Abuse of Power and the Power to Abuse
Content Warning: This article contains references to sexual abuse.
In recent years the world has watched as prominent leaders have risen and fallen in dramatic fashion. Donald Trump was voted out of the United States Presidency after his first term. Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson has resigned. Mass protests in Sri Lanka have led to President Gotabaya Rajapaksa fleeing and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe announcing his willingness to resign.
Leaders failing their followers, and people suffering as a consequence is a strong theme through some recent documentaries, movies, and podcasts.
The Vow is a documentary following the lives of people affected by the self-help and personal development organisation NXIVM and its leader Keith Raniere. Raniere was convicted of sex trafficking, racketeering, conspiracy and other crimes and sentenced to 120 years in jail. The documentary follows how individuals were recruited, including many celebrities and socialites, how they paid thousands in fees to rise through the multi-level company and how those that reached the very top were inducted into secret clubs. NXIVM has been labelled a cult.
The Eyes of Tammy Faye is a movie recounting the marriage of Jim and Tammy Bakker, American televangelists, and the fall of their production empire PTL Satellite Network, which had grown to be one of the largest Christian broadcasting networks in the world. Amidst allegations of addiction, extramarital affairs and financial mismanagement, Jim was ultimately imprisoned for fraud.
The Keepers is a documentary chronicling the investigations of two previous students at Archbishop Keough High School in Baltimore, America, into the unsolved murder of beloved teacher Sister Cathy Cesnik. They end up unearthing a cover-up by authorities concerning a priest, Father A. Joseph Maskell, who was sexually abusing girls at the school.
The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill is an investigative journalism podcast by Christianity Today exploring the growth of the Mars Hill church and its leader Mark Driscoll. Over several episodes, past staff and congregation members reveal patterns of misogyny, financial mismanagement, abuse and lack of accountability which resulted in his resignation and the collapse of the church very shortly after.
These four shows highlight three aspects that seem to be in common with so many falls from grace – the misuse of money, a distorted view of sexuality, and the abuse of power.
NXIVM received financial backing from two wealthy heiresses. That initial injection combined with ever increasing fees as clients worked their way through various modules, resulted in a multi-million dollar company that used its fees to silence those that spoke against them and financed multi-year long legal assaults on those that dared leave the organisation from higher levels. Those affected faced legal debts that would be ongoing for years.
Jim and Tammy Bakker hosted regular telethon fundraisers for their various ministries. They also received donations and other injections of funds from wealthy Christians and patrons, including time shares in accommodation. This money was not all going to the ministries as promoted, but went towards funding an extravagant lifestyle for the couple.
At Mars Hill, money was misappropriated in various ways. One example was the purchase of mass copies of one of Mark’s published books, by the church, to keep it on the New York Times Best Seller lists.
NXIVM teaching revolves around the concept that people’s problems are their own fault and that they need to own the issues behind them to break through and overcome them. As women progressed through the levels, they began to be increasingly taught that feminist ideals were actually counterproductive. They had to learn submission. Men in the upper echelons would be used to belittle, minimise, scare and humiliate women so that they learnt their place and men regained their lost masculinity. At the highest level was a women’s only group called DOS, promoted as a group of women that could change the world for the better. Initiation into the group included extreme obedience to a master, restricted diets, sleep deprivation and concluded with being branded, using a medical cauterising pen, with Keith’s initials.
Jim Bakker was accused of raping a secretary, and implicated in same-sex relationships, despite accusing and condemning his wife for an extra-marital affair with a music producer.
In The Keepers, the two former students put out a social media request for people to come forward with information about the murdered Sister. At the time of the documentary, they had been able to confirm around 30 women’s consistent stories of abuse and rape at the hands of Father Maskill and other men known to him, including a gynaecologist, law enforcement officer/s and other male staff. Maskill had previously been employed at Saint Clement’s Church where he had been accused of assaulting a young boy and was subsequently moved to the girl’s school. The way in which the girls were groomed, belittled and manipulated with spiritual abuse surrounding sexuality is harrowing.
One whole podcast of The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill is dedicated to Driscoll’s misogynistic understanding of sexuality and femininity. He challenges men to grow up and take responsibility for their families, but this is at the expense of women. He taught that they had no place outside the home other than Christian ministry. Their roles were only as (sexually available) wives and mothers. This led to many cases of women being abused in their families and feeling that they had no voice to speak out against it.
In all four shows, the abuse of power is seen. Whether that is the abuse and violation of women, ostracising and exiling those who stand against the leader, the avoidance of any structure of accountability or wise counsel, the destruction of people’s lives and livelihoods, the deceit and manipulation of followers, enforcement of extreme and restrictive views, or the murder of someone who threatens to reveal the leader’s wrong doing, all four demonstrate how power can be abused. The destruction that is left in the wake of the abuse of power can be ongoing for years.
Power can be a very dangerous thing to wield. It has potential to destroy individuals, organisations, cultures and even nations. Not even Solomon, who prayed for an understanding mind to discern good and evil in order to rule wisely (1 Kings 3:9), was able to withstand its temptations. Leaders have to have strong accountability measures in place, humility, a desire to serve others, a willingness to allow others to grow and excel, and impeccable character that flees temptation and acts to right injustice. For those in Christian leadership, Paul’s instructions in 1 Timothy 3:1-7 and Titus 1:6-9 outline qualities that would be applicable for both men and women. They are, however, incredibly hard standards to live up to and leaders do well to seek God’s mercy, grace, wisdom and patient love as they seek to lead.
Dr Katherine Grocott
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