It is difficult to briefly remark on what faith communities are doing and can do to overcome the pain of abuse because persons of faith can be found at every level of intervention, education and advocacy on these issues.
I want to begin with Amanda’s story. Amanda lives with a condition known as dissociative-identity disorder, formerly known as multiple-personality disorder. She lives with several distinct personalities, most of them unaware of the others.
Amanda lived in constant fear and repeatedly tried to escape.
Moments of Amanda’s life, sometimes hours and sometimes days, are lost to her and are beyond her memory or control. She may find herself at the checkout line at the local grocery store with a cart full of food that she can’t remember picking out, or alternatively, she may find herself in an unsafe part of town, late at night, with no clear idea where she is or how she got there.
Several books, articles and made-for-TV movies have sensationalized dissociative-identity disorder (DID). Mainstream media has stigmatized the illness, as it has with other mental-health conditions, depicting sufferers as unbalanced threats to society.
At the same time, though, research bears out the truth: 97% of persons with DID have experienced repeated sexual abuse, physical abuse, severe neglect and other overwhelming trauma.
Amanda is no exception. Beginning in her infancy, she was raped on a daily basis by her father and older brother. Her mother was aware of and complicit in the torture. Amanda’s mother would savagely beat her to maintain her silence.
Amanda lived in constant fear and repeatedly tried to escape.
Escaping to the streets
Eventually, at age 15, Amanda was able to leave the hell she was raised in, only to find herself in another, equally dangerous one. Utterly alone and without resources, she began to live on the streets of a nearby city, selling sex in exchange for money to eat, sleeping wherever and whenever she could, ultimately suffering from further physical and sexual violence.
In fact, the Church failed Amanda.
As I got to know Amanda and her story, it became clear to me that the fragmentation of her psyche into multiple personalities was not an inexplicable or bizarre occurrence. Nor was she a threat to society, although society had been a constant threat to her. In Amanda, I discovered a strong woman who was determined to survive despite the circumstances of her life that sought to destroy her.
I share Amanda’s story not because it has a happy ending or because it represents a hallmark of what the Church can do in response to violence. In fact, the Church failed Amanda.
I share her story for two reasons: First is to explore what role communities of faith, and more specifically the Christian church, cannot and should not play in overcoming the pain of sexual and domestic violence. Second is to share what I believe the role of the Church should be, could be and, at our best moments, is in being part of society’s journey of healing.
Recognizing that there are many faiths represented at the 57th session of the Commission on the Status of Women taking place March 4-15, as well as many persons who do not claim a particular faith base, I want to name and claim my own perspective as one that is Christian and more specifically United Methodist. Today I speak as “Pastor Amee” and as one of the 11 million or so persons globally who believe in the Wesleyan admonition to “do no harm, do good, stay in love with God.”
The Christian framework for understanding and grappling with violence against women is both easy and difficult. Easy, because we understand, to put it quite simply, that the current state of violence and terror is not what God wants for us. Difficult because we have no easy answers.
Complicating this understanding is our view of humanity. We view humans as broken and prone to selfishness, the desire for power, and the disease of apathy, and simultaneously as beautiful, sacred and capable of incarnating holy and perfect love.
When I speak of the Christian church’s role in individually and collectively overcoming the pain of abuse, I think it is important to first acknowledge the parameters of the work of the Church. We are not a replacement for trained crisis intervention, legal advocacy, criminal-justice response or professional mental and physical health-care services.
Our strength lies not in being islands of holiness, but in building sacred bridges with our other caregivers and justice warriors who are also bringing about wholeness. When we fail to build these bridges, we are part of the problem.
Unfortunately for Amanda, the first church she found as an adult was an island. Having told only a portion of her story to the pastor Amanda said it was clear the pastor didn’t believe her. He made no offer of assistance or attempts to connect Amanda with local services. Instead, he challenged her to have a “deeper” faith, practice forgiveness and pray more.
I want to emphasize, however, that the Church can be a powerful part of the solution. Exploring one’s spiritual pathway in a safe community of faith can provide a context for survivors to make spiritual meaning of their personal journey and find reconciliation with God, with others and perhaps, most importantly, within themselves.
Unlike the abuse, this experience is not something done to them, but a journey taken by them that helps draw together the fragmented pieces of their history into a sacred collage that speaks of their wholeness and holiness in God’s eyes.
For our churches to foster this healing, however, we must:
- Be a refuge of safety, and
- Make sense.
The first should go without saying, but it can’t. The Church continues to struggle to create spaces free of violence, harassment and abuse within our own doors.
Where was the Church?
We also struggle to make sense outside our doors, meaning we struggle to have congruency between our actions and speech.
- To say that we worship a God who cares for the vulnerable and suffering and to not advocate for those who are vulnerable and suffering makes no sense.
- To profess to believe in a God of healing and then maintain that there is no brokenness among us is illogical.
This leads me to my final point on what the Church is not or should not be: The Church should not be a mechanism for simply validating a social order of patriarchy and a culture of thinly veiled misogyny. Or to put this more positively, the Church must remember its role is not to conform to society but to transform society.
As a pastor, one of my first questions as I got to know Amanda’s story was simply, “Where was the Church?”
The answer is heartbreaking: The Church was there each and every Sunday morning when Amanda’s parents dressed her and her brother in their finest clothing and drove the family into town where they were viewed as the perfect example of a “good Christian family.” Amanda’s father was a lay leader, her mother sang in the choir.
The message Amanda received from this experience was clear: The church condones my family’s behavior, and God, if there is one, has abandoned me.
Haunted by Amanda’s story
I am haunted by Amanda’s story. I ask myself: What were the signs of abuse? How did they miss them? Or did they simply not want to see them?
But a different question presses upon us all: What could have been different for Amanda? This is the complicated question we must continue to ask and work to answer, not only with our hearts and minds, but with our hands and resources.
The Church can be a place of intervention, education and agitation. We were, after all, born as a counter-cultural movement that challenged the powers and principalities of the time. To this end, we can work with our sisters and brothers within and beyond the Church to hold the powers that be accountable.
This is the point when I would normally conclude with a story about the counter-cultural life and teaching of Jesus. In closing, though, I would like to lift up a woman who taught Jesus a thing or two, an astute theologian known simply in Christian theology as the “Syrophoenician woman.”
Feeding the ‘dogs’
As the story in the Book of Mark goes, this woman came to Jesus asking him to heal her daughter. Jesus dismissed the woman saying, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”
Jesus quite rudely explained that his work was with the daughters and sons of Israel, whom he privileged as God’s children, unlike “dogs,” Gentiles such as herself.
Instead of telling Jesus off or simply turning away from these bigoted remarks, the woman turns his own words against him and comments, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”
This isn’t a story we share at Christmas or Easter in the Church. It doesn’t capture the warm, fuzzy side of Jesus that we care to look at. And yet, it’s there in our holy scriptures: a woman who successfully challenges Jesus himself to increase the scope of his healing ministry.
Just as the Syrophoenician woman challenged the Holy One, so must we challenge our holy institutions, power structures and governments to go beyond what is being done to broaden the scope of the work for those in need, both victim and perpetrator. We must use the very words “freedom and justice” to challenge others and ourselves to go beyond acts of occasional charity and token efforts to invest significant resources and engage systemically in education, prevention and cultural transformation.
The Church can be and is part of this solution of pulling together the fragments of violence into the wholeness of peace with justice. Within the Church, we call this the healing work of the hands of God, but it is perhaps more commonly and simply known as justice.