Category Archives: Abuse and Religion

“It’s Not About You”

I would like to be paid $5 for every time a friend, acquaintance, or co-worker gives me pop-psychology advice that has in it, “It’s their problem. It’s not about you.” I would prefer the money, because it would add-up to a very nice amount and I findits-not-about-you money useful. Recognizing the possibility of good intentions in those employing these presumed aphorisms, as opposed to the idea of just getting me to shut-up about my problems, I still say this advice is crap. The title statement is often followed by a close second, let’s say it’s only worth $2.50, that one is: “You aren’t the only one.” Then there’s the other classic: “Everything happens for a reason.” Please abandon these worthless comments. Better to be silent and pretend to listen.

Most often, using these clichés is a Western way of trying to sound Zen, you know, getting us to ‘own’ our problems. It may be an attempt to get us to recognize the crazy in others and try and duck. Good luck with that. In my experience, crazy needs interaction and finds the absence of such intolerable. No one is more driven than crazy people looking for a target.

Here’s the thing, if what’s troubling you is racist, misogynistic, workplace bullying, familial disrespect and manipulation, or any of the other miseries for which many of us are an unfair target – of course it’s about you. By that I mean, it is not your fault, you do not deserve it, but with no one to abuse, there is an absence of abuse.

I took a witchcraft class at Penn where we studied the historic torture and murder of women accused of witchcraft by the Roman Catholic Church. My conclusion was that the accused witches and the church had a symbiotic relationship. Without the churches accusations, the women were just practicing the old arts in relative obscurity. Ironically, the witch accusation elevated them, but then they started getting killed. The fabricated witch threat elevated the church to an assumed higher level of protection of the ignorant masses and wrestled away power from the women the community relied on for healing. You can say that old Wally Lamb quote that oppression ultimately oppresses the oppressor, but when it comes to alleging witchcraft to justify torture and murder, the male priests weren’t dying – just the women (and a scant few men who associated with them).

It’s almost always about power. Not necessarily overt power, but often interpersonal power, social power, or a sick psychological power, like the dark side of The Force. Though I write about religion here and I do believe there is actual evil, I think most of our miseries are caused by other people. I’m not dismissing the stupid stuff we do to ourselves, that’s just not my point right now. The fact is that there are a whole lot of people who have to put other people down to lift themselves up. I am willing to allow them compassion to recognize that they were most likely abused themselves, but what I’m complaining about here is bad behavior and part of me doesn’t really care why. I’m tired of trying to understand and get all centered and Zen about it. I don’t have a magic answer, I just want to remind all you cliché-bearers that it sucks and your pithy comments don’t really help.

The Starbucks barista offered me real wisdom this week when she said the best music comes from heartbreak. I will grant that for every time there was a situation in my life causing me angst, it produced some unexpected benefit. That is not to say it was worth it – it is just that it wasn’t without any value at all. You know, lessons learned and all that.

I do not want to lean on rescue fantasies, but I do think we could help each other out a little more. How about defending that co-worker you know the boss is bullying for entertainment? I mean out loud. Yes, it will be at your own peril. But if more of us did this, I would like to believe there would be less bullying. If you’re not up to that, how about at least taking the poor sap to lunch?

I read an online article on one of those career websites that recommended something I figured out only a few years ago for myself: passive-aggressive work slow-down. First, reasonably assess the situation and determine how closely you are being watched. There will be gaps in that surveillance, because there always are. Study the slackers in the office. Every office has them and they are rarely called on it. Once you have determined the gap, then use your best passive-aggressive skills to engage in a work slow-down. This is how you will protect yourself. Take your mind to another place and do something that enriches you but is not so task-oriented. In this moment, you take back your personal power. Now if your workload is unreasonable and you are relentlessly monitored by people who disrespect you, then you must find a way to leave. No job is worth giving-up your dignity. Take it from someone with gaps in her rèsumè, peace of mind is much more critical.

