“This sorry affair:” Religious Language and Spiritual Abuse

On occasion, people send me documents and ask me to help them make sense of what the documents are doing and how. They know the documents make them feel bad, less human somehow. They can articulate in some way why that is – pointing to this phrase or that paragraph. Their instincts tell them something is off. My role in this is largely to affirm them, acknowledging and confirming their experience of these texts, offering them a pathway through the pain, another way to talk about why the documents they’ve received are destructive and abusive.

Often, these documents I receive come from an overtly religious context. But whether they do or not, I consider all dehumanizing language to be inherently religious. One of the functions of religious language is to communicate our answers to some of our deepest questions, like

Who are we? How did we get here?
What is right and wrong? Is there life after death?

In that sense, any use of language that speaks to a person’s status as a human being communicates religious meaning.

Yesterday, I received a church court document which makes me feel like trash. The words that came to my mind as I was reading it include: cold, heartless, procedural, callous, pretentious, artificial, spiritually abusive.

And it’s important I not dismiss those initial reactions because our human instincts often serve as a way in to understanding a text. My daughter often quotes Frozen on this, and she’s dead on: “You feel what you feel, and those feelings are real.” Part of what it is to be human is to long for love and connection. So it’s important to listen to and hone our instincts, to pay attention to our gut, to practice exercising our analytical skills in combination with our emotions, not separately from them.

So now, as a public exercise in making sense of this horrible document as a whole person, thinking and feeling, I’m going to illustrate how analysing language can be an act of resistance, a reclaiming of agency and, ultimately, a powerful tool to identify and reject spiritual abuse and move towards healing.

This document is such that I could write reams and reams about its language. But that’s unnecessary and counterproductive, considering how hurtful it is to me, as a named person in the document.

Instead, I’m going to point out just a few of the ways that this procedural word salad can be broken down into a very simple message, one which downplays abuse, blames victims, and celebrates the committee and their procedures. All wrapped in an artificial cloak of religious piety. But first, the context.

Context

The document I am writing about is a report recently produced by an Ad Hoc Committee of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church’s Presbytery of the Southeast (USA), which assembled to investigate “the Genevan Commons Facebook Group and attendant matters.” This document was accepted and formally approved by the OPC presbytery this past weekend.

I’ve written about the context surrounding this document, in a June, 2020 post for the Centre for the Study of the Bible and Violence. Here is a recap, taken from that post:

A few weeks ago, an anonymous blogger published a website called Genevan Commons Screenshots, an archive of images and discussion threads from a private Facebook group containing upwards of 1,000 (more recently around 600) Christian church officers and laypeople. While not every member has participated equally, over the past five years many in this group have slandered, harassed and bullied fellow Christians they don’t agree with, both privately and publicly, including me.

The majority of members are officers and laypeople from NAPARC (North American Presbyterian and Reformed Council), various independent churches, and the Communion of Reformed Evangelical Churches (CREC), led by Douglas Wilson …

I first crossed paths with members of Genevan Commons in 2015, at an ecclesiastical trial in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church’s presbytery of the southeast. The trial focused on Dr. John Carrick’s refusal to require his disabled and chronically ill wife to attend church at the behest of members of his presbytery and the board of his employer, Greenville Theological Seminary. I wrote about all of this for The Aquila Report and in a research article for The Journal of Language and Discrimination.

Members of Genevan Commons disagreed strongly with my conclusion that some officers in this presbytery were abusing a disabled woman and fostering a misogynist culture. They began harassing and slandering me and anyone who offered me a platform. At one point, an admin of Genevan Commons started a website with an almost identical name as a research center I co-founded, in order to direct traffic away from my work. His expressed purpose? ‘Overcoming evil with good.’ He also made clear his wish to recruit co-labourers in his mission.

Since then, members of Genevan Commons have devoted much time and effort to denigrating the scholarship of women who challenge the patriarchal ideology, wherever that may be. But their attacks have been far more personal than principled, referring to women as ‘a pack of dogs,’ ‘pearl clutching toddlers,’ ‘Jezebels of Thyatira’ and ‘ungodly,’ among other things. In their minds, such harsh language is justified to shock the straying, deceived woman and call her home (literally) to orthodoxy.

Concealing and Mitigating Violence

The main issue here is the many acts of verbal violence of a large hate group, made up of church officers and laypeople, against multiple victims, over a period of years. So I’m interested in the extent to which this document,

  • conceals violence,
  • mitigates offenders’ responsibility,
  • mask’s victims resistance and
  • blames or pathologizes victims1.

First, I find it useful to consider the information flow of a document. What comes first? What comes last? What is minimized? What is emphasized? Who is mentioned and when?

What stands out immediately to me is that on p. 1, in a footnote, the committee acknowledges that one of its members is currently a member of Genevan Commons but that none of his behaviour was deemed “offensive by anyone.” Did the committee ask any victim if we found his membership offensive? Did they approach any victim to ask us if we consider this a conflict of interest? It seems not. HUGE RED FLAG.

