Survivors in Church: Between Covenant and Choice

Survivors in Church: A Preamble

Welcome to the first post in a multi-part series about trauma survivors in the church. Topics will include common triggers in the church environment and their effects on survivors’ participation; how the church’s beliefs, particularly its picture of human nature, can either be healing or re-traumatizing; pastoral care for survivors; the challenges of authentic life in community; and the spiritual gifts of people with a trauma-informed perspective.

The Christian literature on this subject is remarkably sparse, if you’re looking for books that are informed by feminist values and modern psychology. The theological memoir Proverbs of Ashes by Rebecca Parker and Rita Nakashima Brock stands nearly alone in the landscape. I learned a lot from this book, but I personally did not share the authors’ need to reject the Atonement altogether. The concept of redemptive sacrifice can be terribly misapplied, but in my opinion, the Crucifixion doesn’t have to be interpreted as only a spiritualization of child abuse, unless you believe that Jesus was not divine but just another human martyr. I do still recommend the book as a starting point. Sarah Over the Moon has been blogging its high points in this series.

The male gender presentation of Jesus is also not my personal trigger, and I don’t like to organize spiritual traits along a gender-binary axis (e.g. male=individualist, female=relational), so I’m not talking about “feminizing” the church’s image of God in Christ to make it more comfortable for survivors of male-on-female abuse. There are a lot of feminist spirituality books on that theme already, some more recognizably Christian than others.

In my view, patriarchy is just the most common manifestation of a more fundamental sin, our impulse to turn difference into domination and stigma. I love the Christ of the Gospels because he identified this root of evil and attacked it head-on with the greater power of egalitarian, non-dominating love.

So, to sum up, “Survivors in Church” will not be about revising our Christology. It’s about the reasons why survivors of relational trauma may find it difficult to be present in church while we’re healing, and what can be done about it.

Episode I: Between Covenant and Choice

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about my baptismal vows.

Nothing feels as good to me, right now, as knowing I have a choice about who gets to be intimate with me. I don’t mean sex — that’s a different vow! I mean, who gets to be in my life; who has a claim on my energy, devotion, sacrifice; who knows my secrets and deserves candor about my feelings; who can expect me to stay present with them, even when it’s uncomfortable for me to face their needs, our difference of opinion, or their perception of my shortcomings.

My relational trauma was heavy on engulfment, surveillance, and brainwashing. To end the abuse, I had to rupture the most foundational and socially sanctified unchosen relationship, the mother-child bond. Having broken this taboo, I can’t take any other obligatory relationships between adults completely seriously. “You can’t guilt-trip me, I threw my own mother under the bus!” (Actually I jumped off the bus she was driving over a cliff, metaphorically speaking, but bad-daughter guilt isn’t rational.)

Recently I heard a beautiful sermon envisioning church as a community where all kinds of people, without stigma or hierarchy, could minister to each other’s needs and learn from each other’s unique perspectives — rich and poor, old and young, all genders and orientations and ethnicities, recovering addicts, the mentally ill, and so forth. That’s the Kingdom of God that I believe in.

So why was I triggered as well as inspired?

Because I don’t get to be the gatekeeper of this community. I am bound in a common life with people I haven’t vetted for emotional safety.

I talk a lot about wanting the church to be a viable “family of choice” for people who are estranged from their families of origin — as many LGBT folks are, for example. I like the “of choice” part, but I’m getting stuck on the “family” part.

Like marriage, the covenant of baptism could be described as a free choice to restrict my choices. I became a Christian as an adult, with absolutely no social or familial pressure to do so. That undertaking is not to be broken lightly. Like divorcing a spouse, separating from the body of Christ requires a better reason than “just to prove I can”.

Trust and autonomy issues are so common for survivors of relational trauma. For some it manifests as high turnover in romantic attachments, for others as difficulty sticking with a career or schooling. Sometimes I even feel trapped by my own commitment to myself to finish my novel, and my obligations to my imaginary characters! It’s not a stretch to surmise that the nones include many survivors who are scared to explore their faith in a communal setting, whatever their beliefs.

How can the church meet us where we are, and help us over the threshold?


