Recovery from Spiritual Abuse Part 3C-Power Addiction is Like Porn

Our addiction to power is like porn. In both, we objectify people, dehumanizing them to the status of props in our own melodramatic “Story of Me.” We become their invincible masters, whether through aggression or submission, dissociation or seduction. And they become some meaningless but necessary extras whose only role is to let us manipulate them in whatever distinct ways ensure that we receive increasingly stronger and longer doses of our all-important, most-preferred, and well-deserved brain biochemicals that offer us ongoing ecstasy.  The power we hold over them subordinates their story to ours, removing them from the possibility of fulfilling their own providential story with a plotline in which they are their own main character and in which we should play a supporting role. But that’s worth it for the pleasure of our own endorphin-enhanced story …

Whewww … this has been a lengthy series! Who knew. Who knew indeed. When I started, I supposed it would be, oh, six posts or so. Well, 20,000 words later … here we are still. I guess I just had a whole lot more to wrestle with and process than I’d ever realized!

Lest anyone misinterpret, let me interject at the beginning that I am not against leadership – it’s the misuse of power by leaders that I find especially horrific, and that needs to be resisted. The role of overseer/elder is clearly a noble task, according to 1 Timothy 3:1. It is an honorable calling, and one that the Body of Christ needs to function as God designed. It carries with it much responsibility, but also much accountability – especially for the use or abuses of power. And it is that subject of power that I want to pick up with to continue the series on Recovery from Spiritual Abuse.

TWO PERSPECTIVES ON POWER

British activist Lord Acton’s famous maxim states: “Power tends to corrupt. Absolute power tends to corrupt absolutely.” In 1996, I participated in The Acton Institute seminars, read a significant amount on power and liberty, and dialogued for days on related subjects. It seemed that followers of Lord Acton often ended up libertarians (which doesn’t quite seem to fit into analysis by the usual  polarity of conservative/liberal) or social conservatives.

I found the Institute worthwhile and fascinating, but I suppose if you tried to figure out what my political philosophy has evolved into, I’m not sure you could. I’m not even sure I could! But I do resonate in great part with Lord Acton’s approach to power and its abuses. However, over the years, I developed a vague sense that he only had a partial picture. What was the missing part?

Somewhere in the same timeframe, my friend Deb and I got into a discussion of power. We served together on a church planting strategy team, and were used to looking at all kinds of relevant subjects. Next week at church, she came up to me with a well-worn pocket-sized paperback in hand. “Yuh gotta read this!” she said, and handed me Dune. And I will forever be grateful to her for introducing me to what is one of the most amazing pieces of psychological exposé / sociological analysis / speculative fiction all rolled into one. In the universe!

In his six-volume Dune series, author Frank Herbert explored dimensions of power in almost every possible domain of human existence: psionical, familial, tribal, cultural, political, technological, spiritual. He found Lord Acton’s maxim insufficient in its focus on power as a corrupting influence. Instead, Herbert’s maxim postulated: “Power is a magnet that draws the corruptible.”

Here follows a tasty tidbit of insight on power to apply directly to toxic pseudo-messianic leaders and lemming-like followers in churches, denominations, politics, social agencies, etc. etc. etc., as offered by Herbert’s son, Brian. I’ll provide some background so it hopefully can make at least some sense, if you haven’t read Dune. These novels are dense, so don’t get lost in all the detail – just worry about the main drift about heroes and misuse of power.

Background: Name changes often signify change in character, and in this quote, Brian Herbert refers to various names of the anti-hero Paul Atreides. Paul inherits his murdered father’s dukeship, and so becomes Duke Atreides. However, he is presumed dead by his enemies and is hidden far in the “deep desert” on the planet Dune. There, like a futuristic Lawrence of Arabia, he begins his own leadership of the tribal people as a humble outsider renamed Muad’Dib, after a scrappy desert mouse. His power and influence evolves, but eventually he devolves into the tyrannical pseudo-messiah Kwisatz Haderach, a mystical leader who can see and be in multiples times at once. Herbert also refers to Liet-Kynes, a visionary planetologist (ecologist) whose plan is to see Dune transformed from a desert planet into an oasis through generations of sacrificial living on the part of Dune tribes. (Could this all sound like trying to achieve “the Kingdom”?) And finally, the quote:

Having studied politics carefully, my father believed that heroes made mistakes … mistakes that were simplified by the number of people who followed such leaders slavishly. In a foreshadowing epigraph, Frank Herbert wrote in Dune: “Remember, we speak now of the Muad’Dib who ordered battle drums made from his enemies’ skins, the Muad’Dib who denied the conventions of his ducal past with a wave of the hand, saying merely: ‘I am the Kwisatz Haderach. That is reason enough.’ ” And in a dramatic scene, as Liet-Kynes lay dying in the desert, he remembered the long-ago words of his own father: “No more terrible disaster could befall your people than for them to fall into the hands of a Hero.” [Afterword in 40th Anniversary Edition of Dune, page 523, emphasis added.]

