The idea that some of the behaviours we see in churches could drive some women and men over the edge, is an idea seldom contemplated. After all, abuse of any sort is seen as wrongdoing, right? Therefore, any message that follows should make the church’s stance and conscience clear, right? In recent times, I have had to state and restate this message and, in all honesty, it troubles me.
I have found that when considering theology and any sort of emotional abuse, we have to realise that religious or spiritual factors are central to a victim’s understanding and response. As we unpack and explore, we find either his/her own faith and the support of Church can be vital in helping the healing process, while a lack of understanding regarding the biblical perspective on abusive relationships by the victim – or those he/she turns to for spiritual guidance and support – can add to the emotional, physical and financial hurdles already faced.
In a further attempt to unpack this a bit more, it seems very few (beyond those interested in research projects) are interested in examining just how churches contribute to creating a perfect storm of complicit behaviours. These behaviours often have tragic results for those suffering abuse. Those in the fold are unlikely to find topics such as abuse – whether domestic, physical or emotional – palatable, especially when presented in combination.
The lived experience of people (women, in particular) is a collusion of silence and a denial of this powerful influence.
Ironically, many churches have created programmes for ostracised and marginalised victims with messages of care and support. They are a safe space away from the harm and the aggression of overt bullies. So, an expectation is set up that churches can play a constructive role in healing. Hope is offered. Connections are made. Relationships are forged. Time is spent… but here I offer a word of caution. If the main presenting issue is not dealt with, then hope is dashed. As any psychologist will tell you, hopelessness is a very dangerous state to be in for too long.
There are still a few churches that will advocate the idea of “praying the problem away” with a belief “nothing is impossible for God”. And while I too believe this, we cannot ignore the research and experience of care professionals, which tell us the behaviours of systematic abusers do not change without structured intervention.
Additionally, in many churches we teach that what happens away from Church is your ‘private business’, meaning that desperate women and men may start to see other actions as a viable and reasonable way out of their misery. This should start alarm bells ringing within the sphere of leadership. But having conversations about these kinds of taboo issues is almost non-existent in many churches, and so both women and men are left to struggle, meditate and fend for themselves – without any support.
As caring and restorative spaces, our churches need to realise the dynamics we are helping to create within our congregations. Together, we need to sort out our contradictions, own up to our deficits, and realise that mercy and justice are the fingerprints of God’s DNA.
It is time to sing a different tune to those who are wounded among us. If churches cannot offer hope then we need to change, lest our witness is ineffective. So, as we prepare for Easter, let us remember the act of the Last Supper, and that after Jesus’ death, there is the life in the resurrection. Jesus continually reminds the disciples to be prepared. More importantly, He said He was preparing a place for them. This “large furnished room” of the Gospel is also our spacious and vast home here below. It is called the Church, where there is – and must be – room for everyone, particularly those who are suffering, marginalised and treated unjustly.
As Christians, we declare God alone is sovereign. It was true then and remains true today. Therefore, the Old Testament prophets, whom we draw inspiration from, can be seen as women and men speaking out, and they were anything but silent. Instead, they spoke about tough issues in public, with an emphasis on doing what is right and just. These messages must remain at the heart of the Gospel message.
The Easter message is a message for everyone. It is here we see and hear the real perspective of God, found in acts of reconciliation and restoration – none of which can come about without justice, kindness and humility for all peoples everywhere.
Happy Easter to all!