Heavy Words and Co-opted Meanings

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As I like to say, over and over, words mean things. Matt Appling of The Church of No People seems to have missed out on this lesson. With this post, his non-apologetic clarification, and then this guest post on a different site, he seems to be on some sort of crusade of pushing back against the progressive Christian world. The only problem is that he doesn’t seem to have taken the time to understand it before diving into critiques. And in doing so, he’s perpetuated a lot of harmful thinking and theology. Appling suffers from a common malady that afflicts a lot of white male evangelicals – not bothering to research the actual definition of the terms they’re using, and predicating entire ideas on a misunderstood definition. But, like Elora said earlier this week, words mean things. In fact, knowing and understanding what certain words mean and how they apply to one’s own life is vital for healing from abusive situations. Being able to say "I was abused," and "I suffered," gives those experiences meaning and weight and context.

Changing definitions of healing words to one’s own purpose and worldview – to complain about pastoral issues, for example  – can, itself, be abusive and oppressive behavior. One may not be intending to oppress or abuse, but intent isn’t magical. If your writing is predicated on terms that survivors and victims use to understand what happened to them, and you change the definitions to complain about something petty, you are appropriating a term that is not yours to use.

Take, for example, Appling’s guest post on spiritual abuse (linked above). In the post, he talks a bit about how spiritual abuse has become a buzzword, but that we forget a big victim of spiritual abuse – pastors.

Now, there is an angle here that could have worked – pastors can and do suffer spiritual abuse in terms of being held to what the person above them in the chain of command (or an elder board) wants. The main character in John Hassler’s North of Hope, for example, suffers from a version of this.

But that’s not Appling’s take. No, Appling says that congregants who expect too much of their pastors, who don’t parent their kids (???), who criticize the preaching style of the pastor are “spiritually abusing him” (and in Appling’s world, it’s only ever a him). Appling writes:

Too many times than I can count, I have heard friends and acquaintances complain or denigrate (read:abuse) their pastor over his oratorical abilities.  Not his ability to interpret scripture or his character, but just his ability to entertain them.  For one reason or another, a mere man is not able to live up to their sky-high standards of performance.

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Likewise, I have heard so many people leave churches for the last time with the parting words, “I’m just not being fed.”

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No?  Then how can you expect a church to spoon-feed you everything you need? You know how some couples fight over housework?  Some guys think that cooking meals equals “woman’s work?”  Well the same abusive attitude exists at church.  Keeping everyone spiritually fed somehow equals “pastor-work” while everyone else sits back and relaxes.  That’s not what church is about.

This is the part where I grab a megaphone and start yelling.

Do people critique pastors unfairly sometimes? Yes. Do pastors get unwarranted criticism because American Christianity has turned the church into a capitalistic enterprise where attendance coins get put in and we expect happy spirituality to fall out? Yes. Do people expect too much and does that factor into pastors suffering from burn out? Yes.

Does it fit the definition of spiritual abuse, though? Not really.

Even a cursory glance at the Wikipedia page for spiritual abuse would have informed Appling of the idea that “complaining about your pastor” or leaving a church because "you're not being fed" doesn’t fit the definition of spiritual abuse. Spiritual abuse, like other well-defined forms of abuse, has a definition, symptoms, and signs. One of those major signs is a controlling authoritarian structure in which people who complain or challenge the authority are punished and either forced to leave or forced to undergo steps for repentance and re-education. Authority is a huge factor in spiritual abuse. And congregants shopping around to different churches simply aren't authoritarian figures in the scenario Appling puts forth.

I understand, partially, where Appling is coming from. He wants to encourage people to treat their pastors well. I have a lot of friends who are pastors or who are in ministry who have been treated poorly by their church congregations. Whether or not those congregations have spiritually abused them must be taken on a case by case basis, however, and the incidences run much deeper than someone complaining about preaching style. I'm not here denying that pastors experience spiritual abuse (because they do), but to claim that congregants are abusing their pastor when they complain about him is a sweeping generalization I cannot get behind.

By using “spiritual abuse” to mean petty complaints about pastors, Matt Appling dilutes the powerful meaning the term has.

Maybe an analogy would help: we’ve all met the person who insists on having her pencils lined up neatly on her desk and jokes “I’m so OCD!” And we rightly find this person annoying.

Joking about having a serious disorder like OCD takes away from the real nature of obsessive-compulsive disorder. Correcting this joking is actually advisable, because it makes it easier for people with real, diagnosed OCD to feel more comfortable. It doesn’t dilute their mental illness down to a quirk.

I choose OCD because my oldest brother suffers from mild OCD as part of a spectrum of illnesses that often accompany Down Syndrome (which he has). Before he sits down in any chair, for example, he feels the need to reach down and “remove his shadow.” He does this anywhere and everywhere – in restaurants, getting into the car, in his own living room. People who are around him in daily life have grown used to it, recognizing that it’ll take him a little longer to settle things and to “feel right” in a new situation (he is on medication for it, as well).

So people joking about OCD because they like things to be tidy? Really bother me, because it makes it harder for people who have variations on the illness to feel “normal.” Changing the definition of a diagnosed illness or a defined and research form of abuse makes it harder for those who actually do experience these things to feel like they can claim them as part of their story. Calling a desire for neatness "OCD" co-opts and appropriates a legitimate term with a specific definition. It uses mental illness to define a "quirk."

Similarly, those of us not healing from or experienced in things like rape or abuse should not appropriate those terms to describe situations we happen to find unpleasant. Example: "That test raped me." Or "that debate round really abused me." You should never, ever use something horrific to describe something you simply don't like. Doing so cheapens the words and makes them lose force of meaning.

Words have to have certain, defined meanings because learning the vocabulary for what happened to you helps give those things weight, and place, and shape, and context within your life. When we use these heavy, weighty words to describe things that are not heavy and weighty, we rob people of the contexts they need to heal. And a person without context is a person lost.

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For coverage of Appling's other posts on equality, I recommend this post from my friend Sarah, about equality and humility (spoiler alert: Appling doesn't get what those mean, either!).

Photo by Lainey's Repoertoire on Flickr. Used under Creative Commons licensing.