Sunday, June 6, 2021

Getting Free: Reflections on Religious Abuse and Trauma

CW: abuse and trauma, including: religious and spiritual abuse; racism and racial violence; and sexual and child abuse. 

My Own Path

          Several years ago, I was in a small group at an ecumenical Franciscan retreat. We were sharing about our personal journeys, grieving the difficult and celebrating the beautiful ways our lives had unfolded.  It happened that I was the only person in the group that grew up in a conservative church, and so, when my turn came around, they had questions. It is not a conversation I have often, but it wasn’t uncomfortable, and I shared freely. It was only about halfway through their questions that I realized that the group had become increasingly quiet, and that some of their jaws had almost reached the floor. I was confused, because I was not sharing anything unusual for people who grew up in my religious community. I knew I was not sharing happy stories, but I didn’t expect them to be shocking. 

My friends had expected the gender and sexuality antagonism, the casual hate for anyone who is not straight; they had expected the sexual repression, complete with purity rings and accompanying guilt; they had even expected the anti-evolution tirades and dismissal of basic science. But they were not prepared for how thoroughly we were taught to hate ourselves as young children, or how we were trained to go through life making decisions based on fear of eternal torment.

          I first noticed the shocked looks on their faces about halfway through a story about how my childhood pastor would gather the little children from time to time to teach a special lesson. He had big, square cut nails that he would pass around, asking us to push those nails into the palms of our hands and feel how sharp they were. Then he passed around a crown woven from young branches of a locust tree, with its two inch thorns. Again, we were asked to touch them and feel the pain. We were specifically told to imagine how much Jesus suffered when he was nailed to the cross, bleeding and suffocating to death. But this was all just building up to the real point, when we were reminded that Jesus had to suffer all this because of how sinful I was. In fact, even if everyone else on earth had been perfect, Jesus would have still had to die on the cross to pay for my sins. There was not much of a line between “Jesus died for your sins” and “you killed Jesus.” Admittedly, some kids just thought it was cool to play with replicas of devices of torture at church. But for some of us, these memories were seared onto our minds.

          I was a little child, and I had not had much chance to do anything sinful. But this message was pounded into our brains from the earliest ages and then recalled at every opportunity. Primed in this way, it was not difficult to convince me, for example, that being a genderqueer and bisexual person was evil. I had been trained to believe I was evil for as long as I could remember; growing up just meant they could begin to fill in the blanks from their list of sins. And when I say “they,” I mean anyone who could present themselves as a religious authority, and who usually wanted to influence or control my behavior. That was a toxic combination. Since their authority was blessed by an omnipotent god, it was difficult to doubt, let alone resist, an adult who towered over you, especially when a wrathful god backed them up. We are usually reassured that the people who did this did not have any ill intent. Yet even if true, it does not change the reality of the harm.

          Perhaps they really believed that convincing us we were evil was a small price to pay if it brought about a conversion experience. After all, it worked. I was baptized when I was six years old, grateful to wash all the evil out of my tiny little heart. But that was only the beginning, and the control extended well beyond getting me to be baptized or to volunteer at Vacation Bible School. For example, during middle school I became interested in studying medicine, which developed into a curiosity about biochemistry by my sophomore year. About this same time, our church youth group attended a summer camp that was literally called “Spiritual Boot Camp.” Not only did people put cornflakes and toothpaste in the toes of my tennis shoes, but also the random adult assigned as my small group leader went to great lengths to explain to me that god had given me great gifts, that studying medicine or biochemistry would waste those gifts, and that I would be worshiping Satan if I pursued scientific studies. Instead, I should become a minister.

