A few months back, I penned an article entitled Trauma-Induced Theology. In the article, I noted a few pointers:
1) The phrase “trauma-induced theology” speaks of how our trauma – both past and current – has deeply informed our understanding of God, as well as the church.
2) Due to the trauma we have experienced, or seen, many are walking the path of deconstructing their faith, and even some go as far as deconverting from the Christian faith altogether. I, myself, understand why people are traversing this path. I have walked my own path of deconstruction some years back.
3) I then offered one step on the pathway to healing – awareness. We must be aware that, in some form or fashion, our understanding of God, church, and life has been informed through our trauma, both the horrific and small stuff. Awareness is the first step toward processing and healing.
4) Out of that awareness, I encouraged the simple practices of being (rather than doing), listening (to what’s going on inside), and journaling (putting pen to paper as part of our processing).
A couple of more points before I offer some new thoughts.
Firstly, I want to define the word trauma. In her new book Trauma in the Pews, Dr. Janyne McConnaughey states that “a traumatic event [is] anything that causes an individual to feel threatened emotionally or physically, feel powerless, and/or affect their capacity to cope while overwhelmed” (p3). This is helpful and broad enough (beyond the official DSM-V text on mental disorders) to encompass a whole host of situations. Still, the broad definition is not needed to include the religious and spiritual abuse many have encountered, whether that be toward the individual him/herself or having witnessed it secondhand.
Secondly, I would be remiss to not say that the points I offered in my first article (summarized above) were no profound insights nor quick fix. I know very well that they aren’t the answer. Though I wish they were. Yet, I am aware that many don’t even know they are dealing with trauma, which means they also aren’t aware of their trigger points and why they may be reacting in the ways they are. So, if listening to a preacher, seeing a Bible, walking into a church, hearing someone mention God, etc, causes some kind of adverse reaction inside yourself (a desire to fight, flight or freeze), then this means, more times than not, that you have experienced some kind of religious harm in your life.
The more we are aware, the more we can move into processing and healing from our trauma.
As I noted above, part of processing our religious trauma will be deconstruction. Right or wrong, and I personally believe it’s ok, the spiritually abused will deconstruct at some point. The cognitive dissonance proves too much not to rethink their previously held positions.
Having said all that, I now want to share some insights to consider for both the traumatized and the non-traumatized.
I’ll start with those who have not experienced religious trauma (though, as I offered in my first article, I would say we have all most likely experienced some kind of trauma, whether large or small).
1) Please become aware of trauma yourself. We will find it immensely difficult relating to others who have experienced trauma if we aren’t aware of what it is and how it can affect us. Don’t go take up a Master’s in counseling. Engage with just a bit of learning. A couple of resources I’d offer are the books Trauma in the Pews and The Body Keeps the Score. If books aren’t your thing, then I recommend the podcast Embodied Faith.
2) Give people (i.e., the traumatized) space to process. Typically, when we encounter family and friends (or strangers) that have a problem, we move into one of two modes: a) We become the moralist exhorting the person to change their behavior or b) we become the psychologist trying to fix the person (see Larry Crabb’s book Connecting). Such is done from well-intentioned people, especially within the church. But neither of these approaches usually lead to a positive result. And, just remember what you would think of those playing the moralist or psychologist while you walked through your own pain.
3) If you do provide anything to those who have been traumatized, let it be your presence and a listening ear. Of course, prayer is appropriate, and it may be something to offer as you sit with the person and listen. But just tread that ground carefully. Don’t be fearful of prayer, but use discernment. Remember, in processing religious trauma, prayer for God’s “healing” or God’s comfort may be a trigger that sends the person reeling. As you are present and listen, you may even allow the space for them to navigate their trauma in the most helpful way available to them (of course, outside of self-harm or harm of others). This could be weeping, cursing, shouting, silence, shaking, or all the above. Hold that space for them. You don’t have to know what to do, other than be there with them. If you want a simple children’s book that helps understand this, check out The Rabbit Listened.
There could be more to add, but these three points are a great place to begin.
To the traumatized, I would offer these points below. Yet, I want to say up front that I am speaking as one who has experienced trauma of a religious nature. So, please know that I speak only from compassion. I care for those who have encountered such horrible things and for those who are deconstructing or deconverting.
1) Deconstruction is ok. On some level, everyone goes through some sort of theological transition in life. Some are major pendulum swings, some are lesser. Most experience multiple seasons of this. We all have to re-evaluate our perspectives in light of our life experiences. I’ve had to do this mostly due to my 8.5 years of living abroad, in places that weren’t the conservative evangelical sanctuaries of the American Bible Belt. Therefore, don’t despair because of deconstruction. You aren’t being “unfaithful”. [For those lamenting my encouragement of deconstruction, especially in light of postmodern and Derridean philosophy, I encourage you to read Christian philosopher Jamie Smith’s Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism.] I’ll even go so far as to say de-conversion can be ok (and I speak from one who is still taken up with the story of Jesus). I desire that people follow the real Jesus, but I also have to give space for people to leave the story altogether. Otherwise, the trauma will usually be perpetuated. I will add that, for those deconstructing, you will need to consider how to land the plane. Otherwise you’ll keep spiraling downward, which isn’t typically helpful mentally and emotionally. Why? From my small perspective, I think it could lead to nihilism, which I think will remove any and all hope that we have in life (whether religious or not). And with no hope, life loses its worth.
2) There are those who do care and love you deeply. I’m not sure who they are – family, friends, therapist, colleague, perhaps even someone in your church setting (I offer this last idea of support with trepidation). You will not make this journey alone. Two of our deepest longings as humans are to belong and matter. To whom do you belong and matter? Link with them, perhaps even deeper than you previously have.
3) We all know the adage “hurt people hurt people”. I now add to that “traumatized people traumatize people”. If someone has done something that has traumatized you, you can bank on that person having been traumatized themselves. This is not to give people a free pass for their heinous acts and say we shouldn’t hold people accountable for such. Please know that. But we all learn our behavior, which includes our own reactions to the trauma we have experienced. The traumatized can easily harm others in the same way they were traumatized. Coming to realize this has helped me to better process the trauma in my own story. I am usually not the only traumatized one in the situation. The offender had to endure their own adverse experiences in life. It hurts to know this, because then I think it asks for some grace and mercy to be extended. But this is something to at least ponder, though that consideration might be far down the line as you journey through processing your wounds.
As I did with the non-traumatized, I’ll stop with three points to contemplate for the traumatized.
A few points here and there can seem trite, I am well aware. There is so much more to say, primarily because trauma gets so deeply embedded upon our brains and bodies. Processing such can taken years of work. Still, I hope my reflections above give both the non-traumatized and traumatized some helpful insights, which come from dealing with my own trauma and walking with others who have experienced trauma.
May we continue our journey toward healing and wholeness.