No one with a modicum of cultural awareness could have missed the fact that in the past few years a rather intense media spotlight has been shined on all types of abuse—physical, sexual, emotional, spiritual, etc. And nothing has served to more clearly train this spotlight on these subjects than the #MeToo1Wikipedia, “Me Too movement.” and #ChurchToo2Casey Quackenbush, “The Religious Community Is Speaking Out Against Sexual Violence With #ChurchToo,” November 22, 2017; Anonymous, “When #ChurchToo Happens at Your Church, Too,” The Gospel Coalition, March 5, 2020. movements. While these movements began as a way to bring charges of sexual abuse out in the open, they soon became tributaries to a preexisting river of online shaming3Wikipedia, “Online shaming.” known as Cancel Culture.4David J. Ley, “The Cancel Mob Is Coming,” Psychology Today, March 1, 2021. Lee Jussim, “Ten Ways to Defend Against a Cancellation Attack,” Psychology Today, December 22, 2020. . Wikipedia, “Cancel culture.” Eventually, the current of this river began sweeping away innocent people.
It’s questionable whether any of these cultural phenomena would have even existed, let alone taken the shape they have, were it not for social media. But one thing is not questionable: once again, many Christians have been swept up in the unrighteousness of our age. We’ve not only enjoyed the blessings of social media but we’ve also succumbed to its hazards. Many of us have become eager participants in a culture more concerned with virtue signaling about justice than with justice that resides in the heart.
Lest anyone misunderstand the points I am about to make, let me be clear: there is nothing wrong with abuse victims truthfully sharing accounts of their abuse, even when it means publicly identifying their abuser. Further, there is nothing wrong with being a firm ally to abuse victims. These are both good things. What is wrong is when the abused become abusers, the oppressed become oppressors, and the victims become the victimizers.
The phenomenon of the cruel victim
As an Auschwitz survivor and psychiatrist, Viktor E. Frankl was in a unique position to observe how this can happen and explain it to us. In Man’s Search for Meaning, which I first read in high school, he recorded the attitudes and behaviors of some of his fellow survivors after their liberation:
Now, being free, they thought they could use their freedom licentiously and ruthlessly. The only thing that had changed for them was that they were now the oppressors instead of the oppressed. They became instigators, not objects, of willful force and injustice. They justified their behavior by their own terrible experiences.5Viktor E. Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning, Ilse Lasch, translator; Boston: Beacon Press, 1959; 2006; Kindle ed., 90.
Frankl explained this on the basis of his belief that some people simply can’t handle a sudden release from long periods of the kind of stress prisoners experienced at Auschwitz:
Just as the physical health of the caisson worker would be endangered if he left his diver’s chamber suddenly (where he is under enormous atmospheric pressure), so the man who has suddenly been liberated from mental pressure can suffer damage to his moral and spiritual health.6Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning, Kindle ed., 90.
Notice that for Frankl, the abused can become abusers and the oppressed become oppressors because they can fall prey to a “danger (in the sense of psychological hygiene) [that] is the psychological counterpart of the bends.”7Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning, Kindle ed., 90. For him, it’s not that external factors in such cases bring out what is already in people (i.e., their fallen natures), but that those factors induce a new condition in some people—it makes them morally and spiritually worse.
But who are these “some people?” They’re clearly not people like Frankl, who observes them with a somewhat detached and clinical if empathetic gaze. No. Frankl tells us that these are “people with natures of a more primitive kind,” and because their natures are not as developed as those of others (like him) they “could not escape the influences of the brutality which had surrounded them in camp life.”8Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning, Kindle ed., 90. The brutality of the camp somehow influences these simpler adults to become brutal, which assumes they weren’t brutal beforehand.
From a Christian perspective, this is obviously a very Pelagian kind of diagnosis—one that assumes we become sinners through external influences instead of being born sinners by nature. So, what’s his prescription? What’s his therapy?
Only slowly could these men be guided back to the commonplace truth that no one has the right to do wrong, not even if wrong has been done to them. We had to strive to lead them back to this truth, or the consequences would have been [very grave]…I can still see the prisoner who rolled up his shirt sleeves, thrust his right hand under my nose and shouted, “May this hand be cut off if I don’t stain it with blood on the day when I get home!” I want to emphasize that the man who said these words was not a bad fellow. He had been the best of comrades in camp and afterwards.9Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning, Kindle ed., 91.
This isn’t a necessarily bad procedure, but we must be clear: it resembles what Reformed Christians call the 2nd use of the Law (to restrain evil), rather than the 3rd (to show us how to please God). In other words, it doesn’t lead to true repentance out of gratitude for forgiveness in Christ but only to an avoidance of bad consequences. Frankl’s concern is to help these simple folks readjust to civilized society, not to help them see that their own desire to take out their revenge on the whole world springs from a twistedness in their human natures and brings real guilt upon them.
