It is truly an unfortunate reality, but the Church is no stranger to abuse. We are all familiar with Catholic scandals surrounding the sexual abuse of minors. As it turns out, however, this was not just a Catholic reality, as the past few years have brought to light the sins of abuse amongst Protestants. Sovereign Grace Churches has been accused of the sexual abuse of children. However, the scope has broadened to consider other forms of abuse, such as the condoning of spousal abuse or overlooking the sexual abuse of women that Paige Patterson as been accused of. Then, we had the Baylor rape scandal, if we broaden our look beyond churches to institutions of higher education. However, even this is an overly narrow scope of the problem of abuse in the church, as it focuses on abuse in the contexts of sex and marriage, and overlooks the other forms of abuse that can take place in the church. While I would not call it “abusive” I recall a church I was involved with earlier in my college days that was a rather controlling church, with egos that dealt with issues of conflict and discipline in a poor manner.1
So how then can we and should we address the situation? The current trend has been to creates a set of rules that protect people from abuse, such as Safe Sanctuary policies that are implemented in United Methodist Churches. These are a good thing and while they can offer some ways to deal with particular forms of abuse, particularly sexual abuse and the abuse of children, they do not address the wider issues of abuse in Christian settings. AT the end of the day, minus the most flagrant forms of abuse such as assault, rape, the violation of children, etc., abuse is not really a behavior, but a set of behaviors in a specific context. Policies and procedures can protect against the most salient forms of abuse, but they leave a whole host of other ways of harming others unaddressed, for instance, the form of social bullying that can be perpetuated via social isolation and triangulation. However, it takes insight, education, and listening to identify these forms of abuse, and the means it is often too late to prevent the damage to the victim.
However, if we consider that the type of abusers that tend to be in power in churches tend to be a particular sort, those who have a high social awareness (HSA) of what other people think, feel, and expect, including even the possibility of showing cognitive empathy where they can rationally understand what other people including their victims might feel, but little emotional empathy where the feels of their victims prevent them from action, you can begin to address one of the principal contextual factors that allows abuse to occur in the first place. Abusive people who have little ability to manage impressions are quickly caught and punished within organizations and in the legal system. What distinguishes abusers with HSA from them is their ability to cloak themselves and their actions such that they never experience any vulnerability and substantive accountability. What this looks like is their ability to notice what types of actions, words, and expressions are effective at giving positive and/or negative impressions and then accommodate their public persona in accordance to the positive views, mitigating any suspicion towards them, while shift blame towards their victims by mastery of casting negative impressions in skillful ways. This is what Jesus was talking about in the Sermon on the Mount when he referred to wolves in sheeps’ clothing; people like the Pharisees and scribes are effective at garnering social approval through their prayers, giving, manners of publicly judging others, etc. but at the end of the day, they are like ravenous wolves, who have murderous hearts and can do such through their words. In a sense, I would say the Sermon on the Mount is the very way of life that is antithetical to the way of life of the wolf in sheep’s clothing, where moral awareness moves us as people towards the perfection in love that God has instead of moral awareness being used as a tool of power over others.
So then, there is one important form of power that HSA abusers have that enable them: they rely on the habit of human thinking in how we interpret and understand people based upon surface words, actions, etc. to cloak what they are actually doing. Social awareness, including awareness of moral expectations, becomes a tool for avoiding vulnerability and accountability. Any set of values we espouse, any set of practices we employ, any sense of bureaucratic or institutional procedures we set up, any norms of reason we lift up, no matter how truly good and valuable these values, practices, procedures, and reasons are, they are resources to potentially exploit by HSA abusers.
Furthermore, since various nations, cultures, institutions, etc. have different sets of values, practices, procedures, and reasons that would take time to master, HSA abusers will tend to keep their environment the same. They often times thrive in insular cultures and organizations, where there is so little change to how things operate that people have developed habitual ways of thinking within that social networks such that they can readily exploit. These types often times espouse the values of peace and order and will portray their opponents as threat to the peace. However, HSA abusers who are themselves not too alarmed emotionally, particularly of the psychopathic variety, can also thrive in situations of chaos and rapid change, as people exhibit very distinctive and relatively predictable patterns of thinking and emotions when ambiguity overwhelms them. These types can resort to chaos and panic, such as shouting to the masses about massive, widespread injustice, casting their own opponents as oppressors trying to shut challengers down. However where HSA abusers would not easily thrive, however, is in contexts where there a moderate amount of change; here there is enough unpredictability in how people will think in the future that it is hard for them to master the appearances necessary to cloak themselves, their HSA is not sufficient for them to reliably manipulate others.
