Ever wonder how people who claim to act and speak for God can behave in ways that are so contrary to way Jesus did Religion has been used to justify evil on epic scales and I want to peel back some layers of the onion and expose some of the inner workings.
I watched the movie "Spotlight" this week and it affected me deeply. The movie is about the Boston Globe newspaper and their investigation into, and exposure of, the institutional cover up and protection of priests who had sexually abused children. This movie is not for the faint hearted. It exposes the dark side of religion.
I am not here to accuse or defend any institution outside of the church, but to address the institutional nature of the church. Institutions are by definition, a structure or organisation that works together to achieve a common purpose by employing policy, procedures and actions. The church just happens to fit that definition and in its workings it involves and engages with vulnerable people. Vulnerable people are given special attention to and defended by Jesus and his early church. It is vulnerable people who are also subject to abuse because of their position in life.
In "Spotlight" the priests who sexually abused the children were said to have been predators, they would gravitate to the most vulnerable and broken. The main thing that allowed this abuse to go on was the misuse of power.
The dynamics of power is something that affects everyone and the more aware of the use and misuse of power people are, the better. Within the church, power needs to be exercised relationally with humility rather than with policy and administration. Not that there isn't a place for policy and administration, but the church is a body, a living organism and extension of Jesus Christ himself. Policy and administration need to serve the body, not the other way round.
This was the exact point when Jesus said to the Pharisees that the Sabbath was made for people, not people for the Sabbath. Religion was made to advance humanity towards a greater understanding of creation and how to live successfully in it. It wasn't meant to give the world another excuse to abuse, exploit, condemn and commit violence.
Some of my experiences with abuse in church that I will share are not the worst, they are just ones I am willing to share. First of all, it was about 15 years ago, when I was still involved in the charismatic movement, I attended a meeting with an international evangelist. I had big expectations and was hoping I would experience something good to help me go on. I was in my early 20's, married with two young children, struggling financially and was working very hard as a production welder.
By the time I got there I was exhausted and stressed. Then the meeting began. After the worship, the mini sermon started on the offering, something I was used to coming from a Pentecostal background. This 'mini' sermon lasted for over 90 minutes. 90 minutes talking about how giving financially equates to spiritual blessing and not giving results in a curse. At this stage in my life I was not theologically trained but I knew enough of God and his unconditional love that I just knew it was wrong. I left angry and disappointed and after 90 minutes he still hadn't started his actual sermon!
Another experience I had was when I was 21. I moved to Queensland with my fiancé and her family to work in ministry at a new large charismatic non-denominational church. My father in law was employed as worship pastor and I was given the job as youth pastor. Early on I had a meeting with the church's head pastor and he told me that when I got 100 youth attending he would put me on a wage. Until then it was a voluntary position, and a much-coveted position I would find out later.
While I was trying to pioneer a youth group and support my wife and 2-year-old daughter, I would look for jobs. As a welder, I couldn't get any work beyond a week here or there as a casual. I remember earning just enough money in a fortnight to cancel my Centrelink and actually being financially worse off for working. In this situation, an independent businessman offered to start his homemade food delivery business to financially benefit the church. I was the first employee of this business, which was a pay by commission arrangement. After working a 50 plus hour week I made $130. This continued week after week until a parking fine took half of my wages. I had had enough and quit. The blowback was the business owner, who had church leadership ambitions, bad mouthed me to the head pastor, insinuating that I was lazy and inept. Needless to say, that wasn't the last time I was used as a volunteer under the guise of serving God.
Don't get me wrong, I still serve in a voluntary capacity, but when I was in a paid church position, I made sure I didn't ask anyone to do something I wasn't prepared to do myself. I was aware of putting unrealistic expectations on people to 'serve' God or use manipulation or guilt to get people to volunteer. Spiritual abuse uses people for their resources, money, time or effort. It is probably the most common and least damaging from my perspective. I don't want to discount this abuse, but as someone who has worked with people from sexual and physical abuse backgrounds, the spiritual abuse I have suffered doesn't compare. These were two of the most minor things that I have experienced.
We are better off practicing a simplistic religion of loving God and loving our neighbour as ourselves, than knowing scripture and theology and having a heart of stone. These two commandments fulfil the entire law and need to be practiced. Everything in this world is geared towards division; people are divided by opinions, values, even to what make of car you drive or brand name you wear. People are addicted to what divides us because they think that is what gives us a sense of identity. Identity is only found by loving and being loved by God. It only out of this relationship can we truly see and love our fellow humans. This feeling of belonging and identity is falsified by things like sports clubs, hobbies and community activities. It's not that these things are bad, but the connection longed for is not fulfilled through participation in these things as a means to an end. They should be a result of being connected to God and others in loving relationships.
Mark is married with 3 kids. He has been a youth worker for 10 years. He has worked in lay and paid church roles in various denominations for 15 years and is currently a member of the Adelaide Anglican Diocese. Mark has a B.A from Tabor College Adelaide.
Mark Flippance’s previous articles may be viewed at http://www.pressserviceinternational.org/mark-flippance.html