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The Church:

Friend or Foe to Abuse Survivors?

I had been on the receiving end of what has been described as emotional and verbal abuse from my parents for 18 years. It seemed that nothing I did was good enough, I was an expensive mistake. I grew up in the knowledge that I could never be likeable, useful or loved.

At 18, I left home to go to university. I considered myself independent and felt pressured by parental demands for two phone calls and a letter every week. I just didn't have that much news to tell. The phone calls would be a reinforcement of all they had instilled in me, my worthlessness, my poor results, my inability to cope alone, the vast expense of my degree. Whenever I volunteered to drop out and end the expense, they refused.

Tired of being in the line of fire, I took a summer job so I wouldn't have to go back to their house. I reasoned that I would pay my own way, and reduce their expenditure. They responded by throwing me out and saying they never wanted to hear from me again, then calling a week later to find out why I hadn't called.

I was a member of the Christian Union (CU) of the university, and part of the local church. Three of my four housemates were Christian. My housemates were well aware of my background. All it took was one visit from my parents, and my house was turned into a battlefield. They had come and been nice and normal. There had been no screeched insults, no suicide threats, no obvious manipulation, no shouting.

Suddenly I was an obnoxious rebel trying to destroy my long suffering parents. My housemates said I should apologise for my behaviour in getting a job away from my parents. A church elder told me they were only trying to help me and I should do as my parents wanted. They wanted me to be their little girl again and submit to interrogations about my life, give them my diary to read, allow my letters to be intercepted and read, my belongings to be searched, my soul destroyed. Very few people in the CU believed me.

Exodus 20:12

Honor your father and your mother, so that you may live long in the land the LORD your God is giving you.

This verse was used as a hot iron to brand me: "Reject," "Ungrateful," "Failure." I withdrew from my housemates and spent every day I could with my (then) boyfriend (now husband) and my future in-laws. I was condemned for that too.

The CU disapproved of my behaviour. I was the subject of gossip. Few people asked my reasons, and fewer still believed me. Christians condemned me for trying to leave an abusive situation and I hated them for it. The church was my enemy. It seemed everyone was taking pot shots at me from their safe, happy, abuse free backgrounds. I cut contact with those intent on wounding me when I graduated.

Now, several years later, I find myself in church again. My history is known here and is met with understanding. I am not alone in having a childhood that was not shiny and happy, and I am not condemned for that. The congregation is encouraged to be real and truthful with each other. Each truth I have let out has been met with compassion, and occasionally shock, but never condemnation.

People call each other to check in, not to gossip about the latest news of Joe Christian. People pray for each other. "Lord bless Jane" is not part of the vocabulary. "Lord, please help Jane get through this week without cutting herself" is. And people pray consistently for others, not just on Sundays and at home groups. Battered and wounded Christians are part of the average congregation here, not a fringe to be avoided. Recommendations for doctors and counselling are swapped by those who have been though this before.

You are not expected to get better overnight. Healing is a long haul. There isn't any pressure to suddenly transform into one of the shiny happy people. Quite the reverse, given that this church values honesty and openness. Scripture has not been used as a weapon, but as a tool for learning just how to do this "Christian Life" thing.

The atmosphere is friendly and caring. Telephone numbers are published in regular lists so we can keep in contact. Close relationships are formed in the home groups, reinforced on Sundays and through the week. When someone is ill or in need, a schedule is drawn up to regulate who provides which meal, and when the baby sitters should arrive.

Two churches, with radically different responses to a survivor. Toxic Christians like my old CU shoot the wounded and condemn the victim. This is not how it should be, not how God wants his church to behave.

Romans 15:1-7

We who are strong ought to bear with the failings of the weak and not to please ourselves. Each of us should please his neighbor for his good, to build him up. For even Christ did not please himself but, as it is written: "The insults of those who insult you have fallen on me." For everything that was written in the past was written to teach us, so that through endurance and the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope.

May the God who gives endurance and encouragement give you a spirit of unity among yourselves as you follow Christ Jesus, so that with one heart and mouth you may glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God.

 

Galatians 6:2

Carry each other's burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.

 

Colossians 3:12-14

Therefore, as God's chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.

This is how the church should behave. "Bear with" does not mean bludgeon with misplaced scripture, condemn or ignore.

In the end, it comes down to people. The church is made up of imperfect people. Many of them have no idea of what it feels like to have been abused. They don't understand the scale of the pain, and can be insensitive enough to brush it aside as a minor inconvenience in a way no fellow survivor would even consider.

Not every church will label a survivor as a spiritual lightweight in need of discipline. Not every church is waiting for the wounded with bandages and love. It is not spiritual to stand in the line of fire when you can walk away. But it would be foolish to check yourself out of the hospital because of one dirty room. The church should be our friend, and not our foe. Forgive us when we have failed.

Copyright © 2000 Alison Hawke