Why Is It So Hard To See?

There is more than meets the eye to the exclusion of LGBTQ people and those who attempt to explore LGBTQ inclusion. As I’ve explored the Mennonite Brethren (MB) suspension and expulsion of member churches, I’ve suggested that though leadership continue to point to “the centrality of the Confession of Faith,” there is more going on under the surface. Examining the main “trunk” supporting the whole organism, I observe “authority” functioning as power-over. Noticing this helps us dig deeper, ask more probing questions, and begin to see what’s going on underground, in our root system.

I think it is important to say that sometimes it is very, very difficult to see “clearly.” I cannot speak to whether or not the MB leadership involved in LGBTQ exclusion and the use of power-over strategies at maintaining such exclusion see what I’m seeing. My guess is that they do not. Rather, I imagine they believe what they are saying about protecting the “center.” I spent much of my life arguing against “homosexuality” and advocating for orientation change and/or mandated celibacy. Not only did I attempt to walk the straight and narrow for over 15 years, I became a spokesperson for doing so as the exclusive path of faithfulness to God. My first job out of college was with the ex-gay organization, Exodus International. While an adjunct at Fresno Pacific University, I guest lectured in a theological ethics class on sexuality from a non-affirming perspective. I gave a workshop at a conference and taught a Sunday school class on celibacy. Looking back, I can see that at a conscious level, I believed what I was saying and teaching. I mean, I was giving my life to it! However, I can also see that under the surface, I sensed there was something wrong. It wasn’t until it almost killed me that I was willing to explore more deeply. As Richard Rohr says, it is often great love or great suffering that shifts not only what we see, but how we see.

I want to propose two dynamics that make it hard to see what’s going on “underground.”

First, we are wired for survival, and as a social species, that survival requires belonging within a group. The way we see and make sense of the world, our identity, our sense of right and wrong, etc., is connected to that basic survival need to belong. In an episode of “We Can Do Hard Things” discussing attachment theory, Glennon Doyle says, “Love is as integral to our survival as food, as water, and as shelter. It is a shelter.” When attachment is threatened, we experience a “primal panic.”

One of the ways we secure our belonging within groups like our faith communities is by joining their “good” or “right” identity and mission. We understand who we are through our shared values and ways of making sense of the world and our place in it. The sharing of those things makes us an us: it is how we belong. Belonging to such a group creates a powerful sense of coherence in what can be a very confusing and challenging world. It creates order and security.

When faced with anything or anyone that is perceived as a potential threat to our group, our survival instinct can kick in and push us to react by eliminating or neutralizing the threat. We can do some serious damage if we are not able to see or reflect on this impulse and the behavior that follows.

Second, when we are unable to see what feeds our behavior, we are then often stuck in patterns that cause real harm. Even though churches believe they are good and right and centered by a transformative mission, they are not immune to causing tremendous suffering. This is especially true when we are unable to honestly see or examine the hurt we inflict because we are deeply invested in our self-perception as good, right and innocent.

In the chapter, “Virtue and the Organizational Shadow: Exploring False Innocence and the Paradoxes of Power,”* the authors explore the psychological defense mechanisms and self-protective actions at work in “virtue-driven organizations.”

Groups have many defensive strategies they can use to avoid facing the shame and guilt that arise when conduct associated with the organization’s shadow occurs… These defenses are psychological in the sense that they may operate below the level of perception, but they are also cultural—built into conceptual, narrative, and institutional practices such as leadership, governance, policy, and law that structure the norms and values of how we live.

from Humanity’s Dark Side: Evil, Destructive Experience, and Psychotherapy

What does this look like? The authors noted these common practices:

  • Interpretive violence—lies, distortion, spin that maintains the organization’s self-perception as good/innocent and assigns fault and blame on an “other.”
  • Silencing and eliminating those “others” who voice harm or somehow question or challenge the organization.
  • Spiritual bypass—pressuring those who have been harmed to “forgive” or “let go,” or if they will not, painting them as spiritually weak or dangerous.
  • Guilt by innuendo (association)—making an example out of a “guilty” party and encouraging bystanders to distance themselves for fear of also being deemed “guilty.”
  • The list goes on (cover-ups, blame-shifting, revisionism and erasure, discrediting others, scapegoating).

With the growing awareness of spiritual trauma, we’re learning that when we are deeply hurt by the people and communities that we look to for identity, belonging and love, especially when those people and communities will not admit that harm and even insist that they are acting in love or according to a shared faith, the damage goes beyond the actions themselves.

Harmful acts that cannot be explained and normalized from within the psychosphere of those affected terrorize us not because the actual injuries inflicted are necessarily so heinous but because the acts rupture the cultural coherence within which our cosmic order and existential hope for immortality are contained… when an organization that claims to champion the oppressed oppressed its own members or when a group that espouses compassion treats someone inhumanely and is impervious to their entreaties for fairness, the contradiction can be bewildering.

from Humanity’s Dark Side: Evil, Destructive Experience, and Psychotherapy

The #churchtoo and other movements exposing false narratives of innocence show us that many people are suffering, and in some cases dying, at the hands of churches who wound and abuse while holding tightly to their self-perception as good, right and innocent.

It is terrifying to look inward and face what we’ve fought so hard not to see. Church leaders may feel the very life of the church is under threat. All these defense mechanisms seem like survival strategies. All the people we “other” and exclude in some way seem like necessary sacrifices when we see them as a destabilizing force.

Can we take an honest look at ourselves, at our communities? Maybe the fact that we use these defensive strategies that produce such bad fruit (suffering, trauma, exclusion, etc.) suggests that there is more going on beneath the surface than what we claim. For example, maybe what we think is driving our policies and practices of LGBTQ exclusion is not actually what is going on beneath the surface.

Opening ourselves to honest and rigorous self-assessment can feel life-threatening. We’re scared of losing what we think we know, who we think we are, and how we think we need to be in order to secure our own belonging. Change, or even being open to new insight that might lead to change, can feel like death. As Richard Rohr writes,

So often, we have been protectors of the past, lovers of empire, and business as usual—especially when the present arrangement was to our advantage… Why so much status quo? Once you know that the one thing the ego hates more than anything else is change, it makes perfect sense why most people hunker down into mere survival… defended and defensive selves will do anything rather than change—even acting against their own best interest… Ego is just another word for blindness. The ego self is by my definition the unobserved self, because once you see it, the game is over.

from The Naked Now: Learning to See As the Mystics See

When the possibility of seeing what we have not seen before, or of changing what seems to hold us together triggers panic, what if there is an alternative we’ve not yet imagined? What if the “others” we often hurt and exclude are the key to liberation and new life? Some things need to die to pave the way toward resurrection.

* I highly encourage you read the whole chapter (and book!). Buy the book or find it at a library.

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