Religion is not infallible, and it continually creates space for its leaders to abuse the power that religious interpretations unquestioningly afford them.
[TW/CW: This essay contains discussion of sexual violence, including molestation.]
My mom once scolded me for swatting the pastor’s wife’s hand away from my head. She had been intrigued by my intricate braids and lifted her hand to touch them. As she began running her fingers along the length of my hair, I cringed. I don’t like to be touched, and this has been true about me for as long as I can remember. I especially don’t like to be touched without warning, without my consent, and this is reasonable. My body has an involuntary response to it, like a jolt shooting through me. My cheeks get hot and the skin on my neck begins to crawl. I did not want to be touched by the pastor’s wife in that moment, so I used my body to push hers away. I didn’t understand the look that came over my mom’s face; or rather, I understood what it was, but not why it was there. She was horrified and I was confused. “Don’t do that,” she whispered to me through tight lips after when we were no longer in earshot. “It’s rude.” I couldn’t have been more than twelve or thirteen.
A few years before that, one of my uncles made me stand in front of him in his house and repeat the words, “Jesus is my boyfriend.” This was his way of telling me that I was not allowed to have a boyfriend and he tried to use the name of Jesus and the weight that it carried to scare me into staying “pure.” God and Jesus were the only male figures I was allowed to be intimate with. Believe me, I know how fucking weird this sounds. Even hearing it as a child, I was put off by it. This was a conversation that he had initiated and engaged me in, even though I had expressed absolutely no desire to have a boyfriend, or girlfriend for that matter.
When I graduated college, I moved back in with my mom for a while. At this point, I had already left the church and denounced religion, but I didn’t have the confidence to tell her. And so, I went to church with her. One Sunday afternoon, she came to me speaking in a hushed tone. The pastor’s wife had told her that they had planned to give me a graduation gift in front of the congregation that day, but they simply could not bring themselves to honor me and my accomplishments because they disapproved of the shirt I was wearing, i.e. my breasts made them uncomfortable.
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What a convenient reminder of one of the many reasons why I left the church, I thought. It was a reminder of what my childhood in that church had looked like, what spending my formative years around a host of people who had all learned the same lessons in that church had looked like. I remembered the day years ago when I was about ten and the pastor embarrassed my then-teenage cousin in front of the entire congregation by commenting on the “inappropriate” style of her dress and instructing her to never wear it to his church again. I remembered how I felt shame and humiliation on her behalf as I sat in my chair, shrinking and shrinking, ready to cry and not understanding why his words and her reaction to them had affected me the way they had. The discomfort and guilt I felt came rushing back to me as I reckoned with the blame that was now being ascribed to me just by virtue of existing in the body I have. They wanted to honor me, but they couldn’t, and it was my own fault.
What I learned growing up in this environment was that my life and my body were not my own, and neither were my decisions. I learned that they not only belonged to God, and to Jesus by extension, but they also belonged to the church leadership. They were special. They were chosen. They were his divine messengers and this gave them authority over us, over me.
It took me many years to recognize and name my religious upbringing as a spiritually abusive environment, and the things that I was taught about my relationship with my own body—mainly that I had no bodily autonomy because control of it belonged to God and his apparent conduits—helped to make me susceptible to other forms of abuse as I grew older. We don’t talk about religious and spiritual abuse enough, perhaps out of fear of offending those who practice religion, but this in itself is a part of the issue. Society teaches us that religion, especially Christianity, is off-limits and too sensitive of a subject to be criticized because of its inherent significance. Religion is too important, too sovereign, to enshrined, to ever be questioned.
But religion is not infallible, and it continually creates space for its leaders to abuse the power that religious interpretations unquestioningly afford them. Much of religion is about power and control, inherently so, as it comes with a set of criteria, edicts, and commandments which its followers are required to subscribe to and follow, lest they be expelled by the “true followers” of the belief system. Because this element of overt control is present in the very foundation of religion, the system of strict guidelines and occupying leadership roles within the system leaves a breadth of space for corruption of power, making spiritual abuse far more common than we might want to admit.
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Spiritual abuse is a mechanism through which religious leaders and/or religious groups pervert and misuse the power and authority they believe their religion affords them, often abusing the trust of the followers and indoctrinating them into bizarre or harmful beliefs in the process. This gives room for other abuses to take place and go unchallenged, especially when those abuses are carried out by a religious leader.
It looks like Ariana Grande being attacked for her dress at Aretha Franklin’s funeral service when she was groped by a bishop in the pulpit, ascribing rigid and sexually repressive Christian values onto her body and using them to shame her. It also looks like Jim Jones, or the leaders of Scientology, or Megachurch pastors using religious rhetoric to siphon millions of dollars from their congregations. And it of course looks like the allowance of religious leaders to sexually exploit and abuse the people under their care.
The power dynamics established by religious doctrine construct religious leaders as untouchable and as having the right to other people’s bodies. Catholic priests and the numerous sexual abuses that have been uncovered in the Catholic Church in recent times are now incredibly visible as examples of what happens when those in positions of religious authority exploit that position in order to abuse others, especially children, because they are the most vulnerable.
I recently wrote about #ChurchToo in the wake of Ariana Grande being groped by a Bishop in a very public way. As a companion to the #MeToo conversation, #ChurchToo urges us to not only acknowledge and combat the sexual violence that takes places in religious spaces, but also to recognize how religious doctrine often functions as a means to protect abusers and blame the abused.
“But this kind sexual abuse, among many other kinds, has been and continues to be enacted by leaders in other denominations as well as varying religions, from Buddhist monks, to Hindu gurus, to practitioners in Islamic madrasas, to Hasidic Jewish Rabbis, to pastors from the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. Sexual exploitation, and the security that positions of leadership afford sexual predators, happens across a multitude of religions and in all sorts of faith-based spaces.”
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Sexually repressive religions are especially susceptible to this because their accepted moral prohibits them from discussing sex in any way that is not about shame. Without honest discussions about what sexual health looks like the manifestations of sexual violence flourish, and with a system that both teaches followers that leaders have a right to control their bodies and teaches that sex is only associated with shame, it serves to effectively abuse victims who are often trapped in a world of confusion and self-blame.
I think it’s worth it for us to examine what kind of people gravitate to religious leadership, in the same way that we interrogate who is attracted to the power that comes with being in other leadership positions, especially ones that have such a great impact on how we interpret and experience the world, like doctors, law enforcement, and political figures. I believe this is necessary precisely because religion sets them up as infallible figures (much in the same way that society sets up the police as unquestionable figures as agents of the state), situating them as divine representatives of God who doesn’t make mistakes. Followers must submit to them because they hold the absolute truth and were ordained by God himself.
This carries a tremendous amount of weight and those who abuse this power are well aware of it. They manipulate and exploit people’s desire to be followers of something spiritually fulfilling and bigger than ourselves. People seek out religion for emotional and spiritual support, to belong among a group with common belief, desires, and morals. Any leader or communities that take advantage of that are spiritual abusers.
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