All Abuse is Religious Abuse

Abusive language is a type of linguistic interaction that demeans, humiliates, mocks, belittles, insults or otherwise controls another living being in a way that violates a set of shared sacred ideals. Because of this, I believe all abusive language to be inherently religious, though there are certainly more and less damaging versions. The more intensely sacred authority is wielded, the more frequently, the more powerful an abuser is within a community, the more damaging the abuse is.

This perspective on abusive language, on abuse itself, challenges existing definitions of what is commonly called “spiritual abuse.” This is because most definitions of spiritual abuse assume that there is something unique about organised religion. Lee Gatiss wrestles with this complexity, writing,

I think that what is becoming known as “spiritual abuse” is this controlling or coercive behaviour in a spiritual context, i.e. in a religious or ecclesiastical relationship. It is a systematic pattern of behaviour which causes serious alarm and daily distress, perhaps with a threat of violence of some sort, in a church context or within a religious relationship or organisation. There is a connection between “an intimate or family relationship” and the church, of course, which is “the household of God” (1 Timothy 3:15), a family of faith (Galatians 6:10), a “brotherhood” (1 Peter 2:17, 5:9). But it is a distinct context, which can shape the abuse in certain ways, and leave particular kinds of scar.

Lee Gatiss for Church Society

But, as Gatiss also writes, “of course we know that coercion and control happens in non-religious settings too, such as workplaces and in other clubs or societies.”

Yes. Yes, it does. These settings, these communities can be as small as two people, a friendship, an intimate relationship, a marriage. Or they can be as large as a nation or indeed a world religion. And insofar as a community is founded on sacred ideals, it is a religious community, a site where abuse is almost certain to occur. Religious abuse (or, put simply, abuse) involves harnessing the sacred to enact unjust violence against another living creature.

I’ll try to unpack that a little bit now.

What is sacred?
What is unjust?
That depends on a community’s, an individual’s definitions of justice, which are always founded on a set of fundamental beliefs about right and wrong. Some people believe, for instance, that any act of violence against animals (perhaps with the exception of self defense or euthanasia) is fundamentally an act of injustice. Therefore, all violence against animals is a form of abuse. Some linguists have documented the ways that language contributes to the oppression and exploitation of animals (see Stibbe, 2001, for instance).

But other people living and working in close proximity to this sacred community may not share that view. And so these two groups have to decide to what extent they can tolerate each other’s competing sacred ideals, to what extent they can live in peace. Though mobility is a matter of financial, economic and social privilege, we have some choice over which communities we want to be part of, depending on the extent to which we share a community’s sacred ideals about what is just, what is true, what is right and wrong.

However, within many communities are individuals who violate sacred ideals for their own personal gain. These are religious criminals.

For example, a community might believe that all human beings are equal in dignity and worth. This belief might be founded on a sacred text or some other source of sacred authority within that community. However, a member of that community might attempt to subvert this ideal as a means to accumulate and hold on to power over others. This constitutes injustice within that particular community. If someone complains about this person’s hypocrisy, the community then has to decide: Which do we hold in higher regard, our sacred ideal of equal dignity and worth *or* this powerful person?

Indeed, we learn a great deal about a community by objecting to injustice, to hypocrisy. Speaking insightfully about bringing a complaint within an institution, Dr. Sarah Ahmed writes,

A formal complaint can lead you into the shadowy corners of an institution, meeting rooms, corridors; buildings you did not have any reason to enter before become where you go; what you know. We can learn from this: how trying to address an institutional problem often means inhabiting the institution all the more. Inhabitance can involve re-entry: you re-enter the institution through the back door; you find out about doors, secret doors, trap-doors: how you can be shut out; how you can be shut in. You learn about processes, procedures, policies, you learn to point out what they fail to do, pointing to, pointing out; you fill in more and more forms; forms become norms; files become futures; filing cabinets, graves.

If we object to unjust treatment, to religious abuse, within a community, we will learn very quickly the answer to these questions:

Will the exposure of injustice recentre the group on the sacred ideals the group has agreed on?
Will the group overturn the act of injustice?

If not, we are faced with a choice. Perhaps we might leave that community, if we are able, if the cost of leaving is not too great. Part of our decision might involve considering those who are less vulnerable, who are less able to leave an unjust community. Do we stay and continue pointing out the hypocrisy? Do we stay and fight for change? For how long? These are not easy questions to answer.

So the concept of abuse is not fixed. It is not neutral. It is subjectively determined by every sacred community. And though two communities may agree on what constitutes injustice, each might appeal to different sacred ideals to reach those conclusions (a sacred text vs. criminal law, for instance). As members of multiple communities, we too might appeal to different sources of sacred authority at different times, to protect ourselves and others from abuse and other forms of injustice. And each time this happens, each time we object to abuse, each time we complain about violations of sacred ideals, we test a community’s commitment to its own sacred authority. We witness its willingness to guard against the misuse of that sacred authority.

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