Be more respectful toward the unchurched. Stop scolding the unaffiliated for their supposed self-centeredness and unwillingness to work hard at relationships. Stop assuming their spirituality is shallow because it doesn’t take place within your four walls. Frankly, that reminds me of a boyfriend who called me frigid because I wouldn’t sleep with him.

Offer nourishment before demanding commitment. The church, as the embodiment of Christ, should be the first to pledge her love to the potential believer, rather than the other way around. The Bible teaches that God took the initiative with us. “While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” Open communion — welcoming the baptized and unbaptized to the Eucharist on equal terms — is for me a profound symbol of this initiative. Several times in the gospels, people first accept nourishment from Jesus and then recognize him and follow him. “They knew him in the breaking of the bread.” They don’t have to sign a loyalty oath before they get fed.

Provide open, ongoing guidance about skillful communication. People need training in a method like NVC to discuss sensitive personal matters in a non-reactive way. At a minimum, all small-group leaders should be required to take such a class. Otherwise it’s like group therapy without a therapist. The more diverse the church, the greater the need for explicit guidance, because not everyone shares the same social cues.

Diversity outreach should start small and go slowly. Pick one issue at a time (e.g. mental health) and set up a working group with a few people who feel strong enough to educate each other out of their prejudices. Don’t lay the whole burden on the woman who mentions her sexual assault in a small group and some guy asks “What were you wearing?” because the church didn’t do Rape Myths 101 training.

In the church as a whole, the leadership should articulate clear minimum expectations for interpersonal behavior, so that no one feels pressured into being a caretaker for others’ trauma. As schools are already doing, offer bystander training to encourage communal intervention against bullying.


New Poetry by Conway: “City Elegy V”

I’m pleased to share the latest installment in the “City Elegy” series of prose-poems by my prison pen pal “Conway”. I was particularly struck by the metaphors he uses to describe the Los Angeles streetscape. That’s first-class noir.

As I interpret the line about the “confidential lunatic’s serenade”, he’s alluding to the confidential “evidence” that the state is allowed to use against his petition for early release, which he is not permitted to review. Due process has a different meaning when you’re on the other side of the barbed wire, apparently. For more information, read this 2012 exposé of the prison gang validation system at Mother Jones.

City Elegy V

Stone-cold-dumb, stumbling through this carnival of unforgiveness.

As another dawn rose madly above my city’s turning cog.
You know, that overflowing coffee mug of smog, steaming along the Angeles crest.
Traffic lights still pierce the night, painfully pulsing like a stab wound;
Bleeding colors across cracked back sidewalks. Plus the white lines,
stitches down the separated black hem of asphalt lanes.

Here though, chain links and crossed fingers wish for an open door, or
a crusty-assed crack in the floor, of this rusted-out cage of bars
being played like a harp.
Old bits of things, themes echoing gray-stoned ballads, ground up talk.
Now used up chalk, stalking the thirst of first burst freedoms.

Yesterday, they played a confidential lunatic’s serenade.

But, I recognized his unclaimed tune, by the scatter-brained beat.
In the heat of officially spun, as it raced away, down storm drains
and ditches. Just to dump the remains of life into an ocean of prisoners.

I knew that sound already. It staggers between
two huge exhaust fans, and the steel sectioned dayroom doors.
Those doors clank open or closed when the cops swagger in.
To drag our chained up skin, outside, then back in —
for discipline or another bus trip to no-where…

Charlie Bondhus: War Poet for the Post-DADT Era

Charlie Bondhus’s masterful, heart-wrenching new poetry collection, All the Heat We Could Carry (Main Street Rag, 2013), could not have been written in any previous generation. In the closeted centuries following the Greco-Roman era, the poetry of gay male love and the poetry of war have only been permitted to overlap in sublimated and metaphorical ways. Bondhus merges them candidly, but the story this book tells is more elegiac than celebratory.

The alternating narrators of Heat, a veteran of the Afghanistan war and his homefront lover, seem free from their forerunners’ self-conscious anguish about sexual orientation. They can admit openly how sex between men is like martial arts grappling, how killing can be orgasmic and the camaraderie of soldiers more intimate than lovers. They can savor the flowers in their backyard garden without weighting down those fragile stems with the entire burden of their erotic communication, and without fearing that attention to beauty makes them unmanly.

