Haunted by the Ghosts of Spiritual Abuse
First I want to thank Aida for allowing me to visit and post to her blog. I pray that I am worthy and will not disappoint her and her readers.
I think it is fitting that this tour should start the day after Easter. Seven years ago I was forced out of my church during the latter part of Lent. Full recovery from my wounds took six years. It was a long, painful struggle and now, the day after Easter, this post is a kind of resurrection or rebirth for me. I have found my voice.
Still, there are small things that trigger sadness, grief and fear. Writing this post has been one of those small things. Last week I read through some of Aida’s more recent posts but what caught my eye was the quote from Isaiah 43: 18 -19. “Forget the former things, do not dwell on the past.” My stomach churned. Was I dwelling on the past refusing to move on? I have been accused of that by my former church mates and a couple of reviewers. But then I turn to my favorite quote from Elie Wiesel’s Night:
And yet, there has been a change in our behavior. First of all, we express ourselves. I force myself to share the secret that consumes me. I try to make the ghosts within me speak. Does that mean that the wound has healed over? It still burns. I cannot speak of it. But I can speak – that’s the change …
By telling my story I am moving on. I also know from psychological research into memory, that I cannot will myself to forget without it having negative consequences for my mental health. For years I repressed the memory of the sexual assault by my Uncle Frank who I adored. Not able to bear the pain of his betrayal and being too young to understand what had happened to me, I repressed the memory. I didn’t tell anyone. I didn’t even write about it in my journal. In the end I paid a price for keeping this secret. I became depressed, anxious and suicidal.
I was fortunate to get competent professional help and overcame my depression. I married, had children and earn my doctorate. Part of my recovery involved returning to church. I chose Unitarian Universalism because I believed members to be more tolerant than in other denominations. Things went well for a number of years until in 1993 I shared my qualms about calling a lesbian as our minister. I was shunned and blacklisted making it difficult for me to become a full participating member of other congregations near my home. This struggle eventually culminated in my being forced out of a Lutheran Church when they condemned my husband and me for ending the placement of our 16 year old Sudanese foster son. Members of my church refused to believe he had stolen a camera and was physically threatening. They encouraged and even condoned our foster son’s leaving our house when he was grounded. For the full story I encourage you to read, Not of My Making: Bullying, Scapegoating and Misconduct in Churches.
I am certain that God does not expect or want us to forget abuse and other evil things. Instead we are to speak out against them and seek ways to prevent further abuse. So what are the former things Isaiah is referring to? I asked my priest, Fr. Lance at All Saints Anglican. He told me that this passage refers to the covenant between God and the Jews and is also a Messianic prophecy about John the Baptist and Jesus and the New Covenant. God makes all things new and the past is “forgotten” as we accept God.
So this passage isn’t commanding me and others like me to forget the abuse and not speak of it. God wants us to stop worshipping idols and follow his commandments. For a period of my life I wasn’t doing that. I left Christianity and replaced faith with science, rational thought and humanism. I denied man’s sinfulness and need for God’s saving grace. My move back to Christianity was slow and gradual and is one of the reasons I was forced out of a Unitarian Universalist church. Now I think God was trying to speak to me but I was slow to get it.
At first I thought the problem was a specific congregation, next I thought it was a denomination, finally I realized the problem is in all faiths, all congregations. People sin. Part of that is a tendency to bully and ostracized people who don’t agree with us or who we perceive are not like us. If we believe that since we are true Christians we are above all, we leave ourselves open to sin. Just as democracy requires eternal vigilance, so must we be mindful of our tendency to vie for status and power at the expense of others. I hope you will read Not of My Making and after having done so will consider what you can do to discourage bullying in your schools, churches and workplaces. The book is available at http://www.pluckpress.com/ or Amazon.com.
Thank you for taking your time to read this post. I am available today, April 13th, to take your comments and questions. May God’s peace be with you.
Margaret W. Jones, Ph.D.