Spiritual abuse: What is it?
A preacher, his face distorted with rage, shouts anti-gay slogans from his pulpit into a television camera.
A mother quietly tells her son that he is no longer her son because he has just revealed that he is gay. She adds, “God doesn’t love you, and neither do I.”
A politician declares to a group of GLBT people, “God will destroy you!”
A newspaper prints a series of letters to the editor that allows religious fundamentalists to vent their homophobic anger in irresponsible abusive distortions of the Bible.
All of this is spiritual abuse, and it is wounding and destroying far more lives than most people realize.
Spiritual abuse hurts both the violator and the violated. Hate is a bitter emotional diet. Being hated takes a heavy emotional toll on every victim of this kind of spiritual violence. It renders physical violence against homosexuals unnecessary: Teach them to hate themselves enough, and they will destroy themselves and each other.
Spiritual abuse is not a new phenomenon. It has taken an endless variety of forms and expressions throughout human history. From the condemnation and casting out of people who don’t believe the prevailing religion to hanging witches and burning heretics, spiritual violence has been one of the most persistent and creative human activities ever manifested in social behavior.
Spiritual and emotional violence often go hand-in-hand. Children are demeaned, condemned for their behavior and told that God does not love them. When spiritual and emotional abuses are combined with homophobia, the devastating results are life-long.
Shunning as spiritual abuse
One of the most common passive/aggressive forms of spiritual abuse is shunning. The “righteous people” refuse to speak to or even look at the offending person.
My friend Jo told me of visiting a very religious home where a little six-year old boy was being ignored by his mother, who told Jo not to speak to him because he was not yet converted! The unnerving spectacle of a young kid trying to get his mother’s attention and being ignored because he was not yet a religious convert is truly disturbing.
Several church denominations today still hold formal trials to determine if members are homosexual and then excommunicate those who are. I personally know that many of the leaders of the most prominent church that does this are gay themselves.
The spiritual abuse of public humiliation
For centuries, people who did not conform to local religious expectations have been publicly humiliated. Preachers today will single out gay and lesbian people for public rebuke and ridicule from the pulpit.
These acts of spiritual abuse usually go unchallenged by the people who should know better. I have decided to paraphrase the statement of Jesus: “They will scourge you in their synagogues” as “They will humiliate you in their churches.”
Recently I watched part of a really stupid television debate about the problem of the humiliation and bullying of GLBT children in school. The woman who represented the religious right denied that there was a problem and blamed the gay activists for causing the trouble. It was truly insane.
Gay and lesbian children who are humiliated in school because of their sexual orientation are the victims of spiritual, emotional and sometimes physical “hate crimes” and need all the help they can get.
Family rejection as spiritual abuse
Racial minority parents don’t reject their children because of their race. Parents of gay children, however, often reject them because they are gay, even if the parent is also a closeted homosexual.
Family religious values have been used as a basis for incredible rejection and abuse of GLBT children. Many of the “runaway teens” in our big cities are actually “throw away LGBT kids” who have been forced from their own homes because of their sexual orientation long before they were prepared to survive on their own. Many of them don’t.
Self-hate as a result of spiritual abuse
Suicide continues to be the leading cause of death of gay and lesbian teenagers. In the 30 years since the gay rights movement began, little progress has been made in correcting the self-hate and self-destruction that spiritual abuse creates in gay youth. Churches continue to trumpet their ignorance about homosexuality and homosexuals.
The continuing growth and powerful influence of the “Ex-Gay Fraud” is alarming. Look at the web site for Focus on the Family and be shocked at the extent of the “ex-gay” industry and the misleading professionalism that is enlisted to make the whole thing seem to be believable. It isn’t.
Pollution of spiritual resources
When policemen become criminals, what happens to law enforcement? When firemen become pyromaniacs, what become of fire protection? When politicians become crooks, what happens to government? When preachers and religious leaders become spiritual abusers and deceivers, what happens to faith, hope and love?
The pollution of spiritual resources by homophobia and radical distortions of the truth about the Bible and God has cut off millions of people from the spiritual encouragement and help that they need and deserve.
Spiritual abuse results from confusion
Ancient religious explanations and interpretations about God are not God. Confusion comes when language does not mean what it intends to communication. Not one word in the Bible means exactly the same today as it meant 2000 years ago!
