"Behold, a Pharisee stood in the church, lifted up his voice and gave thanks unto his Lord. He said: "Oh Lord, I am so thankful that I am not like that sinner there. He abuses his wife. He beats up his kids. But I'm in Your work, Lord, and I try to set an example. I am always available to my parishioners 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The elders, board members, and the head deacon always have access to my office. They don't even have to go through my secretary. "And Lord, I'm thoughtful, too, when I ask my college-educated secretary to get a person on the phone. I always tell her which alphabet to turn to in the phone book. To save my parish members time, I frequently meet them in the office lobby. Tasks can be solved more quickly if both of us are standing up. This lets me dwell on more important things like the letter I have to send telling one of the elders how to hand the collection plate to a deacon. "Yes, Lord, thank You for making me Your servant."
You won't find that story in any of the Gospels. But the story is enacted again and again in many of our churches. The story is not an illustration of pride, but abuse in its most subtle form. Does it sound too exaggerated and too unrealistic? Not when you de-link abuse from its most commonly understood form. The only way most of us conceive abuse is physical, particularly sexual. But a new definition of abuse is emerging from the helping professions: abuse is that act or attitude, in any form, that hurts another individual and denigrates that person's self-worth and self-esteem.
Abuse: can it be me?
Beyond the obvious physical and sexual types of abuse, consider the deadly and almost subtle forms that abuse takes.
Abuse can be verbal. A few weeks ago as I was walking through a department store, I heard, before I saw, a man berating his wife. The tone of his voice, his stance, his body language, and his words told the world that this woman of his didn't quite measure up. I walked by them and stopped to examine a store item. Soon they walked past me, the verbal abuse still loud and clear. For the first time ever, I intervened. I told the man that whatever the woman had done, she didn't deserve to be spoken to in that manner.
Speaking to others in a tone of voice that denigrates their person cuts them to ribbons. Words like stupid, dumb, jerk, not again, you always, slob, bimbo, and others cut into the psyche of others, tearing away the self-worth God gave to them. At birth this self-worth is a thin veneer. As we grow, the self-worth should also grow. But abuse steps in. The cute baby begins receiving denigrating comments, so by the time the baby becomes a teen or adult, he or she is like a walking body, bleeding, torn, and mangled.
Abuse can be psychological and spiritual. Psychological abuse deprives those we love of their self-esteem and self-worth and leaves them hurting. No wonder we have a world full of hurting people. Such hurt and insult, over a period of time, leaves people psychologically damaged and unable to reach their full potential. In fact, they may not even recognize they have any potential. A classic illustration of the long-term effect of abuse and hurt on the victim is the battered wife syndrome. The battered wife keeps returning to the abusive husband, not because she likes to be battered, but because she thinks that is all she deserves in life and is lucky to have that much.
Any time we denigrate, devalue, or ridicule others we are psychologically cutting them to pieces, leaving them bleeding, wounded, and scarred for life. When we say things that build up others to the detriment of those present, we are psychologically abusive. When we fail to nurture spiritually when it is our privilege to do so, we indulge in spiritual abuse. When we don't take time to be with our loved ones, that's another kind of abusive relation. An attitude like that of the Pharisee, that he is somehow superior to the publican, is a form of spiritual abuse.
Abuse can be emotional and social. We hurt others emotionally when we fail to recognize their worth and appreciate their contributions. Self-worth increases to the extent it is recognized and appreciated. When we have the ability and the opportunity to build self-worth and yet fail to do so, to that extent we contribute to emotional abuse. It is abuse when we are so engaged in our thoughts and activities that we neglect to understand or appreciate others. It is abuse when we are short-tempered or even silent in our relationship to others. It is abuse when we fail to say please or thank you, for such failure sends a signal that the other person somehow is not equal in worth to us.
Abuse: what can I do?
In any case of abuse the most difficult thing to do is to recognize that one is an abuser. The wife beater does not recognize he is indulging in abuse. The child molester does not admit to his crime. In fact, secrecy is often the hiding place of the abuser. So the first thing to do is to recognize the problem for what it is.
Then recognize the worth of the other. Where there is this recognition--that the other person, be it a child, teen, spouse, or one who is different from me-, is like me, a child of God--there will be full and total appreciation of the other.
Encourage the positive potential in the other. Give praise whenever it is due. Help the other to grow. Do not let words of negativism paralyze a person already hurting. Listen and try to understand what the other person is going through.
Use the spiritual weapons available to fight the sickness of abuse: Prayer is one such weapon. Submission to God's grace is another. Recognition and practice of love as a Christian duty demolishes any feeling of superiority of one over the other, which is at the base of abuse.
Church members have high expectations of their pastoral staff and families. Do you have a list of resources that you can quickly refer to? Do you have a net work of agencies that can possibly help? Do we see others as people rather than as problems?
To acknowledge the existence of others and to affirm them in some small away is in itself therapeutic.