          It wasn’t the first, or the last, time I would be pressured in that way. I resisted as best as I could, but I was groomed for the manipulation. Like for so many others, I was also experiencing abuse in other ways. It felt complicated, because religion exacerbated those harms while also giving me a few tools to cope with the wounds. Giving in seemed like a small price to pay to avoid eternal damnation. So instead of learning what should have been basic life skills as a child - to recognize harm, set boundaries, heal where healing was needed, and act on behalf of my own well-being, I learned to repress my feelings, doubts, gender and sexuality, and grief and rage at injustice and oppression. I learned to perform and conform to expectations, while generally hiding the hurts. After all, drawing attention to the unhealed psychological wounds would just bring more judgment; it wasn’t safe to need help. As a result, unlearning those bad habits, and learning healthy habits, took up a bigger part of my life, culminating in finally being able to leave my childhood denomination back in 2007, when I was over thirty years old.

          I’m a private person, and I am only sharing these glimpses into my life because so many people are still suffering from the pain of religious abuse and trauma. I am not trying to say anything new today, because the concept of religious and spiritual abuse is not new. But many people trapped inside abusive institutions still do not have access to information, resources, and healing that could make a tremendous difference in their lives. And it is not an exaggeration to say that helping one another better understand these issues saves lives. From the wife who is convinced to stay with a violent husband in order to witness to him and “save his soul,” to the gay teen who dies by suicide because he was taught that he was evil, religious and spiritual abuse is deadly. To keep moving forward, we need to keep pursuing ways that prevent abuse, heal it whenever it tragically occurs, and create communities that are instead oriented around reason, curiosity, compassion, and wisdom.

Religious Trauma Syndrome 

          While the need may be obvious, the tools are still in development. The research has been more limited than you might expect, but both researchers and practitioners have made progress. In 2012, Dr. Marlene Winell first described “religious trauma syndrome (RTS),” which grew out of several existing psychological models, such as Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), Complex PTSD, Shattered Assumptions Theory, and Betrayal Trauma Theory. A key concept in the model is “toxic religious experiences.” The first component of these experiences is toxic teachings, especially “inherent depravity and violent punishment” -

“In fundamentalist Christianity, these would be doctrines of original sin and hellfire.  I call these the horror and the terror.  Basically, toxic religions and toxic Christianity in particular teach people two core messages: “You are not okay” and “You are not safe.” … These are the core assumptions that former believers can potentially carry for decades beyond giving up their religion.  They are ideas that are deep and unconscious out of sheer repetition and childhood indoctrination.” ( )

          The second component is toxic practices, how the teachings are both taught and enforced in religious institutions, churches, schools, and relationships, including “isolating children from the larger world,” “limiting their information,” and using corporal punishment. (ibid) In my experience, one of the main practices was that we were rewarded with acceptance for professing certain beliefs and threatened with rejection if we did not. We were trained to believe that we did not deserve to be loved, that we were utterly evil, and that we deserved to go to hell. With that horror and terror fresh in our minds, we were then told that we could experience god’s love if we only acknowledged how evil we were and promised to conform to some very particular commandments. Both the church’s and god’s approval were at stake. If we failed, we could be forgiven, because forgiveness in this mode didn’t disrupt the system. In the practice of confessing our sins, we were also confirming the teachings that “You are not okay” and “You are not safe.” 

          This was a clever and powerful trap, and fertile ground for religious trauma. Dr. Minwell described the causes of RTS in four ways:

“• Suppression of normal child development – cognitive, social, emotional, moral stages are arrested

Damage to normal thinking and feeling abilities -information is limited and controlled; dysfunctional beliefs taught; independent thinking condemned; feelings condemned

External locus of control – knowledge is revealed, not discovered; hierarchy of authority enforced; self not a reliable or good source

Physical and sexual abuse – patriarchal power; unhealthy sexual views; punishment used as for discipline” ( )

          If you are an outsider, it’s easy to believe these causes are unusual, and that people like me must have grown up in some obscure Christian cult. In fact, it was the opposite. I grew up in a church that belonged to the largest Protestant denomination in the United States, the Southern Baptist Convention. I don’t believe that the Southern Baptist tradition is particularly unique in the harm it caused – and causes - in my and so many other lives. And I’m not trying to single out this one tradition; I’m sharing about it because it is the tradition I experienced firsthand. But since I am going to be critical, I’m also going to stick close to the public record, using two examples of how abuse of authority, coercion, and deceit can become part of a religious institutions’ culture and practice: namely, racism and sexual abuse.