But despite this unprecedented openness, an unbridgeable rift separates the lovers, and that is the tragedy at the heart of this book. Combat changes the veteran in ways that his partner cannot comprehend first-hand. His feelings are hardened like scar tissue. He can’t fit in, can’t understand the relevance of the civilian routines that he left behind. He eventually goes back to the war, not because he believes in it, but because it’s the only place he feels at home.

The past few years have brought high-profile victories for gay and lesbian inclusion in mainstream (some would say conservative) institutions like marriage, the church, and the military. After the celebrations fade, there’s an opportunity to look critically at the social structures into which one has been assimilated. Heat suggests that participation in systems of oppression doesn’t end with the waving of the rainbow flag.

Charlie has kindly permitted me to reprint these poems from his collection, which won the 2013 Main Street Rag Poetry Book Award.

Sharing a Bed

I remember the first evening in bed,
making love with the lights on.

Outside the window, a hanging basket
of red impatiens
and a ruby-throated hummingbird.

In late spring’s greenish light
my head was a bowed peony,
your torso,
a grand urn
of tissuey ranunculus.

Summer found us sharing a home
with mismatched furniture,
plagues of ragweed and clover
choking the thin, dark spaces
between our together-time.

Like angel’s trumpet, I craved
the cool white suddenness
the moon brings,
and when it came
silent as a cloud
our limbs were not the marble of roses,
or the patrician regularity of zinnias,
but the cheap, unsung beauty
of daisies, wild pinks.

Hornets nested in our heads.
Butterflies settled on our eyelids.
Morning’s first finches began to sing.

My arms were full of nettles and lamb’s ear.


Wood Gathering

In November we gather
straight branches into bundles,
and carry them

past flowerbeds
we stopped tending
last spring, to the shed

door which always sticks
in cold weather.
I want to ask you

how long since the seasons
became the same,
neither sun

nor perennials penetrating
our ribs, to the place where organs
slump like frozen vegetables?

When the snow starts,
you will cross
the backyard, and tugging

and grunting, pull open
the shed, where what
we’ve gathered is stacked neatly

as bones. Wordless
(we have no use for lips),
you will track dirt and ice

across the carpetless floors
and drop the flaking
wood on the fire,

filling the house
with the easier
kind of warmth.

First, pink rushes
to fingertips. Next,
skin cracks as heat

refills the heart
like hot water
into a cold glass. And then

like a body
from a thawing lake,

and bumping heavily
against the sheet ice:
a pulse

or what remains of love,
brushing the underside
of the wrist,

a feeling
brittle as firewood,
finite as frost.

Trust Your Imaginary Friends, and Don’t Scare the Horses

As a fiction writer and a person of faith, I can be stymied by worries over what is “real” versus “in my head”. Where is the line that separates fictional archetypes and imaginative projections from a genuine encounter with an unseen deity, and what distinguishes both of those experiences from the voices heard by the mentally ill?

I’ve never forgotten a Buddhist workshop I took a decade ago, which gave me a refreshing perspective on the question. The Western philosophical model, especially in its post-Enlightenment form, draws a sharp distinction between subjective and objective, self and world, which is foreign to Eastern thought. In Buddhism, the instructor said, the interpersonal realm of consensus reality and the interior landscape of the individual are both equally real, in the sense that they are part of our experience, and both equally illusory, because these transient specific manifestations are not the ultimate form of pure Being.

So what is sanity? Western rationalist psychology tries to diminish your involvement with the voices in your mind, and to refocus your attention toward external interactions. By contrast, a spiritual or artistic ideal of mental health might emphasize mindfulness about which realm you are in, and equanimity or non-attachment so that you don’t get lost in one dimension and lose touch with the others.

Sometimes it seems to me that religion, like writing a novel, is an attempt to introduce other people to your imaginary friends. If enough of them also develop a relationship with Jesus (or Captain Kirk), your inner world becomes the consensus reality, and you’ve just shifted the reference point of sanity in your direction. Conversely, what we call mental illness may be a real inner experience that the patient can’t get others to believe, or can’t express in consensus language because she confuses literal facts with metaphors. (For more on this point, see Gail Hornstein’s groundbreaking book Agnes’s Jacket: A Psychologist’s Search for the Meanings of Madness.)

