Examining attitudes

TareenaBalakrishnan
Two news stories are given prominence today which are both of relevance to this blog. The first is the story of the Maoist cult and the way that a man, Balakrishnan, was able to control a group of women to do whatever he wanted. The second is the story of a British Muslim woman, Tareena Shakil, who went to Syria with her small child and then returned to Britain. She has now been tried and sent to prison for membership of ISIS.

The first story in many ways is richer for our purposes because it explores the depth of influence and control that a single person can exert over others. Also it is interesting that the Maoist leader was declared to have a narcissistic personality disorder as well as delusions of grandeur. We have discussed such personality defects as occasionally applying to religious leaders in many settings. No doubt we will return to the story but for today I want to speak about the second story, the British mother Tareena. Her story will allow me to focus particularly on my own feelings which are aroused by a story of religious abuse.

The narrative that is set out about Tareena and her infant son arouses in me a whole variety of feelings. No doubt these reactions are shared by other people. I want to look at these feelings because what is evoked in me is similar to the way I always feel when I am confronted with the actions and attitudes of people who are in thrall to extremist religious leaders. The first feeling, which I experience, is, as here, one of anger. The act of taking a young child into a war zone goes right against what we feel to be the act of a responsible parent. How could anybody endanger a child’s life or be so stupid as to think that this was a good environment in which to bring a child up? One’s sense of appropriateness and the protective instinct that one has for every small child is outraged. The anger one feels is also directed beyond the mother to the ideology that taught her to think in this way. There is a kind of rage inside one that is directed to anyone who exalts a cult of death and danger in preference to the normal human instinct to nurture and preserve life. This is even more true when it is the life of the helpless individual who has been entrusted to our personal care.

Having first felt a visceral sense of anger against the mother and her teachers, one then moves into a different stage, the stage of feeling profound sorrow and compassion for her situation. Her crazy perspective on life was probably made inevitable by the circumstances of her upbringing from childhood onwards. Her education was in all likelihood extremely poor, with little to protect her from the persuasive arguments of powerful individuals, particularly the men in her life. What chance does a woman in her situation have in resisting such powerful blandishments to think and feel in a particular way?

A sense of compassion for Tareena gives way to another feeling. I suspect that this third feeling is the one which is most typical in our society. It is a feeling of condescension mixed with contempt. What can be expected of this poor woman, brought up in ignorance? Most people, who have not tried to understand the influence of extreme religious groups, will be unable to experience the anger and the compassion which I have outlined above. They will bypass those stages and go straight to the uncomprehending condescension that seems to be the default mode among most people in our society. It is an attitude that completely fails to engage with the victims of religious extremism, of whatever kind. The vast swathes of the population cannot comprehend the results of extreme abusive religious doctrines, whether on the victims of such thinking or the perpetrators. This, sadly, would be true of people who attend many of our churches as well as those who are outside the influence of religious ideas.

It would be true to say that every time I meet someone who has been caught up in a religious group which makes them think and act in ways that go against their best interests, that I pass through all three of these feelings. I would like to think that I do not dwell on the third stage of condescension, maybe tinged with pity, for very long. I have nevertheless to admit that this is, or can be, the easy default option. No, I want to remain at the level of compassion for the victim’s plight and be able to use the anger I feel at the whole situation to give me energy to do something within my power to help. Opting for condescending pity would be a way of passing by on the other side of the road.

In our society there are hundreds of thousands of victims of religious and spiritual abuse of all kinds. There are many women trapped in abusive marriages which are reinforced by church teachings. Men are encouraged to exert their physical power over their wives and children because they have been told that the Bible condones such behaviour. Children submit to beatings and other harassment because of some verses in the book of Proverbs. Still more people live in environments of fear, unable to explore their individual personalities and creativity, because they believe that they must follow the will of a minister whom they believe holds the keys of heaven and hell. Our political leaders make a lot of noise about the Muslim treatment of women and children and no doubt many terrible things are done among these groups, hidden away from public scrutiny. But our society is still unable to comprehend the power of other religious groups, including the Christian, to commit or condone barbarities in the name of a holy book. This blog receives its energy from the anger felt at the existence of cruelty and abuse which are meted out in some dark places, even within our churches.

In this blog post I have identified within myself a trinity of feelings, anger, compassion and condescending pity. I am hoping that the first two of these feelings will always be the ones that predominate. I trust that when faced by religious abuse I can resist a slide into a condescension which so easily will turn into indifference. Sadly I fear that these first two feelings will always be those of a small minority. But I have the hope that those who read this blog will be among those who cultivate the capacity to feel anger and compassion in the face of spiritual abuse. It is from such feelings that comes the power to enable something to be done. The task before us is massive and may not be achievable in our lifetimes but we need to struggle to do what we can to confront it and maybe push it back just a little.

