The Battered Bride of Christ : Religious Domsestic Violence

The RISE Crew at Warren Wilson College, which looks at creative ways of decreasing sexual violence, currently is working on producing a zine that addresses domestic violence. I immediately thought of the church and religion which can practice its own brand of domestic violence. Below is a piece I wrote for the zine.

A Gospel song by The Gaithers begins, “I’m so glad to be part of the family of God…” then goes on to extol the many spiritual benefits family members enjoy. The song does not address the dysfunctional working so often in this religious family on earth—the Church. (This is the only song I have ever heard that successfully rhymes the words God and Sod and is not even trying to be ironic. See the lyrics and hear the melody here. )

While some find welcome, refuge & support in their local churches & faith communities, others face hostility, rejection & violence.  The institution of the Church, like marriage, regularly creates & maintains an oppressive system of power & privilege where some (often a very few) have the most say & control.   Abuse & domestic violence happen in these systems aided & encouraged by the imbalance of power.

I’ve seen women (and men)  in churches silenced, chastised & shunned because they suffer clinical depression. “Sister, you just need the faith of a mustard seed, not some pill.” Youth ministers tell queer teens that they need to repent of their “same-sex attractions” in order to enter God’s Kingdom & gain access to weekly youth group events.  Even when the sexually wayward youth “repents,” leaders treat the teen as suspect & deny access to youth leadership roles.

Religious abuse happens behind a loving smile—we only want what’s best for you—& carries the full weight of Biblical authority.

As a guy who likes guys who also happens to be Christian, I often get e-mails from fellow Christians admonishing me to conform to theirs’ (& what they believe to be God’s) beliefs & wishes for my body, relationships & sexuality.  I inform them that they are practicing abuse.  I write them,

You take a position of power over me using God as your elevated platform as you insist that your religion & sexuality are superior to mine. You disregard & disrespect my personal faith journey & my understanding of my own orientation, then you impose your sexuality & religion on me. This is abuse & I refuse to be part of an abusive relationship.

They often accuse me of being angry while insisting that they are not hateful. As a former Conservative Evangelical myself, I know they feel they act in love.  That’s what makes religious abuse so complicated & difficult to identify at the time.  As a result, some members of the church go Sunday after Sunday, year after year submitting to the abuse, denying themselves a voice or agency.  They may even practice the same sort of abuse on others.

Judy Shepard, mother of Matthew Shepard, a college student who was beaten for being gay and died a few days later as a result of his injuries, has stated that,

Church hurt is the worst kind of hurt.

She goes on to explain that it hurts so much because the Church represents God, the highest authority and a heavenly parent—a cosmic betrayal.  The religiously abused—the battered Bride of Christ—can flee the scene of the crime, but the effect of the abuse may linger and harass for years. Others stay stuck in the system, singing along all the while blaming themselves for their misery,  always forgiving those who sin against them, soldiering on in the faith.  In the midst of all the abuse & pain one can despair of ever being part of a healthy, respectful, thoughtful faith community. One can shut the door inwardly to the possibility of spiritual life, divine encounters, mystical wonder be it in a sanctuary, a forest or the bedroom. (Some are better off outside of a system of faith that has not only failed them but reeked havoc on their health & wellbeing.) Like many who survive all manners of abuse, no longer victims, the religiously abused can experience the pain that comes from being branded by an abuser even years afterwards & feeling the sharp sting of violation whenever they encounter religious symbols, language & people.

In my case I needed 10 years of therapy to help sort through the tangled mess of church-based abuse with all its resulting shame. In the words of CP Cavafy, the queer Greek poet, in his poem Growing in Spirit written over 100 years ago, I have needed to “violate both law and custom, and go beyond the established norm”

He who hopes to grow in spirit
will have to transcend obedience and respect.
He will hold to some laws
but he will mostly violate
both law and custom, and go beyond
the established, inadequate norm.
Sensual pleasures will have much to teach him.
He will not be afraid of the destructive act:
half the house will have to come down.
This way he will grow virtuously into wisdom.


