Framing Suffering: Survivors, Victims, and Martyrs


Dear readers, I have been absent from the blogosphere lately because I’ve been making extensive notes for future posts on “envisioning the survivor-sensitive church”. These notes have coalesced around two problem areas in the relationship between abuse survivors and their faith community.

First, I see a need for churches to become safer environments by developing clearer communication channels and greater self-awareness about the community’s feelings, motives, and behavior patterns. Such reforms would particularly help survivors trust the church, but would benefit everyone. Second, there are aspects of the church experience that are not problematic per se, but may be a stumbling block for people with a trauma history. The question then becomes whether the church values this population enough to find alternative ways of reaching them.

I’ll share more specific ideas on this blog after I’ve worked them through. For now, I want to explore a preliminary question that’s often a show-stopper when I debate this project with others (or with myself):

Why present one’s self AS a survivor when doing theology? Or, as it’s sometimes framed, Why cling to a victim identity?

I sympathize with the anxieties behind this question. I don’t want to put myself forward as a special snowflake, the woman who’s allergic to everything. If these reforms really benefit everyone, why do I need to mention the survivor standpoint? And if they’re just my special need, isn’t it distracting and self-centered to ask the church to fit around me?

On the other hand, accusations of “individualism”, “narcissism”, and “consumerism” are too freely tossed around the Christian blogosphere whenever people express dissatisfaction with church. Why is it presumed illegitimate for the people in the pews to voice our needs–not our need for a cooler praise band or a Starbucks in the church lobby, but for faithful guidance through the troubles that actually dominate our lives? For survivors, such guidance starts with bringing our experience out of the realm of the unspeakable.

In a perfect world, we might not require many of the identity labels that currently organize our social sphere. Identities are often asserted under conditions of shame and oppression, to recapture the power to narrate our own lives. No one, for instance, has to come out as straight. Not because straight identity is any more or less real than gay, but because a heterosexist society either assumes you are straight, or applies other, crueler labels to your deviation from “normal” mannerisms.

Similarly, though I always knew the facts of my past, I didn’t assemble them into a picture captioned “abuse survivor”, until a false mental-health diagnosis forced me to find an alternative to the repulsive funhouse-mirror image that the experts had constructed from my anxious behaviors. Perhaps they saw this persona because she already existed somewhere inside me, the self-hating “bundle of needs” that the neglected child believes herself to be. We internalize victim-blaming because it’s easier to believe in our own depravity, which could supposedly be cured by perfect obedience, than to face the grief and terror of our dependence on unsafe caregivers.

During my lifelong process of recovery, I can expect to be interpreted against my will. The constellation of traits appears whether one is “out” as a survivor or not. I can also expect peer pressure to collude in the misinterpretation of other women who wear their wounds even more visibly. Survivor identity is my gesture of resistance and solidarity. What was once forced upon me, I choose freely: To have no place to hide. To risk being called weak, needy, biased, disruptive, mistrustful, bitter, crazy. To attempt to manifest the triumph of love and justice over the sting of social death.

What a paradox this is, that my credibility to advocate for reform may be compromised by my own enactment of it.

I pull these thoughts from my reading of the gospels, where I meet a God-embodying Jesus who inhabited a stigmatized identity to its utmost limits. But I wish this wasn’t such a do-it-yourself project. The kinship of books and blogs is not a complete substitute for a real-life Christian community working together to develop theology and pastoral care for survivors’ healing.

A common charge levelled at the growing “spiritual but not religious” population is that they prefer shallow and disposable online connections over face-to-face relational commitment. But what if the picture is more complicated? What if they’re finding their virtual support groups to be more genuine and spiritually formative than complacent parishes whose faith is not strong enough to witness evil?

Christianity used to be better at giving suffering a language to express and transcend itself. The mortifications of the saints seem merely morbid to our conventional wisdom, whose highest ideal is the well-adjusted man. Whereas once we sang hymns about martyrs and taught their life stories to our children, now we silence tragic disclosures with the dismissal, “Don’t be a martyr!”

This modern turn toward positive thinking arose because the old ways became corrupted by self-pity and sentimentalizing of avoidable damage. Identification with holy victims can certainly shade over into self-aggrandizement, deliberate masochism, or collusion with abuse in another form (as when a priest tells a battered wife to “bear her cross” instead of helping her escape).

However, that seems insufficient reason to throw out the entire vocabulary of redeemed suffering. We are ALL potential victims because weakness and pain are part of the human condition. As Hans Kung contended in On Being a Christian, the cross, properly understood, is not a reason to seek out suffering, but rather a way to dignify and be accompanied through the suffering that inevitably comes.

Can the church today re-present the cross to survivors, not as a symbol of guilt and fear, but of solidarity and hope?

5 comments on “Framing Suffering: Survivors, Victims, and Martyrs

  1. Andy Winternitz says:

    Jendi,

    Elizabeth I brought peace to the Church in England through the deliberate ambiguity of the prayer book which was designed in such a way to make more radical-reformed and more traditional catholic theology found a home. Taize’s Br. Roger tried to create a space to do almost the same thing in France. There is a conspicuous absence of attention to the process of gentle, loving compromise which underlies the assumption that we do live our faith differently. In the multi-polar media environment in which we live, each person who chooses to follow a faith tradition has never been exposed to a greater diversity of influences: if the preaching, and collective voices of the church are narrowly prescriptive in their message, it has never been more likely that an informed, educated and free member of the congregation will be alienated and feel rejected by an agenda that is not faithful to the wide latitudinarian, tolerant, inclusive and accepting current of our tradition.

  2. Andy Winternitz says:

    Jendi,

    If you aren’t a special snowflake, who is?

    A

  3. Andy Winternitz says:

    Perhaps my Taize/Elizabethan angle neglects the importance of creating an atmosphere that embraces the vulnerability of individuals. If all else fails: repeat your message! I brought up the theologically ambiguous angle because I am convinced that it is a critical ingredient in the cultural change that allows for a loving that can faciliate recovery. Not incidentally, I am equally convinced that it is the necessary approach to allow for the mystery of God. If you pigeon-hole God and overly direct and interpret for the congregation, you don’t allow for God to love each of us as if God only had one person to love.

  4. Jendi Reiter says:

    Thanks for your intelligent and supportive response. The Episcopal Church was about diversity before diversity was cool This is indeed a reason to hope that we can continue evolving in a more inclusive and non-authoritarian direction. One thinks of Episcopalians as polite, complacent, status quo types, yet we did get out in front on the gay issue. How did that happen, I wonder? What would it take to stir us up for similar active welcoming and advocacy for survivors?

  5. Jendi Reiter says:

    And also with you!

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