Religious Abuse: 101

I don’t necessarily consider it my responsibility to educate religious people on what seems, to me, to be an issue of respect. But this post is born of exhaustion; a deep, soul-wearying fatigue. I am exhausted by people who demand respect for their beliefs, then trample on mine. I am exhausted by the stubborn ignorance behind prayers for my healing. So I’m going to confront that ignorance, for my sake and for the sake of the many survivors of religious trauma that I count among my friends. Christians, consider this a basic guide to interactions with survivors of religious abuse.

For the purposes of this post, ‘religious abuse’ refers to any abusive behavior committed within a religious context. Survivors may have been abused psychologically, physically or sexually by religious parents, clergy, or fellow Christians. In this context, abusers often turn to religion to justify their behavior. Abusive fathers and husbands may use a literal interpretation of gender roles to bolster their domestic authority. Survivors may have been victimized specifically due to gender identity, sexual orientation or disability. Abusive behavior can also be pervasive: entire congregations can contribute to the creation of a toxic culture that marginalizes survivors. It is abusive to tell an individual with a disability that they are disabled due to lack of faith. It is abusive to tell a woman she cannot leave her abusive partner, or that she somehow brought the abuse upon herself. It is abusive to shun someone due to sexual orientation, or pressure them into ‘ex-gay therapy.’ Legalism is abusive. As a result, survivors can be re-traumatized by a variety of behaviors or verbal statements. This is a rough guide, and I welcome input from others.

1.) Do not try to convert survivors of abuse.

There is no way that anyone in the Western world has survived to adulthood without hearing what Evangelicals like to call ‘the message of salvation.’ Survivors of religious trauma are especially familiar with it. We used to believe it, remember. However, many survivors have been so traumatized by organized religion that it is healthiest for them to leave it entirely. Some may return eventually; others will not. This is none of your business, and neither is the condition of their soul. A prayer for salvation implies moral judgement, and that’s not what a survivor needs to hear. Keep it to yourself.

2.) Don’t ask us to go to church with you.

Related to my first point. Church has not been a safe place for survivors of religious abuse. We don’t have a reason to want to return to church. We are not going to be magically healed by stepping foot in your church building. Your pastor is not going to repair years of trauma in an hour. Similarly, don’t tell survivors that you hope they return to church someday. You’re asking them to return to the site of their trauma. This is inappropriate.

3.) Don’t ask for our ‘testimony.’

I’ve had Christians demand that I tell them my ‘testimony.’ This demand is totally inappropriate. I don’t owe you my story. It’s mine to tell if I feel led to do so. Survivors of religious abuse have experienced trauma. When we relate our stories, we relive that trauma. It’s an emotionally draining experience and you do not have the right to expect us to perform for you on command. We’re more likely to talk if we feel we’re in a safe environment.

4.) Don’t say: ‘Not all Christians are like that.’

It’s factually accurate, but avoids acknowledging that the organized church is responsible for a number of social ills. You may not be homophobic, but in the evangelical and fundamentalist worlds, homophobia is the cause celebré. You may support gender equality, but again, gender equality isn’t yet the norm in these subcultures. Those of us who have been raised in these subcultures are much more likely to have encountered homophobia, sexism, and other forms of institutionalized oppression. It’s true that dialogue is only possible when we set stereotypes aside, but it’s equally true that survivors need to heal. During that healing process, we’re going to be naturally wary of Christians. It’s self-centered to interpret this wariness as a personal attack. It has nothing to do with you.

5.) Don’t suggest other denominations.

Church is church. We’ll go back if we choose. If the United Methodist Church has changed your life then I am pleased for you but it does not mean that it is going to be a good experience for me. Christianity may have been a healing experience for you, but for survivors of abuse, it has been the opposite. Respect that. Stop trying to make Christianity happen for us. It’s a personal decision.

6.) Don’t say: ‘Jesus still loves you.’

