A Sea Change

I want to recommend a book.  I also want to be careful in how I go about recommending it.  I wrote at least a year ago that I questioned how the Church at large would be able to handle a hypothetical influx of emancipated sex workers.  Human trafficking aka sex trafficking is the Church’s cause du jour.  As a woman who escaped sex trafficking, I want to say that it’s about time that the general public become aware of this and do something about it.  I was abducted in 1991.  Outside of the FBI and the trafficking rings themselves, no one really knew about the existence of human trafficking at that time.  Well, we know about it now.  I can pick up a charity catalogue and donate money to trafficking causes.  The Church prays for these girls, boys, men, and women to be returned to their families and communities which is what should happen.  Then, I meet people who want to minister to these survivors.

This is where I stop short.  When I returned from captivity I was loath to return to any sort of Christian environment.  I was primarily angry at God.  I had been a good girl my entire life.  I had gone to church.  I had never seriously dated.  I would have made all those Chastity Advocates proud.  I could have worn a Maturband! Yet somehow I was taken by a predator.  There goes that notion of formula faith.  Bad things do indeed happen to good people, and there is no sound explanation for it.  Trying to return to society as a functional person knowing this to be true was very hard.  Really knowing this to be true through firsthand experience made reintegration almost impossible.  My sense of safety was shattered.  Those Christian platitudes of “God loves you.  He will protect you,” simply made no sense anymore because He hadn’t protected me before.  If His protection is predicated on His love, then perhaps He did not love me after all.  Perhaps I was innately unlovable.  I felt irredeemably defiled, and there was no visible way out for me at that time.

There is no answer to the Why question, and I did not meet a Christian who could sit with that uncertainty.  Why is that? I began to represent their doubt.  If I was such a good girl before as I claimed, then how could God allow such a horror to happen to me? Perhaps she isn’t telling the truth, they wondered.  Thus, began the shunning.

Because I was a closeted Jew raised in an evangelical environment who took faith matters very seriously and loved God fiercely, I never refrained from asking questions.  This got me into a great deal of trouble with others.  Doubt, questions, reinterpretation, and commitment to constant learning are qualities that define Judaism, but they are often not welcome in Christian circles.  If one expresses doubt, then one is often called a ‘Doubting Thomas’.  If one goes back to the original languages and texts upon which our English scriptural translations are based in order to get a better interpretation of a text, then one might be accused of being subversive particularly if one’s interpretation doesn’t agree with the leadership’s.  If one asks hard questions of God or the community particularly questions that cause discomfort, then one is often told to stop questioning and accept for this is the will of God.  If one engages the culture by having friends of differing faiths, listening to “secular” music, and reading books that are decidedly non-Christian, then one will no doubt be censured at one time or another by at least one person in their faith community calling their faith practice and devotion into question.

Someone might deny this or ask me how I could know any of this.  I know this because I’ve been in varied Christian environments, both Protestant and Catholic, for 30 years.  This is simply part of Christian culture.  It isn’t Christianity at its heart, but it is Christian culture.

Ten years ago, I left the Church.  I left the culture.  That is ultimately how I healed.  I in no way cast my faith aside.  My love for God has only increased as well as my daily experience of His presence.  I simply could not overcome the years of toxic programming and victimization that I had previously endured in an environment that perpetuates victimization.  That is a bold statement, and I try earnestly not to make such statements.  There are cultural signposts, however, within the Church that simply cannot be overlooked.  In a survey cited by Denise George in her book What Women Wish Pastors Knew: Understanding the Hopes, Hurts, Needs, and Dreams of Women in the Churchsix thousand conservative Protestant pastors were surveyed as to how they would counsel women who came to them for help with domestic violence. Twenty-six percent would counsel them to continue to “submit” to her husband, no matter what. Twenty-five percent told wives that the abuse was their own fault—for failing to submit in the first place. Astonishingly, fifty percent said women should be willing to “tolerate some level of violence” because it is better than divorce.

