Responsibility for Spiritual Abuse – Part 2B – The “Pyramid of Responsibility” in Toxic Systems

NOTE: An updated version of the “Pyramid of Responsibility” section on this post has been posted at Futuristguy’s Systemic Abuse Researcher Notes as page 3-03 Pyramid of Abuse and Culpability/Complicity.

Part 2A and Part 2B – The “Pyramid of Responsibility” in Toxic Systems.

Part 2A / Post #1

  • Section 1. Culpability, Complicity, and a Pyramid of Responsibility
    • Power and Its Abuse, In Social and Spiritual Settings
    • What is “Spiritual Abuse” and Who is “Abusive”?
    • Moving from Culpability to Complicity
    • Why Does a Mayan Pyramid Capture Such Systems?

Part 2B / Post #2

  • Section 2. What’s the Big Picture of the Pyramid of Responsibility?
  • Section 3. Layer #1 – Dictators – Highest Culpability
  • Section 4. Layer #2 – Propagators – High Culpability
  • Section 5. Layer #3 – Extinguishers and Reinforcers – Moderate Culpability/Complicity
  • Section 6. Layer #4 – Enablers and Pawns – Lower Culpability/Complicity
  • Suggested Readings/Resources

Section 2. What’s the Big Picture of the Pyramid of Responsibility?

The Pyramid of Responsibility (c) 2014 Brad Sargent.

[All 10 illustrations in the Pyramid are © Scott Maxwell and usage is licensed from Fotolia. See details on each illustration when shown individually below.]

You might be expecting for me to lay out my theology first. Instead, I have based this post on personal experiences, because my learning styles are geared to “action-reflection” more than to “theory-into-practice.” From what I experience, I develop real-world questions that launch me into the Scriptures to explore for relevant concepts that respond to those questions. I believe that helps ensure that whatever theology I come up with covers both beliefs and behaviors. And I’ve been involved with “malignant ministries” from some very different systems. The 10 roles here come from things I’ve witnessed in all of them.

Here is how I set up my “Pyramid of Responsibility.” I put the highest level of direct involvement and therefore attributed blame (i.e., culpability) to the few in the very top Layer. Down at the bottom Layers are the lowest levels of direct abuse and therefore of culpability, but the highest levels of complicity for keeping the system afloat and therefore supporting spiritual abuse/abusers indirectly.

Here is a reference list of the Layers and the 10 roles.

Layer #1 – Dictators – Highest Culpability

  • Dictators

Layer #2 – Propagators – High Culpability

  • Enforcers
  • Commenders
  • Beneficiaries

Layer #3 – Extinguishers and Reinforcers – Moderate Culpability/Complicity

  • Negators
  • Diverters
  • Silencers

Layer #4 – Enablers and Pawns – Lower Culpability/Complicity

  • Avoiders
  • Applauders
  • Pawns

Keep in mind that one person could potentially play multiple roles. [Optional Homework: For a fascinating example of how a single person can be any or even all of these roles, watch Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. After reviewing all 10 roles in this post, see what dialog lines you can find from Dolores Umbridge that fit with each role.]

As a final note in this section, this is not a formula – it’s a heuristic, a rule of thumb … a “fuzzy logic” framework that doesn’t work from a rigid checklist. So, try applying this in situations of spiritual abuse where you’ve been able to see different people in various roles, and see how well it seems to work for you, and maybe adjust accordingly.

Section 3. Layer #1 – Dictators – Highest Culpability

“Sitting In Hovering Futuristic Chair” © Scott Maxwell / Fotolia #12391425.

DICTATORS. “Sitting In Hovering Futuristic Chair” © Scott Maxwell / Fotolia #12391425.

DICTATORS are the people at the top of the Pyramid of Responsibility. They are the main ones who perpetrate the abuse, whether demonstrated directly through their own words and deeds or indirectly through the actions and inactions of those whom they highly influence or even command/control. Dictators rarely function totally alone. They typically act as the authoritarian leader who heads up a rigid hierarchy. The system they create divides leaders from “laypeople,” king from his subjects, prophets from their followers. Even an oligarchy – a group of people who run the show for a system – usually has one person whom it looks to as their chief visionary or strategist.

In the final analysis, it takes Dictators a lot of practice to get into positions of authority over people. Thus, they often appear to have no conscience or compassion in how they treat people. So, they tend to wound people deeply in making them victims. Their “vision” creates division, their “lead” bleeds, their “service” self-benefits.

Organizationally speaking, it is a clear problem when the “servants” become both shareholders (participants) and stakeholders (recipients) in the non-profit. Non-profits gain IRS tax-exempt status in part by functioning in the public interest. When that changes to operating for private benefit, it is illegal. It’s called inurement, and it can lead to the IRS revoking the privilege of tax-exempt status.

Section 4. Layer #2 – Propagators – High Culpability

Propagators consist of people inside and outside the organization who keep it going, even if it is toxic and people associated with it are treated abusively. They are “promoters of the 1%,” i.e., their main concern is to make things better for the Dictators and for themselves.

