[This post originally appeared at A Deeper Story.]
We talked about sex in the summer camp dining hall. It was staff orientation, and we unpacked consent, abuse, and how virginity is a lousy measure of the purity of one’s heart before God. We deconstructed bad metaphors, exploring the significance of the incarnation and the imago Dei.
She found me later, a young woman who’d been through hell and back. Her courage blew me away.
“Thank you for seeing me,” she said, eyes shining. “Sometimes I feel so invisible.”
We love to talk on things we don’t know about
Our sisters’ and brothers’ blood cries out from the ground. Others bear unfading scars from sexual, psychological, physical, emotional, and spiritual abuses, suffered even at the hands of those claiming Christ’s name. There is great violence here.
We may not have hearts to understand, but we serve up solutions all the same. Do you want to be well? we ask. Take your mat and walk!
Our faith is strong! We believe in miracles, authority, and happily-ever-after. We are full of advice.
Ain’t it like most people? I’m no different
We love to talk on things we don’t know about
We want to be like Christ, desperately. But our Great Physician has scars of his own, and too frequently, we are the ones with blood on our hands.
It teaches you shame
“Abuse teaches a lot of terrifying lessons. It teaches you that your body is not your own. That your hopes and feelings are irrelevant. It teaches you shame. It teaches you to be bullied under the guise of protection. It teaches you to blame yourself for the harmful actions of others. It teaches you that some people are allowed to hurt those less powerful than them. It teaches you to be afraid of sex, anything that might lead to sex, and even being alone with certain people…
All I really needed to hear but never once heard in my church growing up was that nobody is allowed to hurt me; that I have value and worth that is distinct from what anyone did to me and distinct from anything I do or don’t do; that I had agency and autonomy; that I had the right to say ‘no’; that my ‘no’ should be respected; that I also have the right to say ‘yes’ or actually make decisions for myself; that if somebody tries to pressure or guilt me into doing what they want me to do, whether that somebody is a jerk I’m dating or the leader of my youth group, then I should walk away and never look back.” (Laura Gaines)
“Spiritual abuse survivors are like any other abuse survivors. You have to meet them where they are comfortable. Some have serious PTSD issues and can’t deal with anything that might be related to their old church, including any talk of Jesus, God, church, or Sunday Services. You also have to realize that for a lot of these people, they will never go back to church, just like alcoholics don’t go into bars or drug addicts don’t hang around their old druggie friends any more.
We had faith. Things didn’t work. We were told that we didn’t have enough faith, and we got into a horrible downward spiral of self-hate and loathing because we just weren’t good enough. Because if we were good enough, things would have turned out differently.” (Deb Fuller)
Our churches have, at times, been toxic places for survivors of abuse. We have not been safe people, and we’ve squandered the trust of far too many.
But my church isn’t like that
“If we want our churches and Christian spheres to be safe, we need to stop self-justifying and defending… We are so determined to prove ourselves right or righteous that we steam roll over people’s experiences and stories, indeed their lives, in order to be the right ones. Allow yourself to be seen as wrong; take the blame, the responsibility. Sit with the pain, the being, the story of another without trying to prove that ‘We aren’t / I’m not like that.’ That is the only way people will feel safe, heard, or stop feeling like ‘Things aren’t ever going to change. I don’t belong here. I’m too broken.’” (Aaron Smith)
As members of one Body commanded to love our neighbors as ourselves, we are each other’s keepers (in a non-coercive, I-got-your-back sort of way). Dysfunction and abuse cannot merely be contained locally; they must be dismantled and repented of systemically. We are one Church.
But instead of walking each other through the valleys, we assume authority and are not always worthy of it. We weaponize scripture, wielding it against each other. Sometimes even our helping hurts, and our good intentions bear rotten fruit. Meaning well matters little in the wake of the pain we’ve caused, made light of, or turned our backs on.
“Forgiveness is a process in many cases; it didn’t just happen overnight for me or at the urging of others telling me to forgive. .. And a person isn’t flawed because they are working through it still. ‘You’re only hurting yourself by not forgiving.’ As if the person who has been abused doesn’t understand the weight of what they carry. I think most know. The comment is insensitive to someone’s healing process.” (Anonymous)
Surely he took up our pain
The Man of Sorrows, familiar with suffering, knows what it is to be forsaken and abused. Jesus was killed by oppressive religious and political authorities, a supreme violence, and he taught his followers to set aside power and weep with those who weep.