And then something happens that really does feel like a message from the Beyond. While undertaking the Great Book Purge of my office this week, I discovered one of my notebooks from 2000-2001. (My inner child must have bought this one, since the cover art is a wistful dragon on a bed of petunias, gazing at the moon.) In it I found my notes from the Buddhist workshop I mentioned above, as well as the teacher’s name and the workshop theme, which I’d been unable to recall: “The Spiritual Problem of Giving Yourself Away” by Polly Young-Eisendrath, April 29, 2001, at Tibet House.

Here are some excerpts from those notes. It appears that this was a workshop for women about boundaries and self-realization versus selflessness in our spiritual practice. Any errors in reproducing the original presentation are my own.

…Many religious teachings focus on letting go of the individual self, particularly in meditation. But women who read that often feel, mistakenly, that they should stop working on self-development. But what’s meant by letting go is that you give up a certain attitude towards the self — not that you give up functioning as a self.

The religious language of letting go presumes that you already have a secure personal sovereignty over yourself — that you have been acting on your free will and are conscious of your intentions. Self-determination is part of a spiritual life, not something you want to give up…Self-determination means that you know you can live with the consequences of what you do…


…Buddhism involves ethical practice, wisdom practice, and meditation practice. You need all three. After a certain point, you can’t do it alone. If you go too deeply into meditation practice, you may have powerful mental experiences that you can’t understand or cope with by yourself.

Impermanence, change, limitation, interdependence, and compassion are the conditions of reality. Also mystery — the uniqueness of every moment, every being, inspires awe. Learning to cope with these conditions is the goal of all religions.

A meditative state dissolves the sense of consensual reality (the agreed-on world of ordinary perceptions), which can be dangerous. You may get lost in the other mental realm of images and forces, the archetypes [Young-Eisendrath is a Jungian], etc. Shamans can go into that realm and draw power from it. The goal is to push beyond that to experience the transcendent source. You don’t want to be attached to that realm, because then you get distracted or go nuts.

People kill each other over religion because they identify with some image in that realm, and then say “my entity kicks your entity’s ass”. They’re not experiencing the oneness of things, but are stuck on the images or manifestations without having clarity in observing them…

The realm of the archetypes is real, though it isn’t the ultimate reality. That’s because Buddhism doesn’t make the distinction between self and object. The angel is in your head and is real. You just have to know which realm a thing belongs to! Your goal, in this life, is not to stay in the transcendent source, but to be more mindful in every realm, including the ordinary one where we spend most of our time…

Other gems in this notebook include a career self-assessment questionnaire from 2000, when I quit the legal profession:

If I had six months to live, I would: Get baptized. Eat fattening food whenever I wanted it. Finish my damn novel already. Write nasty letters to any influential person I’m currently pissed at. Write a short inspirational book about why I came to Jesus.”

“Write a description of myself: My personal style is intellectually rigorous but emotionally nurturing…Outside work, my interests are poetry, spirituality, dolls, cooking, fashion, and a lot of other girly shit.”

And who can argue with this bit of wisdom from my 2002 New York State driver’s ed class: “When can you use a horn? Not when passing a horse — you might scare it.”

I got my license (in Massachusetts) on the fifth try. The horse was not to blame.

Thoughts from the Great Book Purge of 2014

This year, I resolved to lose 200 pounds. Of books.

We are surgically attached to our iPhones in this house, so much so that Shane’s first instance of imaginative play was holding a block up to his ear and pretending to talk to it. However, I haven’t been able to warm up to reading e-books. Reading screen-by-screen feels like driving at night, with no way to see what’s outside the small range of my headlights. I like to be able to orient myself, at a glance, about what came before and how far along I am. If a book isn’t lying on my bedside table, kitchen table, bathroom shelf, dining room table, or desk, I forget that I’m reading it. As a result, my ever-growing collection is shelved in archaeological strata rather than any thematic order.