A Horrifying Beginning

          Though other issues were involved, the Southern Baptist Convention began in 1845 as an institutional response to justify slavery and protect those who profited from enslaving and exploiting human beings. Many Baptist leaders in the South were already prolific apologists for slavery and White supremacy, a trend that only deepened after the split with northern Baptists. ( ) Richard Furman, who was instrumental in consolidating southern Baptists and served as president of the South Carolina State Baptist Convention, is one example. On Christmas Eve of 1822, Furman earnestly wrote to the governor of South Carolina:

“the advocates for emancipation blend the ideas of injustice and cruelty with those, which respect the existence of slavery, and consider them as inseparable. But, surely, they may be separated. A bond-servant may be treated with justice and humanity as a servant; and a master may, in an important sense, be the guardian and even father of his slaves.” ( )

          The Southern Baptist Convention was born from this horrifying delusion, believing that one could justifiably and even morally engage in a blatantly immoral, cruel, violent, and dehumanizing system of oppression for economic gain. Moreover, the denomination did not officially apologize for its support of slavery until 1995, when they finally acknowledged:

“Our relationship to African-Americans has been hindered from the beginning by the role that slavery played in the formation of the Southern Baptist Convention … Many of our … forbears defended the right to own slaves, and either participated in, supported, or acquiesced in the particularly inhumane nature of American slavery … In later years Southern Baptists failed, in many cases, to support, and in some cases opposed, legitimate initiatives to secure the civil rights of African-Americans … .” ( )

          Despite the overture, a convention resolution could not magically erase 150 years of injustice, heal lives and broken relationships, and transform attitudes, habits, and institutions. In fact, the SBC and its member churches continue to struggle with racism and its harm. Paul Harvey, professor of history at the University of Colorado, pointed this out in response to a 2018 report on slavery and racism ( ):  

“The Southern Baptist Seminary, and by extension the denomination leaders, they did a very good job reckoning with the past, and a not-so-good job reckoning with the present.” ( )

          As if to prove Harvey’s point, the SBC Council of Seminary Presidents made a statement in November 2020 that, while they oppose racism, “Critical Race Theory, Intersectionality, and any version of Critical Theory is incompatible with the Baptist Faith & Message.” ( ) In other words, you shouldn’t teach critical theory at any Southern Baptist seminary, and the strong implication is that no Southern Baptist should study, be influenced by, or use these critical tools. This is simply terrible. Critical race theory has been around since at least the 1970s, but has only recently attracted the attention of – and resistance from - many White people, which tells us a lot about how poorly most of us White people are at listening to anyone who doesn’t prop up our White privilege. At least two Black pastors, Charlie Dates of Chicago’s Progressive Baptist Church and Ralph D. West of Houston’s The Church Without Walls, got the message, though, and withdrew their large churches from the SBC. As Dr. Dates asked, “How did they, who in 2020 still don’t have a single Black denominational entity head, reject once and for all a theory that helps to frame the real race problems we face?” ( )


“The Abusers Haven’t Stopped”

          It’s no secret that cultural and institutional injustice supports an atmosphere where other kinds of abuse can thrive. This is most easily seen in the ongoing struggle in Southern Baptist churches and institutions to overlook, hide, and sometimes even protect sexual abusers. The Houston Chronicle published a six part series in 2019 on just this situation. The first installment, by Robert Downen, Lise Olsen, and John Tedesco, ran the following headline: “Abuse of Faith: 20 years, 700 victims: Southern Baptist sexual abuse spreads as leaders resist reforms.” ( ) Together with investigators from the San Antonio Express-News, they found that:

  • since 1998, “roughly 380 Southern Baptist church leaders and volunteers have faced allegations of sexual misconduct”. 
  • Of the more than 700 victims, many were further abused by the response of their churches and communities, including being shunned, “urged to forgive their abusers,” and “get abortions.” Many of the victims were children, mostly adolescents but some as young as three.
  • Although cases are still pending, more than 200 offenders were convicted or took a plea deal. These were church leaders and volunteers, from pastors to youth ministers to Sunday school teachers. 
  • “At least 35 church pastors, employees and volunteers who exhibited predatory behavior were still able to find jobs at churches during the past two decades.” Incredibly, one registered sex offender went on to become “the principal officer of a Houston nonprofit that works with student organizations … [called] Touching the Future Today Inc.”
  • The failure to protect victims was widespread and institutional. Criticisms by victims “for concealing or mishandling abuse complaints” included “Several past presidents and prominent leaders of the Southern Baptist Convention”. (ibid)

          All of this is part of the Southern Baptist Convention’s patriarchal culture. As Susan Shaw observed in her article on how “Southern Baptist Beliefs about Gender and Power Contributed to the Sexual Abuse Scandal” -

“… Baptist beliefs about repentance and forgiveness make restitution for sexual abuse unnecessary. If a perpetrator claims he has repented, that confession is adequate for forgiveness by God, the church, and the male leadership of the denomination. No consequences are necessary, and, certainly, no recompense to the survivor is required. / To take abuse seriously and to take action would challenge Southern Baptist male power.” ( )

          This patriarchalism connects with many expressions of abuse, including the abuse that gender and sexual minorities typically experience in religious contexts ( ). With so much work to be done on so many different levels, it is easy to be overwhelmed. This is yet another way that abusive systems insulate themselves against change: it takes intentional, hard work to root it all out.


Your Healing Is Sacred

          But I have also found another common obstacle, and that is the appearance of goodness. The Southern Baptist Convention and its member churches and institutions are made up of what would generally be called good, upstanding people. This makes it possible for religious and spiritual abuse, like so many other types of abuse, to be easily hidden in plain sight. The SBC proved that an organization can find ways to justify and even celebrate abuse as egregious as slavery. The SBC proved that an organization can preach a purity culture that props up patriarchalism while simultaneously hiding a horrendous pattern of sexual abuse. These widespread systems of harm are enmeshed in doctrines that teach people that they are inherently evil and worthy of eternal torment in hell. The only escape is to accept and act in conformity with beliefs that are immune to scientific inquiry and ethical accountability. Otherwise, they are not okay and that they are not safe.

          As I mentioned earlier, I don’t think the Southern Baptist tradition is particularly unique in the harm it caused – and causes - in my and so many other lives. And I could throw out the usual caveats that there are a lot of Very Good People™ who belong to Southern Baptist churches. But it is easy to use this kind of thinking to tolerate and ignore religious abuse. Instead, we need to ask, and keep asking, the Very Good People in our lives what they are doing to change the communities, churches, institutions, and cultures that harm so many people. And, if they are not working for change, we need to ask them why they are still associated with abusive institutions. Because, when a good person learns that someone is using a position of authority to harm others, they don’t look the other way. They stop the harm.

          We all, but especially those of us who still belong to faith communities, have a responsibility to bring religious and spiritual abuse to an end, to do everything we can to provide resources for healing, and to demand accountability and change for our institutions and leaders. It is easy to want to shy away from this work, especially when religious institutions are already in decline. That can never be an excuse. If an institution can’t survive without tolerating or protecting abuse, then it should not survive. Instead, we will continue to reclaim our dignity: your voice is important, your needs are valid, and your healing is sacred. You deserve to live free from the gnawing fear of condemnation and eternal torture. You deserve to be able to love yourself and your body. You deserve to know and express love in community without being coerced. You deserve to feel and be safe, and to belong to a community that is not built around delusions and threats, but around reason, curiosity, wisdom, compassion, and love. And I’m grateful to each of you who are committed to this vision, and who work together to make it real.