“What about the criticism that perpetrators of religious child maltreatment should be discounted because they are not ‘real’ believers, that they are misguided as to what faith is truly about? In response, I question whether anyone is qualified to ascertain just what constitutes a righteous individual. I know that I am not in a position to know what makes someone a ‘good’ Christian, a ‘real’ Jew, or a perfectly devout Muslim. I do know, however, that in case after case of religious child maltreatment I have studied, the perpetrators believed without a doubt that they were the real deal.”
Janet Heimlich, Breaking Their Will: Shedding Light on Religious Child Maltreatment
Next week marks the third year anniversary of this blog project. With some trepidation, it is time for the graduate studies. I want to talk next about spiritual child abuse. This type of child abuse is not as well known by the public as the horrors of physical and sexual abuse, nor, in my experience, is it very well understood by many of those working directly with its victims. I think this subject is a necessary ingredient in Mindful Ecology. My trepidation comes from recognizing that it is a subject very likely to be misunderstood by readers who have not gained some insight into the Mindful Ecology view from the previous years of essays. If this is your first encounter with this material, it might be best to start with earlier subjects.
Every religion has a light side and a dark side. The point I will be making is little more than this. I believe that it is in an honest recognition and healing of this shadow cast by religion’s light that we might find a way forward. Harnessing faith could be just what is needed to wake up to, and embrace, our human responsibilities under Homo Colossus. In other words, if we can be honest about what spiritual abuse is, how it works and what we must do to protect ourselves against it, we will find the door opens to deal rightly with our abusive relationships with the earth. In my experience this is how it works in individuals, this process of waking up. It might be the means that can also change the existing suicidal society.
Fundamentally the ecological crisis is a spiritual crisis: we are terrified of existence; our god is dead and in a tantrum we are destroying all our toys. It has got to stop.
Are you enjoying the lungs full of forest fire smoke as you count the days of this year’s record breaking drought? Or, where you’re living, are you one of those caught in the torrential rain and howling winds flooding your neighborhood? Maybe where you are weather records are not being broken and your summer season is wrapping up more or less as you remember it did in years past. As I read the charts there are not too many folks in that later category, blessed as it would be. For all the rest of us – welcome to swimming in the river of ecological blowback. Swinging to the left, a little too far. Swinging to the right, a little too far. Touch too much sun, touch too much rain; will we ever find our way back to the middle path?
This is Earth abuse. I think this is what we are doing every day in which we do not work to minimize the destructive ecological footprint of Homo Colossus. Giant-sized fossil fuel industrialization might have been built in innocence, but those days are long past. To continue accelerating our rates of pollution and resource over-use is a crime against humanity, plain and simple. It is a crime against the human heart and a crime against the human future.
Earth abuse only happens because some people have some other people so scared, they cannot speak. Psychologists say that the perpetrators of abuse ‘project their own shadows’ into their victims. This means that they inject guilt into them, guilt which they do not deserve. The young girl victimized by incest tends to come to the belief that somehow they were at fault in the crime, the young boy beaten ‘for his own good’ comes to believe they deserve to be treated this way. All abuse shares this secret, this technique for gaining authoritarian power over another person’s will. Every sick family, and the species is a family, projects the shadow in the same psychological torture routine:
Two Rules of Madness
A – There is no problem (from divorce to incest) (from ocean acidification to topsoil loss) and you are elected the Black Sheep / Scapegoat to carry it for us (outcasts and heretics)
B – Rule A does not exist but must never be broken (and will not be discussed)
There is very little understanding of the full ramifications of childhood sexual and physical abuse within our societies. We are not self-aware enough to normally see how the acts perpetrated in secret get shouted from the rooftops, how these seeds of hate sewn in our private lives reap wildflowers of fire in our public events. There is even less understanding of the spiritual abuse of children and what these things cause. Earth abuse, I am suggesting, is a further step along the spiritual abuse continuum. We act the way we do, treating the earth as a whore and a sewer, due to our values as a people. A people’s values are intimately connected to their intellectual convictions around what has worth and what is worthless; who has worth, and who is worthless. But values are not wholly rational, they also involve a people’s emotional reactions to various social rituals which invoke the strong, visceral reactions of purity and disgust associated in our nervous systems with the holy.
Spiritual abuse can be defined as sexual or physical abuse that takes place in a religious context or when the perpetrators are in positions of power within religions. The essence of the crime, however, is much more subtle and involves what can quite accurately be called a psychological rape. That is, it forces ideas and images into a person’s psychological interior life that they did not choose. These ideas and images cause extreme emotional and intellectual reactions within the victim against their will. It is a crime against another person’s soul for cults and cultists to inject religious idea-images that trigger suicidal reactions when the victim dares to consider leaving the cult, changing the faith, or otherwise exercising their free will. We are not talking about normal persuasion or education here. There is a definite line that is crossed that makes what I am referring to clearly abuse.
The couple phrases italicized above could also be used to describe the global psychological circumstances that are involved in our ongoing ecological and social breakdown. People of good will do not want to be destroying the world their grandchildren’s grandchildren will be playing in for the sake of an iPhone. Yet here we are. How are we to understand this? The faith in neo-liberal economics does not suffer fools gladly, silencing every dissenting voice. Though the true believers cannot see how they are being driven to make the world inhospitable for human beings, it has become evident that this will be the result of their efforts if they remain unopposed. What I think we need is not another set of street protests that lead to replacing the old boss with the new boss, exchanging one set of chains for another. We need stronger medicine.
Fatherlessness is epidemic in the lands where ancestors once prayed the Our Father. Hate and cruelty are replacing compassion as the social ideal, much as Nietzsche thought might happen in the West with the death of god. A culture of suspicion has spread its influence into every nook and cranny of our social intercourse. Cultures steeped in Christianity, its Western form in particular, are breaking down under class and racial divisions that have become so extreme as to be un-sustainable. What we need is a street theology. One powerful enough to overcome the destroyer, one that can “bind the strong man” within ourselves and our institutions.