Next, a glaring feature of the document is not so much who is mentioned but who is hardly mentioned and who is left out entirely.

Genevan Commons targeted Christian authors and speakers such as Aimee Byrd, Christina Edmondson, Rachel Miller, Michelle Higgins, Rachael Denhollander, Beth Moore, Kerry Baldwin, me and other women. Members of Genevan Commons denigrated Christian church officers, including Mika Edmondson, Todd Bordow and Jemar Tisby, among others.

But the document mentions only three victims: Aimee Byrd (30x by my quick count), Rachel Miller (1 time), and me (1 time). In erasing the names of other victims, it minimizes, even conceals the scope and volume of the abusive behaviour of elder Shane Anderson, Rev. Michael Spangler and Rev. Bennie Castle and many, many others. It leaves the false impression this is mostly a dispute between a few people. A few bad apples. A few victims. Nothing much to see here.

In fact, I found myself doing a ridiculously close reading of the text, multiple times (ugh), hunting for any real acknowledgement of the significant suffering that the multiple victims of Genevan Commons, including myself, have endured! But what I found instead felt like yet another slap in the face. The committee reduces the offenders’ numerous racist, sexist, misogynist verbal violence using euphemisms like:

  • “the activity of GC and attendant matters”
  • “the conduct of some of PSE’s officers”
  • “the controversy”
  • “sarcasm and disparagement”
  • “this behavior”
  • “objectionable, even sinful”
  • “comments about Mrs. Byrd’s appearance”
  • “online conduct”
  • “ad hominen”
  • “unwise and unedifying; at worst … vile and ungodly”
  • “provocative use of social media”
  • “needless speech”
  • “a call of this manner”
  • “a joke”
  • “lack necessary nuance and care”
  • “militant language”

Oh look, they admitted that the offenders’ language might be (at worst) vile. Phew.

The document goes on to boil down the numerous instances of verbal violence to a few examples, several of which they explain away with the offenders’ own excuses.

  • Look here, Mr. Anderson says he didn’t intend to use the phrase “thirsty white knight” in a sexually explicit way. Well, we take him at his word. Nevermind that members of Genevan Commons talked about men doing anything for sex. Nevermind we never consulted any of the numerous victims of his slanderous comments. We have “concern with his online conduct,” which we urge him to “reconsider.” But he wants to carry on. So.
  • Oh, Bennie Castle’s reference to women making sammiches is just a joke? Well, we’ve heard someone make this joke in an entirely different context, so that’s ok then. We do object to one other comment he made, but he was receptive to our gentle rebuke, so that’s ok too.

To make matters worse, later in the document, the committee makes this bizarre claim, that “deriding and mocking” women is not misogynistic. And the mere idea of calling such language misogyny is “troubling.” I’m sure you can see how this enables and empowers the offenders. The offenders don’t hate women! They love women! It’s just a few jokes which they never intended in a bad way.

But let’s be clear here and now. What the committee is doing is condemning those church officers who tried to speak up for the victims of Genevan Commons in their open letter.

“troubling”, “a significant overstatement”

Finally, where the committee minimizes the offenders’ repeated, vicious attacks on multiple victims, they emphasize the perceived suffering of the offenders.

On p. 3 of their report, the committee paints a vivid picture of the “harassment,” “threats” and “multiple examples of offensive accusations” which one of the chief offenders, Shane Anderson, had “been the object” of.

The document also stresses how “readily” the offenders “agreed to meet” the committee, as opposed to the “tentative willingness” of their accusers. The committee portrays one of the offenders, Shane Anderson, as an example of moral uprightness, emphasizing how “honorably” Anderson interacted with them, how “carefully” he articulated his perspective, how “nuanced” was his doctrinal understanding. The committee highlights how “cordial” another offender, Michael Spangler, came across, even though to them he was the most defiant of the three they spoke to. After all, they note, the offenders are our “brothers” (p. 2, 3).

All this further mitigates and minimizes Genevan Commons’ abusive online behaviour towards numerous parties. The message I hear is: These men, these brothers were nice to us, even “Christian” in their behaviour, so what’s your problem? You’re no victim. Stop being so sensitive.

Victim Blaming

If that wasn’t bad enough, there’s the matter of victim blaming. This is immediately obvious in the heavy critique of the anonymous whistleblower who published the exposé of Genevan Commons. The whistleblower is “duplicitous,” unreliable, manipulative, “neither charitable nor true,” someone engaged in “doxing.”2 I noted that these are all accusations which members of Genevan Commons leveled at the whistleblower (see here, for example). The committee seems not to have read or accounted for Aimee Byrd’s answer to those accusations.