(Brian has continued the Dune legacy in co-authoring with Kevin J. Anderson several prequel series, and a two-volume denouement series based on outlines for “Dune 7″ that his father was still working on when he died. I have read (or re-read) all the other 12 Dune books the last five years, I look forward to reading these final two volumes in the future.)

Over time, Acton, Herbert, and a number of other thought leaders have shaped my interpretations of power in its many manifestations. These two main perspectives alone provide enough fuel for an entire post on the differences between legitimate authority and abusive power. And perhaps someday I will do so. But for now, I just wanted to introduce them to you and then go in another direction, with my own metaphor on power that draws together several frameworks that I hope will help us learn to discern the differences.

OVERPOWERING STORY

I’ve become convinced of the value in the storying approach of narrative theology. It serves as a powerful tool to consider our lives in terms of a stage, a plot, and actors – and this is a perspective I’ve given more thought to since reading this quote from E.B. Brooks, one of my heroes. E.B. is a pioneer advocate from the Builder generation for those of younger generations whose calling is to what’s unfolding. His quote comes from a meeting in Houston. E.B. was addressing the formalization of the network that since has been named the Tessera Learning Trail.

What kind of entity (notice that I am not calling it a structure, yet) would be about setting free, instead of creating boundaries? What kind of entity would be about improvisation rather than writing a script? What kind of entity would be about leading to the next level rather than justifying the current level? What kind of entity would be about the actors, rather than the stage, the set, or the director? – E.B. Brooks, 2006

I find this idea stimulating and empowering. It helps things makes sense, especially when I’ve had to deal with the impact of abusive leaders, and the other cast of unhealthy characters in church situations (victims, enablers, and crusaders) – and healthy characters (survivors and resistors). Power is not some mere abstract construct. Its abuse wreaks horrific impact on the lives of everyday disciples who sincerely want to do what’s right – but their story becomes subsumed in someone’s other than their own – a hijacker – and thus, our corporate Kingdom story is diminished.

Leaders were meant to protect and promote the storyline development of every disciple entrusted to their care, not alter my lines to suit themselves. And yet, I don’t think we can blame everything on bad leadership or toxic leaders. I’d suggest that we who were/are victims, enablers, and crusaders (the toxic form of resistors against abuse) somehow derive something from the situation that keeps us in the situation. (In saying this, I exclude those with complex circumstances or divine delays that hold them in abusive situations far beyond when they want to leave.)

For instance, Eleanor Roosevelt said, “No one can make you feel inferior without your permission.” Similarly, French Resistance fighter and concentration camp survivor Jacques Lusseyran states that “Our fate is shaped from within ourselves outward, never from without inward.” (Frontpiece quotation in The Anatomy of Peace: Resolving the Heart of Conflict, by The Arbinger Institute … a gift from a multi-victimized, singular-survivor friend.)

Beside the seductive magnetism of a sick symbiosis – otherwise known as parasitism – what is it that might keep us chained to power abusers? What are we thinking or doing that keeps giving them our permission to keep us in an inferior role? What has let us become so self-deceived about our true identity and the right to our own story?

Might I suggest that our passivity, or even our idealism that “everything is wonderful in God’s perfect plan,” could actually be its own form of addiction? There might be some evidence for this in the study of brain chemistry.

