This is a page that focuses on religious and theological issues, as well as providing comprehensive teaching from a classic Catholic perspective. As you read the articles, it is my hope they will educate and bless you.

Monday, May 12, 2014

Dealing with Abuse and Snubbery From a Spiritual Perspective

Today I want to bring some encouragement to some of you who may face much adversity.  I am not going to claim to know everyone’s individual situation, because in reality there is no way I can do that anyway, but hopefully by sharing with you some of my experience you may be encouraged to know you are not alone, as some of us have faced trials as well and there is some level of empathy that I can relate to what the situation is.

Yesterday evening, I was having an interesting discussion with a lady named Tammy on a discussion board.  I am not sure if Tammy was her real name, as I honestly don’t have available to me the conversation here to recall it, but we’ll use the name anyway.   Tammy went to a church where there was a lot of bad activity going on in small-group settings that bordered on the abusive, and although her pastor was not at fault, his silence encouraged this behavior among his parishioners.  To summarize her experience without going into a lot of detail, Tammy suffered a bad experience from this incident that almost caused her to lose her faith, although thankfully it didn’t.   As she was telling her story last night, I reached out to her to encourage her, and it gave me inspiration to talk about this type of thing more specifically as I have gone through this to a degree, and also there are others who really could use the encouragement.

Rejection often takes on many forms – abuse, neglect, snobbery, and outright hostility.  I have some experience in several of these areas, and today I want to relate some of that and then share with you how I have dealt with it.  The struggles are often hard – being attacked, ignored, and rejected can take its toll on a person, and especially when it is coming from a religious context, it can be particularly devastating.  Writing an article like this is a bit of a challenge, but I feel it is needed at this time because there are many people struggling, and they are trying to salvage parts of their life that have been so casually desecrated by others who honestly should not be in leadership of churches or anything else.  Granted, there are also elements of people who are just “attention hogs,” who want to be the center of attention and will often easily get offended when they are not responded to in the way they desire people to respond to them – I am not talking about those people.  On the contrary, often some of those who inflict the abuse or other bad behavior on others are sometimes “attention hogs” themselves with their own issues of insecurity, etc.  In most cases though, it is a classic power struggle situation in which the person in authority has more authority designated to them than they can handle, and as a result they often wreak chaos on those who trust them.  These ill-gained people are often pastors, professors, department managers in companies (large corporations are notorious for this) and even civil servants.  Confronting such people is often not an easy task, as they have well-developed defense mechanisms which provide answers to every challenge they are confronted with, and often they develop this calloused persona to escape any questioning of their own motives.  However, their callousness claims casualties, and Tammy is one such casualty of the callousness of immature pastoral leadership and lay leaders of a church who often get off on spiritual tangents.

The problem with the type of issues Tammy has had to face is that ignorant people are often the perpetrators of this type of duress on people like Tammy.  Ignorant people who, in essence, don’t have a clue about the lives of those they adversely affect, nor do they care to know.  In some cases, that is probably for the best, as our life experience is often too valuable to cast before spiritual swine like them anyway.  However, it devalues the person who is being affected when someone is that ignorant and callous as to afflict that sort of abuse or snobbery on them, and at this point is where we want to pick up by applying some philosophical and Biblical support, interspersed with my own experiences in these areas, to combat such behavior.

The fortunate thing about the timing of this issue is that I am actually taking a graduate-level Philosophy of the Human Person course at present, and much I have learned about the value of the human person can be attributed to this course, as well as its very capable professor, Dr. John Crosby. In his book, The Selfhood of the Human Person (Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 1996) which also serves as our main class text, Dr. Crosby begins by talking about four "statements," as he calls them, about personal selfhood that provide a fundamental foundation for the rest of the thesis of the book, and those are as follows:

1. Persons are ends in themselves and not mere instrumental means - What Dr. Crosby means by this is that persons exist for their own sakes, and not as objects to be used by others. To reduce a person to a mere commodity to be used at will is degrading at a fundamental level, and thus does violence to the individuality God created us with (Crosby, p. 14)

2. Persons are wholes of their own and never mere parts - Essentially, this means that when a person contributes to a community, he or she does so by free will and still retain their integrity as whole persons.

3. Persons are incommunicably their own and never mere specimens - This is one of the ultimate counters to racism or ethnic violence, as well as debunking stereotypes. A person is not a mere microcosm of their own race or ethnicity, but rather a person in their own right.

