Responsibility for Spiritual Abuse – Part 3A – Taking Responsibility, Being Conciliatory, Exploring Just and Appropriate Remedy

Series Summary: Responsibility for Spiritual Abuse

Part 1 – Questions of Culpability, Complicity, and Recovery for Spiritually Abusive Individuals and Toxic Organizations. Real-world problems in discerning what constitutes a toxic organization, who is a spiritually abusive leader, and what to do about them and others who keep a harmful system going. This post includes a list of questions. Some apply generally to any individual or organization apparently engaged in spiritually abusive practices, and some deal specifically with the current situation of the leaders and institution at Mars Hill Church in Seattle, Washington.

Part 2A and Part 2B – The “Pyramid of Responsibility” in Toxic Systems. When it comes to spiritual abuse, who has higher or lower responsibility/accountability and for what – whether they are leaders preaching from the pulpit, or people sitting in the pews, or outside individuals and organizations that keep a sick system propped up? This framework is based on my own experiences of malignant ministers and ministries. I suggest a pyramid of people with different roles and levels of responsibility in creating and perpetuating a toxic system that ultimately harms people, despite any good that its leaders or members may do.

Part 3 – Figuring Out a Framework to Repair a Toxic System, If Possible.

  • Part 3A – Taking Responsibility, Being Conciliatory, Exploring Just and Appropriate Remedy. This moves from questions and initial ideas of how to organize observations, to figuring out relevant biblical concepts about levels of responsibility when things turn malignant in a ministry. It reviews the “Pyramid of Responsibility” and organizational roles involving culpability and/or complicity, and overviews cultural and organizational modes of blame-shifting. It concludes with an exploration of three main attitudes it takes to make “remediation” (remedy) plans work.
  • Part 3B – Concepts, Questions, and Continuums for Building a Comprehensive “Remediation Plan.” Frameworks for building a comprehensive “remediation plan” in the setting of what’s become a toxic organization. It lays out four levels to consider: personal growth and recovery, peace-making in personal relationships, qualified leadership in the organization, and how to discern whether that toxic organization should even survive.
  • Part 3C – Some of My Own Personal Stories of Working to Make Things Right. Shares accounts from my own personal experiences of owning my responsibility for causing damage in relationships, and taking up my responsibility for repairing them. It includes examples from all four levels explored in Part 3B.

Responsibility for Spiritual Abuse – Part 4 – Looking for the Larger Patterns in Abuse Survivor Communities. Several situations have dominated the focus of spiritual abuse survivor communities the past few years, and there is far more use of “digital dissent” and online documentation to push back on people/organizations who need to be held accountable for the direct harm they inflict under a guise of righteousness. But, this has expanded to holding “Commenders” accountable for indirectly keeping abusive people and their systems propped up though endorsements, certifications, speaking engagements, publishing contracts, positive-spin media exposure, etc. What might these patterns mean for a more transparent, accountable, and responsible Church in the internet era?

Figuring Out a Framework to Repair a Toxic System, If Possible

Part 3A – Taking Responsibility, Being Conciliatory,

Exploring Just and Appropriate Remedy

Summary: Previous posts in this series about the “Pyramid of Responsibility” looked at who OWNS responsibility for what in a system that’s gone toxic. This post is about who OWNS UP TO their responsibility. It reviews the roles people take in the Pyramid, and examines cultural and organizational ways people might attempt to ooze out of taking responsibility. And it looks at what attitudes are essential for plans to remedy broken relationships and toxic organizations to succeed.

Review of the Pyramid of Responsibility

The section summarizes key points from the “Pyramid of Responsibility” that I developed. For details, see the post on “Pyramid of Responsibility in Toxic Systems.

The Pyramid of Responsibility (c) 2014 Brad Sargent.The Pyramid has four levels of varying responsibility in it. They are, going from the top point to the base:

  • Perpetrators
  • Propagators.
  • Extinguishers and Reinforcers.
  • Enablers and Pawns.

It’s based on the idea that people who play specific roles in a toxic system hold different degrees of responsibility for inflicting harm on people. Those at higher levels of culpability hold responsibility for directly harmful actions. For instance, James 3:1 talks about those who are teachers incurring stronger judgment: “Not many of you should become teachers, my fellow believers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly” (NIV). Those at the opposite end of the scale have higher levels of complicity as accomplices or pawns and hold lower responsibility for their incidental or indirect actions in support of the toxic system.

There are 10 roles in the Pyramid, and an individual can play multiple roles. The roles are divided out among the four levels or layers. Where a particular role is placed depends on such factors as:

  • Their level of authority, and whether they are more of an official leader or a mere follower.
  • How involved they are with creating and sustaining a toxic system.
  • Whether they act directly or indirectly.
  • Their level of knowledge about what they are doing.

The pinnacle layer of the Pyramid is for Perpetrators – authoritarian Dictators who rule over the toxic system, either through their own direct actions or indirectly through the words and deeds of others below them. They hold the highest culpability (responsibility) because they are in charge – by design, by directives, by deeds.

