It is in our DNA as humans to want to go back to what has oppressed us. Evidence and experience are often not enough for us to resist the urge to return to oppression.
For example, on average, abused women return 4 to 5 times to their abusive partner. My tendency to want to “try again to make it work” in unhealthy institutional systems has often proved as toxic to my soul.
I am sure the reasons for living with oppression are as complex and varied as each individual situation, but I think some of the following general human realities also feed this destructive tendency. At least they do in my life.
Belonging is more powerful than we realize.
One of the deepest needs I can remember identifying at an early age is the urge to belong. The longing to be on the team, in the group, and on the inside, has tugged at my soul from my earliest memories.
I was raised with abusive parents. I was tormented physically and emotionally, but that did not deter my resolve to one day be accepted by them. I would buy gifts, alter my language, and pretend to like things I hated, all to be a part of their family.
It sounds crazy when I say it, but abuse creates a sense of connection. It is an intimate moment to experience abuse, and when that is all you know of intimacy, it fills a void. Even those dying of hunger sometimes eat dirt and clay to fill their stomachs.
To be part of a church that reinforces on a weekly basis that God is perpetually disappointed in us is abusive. In fact, if our instinct were to not share our reality (doubt, sins, regrets, fears, questions) because we believe to do so would put our belonging in jeopardy- we may be part of an abusive church. If your need to be accepted by your church trumps your need to be honest, you are in danger of being a victim of an abusive church. If the message for belonging to your church includes a mandate that you must submit (blindly, without question, constantly) then you are in danger. Like an abused women, you need to find a safe house.
The apostle Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 11:19-20, “After all, you think you are so wise, but you enjoy putting up with fools! You put up with it when someone enslaves you, takes everything you have, takes advantage of you, takes control of everything, and slaps you in the face”.
New Living Translation
The illusion of safety can be stronger than the fear of trust.
The Bible tells a few big stories over and over again. Like a panoramic lens, it tells these stories from every angle, reinforcing their universal reality. One of these meta-messages is trust in God. There is always an alternative to trusting God, a more immediate, fast acting remedy to a dilemma or pain that will produce an immediate sense of safety. But it is only an illusion. It takes an enormous amount of courage to trust. And trusting is so often equivalent to leaving. I am often filled with admiration for the men and women who leave the mean spouses, families and churches to courageously find a better way. I know how much easier it is to just exist in familiar.
Numbers 11:5 “We remember the fish we used to eat for free in Egypt. And we had all the cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions, and garlic we wanted.” In other words, “If we go back, at least we won’t starve,” we think, and that applies both physically and spiritually.
God has a habit of not giving much at one time. He often does it at the last minute, too, not to be cruel, but to tenderly call us to learn to trust and be amazed at His provision.
When we return to our abusers, hoping against hope that it will be different this time we surrender our dignity. We trade dignity to feel secure. He longs for us to experience the dignity that can only come from Him. We may receive many things from oppression, but it is always at the expense of dignity.
A nagging sense I am wrong, stupid, and weak
I cannot help but always think my pain is my fault, my weakness, and my stupidity. If only I…
- Would be more spiritual,
- Not such a troublemaker,
- Be quiet,
- Would conform,
- Follow the rules
I know I contribute to my pain — I apparently aim best when the gun is pointed at my own foot. It is universally true that an abuser will attempt to convince you that it is your fault you are suffering. In marital abuse it sounds like, “If you did not make me so mad,” and in church it sounds like “Why won’t you submit to God’s ordained authority?”
There is a lie that all abusive systems teach: if you leave, you will be all alone. You are too weak to make it without us/me.
Nostalgia is selective.
My idealized dream of Christmas is as a warm holiday with laughter, presents and good food. My Christmas reality was a drunken mom, cold step-dad, and absent father. Nostalgia is the like the sirens calling Odysseus of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey towards the rocks of destruction. Time minimizes the pain and exaggerates the good.
Here is a constant dilemma: some of us have our spiritual roots in fundamentalism. With good cause we have warmth in our souls for those early, formative moments. My first foray into Christianity in high school was also my first experience of being accepted by a group. I loved keeping the rules, being on the winning team, and fully submitting myself to anything that would give me acceptance in return. I often forget how mean you had to be to those with a different moral code, or especially those who “compromised the truth” (this was the code for someone who did not believe what you believed).
I am a dreamer, an active daydreamer. I can conjure intricate scenarios and conversations, and often I am starring in a scene where some toxic church reminiscent of my adolescence has begged me to come and rescue them. It’s always a church that sees the error of its ways and tells me they love me and they want me.
Only God’s mercy and my friends keep me rooted in reality. Plus, remembering that Egypt totally sucks.