Those who know me well, are aware that one of my greatest sources of annoyance is spiritual abuse. It is not talked about as much as physical, emotional or sexual abuse and, in my experience, is often swept under the carpet. Many I have spoken with have never heard of it and need to be given examples to convince them it actually exists. There are many ways that spiritual abuse can be manifested. One of these is silencing.
As a fifteen year old, I first experienced this at school. I attended a church school and as part of our Faith and Values program we were expected to keep a journal for a term. The idea of the journal was to reflect on the faith issues that had arisen in class. I was a questioner and a deep thinker. I don't recall all the theological statements I recorded in that journal, but I certainly felt it was a safe space to explore the boundaries a little. I submitted my journal at the end of the term, proud of the depth of my ponderings, to be marked. It was returned to me covered in red pen. "Have you read your Bible, Cathie?" References to a variety of Bible passages pointed me in the right direction. I had it all wrong. I learnt from my journal submission that this class was not a place to question or speak out. It was a place to tow the line, especially if I wanted a good grade. I had been silenced.
A bit over a decade later, I had not long returned from a period living overseas. Our local congregation was having a meeting. A proposal was brought concerning the future of the congregation. I remember publicly making an observation which resonated with many in attendance. My comments resulted in a counter-proposal being brought that was widely supported. My observation had shed some light on how things really were in that community. The next week, I was called in for a 'conversation'. My outspoken nature and unrealistic hopes were linked to the obvious reverse culture shock I was experiencing and my desire for the church to be like I had known whilst overseas. I clearly was not in a fit state to be contributing to the church community. Funnily enough, I was never invited to lead the morning worship again either. I had been silenced.
These are just two stories that immediately jump to mind. I could share many more. Times when the words or actions, usually of those in authority, have let me know that it is not acceptable to question, to rock the boat, to cause ripples, to stir up trouble, to think for myself and much more. It took many years for me to realise the impact of being silenced. It occurred on a day I will never forget and yet it was so simple. It was in a Systematic Theology class at university. The class was larger than others I had attended. It seemed to be full of people who knew what they were talking about. They all seemed to have this Trinity thing worked out. I felt out of my depth and said very little in the class.
There came a week when the class discussion seemed to be going around in circles and I was imagining it all a little differently in my mind. I reluctantly raised my hand to contribute (what if I have this completely wrong?), the lecturer looked in my direction, "Yes Cathie?" (this was a mistake, what would I know?) and I begin with, "This probably doesn't mean much, but I've been thinking..."
My lecturer stopped me in my tracks (here we go, silenced again).
"I want you to start again. What you have to say is important. Say it with confidence." I was given a voice. I have no idea what I said, how eloquent it may or may not have been, or even if it made sense, but I recall very clearly how I felt. I realised how often I had been silenced, sometimes very subtly, and this felt freeing.
I wish I could say that this experience transformed me into a confident person always ready to have my say. To be honest, I often second guess myself and feel very vulnerable putting my head above the water. I wish I could say that my experience was unique, however, silencing in faith communities is more common than we would like to think. Just this week, a colleague of mine has been silenced by his denomination. His voice is not as easily suppressed as mine and, as a result, the methods used are more explicit and personally damaging.
Watching this unfold has reminded me, yet again, of the importance of solidarity. In a culture where this type of abuse is not recognised, let alone confronted, it is important that we stand with those who are silenced and where possible help them be heard. We need to be the ones who say, "What you have to say is important. Say it with confidence."