Last summer, I undertook the Great Closet Purge. Out went the uncomfortable lawyer shoes and matronly satin blouses, the miniskirts from my single year of stress-induced slenderness, and the flowery print dresses that had served my mother’s fantasy of molding a 1980s teenager into a Victorian ingenue. Something had shifted inside me, letting me understand that I could release these past selves while still honoring them.

The Great Book Purge has a similar intention. Besides de-cluttering my space, I’m seizing this opportunity to face and accept the changes in my worldview over the past two decades.

It’s making me very uncomfortable.

How did my idea of a good book go from Dinesh D’Souza’s Illiberal Education to Richard Labonte’s Best of Best Gay Erotica 2? Why do I no longer have the patience to read sentences like, “This is a form of postmodern liberationist hermeneutics in which the non-relativist convictions of a liberation ethic stand in uneasy tension with the assumption that hermeneutics has no critical-objective element”?[1]

When I was first drawn to Christianity as a teenager, the elegant complexity and logical coherence of Christian theology comprised a big part of the appeal. Right now, I happen to be in a stage of development where those same features feel like intellectual defenses against the direct apprehension of God in my heart and my body. I believe that head and heart will come into greater equilibrium down the line, so I’m not tossing all my academic books. The other night I opened to a random page in Paul Hessert’s Christ and the End of Meaning, a book I’ve owned for two decades and never read, and wrestled with a passage about the gap between “God” as a religious concept and THE LORD as an actually experienced Presence.[2] That’s what I’m talking about — or not talking about!

Rather than the accessibility of the writing style, the weightiest factor in my book purge is whether the author is conscious of the limitations and privileges of his subject position, as Hessert appears to be. Because I’m bringing the personal and empathetic aspects of religion into the foreground as never before, I have to feel a relationship of trust toward an author, and that requires a certain measure of political self-awareness and psychological transparency on his part. (I’m deliberately using the male pronoun.)

Thus, I have trouble getting past a passage like this one, although the rest of the book seems reasonably progressive and egalitarian for a Baptist professor. The author is posing a hypothetical to illustrate how a pastor might apply the Biblical rule against divorce when a parishioner is being beaten by her husband:

“I must (among other things) make at least some tentative moral judgment about what levels and kinds of spousal violence warrant divorcing a violent spouse…I can analogize from my presumptive rule against divorce only if I can establish for myself the kinds of cases of spousal violence under which the rule against divorce ought to be observed.”[3]

I’ll make it easy for you, Chuck: NONE OF THEM.

To me, this quote reveals an unexamined sense of entitlement to pass judgment on a survivor’s determination of her own safety, in the name of “Biblical rules”. Christianity has a big problem with this, both because of its history of patriarchal leadership and because the Cross is a tricky symbol that can be misunderstood to encourage non-redemptive suffering. I believe a person has an absolute right to escape abuse, and we grossly misconceive religious morality when we treat it as a source of competing interests to “balance” against her survival.

Because of my greater understanding of trauma and the false beliefs it induces, most of my heavily Calvinist-evangelical books are also destined for a new home. That sense of pervasive badness and helplessness, in myself and humanity generally, now seems like an artifact of my unsafe upbringing. The further I get from that self-concept, the more I feel clear, energized, compassionate, creative, and loved by God. But I honor that worldview as a transitional resting place on the way to where I am now. Liberals, if you know a Calvinist, be nice to her. Someone probably messed with her pretty badly. Don’t brush her off with the feel-good foolishness that “sin is just an illusion”. That’s why Who Told You That You Were Naked? is also on the discard pile (despite its enticing title), with my margin notes from the 1990s saying “No, abuse is real!”[4]

And while we’re on the subject of wishful thinking, my newfound determination to dispel all psychological illusions is making me generally suspicious of theology, and even of faith itself. Both liberal and conservative religious books seem united in pushing people’s attention away from themselves and out toward some more-worthy “other”, either a morally superior deity or the unfortunate neighbor in need of our charity. From an Alice Miller perspective, this looks like a concerted effort to avoid feeling our own trauma and caring for the neglected child inside. Mainstream theology tells us: “We are bad but God is good…we are helpless but God is in control…we are selfish but others deserve the sacrifice of our lives.” What is that except a collective elaboration of the protective denial that forced us to idealize our abusive parents?