8 comments

  1. Chris Pitts

    When a group of people claim to be God’s interpreter and present that ‘interpretation’ with an absolutism that closes the door on questioning, blind obedience is an easy thing to achieve. For people like me who have come out from those dark corridors of mind control, the knowledge that this is still happening is very depressing.
    But, for me a wider view is needed in relation to what we have normalized in our established churches, (and that very seldom gets discussed). I find the reticence to examine this utterly frustrating.
    To some it would seem the idea of abuse is ok to discuss as long as it is; ‘Out There’ and not connected to their particular church?
    But when we take a real look at the mechanics of this, it is far closer to home than we ever thought!
    It is at this point that the term ‘Christian’ needs to be more carefully examined?
    The way that even general business is undertaken in churches can be very questionable?
    For example the ministry of welcome is virtually non-existent in some churches, a person in great need can be missed amid the thumping fervor of Praise band noise. If a person is coming to a church for the first time, a very bewildering experience can take place. Also the normalization of Christian entertainment crosses over into this, and I see here a relation to Stephen’s above blog post.

    Examining attitudes must also mean looking at things as they really are and not as we would wish them to be? Jesus said; “You cannot serve God and Mammon”?
    Imagine the bewilderment of a first time church attendee, when seeing the gloss of the world superimposed on church activity, in terms of entertainment and the Christian music industry.
    At this point the first timer has to make decision on whether to acquiesce with this, leaving them open to feeling, ‘normal’ in an abnormal hierarchy, the dangers of this can hardly be overstated.
    And so I conclude in anger that a wake up call is needed, and a clear choice is required between; the bells of religion or the Jesus of history, of whom it may be said, hated religious theatre, “ I thank God that I am not as other men” Luke: 18 -11.

  2. haikusinenomine

    Thanks Stephen for this vivid and honest account. I’d like to suggest something more about the condescending pity you mention. As you say, it has the danger of turning into indifference and passing by on the other side. I’d like to add that the attitude of condescension means that you see yourself as above the other person, superior in whatever relevant way. This attitude can be much more damaging to victims than mere indifference. When a victim comes up against this attitude of condescension, it is likely to reinforce in them all the feelings of hopelessness and worthlessness that are so much part of their plight. Whereas it is the dignity of being treated with respect and not as inferior which is so essential a part of the healing process.

  3. EnglishAthena

    Another good post, Stephen. Spiritual abuse is common in the CofE I’m afraid. Ordinary bullying by some, and indifference to the facts by the rest. The extremes that people like Chris experience(d) are obviously more damaging, but the lesser does more damage in a way because it is so common it harms more people.

  4. Stephen Parsons

    Thank you haiku for drawing out more the implications of the least honourable of the feelings. It is because one does not want to admit to feeling this way that one passes over it more quickly. Of course condescension implies superiority -it is contained in the word- but I had not thought about the impact of superiority on the one so treated. Teasing out the subjectivity in situations of abuse is important. It is not just the ‘victim’ who has a problem but also the one who reacts to the situation. The silence that greets so many disastrous scandals in the church speaks a lot about the observers. The Daily Mail type righteous indignation needs to be unpacked as well. There is something deeply unhealthy about both responses but I need more time to reflect on exactly what might be going on.

  5. "Eleanor"

    An inspiring post and comments that got me thinking about condescension, and whether it’s to do with self-preservation and avoiding discomfort or with maintaining power and influence – or both. Anyway, I’m trying to understand it all, so herewith some 4am flights of fancy…

    Crikey, people who’ve gone off the straight and narrow (I haven’t of course) could jolly well bring one face to face with oneself and fears about failure, couldn’t they (simply ghastly), or even (Heaven forbid) mortality – so it doesn’t really do to think too long and hard about their plight. At any rate, they’ve only themselves to blame, and surely one’s innate superiority provides a protective coating – like the influence and prestige one gets from one’s job or standing at church, both of which smooth one’s path in life and give one access to ‘the corridors of power’. So far so good. I relax and drift off to sleep…

    The doorbell rings. Visitors? Yes – it’s John Cleese and the Two Ronnies. Again (they’ve been before). “Come in!” I say (I love Cleese and the Ronnies). This time they’ve come to remind me about their vintage Sixties class sketch (“I look down on him; I look up to him but down on him; I know my place”) which is nice of them because it’s wickedly funny. But… actually I am rather annoyed by their visit this time as I notice I’m feeling slightly uncomfortable. Why? Because, beyond their artistry in portraying class sillinesses, their sketch reveals the general absurdity of condescension and ‘power politics’, and this rattles my complacency – in the way that the best comedy is supremely able to do. Anyway, I offer them a cup of tea (choice of builders’ brew or Earl Grey) and we discuss art and life. “Hang on” I say; “art – comedy or tragedy – is only art, surely, so it can’t change the world or my life, can it?” “Possibly not” they say, “though stories reveal truth to anyone “with ears to hear”.” I wake up with a start…

    Of course, it’s clear to me that this is what the Parables do – challenge us. Or, rather, it’s Christ with his radical compassion who challenges us, heavenly storyteller (Word made flesh) that he is. His contemporary audiences hung on his every word. Will I allow Jesus to remove the deaf-making layers of condescension I’ve cocooned myself inside, clingfilm upon clingfilm, over the years?…

  6. EnglishAthena

    I think of the following as a supposed superiority problem. Whenever someone accuses a cleric of abuse (general term, bullying or whatever), it is assumed the accuser is lying because they are of lower status than the accused. In fact, most people tell the truth most of the time. So just making a blanket accusation like that isn’t even rational. Purely statistically, it’s not likely to be the case.

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