Can we put away false gospels, easy answers, and defensiveness and grieve together for a while?
“Do you think a survivor is too angry about her abuse? Unless she’s personally threatening you, it’s time once again to get over yourself and listen. Discern the source of that anger. I cannot emphasize this enough: at no point do you ever possess the right to tell a marginalized person how to react to her marginalization…When you dismiss our anger at abuse, you dismiss the validity of our experiences, and that is itself an abusive deed. This isn’t about you.” (Sarah E. Jones)
“People need to understand that emotional manipulation and abuse are very painful, and it’s not something you just fix with a few ‘open and honest’ conversations. It’s something that takes a lot of time to heal before reconciliation is even on the table, because every attempt at reconciliation makes you vulnerable, and restoring the trust and the strength necessary to do that is not a mere act of will.” (Chris Attaway)
Radically, subversively safe
As Christians, we like to talk about cultivating a radical, dangerous faith that sets the world ablaze, but are we getting ahead of ourselves? What if the most radical thing we could do was to create safe communities?
What if we practiced radical hospitality and radical humility, allowing the messy, uncomfortable work of healing to play out in our midst?
What if among us the last really were first? What if Christians actively subverted the power structures that favor some perspectives and people over others? What if the Church harbored and honored those who are hurting, doubting, struggling, or oppressed over those most frequently seated at the head of our tables: the sure, strong, educated, beautiful, male, married, straight, white, wealthy, healthy, or righteous?
What if we repented of the ways we were complicit or unseeing to abuses of people and power among us? Could loving people well in the midst of their pain be the radical way of Jesus?
Shut up. Listen. Respond well.
“It’s actually pretty simple. Don’t use your position of authority to manipulate people for personal self-aggrandizement. Don’t turn honest personal questioning, confession, [or] seeking into a petty power play. When someone seeks succor or absolution or clarity, refrain from blame, shame and humiliation. You know, Christian stuff.” (Pat S.)
“Really LISTEN to their stories. Validate. Show compassion. Whatever you do, don’t act like you have all the answers, and surely if they’ll ‘just’ do x, y, and z everything will be all sunshine and roses again, forever and ever, amen. LISTEN to their stories. Don’t judge. Don’t minimize. Don’t fix. Just listen. Be patient with them. Just like any other type of healing, it’s a process, not an overnight thing.” (Anna Caltagirone)
“I can attest to the war wounds of spiritual abuse. The best that a Christian can do to relate to me is to remember that my relationship with God is a highly personal, fragile, and private thing. Respect my process. Don’t push your agenda. Trust me in the hands of the God you follow.” (Liv Weston)
“I keep drifting back in my mind to the time that was all happening, it would have been so validating if someone had listened. And in the next step stood up and said, ‘This isn’t right. What you’re doing is wrong.’ Not one person did.” (Elizabeth Bennet)
“I want someone to look at me and listen to the horrors I have endured, and instead of telling me that all would be well if I just forgave my abuser – instead of telling me to pray…to seek healing, as if I haven’t spent years doing just that – instead of telling me that maybe what I suffered wasn’t actually abuse -just listen, hear me, and say, ‘What happened to you should not happen to anyone. Come inside and sit with us for a while.’” (Becca Rose)
Birth something better
We can’t be faithful as a Church and continue to side with the powerful, shoot our wounded, or paint all of our critics as haters. This is all violence. We who believe in grace, humility, and resurrection are called to birth something better than what we have right now.
So raise a glass to turnings of the season
And watch it as it arcs towards the sun
And you must bear your neighbor’s burden within reason
And your labors will be born when all is done
The Truth is rarely shiny, but he shows up in the midst of our darkness, blessing the merciful and the mourning.
Repenting and walking the way of the Wounded Healer who breaks bread, washes feet, and binds up the broken hearted, we’ll choose love and liberation over coercion, callousness, and business-as-usual.
We’ll bear each other’s burdens, asking the privileged—not the abused—to offer the first fruits of repentance.
We want to be well together.