manipulated increases. I appreciate Harriet Braiker’s writing on manipulation because she discusses all aspects of many types of manipulation and how to move from being a “soft-target” for a manipulator by developing the traits of a “hard target.” Any extra shame that we have hanging around in our minds and hearts gives a spiritual abuser or any type of manipulator a foothold for exploitation. (They exploit the good aspects of our human nature, and that which causes us emotional pain is all the more easy to exploit.)

Until the next post, visit for more information about the resources listed in this post if you don't find them here on the blog.