Discover more from Christian Ethics in the Wild
Of Course Church Will Hurt Us: How Could It Not?
Examining the Traumatic Church Discourse, Part One
What if harm is an enduring feature of living in the world?
Harm and Life in the Church: A Brief Prologue
For the next four issues, I’m going to be talking about a tricky topic: the harm which happens in church, and what to make of it. We’ll explore how ordinary harm has become conflated with the language of abuse, how this confusion occurs, and what we might do about it. There has been much good commentary about religious abuse, but what I want to do is ask about something more ordinary: the harm which happens when we, creatures inhabiting a world in which sin is operative, go to church.
How do we name that kind of harm? What does it have to do with religious abuse, which has received so much attention in the last few years?
In advance, I want to dedicate this series to my minister friends, the wounded for whom the trauma they underwent is real and enduring. It is dedicated to my friends who have endured abuse, who have lost faith because of the wolves. And it is dedicated to those that have experienced ordinary harm, that our lives might be ongoing repentance and repair.
Harm (and Church Harm) As An Enduring Feature of the World
If you were alive in 2022 and vaguely paying attention to Christian media, there was one ring that ruled them all: The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill. It was a true juggernaut, capturing broad attention from across the spectrum of Christendom. There were approvers and detractors; it propelled adjacent books into bestseller status, and changed the game on how people began to engage in analysis with their own churches.
And most of all, the series traded on a single, vaguely-defined term, religious abuse, bringing with it another term has become common parlance: religious trauma.
In a very short time, the landscape has become awash with trainings in trauma-informed ministry, analyses of religious trauma, of depictions of power abuses and great attention given to the manifold failures of leaders within Christian life. New organizations, new disciplinary literature, and countless popular conversations centering around these twin terms of religious abuse and religious trauma came into their own in 2022.
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From the start, let me be clear: religious abuse happens.
I have sat with students who have left churches which were genuinely abusive, who had youth ministers who seduced and raped them, who had ministers so narcissist that they orchestrated ostracizations of saints. I have had too many friends to count fired from ministry positions because of egotistical and venomous vipers, whitewashed tombs with dead bones. These things are real, and damaging to souls in ways which Our Lord names as putting the offender within a hair’s breadth of damnation. That there has been a new attentiveness to abusive ministers, and abusive congregations, across denominations, is right and good.
The actions of abuse—acts of intentional cruelty and malice—stands apart here, because abuse operate with intention to harm and these actions come with greater magnitude. When it happens from ministers, the trust broken is more profound and the damage to the soul accordingly more acute. When it happens from the congregation toward the minister, it is soul-damaging and destructive, for entire ministry trajectories, for lives of ministers and their families.
Concerns about abuse always being just around the corner has produced new degrees of suspicion which are present across the landscape. This in turn has bred both scrupulosity by some churches and defensiveness by other churches. I do not think this was the intent by any means, but the effect popularly is this: all discussions of harm that occurs within churches now falls under the auspices of potential abuse.
One of the bedrock convictions of the Christian faith is that sin is a pervasive feature of the world. Or more directly: ordinary harm is a downstream effect of sin, is an ongoing feature to church, and to all aspects of the world.
But, to begin, some definitions, and some distinctions that I’ll be using throughout:
Ordinary harm is the pervasive effect of sinners inhabiting a church together, manifested in intentional and unintentional sins toward others. Abuse is sin manifested as an intentional (acute or long-term) attack. Trauma is the after-effects of abuse or harm.
For these distinctions, I draw largely on the American Psychological Association’s definitions of these things, included in the notes below.
As you see in the definitions, the end result of both ordinary harms and abuse can be trauma, a long-term effect on the person that affects them bodily, psychologically, and spiritually. In terms of what creates “trauma” then, by the APA’s lights, it’s pretty murky, and largely a matter of the subject’s experience and internalization of the events. Accordingly, an approach which is sensitive to tending to religious trauma gathers up all potential sources of harm in its wake, and defends against both grooming ministers and cranky grandmothers, pernicious congregations and immature ones as potentially trauma-inducing features of church life.
This may seem hairsplitting, but the distinction I’m after between abuse and harm is not of "sin versus not sin": it is one of "sin as pervasive attack" versus "sin as ordinary feature of the world."
