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Our need to belong can lead to exploitation

By Eleanor Cowan

During our coffee break at our desks, my co-volunteer at a local community center, a fundamentalist religious whom I’ll call “Barb,” asked, in a warm manner, if this was the week I’d finally accept her invitation to attend her evening sacred text group. On four previous occasions, I’d declined her invite. This time Barb pressed me for a “viable reason.”

I quoted Timothy 2:12, “A woman must learn in quietness and full submissiveness. I do not permit a woman to teach or exercise authority over a man; she is to remain quiet.

Barb, an anxious older woman, replied that every such word, phrase or sentiment can be interpreted with the help of a knowledgeable theologian. She offered to pick me up on Thursday and we’d zip over to her cleric for help. He would, she said, be delighted she’d brought me along.

“But Barb,” I replied, “I don’t need any help in understanding the passage.” I offered Barb a technique called “opposites,” one that works to highlight glaring differences.

“Let’s flip the passage a bit. What if it read: ‘Timothy 2:12: “A man must learn in quietness and full submissiveness. I do not permit a man to teach or exercise authority over a woman; he is to remain quiet.”’ Now, Barb, do you think that would be fair?”

“It’s not my place to interpret or change sacred text,” she said, her lips pinched closed.

“Whoever told you that, Barb? You have a right to decipher meaning for yourself. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out the general theme of Timothy’s quote, does it?”

It dawned on me that Barb was living the injunction in Timothy’s passage. She was being submissive. Was it possible she thought so little of herself? Who told her that her role was merely to bring newcomers to the fold?

It was Barb’s lunch break. “All blessings, then, Eleanor,” she smiled as she walked to the kitchen to eat her sandwich at the staff table. A half-hour later, her lunch-mate confronted me.

“You’ve upset Barb, Eleanor. Look, she’s a simple, sweet, unassuming woman who loves her God with all her heart. She’s all alone in this sorry world and hugely appreciated by this preacher she’s so attached to. Every time she brings in new people he praises her to the rooftops. His attention means everything to her. So how ‘bout you leave it at that? She’s not into interpreting complex ancient passages either. She simply invites you and others as she is requested to do, every week, by the cleric in charge. She’s just following orders, no more, no less, end of story.”

Apparently, I was now the bad guy, the upsetting delinquent who’d jostled the status quo. I’d offended the norm. My offer to talk things over between us was offensive?

Was I not entitled to my feelings too? The passage I’d quoted to Barb, Timothy’s ordinance of submission and silence specifically for women, denoted, to me, notions of ownership. Possession. Submission. Proprietorship. Hierarchy. In other words, legalized patriarchy.

I wondered, what had happened to Barb? How come she could comfortably talk about the newest cataract surgery but not about two lines of her own sacred text?

When Barb left that day, we waved goodbye from a distance. Silence had indeed ruled.

Barb once shared with me that she’d married a pedophile. When I said, “Me too,” she hastened to add that upon that horrible discovery, after the arrest and imprisonment, she wished only one thing for her ex and for all pedophiles: That they are lined up and shot dead.

“Right?” she asked, seeking my full accord.

“No! Not at all,” I replied. “My ex came from a big, neglectful family who never introspected. They never examined their polished, public personas which, over time, unraveled on their own. They never ever talked things over and swiftly muffled any complaint of injustice. So yeah, that roiling nest of unquestioning obedience could indeed produce a miscreant.”

“So, they should all trot off, scot- free?” Barb asked

“No, of course not, Barb. I left my ex. I reported him, twice, to the authorities. I did my investigative work and still do, not of his life, but of my own. Isn’t it about repair over revenge?

“Today sexual health centers all over the world offer help to people brave enough to admit they’re attracted to children. I value those who study the malaise that perpetuates this crime.”

“I’ll be happy when I read his obit,” she said, dismissing the conversation.

Months later, I overheard Barb solicit another newcomer to her church. The volunteer, a single mom new to Alberta, accepted her invitation.

“Guaranteed, you’ll never, ever be lonely again,” Barb reassured her, a comment which, to me, betrayed Barb’s main motive for membership in her group. “I have many friends, endless get-togethers, weekend retreats and there’s even a summer camp-out for families!”

As I walked home that day, I thought about our critical belongingness needs. We all need a spot to peg our tent. I know how grateful I am to eat supper with someone who loves me, and for caring calls with my treasured friends. I really do get it.

I also get that our huge needs for inclusion can be highjacked, milked, compromised and manipulated quite easily by those skilled at spotting the vulnerability in others. I wondered if Barb was but an unwitting pawn, her passive, pleasant nature perfect for the mercenary objectives of the preacher, someone content to ignore Barb’s toxic rage at her ex-husband while exploiting her to grow his flock.

Barb deserves a far better life than earning a pat on the head for boosting attendance. I believe that if she truly faces herself, she’ll find her own voice.

