Wisdom for Pastors Series (Pt 8) Cognitive dissonance hinders pastors from giving justice

Deuteronomy 16:18-20 “You shall appoint judges and officers in all your towns that the LORD your God is giving you, according to your tribes, and they shall judge the people with righteous judgment. You shall not pervert justice. You shall not show partiality, and you shall not accept a bribe, for a bribe blinds the eyes of the wise and subverts the cause of the righteous. Justice, and only justice, you shall follow, that you may live and inherit the land that the LORD your God is giving you.

In this post I want to quote from the section of an article that deals with what the author calls “cognitive dissonance” and then propose that this mechanism is one reason pastors and other Christians so often react to the abuse victim in an unjust manner.  The article I am quoting from is:

Love and Stockholm Syndrome: The Mystery of Loving an Abuser  by Joseph M. Carver, Ph.D., Clinical Psychologist.

Please read the following excerpt from Carver’s article, and as you read it, try to relate it not only to a victim of abuse, but also to a pastor who has a member of his church sitting in front of him reporting that her husband (also a church member) is guilty of long-standing abuse.  I suggest that this “cognitive dissonance” mechanism is going to engage in the pastor’s mind:

 Throughout history, people have found themselves supporting and participating in life situations that range from abusive to bizarre. In talking to these active and willing participants in bad and bizarre situations, it is clear they have developed feelings and attitudes that support their participation. One way these feelings and thoughts are developed is known as “cognitive dissonance”. As you can tell, psychologists have large words and phrases for just about everything.

“Cognitive Dissonance” explains how and why people change their ideas and opinions to support situations that do not appear to be healthy, positive, or normal. In the theory, an individual seeks to reduce information or opinions that make him or her uncomfortable. When we have two sets of cognitions (knowledge, opinion, feelings, input from others, etc.) that are the opposite, the situation becomes emotionally uncomfortable. Even though we might find ourselves in a foolish or difficult situation – few want to admit that fact. Instead, we attempt to reduce the dissonance – the fact that our cognitions don’t match, agree, or make sense when combined. “Cognitive Dissonance” can be reduced by adding new cognitions – adding new thoughts and attitudes. Some examples:

  • Heavy smokers know smoking causes lung cancer and multiple health risks. To continue smoking, the smoker changes his cognitions (thoughts/feelings) such as 1) “I’m smoking less than ten years ago”, 2) “I’m smoking low-tar cigarettes”, 3) “Those statistics are made up by the cancer industry conspiracy”, or 4) “Something’s got to get you anyway!” These new cognitions/attitudes allow them to keep smoking and actually begin blaming restaurants for being unfair.
  • You purchase a $40,000 Sport Utility Vehicle that gets 8 miles a gallon. You justify the expense and related issues with 1) “It’s great on trips (you take one trip per year)”, 2) “I can use it to haul stuff (one coffee table in 12 months), and 3) “You can carry a lot of people in it (95% of your trips are driver-only).”
  • Your husband/boyfriend becomes abusive and assaultive. You can’t leave due to the finances, children, or other factors. Through cognitive dissonance, you begin telling yourself “He only hits me open-handed” and “He’s had a lot of stress at work.”

Leon Festinger first coined “Cognitive Dissonance”. He had observed a cult (1956) in which members gave up their homes, incomes, and jobs to work for the cult. This cult believed in messages from outer space that predicted the day the world would end by a flood. As cult members and firm believers, they believed they would be saved by flying saucers at the appointed time. As they gathered and waited to be taken by flying saucers at the specified time, the end-of-the-world came and went. No flood and no flying saucer! Rather than believing they were foolish after all that personal and emotional investment – they decided their beliefs had actually saved the world from the flood and they became firmer in their beliefs after the failure of the prophecy. The moral – the more you invest (income, job, home, time, effort, etc.) the stronger your need to justify your position. If we invest $5.00 in a raffle ticket, we justify losing with “I’ll get them next time”. If you invest everything you have, it requires an almost unreasoning belief and unusual attitude to support and justify that investment.