Truth be told, my magical-thinking machine hasn’t worked right since 2009, when I underwent a painful break with my evangelical friends over “the Gay Issue” at the same time as a longed-for adoption match fell through. Bitterly, I saw in retrospect how I’d ignored the warning signs in both situations, taking at face value the selective facts that supported my longing for love and connection.

And now that I do have a child at last, I’m even less sure what to make of God’s role in all this. Like the Psalmist, I want to thank and praise God for fulfilling God’s promises–but while I was wandering in the wilderness, it wasn’t apparent that anything had been promised to me. I wasn’t Sarai, Hannah, Elizabeth or Mary. I received no prophecy, no guarantees. When friends would say, “I believe God will send you the child who’s meant to be yours,” I wanted to scream, How do you know anything about it? The folks in my life who had slung God-talk most confidently were also the ones whose God was cruel and arbitrary toward non-heteronormative love. Why shouldn’t I fear that my infertility, like a same-sex attraction, made me one of God’s cast-offs? My subsequent good fortune feels equally random, unless I can find the error in this whole way of thinking about God’s sovereignty and human suffering.

Hessert’s distinction between “God”-as-concept and THE LORD suggests a way out of dead-end theodicies. We can’t think our way through the problem of pain, but we can recognize the struggle as the holy ground where we encounter God. He writes:

“LORD,” then, is not synonymous with “God” in the language of order or “Supreme Being” (or some other concept) of Western philosophy. We are likely to misinterpret “The LORD works vindication and justice for all who are oppressed” (Ps. 103:6) as “There is a Supreme Being who controls history providentially so that social justice is divinely assured, whatever people may do.” This is patently not the case…

[W]e can avoid begging the question as to whether or not there is a “Supreme Being” and to what extent this Being controls history. We can say simply that the working of social justice, vindicating the oppressed, is one of those contexts in which “the LORD” is to be named. We may not always see vindication and justice where we should like to. But where they are evident, the awe attending the mystery bordering our experience is called forth.[5]

That’s the kind of faith that attracts me now: A practiced readiness to notice the in-breaking of God’s presence, but without any required conceptual filters or compulsory emotions (optimism, self-abasement) that interfere with clear perception of what is actually happening in my world.

Bauckham & Hart’s Hope Against Hope (which I also haven’t read yet) is on the keeper pile because of this passage:

Not all hopelessness is bad for us, let alone dehumanizing. Hopelessness can be a perfectly healthy condition and, correspondingly, hope can be pathological…Hope has its legitimate limits, and it is vital that we identify them correctly lest we mistakenly invest ourselves in a dead end, an option with no future…

[H]ope is no mere heroic subjective disposition of the individual, an attitude which, regardless of what faces it, soldiers on, refusing to accept defeat long after the battle has been lost, convinced that through its striving and contrivance things may yet be turned around. Real hope is far less focused on its own capabilities. It is not concerned with some supposed right or capacity to choose and to create for itself the reality which it desires. Real hope is essentially rooted in the qualities and capacities of otherness, of that which lies beyond itself in other people, in the ‘real world’. It is, in [Jesuit writer William] Lynch’s words, ‘an interior sense that there is help on the outside of us’…In [George] Steiner’s sense it is a wager on transcendence, on something which lies beyond us, as yet unseen but, we believe, real enough.[6]

You had me at George Steiner.

“When the word of the poet ceases, a great light begins.”

[1] Charles H. Cosgrove, Appealing to Scripture in Moral Debate: Five Hermeneutical Rules (Eerdmans, 2002), p.164.
[2] Paul Hessert, Christ and the End of Meaning: The Theology of Passion (Element, 1993), pp.68-75.
[3] Cosgrove, p.71.
[4] John Jacob Raub, Who Told You That You Were Naked? (Crossroad, 1992).
[5] Hessert, pp.73-74.
[6] Richard Bauckham & Trevor Hart, Hope Against Hope: Christian Eschatology at the Turn of the Millennium (Eerdmans, 1999), p.62.