Survivors in Church: Our Spiritual Gifts

In this second post in my occasional series on abuse survivors in the church, I’d like to reflect on some of the spiritual gifts that have emerged through my recovery, and how the church could offer greater scope for them to be exercised.

It’s a delicate matter even to frame the issue this way. Our pain-avoidant culture is too hasty to point out the silver linings while we’re still shivering under the rain clouds. As soon as I try to appreciate my personal growth, I become afraid of giving listeners an opening to minimize the suffering that spurred it. Does the empty tomb erase the cross?

Those dear tokens of his passion/Still his dazzling body bears. The foundation story of our faith cannot be reduced to either shattering violence or undefeated love. The progressive church tends to skip over this gut-wrenching paradox, foregrounding the “functional” Jesus, the competent social justice activist and moral teacher with no visible wounds. But we survivors live between the cross-pieces of love and violence. The first gift we offer the church is the invitation to an honest exploration of that place.

The other gifts I will discuss below are drawn from my experience and the experiences of my friends in recovery. Naturally, not all survivors will interpret their journey in the same way.

Clarification of beliefs:

Because of my healing work, I appreciate how our beliefs can profoundly impact our lives, for good or ill. I have clearer critical thinking about where my beliefs come from, and tools to evaluate whether they are true and nourishing for me and my community.

All abuse involves some element of brainwashing. It severs the story-spinning brain from the distress signals given off by the body and the emotions. It deliberately instills confusion about whom to trust and who is to blame for the feelings of shame and disgust. This after-effect of trauma can be one of the most difficult to undo, because by definition, it is embedded below the conscious level.

The healing method I’ve found most helpful, Inner Bonding, directs me to look inward for the “false beliefs” that I’m still running in the background, and then to identify the life-giving truth with help from my Higher Power. For instance, a very common and influential false belief is, “I am unlovable unless I do X,” where X could be pleasing an authority figure, achieving something to prove one’s worth, or making sacrifices to serve others. The truth is that we are all beloved children of God, just as we are, and while there may still be good reasons to do X, earning our right to exist is not one of them.

Retraining people’s beliefs in a Godly and life-giving direction is theoretically the church’s distinctive mission. Isn’t that the plus-factor that differentiates “church” from a social club, charity, or activist group?

You would think so, but the liberal church is in a decades-long flight from sophisticated, evaluative conversations about belief. For years I defended the conservative position that “Christianity is the only true religion,” simply because it grated on my nerves (and scared me more than I realized) when liberals tossed off the platitude, “It doesn’t matter what you believe, as long as you’re a good person.” I knew from hard experience that beliefs have everything to do with discerning what is good and being able to act on that awareness. So I got a strong signal there that no one wanted to hear about my journey out of the psychological fog. I was looking for a community of sanity in which to detox from my crazy-making home. That just wasn’t the church’s priority.

Or perhaps liberals are saying that whatever else Christianity has to offer, its religious beliefs (e.g. a personal God, the atonement, Jesus’s miracles, the cross and resurrection) have no effect on helping you choose a life of compassion versus domination, or reality versus delusion. In that case, you folks are wasting my time.

I’m frustrated that I’ve had to do my belief-repair completely outside Christian channels, figuring out on my own how to bring in the Jesus piece. And I suspect that others in the church are anxious and adrift, picking up signals of discouragement from the progressive thought-leaders that their deepest questions have no answers, or that they would rupture the social harmony if they started demanding some.

This discouragement is unnecessary. The answers aren’t really so mysterious. They only seem so because of our proliferation of thoughts, those elaborate defenses stemming from unwillingness to feel our feelings and follow the Spirit into unknown territory. Jesus said, “Everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.” (Matthew 7:8)

I’d like to give the church the gift of my testimony that this promise keeps proving itself in my experience.

Dependence on grace:

In the previous section, I mentioned the false belief that we have to earn our right to exist. It looks to me like most people in modern Western society struggle with this, because of individualism, capitalism, social mobility, and all the usual suspects. On top of that, members of marginalized groups also have to overcome internalized negative stereotypes about their identity (e.g. racism, homophobia).

For survivors of childhood abuse, the delusion of perpetual probation goes deep, because the very people who brought us into the world didn’t treat us as having inherent worth. In my house, we couldn’t say no to things that felt bad (unwelcome touch, exposure of private matters, rewriting of family history, isolation from friends), just because they felt bad. We had to give our abuser reasons why our proposed boundary was “right”. Safety depended on winning endless arguments, which isn’t really safety at all. We also learned that receiving love and kindness was conditional on not angering the person in charge — as though we actually had control over that.