BRAIN CHEMISTRY AND THE CRAVING FOR ECSTASY

At least 15 years ago, while working in recovery movement ministries, I became aware of some studies on brain chemistry begun in the 1980s by Harvey Milkman and Stanley Sunderwirth. Surely that field of study has seen immense progress during the last two decades, but I still consider the framework of these authors’ findings quite intriguing. In their 1987 book, Craving for Ecstasy: The Consciousness and Chemistry of Escape, Milkman and Sunderwirth developed the hypothesis that the kinds of drugs people misuse tend to reflect the kinds of everyday behaviors and relational approaches they use generally in dealing with stress in their lives. If this framework is accurate, then we should be able to predict some behavior clusters:

  • People who deal with stress by becoming passive and tend to withdraw would more likely be couch potatoes and watch TV, and take downers (alcohol, barbiturates, heroin).
  • People who deal with stress by becoming aggressive are more likely to watch movies at theatres with its bigger-than-life experience, and take uppers (nicotine, amphetamines).
  • People who deal with stress by dissociating (for example, daydreaming) would likely play imagination-engaging fantasy computer games, and take hallucinogenics (LSD, marijuana, peyote).

Let’s assume this framework is accurate. It has interesting implications if we suggest typical drug-use connections within specific subcultures. Such as nihilists (for example, Beatniks and punks) are more likely to take downers. Mind-expanding positivists (Neo-Hippies) tend toward hallucinogenics. Social Darwinists, Industrials, and Techies have their uppers, as well as “smart drugs” to put them a notch above others. Herbal concoctions and psychedelics for the Eco-spiritual back-to-nature crowd and Mystics.

Applying this framework to the systems of abuse in churches and ministries, we’ve got some stereotypes to confront. I don’t think this means that all leaders are the aggressive type – hopefully that notion can be put to rest in an upcoming post with a “presentational temperature guide to toxic leaders.” Nor are all victims passive, as we might at first think.

I just wanted to introduce that framework as food for thought: Is it possible that we have become neurochemically addicted to the systems of abuse and the melodrama that keeps them – and perhaps us – perpetually going? “What is drama, after all,” Alfred Hitchcock said, “but life with the dull bits cut out?” Might I suggest that the point of power-plays is to turn church life into churning saga that thereby keep that ever-important supply of endorphins and etc., flowing to the power addict and the others?

Or, as Milkman and Sunderwirth state in an updated 1998 version of their book, “In the drama of human excess, experience is the protagonist, and drugs or activities are merely supporting actors. We are compelled by repetitious urges to become energized, to relax, to imagine. These three citadels of consciousness are the beacons of compulsive behavior.” (Craving for Ecstasy : How Our Passions Become Addictions and What We Can Do About Them, page 1)

ADDICTION TO POWER IS LIKE PORN

So – time to put it all together, and put a spotlight on the problem of overpowering story through power. My metaphor is this: Addiction to power is like porn … it leads to an imaginary story controlling our lives and others. And since all of us have at least some level of problems with exerting control over others, let me put this into first person plural:

Our addiction to power is like porn. In both, we objectify people, dehumanizing them to the status of props in our own melodramatic “Story of Me.” We become their invincible masters, whether through aggression or submission, dissociation or seduction. And they become some meaningless but necessary extras whose only role is to let us manipulate them in whatever distinct ways ensure that we receive increasingly stronger and longer doses of our all-important, most-preferred, and well-deserved brain biochemicals that offer us ongoing ecstasy.  The power we hold over them subordinates their story to ours, removing them from the possibility of fulfilling their own providential story with a plotline in which they are their own main character and in which we should play a supporting role. But that’s worth it for the pleasure of our own endorphin-enhanced story …

We are not objects, we are people. God created every one of us to contribute something constructive to the world we find ourselves in. I am all for that, and against anything like toxicity from abusive people that negates our efforts or makes the quality of their impact unsustainable – including my own refusals to be transformed and remove what hinders me from stepping up to my God-appointed stage, role, and curtain time.

BACKGROUND STORY BEHIND THE STORY

My perspective comes primarily out of my sorting out of life, trying to make sense of it all, not first from books. I have a long and varied series of experiences working in settings where power was paramount. I was only nine years old when I asked my parents if I could go with them to my first-ever political party meeting. I suppose being that young, it was all about the political buttons and other hoopla. But during middle school and high school, it grew into deep involvement with student leadership. By the time I was 17, I was already volunteering to report on city politics, and involved in social cause groups for advocacy for youth, women’s issues, and senior citizens. That juggling of political and social agency involvement continued throughout college, and peaked with local- and state-level activism in the presidential political campaign. Though political action waned, social activism maintained to the extent that energy allowed.

I also have a long and varied series of experiences knowing, working with, or resourcing people who deal with various kinds of addictions or extreme experiences – and the wounding consequences thereof to themselves and others. This includes domestic violence, sexual assault, alcoholism, children of alcoholics, emotional abuse and neglect, emotional dependency (i.e., utter lack of relational boundaries), post-abortion syndrome, gender identity confusion and sexual brokenness … and I’m sure I’m forgetting some things from the panoply of excessivees.