Few words mean the same thing today that they meant even 100 years ago. We live in a religious environment of confusion and misinformation because language is confused and the entire religious world has become a “tower of Babel.”
Religion is dominated by the use of meaningless and irrelevant words and symbols to express equally meaningless and irrelevant ideas and teachings. We do not live in the first century or in the Middle Ages, and we do not think or live in any culture but today.
In addition to the confusion caused by rapidly changing culture and language, the contradictions and conflicts among religious groups present a confusing noisy demand for “values” that other religious groups call “nonsense” and still others call “evil.” The most vigorous and violent attacks on religion have always been perpetrated by rival religion.
Misinformation feeds spiritual abuse
Spiritual abuse is based on misinformation. Religion is seldom objective, realistic, logical and based on accurate information. Religious teachings and practices are based more on emotions and family conditioning than on reasoned study of factual information.
A great deal of spiritual violence is based on misinformation about the Bible and about the history and nature of religion. Correcting religious misinformation is a formidable task against deeply entrenched prejudices and long standing customs. Few things are more emotionally defended or attacked than religion.
Where does one find accurate adequate information? The Internet offers everything, but the overwhelming distorted and confused face of religion on line is hardly a final solution for the inquiring open mind that seeks to know the truth.
Do you dare to look within yourself for the truth about yourself and the God who made you? Perhaps. To what extent do the heavens tell the glory of God and the firmament reveal the work of God? Is nature “red in tooth and claw” or is the whole creation “the voice of God” that is always heard in every place?
What approach to the Bible is really relevant to your personal search for truth? What is the relevance of the Bible today? These are questions you have to answer for yourself. The answers of other people often only distract you from discovering your own truth that fits and satisfies you.
Sharing with others in small group study and dialogue can be helpful. We can learn a lot from and along with others as we think and share, learn and grow. How can we avoid letting small group dialogue become an end in itself that simply reinforces the problems that we already have? Is there a way to avoid judgmental rejecting attitudes in group dialogue? Where does our freedom to be ourselves really come from?
Spiritual abuse hides the face of God
Spiritual abuse can hide the face of God. In Matthew 23, Jesus spelled out in detail the destructive power of abusive sick religion in obscuring the truth about God and God’s will for all people.
As one preacher liked to say, “Most people have had a mild dose of religion and it has made them immune to catching the real thing!” “A little knowledge is a dangerous thing” is probably more prevalent in religion than in the manufacture of dynamite!
Spiritual abuse leads to death
Spiritual abuse leads to death. Death may be slow and tormented by self-doubt and internal stress and confusion. Death may be final and tragic by suicide. Death may be prolonged by self-destructive attitudes and behaviors that sabotage lives, careers and relationships.
However life works out, the wages of spiritual violence is death. No illness, disease, plague, economic failure, political tyranny or military disaster threatens the human race as much as spiritual abuse.
The object of all violence is to control or kill. Spiritual violence intends to control or kill. It kills the joy and hope that make life worth living. No wonder so many victims of it give up and die.
The solution to spiritual abuse
Nobody asked me for my opinion, but here it is anyway. From what I have seen so far, the only hopeful light at the end of the tunnel is Jesus. I am not talking about the fake Jesus of traditional power religion but the real Jesus manifested in the humanity of Jesus of Nazareth in the Gospels.
The Spirit of the real Jesus is demonstrated clearly and simply in love: love for yourself and for others no matter how different from you they might be. To love and accept yourself and others as Jesus demonstrated and taught, you have to reject and abandon traditional religion, just as Jesus did.
Stop the violence. Start over. Follow the real Jesus.
You don’t have to face spiritual abuse alone. Photo by Helena Lopes on Unsplash
The author of Invitation To Freedom and Steps to Recovery from Bible Abuse, Rev. Rembert S. Truluck served in Metropolitan Community Churches in Atlanta, San Francisco and Nashville from 1988 to 1996. He earned a doctorate in sacred theology from Furman University, serving from 1953 to 1973 as a Southern Baptist preacher. He resigned as a professor at Baptist College at Charleston (now Charleston Southern University) and became an MCC pastor after being outed to the college’s board of trustees.