Then there’s racism, classism, and misogyny. No matter your age, can you picture the “I Have A Dream” speech at the Lincoln Memorial? That was a powerful speechmlk at a critical juncture of the Civil Rights movement. People took action, they came together, and they made sure their voice was heard. But the oppressed were not alone. Some would say that the turning point in the Civil Rights movement came when white civil rights workers started getting murdered.

If you are hoping for support from religious people on this, you may be disappointed. Religious expression in this country has de-evolved to ideology and condemnation. However, the doctrines of the major religions, and especially the Abrahamic traditions, have a lot to say about social justice. They expect their followers to work toward it, in case you are wondering. Religious leaders should be the voice for the oppressed, but in this country many prominent figures are joining the chorus of the oppressors, e.g. Franklin Graham or Pat Robertson.

When I think of the Martin Luther King, Jr. speech, as we approach his holiday, I think about the Lincoln Memorial. It is a different place to me now because they will not allow women there on January 21st. Truthfully, I don’t know who the “they” is but I think it was a request by the president-elect’s transition team to the National Parks Service. In spite of that, I will go to Washington and I will march lincolnmemorialfor social justice with thousands of others – especially women. But we will not be allowed to do so in the proximity of the Lincoln Memorial. There just aren’t enough of the non-oppressed standing beside the oppressed on this one. So yes, this IS about me. I am not the only one, but I will not be allowed at a national monument because I am part of the Women’s March on Washington. Not personal you say? This is as damn personal as it gets, just on a very grand scale. It is about me. -J.B.

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Nuns, Cows and Inspiration

There was a summer when I sang “How do you solve a problem, like Maria?” 52 times.  I was home from college andSOM76 managed to get a miserable summer job in a tourist trap during the day and playing a nun on stage at night.  I suspect I was not good at it, but I don’t really know.  I do know I got in trouble for talking trash within ear-shot of the little “Von Trapp” children off stage.  I seemed to need something to balance wearing a habit every night.  It was hard to view it as serious theater because backstage was a livestock sales barn, usually with cows.  The mooing and the cow dung were equally distracting.  And contrary to the delicious rumor, I did not go bar-hopping in my nun’s costume, though I wish that it had been me.

When the “Sound of Music” movie was in theaters in the early sixties, Karen Armstrong had just joined a severe, conservative convent in England at the age of 17.  The day her family took her to the convent, they went to see the “Sound of Music” after they said good-bye, while she was entering an entirely different world than the movie convent.  Armstrong spent seven long, painful years there and many more recovering, but eventually wrote The History of God, and many other books.  I just finished reading her first book, Through the Narrow Gate, and re-reading her follow-up memoir, The Spiral Staircase.

These two Armstrong books reminded me of The Empty Mirror: Experience in a Japanese Zen Monastery, by Janwillem van de Wetering, and the book by my friend The Orange Robe (Marsha Low Goluboff).  I admit that not everyone is fascinated by people who go to extremes on their own spiritual quest, but I am.  In Armstrong’s case, she was in pre-Vatican II draconian communities that sounded quite like prison to me.  For van de Wetering, it was in a Zen Buddhist monastery in Japan with austere conditions that resulted in high-risk weight loss and numerous very serious physical and mental ailments.  My friend Marsha travelled the globe living on next to nothing that she most often had to scrape-up for herself in a guru-centered cult, Ananda Marga, which she calls a “spiritual sect.”

It is easy to be amazed by people making such personal sacrifice of physical and emotional comfort.  Granted, the stories I’m referring to here are written by people who have left the group.  Those who stay are less likely to write books that appeal to others or offer more than proselytizing.  Still, we can learn more about an organization, or a family for that matter, from those who have left.  Take a look at the black sheep of a family and you will learn more, faster.  Well, in my family that’s me, so maybe I’m biased.

