In my last post I wrote about people who abuse religion by using it as an escape from real life and an excuse to not deal with their problems. But that’s not the only way people abuse religion. There’s another kind of abuse which I have seen almost as often: people abuse religion to gain power for themselves, to manipulate other people, and to sanction their judgmental attitudes.
I am always troubled when people in positions of authority spend a long time and a lot of Bible verses proving that they should be obeyed and respected. This is one sure-fire sign of an abuse occurring. Real leaders behave in such a way that most people do respect them and are willing to follow their lead. And real Christian leaders have enough humility, grace, and general Christ-likeness that they are willing to go without the benefits of a leadership position rather than bully people into giving them those benefits. When a leader has to remind you constantly that he (or she, though “she’s” in Christian leadership are still very rare) is in a position of authority, you start wondering whether they just like the power trip that position gives them.
Christianity centers around Jesus, who gave up his divine power and forewent the authority he could have summoned in order to humbly accomplish his mission of redemption. On several occasions he was in a position to be made king, yet he chose every day to be a servant instead. Every single person who uses Christianity to gain power for themselves, to bolster their position of authority, is spitting on the name of the God who chose to be humbled to the point of death.
Closely related to this first subtype of abuse is the second, manipulation. Those who use religion to manipulate others often sound better than the power-grabbers, because they tack on holy-sounding phrases like, “this is what God wants you to do.” But in the end they are still using religion to gain power over someone else.
Manipulators often have their one set idea of what a Christian life looks like. They then summon all the persuasive force inherent in religion to get those around them to conform to their ideal lifestyle. “God is not happy with you when you watch violent movies,” they will say, or, “if you persistently continue [doing something I’m not a fan of] you will be cast into everlasting darkness.” They are deeply concerned for your spiritual well-being when you step off their narrow path.
There is difficulty in discerning the difference between manipulators and people who sincerely have your best interests at heart. The really sad part is, some manipulators are no longer aware that they are being manipulative and really do think they have your best interests at heart. Many manipulators are parents who are convinced that by using this manipulation they are raising their children correctly. But at bottom, whatever the motivation, manipulators are abusing religion by using it to support their own constructed way of righteousness.
Finally, there are those who use religion to sanction their own judgmental attitudes. This category is very often blurred into the manipulators category. It’s fine to judge others, these people think, as long as it’s God’s standards I’m judging them by.
Yes, and as I write about this category I feel a little stab of conviction because in this case there are definitely three fingers pointing back at me. I find it so easy to start judging people as soon as I’m convinced that I’m judging them to some purpose. “it’s okay to judge people who are racist and sexist,” I might think to myself. Or, “I only judge people who are judging other people!” Which is actually not true, sad to say. There’s this cool verse in Matthew where Jesus goes, “Judge not.” Just that. He doesn’t say, “judge not unless they’re wealthy elitist capitalist fat-cats oppressing the 99%.” Or any one of the other varieties of judging I find myself likely to fall into. Bottom line, do not condemn other people. It’s just that simple.
I thought I was writing these posts about “people out there who abuse religion.” I turned on the spotlight and scanned the crowd, and I found that front-and-center was my own familiar face. I hope that I am changing for the better, but I still too often abuse my faith. Forgive me, and let’s move together away from these things which only wound. Jesus died to give the world healing, and wholeness, and all that is the opposite of abuse. Regardless of what I and others do in his name, he still wants to reconcile everything and everyone to himself, to the fullness of all the best that we are supposed to be.