And finally, the anchor holding it all together is this:

4. Persona est sui iuris et non alterius iuris - or, each person belongs to himself and not to another - This has theological and Biblical support in the Imago Dei, but it goes further than it has been often interpreted. Being "created in God's image" doesn't necessarily mean we are an exact clone of God, but is rather more like singing evangelist Jeff Steinberg once said in a concert when he noted that God saw us as an image, his image, and therefore we are created in perfect likeness of what God saw in the image. Another Scriptural idea here that is closely related is found in Genesis 1:10 - God saw that it was good, meaning humanity he created as well! A fresh explanation was provided of this a few months ago at a crusade we attended in which Dr. Kip Laxson, the evangelist and also pastor of the Asbury Methodist Church in Birmingham, AL, preached into one of his sermons about this verse. What Dr. Laxson in essence said was that God saw the fruit, and it was good. God, in his infinite omniscience, saw what the lowly seed transforming under the ground was going to turn into because he willed it to do so! God created us like that as well, and although we belong to him in a different dimension outside of this philosophical context, on this dimension, he created us as individuals who are capable of personal liberty. Therefore, to violate the liberty of another is a true sin, as it violates the will of God.

Dr. Crosby then talks about something called subjectivity, in which learning to live with oneself through personal recollection (meaning, in Crosby's text, means "coming to oneself," or in lay terminology, having self-presence) also helps in respecting the personhood of others through intersubjectivity (Crosby, pp. 102, 115-117). The foundation of this is all Bible-based, and supported by historic Church teaching, although these things are philosophical rather than theological concepts. It is similar to the Martin Buber "I/Thou" relationship, but as Romano Guardini elaborates, it goes a bit further in that the Christian ideal is more of an "I/I," being that Buber's "Thou" often can reduce the person to an object, and this is not ideal when talking about Personhood (Romano Guardini, The Personal Relation, pp. 126-129). With this philosophical basis formed, we can now specifically talk about why spiritual abuse is wrong, and why it violates the fundamental imago Dei we all have as individual human persons.

Spiritual abuse and intellectual snubbery are in reality evil twins, both spawned of Satan himself, and neither have a place in the Christian life. When talking about spiritual abuse here, I prefer to use Ronald M. Enroth's definition when he defines it as being afflicted by pastors and others in spiritual authority by using the Bible to "pull rank" with their office and assert authority in such a way as it violates the trust of those who follow them (Ronald M. Enroth, Churches that Abuse {Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1992}p. 29). There are many variations on this theme, but for the most part they all bear something in common - these are not cults, but rather professing Christian ministries and leaders perpetrating this abuse. For the most part, the churches these people are part of are doctrinally orthodox, are usually part of a recognized religious denomination, and their clergy may even have some status in their local communities. However, that being said, there is also a fine and blurry line between an abusive Christian church and an outright cult, and that is a line which has been crossed by some notorious figures before (remember Jim Jones and the Jonestown tragedy in 1978? Jones was a licensed minister in the Disciples of Christ denomination, and he also had some educational ties to the Assemblies of God if I recall correctly, but in time his congregation, People's Temple, became a cult). However, the majority of abusive pastors and churches are products of poor discipleship, some personality issues, or poor theological foundation, and if they are able to submit to their denominational authorities in a humble spirit, many can be corrected. However, the problem may be deep, and the damage extensive, before that happens, and the casualties of abusive pastors will be people like the aforementioned Tammy at the beginning of this article. That being said, it is time to talk about my own experience in an abusive church background.

It was the summer of 1989, and I was fresh out of high school, 19 years old, and ready to get to college. During that summer I stayed with my father in the small town of Brunswick, GA, earning some money working at the Holiday Inn on the nearby resort of Jekyll Island. Up to this point, I was a very new Christian, having been born again just three years previous in 1986, and I was also (or so I thought!) a very staunch Baptist. When I first became a Christian, it was somewhat refreshing for me because I was in a church that didn't literally try to scare the hell out of me, as some of the old-fashioned mountain Holiness/Pentecostal churches I grew up around tended to do to their people. This is something endemic to Appalachian culture too, in that at times we mountain people tend to set a high moral/religious bar and tend to be critical of those who fall short, and that can cause some issues for people later - we need to understand that we are not quasi-gnostic spirits floating around, but we are in a world God created, and share in its weakness. And, even with our best efforts, we still are embued with a propensity to sin (note I didn't say original sin, as that is washed away at our baptism), because we are subject to all the limitations of our humanity. Although we should strive to rise above them, we cannot set a bar so high that we almost invite falling on our face. The problem with legalism though is that often it does just that - it sets an unreasonably high standard that makes it almost impossible to understand the joy of one's Christianity, which we must experience too. Although I have what may seem like a harsh critique of my upbringing, to be honest my upbringing is not the problem or focus of this discussion in this case, as in many cases that same upbringing also instilled within me some strong values and convictions, and in itself it was a rich spiritual legacy albeit not a perfect one. The problem area would come approximately three years after leaving home, and we'll get there shortly, but let me first get back on track here.

