vows of silence aren’t always holy

don't tell cartoon by nakedpastor david hayward
“Don’t Tell” by nakedpastor David Hayward

I was very moved by the story about Elizabeth Smart (“like” her page), the young woman who was kidnapped as a 14 year old girl and held in captivity for 9 months.

“She was forced into a polygamous marriage, tethered to a metal cable, and raped daily until she was rescued from her captors nine months later. Smart was recovered while she and her kidnappers were walking down a suburban street, leading many Americans who followed her story on the national news to wonder: Why didn’t she just run away as soon as she was brought outside?”

The story of her captivity can be read here. Her explanation as to why she didn’t just run when she had the chance can be read here.

Smart claims the greatest contribution to her paralysis was the traditional sexual purity lessons that she’d been taught all her life. She remembers a teacher holding up a already-been-chewed piece of gum and comparing it to a woman who had sex before marriage. Another teacher used a mangled cupcake as an illustration of the same idea. Smart walked away from those lessons believing that, once she had sex, she was worthless. She said,

“I thought, ‘Oh, my gosh, I’m that chewed up piece of gum, nobody re-chews a piece of gum, you throw it away.’ And that’s how easy it is to feel like you no longer have worth, you no longer have value,” Smart said. “Why would it even be worth screaming out? Why would it even make a difference if you are rescued? Your life still has no value.”

In this sadly disturbing cartoon above, the man doesn’t even need to say, “Don’t tell”. There has been so much work preparing the girl for silence. Some people don’t understand that there are many cultural, social, psychological, and even spiritual ingredients that fold into the mixture to create a recipe for silence about being abused: People won’t believe you. Don’t rock the boat. Keep it in the family. Keep it among friends. Respect your elders. Respect your parents. Don’t challenge authority. Don’t touch God’s anointed. Keep the peace. Turn the other cheek. Is it worth destroying someone’s life over? It wasn’t that bad. Don’t rock the boat. Suffer silently. What did you do? Think before you speak. There are so many reasons not to run. Not to speak.

The unrelenting groundwork that goes into preparing people in the church to silently suffer spiritual abuse is monumental. My hope is that as more and more people come out speaking about how they’ve been spiritually abused and even naming names, that this hard ground of complicity will be broken. It’s time to lift the shame that prepares people for silence. It’s time to lift the shame and break the silence. I like what Anne Lamott said:

“You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.”

Smart’s doing important work. She’s not just encouraging women, and others as a result, to speak about how they’ve been abused. She is changing the soil that teaches people to shut up. Smart runs a foundation that educates children about sexual crimes and teaches children that they will “always have value and nothing can change that.”

That’s true for you too! You have value and nothing can change that.

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  • Thank you so much for this post! There can not be enough light shed on this problem affecting the faith community!

    I’ve been in that place of shame, unable to speak out, and just as Smart mentions, a lot of the shame came from the words spoken in the church.


  • David Hayward

    Thanks for sharing that Esther. I like your blog. Raise your voice!! 🙂

  • I so agree with Esther there is so much that goes on in faith communities that needs to be bought to light – so much spiritual abuse. I have been subject to spiritual abuse and the way that we are made to think its our problem, not theirs. It messed with my mind for so long and still does in lesser amounts now but the programming is still there. We have our christian cultures to thank for preparing us for the monumental dive that can and often does happen to some degree or the other and we are made to feel shame when it happens when we are a member of a faith community. People have no idea what goes on inside faith communities and because we are often raised in a christian culture we never question it because it seems right. It fits into the concepts that we were raised with and yet it messes with our mind cos we know intuitively that it isn’t right. We are left feeling worthless and useless, depressed and shamed – its no wonder we dont seek help when we seriously believe that we are beyond help or at the very least filled with doubts as to where our existence lies. I am one of the lucky ones and yet my mind still gets messed up on a semi-regular basis.

  • David Hayward

    mine too Ant Lill

  • Scum that would do that to someone ought pay the highest price.

