Recently the blog for Trinity Church, Brentwood has been reactivated by the blog master Nigel Davies. Because Nigel has not added any new material for several months, the activity of the blog has naturally died down. One hopes that this will change over the coming days and weeks as the church continues to be an important case-study for this blog. There is, in fact, to judge from the latest posts little fresh news to report about Trinity, although Nigel is still making his protests outside the building on most Sunday mornings. One fact he does mention is that some time ago he was forced to remove the word ‘abuse’ from his posters. He now uses the less provocative word ‘damage’ to describe what happened to the children of the church school. The police thought that this language of ‘abuse’ was too strong a way of describing what former members, particularly the children, had suffered at the hands of the church’s leadership. I want to suggest that this word abuse is arguably a completely appropriate word to describe what does happen in some churches up and down the country. Abuse is a very apt word to describe what happens even in Christian circles. It does not have to involve violence or sexual activity.
Some twenty years ago, my wife and I had an unsettling appearance when we tried to deal with a woman with dementia. She appeared at our doorstep while I was working as a Vicar in Gloucestershire. At the start, we tried to treat her and the tales she was telling us as literal accounts of reality. But as time went on we realised that there was no factual substance in what she was saying about her family and the places she claimed to belong to. Eventually I drove her to the police station and introduced her to the officer on duty as someone who had got lost. Her family reclaimed her very quickly. The following day an apologetic son appeared to thank us for the time we had given her. I tell the story not as a prelude to a reflection on dementia but to describe the effect that it had on both my wife and myself. Because we had tried to make literal sense of the irrational over a period of two hours, our ability to distinguish between what was true and what was fantasy was temporarily completely undermined. Even in the simplest attempts at communication of a fact in conversation, I found myself wondering what this was in fact true. You could say that my grasp on reality was temporally disturbed. I found myself having at that point a new respect for those who work with the mentally ill.
It is very important for our sense of self to feel confident that our judgements about what is real and what is unreal are reliable. We have all had the experience of waking from sleep and quickly readjusting from the dream state to the waking state. In waking up we instantly re-establish our connections with the reality of the everyday world. But we need to try to imagine what it would be like if this connection with the normal world was not possible. Suppose we were in a situation where we had no means of knowing whether the things we were seeing and what people were telling us were true or not. Our normal rational self will always want to check things out. If it cannot, the mind finds itself swimming in a sea of subjectivity, uncertainty and doubting everything. Cults and extreme religious groups are very good at creating in their followers the permanent sense of fearful uncertainty which forces the members to trust a plausible leader as a way of staving off complete breakdown or mental collapse. Everyone needs an anchor in a stable reality. The difference between the member of the closed religious group and everyone else is that in the group the standard ways of relating to the everyday world have been closed off. The only way of surviving psychologically is to buy into and trust the group’s discourse, even though a small part of the mind knows that this perspective is at odds with the way the rest of society thinks. In summary, the individual member of the cultic group may end up living in a kind of parallel universe to the rest of society. The original sense of a personal individual self has been undermined and the member is on the way to becoming a sort of clone of the ‘group self’.
In what other ways do religious and cultic groups attack the integrity of the self? Many extremist religious groups are very good at teaching the message of depravity in human nature. Their members are reminded constantly to engage in acts of self-examination and self-renunciation. This will have the effect of creating an almost permanent miasma of blame. Self-blame or shame is something that is not difficult to extract from the Bible texts. A preacher or a cult leader can also suggest that any goodness that is felt by the individual is of no value. The message of being lovable because of God’s love and concern for each of us is replaced by the message that we are all foul and wretched sinners.
The next stage, having convinced a listener that they are an unredeemed spawn of the devil, is to convince the listener that they are in danger of hell fire. We have already named fear as one of the consequences of having one’s grasp of what is real thoroughly undermined. Here we have another aspect of fear, the fear of some future punishment. Both fear and shame will always be effective ways of undermining the sense of self-worth. Both these negative emotions will be very effective in completely disempowering the would-be follower of Jesus or seeker of any other religious goal. The desirable qualities of confidence, self-esteem together with an ability to think for ourselves have long since disappeared. Such individuals that remain in the group have now become completely vulnerable to the control of the cult leader or the minister of their group.
We have been describing the ways in which an individual can be attacked at the level of their self-determination and personal power. We can name this as a spiritual attack against what we can describe as the core self. We are talking about something that may not happen very commonly in Christian circles in the UK. But when it does occur it will involve a long period of recovery. It will require a re-learning of personal boundaries, a gradual recovery of the ability to know and trust in one’s own core beliefs. The ability to think and feel for oneself and to trust one’s judgement is a hard thing to recover when it has been taken away. The original assault on the human self in the way we have described can, surely, only be described as abuse. It is every bit as serious as the after effects of sexual abuse. Spiritual abuse, which summarises what we have been describing, is an attack on the core self and is as great an attack on what it means to be human as that involved in sexual violence.
Every individual in our society has the right to discover their unique gifts and abilities, including the right to be different. The motivation of some cults and religious group to insist on undermining the core uniqueness of a personality as a way of creating some new group identity needs to be challenged. These weapons of blame and fear that are used week by week in churches and cults around the world are precisely that, weapons of potential abuse. They threaten the personality and unique individuality of the members and we need to be on our guard. Spiritual abuse is being perpetrated and it needs to be named and always resisted.