The second layer is Propagators, with three roles: Enforcers, Commenders, and Benefitters. They are responsible for actively carrying out the design and demands of the Dictators, and/or for benefiting excessively from what the system produces. They don’t necessarily connect directly to exert power and pressure over others, but they are constantly engaged in propping up the system, setting the rules, offering plausible deniability to Dictators. Thus, they incur a high level of culpability for their roles of participating in the domination of others.

The third layer is Extinguishers and Reinforcers, with three roles: Negators, Diverters, and Silencers. They may not even connect directly with the Dictators, but strongly support the system by attempting to control what people can and cannot be, do, and say. This means they carry out a significant amount of the “conditioning” that attempts to keep members locked into the system, and keep them conforming to expectations through behavior modification. So, while they are moderately culpable for what they do, they are also moderately complicit as tools – accomplices – of those above them. They keep the system going, whether from their own internal motivation from being enamored of the leaders, ideals, or system – or from external pressure applied by those above them.

The bottom layer is Enablers and Pawns, with three roles: Avoiders, Applauders, and Pawns. These are underlings, and are the least aware of how their actions relate to the system and, through it, to harming others. They may be relatively new to the toxic system and generally ignorant. Or, they may have been there long enough to either be romanced by it and blind to its faults. Or, they might otherwise perceive its problems but are unwilling to say or do anything about it. So, they have a higher level of complicity and lower overall culpability. They are the necessary “feeders” of the system with their presence and donations.

I would suggest that no one is fully innocent who has been in a toxic system for a while. But the degree of responsibility put on relatively passive onlookers surely shouldn’t be the same as for those who most directly instigate and perpetuate a system of harm.

Four Modes of Responsibility-Shifting

There is a difference between who actually OWNS responsibility for something done wrong or gone wrong – and who legitimately TAKES responsibility for it. In my understanding of the world, someone who causes harm should be accountable for the damage and also for personally remedying the damage. If agents of damage care about personal growth and transformation at all, then they will act responsibly and so a process of remediation through by listening to those they victimized, feeling the personal impact on others of the damage they inflicted, making amends insofar as possible, and putting in place safeguards to help prevent that kind of abuse from happening in the future.

But those who’ve become confirmed bullies rarely own up to their responsibility, or take redemptive steps to repair the damaged they’ve done. Instead, they typically deny any fault, or shift it onto others.

There are at least four modes of shifting accountability for toxic activities. Three correspond to specific kinds of cultures, and the fourth is a general tactic found in organizational systems that are hierarchical.

Responsibility and Cultural Dynamics

Here are three different ways that cultures typically function. Each imposes a usual approach in dealing with “responsibility.” The issue of responsibility can be slipped onto others when there are problems in an unhealthy organizational setting. (And I’d suggest that similar dynamics show up in family, social, and cultural situations as well.) This can especially cause problems when one culture’s “solution” is applied either in another culture’s situation, or as the sole “solution” in a multicultural situation. (My thesis – developed elsewhere – is that an integrative/transcultural approach is needed to address what’s gone wrong, through relational means, in an open and safe environment of equipping people to do right instead of simply punishing people for falling short.)

  • A guilt-based culture focuses attention on what’s right/wrong, and who’s innocent/guilty. So, the leaders need to find out who supposedly did the misdeed, point them out, mete out blame to them, and carry out the required punishment. This process is seen as necessary for restoring equilibrium when the social order goes off kilter from disruptive actions. (Western cultures tend to be guilt-based.)
  • A shame-based culture focuses on harmonious relationships in the group or community, and not causing embarrassment or singling out individuals. So, leaders spread anxiety about someone having done a misdeed to the whole group, so everyone works on improving in order not to lose face or disappoint their leaders. Applying pressure to everyone keeps the social order in constant equilibrium, or so the theory would seem to be. (Asian and other communal cultures tend to be shame-based.)
  • A fear-based culture focuses on who holds power and, therefore, control. So, leaders can deny any personal responsibility (they probably set things up for plausible deniability anyway). They can demote or remove someone other than the actual perpetrator(s), simply because they are in charge and have the power to do so. Their power keeps the social order off kilter, making the peons pay attention, lest they be the next one singled out for punishment. (Any culture can be fear-based, regardless of the governing paradigm, and despite whether the “power” involved is spiritual, political, physical, emotional, etc.)

I’ve had interactions with people from all three of these kinds of cultures, and also delved into related case studies. The dynamics behind these different cultures really are distinctive. They are the kinds of things that create a lot of cross-cultural misunderstandings. And culture clash usually leads to some degree of culture shock. And that can lead to disorientation, exhaustion, dissociation and inappropriate elation, depression, etc. The basic problem is that a mismatch in cultural dynamics can add another level of frustration to the mix if you are trying to sort out a situation where offense or abuse has occurred, and work out how to make things right. (From my own experiences of working to make things right in a cross-cultural situation of hurting someone, these differences in dynamics made it take years longer for our relationship to “normalize.”)

There are potential solutions through cross-cultural communications and intercultural collaborations, but for the purposes here, the key point is just that a clash of cultural systems amplifies the problem of trying to create remediation strategies to mend tears in the social fabric.

