You have probably heard the anecdote about the frog in boiling water. If you put a frog in hot water it will immediately jump out, but if you put a frog in a pot of room temperature water, then start to boil it, the frog won't notice the temperature change and it will boil to death. Besides this being not true, it's also cruel (it's "frogal" abuse!) so please don't try it. Yet this remains a popular metaphor for the fact that, very often, we fail to notice gradual changes and thus fail to recognize when we are in a dangerous situation. This is precisely what happens in abusive relationships. They often start out fine but slowly become more abusive to the point where neither the abused nor the abuser realize the extent of the abuse. This leads to rationalization on the part of the victim or even a flat out denial of the abuse. Thankfully, many organizations exist to help both men and women who find themselves in abusive relationships and people, in general, are becoming more aware of the signs of abuse—at least when it comes to abuse by mortals. But what about the Christian God, or at least the idea of the Christian God? Without question, some interpretations of Christianity and God are more benign than others, but it is those "others" that we need to worry about. I will argue that Christianity is, at its core, a system that promotes this abusive relationship where God is the abuser and his flock is the abused. The psychological and emotional abuse one experiences can often be more devastating than physical abuse because while physical abuse is often apparent and causes immediate suffering, it is the psychological abuse that occurs slowly and can cause a lifetime of suffering through emotional trauma.
Social psychology deals with interactions of two or more beings, real or imagined. This is because the idea of others can affect us just as much as the people themselves. For example, one can be miserable if they feel that another hates them, even if that other person has no such feelings. It is not the hatred that is being "beamed" outwardly from a person that affects others; it is what is going on in the mind of the person affected, that is, the interpretation by the person affected. God is not actually doing any abusing here, but the imaginary being has been given power over the abused. This is all that is required for an abusive relationship.
A system can be abusive and make use an object or a figurehead. There have been many detailed arguments about Christianity being constructed as a system of control, that is, a system to control the behavior of others. In the absence of a physical God, those who claim to speak for God wield this control and power over others. These can be kings, presidents, political groups, churches, religious leaders, or individuals who claim to know the will of God or even speak on his behalf. In these cases, God is not the abuser, but those who claim to speak for God are.
Abuse, in this context, is a pattern of behaviors used by one person in a relationship to maintain power and control over another person in an intimate relationship. Intimacy can certainly refer to one's "personal relationship with Jesus." Abuse includes behaviors that physically harm, arouse fear, prevent a partner from doing what they wish or force them to behave in ways they do not want. It includes the use of physical and sexual violence, threats and intimidation, emotional abuse and economic deprivation (“Abuse Defined,” n.d.).
Abusers abuse for many reasons. One of the reasons is control. The warning signs below all reflect one or more specific psychological techniques that are quite effective for controlling and manipulating others. In the art and science of persuasion there are many effective techniques that range from ethical to extremely unethical. Those below, the ones used by psychological abusers, are certainly on the extremely unethical end of the spectrum.
I am using some common signs of domestic abuse published by The National Domestic Violence Hotline found at www.thehotline.org. To avoid cherry-picking, I will use all of the warning signs. As we will see, some apply more than others, and some should be quite alarming to any Christian.
1) Using Coercion and Threats. "But I will show you whom you should fear: Fear him who, after your body has been killed, has authority to throw you into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him." (Luke 12:5). Coercion is the practice of persuading someone to do something by using force or threats. Abusive husbands might threaten to physically abuse their wives. This is insignificant to the ultimate threat—an eternity of suffering. It is common for abused spouses to rationalize their spouse's abuse in order to protect the relationship out of fear of leaving it. They say things such as "He (or she) just had a really bad day" or "I deserved it." Likewise, Christians who believe in the doctrine of Hell rationalize it by saying things such as "I deserve Hell because I am a sinner." In addition to an eternity of suffering, the Bible provides many examples of threats if you don't do what God says.
2) Using Intimidation. "The LORD is a jealous and avenging God; the LORD takes vengeance and is filled with wrath. The LORD takes vengeance on his foes and vents his wrath against his enemies." (Nathum 1:2). An abusive partner might wave a gun around, tell stories of how they once took revenge on a someone who wronged them or otherwise make a clear display of their power over the victim. This might as well be the theme of the Bible. It is full of stories of God's power and wrath taken against those who disobeyed him from Noah's flood to the plagues of Egypt to commanding the slaughter of the Amalekites (men, women, and infants). The message couldn't be more clear: don't even think of disobeying God or face his wrath.
3) Using Emotional Abuse. "for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God," (Romans 3:23). A common tactic of an abuser is to tear the abused down emotionally so that they feel they deserve the abuse they are getting and certainly don't deserve anything better than the abuser they are "lucky" to have. Guilt and obligation are common weapons of choice of the abuser. The entire foundation of Christianity rests on the claim that we are all sinners deserving of Hell (whether that be eternal torture or just a "separation from God"). If we do what we are told, God will extend his grace on us and "save us" from his wrath that we deserve. You're a sinner. You are nothing with God. You owe him everything. Consider the crucifixion of Jesus. God sacrificed his only son for your sins. Guilt and obligation. Of course, according to the doctrine, Jesus was at the right hand of God after three days, so it wasn't much of a sacrifice.
4) Using Isolation. "Do not be unequally yoked together with unbelievers … for what part has a believer with an unbeliever?" (2 Corinthians 6:13-15). Abusers control who the victim socializes with and what information they consume by using jealousy to justify his or her actions. The Bible is full of verses and parables establishing a clear rule to stay away from those who don't believe as you do, with the exception of preaching to non believers for the purpose of conversion. Justification is established by creating a dichotomy of just two kinds of people in the world: good God fearing people and those under the influence of Satan (see GotQuestions.org). When the abused are isolated, they are less likely to see how they are being abused.