And, as I have detailed before in this series, I have extensive experiences with churches, ministries, and agencies that have been mediocre, and/or mismanaged, and/or manipulated, and/or melted down – in almost all cases, due to internal organizational control by toxic leaders.

All of that is so I can restate what I hope comes across from the obvious weight of life experience: My musings on power addiction emerge from direct impact and reflection. I guess my brain is just wired with a drive to “gestalt” experiences and make sense of things as best I can – and my history has plenty of messy situations to try to make sense of! Also, it seems for me that everything is about perceiving patterns or fractals in large datasets, and making them manageable for talking about the underlying principles. So, I’m interested in creating my own theory more than simply analyzing or synthesizing the theories of others. (Not to invalidate that approach; it’s just that my mind is not driven in that direction.) So, if I garner any expertise at all, I suspect it comes out of insights from my own personal narrative that others find helpful, not from whether or how well it meshes with the theories of others.

So, by the late 1980s, I came to the conclusion that the underlying issues in most of what the recovery movement called “dysfunctional” patterns were basically all the same “stuff,” even if the overt manifestations turned out to be very different. During the time of the men’s counseling group that I helped my friend Bob with, one or the other of us, or both of us together – I don’t even recall anymore – coined the phrase, “Same root, different fruit.” I spent 1991-1996 researching, resourcing, and teaching about the implications of this concept, applied to transformation in Christ from broken gender identity and sexuality issues. So, much of what I’ll be presenting in the next few posts in this series is based on the processes I learned about back then and have field tested as much as possible over the last 20 years.

DO-IT-YOURSELF SECTION

Introduction. I know that stirring up memories about experiences of spiritual abuse can be painful. Just as an FYI, this DIY section and likely those in the remainder of this series will contain a number of descriptions and questions about our responses to spiritual abuse. These may poke and probe more deeply than some of those in previous do-it-yourself sections. So, be prepared for whatever comes up, and it’s okay if you stop, don’t do all the items, whatever. I mean for these to be of help in processing our experiences. Don’t let them be a hindrance. Also, no matter what, remember the truth that no one who is victimized by abusive behavior ever “deserves” it. There is not and cannot ever be any legitimate justification for inflicting soul-violence on another person.

Objectification is a technical term that is I have most often found used in studies about negative social effects of pornography, but sometimes in reference to genocide, crime, and other kinds of violence. Related to pornography, it refers to the dehumanization/devaluation of the person who acts as a virtual sexual surrogate. That person is considered to have been objectified – turned into an object – even if they agreed to participate in the production of the pornographic materials.

We could interpret objectification at work even in the beginning of The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe, when Mr. Tumnus discounts the value of Lucy and only pretends to be her friend but is in actuality kidnapping her to turn her over to the Witch. But he is conflicted; his conscience bothers him. Only when he realizes Lucy’s worth as a person, and this outweighs his fear of the Witch, does he reverse his objectification of her, treat her as a true friend would, and help her escape.

  • How has objectification been done to you?
  • What was your experience of it like?
  • How might you have objectified yourself or others in the past? Are you doing this in the present?

Inferiority and Fate. I find the quotes from Eleanor Roosevelt and Jacques Lusseyran provocative.

  • Did you resonate with one, both, or neither of them?
  • What in particular strikes you about them?

The Theatre Analogy. Whoever would have thought that high school English literature and reading Hamlet and Romeo and Juliet could help in understanding the dynamics of abuse systems?! And yet, it was Shakespeare in As You Like It who planted the seed I used about actors and stages and such:

All the world’s a stage,

And all the men and women merely players:

They have their exits and their entrances;

And one man in his time plays many parts …

  • How did the theatre analogy resonate with you?
  • Do you feel like you’ve been allowed to be the main character in your own spotlight in the right time?
  • Have you ever felt like a prop or an extra in someone else’s story? Who do you think was more the cause of that: you or the other person, and why?
  • The extended analogy mentioned stage, improvisation, script, director, characters, actors, extras, and props. What other aspects of theatre and staging a (melo)drama could you add to the metaphor?