In June of 1989, something happened to me that gave my own Christian walk a new dimension, and it was something I totally didn't expect. You see, when I got born again and became a Christian in 1986, I also had to get over some of the more negative aspects of my earlier upbringing, due in large part to my own mother who didn't adequately reflect the faith tradition she claimed to represent. So, I became very resentful of Pentecostals and wanted nothing to do with them, and in lieu of that I threw myself into the work of the Baptist Church into which I was baptized. But, curiousity got the best of me about Pentecostalism, and just before graduating in 1989, Gary McGee's monumental Dictionary of Pentecostal and Charismatic Movements was released by Zondervan, and I just had to get one. And, so I did. As I read that excellent text, I began to appreciate my Pentecostal roots better and also began to identify with them more, wanting to even be actively part of that rich heritage. That opportunity came in June of 1989, when I attended revival services at what was then the First Pentecostal Holiness Church in Brunswick, GA. The evangelist, a middle-aged man from Michigan with a mustache, was practically preaching at me that balmy Thursday night as he was preaching on the Holy Spirit and his life-transforming work, and as he did so, the Holy Spirit began to stir up a desire in me to be baptized in him, and when the altar call was given, I went up and asked to be prayed for to receive the Holy Spirit. Instantly, about 5 little old glorybun-clad Georgia Pentecostal Holiness ladies gathered around me and started praying over me, and as they did, I felt this whirlpool coming from deep in my gut, and as it intensified I felt led to speak, and that night I spoke in tongues, "as the Spirit gave utterance." And, although I am no longer a part of a Pentecostal church, I still believe it today. Again, the Pentecostal experience was not the issue either, but it would ultimately be used in an abusive context, which we will get to now.

I was in a Baptist college, and I knew that remaining Southern Baptist was out of the question now, so I began to look into which type of Pentecostal church I wanted to be part of. In those days, one of the preachers I really loved listening to was Dr. Jack Hayford, and as I found out more about who he was, I discovered he was part of the Foursquare denomination and I wanted that to be my church too. The nearest Foursquare church was in Dothan, AL, at the time, and I ended up going there for the first service I ever attended in February 1990. Although it definitely wasn't Jack Hayford's church, I dealt with it, and I became part of it officially later that spring. Not long after, trouble started to stir under the surface, and here is where the problem started.

The pastor of the Dothan church was an older man, then in his 50's, and he came across kind of strong in his messages. At some point in the past too, this church experienced some kind of intense revival thing as well, and the pastor and many church members were under the impression that in order to get that revival back, they had to do exactly what they did then. So, before long, dancing in the Spirit was emphasized heavily, as was other more expressive and emotive acts, and it wasn't long until the mentality was that if you didn't participate in them, something was wrong. Also at around the same time, the pastor and some others - in particular a rather unbalanced woman named Judy - got on this "deliverance ministry" kick, seeing demons everywhere, etc. By mid-1991, these two factors created something bizarre - the church, the pastor said, must have the revival back, and only by "letting oneself be moved" by the Spirit (dancing around, running, etc.) could that happen. The pastor and this Judy woman also came up with the hypothesis that for those who resisted, it must be demons hindering the revival through these people, and therefore deliverance and exorcism were a must. I am by nature not an overly expressive person - as a matter of fact, I am quiet in my worship and hold reverence as a personal conviction. But, my own way of doing things got unwarranted attention directed at me and I became a target for "deliverance." However, fortunately I was taught better, and although it was a great deal of duress for me to remain in that church, I resisted as long as I could, but eventually we had to leave. There is some other details to the story I cannot share as time doesn't permit, but to sum it up after I transferred to Southeastern College in Lakeland to finish my degree in 1992, the church had a serious split and eventually closed. A couple of years ago, a Hindu group bought the old Foursquare church (which to be fair was a gorgeous building) and converted it into a temple, which it is today. The pastor too retired, and a happy end to that story is that after many years of personal healing, I have reconciled differences with that pastor, who has grown up a lot, and we are friends today. Thanks be to God for his mercy.