Neither is to be defended. Harm, at this level, remains an effect of sin, however it happens. At their best, churches are not havens from these sins we drag in the front door: churches are bodies of people in whom the Holy Spirit is at work through the Son to the praise of the Father. And this harm happens through these persons, humans through whom errors are made, and in whom legacies of sin and habits of vice are being undone. Because the church is a body of persons undergoing their healing in Christ, harm will still happen in the best of churches: it makes no sense to talk about sanctification or healing within the body unless there is something to be healed from.
The church is a body, thus, in which this sin be openly talked about, and openly dealt with. When churches devolve into places obsessed with life and health and goodness--into therapeutic bubbles--they treat sin as a the bug in the system, a mistake or a blip, as opposed to an intractable question for any account of church life. And it is here, then, that all harms become subsumed into the category of the potentially trauma-inducing, and in the end, as abuse waiting to happen.
It is not as if Christians in other centuries were not aware of these dynamics, that even their best intentions might very well cause harm. The reason that, in most major church traditions, the prayers of forgiveness and the receiving of pardon matter is that, absent this, the entire anthropology of a church is lost.Sin persists, and we, frail creatures of dust and grace, are being made new—but it should be no surprise that churches and their members are not immune from sin, and particularly, not immune from dealing harm to one another.
But ordinary harms are not abuses, and the treatment of the sinfulness of the church-as-such as a potential trauma factory is unhelpful: the harm we experience from others do damage us and others, but it is a harm which we should understand as facets of an ordinary world suffering the pervasive conditions of sin.
And as such, it calls forth a different, ongoing culture of repair and repentance.
Apart from the confusion this conflation brings, the conflation between harm and abuse has another side to it. Treating all manner of harm in ministry as species of religious abuse diminishes our ability to name the damage to victims of abuse—both congregants and ministers. And it also destroys our ability to name the damage of ordinary harm—that of slights, biases, and wronging another person in word or deed—accurately in any other language than that of psychological malice. As much as I have might have been wounded by the speech, assumptions, or communications by others in churches, it is disrespectful of those who have suffered religious abuse for me to elevate those events to the language of abuse and trauma.
Such ordinary harms that we undergo in church are frequently (but not always!) unintentional, the result of sinners operating in the world in blind, ideological, and uncritical ways. They are the result of the sin which we all share in and all return back around.And likewise, repair is needed, but this repair for these things is regular if not also painful: asking for forgiveness, making known the harms done, open communication, repentance, attention to the wounded and to the weak.
There is a time for shouting from the rooftops when a wolf is in among the flock. But the harms which are a feature of any shared life are not that time. They are invitations into a difficult way of goodness which is more interested in repairing our common life than in publicizing grievances which are better dealt with in grace-filled household feats of strength.
In the next installment, we’ll ask what to make of the new religious trauma industry which has emerged in the last twenty (yes, it’s recent!) years.
Reading: Revisited Favale’s The Genesis of Gender for Zoom group—the audio will be available for subscribers later this week. Albert Borgmann’s Technology and the Character of Contemporary Life, which I’ll draw in next time. Oliver O’Donovan’s Begotten or Made, and Stephen Shakespeare’s Being the Body of Christ in the Age of Management. What is Christmas break for if not reading the things waiting their turn?
This is not to say that sin is “intrinsic” to creation or to human nature: Christians should be the first to say that sin is a parasite upon God’s good creation, able to exist only because there is something for sin to unravel and corrupt.
APA on abuse:
interactions in which one person behaves in a cruel, violent, demeaning, or invasive manner toward another person or an animal. The term most commonly implies physical mistreatment but also encompasses sexual and psychological (emotional) mistreatment.
APA on trauma:
Trauma is an emotional response to a terrible event like an accident, rape, or natural disaster. Immediately after the event, shock and denial are typical. Longer term reactions include unpredictable emotions, flashbacks, strained relationships, and physical symptoms like headaches or nausea.
Yes: you have been made new in Christ! Yes: the Spirit is making all things new! Believe the good news! And forgiveness means that there is something to forgive, something which is sin. It is the case, I think, that we, following Karl Barth, focus on the exemplarity and singularity of Jesus, and let that illuminate the ways in which sin has taken hold of us. This order allows us to both see the damage, and to see it without assuming that we know the depths of it in advance. Our increase in holiness, the saints knew, always comes with an increasing awareness of these depths, but not because we seek to plumb these depths first.
There are real disparities here, because the way we return harms do not occur in a neutral world, but occur in a world in which certain disparities are not only normalized, but frequently unseen. The point is this: disparity helps us to name the way in which sin occurs, but not whether sin occurs.