I have been asked to write something about healing. Personal healing. How do we heal? I find that interesting seeing as how I’m in the middle of something of a healing crisis.
I sat down a few months ago to try to write something. Simply put pen to paper or fingers to laptop in my case. I have no problem with words. Content? That’s another thing altogether. I had to stop. What is a prerequisite for healing? I had a gossamer notion floating in my head. Like a butterfly fluttering to and fro, I hadn’t yet caught it, and John Bevere’s absurd and almost spiritually abusive notion was the final push I needed to help me jump high enough to catch it.
Truth. We need to be able to tell the truth. More than that, we need to be able to recognize the truth in our circumstances and emerge from denial. This is the first step in healing. I’m convinced of it.
It sounds easy enough, but it’s not. Firstly, realizing that you are in an environment in which you cannot tell your truth can be shocking. Sometimes we might know that we are in an environment that doesn’t make us feel good. It might be a job. Perhaps it’s a faith environment like a church. We have a strong sense that we should not speak our minds lest we are criticized or alienated by leadership or our peers. Perhaps the boss or a co-worker will belittle us, and we know to keep our mouths shut. Human beings, however, are social creatures. We were made for community. With the rare exception, we all function better in some kind of group be it in a meaningful relationship, friendship, or larger community setting. Being cast out for simply disagreeing with the herd or the boss hits us in our identity, and it can be abusive at times–“There was no problem until you pointed it out. You are the problem.” That is a classic example of perceptual manipulation known as gaslighting. In a faith setting, it’s an example of spiritual abuse.
Being able to tell the truth in the context of a serious situation is vital for the shedding of denial and taking first steps to ameliorate the circumstances, but our perception of the circumstances, which is our truth, is not always welcome. Victim blaming is all too common. It’s common in marriages and long-term relationships, and it’s rampant in faith settings.
When my daughter was diagnosed with a schizophrenia spectrum disorder, it was suggested to me that she had a demon by more than a few people. This is an example of victim blaming. Why? There is no defense for such a stance. The fault of the condition of the suffering person is entirely within the state and will of the victim. You see this accusation made towards women in the church who rise in leadership and those who don’t meet the cultural expectations of a particular church setting. I have heard many people, mostly women, call other women “Jezebels” for taking care of their appearance and dressing in body-conscious clothing. Once again, this is another shade of victim blaming as well as an expression of internalized misogyny. Why? Should anything happen to one of these women like a sexual assault, for example, then the first utterance to follow from the people who criticized and judged will be, “She had it coming.”
What about sharing in a small group that there is abuse going on at home? What about sharing with a pastor that there is domestic abuse? That is a truth that must be shared. I know that I’ve shared these statistics before, but I’ll share them again because they are extremely significant. Six 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. (What Women Wish Pastors Knew: Understanding the Hopes, Hurts, Needs, and Dreams of Women in the Church by Denise George)
A healing environment is an environment that allows for and even welcomes the truth. Defining what that truth is can be very tricky because truth can often be about our perceptions. There is also the idea of what is factual. What is a fact? What is the truth? What is our perception of a situation? What do we feel? In some ways, these are all measures of our truth, and for true healing to begin and denial to fade, we must be able to explore the nuances without fear of reprisal. We must be allowed to construct a meaningful narrative without being cast out of our own story and replaced by someone else. What do I mean by this?
When a woman finally finds her courage and tells her pastor, for example, that her husband is hitting her after church every Sunday, she is sharing a significant fact with a person in leadership. She is sharing her narrative with this person. So often, however, pastors are more concerned about marriages as an entity rather than the unhealthy and even abusive power differential existing within the marriage. If a husband is abusing his wife, then he has forsaken his wedding vows. He has abandoned his wife. The goal at that point isn’t to save the marriage. The goal is to save the wife and children if there are any. Divorce should be an afterthought. Their present safety and future mental, emotional, and physical health should be paramount. When a pastor asks what she has done to provoke her husband, he essentially casts the wife out of her narrative and makes the husband the centerpiece. He is now the one to be concerned about. She must now streamline and shape her responses, moods, and attitudes in such a way that he is enabled to “be a better man”, and he is in no way held accountable for his deficiencies, neuroses, and violence.
This is the most common faith response I have seen in domestic violence scenarios. The end result is the perpetuation of abuse into the next generation and the crushing of the spirit of the victims. The faith response actually creates and reinforces co-dependency through victim blaming. Why? It does not allow for a truthful narrative. Why? Pastors are not trained to handle domestic violence:
The study also found that 65 percent of pastors had spoken one or fewer times about domestic and sexual violence, with 22 percent indicating they addressed it annually, while 33 percent mentioned it “rarely.” Ten percent of pastors said they had never taught on it.
“Based on the number of times they speak to their congregations about sexual or domestic violence each year, the majority of pastors do not consider sexual or domestic violence central to larger religious themes such as strong families, a peaceful society, pursuing holiness, social justice, etc.,” the report states. (online source)
This is striking. Domestic violence doesn’t merely cover spousal abuse. It also covers violence within families. For many people, they simply cannot share their honest narrative with friends from their faith communities because their narrative reads like a screenplay from a soap opera. Mine certainly does. Incest, abuse, kidnapping, personality disorders, domestic abuse, violence. Who wants to sit around and listen to something so…Old Testament? If we wanted to listen to that, we’d just read the Book of Job, thank you very much. This is, however, the truth for so many people, and the bigger truth is that many people have no one to tell it to. The healing process is, therefore, something of a dream. They are filled with shame. They don’t know what’s real and what’s not. They truly believe that their victimization is their fault because that’s what they were told repeatedly through implication, body language, and accusation. They have been alienated, left out, or included as an act of pity. The safe places do not exist.
For me, realizing that few safe places existed in which I could share my truth was vital. Few people have the stuffing to hear my narrative and still see me as a person not tarnished by it. Realizing this was so important. Furthermore, not placing blame on those who could not handle it was equally as important. Not everyone is going to be safe. Not everyone is going to be a friend.
More often than not, a faith community is not the place to share our complete truths. There may be one person within that community with whom you will make a true soul connection. That is what you want. Learn to invest in their life. Practice listening to them. Be their sounding board as much as they are yours. Cultivate that friendship. Let it grow at its own pace. Practice creating boundaries. What does a healthy boundary look like? You may not know if you are currently living in an abusive environment or hail from one. Boundaries are often the first thing to go when you’re being abused.
Then, find a good therapist. Therapy is the safest place to begin exploring your narrative. Oftentimes, our narratives aren’t even truthful. Our perceptions of ourselves are often terribly skewed. We don’t even star in our own stories anymore. We are just extras. Someone else has usurped the starring role, often our abuser, and we serve that person. Everything we do is influenced by their needs, wants, moods, and whims. Everything we think and believe is dependent upon what that person says to us and thinks about us. There is little to no truth in a narrative that looks like this. In my opinion, the worst part about this sort of scenario is the reinforcement provided by faith communities that insist that women submit to male authority no matter the circumstance as delineated by the above statistics. Abuse is perpetuated and victimization is actually enabled by pastoral leadership. The cycle just continues because the abuse begins in the mind at the heart of what is believed–in the narrative itself. There was never truth at all because you were never the star of your own story. And you should be.
Truth. This is the starting point. Sometimes you may only be able to take one bit of truth at a time. That’s okay. One step at a time. One day at a time. If you don’t have truth, however, then you cannot progress. You will never heal.
I Believe You: Sexual Violence and The Church by Jim Wallis