This post has 6 Comments

  1. e2c on February 10, 2010 at 12:06 am

    Peterson, thanks so much for this, and for the link to the zine. You’re a refreshing voice in what often feels like a wilderness. (And I hear you on the years it’s taken you to recover from various kinds of religious abuse – I’m on my own journey with that, of nearly 7 & 1/2 years’ standing. Started to see the light at the end of the tunnel about 2 years ago; it’s taken a while to process *and* learn to think for myself again… as I’m sure you know.)

    Hope all’s well with you and yours!

    all the best,

  2. Jane on February 10, 2010 at 12:52 pm

    How many hours have you and I already discussed this issue and how I struggle with it? I am reminded that the first time I met you, you looked me in the eye and told me I needed to transgress the church. It’s been a full year of figuring out what that means and taking some steps in that direction. The poem is perfect! I am more and more excited about what you will bring to the college students I so love here at Puget Sound.

  3. p2son on February 10, 2010 at 3:41 pm

    Breaking through the taboos is a key step in recovery.

  4. e2c on February 10, 2010 at 11:55 pm

    gah – I *meant* to say (above) that I’m glad you’re breaking the taboo of silence on the whole subject of domestic violence in the church… it’s as if there’s a conspiracy of fear when it comes to speaking out.

  5. Regan DuCasse on February 13, 2010 at 3:42 pm

    Peterson, one can trust your words, motives and understanding because you have been to all the levels and experience required.

    I know you, your voice and what you’ve been open to learn and it’s strong and amazing. Which is why I love you very much and know what your continued journey is and will be.
    Utterly TOO cool!

    My own observations, particularly where the gay folks are, is that there are people of faith who want to maintain gays and lesbians and before that women, in a more parent/child relationship. And an abusive parent at that.
    There are elements of unconditional control/submission and expectations that gay adults NOT be and behave like adults with the utmost of SELF RELIANCE, but complete reliance on the Christian or other adults around them affiliated with whatever faith.
    Which is why they demand that gay adults NEVER have sex, raise children, not have the profession of choice, housing or education that doesn’t require complete segregation.

    The alternative of which was institutionalization in prison or mental hospitals. Which are places of COMPLETE isolation and compliance with authority. After all, people in those environments can’t vote and each minute of every day is regulated and scrutinized.

    In so many ways, church communities demand the same of gay people. And the indoctrination starts from infancy and goes unchallenged from there with the compliance of the parents, teachers and other clergy.
    The trifecta of what shapes each and every one of us.

    But self determination does also. The independent critical mind is anathema to authority/control figures.

    With the political push that so many faith communities engage in against gay people, it’s no wonder how vicious it actually is while maintaining a facade of civility and compassionate purpose.

    There is nothing compassionate about keeping adults perpetual children for an ideology.
    Racism, misogyny, miscegenation and anti gay sentiment are ALL rooted in abusive paternalism.
    Which IS an the foundation of the way so many religious beliefs are interpreted and implemented.

    That we live in a country WITHOUT religious enforcement seems to be escaping the majority of folks with an obsession with gay folk’s independence.

    Abusive, controlling parents never want their children to leave them, gain autonomy or have the adult pleasures and protections the adult wants only for themselves.
    Yet, at the same time, wants not only complete submission, but servitude or entertainment from that child.

    But gay adults are NOT children. And resentment that they are not is evident in every way that gay equality is discussed.
    I’ve seen this behavior and expectations and condescension from misogynists and racists. They are all of a piece.
    And most of all, they don’t want to leave God, and God’s judgment between God and the gay person, but THEY want to stand between God and the gay individual like a stonewall.
    I love to ask, “why does need YOU?”
    God doesn’t need a driver, nanny, salesman or middle manager if God is in fact in charge. And gay folks CERTAINLY don’t.

    When it’s all said and done, history has been kinder to equality than stubborn and selective enforcement of ideologies. Which inevitably have turned cruel and costly.

    And why those who insist on controlling more in the lives of gay adults than they care to in other lives (even their own), need to be well educated in that history. Good people, those respectful of their faith, as well as others, wouldn’t want to risk repetition of the worst human rights abuses in America for lack of that respect.

    God loves equality and those who respect it. If that weren’t true, the outcomes of equality wouldn’t have consistently been good for our nation and people in general everywhere.