With that said, here are a list of some practices HSA abusers may employ based upon reading in the psychological literature, hearing people’s stories, and from my own experiences.
1) Justifying their behaviors, such as employing the legal, organizational, or moral authority given to them to explain their behavior
2) Will resort to “reframing” abusive behaviors much akin to public relations, such as calling abusive behavior a “misunderstanding”
3) Will strategically “apologize” if it will immediately allow them to re-establish control and/or allays further attention and suspicion.
4) Projection of one’s own behaviors, emotions, and motivations onto others including their victims, such as calling their victims control or abusive.
5) Notices the faults in other people’s behaviors and will exaggerate them, such as treating the defensive behaviors of their victims as signs of their mental instability and aggression.
6) Tell a narrative of events are frequently a patchwork quilt truth and falsehoods designed to give plausible to their distortions, such as neglecting to mention how their behavior threatened their victims.
7) Will use all resources at their disposal to control their victims, such as getting other people in their victims’ social network involved in controlling the victim through isolation, triangulation, repeating the same judgments, and/or to gather information on the victim.
8) Withholding information from others, such as failing to share important institutional procedures to others.
There are many more examples, but what is particularly insightful about this list is that these are all behaviors all of us can employ. We can justify, reframe, apologize, project, focus on other’s faults, tell narratives that are out of context, try to our resources to influence others, and withhold information. This is all part of what it means to be social creatures; these are things that may have some value or at the least are not signs of malicious intentions. However, it is these very actions that are so commonly the marrow and joints of our relationships that can and do get exploited, particular by HSA abusers.
What is the solution? To assume these actions are covering abusive behaviors will be to isolate us as social creatures; for instance, one of the particular struggles I have is to notice these patterns of relationships and to recognize they are not signs of malice, but I tend to isolate despite trying to remind myself of that. But, instead, it is to avoid our automatic thinking processes when signs of problems start to crop up and to substitute it with patterns of paying close attention, asking questions, listening to stories, etc. but in such a way that we do not automatically discard people who have had to endure a process of investigation. The more we are quick to discard, the more people’s defensive natures will employ the tactics above, making it even harder to sift out the wheat from the chaff. A culture of that gets down to the specifics that would circumvent the automatic thinking processes that HSA abusers can manipulate while being slow to judge but will judge when needed can provide just enough unpredictability and change in the system to prevent HSA abusers from being able to gain a needed mastery while also providing the conditions where well-intended people who make mistakes can get the needed direction without feeling like they too have to hide.
In short, a culture such as this would be moving towards a union of grace and truth, allowing a sense of the truth to come up from understanding specific circumstances, thereby undercutting the means of control that HSA abusers commonly manipulate via treating truth as a manipulation of symbolic communication, while also extending grace to others for their own weakness, failures, and sins when they mess up in their positions, acting in proportion to their actions rather than going beyond. But this is deeply antithetical to the drives for power, control, and predictability that people, organizations, and institutions seek out. The drive for success and protection makes us want to resort to the more automatic forms of social relationships, and the more we employ these forms again and again, they more we unwittingly make ourselves susceptible to manipulation by those with HSA. It is almost as if the Apostle Paul knew what he was talking about in the dynamics of the flesh with its unrestrained passions and enslaving, inflexible forms of fear vs. the Spirit with His cultivation of contenting joy and sustaining love and the struggle to listen to the Spirit is countered by the voice of the flesh.
- As a side note, I was asked to leave this church under unexpected and flimsy premises, and while I feel this was poorly handled, I look back at my time there and I saw some issues of maturity that needed to be addressed, but never were, so that I could say that I needed some discipline but it was handled in a poor way that “controlling” churches tend to do.