I was recently informed that the Christian mission organization that ran a school I once attended had recently issued a formal apology to former students who had been victims of various forms of abuse while enrolled there.
I couldn’t help thinking about the significance of this, considering the fact that the person now at the helm of the organization had nothing to do with any of the occurrences and was probably not even a member of the organization at the time.
To be honest, I used to have the attitude that people should be able to “just get over their past” and move on with life. Given all we now know about the impact of childhood trauma, not only on mental health, but on physical health well into adulthood, we can’t just ask people to put the past behind and move on.
Childhood trauma needs to be acknowledged and dealt with on multiple levels. When it occurs in a religious setting, it is even more important for it to be acknowledged at a leadership level.
What can today’s church learn from Kenny Rogers’ “Coward of the County” song?
If you’re wondering what this has to do with Kenny Rogers’ song, here is a summary of the story in the song. (To be honest, I only very recently listened to the lyrics closely enough to understand what the song was really about).
Kenny tells the story of a man who was only ten when his father died in prison. Prior to his death, the father advised his son, Tommy, to live a better life than he had and to walk away from trouble when possible. Their last conversation included the following words:
…. “It won’t mean you’re weak if you turn the other cheek,
……. I hope you’re old enough to understand……
You don’t have to fight to be a man.”
As the story goes, even though Tommy had developed a reputation for being a coward, he didn’t have to “prove he was a man” in his girlfriend Becky’s arms. Then one day, something happened that truly tested him. Without being explicit, the lyrics describe a scene where Tommy finds his girlfriend Becky crying, with torn clothes and a shattered look after being sexually assaulted by a group of three men. Tommy then found the perpetrators and physically attacked them. Not a single one of them was left standing when Tommy was done getting his revenge. He later looked at his father’s picture and, with tears rolling down his face, remembered his father’s words:
“Son, you don’t have to fight to be a man”.
Then, as if offering an apology to his deceased father, Tommy recites the following words:
“Please don’t think I’m weak, I didn’t turn the other cheek. ….
Papa, I should hope you understand:
Sometimes you gotta fight when you’re a man.”
So, it appears the “Coward of the County” apparently did have some “fight” in him, after all.
Two wrongs don’t make a right, but actions have consequences
While two wrongs clearly don’t make a right and I don’t advocate for responding to violence with violence, Tommy’s actions made it clear that he wasn’t going to stand by and let the men who assaulted the woman he loved get away with it. The point is that actions have consequences.
After coming to the realization of what this song was really about, I thought about the numerous stories I had come across in which victims of sexual abuse and/or domestic violence are denied the support and refuge they so desperately need. I have heard repeatedly about the heartbreaking stories of women who were assaulted by their spouses or other men in their church circles – including youth pastors – only to be accused and blamed by the church leaders.
There appears to be an epidemic of abuse and cover ups within church circles. What if church leaders, instead of blaming victims, took the stance that there must be consequences for the perpetrators?
Double trauma: Churches should stop inflicting further trauma
Sarah McDougal, founder of Wilderness to Wild, experienced child sexual abuse as a child, despite being raised in what she describes as “a wonderful Christian family.” She later experienced domestic violence in her own marriage, which eventually ended in divorce. After experiencing healing as a single mother, she became an advocate for victims of abuse and has authored several books on the subject.
According to McDougal, it’s far more common for victims to be blamed and shamed than not. The two common reasons she gives for this are a pervasive set of myths about forgiveness and the conflation of forgiveness with trust and reconciliation.
In some circles, church leaders go as far as suggesting that if a woman didn’t cry out for help when she was being raped, she is equally responsible. Such an attitude is unfair and not based in reality. People have different responses to trauma. The fight, flight or freeze phenomenon is very real, apart from the fact that sexual assault often takes place when no one else is within hearing range.
Women are often told to “go home and love their (abusive) husbands better”. Can you imagine being attacked by an assailant that is known to you and then having the police tell you to go and be nice to him?
Unfortunately, churches and other religious institutions often inflict more trauma instead of offering relief to victims of abuse, who then experience double trauma.
What does it mean to “fight”?
Getting back to the Kenny Rogers’ song, I agree that sometimes you do have to fight when you’re a man (or woman). But “fighting” doesn’t have to be physical. “Fighting” can mean:
- speaking up and protecting the vulnerable, including victims of domestic violence and other forms of abuse
- doing what you can to prevent further abuse
- ensuring that there are consequences for the perpetrators of abuse
- acknowledging that sexually deviant behavior is not normal, needs to be treated, and is not the “way God made men”, as many have been led to believe
- helping victims of abuse to heal.
Let’s all fight the good fight – women and men alike!
https://www.rainn.org/ (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network)
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