Propagators constitute a parasitic elite (oligarchy) who personally reap the most from the system and the underlings who support it, whether they are directly inside the system (Perpetuators) or collaborate with it through formal partnerships or personal relationships (Commenders). Either way, they gain a combination of money, power, and/or prestige from their relationship with the Dictators and other key leaders. This puts them in continual situations of conflict of interest. If they fail to protect the top Layers’ people, or if they disclose their secrets, they put their own resources and power at jeopardy.

ENFORCERS shield their Dictators from challenges and criticism, carry out their whims as commands, and protect them with plausible deniability. They are strategic, though, and only do what is personally necessary to keep others in the system in line. The rest of the dirty work, they leave to the wannabe “leaders” in Layer #3. Because they gain a lot of Pyramid resources from their role, they could be considered loyal mercenaries.

COMMENDERS are people of prominence from outside the organization, for instance, publishers, network facilitators, and event organizers. They use their personal reputation and their organization’s resources to promote Dictators and their visionary agendas. They are aware and culpable partners – not unwitting pawns – and tend to oppose any abuse Survivors and their Defenders through deflection and stonewalling about the Dictators. This means that Commenders gain some of the benefits that both Enforcers and Benefitters do, while carrying out the defensive parts of both roles.

BENEFITTERS get undue preferential treatment, power, prestige, and goods based on their personal relationship with the Dictators. They can be personal friends or professional associates (cronyism) or family (nepotism). Culpability at this Layer suggests they are willingly on board with the program of the Pyramid, and indulge in the benefits. In order to stay on the good side of the Dictators, Benefitters tend to openly support the Dictators, along with their strategies and structures and projects. That makes them not merely a low-level Applauder who goes along because they don’t know any better.

Final thought: Everyone in an organization perpetuates the system in some way, with a greater or lesser degree of knowledge and intention, regardless of whether they are in a paid or volunteer position.

Section 5. Layer #3 – Extinguishers and Reinforcers –

Moderate Culpability/Complicity

Extinguishers and Reinforcers are people in the middle of the Pyramid of Responsibility. They’re not in the top echelons of leadership or benefit. However, they willingly take on the duties for insulating the upper Layers from the underlings, and for maintaining discipline to the organization among those at and below their own status. They care about the organization appearing to be perfect, and so they are forceful in various ways to impress the importance of conformity on others. They deflect criticism and protect the system. All of this means they promote the Pyramid. They are not mere hirelings, but active accomplices – hence, they are complicit (which comes from the same Latin root as accomplice) and not just culpable. This is true even if they play these roles voluntarily, due to their uncritical loyalty to Dictators and/or the organization.

NEGATORS attack people at their point of personal identity. They use guilt, shame, and fear to implant doubts that dehumanize, demonize, and demoralize. These are the Extinguisher / Reinforcer types who call people demeaning names, put negative labels on them, slam their character (for example, calling them “bitter” to put them on the defense).

DIVERTERS block people’s activity. They push others to do what the Dictators want, and prevent people from doing what they would otherwise have decided to do.

SILENCERS seal off people’s expressity. Like human duct tape, they shush people and tell them what they can’t say and what they must say. To keep things quiet, they falsely label truth-telling and criticism as “gossip.”

Section 6. Layer #4 – Enablers and Pawns – Lower Culpability/Complicity

Underlings at the Layer #4 level may have been more concerned about their possible ascent up the staircase to the next levels than about squelching any dissent they run into around them. They are relatively more ignorant – by choice, as with Avoiders, or by chance – of the issues involved in the organization, yet still make some kind of contribution to keeping it going. After all, “success” and “growth” is often measured by numbers of people involved and by amount of funds raised. So, even at this lowest Layer, a person’s presence and their presents/donations make a difference in keeping the system afloat. If there is a system melt-down, the people at Layer #4, and perhaps Layer #3, would seem the most likely to experience the greatest amount of confusion over what’s happening and why.

AVOIDERS are aware of obvious evil in the Dictators’ system, but refuse to challenge it. They overlook it as if feigned ignorance or pushing down their own cognitive dissonance protects them.

APPLAUDERS are enthralled by the Dictators and with the organization. They only perceive what they interpret as good to proclaim in their systems, and stay oblivious to its bad.

PAWNS are truly ignorant of evil in the system, and may even be relative newcomers to the system. But the organization needs Pawns as followers and for finances to legitimize and fund the Dictators.

Suggested Readings/Resources

See the following posts and explore some of the links in each to start going deeper into what’s within the Pyramid of Responsibility, and initial thoughts on the processes and meaning of recovery.

Thoughts on Redemption in the Wake of Abuse: Agents of Damage Versus Agents of Healing.

Safe Versus Abusive Environments for Transformation.

What’s coming next in Part 3 – Onlookers Aren’t Necessarily Innocent ~ Moving Toward a Theology of Complicity and Recovery. 

  • Section 7. X-Raying the Pyramid of Responsibility: What is an Underlying Theology of Culpability and Complicity?
  • Section 8. What Draws People to/into the Pyramid System?
  • Section 9. How Do People Advance Themselves to Layer #1?
  • Section 10. When the Pyramid Implodes ~ What do the Processes of Restitution and Recovery Look Like?

Here are links to the entire series on Responsibility for Spiritual Abuse: