The Enduring and Global Harm of Spiritual Abuse
Recently on the podcast, Rachael Clinton and Dan Allender concluded a series revisiting the complex dynamics and devastating harm of spiritual abuse. Here, Gabes Torres, Program Assistant, shares her own story of how spiritual authority intersected with harmful systems of power. Gabes offers a powerful reminder that many of these dynamics extend far beyond individual stories and encompass global, historic realities.
I once attended a Christian camp in high school while I was living in the Philippines. The church hosting it attempted to be heavily Bible-based in teaching and in structure. As part of that, the camp leaders required us, the young campers, to memorize and recite assigned Bible passages to them. I remember feeling the pressure of doing this required activity without error, because if any of us failed to memorize and perfectly recite this passage to our camp leaders, we wouldn’t be allowed to eat at our next meal.
I remember a handful of younger kids who struggled and were shamed for not memorizing these ‘essential’ texts in the first place. Evidently, they did not join us during meals. At the time I felt little urgency to challenge this required activity, even though it felt disturbing and icky to see my friends suffer in this way. The church and camp leaders interpreted this practice as a way to “suffer in the name of Jesus,” and to appreciate our salvation and sanctification in a ‘sacrificial’ manner, even as middle schoolers. When I reflect on this story, I realize it is both crucial and awful to recognize that the abuse of power within faith communities, specifically Christian communities, is happening both in the United States and beyond.
In my research and work around postcolonialism, it was personally difficult and painful to find that one of the most prevailing and insidious tools of national conquest and violation was the name of God—or rather, the colonizers’ interpretation of God. This was known to be one of the most effective ways to invade a land of vulnerable people, to forcibly collect their resources, to impose a Westernized system of beliefs and ideas, and to get rid of the significant parts of their existing culture by rendering them as inferior.
One of the most prevailing and insidious tools of national conquest and violation was the name of God.
My Filipino culture has deep colonial roots, and I have been a witness to the many ways in which the gospel message and positions of power within the church were used as a means to impose shame upon others and pressure them to submit to and imitate ‘spiritual’ authority—which, they were told, also meant submitting to and imitating Christ. In my story, there was so much at stake if I chose to not comply—the most commonly used language for this was to obey or to surrender. It felt like I was going to lose my faith community and God’s favor if I did not submit to the exact ways and ideas they believed Christianity was supposed to be.
For those of us who felt inclined to reject, challenge, and question the dogma and harmful structures enforced by spiritual authority, this ultimately felt like rebelling from the faith and from the God I sincerely love. I was confused and burdened for most of my spiritual journey.
I am no stranger to the ostracization that results from attempts to question and challenge spiritual authorities and the culture they set, like being asked to no longer lead worship, or to not even return to the church or Christian organization. There were many instances where my small group leader exhibited favoritism towards the members of the small group who brought in more people to church and youth group. Their affections towards me were dependent upon the amount of people I invited to hear the gospel. In retrospect, I now see the magnitude of power that the church and Christian leadership have, because their treatment and perception of me felt like that of God’s. For most people who experienced some extent of spiritual abuse, it is difficult and unclear to differentiate the order, admonishment, and rebuke of the spiritual leader from that of God—as if God was the one directly enforcing such mandates and communicating such words. And for some of these people, their churches or Christian organizations that abuse power could be one of the few places—if not the only one—where they feel like they have access to God.
What I find ‘sticky’ about spiritual and religious harm is that even to this very moment, I continue to question and minimize the shame and heartache I experienced in my early involvement in the church and in Christian communities. Oftentimes, I excuse or justify them: “Oh, they were just trying to discipline us,” “This is part of my sanctification,” and “I felt a lot of love and joy anyway.” The doubt and minimization of my heartache was based on this confusion that wonders, “How can the places that taught me the redemption and life of Jesus also be places of self-deprecation, social isolation, and pain? Is this what bearing my cross meant?”
The place where I found life and Jesus was the same place I felt estrangement and shame.
How can the places that taught me the redemption and life of Jesus also be places of self-deprecation, social isolation, and pain?
These conversations and questions are complex and difficult to navigate, because so much of our faith practices and traditions have deep roots of collective trauma around religious wars, colonial techniques in missionary agencies, hidden reports of sexual abuse within the church, shame-based interactions and behaviors within purity culture movements, the ways misogyny and sexism are justified and normalized in Christian systems, all other church regulations and cultures that inflict shame, disdain, and guilt upon their members—all sanctioned and practiced by God’s people.
With my personal growth in the faith, it seems crucial to address that we live in a world of broken and hungry people who create and facilitate systems based on fear, and that we can be honest about this reality, our history, and the need for change. Change occurs when we courageously name the harmful culture practiced and imposed by the church—not because we hate the church, but because we love the church.