Loves me despite what, exactly? This implies survivors are damaged goods and it’s especially painful to those whose abuse has been sexual. Again, we know the doctrine. We know Jesus is supposed to love us unconditionally. But many of us have also heard that we are intrinsically depraved, or that our sexuality is an abomination. Women, for example, who have been told to submit, repeatedly, at the expense of their independent identities are likely to interpret this in a negative way: that Jesus loves them despite their independence. Keep this sentiment to yourself, please.

7.) Don’t suggest therapy.

This really applies to survivors of all sorts. You likely don’t know what steps a survivor has taken to recover from trauma. Therapy can be a positive influence, but too often, people respond to evidence of a survivor’s trauma with this recommendation and nothing else. If you have reason to believe a survivor is in danger from self-harm, that’s an obvious exception. But survivors of abuse need to make this decision on their own initiative, and survivors of religious abuse may have experienced significant personal harm from religious counselors and therapists.

8.) Don’t say: ‘I love the sinner, but hate the sin.’

Or maybe do, because there’s no faster way to let me know that you’re not going to respect my identity, and I’d rather not waste time on someone who’s prepared to demean me.

9.) Don’t say: ‘If you’d really been saved, you wouldn’t have left the church.’

This specifically applies to survivors who left Christianity. The circumstances of their departure are none of your business. Equally, you have no business casting judgement on the validity of their prior beliefs. Unless you are psychic, and you are probably not psychic, do not say this. For a survivor who’s left the church, the decision to leave is motivated by trauma, and that merits your respect. Unless you’ve experienced this, you don’t have the right to comment on how you think you would have handled it. (Many of us leave due to trauma and intellectual disagreement, but that’s another blog post.)

10.) Never, ever criticize a survivor for being angry.

Are you offended that a survivor criticized the church? That’s unfortunate–for you. Sit down, stop being offended, and listen. Do you think a survivor is too angry about her abuse? Unless she’s personally threatening you, it’s time once again to get over yourself and listen. Discern the source of that anger. I cannot emphasize this enough: at no point do you ever possess the right to tell a marginalized person how to react to her marginalization. I don’t care if my experiences make you uncomfortable. That’s on you, not on me. And unless you’ve been abused, you have no right to lecture abuse survivors. As a Christian (and this is especially true if you are a white straight Christian) you belong to the ruling class. You are politically powerful. You are valued. Your voice is heard. If you are threatened by an ex-Christian expressing her rationale for being an ex-Christian, the problem is not the ex-Christian. If you feel attacked when a survivor of religious abuse points out failures in the church, the problem is not the survivor of abuse. Take a break and look in the mirror. When you dismiss our anger at abuse, you dismiss the validity of our experiences and that is itself an abusive deed. This isn’t about you.

Obviously, these points can be adapted, and apply best to religious abuse that occurs in conservative Evangelical and fundamentalist homes, churches and schools. I’m writing from this perspective because it’s the one I know, and I don’t believe I have the moral authority to speak for anyone else. Feel free to repost as needed.

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7 thoughts on “Religious Abuse: 101

  1. As a survivor of religious abuse who left and then came back to Christianity, I agree with you wholeheartedly. I currently live in an intentional Christian community, where I experienced true conversion not because of threats or dominance, but because of the love and acceptance of the other people here. I doubt that I will ever feel comfortable attending institutional church on a regular basis, because as you said, it is the proverbial crime scene and though I have experienced much healing there will always be the scars.

    I have actually shared many of these same points with my mother, who is a (non-abusive) conservative evangelical and used to try to get me to see things her way all the time. We finally had a terrible argument and didn’t speak for several weeks. When she apologized and began to show truly unconditional love for me regardless of my spiritual choices, only then was I able to gain any perspective at all on the actual message of the gospel…true love and grace that does not demand or require anything from me to earn it. Now the only person more baffled at my conversion back to Christianity than me is my mother…of course she is pleased at my change of heart, but the only way I could begin to consider conversion was when mom got out of the way and let God be God.

    I could go on, but I’ll stop with my thanks that you shared this, and with a word of encouragement for healing from whatever you endured at the hands of misguided Christians.

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