Spiritual Abuse Survivor
You wouldn’t know from looking at my life now, but as a kid, I used to reenact exorcisms during play dates. As a teen I spent my summers doing dramatic, religious, crucifixion mimes for onlookers in third-world streets. As a young adult, I could be found trying to convince Buddhist kids they were sinful, and there was a hell waiting for them if they didn’t convert. Most of you with church backgrounds reading this don’t have such extreme stories, but many of you may have baggage around harmful beliefs you were raised with and some of you are survivors of spiritual abuse.
Spiritual Abuse Definition: Harm, or control inflicted on a person in God’s name, or under the guise of religion.
I was raised in The Jesus Movement, a Christian counter-cultural response to the Hippie Movement. The Jesus Movement was characterized by living in communes, and helping others in need. Some major beliefs and practices of this movement were speaking in tongues, exorcisms, spiritual warfare, and the End Times apocalypse. Our family of five, lived “on faith” with no income, and were meant to be a sort of healing agent for people who came to live with us. This included people with criminal records, addictions and untreated mental illnesses. We lived with some very dangerous humans.
My memories and personal formation in The Jesus Movement are mixed, sort of like a crazy circus filled with laughter, then changing to absolute horror, then back to laughter.
The horror part, the part that is connected to trauma for me, is something that I’m still working on even now. I was subject as a small child to beliefs that were overwhelming and terrifying, which are the very definition of trauma. I’ll name a few: Hell for unbelievers, The Rapture, Satan/demons seeking to destroy Christians, and not trusting others outside of our belief system.
Imagine if you will:
- The years I spent thinking about the people around me suffering in hell for eternity if I didn’t share my faith/be a witness for Christ.
- The obsessive terror that I would be demon-possessed if I didn’t put my spiritual guard up.
- The fear about how I would survive an End Times apocalypse.
The results were:
- Unspeakably violent nightmares for decades.
- Chronic anxiety, and OCD tendencies.
- Migraines, chronic illness.
- Final diagnosis of PTSD
Spiritual abuse is openly evident to most people who witness the awful televangelists taking advantage of people financially, especially the poor. Or it’s clearly exposed in high-profile cults such as Scientology. But it’s often not validated in the general public in every-day church experiences.
Some common examples are: being treated differently or poorly because you dared to challenge a pastor/leader, being slated as dangerous because you asked too many questions about doctrine, being viewed as “less than” because of your gender or sexual orientation, being used up as resource in church, but never acknowledged or thanked, and being shamed and manipulated for any religious reason.
For children, spiritual abuse can look like: being scared into making a conversion decision, using God to shame or scare a child into good behavior, teaching violent, complicated scripture inappropriately, and teaching children they so bad/sinful that Christ had to die a violent death for them.
These abuses, often unintentional, can be both implicit and explicit. They often represent the ultimate double bind – damned if you do, damned if you don’t.
If I honestly acknowledge the depth of my own spiritually abusive trauma, I can say I felt like I was living in a Saw horror movie with a Jigsaw God playing sadistic games with humanity. He asked me to either commit violence on myself (don’t ask questions about anything, keep in line and ignore my doubts, fears and abusive experiences) or commit violence on others (other people are going to hell to be tortured forever, and I have to be ok with it to keep my community, and retain my salvation).
In short, many people have walked away from church for spiritual abuse reasons. The ultimate “fuck you” from the church is to call them “weak, fallen, or deceived” or some other invalidating or diminishing label. I see a tragic and tangible example of this horrible double bind in the high rate of suicide in LGBTQ youth coming from religious backgrounds.
Is it any wonder that there is a mass exodus from churches? Between doctrine that is engrained into children as shame and fear, to invalidated adults not being able to question and be honest about human struggles, to the church being judgmental and politicized, people are leaving. They are sadly not finding many places to process their pain, or be understood. People who’ve experienced spiritual abuse often feel utterly alone, and unseen in their struggle.
I’m not saying all churches or religions are bad here. There are many great, faith communities who do wonderful, healing work in the world. But, religious systems overall need to do a better job for those who have been harmed in God’s name. The Church especially needs to practice non-judgment, non-violence, acceptance, kindness and speaking out publically against all forms of abuse.
If you have experienced any of my story, or this type of trauma, find a safe mentor or counselor to help you process your feelings. Spiritual wounding goes deep, and we need others to help us navigate our healing like any other trauma in our lives.