  • Pat68

    One of the most dysfunctional things there is to be convinced that one must be quiet about injustice, abuse or dysfunction for the sake of unity. Meanwhile, people suffer in silence convinced that is the godly thing to do. Sick, sick, sick.

  • klhayes

    It is so sad that we put the desire to look “normal” (whatever that is!) above the safety of others. And many who will keep such horrors silent for the sake of unity to to not hurt the church would tear down the govt in a minute.

  • Al Cruise

    So true. In the Church we used to attend if the leadership ever did get forced into apologizing to someone they always did it in secret, away from the rest of the congregation, and always making the victim swear to a code of silence , and that if they ever talked about it again they would be severely disciplined.They want to do this with me and my wife. Not going to happen. Any apology from them is now going to have to happen in front of everyone Sunday morning.

  • Michael

    I think this is just about the most important story and message you have shared. Who was it said, ‘murder of the mind is far more heinous that murder of the body’?
    Thanks David.

  • Brigitte Mueller

    There is also such a thing as Patty Hearst syndrome or Stockholm syndrome where the abused begins to sympathize with the one terrorizing him or her.

  • Adam Julians

    I felt physically sick when I heard of the story of Elizabeth Smart.

    The sad truth is that noone is without sin. Depending on how abuse is defined, it can be anything from calling someone a name to something much wores like she expereinced.

    Given that, then everyone, you, I, and the whole of humanity has either been abused, or been and abuser at some time.

    I know of people I have hurt and I confess to have spiritually mitreated others, often in ignorance thinking what I was doing was right. Or, I have spoken truth, but done it in unloving ways which has left people feeling bad about themselves which was unnecessary.

    On the other side of the coin – I have been in church situations where I have deferred to authority which has left me ovrecompromised, frustrated, hurt, marginalised, silenced and even rejected.

    So what do we do in such situations? I remeber hearing recently of a slave who said that when someone steals one of his fish, he goes to his master for justice. If his master then steals all of his fish, he goes to God for justice.

    The best anyone of us can do is learn fomr situations, heal from abuse, repent at times where we have committed abuses (we all have), forgive, be forgiven and ultimately appeal to God for justice. If we are in Christ, we have the knowing assurance that his justice will prevail sooner or later. Let’s not forget what Christ said also about comng that we might have life in its fulltes. There is much evil in the world. but there is also much good and beauty.

  • klhayes

    And your point is?

  • Adam Julians

    Abuse is a horrible thing. At the same time I have to believe that anything is possible with God, including healing from abuse and enjoying being a child of God. I hear what you are saying but I would challenge you about the possibility for healing.

  • Adam Julians


    Just to say – i appreciate your honesty and humulity in confessing to having been abusive. And the sharing of the wisdom that you have done in having come throught the expereince.

    God Bless


  • Adam Julians

    That’s quite an assrtion to make that I have no understanding of the results of abuse wihtout knowing me. On what do you base this conclusion?

    I would have thought that saying that abuse is a horrible thing would have communicated and ackowledgement of the horro of abuse. I would have thought that communitating healing being possible with God and the possibility of enjoying being a child of God would have converyed hope for survivors of abuse.

    Dishing out retiribution for the harm done by others is not only unwise, it is in itself abusive. It does not help and it only compounds the problem.

    I would suggest that you reconsider the conclusion you have come to about my understanding.

  • Shary Hauber

    You did express the horrors of abuse and I don’t doubt that you understand those horrors. What I do question is your understanding of the results. The results of spiritual abuse is, at least from my personal count of the may I know, that one third of them want nothing to do with the hope of Jesus. To these people you are just adding to the abuse they have already received. Expand your understanding to include these people. If you believe in God you don’t have to push Him at them. God is the one who draws people to Himself. If you believe the Bible it says people will know there is a God by your love. The responsibility of Christians is love. If you really love someone they will eventually ask questions then you can present the hope of Jesus but not until you have won that privilege.

  • Adam Julians

    There is a difference between questioning the unterstanding of results in your last comment and assuming no understanding of results in your previous comment.

