1 in 3 women and 1 in 8 men in Canada are survivors of abuse. How will the church care for them?
I have heard the church described as a spiritual hospital, a place where broken people come to experience God's redemption and healing. This world is full of injustice, pain, and hard endings to painful stories. We are not promised comfort, ease or vindication in this life, but we are given the opportunity to brush up against heaven as we enter God's presence and engage in his kingdom to work alongside other believers.
Understandably, as tired, worn-down people enter the walls of a church, they have high hopes for how they will be led towards Christ. The church is meant to be the representation of the environment that each human soul is designed for. So why is the church so often unprepared to deal with the pain that this world has stitched onto people? The deepest sufferings of this world are often not only avoided in church ministry but repeated because of concealed failings and proud masks. The heart of most church leaders is to lead people from darkness into light. When the darkness is in the form of personal sin and failings, the way for a leader to help them move forward towards redemption is more clear. When the darkness comes from the world around someone, and they are suffering the effects of injustice, often the way forward feels harder for leaders to identify and explain, and they feel out of control.
A quote from Becoming a Church that Cares Well for the Abused explains it well: "Why are we more skilled at addressing sin than suffering? It is usually not because we lack compassion, but because we do not like feeling out of control and we lack training. When we minister to those who are suffering, we’re often not sure what to tell them to do next. We feel powerless and ignorant."
Now, religious leaders are not meant to be police officers, therapists or social workers and, in fact, deep damage can occur when they act as though they are. There is, though, a large gap between operating outside of the boundaries of our role and the avoidance of these issues all together.
One of the subjects most avoided within religious environments is sexual abuse, a crime which causes its victims to feel like they have a secret that must be kept at all costs. A secret that survivors don’t ask to have. Because sexuality as a whole is often ushered into a shameful corner in the church basement, sharing and getting help for sexual trauma feels unsafe and impossible, and it often is. This is one of the main reasons that, statistically, churches are a safe hiding place for abusers. Church culture can be quick to forgive and forget, treating a violent crime like a moral issue and remaining silent for the sake of maintaining a reputation, and exhibiting greater loyalty to the institution than the traumatized survivor.
This creates the perfect environment for blind trust and open doors for perpetrators; If he or she says the right things and seems like "a good Christian person " they are often not given a second thought. Which is one of the reasons, according to the Abel and Harlow Molestation Prevention Study, that for every child abuser there are twelve children that have been abused, and 93% of sex offenders describe themselves as religious.
The balance between maintaining safety while not assuming the worst about everyone is an important topic which can’t be properly dissected in this blog. However, it should be said there is a vast difference between assuming the worst of every fellow believer and being lulled into a well-meaning but blissful ignorance about things that seem like a distant folk tale.
The foundation of building the church’s ability to respond well to survivors needs to begin with awareness. When church leaders don't understand abuse, its effects, or the challenges that follow for a survivor, their response will be inadequate, and potentially harmful. The experience of a survivor is extremely hard to relate to, especially if someone hasn’t been exposed to this kind of crime in the past. But a lack of knowledge is only a piece of the problem because, in all honesty, if something like this happened to someone that they love, they would actively search for the information needed. A lack of urgency is what produces a lack of knowledge.
If the body of Christ is to reflect God's heart to survivors of sexual violence, we need to break through the discomfort and distance that the church feels towards the subject and engage with the broken reality that is our earthly home. The first and most important step is to gain awareness. Statistics Canada says that 1 in 3 women and 1 in 8 men will be sexually abused in their life and only 1 in 10 survivors report their abuse to the police. The longer the church avoids the realities of sexual violence, both inside and outside of its institutions, the more stories of disgraced churches, disillusioned believers and traumatized survivors will emerge from the body of Christ. If the church asks for God’s heart for those who have experienced injustice and acts on it, it can absolutely be that image of a hospital for broken people to experiences God’s redemption and healing.
If you are looking to learn more, here are some helpful resources:
Soon, Fullwell Leadership will be offering a module on the topic of training leaders how to respond to survivors of sexual violence. Reach out any time for more information at firstname.lastname@example.org