Churches: Ill Equipped to Help Survivors

Churches and Christians often seem ill equipped to help abuse survivors. This is because our religion has trained them to ask, “Is it right? Is it Biblical? Is it sinful? Will it harm our community?”

Whereas an abuse survivor needs to be asked, “Are you safe? Are you healthy? Are you speaking your own truth (and not just hiding behind a false self)? Are you taking steps that are right for you, (as opposed to living life to please everyone else)? What does your “gut”/heart say? Are you sure you are SAFE?

It’s not that most Christians are bad people. These are not even bad questions to ask: in certain contexts, these are exactly the questions to ask. For example, if a person is tempted to run off with his secretary, he aught to think long and hard about whether that would be right, or biblical, and what harm it would have in the larger community.

This is where our religion shines: in the black and white moments of average people tempted to sin. “The Bible says don’t do it.” That clarity has been helpful for many.

But these are not the right questions to ask survivors of abuse. In fact, they are exactly the wrong questions to ask. These questions will tend to re-trigger the deep shame that accompanies trauma. That shame will activate crippling self-doubt and brain fog, causing them to question themselves, doubt the survival instincts that are leading them out of a dangerous situation, and can cause them to robotically shut down and mechanically go back to their abuser.

And when the Christian community has these questions primarily in their minds, they will prevent them from caring adequately for an abuse survivor.

The more combative Christians will seek to silence or argue with the victim. The more thoughtful will withdraw to re-evaluate whether or not leaving is a sin. (This will take some time). Others will just not know what to say, since they lack the time or ability to render judgment on the matter, and they would not want to be caught aiding and abetting a sinner.

All this with the result that the simplest and most profound human gesture — simply being there, in a non-judgmental way, in a time of need — is precisely what many churches and Christians have such difficulty in giving.