Sunday, November 12, 2006

What is Spiritual Blackmail?

I thought I had coined the term a few years ago when I was given a terminal appointment at Calvin Theological Seminary--a decision that was said to have come only after protracted prayer (see or I was making an auto trip listening to a book on tape: Susan Forward, Emotional Blackmail. I contemplated her points for detecting such blackmail and realized that in many ways they also fit the phenomenon of SPIRITUAL BLACKMAIL. Her subtitle is: "When the People in Your Life Use Fear, Obligation, and Guilt to Manipulate You." For my subtitle--to the book I will write on Spiritual Blackmail--I will change one significant word: "When People in your Life use Fear, GOD, and Guilt to Manipulate You."

When we think of spiritual manipulation we easily point to the televangelists who are manipulating people for money, and this would be a big category for SPIRITUAL BLACKMAIL.


But there are many other forms of spiritual blackmail. I've been working on a study committee on the "Third Wave" movement for my denomination (Christian Reformed Church). One of the terms that has arisen frequently is "word(s) of knowledge." Here someone gets a word from God--often about a specific issue AND often something that supports what the individual already believes or wants. Claiming a word of knowledge, for example, to begin a church building project is spiritual blackmail. Scroll down for a further comment on "words of knowledge."


We rarely associate such spiritual blackmail with dignified upstanding Reformed types. But there is a deep sea of this kind of behavior even in the so-called respectable churches. Indeed, here it is most insidious because it is least recognizable. Here there is no claim of words of knowledge--rather, "I have prayed" about thus and such and therefore the decision is right. Indeed, it it not my decision only; it is God's decision.

That is what I encountered at Calvin Seminary: "After much prayer and inner searching," the academic dean stated in his evaluation," I cannot in good faith recommend . . . that you be reappointed. . . ." Why did prayer and inner searching determine the future of my teaching? An honest evaluation of me would have shown that I was highly qualified for a reappointment. God is not the author of dishonesty--whether one prays or not. This is a classic case of spiritual abuse.

Term blackmail Challenged

Someone made this comment on CRC-Voices about my using the term blackmail: But I think "blackmail" is an overly strong term. In blackmail a person knows exactly what he is doing and that it is wrong.

In my case, the CTS administration knew exactly what it was doing and knew it was wrong. My reference above to all the prayer that was supposedly raised in regard to removing me from tenure track and giving me a terminal appointment is only the tip of the iceberg. The real blackmail was the administration's putting out the word of my "ungodly conduct"--conduct they refused to specify because they said they wanted to "preserve my dignity." That is the worst kind of blackmail that someone in Christian ministry can encounter. I truly was blackmailed (though not in the legal sense of the term). The support from my colleagues dissipated when they learned about "ungodly conduct" that was so bad it could not even be stated. I repeat, the administration knew exactly what it was doing. What they were doing was evil.


Here is some wisdom from Glen O’Brien, Wesleyan pastor in Australia:

It seem to me that there are some major problems with the contemporary expression of "prophetic utterances," “words of wisdom” and “words of knowledge.” They open up the potential for spiritual abuse and should be approached very cautiously in my opinion. All we need to know has been recorded for us in the Bible. No extra-biblical “prophecy” can ever add to this revelation so why is there a need for these so-called ”prophetic utterances”? If we believe God has some words of counsel to pass on to a fellow believer we should approach them as brother or sister and share it in a natural way, without any high sounding “thus saith the Lord” which claims an authority for ourselves that we do not possess.

A Book Review of:
Emotional Blackmail by Susan Forward

Some people overpower us and leave us feeling defeated. Why? How? What can we do about it?

Those are the central questions Susan Forward asks in her book Emotional Blackmail.

The author says, "Emotional blackmail is a powerful form of manipulation in which people close to us threaten, either directly or indirectly, to punish us if we don't do what they want… our blackmailers make it nearly impossible to see how they're manipulating us, because they lay down a thick fog that obscures their actions. We'd fight back if we could, but they ensure that we literally can't see what is happening to us."

These blackmailers envelop us in a fog which the author writes as FOG. FOG is her acronym for fear, obligation, and guilt. They are the three tools of the blackmailer's trade, and most of us can't figure out how to escape them.

Some see emotional blackmail in a humorous way, as in this cartoon. But it's dead serious. And, it should not be seen as something practiced by the male gender only. Women are capable of committing emotional as well as spiritual blackmail.


When I just googled "spiritual blackmail" I found that others have used the term as well. Here's an example from Sue whose site is InnerDorothy:

Friday, September 29, 2006
Uncomfortable moments, spiritual blackmail, and other assorted thoughts

And while I'm ranting, I have been meaning to post about another matter. A local (and I thought non-denominational) Christian group has been working to build a school and support education for children in the war-torn country of Rwanda. It's a GREAT project, please don't misunderstand me on that. I have a great deal of respect for the people who go over to take part in the building project.

There is one aspect of the project I had been blissfully unaware of until recently. I wish I didn't know about it at all. It costs roughly $360 for each year of a student's education at the new school. Without the money, children do not attend school, for there is no public education program in Rwanda. However, it seems that the children's education through the Christian group is not without its own costs.

Each student receiving funding is required to make a faith declaration. Yup. A child faced with the allure of receiving a school uniform, shiny new pencils, and the only possible way of achieving their dreams in life is called upon to proclaim Jesus as Lord and Saviour.

That's not evangelism in my view. It is the worst form of hubris. Some child in Africa makes a declaration and a well-meaning Christian missionary gets to add another name to his/her list of people they have saved. There is something so terribly wrong about this kind of spiritual blackmail. It makes me so sad.

Don't they see that removing the requirement for the faith declaration and simply giving the gift of education is a stronger and more faithful form of evangelism?

This sounds like an entirely b*tchy post, but really, I'm having a pretty good day. I just had some stuff on my mind...

The Catholic Church and Spiritual Blackmail

Here's another site where the term used.

Evangelical Christians are a lost cause for Democrats, but are part of a disturbing trend. Some Catholic Bishops decreeing that anyone who votes for a pro-choice candidate (ie - anyone who doesn’t vote Republican) will be refused Communion.

That bit of spiritual blackmail makes a tough choice for a deeply religious person who embraces liberal values. It makes me wonder if there aren’t more people being coerced away from the left, rather than actually rejecting it’s values.