Eleanor Cowan is author of “A History of a Pedophile’s Wife,” which is available on Amazon.com. Visit her at eleanorcowan.ca

 

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4 Comments on "Our need to belong can lead to exploitation"

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Eleanor, I used to attend such churches, and I now realize they are mostly cults. Believe in the open door policy (to a pastor’s office), with the secretary’s office (with the door open), immediately outside. Those pastors I respect. Really believe in “mutual accountability.” As for people who have wronged me, I try to forgive them and love them from a distance. Am under no obligation to allow them to continue to abuse me. Likewise, when I wrong somebody else, I try to apologize, if I can, and correct my offending behavior. Am sorry you lost a friend, but this would be a case of letting her go, and loving and praying for her from a distance. Must confess I am still vulnerable to isolation and loneliness, but I am still making steady progress. As my mother used to say, may God rest her soul, “churches are hospitals for sinners, not museums for saints.”

when you find yourself being ‘used’ for someone else’s ends, whether its a marriage, a partnership, a church membership; its painful. After bitter experience with these things; the only thing I can say, is cut your losses as soon as you can and walk away.

I agree with monicapz about this group being a cult. It’s another example of a victim of a psychopath who has not fully recovered being vulnerable to being caught again, only this time Barb has been caught by the pastor who is taking advantage of her all over again.

I am not sure about “Barb’s toxic rage”, though. She is not the first victim of a sociopath that wished the abuser dead, and she won’t be the last. In fact, it is so common that it is almost normal. It does not mean that there is something wrong with the victim or that they are like the abuser. When a person realizes how badly they were treated, it’s normal to feel very, very angry about it. When a person recovers from the trauma that anger typically disappears.

I believe I’m seeing codependency showing through in this incident.

Eleanor, it’s a small detail, but I’m wondering why you chose to bring up that particular text with Barb when she pressed her invitation. I’m guessing you must have had previous conversations with her where she indicated that her beliefs ran along those lines, which you naturally disagreed with, but didn’t mention here. I’m just curious, that’s all.

Anyway I understand perfectly well that you had good reasons for not wanting to get involved with this type of church. And let’s be honest, people like Barb who insist on pressing invitations of this kind and won’t take the hint that they’re not wanted are a pest! So what the heck were you supposed to do to fob her off? Quoting that text was as good an excuse as anything!

However, I don’t think it’s fair to jump to conclusions about the preacher in this church, or assume that Barb is a “poor helpless victim” who is being “exploited” and “needs rescuing.” That’s the codependent part. Unless you have further knowledge you haven’t mentioned here, I don’t see any reason to assume the preacher is “mercenary” or the church is a “cult.” Maybe it is and maybe it isn’t. Either way, it’s not your problem. I’ll grant you that Barb has rigid beliefs, which may also be those of her church (though they’re certainly not mine). But trying to change people’s religious beliefs is a lost cause. When you see you’re getting nowhere, don’t waste your time banging your head against a brick wall! It’s likely that neurotic people like Barb need illusions of certainty to make them feel secure in the world. That’s wny they look for something to cling to, which can include Biblical literalism.

I see no reason to assume Barb is being “exploited” in any way. If she believes women should be “submissive,” and she’s happy being “submissive,” that’s her choice! If it isn’t doing her any visible harm, what’s to worry about?

People do have these sincerely held beliefs–there are many arbitrary restrictions people impose on themselves in the belief that they’re serving God by doing so–and another such belief is the need to proselytize, to bring in new converts to the fold. I’ve no doubt the preacher believes in that, and so does Barb. He wants converts and so does she, and she enjoys bringing them in. It gives her a purpose in life. What’s “exploitative” about that? It looks like a symbiotic relationship to me: a “win-win” operation where two people are doing things together that keep both of them happy! If Barb is lonely, she’s solving the problem of her loneliness in her own healthy and productive way.

As for her “toxic rage,” I agree with you that it’s probably doing her harm if anger and bitterness is “eating her up.” Unfortunately that rage is all too natural, as Dr. McDermott pointed out, and you’re just not in a position to to help her work through that. She’ll need to come to that point on her own, if she ever does, and I can’t see any reason to accuse the preacher of “ignoring” her rage. Unless there’s something you haven’t told us about her consultations with the preacher on this painful topic.

All I can say is to echo Monica’s remark, that I’m sorry if you lost a friend in Barb, but the fact is that the two of you are not (if I might borrow a Gospel term) “synoptic”: in plain English, you don’t “see eye to eye.” You have different attitudes and beliefs. That’s just too bad, but if you’re happy being yourself and Barb is happy being herself, where’s the problem?

One person I do want to criticize in this story is that wretched female “lunch mate” who came running out to lay a guilt trip on you for supposedly “upsetting” Barb. That’s more codependency! She thinks Barb is a “delicate soul” who needs rescuing too–except that she thought Barb needed rescuing from you! What rubbish! She had no damn business picking on you when all you did was to try to give Barb the “viable reason” she demanded–a demand unreasonable in itself!–for turning down her invitation!

Don’t people make you want to vomit when they play this manipulative “oh, I’m so sensitive game? Who says Barb is a “poor weak victim” anyway? She certainly knows how to pressure and manipulate people. Who does she think she is to demand a “viable reason” why you didn’t want to attend her “sacred text group”? And she managed to get her friend all worked up about how you’d supposedly “upset” her. Who needs all this drama? Barb can look after herself. I wouldn’t waste a moment worrying about her.

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