Making a Contribution. A favorite post-apocalyptic Aussie  character … okay, so it’s Tank Girl … said of her dystopian times, “It ain’t the world I woulda made, but it’s the world I live in.” To which I respond, “Ain’t nobody’s world perfect, but maybe there’s something we could do about that …”

  • What do you see could be some of your greatest contributions – quality-wise and/or size-wise – to making the world you live in a better one?
  • What contributions have you made in the past, and how did you celebrate those accomplishments?
  • How might doing something constructive be an antidote or recovery tool in moving past spiritually abusive situations?
  • Can you conceive of an act or a project that goes “in the opposite spirit” to abuse, and serves as a sort of redemptive counterweight to pull against what you’ve experienced? Will you bring this act or project into being?

System Parallels. What dynamics of the porn industry, porn viewers, and porn addicts do you perceive as parallel to the people and systems and problems involved in spiritual abuse?

Craving for Ecstasy. The section on the biochemistry of addiction talked about three behavior patterns.

  • Which of the three patterns do you personally most relate with: energize/aggression, relax/passivity, or daydream/dissociation?
  • Those you know who perpetrate(d) spiritual abuse – which of the three patterns most fit their typical style of relating?
  • What do you think can break through addictive patterns in general? Does it take different things to break through each of these three different patterns of addiction?
  • Once a person faces up to his/her addictive pattern(s), what could help keep him/her going on the road to transformation?

Breaking Through Self-Deception. Here is how The Arbinger Institute illuminates what they see as people’s core problem in conflict:

How do you help someone see what they don’t want to see? That’s the central challenge that The Arbinger Institute’s work is designed to overcome. Our materials introduce people to a little-known, but pervasive, problem: self-deception. Our methodologies help people overcome it. We define self-deception as not knowing – and resisting the possibility – that one has a problem. Most conflicts are perpetuated by self-deception. So are most failures in communication. And most breakdowns in trust and accountability. Clearly, as long as the problem of not knowing one has a problem remains … so will all other problems. (Home page, The Arbinger Institute website.)

  • How do you think this applies to each kind of person in an abusive system: Abuser? Victim? Enabler? Crusader? What are the particular forms of self-deception that each could be telling himself/herself?
  • What biblical principles could be of use in helping you or others confront each kind of person in an abusive system? What is it that each most needs, biblically speaking?
  • What about people who seem clueless as to their perpetrations and/or their plight? Besides God working directly and indirectly in softening the probable hardness of their heart to help break through self-deception, what might be neededat the human/relational level to “prime the way” for confrontation, conflict resolution, or other needed processes?
  • What are some differences between being a victim and being a survivor?
  • What are some differences between being a crusader and being a resistor?
  • Is being a “healed” ex-abuser, survivor, ex-enabler, or resistor enough? Or is there a new name beyond those labels that we should consider as an even larger status?

UPCOMING POSTS IN THIS SERIES

3D. Detailing the System – Abusers, Survivors, Enablers, Crusaders, Resistors, Spectators

3E. Detailing Transformation – Security, Identity, Belonging, Purpose, Competence

3F. Picturing the System – Four Films

3G. Presentational Temperature Guide to Toxic Leader Types – Six Films

3 thoughts on “Recovery from Spiritual Abuse Part 3C-Power Addiction is Like Porn

  1. Much to ponder.
    Leadership and Self-deception is one of my favorite books on leadership.
    What you are dealing with from more of the human dimension, I see and deal with from the organizational. As I have wrestled with the nature of leadership for 25 years, I reached the conclusion that leadership starts in the personal initiative of a person. Whether it results in impact or influence, it doesn’t happen apart from that act of the will. So, I am making a distinction between leadership as an organizational role and leadership as a personal responsibility.
    What organizations have done for millennia has been to replace individual identity with an institutional one. What is now happening is that institutional structures are now incapable of containing the boundaries of personal identity as people explore different worlds. The impetus is toward authentic relationships and community needs to have this component of initiative, or it will result in people falling back into depending upon institutions for their sense of well being.
    Coming full circle, I find myself, in my consulting work, serving increasingly as a therapist as I assist people to learn to take initiative to the right, sometimes courageous, thing at the right time. Whatever organizational development issues there are are constrained by the personal issues of people who lack the ability to take personal responsibility for their life situation by taking initiative to act.
    I’m going to print off your series and spend some time thinking about it. I’m convinced that brain science is a key to what we need to know in the future. I’m also going to read the Dune series in chronological sequence come this winter.
    Thanks very much.

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