He goes on to discuss other sources of bitterness and disillusionment as survivors returned home to their loved ones only to discover they weren’t there because they’d perished. If one isn’t at least tempted to weep reading Frankl’s account, one is barely human, let alone Christian. But even more tragic is the Christless perspective he brings to it.
The phenomenon resurfaces
Sadly, many Christians have followed secular authors who brought a similar perspective to sufferings of a much lesser sort than people like Frankl experienced at Auschwitz. Some went way beyond him and had audacity to compare growing up in a “dysfunctional family” (which was defined very broadly a quarter-century ago) with being a Holocaust survivor. Wendy Kaminer provided a helpful critique of how such notions became common in both secular and Christian literature in I’m Dysfunctional, You’re Dysfunctional.10New York: Vintage Books, 1992; 1993
This encouraged a whole generation (of mostly Boomers) to find dysfunction and abuse just about everywhere, especially in their own families, and to respond abusively to those who disagreed with them, in ways that often resemble how Frankl’s fellow Auschwitz survivors lashed out at the world. To even question someone’s account of abuse made one, at the very least, complicit, and perhaps an actual abuser. Thus was born our culture’s first large-scale experiment in turning alleged victims into inadvertent victimizers.
The results of this experiment were horrific, but are largely forgotten. It’s been dubbed the “Day-Care Sex-Abuse Hysteria” of the 1980s and ’90s.11Cf. Richard Beck, We Believe the Children: A Moral Panic in the 1980s, New York: Public Affairs, 2015. Reviewed by Maura Casey in “How the daycare child abuse hysteria of the 1980s became a witch hunt,” Washington Post, July 31, 2015. See also: Wikipedia, “Day-care sex-abuse hysteria.” Simply being accused of child molestation was treated as grounds for forfeiting one’s right to due process in the eyes of many people. And we now know that the civil rights of many were trampled on in the name of “believing the children.” The child “victims” were often coerced into giving testimony and thus became “victimizers” through their legal surrogates.
Little else of any real substance has changed since then; we seem to have learned virtually nothing from this shameful chapter in our history. The same battle is being fought today with racism, misogyny, etc. It was simply war gamed on a different field in the ’80s and ’90s.
But what I want to home in on here is what I believe Frankl correctly observed but less helpfully diagnosed and treated: the fact that those who are abused often go on to become abusers. This happens in various ways.
One way is to assume the worst of anyone who doesn’t find abuse where you find it, or to even be open to questioning the validity of particular charges of abuse. This in itself is abusive and usually leads to a broad range of other abusive behaviors, including reading the worst possible meaning into various things others say or write simply because their perspective on the topic differs from yours, and using your (likely) misinterpretations as grounds for baseless accusations.
Another way is to assume the worst of whole institutions, such as the church, based on your own experience. If your vocation involves you in dealing with abuse on a regular basis, regardless of whether you yourself were ever significantly abused, I believe you are particularly susceptible to this.
Witnessing the effects of horrible abuse on a regular, perhaps even daily, basis can blind any of us to the fact that our experience, no matter how much broader than others’, still occupies a very narrow bandwidth compared with the whole of reality. Like a cop or a criminal prosecutor who day in and day out sees people at their worst, you can become sinfully cynical and abusively accusatory.
Yet another way is to simply to become an absolute jerk to people, even to the point of inflicting equal or greater levels of abuse on them than was inflicted on you. These are the most extreme cases, and I am intimately acquainted with one in particular.
The not-so-subtle power of spiritual abuse
For 5½ years, I belonged to a spiritually abusive group. One might even call it a cult. I’ve sometimes called it that and will here. The leader had an evangelical statement of faith, but there was little that was particularly Christian in what he practiced. After leaving, I learned that the patterns of recruitment, isolation, indoctrination, and coercion, would have been obvious to anyone familiar with destructive cults. I’ve also since learned that the particular type of cult this leader was running when I joined it was well-defined in cult literature: a “therapy cult.” It eventually morphed into a “cult of confession” in which, despite the initial promise of confidentiality, everything you said could and would be used against you, especially if you ever differed with the leader.
The leader claimed to have been sexually and emotionally abused by his parents. He leveraged horrifying accounts from his childhood to confer expert status upon himself regarding every type of abuse. He held himself up as a unique authority, and thus as someone uniquely qualified to detect and deal with abuse in our lives. Others who knew him better than I did questioned some of his stories. They found them difficult to reconcile with his own abusive behavior. But I never felt I was in a position to do so. To this day, I assume his victim stories were largely true.
Regardless of the accuracy of his claims, his own abuse of my wife and I and others in his little group left us devastated for years. And the most ironic aspect of all this was that part of the indoctrination process involved him assigning us to read then-current bestselling books on family dysfunction and abuse, much of which was found in the vast co-dependency literature popular at that time. Why? So we could “learn” that the same thing that happened to him as a child happened to us in our own families, only in a more “subtle” way. He was remaking us in his own image, often resorting to intimidating outbursts of rage and using our confessions as blackmail, to be people who found abuse everywhere, even in our own families. Once we agreed with him, he used that as a lever to separate us from them. He had to first turn us into victims so he could then turn us into victimizers, like himself.