5) Minimizing, Denying, and Blaming. "For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord" (Romans 6:23). Abusers attempt to minimize and deny the abuse they dish out, or simply blame the abuse on the victim. Christianity teaches that all the suffering we experience on earth (childhood cancer, natural disasters, horrific deaths, etc.) is nothing compared to the paradise that awaits. Suffering is our punishment by God that we deserve because our ancestors (Adam and Eve) disobeyed God, in other words, this is being sold as "justified abuse."
6) Using Children. "For I will go through the land of Egypt on that night, and will strike down all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, both man and beast; and against all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgments--I am the LORD" (Exodus 12:12). It is common for the abuser to use children to maintain power over the abused. This can come in the form of threats, guilt, or harassment. In the Bible, God is the one responsible for "blessing" parents with children (Gen 20:17, Gen 25:21, Gen 30:22) as well as punishing by making one's womb barren (1 Samuel 1:6, Leviticus 20:20, Jeremiah 22:30). There are few Christians today that would claim that their fate as parents is NOT all part of God's plan.
7) Using Male Privilege. "Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything" (Ephesians 5:24). "I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet." (1 Timothy 2:12). This part I will take directly from the domestic abuse website: "Treating her like a servant, making all the big decisions, acting like the "master of the castle," being able to define men's and women's roles." This describes the Bible as close to perfect as one can get. The Bible often uses language that we are servants of God (2 Peter 2:16) here to serve him. Most Christian theology says that we need to "turn our lives over to God" and let him make all the big decisions in our lives. He is the master of the castle. The authors of the Bible speak frequently on the roles of women and how they are expected to behave, which is clearly in a subservient position to men, despite the token example of a few women with power in the Bible.
8) Using Economic Abuse. "I am unworthy of all the kindness and faithfulness you have shown your servant. I had only my staff when I crossed this Jordan, but now I have become two camps" (Genesis 32:10). Abusers can control the financial status of those they abuse in order to maintain power over the abused. While there are many examples of both rich and poor Godly characters in the Bible, just like fertility, financial well-being is quite often credited to God by believers.
The idea that abusers are evil people who hate those they abuse in intimate relationships is the exception to the rule, not the norm. In fact, most abusers at least claim to love their victims, and who are we to say they don't. One might argue what abusers are experiencing is more of an impassioned jealous rage then true love. That's a fair argument, especially if true love is unconditional and the person doing the loving wants nothing more than the happiness of the person they love, even if that love is not returned. Does God offer that kind of unconditional love or is his love more like impassioned jealous rage? What happens, theologically speaking, if one doesn't return God's love? Does God give that personal eternal happiness anyway? Or is his love conditional, that is, based on the condition that you love him back and if you don't, he will either sentence you to an eternity of nothingness (the annihilationist view) or an eternity of suffering and misery (the standard Christian view). I know, those of us who don't believe choose to go to Hell. And women who don't obey their husbands choose to get punched in the face. Praise be.
Not every Christian is in an abusive relationship with God. Those "cultural Christians" or "cafeteria Christians" as they are sometimes called by the fundamentalists, use their own moral compass to pick and choose the parts of Christianity that already align with their values, political beliefs, and worldview. Maybe you are a Christian, and these signs are disturbingly familiar to you. Maybe you know someone who is a Christian, and you think this would be disturbingly familiar to them. Victims of abuse must reach the point where they say "enough," not because they are demonstrating another sign of obedience to the person that told them they are a victim of abuse, but because they are deciding for themselves.
It is unknown what percentage of people remain in abusive relationships because those who see a greater benefit of staying in than getting out seldom report the abuse. I know that most Christians are happy to be a servant and part of God's "flock." A victim of abuse can not always see what life outside of the abusive relationship looks like, and not only might settle for the abuse, but revel in it (see this clip from Jesus Camp). Just like the there are countless stories of people who left abusive relationships with intimate partners and can now see the abuse for what it was, there are countless stories of people who left Christianity and express the same kind of freedom being free from abuse—abuse from the Church, abuse from religious leaders, and what they imagined to be God, all supported by the text in the Bible.
Imagine ultimate freedom. Freedom from continual celestial observation and judgment. Freedom from divine purpose where you can define your own purpose. Freedom from the threats of eternal torture and suffering. Imagine true self-worth. Not the kind of worth you are said to have because you were created to worship and serve a master, but the kind of worth you earn by being a person who loves and is loved by others. You are a human being that is not inherently evil or morally corrupt, but whose goodness comes from your own actions and not the actions of your ancestors of 6000 years ago. You are responsible for your own goodness. You are in control. Your actions and behaviors such as romantically loving another human of the same gender or different faith, as well as other victimless crimes called "sin" in Christianity, are no longer something for which you need to feel guilty and "repent." Imagine a world of true cause and effect where your fertility is not the will of God, but a fact of nature that, with the help of scientific and technological advancements, can reward you with children. A world of cause and effect where your financial success is largely dependent on your own desire and persistence. Imagine a world where women have just as much power as men and are not denied opportunities. No guilt. No shame. Imagine a life where you choose to be a moral person for the sake of goodness itself, rather than an obedient servant following commands, many of which deep inside you know are just wrong. Imaging all this is one thing, but living it, is another.
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