Studies tell us we are more loyal and committed to something that is difficult, uncomfortable, and even humiliating. The initiation rituals of college fraternities, Marine boot camp, and graduate school all produce loyal and committed individuals. Almost any ordeal creates a bonding experience. Every couple, no matter how mismatched, falls in love in the movies after going through a terrorist takeover, being stalked by a killer, being stranded on an island, or being involved in an alien abduction. Investment and an ordeal are ingredients for a strong bonding – even if the bonding is unhealthy. No one bonds or falls in love by being a member of the Automobile Club or a music CD club. Struggling to survive on a deserted island – you bet!

Abusive relationships produce a great amount of unhealthy investment in both parties. In many cases we tend to remain and support the abusive relationship due to our investment in the relationship. Try telling a new Marine that since he or she has survived boot camp, they should now enroll in the National Guard! Several types of investments keep us in the bad relationship:

            Emotional Investment – We’ve invested so many emotions, cried so much, and worried so much that we feel we must see the relationship through to the finish.

            Social Investment – We’ve got our pride! To avoid social embarrassment and uncomfortable social situations, we remain in the relationship.

            Family Investments – If children are present in the relationship, decisions regarding the relationship are clouded by the status and needs of the children.

            Financial Investment – In many cases, the controlling and abusive partner has created a complex financial situation. Many victims remain in a bad relationship, waiting for a better financial situation to develop that would make their departure and detachment easier.

            Lifestyle Investment – Many controlling/abusive partners use money or a lifestyle as an investment. Victims in this situation may not want to lose their current lifestyle.

            Intimacy Investment – We often invest emotional and sexual intimacy. Some victims have experienced a destruction of their emotional and/or sexual self-esteem in the unhealthy relationship. The abusing partner may threaten to spread rumors or tell intimate details or secrets. A type of blackmail using intimacy is often found in these situations.

Do you begin to see the point?  The pastor has invested emotionally, socially, financially, and in other ways in his church and ministry. He has invested in this family, and often in the life of the abuser himself.  The abuser might be an elder or deacon or some other key figure in the church. So the victim’s report sounds a dissonant chord in the pastor’s mind.  His temptation is going to be to change his thinking to some theory that will justify the abuser and support his long-held notion that the abuser is really who the pastor has assumed him to be.  The pastor will do this rather than believe the shocking and threatening alternative:  the victim’s account.  As Carver explained:  “Even though we might find ourselves in a foolish or difficult situation – few want to admit that fact. Instead, we attempt to reduce the dissonance – the fact that our cognitions don’t match, agree, or make sense when combined. “Cognitive Dissonance” can be reduced by adding new cognitions – adding new thoughts and attitudes.” 

And guess what those “new thoughts and attitudes” are going to be?  That the victim has it all wrong.  That the victim is really the culprit.  Because the alternative (that the pastor has been duped by the abuser; that the abuser is not at all who the pastor thought him to be, etc), is just too shocking and threatening to face up to.  The dissonance between the victim’s report of abuse and the pastor’s longstanding “knowledge” of the abuser must be resolved into a pleasant, harmonious chord once again.  And it will be at the expense and sacrifice of the victim.

Pastors — you must know yourself if you are going to deal with abusers justly and if you are going to deal rightly with victims of abuse.  This cognitive dissonance principle is in all of us and it never produces justice.  When a victim comes to you, to one degree or another (depending on the degree to which your personal investment in these people and/or in your ministry you have made), to one degree or another this dissonant chord is going to start sounding in your mind and in your feelings.  You won’t like it.  Your sinful, selfish flesh is going to urge you to resolve it, and to resolve it quickly.  “Make the victim go away.  Discount her story.”

You must not yield to any of this.  Yes, there is a dissonance.  But the dissonance is coming from the abuser’s “Christian” facade as it is now played against the other note of his role as abuser.  Resolution must be sought in the abuser’s arena, not in the victim’s.  Our false notion of who the abuser is must be a note that is changed.  That will be real resolution.

Deuteronomy 16:18-20 “You shall appoint judges and officers in all your towns that the LORD your God is giving you, according to your tribes, and they shall judge the people with righteous judgment. You shall not pervert justice. You shall not show partiality, and you shall not accept a bribe, for a bribe blinds the eyes of the wise and subverts the cause of the righteous. Justice, and only justice, you shall follow, that you may live and inherit the land that the LORD your God is giving you.

 

 

 

Leave a Reply - For Your Safety Comments are Moderated

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s