And woe to those group members who came to a different conclusion than the leader, even after they left. He could find ways to make his abuse follow them wherever they went if he so chose. I learned that at my own great expense.
As I was going through the worst of my spiritual abuse experience, I read the newly-published Churches That Abuse, by Ronald M. Enroth.12The hardcover edition was released in 1992 by Zondervan. Dr. Enroth has given permission for free online versions to be made available here and here. I was astonished by its accounts of groups and leaders that were depressingly similar to mine. The book became one of the turning points that led to my exceedingly painful exit. After I left, I discovered through many first-hand testimonies how unthinkably common my experience was.
I also learned that not everyone reacts to spiritual abuse the same way. I just wanted to crawl into some hole and never tell my story to anyone, but because my abuser kept coming after me, that strategy didn’t work so well. Others whom I met allowed bitterness to take them completely away from the church and even away from God. These latter folks often became verbally abusive to anyone who tried to relate to them as Christians.
Swimming against the current
What I saw happening in parts of our culture back in the late ’80s and early ’90s and also experienced in a very close-up and extreme way has once again become pervasive in the church and amplified by technologies that didn’t exist then. Ironically, the reasons for it are more substantial than they were then. So many indisputable cases of horrific abuse, sexual and other kinds, have recently been exposed to the light of day that no one can question the fact that evangelicalism has a problem every bit as grave as the Roman Catholic Church or the Jehovah’s Witnesses, even if not as centralized. In fact, it’s so grave that to deny it is not simply to stick one’s head in the ecclesiastical sand, but to become complicit in a very real and destructive way.
But Auschwitz was horrifically abusive as well, including sexually abusive to the women there, as were the other Nazi camps, and yet it didn’t justify survivors taking revenge on innocent people afterward. And just as we should weep over what happened in the Holocaust, we should also weep over what’s happened to victims of abuse in the church. But we can’t justify it when any of them, or their allies, lash out at the innocent for any reason, including disagreeing with their perspectives on abuse. What I learned at my own great expense was that being a victim of abuse, like the leader of my cult claimed to be, doesn’t make one an expert on abuse or how to respond to it.
More particularly, the alarming revelations of abuse in evangelicalism in recent years do not justify what is going on now among Christians, especially on social media, particularly Twitter, where so many seem to do what is “right in his own eyes” (Judges 17:6; 21:25). Until around 300 years ago, deviations from religious orthodoxies could result in fines, floggings, banishment, and even death. Now, deviations from social orthodoxies result in ostracism, job loss, career ruin—whatever penalties social media affords—and all too often Christians are among the loudest members of these mobs. One of the most protected social orthodoxies is that the charge of abuse causes the accused to forfeit any due process rights and bear the wrath of the mob. Believers who question any part of this are attacked, vilified, and libeled on a daily basis—often by fellow believers.
A new and vicious kind of tribalism is plaguing the church. Some who have truly been abused, along with their allies, have become abusers. Social media has become their amplifier. And it is damaging Christ’s church. How long before it manifests itself in even more destructive ways?
It’s long past the time to start swimming against the current of our culture.Ω
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|↑1||Wikipedia, “Me Too movement.”|
|↑2||Casey Quackenbush, “The Religious Community Is Speaking Out Against Sexual Violence With #ChurchToo,” November 22, 2017; Anonymous, “When #ChurchToo Happens at Your Church, Too,” The Gospel Coalition, March 5, 2020.|
|↑3||Wikipedia, “Online shaming.”|
|↑4||David J. Ley, “The Cancel Mob Is Coming,” Psychology Today, March 1, 2021. Lee Jussim, “Ten Ways to Defend Against a Cancellation Attack,” Psychology Today, December 22, 2020. . Wikipedia, “Cancel culture.”|
|↑5||Viktor E. Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning, Ilse Lasch, translator; Boston: Beacon Press, 1959; 2006; Kindle ed., 90.|
|↑6, ↑7, ↑8||Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning, Kindle ed., 90.|
|↑9||Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning, Kindle ed., 91.|
|↑10||New York: Vintage Books, 1992; 1993|
|↑11||Cf. Richard Beck, We Believe the Children: A Moral Panic in the 1980s, New York: Public Affairs, 2015. Reviewed by Maura Casey in “How the daycare child abuse hysteria of the 1980s became a witch hunt,” Washington Post, July 31, 2015. See also: Wikipedia, “Day-care sex-abuse hysteria.”|
|↑12||The hardcover edition was released in 1992 by Zondervan. Dr. Enroth has given permission for free online versions to be made available here and here.|