When you were a little kid, I’m willing to bet that at some point, you hurt yourself. That “boo boo” (as we lovingly call them) probably bled for a while, and then developed a scab. Scabs are not pretty, and sometimes they are uncomfortable. But they are important signs that the healing process is underway. What I remember vividly about this process is that my mother chided me not to pick the scab! I don’t know the science behind this, but the “mother wit” was clear– picking the scab slows down the process. For the person doing the healing, the NOT picking is hard. Scabs are itchy and achy- they beg to be tampered with! But based on what our mothers taught us, the impending healing was worth the self control it took to wait it out. Scabs provide the protection the wound needs so that healing can occur.
Now, imagine that you are someone actively engaged in the process of healing. Your scab is nagging, itchy, uncomfortable. But you are trusting the healing process and doing the work to get better. Then, someone else comes along, and picks at your scab. What a violation! How might this interaction delay the progress you have been fighting so hard for? I want to make the argument that this is what happens for people who are working to heal from the painful violation of trauma. The trauma causes an injury and for a while, it gushes and incapacitates. Then, they begin the slow process of healing. But often the outside world is not respectful of that healing process. People don’t understand the time and effort takes to heal. And sometimes, in their insensitivity, they pick at scabs, exposing the wounds people have been trying so desperately to recover from.
Consider that survivors of sexual trauma and sexual violence are a special case. While they should be a place of protection and healing, sometimes churches unintentionally and repeatedly pick at scabs, prolonging the healing process and dampening the spirits of those who desperately want to be free. This statement might have surprised you! It is certainly not the intention of the church to hurt people. And yet, sometimes our impact is the opposite. So, let’s talk about it. What is happening and what do we need to be mindful of? It’s important to know that trauma in its many forms, disturbs the sense of safety that a person might have. For many, after a trauma, the world in general and relationships in particular begin to feel incredibly dangerous. The church is not exempt from this. I’m just going to raise a few issues, with the knowledge that this is the tip of the iceberg, and a starting point for a much larger conversation.
First, let’s talk about bodies. In this case, not necessarily the “body of Christ” but human bodies. We often do not do a good job of respecting bodies and boundaries between bodies. It starts in childhood, when we make children hug and kiss people even when they clearly don’t want to, all in effort to be “polite.” A few months ago, we all watched (most of us unsurprised) as a preacher took liberties with the body of a woman he had just met, and disrespected, on a pulpit– all streamed live on national TV. This was not something shocking, because many of us have seen something like this in our very own churches. The church, and the black church in particular, is heavily invested in body politics. Wear the right thing. Be presentable and put on your Sunday best, but don’t adorn yourself too much. If you had on the “wrong thing” then what did you expect to happen? People feel liberties to comment, touch, and police bodies that are not theirs, all for the sake of trying to ensure that people are presentable in some way. These violations that we make with the bodies of others, unwanted hugs, touches, and comments; send clear but implicit messages about blurred boundaries and recreate dangerous situations in which survivors had their safety shattered because someone did not respect the boundaries of their body. We blame victims when they do get violated, and we participate in a culture that supports rape. Picking at scabs.
In conversations about troubled relationships, we coach people to stay together no matter what, before stopping to ask if they are physically or emotionally safe. We push people to come together with the same family members who might have been the perpetrators of the trauma they experienced. We send strong messages about forgiveness, love, and reconciliation without taking the time to learn the nature of these relationships, or whether it is supportive of the individual person’s health to be connected with that person at this time. We don’t make the distinction that you can forgive someone without being closely connected to them in the way you once were. So, what they get is: Go back to your abuser. Deal with it because it’s the Christian thing to do. Often the responsibility is put on the victim rather than the abuser to resolve the issue. Picking at scabs.
Lastly, we tend to do a terrible job talking about sex! In our desire to steer people away from what we view as immoral sexual behavior, we often make the grave mistake of denying that we were designed as sexual beings. And so, our sexual questions, thoughts, and urges become taboo and forbidden. We work to deny that we are sexualixed, sometimes with the unfortunate consequence of inappropriate expressions of that repressed nature. When we can’t even talk about it, we get very little guidance on how to express our sexuality in healthy ways. Then, when people try to talk about sexual violence they have experienced, we focus on vilifying the sex part while becoming complicit in the violation itself. Picking at scabs.
With these in mind, here is a brief list of things we can do to make churches safer spaces for survivors:
Give people (starting with children) the permission to OPT OUT of physical contact with others and protect their physical space.
Err on the side of believing those who report sexual violence and sexual assaults. Less than 1% of reported assaults are fabricated, and there are many more who don’t report at all because they believe they will not be supported.
Ask people if they are physically and emotionally safe. If they say no, work to get them connected with support swiftly.
Engage in open and honest dialogue about sex and sexuality.
Hold those who violate boundaries responsible for their actions, regardless of status or power in the community. Stop holding victims liable for what was perpetrated against them.
This is just a starting point. There is much work left to do! Thanks for reading, and make Well Choices!