Systemic Gaslighting, Systemic DARVO

Timothy Isaiah Cho
6 min readJun 25, 2023

In her book, Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? and Other Conversations About Race, Beverly Daniel Tatum provides a well-known metaphor for systemic racism as an airport terminal walkway:

Because racism is ingrained in the fabric of American institutions, it is easily self-perpetuating. All that is required to maintain it is business as usual.

I sometimes visualize the ongoing cycle of racism as a moving walkway at the airport.
Active racist behavior is equivalent to walking fast on the conveyor belt. The person engaged in active racist behavior has identified with the ideology of white supremacy and is moving with it. Passive racist behavior is equivalent to standing still on the walkway. No overt effort is being made, but the conveyor belt moves the bystanders along to the same destination as those who are actively walking. Some of the bystanders may feel the motion of the conveyor belt, see the active racists ahead of them, and choose to turn around, unwilling to go in the same destination as the White supremacists. But unless they are walking actively in the opposite direction at a speed faster than the conveyor belt — unless they are actively antiracist — they will find themselves carried along with the others.

-Tatum, Beverly Daniel. Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? and Other Conversations About Race. New York: Basic Books, 199

Tatum’s metaphor is helpful for understanding systemic racism. In a racialized society, racism is not limited to intention. Likewise, inaction and silence (i.e. being “not racist”) are not neutral but are like standing on the walkway, passively moving in the direction of racism and injustice. The only way to be pushing against racism is to be “walking actively in the opposite direction at a speed faster than the conveyer belt.”

Tatum’s metaphor for systemic racism is helpful for understanding the systemic nature of spiritual abuse as well. Just as in racism, spiritual abuse is like an airport walkway that, unless one is walking actively and strenuously against, will carry you toward injustice. We can see this in two common tactics of spiritual abuse: gaslighting and DARVO.

Systemic Gaslighting

Gaslighting is “an emotionally abusive strategy that causes someone to question their feelings, thoughts, and sanity.” Gaslighting is a tactic that often finds a home in spiritual/religious spaces, including the church. In this form, which we might call “spiritual or religious gaslighting,” an abuser “uses spiritual or religious information, beliefs, or doctrines, such as the scriptures, to invalidate your perception or spiritual experience.” I would also add that they may also use ecclesiastical or organizational procedures and processes in order to obfuscate the truth or the pursuit thereof.

Applying Tatum’s metaphor to gaslighting is helpful because it clears the smokescreens often placed when accusations of gaslighting are brought up. Regardless of the intention of a spiritual abuser, they are following the track of deception and falsehood if they are not actively walking against it toward truth-telling. A basic Christian doctrine of sin is enough to tell us that, even in the church, we are inwardly bent away from the truth, especially the whole truth that is often unflattering for our reputation.

Tatum’s metaphor is also helpful for explaining the role of people other than the abuser themself. Often in church spaces, whether intentionally or not, silence and inaction are common responses to spiritual abuse. But, just like the person who is standing still on a walkway, silence and inaction in a systemic understanding of gaslighting is “going with the flow.” To leave the gaslighting unchallenged and unaddressed is to allow the leaven of deception is continue to grow.

Like anti-racism, the only corrective to gaslighting is actively walking in the opposite direction at a faster pace than the walkway. It means to advocate for transparency and the truth, to call out the gaslighting, and to even do the simple task of telling a victim, “You’re not crazy.”

Systemic DARVO

Related to gaslighting, DARVO stands for Deny, Attack, and Reverse Victim & Offender. The term originated from the studies of Dr. Jennifer Freyd who found evidence that the tactics of DARVO were commonly employed by perpetrators of abuse when confronted.

Perpetrators of abuse would often Deny the abuse, Attack the victim (or the person confronting them about the abuse), and Reverse the Victim & Offender, making themselves out to be the victim.

Just like gaslighting, DARVO can find itself in the realm of the church, often employing Scriptural or doctrinal rhetoric. The end result is the same: “The result of this strategy is that the perpetrator assumes the role of victim and turns the true victim (or the whistleblower) into an alleged offender. This occurs, for instance, when a guilty perpetrator assumes the role of “falsely accused,” attacking the whistleblower’s credibility and blaming the whistleblower for perpetrating a false accusation.”

Again, utilizing Tatum’s metaphor to get a systemic understanding of DARVO is helpful. Someone who is using an airport walkway can have a variety of speeds. They can stand still, walk, or run in the direction of the walkway. But, they can also make any kind of movement in between. Indeed, even crawling in the direction of the walkway — though not as expedient as walking or running — is going faster than simply standing still.

All of the elements of DARVO do not need to be done at a sprint to be considered DARVO. A denial of the spiritual abuse does not need to be wholesale. It can be even as subtle as withholding substantive information in order to make the situation look less bad. An attack on the confronter doesn’t have to be overblown and obvious. It can look like an abuser enabling or encouraging their supporters to malign the reputation of the confronter, and that can even be by withholding the whole truth from their supporters to keep them on their side. Reversing victim and offender can be as subtle as trying to get people to pity the offender even just an ounce more than the victim.

And again, those who are not the offender or the victim or confronter have a role to play in a systemic understanding of DARVO. Silence and inaction is going with the flow. The only corrective is to walk the other direction at a faster pace than the walkway. That means pushing for the truth, believing the victim, holding the offender accountable, and holding others accountable for their response to the spiritual abuse.

Conclusion

In closing, recognizing both the spiritual and systemic elements of gaslighting and DARVO is the first step toward a healthy church. The next step is to create both a culture and a structure where gaslighting, DARVO, and other spiritually abusive tactics can be easily exposed to the light and exterminated. A culture and a structure that is actively moving in the opposite direction at a faster pace than the walkway of spiritual abuse is the only way healing and wholeness can happen in the church.

I have also written and spoken about spiritual abuse previously, and these resources may be helpful for spotting spiritual abuse:

5 Signs of Spiritual Abuse

Breaking the Cycle of Spiritual Abuse

When Your Faith Becomes a Trauma Trigger

Spiritual Abuse in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church

Healing from Spiritual Abuse

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