What struck me in all three books was the arbitrary and brutal behavior of many in leadership who were viewed by themselves and others as spiritually advanced.  While I can understand the value to challenging and managing our own ego, I have never liked the people in power having to ‘break’ others. Upon arrival at the monastery, van de Wetering said, “In every training the ego is broken, the ‘I’ is crushed,” (p.17.)  Armstrong described that approach by saying: “We are, the great spiritual writers insist, most fully ourselves when we give ourselves away, and it is egotism that holds us back from that transcendent experience…” (p.279).  Armstrong offered another way of looking at the ascetic search for God or enlightenment; “…a disciplined attempt to go beyond the ego brings about a state of ecstasy,” (p.279).  Really?  Is it just another buzz?  The Buddha himself, moved on from asceticism and to the middle path (The World’s Religions, Huston Smith, p. 85).

One reason I am so skeptical of extreme lifestyles is a result of growing up around plain Mennonites and Amish.  What I have seen from all three books and while growing up, is that people are people.  By my idea of ethical behavior and compassionate interaction, I don’t see any greater measure of ethics and compassion coming from the Amish, the convent, or the Zen monastery.  For you religious readers I would say: Orthodoxy is not Piety.  For those of you scratching your heads at that one, I will add that rigid religious practice does not guarantee religious enlightenment or even sincerity.  In fact, often the severity of practice is in itself a distraction.

What I have learned from these stories is the value of ordinary life; for example, the struggle of staying employed and sane as an ethical person.  For many people, this is a fierce internal battle.  It’s just not that easy to find a civilized work environment where you don’t have to worry about who is going to throw you in front of the political bus, or how many people will be laid-off to protect the CEO’s inflated salary.  Your ego doesn’t need to be broken when it is beaten down by life every day.  I think more of us need the creativity and strength to keep some balance and perspective in our lives without being demoralized or immobilized.

In this, I have to refer (briefly) to education in our country.  I don’t have the research to present you with a full treatise here.  What I have are stories: stories of laid-off teachers and entire schools systems that are chronically under-funded in one of the wealthiest countries in the world.  This week 30 school children went to see the governor of Pennsylvania with 4,000 letters.  He refused to see them.  Most of the state is controlled by white Republicans who see the School District of Philadelphia as poor blacks who have no right to expect the same education as white children of privilege.  Why is this ok?  Why is education considered a luxury?

That’s a long walk around the barn to say: what can I do to make a difference when I’m hanging on to my job by my fingernails and watching those in power abusing those who have even more meager resources than I do?  How do I manage my daily stress, and still find energy to make my voice heard?  And worse, will it make a difference?

What I’m hanging on to is knowing people like my friend Sara.  She took a vacation day to go to the state capitol to try to get callous legislators to care about education.  Every day she works full-time, cares for her mother and family, volunteers on two nonprofit boards, and was the volunteer of the year at her church.  At work she is fierce and vocal about workplace ethics and she has my back.  Always.

I can tell you I find more religious ecstasy in knowing Sara than contemplating my navel or being bullied by religious extremists.  I know there are more like her.  Truthfully, I’m not in her league.  But I aspire to be, and promise to keep trying harder.

If I have distressed you, then I do have a suggestion.  If you get really bummed, just put in the “Sound of Music” soundtrack and sing along really loud.  Nothing works for me better than the goat-herd song.  Just don’t stop listening to your conscience and protecting your soul, whether it is from your own ego or from bullies, in religion or at work.  –J.B.

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The Religion of Me, Part Two: The Mega-Church

There is a seventy-something woman I know well whose father was a pedophile.  I asked her if she was abused by her father and her response was that she doesn’t remember details of her childhood.  I’m told by my social work friend that her memory-blocking is a symptom of abuse.  In any case, I don’t see how it is possible that she could have had a healthy, happy childhood.  Whether or not her father abused her, he and his in-denial wife established a dysfunction household way beyond the everyday grousing most of us do about our families.  That is what takes me to Eddie Long.  As the “bishop” of a 25,000-member Georgia “mega-church” there were symptoms of corruption and impropriety (at best) that 24,999 people chose to overlook.  That was one giant dysfunctional social club.