I tell you my story to make the point that anyone can be a victim of spiritual abuse, even well-informed theology students! However, we must let God do the healing in us, as it is a process that takes time, and if we yield to that, restoration awaits. Now that I have talked about that, let's talk about the other extreme I have witnessed in some circles, and that is snubbery.

I am a student of Theology, and am pursuing graduate studies in it even as I write. And, I believe that intelligence and the capacity to learn and apply all the knowledge one can have access to is a gift, blessing, and mandate from God himself, as it is he who created our minds. However, the problem with academics sometimes is that those who are engaged in it often have a disconnect from others, and even their Christianity becomes a mere specimen to digest (some have even reduced Jesus to both a specimen and a mere means, which is truly unfortunate). The problem lies with our own self-importance at times, which makes us so solipsistic to others that we fail to connect to them, and we do so with the Church as well. The Church, to some academics, has become a lab rat to dissect, demystify, and humanize, and in doing so these academics lose perspective. So, if someone demonstrates a love for the historic teaching of the Church, or an enthusiastic spirituality, the academic is quick to dismiss and pooh-pooh them. You wouldn't think that would be possible in some circles, but some of the worst offenders I have come across recently in this regard are professed Pentecostal scholars. Despite the fact that I and some of their students have the same intellectual capacity in many cases the professor does, the professor often gets snobby with them, and so overly critical, that some students begin to doubt their faith. This to me is about as abusive and depersonalizing as anything a borderline cultic abusive local pastor does, and what the professor in essence does is treat the student as a mere means to advance his own end, thus doing violence to the personhood of that student. And the soapboxing - instead of being a mentor and guide to students, teaching them how to be firmly established in what they believe, the professor often uses his students as guinea pigs to promote his own pet causes. For instance, the new thing with some Pentecostal professors is this whole "Pentecostal Liberation Theology" thing, in which we all must be poor in order to know Jesus. It sounds noble and good, but first off, Jesus never taught that ideology Himself - He told the Church to take care of its own, especially its own widows and orphans, and to be a light in a dark society, but He never advocated altruistic poverty for everyone. Many of these professors (who, as Bible experts should know better!) utilize the verse in Scripture where Jesus tells the rich man to sell all his goods, give them to the poor, and then he would have eternal life. However, if you read that same verse in context, there are a couple of things worth noting. First, Jesus rightly discerned that the young ruler put a lot of devotion into his wealth, and therefore it had the potential of becoming an idol to the young man - Jesus told him to do what He told him because he saw this as a potential hindrance to that man's spiritual growth. Second, it was also characterized by a sarcastic dimension - in essence, Jesus told him, "if you want to be exactly like me, then travel light!" Riches, when managed properly, are a blessing and not a curse, but we need to make sure those same riches don't enamour us and are used by Satan to divert our attention away from more important things. But, there is something else as it relates to these professors - I hear these characters wasting valuable tuition monies of their students standing in front of a class bewailing the plight of the poor, and manipulating students with that guilt, while at the same time here they are in their nice expensive cars, $300K homes, and wearing tailored Armani suits with smart little bowties and horn-rimmed glasses. If this is such a big issue for them, here's what they could do - tuition, first of all could be reduced or eliminated altogether, and these professors could feed a lot of homeless people if they would learn to settle for a $500/month apartment rather than buying opulent homes (my priest is a fairly well-off attorney, and even he doesn't have as extravagant a house as these professors do!). A final point at this juncture of the discussion is this - many of these professors bellyaching about the plight of the poor could care less about the poor, but are using them as a means to promote their own activist agendas, and unfortunately they are succeeding (for now, but judgement is coming!). That leads me to ask what the bigger sin is - using the poor to advance an agenda, or making a nice living for yourself to take care of your family? Or, what is the bigger vice - a secure bank account or blatant hypocrisy? You judge for yourself as you weigh the evidence.

The bottom line of all this is simple - abuse and snubbery both devalue the personhood of others, and no Christian should be guilty of either, yet so many unfortunately are. A person made in God's image (as we all are) will see that image also in others (intersubjectivity), and thus in doing so, one honors God. You don't have to like every person you see though - I mean, a house can be beautifully and masterfully built and still have an ugly paint job, termites, woodrot, etc. But, the basic design is still God's and in being it is always good, although in action it can be hideous. And, that should be a new way we see others in lieu of our own Christian walk. God bless until next time.