    I don’t have any problem wiht you asking a question. I would firstly ask you if you agree that dishing out retribution for the harm doine by others is unwise and abusive or that you think that is acceptable.

    I agree with you that pushing Jesus onto someone who has an association of abuse with Jesus would be to add to the abuse they have expereinced. I would at the same time say that this would be a misunderstanding about Jeus that they have and / or the way jesus has been portrayed to them. Of course you are right about love being about coming alongside someone and only talking about the hope of Jesus when it is the right time for them.

    Think about what I have said about retribution.

  • Adam Julians

    In your latest post you have asked what I have meant about dishing out retribution for the harm done by others.

    What I mean is none of the categories of retribution, the justly deserved, the given or demanded in repayment, or punisiment in the future based on performance now.

    What I mean is dishing our retribution for a harm that someone else has done onto an innocent party. Again, I would say that would be unwise and abusive, that it woudn’t help but only compund a problem. Would you agree?

    I think communicating that abuse is horrible and the horror of that would have shown an understanding of the results of abuse. It doesn’t offend me that you feel I don’t understand the results of abuse because I don’t take what you say about that seriously. I still don’t understand why you feel that way tough. Why is is that you have this feelng?

  • Adam Julians

    Hi Shary,

    I’ve just read this comment of yours. This helps me understand why you have spoken as you have.

    Given that you have shared – I will share too.

    For me – abuse ha both been in church and outside of church. I grew up with undiagnosed dyslexia. At school I was called lazy, careless, at other times made out to be stupid. I had a nickname among my peers “vegetable”. My parents treated me similarly. I felt alone sad and i believe all the things that were being said about me. I was withdrawn socially and often beat myself up with my own thoughts that matched what I though was reality in order to try and have approval or parents, teaches and to belong with my peers. There have been much more severe symptoms in later life but I will spare you the details of that.

    The head teacher at the school in his reports about me was always saying that I needed to work harder if I was going to achieve my full potential. My mother was the more dominant of her and my father and she likewise would be pressing me to achieve, being ignorant of similar overburdening and therefore abuse as the teacher.

    Fast forward to 4 years ago and I was diagnosed dyslexic by an educational psychologist. I shared this with my mother who realised she had been overburdening. Relationship has healed with her through forgiveness and change, as it did with my father before he died. There was a beauty in that, in that we had a peace and a closeness before he passed.

    I have found healing in many ways, more recently through Christian meditation http://www.wccm.org/ and 6 on hour sessions of compassion therapy http://www.uk-cbt.com/cft.asp

    I left my last church because having shared the difficulties I experienced with my mother growing up, I was treated as though I had been the one that had done wrong. The reason given for this was that men have the power and that God deals with those in power in the first instance. The leader asserting this said that she did so because she was being prophetic. When I responded saying that she had been insulting and presumptuous, she later ask if I would like to meet with the pastor to discuss things. At that meeting I broke down, she didn’t change her approach. She said that she hoped I would continue to come to the meetings she led and the pastor said “we love you and we value you”.

    But for me, this issue of having used God’s name in vain and false prophesying by the leader and them being supported by the pastor made continuing to be with the church unbearable. I have to forgive them as Christ has forgiven me my sins. I also have to acknowledge where I have lashed out like a wounded animal and repent as well as heal for my own good and so that others don’t experience the same kind of abuse that I have.

    I have healed, I am healing and I will be healed. I have joy of the Lord which is my strength a worship of God, a belonging in family that is the body of Christ, a hope for the future and sense of purpose in a part to play in God’s plans for the universe in the present.

    I can see why, given what you have shared that you would have difficulty in listening to someone talking about healing and enjoying being a child of God. But I don’t understand why you would make the assumption and feel that I have no understanding of the results of abuse.

    Emotionally, the conversation for me feels like it did with the leader I was talking about before that resulted in me leaving the last church I was at. But I have no intention to put any retribution onto you for what she did.

    I would ask you again to consider the conclusion you have come to about my understanding.

    I would also ask you to consider what I have said about healing and belonging, the enjoyment of being a child of God.