“If you leave me, you’re worthless.” “No matter how hard you try to be good, you’ll never be good enough.” “Don’t be proud of any of your accomplishments. If not for me, you’d be a nobody.” “You have to put me first, before anything or anyone else.” “If you don’t marry me, I will be forced to kill you.”
Hmmmm, sounds like somebody needs a boot in their butt. Oh, wait…no…that’s the Holy Bible speaking to me about my “personal relationship” with Jesus. That makes it okay…I guess???
It wasn’t long after I left religion that I noticed the striking similarities between Christian messages and the language used by emotionally abusive spouses. Perhaps the correlation is clearest in the Old Testament, where God often berates his people for idolatry by calling them whores, prostitutes, and cheating wives. The punishment for their unfaithfulness includes verbiage that is clearly rooted in rape culture. “I will lift your skirts over your face, and I will let nations look on your nakedness and kingdoms on your shame.” (Nahum 3:5-6) “This is why you have been stripped and raped by invading armies.” (Jeremiah 13:22) “I will strip you and expose you to shame.” (Jeremiah 13:26) “You spread your legs to every passerby, to multiply your harlotry.” (Ezekiel 16:25)
OT God refers to himself, time and time again, as jealous. Safe Place (Freedom from Violence) lists jealousy as the number one trait common to abusive relationships. At the beginning of a relationship, an abusive person will always say that jealousy is a sign of love. Jealousy has nothing to do with love; it’s a sign of possessiveness and lack of trust.
The National Coalition Against Domestic Violence states: Abuse may begin with behaviors that may easily be dismissed or downplayed such as name-calling, threats, possessiveness, or distrust.
Threatening to harm the partner, or the partner’s children or animals is also on the list. Throughout the Old Testament, we read countless stories in which God is guilty of all of these.
While more insidious, the messages of “worthless, filthy bride” and “dangerous, powerful fiancé” continue into the New Testament. In fact, if we take a step back from the flowery and hopeful context in which contemporary churches frame Christian messages, we can see in them the precise tactics of abusers who manipulate, demean, and control their partners. In my book Love over Religion, I demonstrate how various Bible verses are congruent with specific strategies of emotional abusers. Rather than doing the same here, I’ll take an opposite approach and examine the traits common to the abused. Online research generated this list of traits that abusers seek when choosing their partners:
Financial and emotional dependence.
Lack of motivation.
The first six of these seven traits are not only compatible with Christianity, but they are demanded of it. A prominent Christian message is that we are sinners, wretched and stained. Before we can accept Jesus into our hearts (and become his faithful bride) we need to admit we are broken and in need of a savior. In other words, we must have low self-esteem and confess our sins (i.e. blame ourselves). We learn that God should guide our choices, our thoughts, and even our money management. We are then told to live apart from sinners, in a rare form of social isolation. We are no longer a part of this world, we are taught, but a part of God’s special kingdom here on Earth. (Which, oddly, still looks exactly like this world.) God commands that we submit to his will in all things. And in no uncertain terms, Jesus asks us to be excessively tolerant of any life change that might ensue from following him, to willingly abandon our families, our riches, or our very lives.
As for the seventh trait, lack of motivation, I can only share my personal story and welcome yours in the comments. Christianity muffled my freedom to choose and to think for myself. It inhibited my desire to live among and learn from different people and cultures. It told me to be ashamed of myself and my past, and prevented me from moving confidently and courageously towards my personal goals. After all of that was gone, I experienced a very acute lack of motivation that affected me for almost a decade. I slowly watched my social life, my energy, my health, and my finances dwindle. I cared less and less about my personal appearance and making healthy choices when it came to nutrition and exercise. I refused the companionship of friends and potential partners. I felt that I didn’t deserve anything at all, so I had to be content with whatever I had. Even my sense of humor faded, as I constantly worried I would make a comment God wouldn’t condone. It sounds silly now that I’m unhitched, but I experienced many of the hallmark emotions of psychological abuse during my relationship with Jesus.
Trust me when I say I don’t condone violence, unless it’s figurative. Aaaaand hilarious. So take a quick peek at the Dixie Chicks, as they murder Earl with black-eyed peas. Then I invite you to do some self-reflection. If you’re feeling ready to be liberated, it may be time to find a posse of your own who can help you walk out on that abusive relationship. If you’ve already strapped on those walking boots, and you’re living free from the emotional abuse of religion, it may be your turn to cook black-eyed peas for someone else. You can do this by proudly and confidently standing for secular truths, by financially supporting entities that work towards freedom from religion, or by simply participating in the conversation.
United, our voices can form the foundation of a radical new dawn, a future in which society renounces the oppression of myth, a time when reason triumphs over religion, and we are free.