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.


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