The blessing is, once I understood that self-justification was an unwinnable set-up from my dysfunctional past, I had no choice but to depend completely on God’s unconditional love. Now I have a basis to achieve goals and serve others without the hindrance of anxiety about protecting my ego. (An ideal realized imperfectly thus far, of course!) Perhaps people who’ve always been able to please the relevant scorekeepers take longer to realize their need to quit the game.

I’d like to give the church the gift of encouragement that grace is really there for us and makes us feel wonderful when we rely on it.

Awareness of power dynamics:

Product liability law includes the concept of “predictable misuse”. In cases of alleged negligent design, it’s not enough for the manufacturer to show that the product should be safe when used as directed. The company also has to make it safe for other situations that can be reasonably anticipated. For instance, the intended use of a chair is for sitting, but it’s foreseeable that consumers will also stand on chairs to reach high shelves, so it might be a design defect if the chair seat collapses when stood upon.

Survivors are your theological product testers. We know better than to assume that everyone who hears a teaching will apply it with good intentions. We’re naturally hypervigilant to imagine scenarios where the teaching could be manipulated to oppress someone, or could unintentionally reinforce a listener’s self-harming false beliefs. Don’t dismiss us as paranoid. We can help make your church’s worldview nuanced and sturdy enough to withstand spiritual abusers.

Survivors make great deconstructionists. We’re sensitive to the subject position of the person speaking. We notice the kind of power imbalances that upset Jesus in Matthew 23, when he denounced the Pharisees for laying burdens on others that they didn’t bear themselves. Because we’ve been outsiders for so long, we can teach our fellow Christians not to mistake one privileged perspective for a universal norm. For instance, we can correct their naivete about institutions like the family, which the mainstream church narrative only describes in terms of safety and benevolence. Though it’s painful to shatter these illusions, only then can the church become a real refuge for domestic violence victims.

I’d like to give my church the gifts of worst-case-scenario foresight and political consciousness, so that our teachings and leadership structure are truly liberating for the most vulnerable among us.

Urgency of spiritual practice:

Survivors who pray, pray like our hair’s on fire. We don’t have the energy for religious busywork. To be worthwhile, church has to offer us strategies to get through each day. It has to supply the spiritual food of consolation, acceptance, and liberation to people who have long been famished.

Our honesty about our needs can push the church toward a healthier balance between local and remote service projects. Helping seems simpler when the beneficiaries are thousands of miles away. Creating change in our own backyard can be controversial, and we might receive uncomfortable feedback about the mixed effects of our interventions. It’s not “sexy” for a church to take care of its own members; it triggers American middle-class guilt about our privileges. But survivors just don’t care anymore about these ego defenses. It’s our turn to seek healing. If the church tells us to wait in line behind everyone else in the world, we’ll go elsewhere. Do you really want a church where the people who most desperately need Jesus become burned-out first?

I’d like to give my church the gifts of passion for God and acceptance of vulnerability.

2 comments on “Survivors in Church: Our Spiritual Gifts

  1. Jendi, I know that I have written to you in the past on another subject and that you have found my comments very difficult to read. Reading this post today is extremely difficult for someone who has not survived what you have survived. What’s hard to understand, however, is that you somehow feel that you must prove that you are worth “something” in the never-ending wake of that abuse.

    I thought all Christians agree that since we are made in the image and likeness of God we are worth a great deal objectively and that this dignity can never be taken from us whether we are in the middle of life, in the womb or in hospice.

    I know that I survived paternal emotional abuse that still affects me today but I don’t let it knowingly affect my opinion of my self-worth. As someone made in the image and likeness of God, I can’t be worth more than I am and I thank God for that.

    At the same time, I have bad days and bad moments but not as bad as yours. But even in my worst moments I have never found much help from the Church in terms of therapy. Only the sacraments have helped me. Very few priests or ministers have the skills to help, on the natural level, an abuse survivor. And I would never expect any long-term meaningful help from fellow parishioners.

    Please understand that I write this in blatant ignorance of what you are living with but also in pain from reading your post today, It’s a digital version of Edvard Munch’s “The Scream” and it’s difficult to feel so helpless from afar.

    May Easter be a blessing for you.

  2. Jendi Reiter says:

    Donal, thanks, you really do understand, and I appreciate your empathy and prayers! Right back at you. You help more than you realize. Don’t worry, I have a lot of joy, too.

    I truly believe what you said, about us receiving our unshakeable worth from being made in God’s image. It’s one reason I hang onto Christianity and remain passionate that it is worth reforming.

    I just find it sad that we have both had to lower our expectations of pastoral care and support from our church community. The sacraments are special to me too, but I can’t always bring myself to attend church because I’m too triggered by the atmosphere of denial. The Book of Common Prayer is my anchor, like Mass is for you.

    Blessed Lent and blessed Easter to you too!

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