    I’ll call you soon.
    I’m thinking of visiting Denver in the summer. I want to see half a dozen friends there, especially Christine and Daniel.
    Maybe you could meet me there?

    Love always!

  6. christianindependent on February 13, 2010 at 10:53 pm

    Hello there! What a great website. I’ve seen you several times on youtube in videos that talked about survival from ex-gay therapy. I went through it five years myself and I think one of the things that’s so difficult to get people participating in it to see, as was the case for me, is how much harm is taking place to them by going through the process. I know it’s easy to point to things like depression, suicidal thoughts, etc., but when you are trapped within that paradigm you learn to blame your sexual orientation for it. Finally, when you make peace with yourself and end that awful process, it is THEN that you begin to realize all the damage that was done, because you’ve abandoned the interpretive lenses that saw the problem as being gay and begin to find true healing in doing the complete opposite of everything they told you to do (or not to do). You then realize that the problem was not being gay, but failing to accept it and live it. This is why I believe that some of us people need to band together and begin suing therapists who do not provide written, informed consent and full disclosure of what we know from the research to those who seek this type of awful thing. It’s a start, at least, to helping those people who are so innocent in seeking “change” to have a heads up that if they start experiencing certain symptoms that it may be the therapeutic approach and not their orientation that’s the problem. If we can make them aware of the likely results of the process ahead of time, they might consider much sooner than we did that the process is actually what is making them worse and not being gay itself. The sooner desperate people are enlightened, the quicker they will abandon the “therapy” and embrace the journey to self-acceptance. It’s a bit simplistic and certainly doesn’t account for all variables necessary to “waking up” to the truth, but just thought I’d share my own thoughts on one aspect of the problem I’ve been ruminating about…lol (but then again, as you say in your post, keeping people from that kind of information is the essence of authoritarianism).

    Regarding the post specifically, I like how you conceptualized this as spiritual abuse. I am going to be developing a theoretical model as part of my doctoral thesis in psychology that will utilize insights from developmental psychology to formulate a life-span understanding of spiritual development in those who are religious. It is my contention that, just as Regan pointed out about parental abuse, spiritual abuse is paralleled by people who are immature spiritually (much like emotional abuse is perpetrated by those who are emotionally immature) and are “stuck” in earlier, childish forms of spirituality that were okay when you were younger, but become harmful if you don’t grow. If we understand fundamentalism and its ally authoritarianism to be part of an early childhood developmental stage necessary because children do not yet know how to regulate their own behavior and cognitively see the world concretely as black and white, we can conceive then that the journey toward what is typically understood to be a more liberal interpretation of faith is actually the path of maturity. Those stuck in fundamentalism may not really be evil, more than they are immature (on many levels), and unable to grow up into the independence, tolerance, and freedom of adulthood which involves coming to realize that most things are gray and NOT black and white. Doing therapy with people like ourselves who hailed from that background is really a matter of helping them to mature spiritually and emotionally so that they will no longer enable the institutional church and fundamentalists by sitting there and “taking it”, but, like in Regan’s example of persons who cannot escape the control of parents who want to keep them in THEIR own mold (i.e. at a younger stage of development), grow to stand up to them and establish their own identity as persons made in the image of God who govern themselves by love and not by fear.

    I think this is what Paul was talking about when said that when he was a child, he talked like a child and reasoned like a child, but now that he was a man, he thought differently and reasoned differently (see 1 Corinthians 13). When a person grows up and matures, they abandon the “list of rules” mentality and instead begin to think critically about what it means and looks like to love other people. They discover that true spirituality isn’t about conforming doctrinally and behaviorally to some particular community’s legalistic view of the world, but about love (v.13). The problem with spiritual abusers is that they aren’t mature enough to see that love is what really matters and what love really is (patient, sweet, respectful, etc.). If they did, then they would know the way they treat us is NOT loving. Until conservative evangelicals grow to this level in their spiritual development, they will sadly continue to justify their behavior toward us and others like us based on the same twisted idea of “love” that a physical abuser uses to justify beating his wife.

    I look forward to reading more of your thoughts! Peace!

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