Today’s post comes from Dr Karen O’Donnell (Coordinator of Centre for Contemporary Spirituality, Sarum College) and Dr Katie Cross (Lecturer in Practical Theology, University of Aberdeen).
As theologians working in the field of trauma, we make a very conscious choice to use, as much as possible, the language of those who themselves experience trauma. This means that we usually refer to people who have experienced trauma as “trauma survivors” rather than “victims.” We also avoid language of “recovery” or “healing” because trauma survivors often say that this is not what they are doing in the aftermath of trauma. Rather, they are engaged in work of post-traumatic “remaking,” an act of creation that may last a lifetime. The language of “recovery” and “healing” has long been noted as unhelpful by trauma survivors. So, it is concerning to us to see this kind of language being used in a number of recent Christian initiatives and publications about trauma. For example, a recent initiative by the Bible Society called “Navigating Trauma” intends to provide Christian-based courses run in churches or other Christian organisations. It will “use scripture to accompany participants in their journey through the effects of trauma towards a place of peace.”
What is the use of the word “trauma” in these recent initiatives and publications intended to convey? In much of the literature surrounding these initiatives and publications, there seems to be little, if any, distinction between traumatic experiences and suffering more generally. The wide range of research, from both medical perspectives and socio-cultural perspectives, indicates that such a collapsing of experiences is unhelpful, unclear and unlikely to put people in a place that is conducive to their flourishing. People who experience trauma do not simply have an ongoing reaction to an experience of suffering. Rather, they experience rupture in specific ways, and have very particular types of reactions to internal and external stimuli. Trauma is not the same as suffering, and yet trauma is a word people have taken ownership of and used in a variety of ways. It is not our intention to gatekeep people’s experiences, or to deem who is “traumatised” and who is not. However, the hyper-flexible use of the term has negative implications for those who are experiencing traumatic-response reactions that have a dramatic impact on their lives. Given that the Bible Society indicates that anyone who is clearly experiencing an ongoing mental health crisis – as many trauma survivors may do – will be signposted to professional help, who is this course actually for? Who will actually be helped if it is not for those who are experiencing traumatic-reaction responses in real-time?
Programmes such as “Navigating Trauma” discuss what to do when people with trauma come to church. They do not address what should be done when people’s trauma comes from church. The ways in which Scripture and church practices are weaponised in spiritual abuse are largely overlooked. Our previous work in Feminist Trauma Theologies (SCM Press, 2020) highlights some of the different ways that the church can actively induce or theologically legitimise trauma. The #ChurchToo movement has drawn attention to the church’s role in harbouring and covering up sexual abuse. Too often, victims exist within a culture of blame, with their trauma ascribed to their perceived spiritual faultiness and “sinful” nature (Cross, 2020). Churches can induce trauma by exclusion, turning away minority groups on the basis of gender identity and/or sexuality (Robinson, 2020). In Ghost Ship, Azariah France-Williams highlights the trauma that Black and minority ethnic Christians face while working and worshipping in institutionally racist churches (France-Williams, 2020).
Common church practices can also be distressing for those living with complex trauma. In her book Trauma and Grace (2019), theologian Serene Jones describes an encounter with “Leah.” During a communion service in their church, something in the liturgy provokes a traumatic reaction for Leah, who physically removes herself from the church building. Later, she describes her reaction to Jones in this way:
It happens to me, sometimes. I’m listening to the pastor, thinking about God and love, when suddenly I hear or see something, and it’s as if a button gets pushed inside of me. In an instant, I’m terrified; I feel like I’m going to die or get hurt very badly. My body tells me to run away, but instead, I just freeze… It was the part about Jesus’ blood and body. There was a flash in my head, and I couldn’t tell the difference between Jesus and me, and then I saw blood everywhere, and broken body parts, and I got so afraid I just disappeared.(Jones, p.7)
As trauma theologians, we recognise Leah’s story as one that is all too common. What is needed here is a clearer understanding that the church can often be a difficult place for traumatised people to navigate.
Because the church can be complicit in both creating and provoking trauma, the insistence that Scripture and practice are the best route to “healing” is misguided. It’s also important to note that routes to healing are not always possible in the ways that they are promised by new church trauma programmes. Many people who experience trauma will be engaged in some form of post-traumatic remaking for the rest of their lives. The process is one that is ongoing, complex, iterative, and chaotic. Part of the problem with a course like the one the Bible Society is providing is that it will last a certain number of weeks and then finish, with an expectation that something will have been accomplished in that time period. An informed understanding of trauma indicates that this is unlikely to be the case.
In much of this work, the traumatised person is referred to as a “mission field” or a “missional opportunity” for the church. In fact, this is not new language. In her 2015 book Suffering and the Heart of God, Diane Langberg writes this disturbing sentence: “I think a look at suffering humanity would lead to the realisation that trauma is perhaps the greatest mission field of the twenty-first century.” Not only is she conflating trauma and suffering too simply here but we have to question how is the term “mission” understood here? Mission is usually understood as primarily an evangelistic term – it is about sharing the gospel of Jesus with people who have not heard it and baptising and teaching new believers. Even in the context of the Church of England’s Five Marks of Mission, the third mark of “responding to human need by loving service” is subordinate to, and shaped and formed by the evangelistic nature of the first two marks (“proclaiming the good news of the kingdom” and to “teach, baptise and nurture new believers”). To view traumatised people as a “mission field” and your work with them as missional is to instrumentalise trauma and colour it with this “good news.” Rushing to a place of healing and resurrection and proclaiming hope in Jesus can be toxic and deadly when working with trauma survivors and takes no account of the lived reality of post-traumatic remaking.
Combined with the undistinguished use of the term “trauma”, this is an opportunistic approach to vulnerable people. Offering care and support, functioning in the very real and powerful role of witnesses to trauma experiences, is an act of love and compassion that needs to be genuinely trauma (not suffering) informed. It should not be an evangelistic opportunity designed to get more people through the doors of your church. Traumatised people are not your mission field.
Cross, Katie. ‘“I Have the Power in My Body to Make People Sin’: The Trauma of Purity Culture and the Concept of ‘Body Theodicy’” in Karen O’Donnell and Katie Cross (eds) Feminist Trauma Theologies: Body, Scripture and Church in Critical Perspective. London: SCM Press, 2020, pp.21-39.
France-Williams, A.D.A. Ghost Ship: Institutional Racism and the Church of England. London: SCM Press, 2020.
Jones, Serene. Trauma and Grace: Theology in a Ruptured World (Second Edition). Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2019.
Langberg, Dianne. Suffering and the Heart of God: How Trauma Destroys and Christ Restores. Greensboro, NC: New Growth Press, 2015.
O’Donnell, Karen and Katie Cross (eds) Feminist Trauma Theologies: Body, Scripture and Church in Critical Perspective. London: SCM Press, 2020.
Robinson, Leah. “Women in the Pulpit: A History of Oppression and Perseverance” in O’Donnell Karen and Katie Cross (eds) Feminist Trauma Theologies: Body, Scripture and Church in Critical Perspective. London: SCM Press, 2020, pp.161-179.