Got this letter in. If you’re a Christian pastor who ever counsels women who have been abused, please read it. If you’re the kind of pastor this survivor writes about—the kind who, one way or another, blames the victim—either change, please, or do the world a favor and find yourself another vocation.
I really liked what you had to say in your post To a Gay Anti-Christian Who Suddenly Converted. This especially struck a chord with me:
Becoming a Christian doesn’t solve all your psychological problems. Becoming a Christian doesn’t mean the angst of life just suddenly evaporates from your life. Christianity does grant you a comprehensive context for understanding the whole of the human experience. And that’s hardly nothin’. But it’s not everything. God gives you the big picture; but a lot of the little picture is still yours to paint. You still have to deal with whatever it is in your life that’s causing you whatever pain or trouble it might be. If you had a crappy childhood, for instance, then becoming a Christian doesn’t instantly resolve whatever psychological legacy with which that may have left you burdened. (I wish it did!) Everyone, Christian or not, ultimately has to take out their own garbage.
I volunteer for an organization that helps survivors of sexual violence. It’s my way of giving back the infinite amount of support I received from them as a survivor of incest, domestic violence and rape. I’d go so far as to say the group for which I now volunteer saved my life by helping me see that there was a life beyond the horror of PTSD, beyond the loss I experienced after cutting off contact with my birth family.
I have gained a lot of experience, and learned so much by reading how others have had their lives impacted spiritually because of rape, incest, and sexual abuse. In fact I came across your blog when I found the articles you wrote about defending a survivor’s right to not forgive those who have sexually abused them. [I believe she’s referring to my posts Six Things to Know About Sexual Abuse and Forgiveness, Sexual Abuse and the Luck of the Draw, and As a Christian, Must She Forgive the Brother Who Raped Her?] The two things about this issue that strike me the most are:
1. Spiritual damage and spiritual abuse, in conjunction with other types of violence/abuse, are probably some of the most misunderstood and unaddressed areas where people need help when seeking healing.
2. A lot of churches—Catholic, Protestant, fundamentalist, etc.—have painted a false picture of God’s role in the healing process. You are so right: we must take out our own garbage. But so many pastors pull that “Hallelujah, the LAWD will HEAL ya!” crap. And so many vulnerable victims and survivors want to believe it’s true: that Christ will almost quite literally come straight down from Heaven and with his bare hands take their pain away.
Then, gradually, they discover the truth, which is that God doesn’t send them a lightning bolt of miraculous healing. Then they start asking themselves questions like, Why isn’t God healing me? Shouldn’t I be over it now? It’s been two months, six months, a year already. Why do I still hurt? Why am I still angry at my rapist/abuser? Why did God even allow this to happen to me at all?
Sometimes survivors are able to reconcile such gnawing questions with their own answers, and in so doing redefine their relationships with God. Other times they abandon their faith altogether. And that’s usually due to the insensitivity of a pastor or minister. Such “men of God” often pressure victims of sexual violence to forgive their abusers; they invalidate victims’ memories, negate their feelings, or give them canned, pat responses instead of something deeper and more real. And all the while these Christian leaders keep insisting on the myth that God will provide for them a direct pipeline for some sort of miracle that will instantly and completely take away their pain.
And such church leaders are often supported by a chorus of their congregants who are ever ready to let the victim of sexual violence know that it’s her fault that she’s not receiving the miracle of healing. They imply or outright tell the survivor that they would get the miracle they’re praying for if only they prayed harder, if only they admitted their sin in the whole matter, if only they’d quit childishly clinging to their pain. This leaves the poor person with tremendous shame and feelings of spiritual and emotional inadequacy. For those who are victims of childhood sexual abuse, who are already carrying so much shame projected onto them by their perpetrators and those who protect their abusers, hearing that from their trusted pastor and/or their church family can be too much for them to bear. When I see someone walk away from their faith after such invalidations, it’s impossible to blame them.
I have to wonder how many survivors would be able to reframe their perspective on faith, if, instead of the lightning bolt bullshit, their pastors were as real with them as God wants us to be real with Him. Yes, at first it’s daunting to hear that you have to take out your own garbage—that that’s not something God is going to do for you—because you want the pain to go away now. But at least the pain actually would go away if a pastor or priest would only start or help that process not by issuing useless “Christian” platitudes, but instead being real, and saying, “Look, God can’t do it for you. However, He has provided for you wonderful tools on this earth, by way of support groups, psychologists, medication if that’s needed—not to mention our own powers of reflection and discernment, our own unstoppable will to be whole. And He expects us to use those tools, so that we can achieve healing and recovery to a degree that our shame is vanquished and no longer a stumbling block, where we have proven ourselves stronger than our oppressors, where can move into a stronger relationship with God, because hand-in-hand with God, we have become someone who can help others trust remain in relationship with God while they work through the same kinds of pain in their lives that we worked through in ours.”
Over the long term that approach would provide so much more hope and healing to those who feel helpless and trapped by their traumatic memories. It’s one of those things where, yes, the truth hurts—but only because there is no healthy way to mask or ignore the pain that’s necessary to address before real healing can begin. We can win over that which haunts and hurts us. But first we need in our corner nothing so much as honesty.
I am hoping that someday the Christian community at large will realize that it’s not shiny advertising and empty promises that draws people to Christ and makes them stay. It’s the humanity, the genuineness, the Carpenter who is covered in grime, sweat, and ultimately blood and tears. That is the Christ whom I think deep down we crave. That is the Christ that I hope will overturn the ignorance of pastors, ministers and priests, so that, when it comes to victims of sexual violence, they can become more like the Samaritan who aided the wounded man on the road when those of high and lofty stature failed to do so—so that they can, in other words, become more like the One they purport to follow.