Responsibility and Dynamics of Authoritarianism

I’ve seen the fourth mode of responsibility-shifting – systematic plausible deniability – popping up sooner or later in every hierarchical organization I’ve been in that turned out to be authoritarian-controlled.

In essence, the Dictators don’t have to say too specifically what they want to see happen. Others around them get to where they can interpret certain words or phrases or even body language as implicit orders for actions that shield their superiors from direct involvement. This requires a period of “conditioning” to understand the system and a strong enough connection to the Dictators or Propagators to motivate follow-through.

Or devotees of Dictators may even initiate of their own accord actions they believe will help promote or protect the organization. For instance, in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, Dolores Umbridge knowingly takes illegal actions that she sincerely thinks will help the Minister of Magic stay in power. When she gets called out on it, she simply says, “What Cornelius doesn’t know, can’t hurt him.”

Just because responsibility shifts away from culpable and complicit persons doesn’t make the reality of the injustice go away. Sooner or later, evil deeds do come into the light.  “The sins of some are obvious, reaching the place of judgment ahead of them; the sins of others trail behind them.” (1 Timothy 5:24, NIV.)

What Does it Take for Remediation Actions to Work?

Like so many things in Christian living, the wisest dynamics involve a both/and paradox. Too often we split into an either/or situation, and get into arguments about which ONE is right – when BOTH are actually required. Here are the three attitudes that I believe are essential to making remediation (i.e., remedies for harmful actions and their impact) work well.

  • Perpetrators and their defenders need to accept their personal responsibility with humility.
  • Victims and their advocates need to respond to offenders with a conciliatory spirit.
  • With these complementary attitudes joined together, the people involved can work toward a healthy process that produces social justice and restored relationships.

It doesn’t work when those who inflict harm (or their defenders) shut down dialog and/or demand that perpetrators be treated with grace and mercy. That isn’t taking responsibility; it’s a denial of it. Such demands are a form of blame-shifting. They attempt to protect their privilege, position, and power of the perpetrator.

Likewise, it doesn’t work when victims (or their advocates) shut out what may be sincere attempts to make amends, and/or demand severity or specific punishments up front. That isn’t being conciliatory; it’s being punitive. It may seem like protecting and advocating for the victims, but it’s ultimately a reversal of the Golden Rule that suggests survivors should do to their abusers what was done to them.

To draw out what is potentially the best from both parties in a dispute, it cannot be about power or punishment in either direction. Instead, it must be about humble compassion and restorative justice in both directions. No doubt about it, this is difficult to work through – but what does “blessed are the peace-makers” mean, if it isn’t about working together to bring Christlike redemption to situations of extreme brokenness? It does not mean there are no consequences to those who inflict harm and spiritually abuse others. What it does mean is that people divided by evil cannot find appropriate reconciliation strategies if they come to the table with an untouched conscience or with a lack of compassion toward the other. It will not work without humility and a conciliatory spirit.

I believe these complementary attitudes represent what I’ve observed in people I would consider what the gospels call, “people of peace.” They both welcome others and show hospitality, while also have a justice streak that is set on edge when someone misuses power or position to marginalize people or otherwise harm them.

But what does real reconciliation looks like, when it’s led by such a person of peace? How can we see what it takes in both attitudes and actions to accomplish restoration?

If you’re interested in working through a significant case study, I’d highly recommend the movie Invictus about the Springbok’s Rugby team in post-apartheid South Africa winning the World Cup in 1995. Get the Blu-ray edition of Invictus and, after you’ve watched the movie, go back to the Blu-ray exclusive Picture-in-Picture feature. You’ll hear important interview clips from the book author, screenwriter, director, producer, main actors, and the real people on whom the characters are based. They give insights into the process that brought together a nation that had been formally divided from 1948-1994, with racial conflicts from white domination of blacks going back centuries before that.

Follow that by watching the PBS documentary Reconciliation: Mandela’s Miracle. It uses a few clips from Invictus, and features interviews with some of the same individuals, and other central political figures from that era. It goes into greater depth on the reconciliation strategy and process, the importance of survivors sharing their stories and being heard, and of perpetrators coming to express their remorse and being heard. It is an extraordinary account of what spared a nation from destruction in a fragile moment when it was still on the dire edge of deep animosity and division, and inspired hope.

That combination provides the overall contours of what it looks like to draw upon and draw out the good will of people involved in a reconciliation process. But what do the specifics look like, in terms of strategies for reconciliation – and what do those look like in action related to interrelations and organizations?

Part 3B in this series looks at frameworks of concepts for building a comprehensive “remediation plan” in the setting of what’s become a toxic organization. It lays out four levels to consider: personal growth and recovery, peace-making in personal relationships, qualified leadership in the organization, and how to discern whether that toxic organization should even survive.

Part 3C shares some of my own personal experiences of dealing with owning my responsibility for causing damage in relationships, and taking up my responsibility for repairing them. It includes examples from all four levels explored in Part 3B.

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