On Being Complicit

I have been thinking a lot recently about the word, "complicit."

Our current news cycle is filled with the uncovering of the abuse of power across many different institutions from USA Gymnastics, US politics, and evangelical mega denominations.

Most people, however, will never experience abuse at this level. Instead, many of us will experience it in our local gym, at our county chambers, or in our local church.

Those of us who have been abused and are still reeling and healing from it often try to make sense out of how it happened. We ask ourselves why. Why me? Did I do something? Why them? Is there something damaged inside of him or her?

It is rare that abuse happens in a vacuum and it is rare that we are the first to suffer at the hands of an abuser. It is also rare for the abuser to act alone. In almost every occurrence, there are those who may not be directly involved but are complicit in the abuse.

One of the definitions of complicit is "involved with others in illegal activity or wrongdoing."

This can look like turning a blind eye to a pattern of abuse, demonizing or projecting upon the victim who is reporting the abuse, and doubling down on one's support of the abuser.

One of the hardest areas to spot complicity in abuse is within a religious space.

If you ask most people who attend church whether they would ever consider being complicit in abuse, most would be horrified at the notion. Yet it happens all of the time. Why you ask? Perhaps it's because we have been taught that churches are a safe place, or to trust leaders due to a perceived sense of divine authority. The world can be such a cold and cruel place and I am convinced that many need to believe that the Church is the last place where abuse can happen. Whatever the reason, parishioners have a hard time both spotting spiritual abuse and calling it as such.

But this is naive.

Abuse happens everywhere and no one or no place is immune. And it's this reluctance to see what is happening in front of one's own eyes that creates to a culture of complicity. It's cognitive dissonance. It's gaslighting oneself.

And it allows the abuser to continue his or her abuse.

As a culture, we need to do so much better in believing those who are crying out and exposing abusive behavior. We also need to be willing to do the hard work and examine our own hearts for complicity in the abuse cycle.

Confused as to what is complicit behavior in regards to spiritual abuse? Here are a few indicators:

  • Refusing to see a pattern of abusive behavior. This can often look like people exiting the church and the fault always being found with them and never with those in power. This allows the cycle to happen over and over again.
  • Believing the "party line" from authority figures without going to the other person/s involved for their side of the story. Many times leaders will call this "gossip" which is a tactic to discourage parishioners from seeking out those who have left or been abused. This assures that the authority's side of the story is the only one that is heard and is accepted.
  • Backing up an authority figure and lending your weight to his/her actions. Abusers often gather a large group or committee to sanction their abusive behavior. This can look like scheduling meetings where the authority brings in several people on "their side" as a form of intimidation to the individual they want to control.
  • Bowing to pressure to cut off or avoid community members who have left. Often parishioners are told those who have left are unsafe and under some sort of suspicious behavior. This ostracizes those who are "out of line" or no longer "one of us" and puts pressure on them to either come back into the fold and/or serves as an example to what can happen to those who are still part of the flock. "Do this and you will be cut off too." People will put up with a lot in order to stay within their community.
  • Not speaking up against authority figures who speak ill or libel those who are questioning or have left. Abusers will use this tactic as a loyalty test. Most people understand this at some level and will not speak up for their community member because they understand that this could also happen to them.
  • Going along to get along -- believing that God is in control and will magically work everything out. This may be true, but God has a long history of involving others in the defense and liberation of others. Choosing to stay silent and go along lets the abuser know that his or her abuse will continue to go unchecked.

I believe there will be a day of reckoning for those who are habitual abusers. They will have to answer for their behavior. But those who cover or sanction their deeds will also have to face what they have done one day. They might not have pulled the trigger, but they stood by and watched while it happened. And some times, they handed the abuser the weapon.

If you have been complicit in abuse, there is good news for you.

You can stop.

Abusers rely on people to remain silent. To sit down and shut up. To put up with the discomfort and ignore that voice of conscience telling them that's something is off. History is full of authoritarian leaders who relied on the silence of others to perpetuate their oppression and abuse of power.

Do you know what stops them?

People who refuse to participate in the abuse, speak out against the abuse, stand up to the abuser, and report the abuser to a higher authority.

Abusive people want people to think they hold all the power. But they do not. It's an illusion.

And it's up to those who are witness to this abuse to expose the illusion as the fabrication that it is.

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