First of all, the words “mega” and “church,” in my view, are mutually exclusive.  The discussion of religious topics or the word ‘god’ being tossed about about does not a church make.  Political rallies talk about god, Klan rallies talk about god, Masonic ceremonies talk about god.  Even stadium revivals may have a religious theme or inspire spiritual transformation, but these events do not constitute a church.  I’m not going to tackle the definition of church here, today, but I do want to make the distinction of what about this story raises religious questions.  Granted, this is a sensational story on many levels, but not many aspects are really about religion.

An MSNBC morning anchor interviewed a commentator who described Long as running a “ministry of prosperity.”  First of all, there is no such thing.  That is not a “ministry.”  It is religious-themed theatre where a motivational speaker tells folks what they want to hear.  It is not for the common good or the good of the disadvantaged.  It is established and maintained to promote the personal comfort of the leader and the members of his club.

There’s a terrific story CNN story by John Blake on Long (the best mainstream secular reporter covering religion today);  the link follows.

http://www.cnn.com/2010/LIVING/09/28/long.new.birth/index.html?hpt=C1

On the other hand, if you’re just sick of the nonsense, then I’ll give you a short-cut check list.  Here is my top ten list: Top 10 reasons to suspect your clergy has his hands in the wrong place.  Here are some things that a few of those 24,999 folks should have noticed.

10.  He’s has to hold a news conference to defend himself.  If he is a man of God, then news stories are irrelevant, aren’t they?  He is fighting for his image and income, not to protect a real ministry.

9. He’s wearing more bling than the little old ladies on the front row or gangster rappers.  In fact, the bling on his finger is the size of a Super Bowl ring.

8.  He doesn’t travel with his wife.  C’mon folks.  This is a little something girls in bars learned about traveling salesmen and lounge lizards a long time ago.  Did not one of you 24,999 folks find a married (allegedly straight) guy traveling around the world with young men slightly hinkey?

7.  Is your clergy driving a better car than you?  He’s not just driving a better car than congregants, it’s a $350,000 Bentley for crying out loud.  With this lousy economy and his millions couldn’t he find domestic luxury to his satisfaction?  How about a nice Towne Car?

6.  Your clergy is sending photos of himself in spandex taken on his cell phone in his bathroom.  (That one really doesn’t require any other comment, does it?)

5.  He’s running a charity to help the poor but lives in a $1.4 million dollar estate and pays himself $1 million a year salary.

4.  There are more pictures of him around the “church” than any religious icons and he tells you questioning him is the same as doubting God.  This is the “Religion of Me” personified.

3.  The use of personal pronouns in his sermons and sound bites.  As I said in my previous column, personal pronouns are a big red flag.

2.  He has sound bites.

1. A ministry of hate.  If anyone in any pulpit is teaching hate messages, it is the sign of a personal or political agenda.  Remember when Southern Christians found justification for slavery in the Bible?  One key to Eddie Long’s prominence is his condemnation of homosexuality.  While it now seems obvious that was some kind of self-loathing, he was engaged in a ministry of hate.

Of all the sordid details in this ever-unfolding story, there were two comments from Long I found especially disturbing.  In speaking to a minister of a smaller church, Long said with envy, “I may have the numbers but you have the love.”  If you are running a church so people love you, then it really isn’t a ministry, is it?  That’s Cult 101.  He justified his lavish lifestyle by describing himself as a CEO.  Again, this is using religion for big business and personal gain not working to help the poor or support the spiritual growth of congregants.  The behavior I found the most disturbing was how he cultivated young men for several years, but didn’t start traveling with them until the legal age of consent (17 in Georgia).  That’s not an accident.  That’s premeditated, calculated manipulation.  Again, what were the 24,999 other church members thinking while this was going on?

Writing about such a lurid story may seem like I’m grabbing low-hanging fruit.  I challenge you to get a ladder and look for the rotten apple still on the tree.  There are smaller examples of clergy in every religion using their position to promote themselves and their own agenda.  As long as the folks listening accept whatever they are told without question or challenge, then these same dynamics will continue to hurt the untold many.  I blame the 24,999 folks sending Eddie checks and Sunday morning amens because he was telling them what they wanted to hear not what they needed to hear, and they were averting their eyes from some obviously creepy behavior.  Wake up and smell the spandex chafing.