These statistics are shocking in their own right, but what is truly disturbing is that they represent a way of thinking.  Fifty percent of 6000 Protestant pastors believe that women should tolerate domestic violence, and twenty-five percent believe that domestic violence is a woman’s fault!  Leaders represent congregations.  If the leaders believe this, then how many followers of these pastors believe it, too? This is the Church that survivors of sex trafficking are coming home to.  That’s the Church that I came home to.  That’s why I left it.  I was told by a few people that I probably had it coming as well.  I was told that it was probably my fault that my mother tried to commit suicide.  I was told that my daughter’s neurodegenerative disease was caused by demons.  Furthermore, it was our fault.  I have been told so many ridiculous things that one would suspect we are living in the Middle Ages.  I am waiting for someone to suggest trepanation as a treatment for my migraines.

If this isn’t bad enough, I haven’t even said the S-word.  You know, sex.  In order to heal from sex trafficking and any kind of sexual abuse, you have to be able to talk about sex.  In fact, you have to be able to talk freely about it.  You have to be able to talk with people in a shame-free environment.  You have to be able to share with others exactly what happened to you so that you can finally be heard.  I told one group of people one thing that was done to me–ONE THING–and they recoiled in shock.  Do you have any idea what men and women experience while being trafficked? Forced and repeated oral sex, anal sex, gang rapes, and myriad kinds of intercourse that might make your hair curl if you don’t vomit first.  Forced sex with objects.  The list goes on and on.  If Christians, as a whole (of course, there are exceptions), can’t even discuss healthy human sexuality within their own families, then how do they suppose they are going to receive and minister to people emerging from sex trafficking?

I have met women who will discuss sexuality with a certain amount of comfort, but their discussion is most often predicated on their belief that it is a woman’s duty to satisfy her husband’s need no matter what she wants; even if she does not want to have sex at all, she must do it.  That is victimization, and this view is not even biblical.  How will that teaching land on survivors of domestic violence, sexual abuse, and survivors of sex trafficking? As a survivor of both sexual abuse and sex trafficking, I can tell you how I felt about it.  I was shocked that another woman would question my love of God by my attempt to develop an identity.  I was also shocked to hear that mainstream Christian teaching in women’s ministries perpetuates the idea that women cannot essentially say ‘no’.  We are sinning against God and our husbands if we do.  Recall my question about what the followers of these Protestant pastors might believe?

They believe things like this because the beliefs of the leadership trickle down and influence the beliefs of congregations.

I am not advocating a mass exodus from the Christian church.  My situation is unusual in that I was keeping a family secret for years to honor my grandmother.  She tasked me with hiding our family’s Jewish identity, and I did that all the while pursuing God in whatever environment I could.  Because of this, however, I am in a unique position to observe beliefs and behaviors that have developed into a culture that decidedly does not line up with the basic message of Christianity which is in Jesus’ words:

Jesus replied: “ ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’  This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

Jesus quoted from Isaiah 61 when he declared his purpose which was:

The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me,
    because the Lord has anointed me
    to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
    to proclaim freedom for the captives
    and release from darkness for the prisoners.

This is what Christian culture must measure itself by.  The Church has majored in the minors for too long.  If people are finding that they need to leave the Church to experience God, then the Church has truly become irrelevant.  I don’t believe that.  There are many people who are committed to realigning Christian culture with God’s purposes.  They want to be a part of something that does bring good news to the poor and freedom to captives.  They want to collaborate with God in His earthly movements.  Go where He goes.  Do as He does.

This all starts with taking an inventory of our beliefs and asking questions.  This is where I get to suggest a book.  It’s a book about sexuality and the American marriage.  It’s written by Rabbi Shmuley Boteach.  You may not like it.  You may be shocked by it.  You may feel validated by it.  I was.  It may be just what you’re looking for at this point in your journey.  Don’t let the title throw you off.  I have found that one of the best ways to shake off shame and judgment is by exposing myself to ideas that make me uncomfortable.  Developing curiosity around my discomfort, following it, and exploring it leads to discovery.  Pursuing that sort of breakthrough is how we discover why we believe what we believe, and, when it comes to turning a culture around, examining and changing beliefs is key.

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