Recently I heard a trauma specialist describe trauma as the thing that hits us really hard, smack dab in the middle of “our meaning-making places.” In other words, after experiencing trauma, we are often no longer able to see and understand our world in the same way. For most of us, our belief systems are impacted by trauma and we are forever changed as we seek to make sense of these experiences and integrate them into our lives in healthy ways.
In our work of listening to and supporting Christian women and men who have experienced abuse in intimate relationships, we have many opportunities to reflect together about how surviving the trauma of abuse shapes our faith. One of the images that resonates for us is the analogy of our faith being similar to a brick house.
For some who have attended church for a long time, the brick house can feel pretty solid and rooted. In fact, one’s whole life can totally centre around the church. We can also assume that Christian teachings we grew up with are assumptions or values we share with the larger population of Christians, even world wide. Church can fill a lot of needs one has for community, relationships and can provide a social safety net. Fitting in well at church gets wrapped up in our faith, belief system and our view of God and ourselves.
Yet, when abuse happens and a marriage falls apart, it is as if the brick house gets totally levelled and you are left in this shocking messy pile of rubble, shards and chaos.
In our experience, a victim of abuse will likely look at each brick, pick it up, examine it and wonder if the brick (or what was once a fundamental building block or teaching) is as foundational as it used to be. Some of the teachings may no longer fit anymore with the new reality of abuse. This can be acutely true when abuse has been perpetrated by a church leader or marriage partner who seemed to be a very solid, committed Christian.
Sometimes Christian teachings will have been used to oppress, hurt or justify abuse of women or children in some way. During the crisis of abuse, these are likely the teachings that a woman will reflect upon and examine to see if they really still ring true to her own belief system and experience of God.
Upon examination, some teachings are turned on their head and serve a different purpose, with a different understanding or meaning. For example, if one of the teachings learned in church or at home assumed and modelled that men are more important than women or that only men are capable to make good solid decisions, this may (hopefully) no longer fit with her experience.
Or, a woman may find she used to believe that she can not do certain things, such as work, pay the bills, raise the family, etc because she was taught that only men can do these things. Yet, in her life as a single mom with four kids, she may be living out the very things she believed she never could.
In the stages of rebuilding and construction of faith, her faith community can play a very helpful role by trusting her, praying for her and supporting her in ways she may find meaningful. Historically, faith communities haven’t always been generous with women in trauma or crisis who may be questioning some of the church’s teachings that have been hurtful to women. Trusting that God is big enough to handle this, rather than being threatened by her questions and reflection process, will ultimately be the best approach for the safety and health of a faith community and for her.
There is hope in knowing that after coming through a process of reflecting on core beliefs and rebuilding faith, once the house is rebuilt, it is her house, built in a way that is authentic, which holds up to the reality of her lived experience. It will have been designed with her needs and her children’s needs for survival, well-being and safety in mind and it will have weathered considerable durability tests!
We have observed that even if Christian teachings have been twisted in some way to oppress or justify abuse of women, it is very common that her faith will still be a source of support to her in some way. Sadly, for many women this happens without the support of a faith community.
Though we hope that our congregations are loving, safe environments, sadly, experience tells us that one of the major challenges Christian women may face is a church culture of unfair expectations, blame or ridicule. It is as if there is this unspoken rule that it is up to women to do most of the work of maintaining appearances of a good marriage and family that never breaks up. This type of dynamic creates a very unsafe environment for women as it communicates that she will likely be blamed or silenced if she shares anything about the abuse she is experiencing. For some women, this is a reason the church is not available to her as a supportive or safe environment for her to honestly live through or process the crisis of surviving abuse.
For centuries now, Christianity has been called the Good News. Working in the field of addressing and preventing abuse in Christian contexts has made it clear to us, if the gospel isn’t good news for those in the most vulnerable life circumstances who have experienced abuse, then it is really not good news for anyone. After all, the Biblical narrative consistently sides with and advocates compassion for those with the least fortunate circumstances or social status.
Below is a link to some of the texts which women we’ve worked with have found life affirming along with other scriptures that have commonly been used in ways that are harmful to women or others experiencing abuse.
By Elsie Wiebe Klingler, May 2007.