The committee then devotes a page and a half to a critique of the 92 signers of an Open Letter (all church officers) condemning Genevan Commons’ abusive behaviour. The committee expresses concern that they don’t know the original author of the open letter, what they call “a point of glaring inconsistency” (why is that such an issue?). They object to the fact that these 92 signatories apparently didn’t go first to the offenders, whom they again call “these brothers.” They object to the posting of the open letter on Aimee Byrd’s personal site (note the absence of “sister” here), which showed (unjust?) partiality towards her (because partiality towards a victim of “deriding and mocking” is apparently bad?).

The committee then moves on to blame Aimee Byrd with thinly veiled accusations of divisiveness (p. 9). Even though the committee admits they had no time to find evidence of how Aimee brought the abuse upon herself, they conclude she must be somehow at fault. After all, her work is “closely related to this present disruption to the external peace and order which Christ has established in the Church.” Oof. The explicit religious language in their reference to what “Christ has established” is doing some heavy lifting there. Watch out, Aimee. Watch out, anyone who dares to talk about their abuse, who challenges the sacred establishment.

The committee’s conclusions are the last act of victim bulldozing, where all parties are exhorted to examine their own behaviour in “this sorry affair” and repent as they see fit. Nowhere does the committee’s document mention the qualifications for church officer, the high standard to which officers should be held. Instead, the message is: Everyone did something wrong. There are no victims here. In the end, no one is held to higher account than anyone else. And so the document ends, with the committe’s recommendations that the presbytery “contemplate” bringing a charge against a single individual, “discuss online conduct” with another serious offender.

And finally, their last exhortation: to “examine the writings of Mrs. Aimee Byrd,” presumably again to discover how she brought all this upon her own head.

Glorification of Procedure

All this victim-blaming, all this offender-enabling and violence-minimizing is ceremoniously dumped in cold water via the committee’s celebration of procedure.

As I was reading, I lost count of all the formal, procedural language that peppered the text and puffed up its authors’ precision and authority, words like:

committe(s), ruling, moderator, appointed, administrators, arranged, order, chairman, elder, arrange, organizing, manage, jurisdictions, coordinated, control, mandate, authority, government.

Language like this stood out to me more than any explicitly religious language in the document, like references to the Bible, to God, to faith, or to love3. The high calling these committee members claimed to aspire to thus appeared void of empathy, of compassion, of connection, of love.

But hold on, someone might say! This is a formal document, produced by a committee. The language reflects that by necessity, does it not? But remember the context here, the numerous hateful comments. The committee’s focus on systems masks, minimizes and neglects the suffering of human beings.

This callousness is exacerbated by the ways the committee directs we readers to feel sympathy not for the victims but for the committee members. We are supposed to admire their devotion to procedure, despite the numerous hindrances that stood in their path, the “challenge” they faced as they tried to make sense of the volume of hateful material (see p. 2). Oh what suffering the committee members endured, having to receive “telephone calls, emails, and text messages alerting us to numerous social media posts from all parties!” We learn that “For the sake of peace and to aid the focus of the committee,” the committee asked not just the offenders but even the victims to stop talking publicly about the “controversy.” Just be quiet, victims, so we can do our extremely difficult, righteous work.

Perhaps nowhere else is the committee’s self-satisfied piety on display more than at the close of the document, which contains this triumphant proclamation:

We are convinced that preeminent among those “highest interests of man” are the honor of the Lord Jesus Christ and the peace, purity, and unity of His Church. Throughout our work, the committee remained fixed in its purpose of seeking to maintain and promote these high ends.

By their own admission, the committee never requested to speak to any victim but Aimee Byrd (who understandably declined), took the offenders at their word and interpreted the scope of their work in a way that blamed victims and those who advocated for them. But by here using the name of “Jesus Christ” and claiming that this committee of five men was fixed in its moral purpose, the committee positions their decisions as authoritative and final. Sacred. Who can speak against such “high ends?” Who dares?

Closing Remarks

I started off this post by articulating the first impressions this document gave me: cold, heartless, procedural, callous, pretentious, artificial, spiritually abusive.

Having looked a little closer, I’m left with the same impression. The difference is I’ve acted in resistance. I’ve exposed the committee’s bias, articulated it and minimized its hurtful power over me and hopefully others. Maybe next time I’ll be quicker on my feet, perhaps even less vulnerable when next I encounter a spiritually abusive document like this.


1 This is a model of analysis developed by Linda Coates and Allan Wade, known as the Interactional and Discursive View of Violence and Resistance (2007).

2 Doxing has several distinct types. Some scholars “argue that doxing may be justified in cases where it reveals wrongdoing (such as deception), but only if the information released is necessary to reveal that such wrongdoing has occurred and if it is in the public interest to reveal such wrongdoing.”

3 This wasn’t just an impression. I ran the document through a semantic tagger, and the procedural language (What the tagger classified as “In power”) was the 2nd most frequent category of meaning in the document. Overtly religious language (church, sermon, theological, etc.) was the 9th.


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