Some Reflections on Studying Theology in Light of Trauma


The thing about studying theology is, for many of us, it’s deeply personal. I’m often asked why I study sacrament and ritual, especially since I come from a pretty low-church, evangelical background. My answer is traced back to one Sunday in September 2010, when I was lost and struggling, when I had just had my life turned upside down and my very identity shattered. I had finally made it back to a church, though I wasn’t sure I could do it, though I wasn’t sure I could be a Christian at all. But when I received Eucharist that Sunday, and knelt on the grubby orange carpet at the altar, I knew that I could. I was. Irrevocably, Christ’s own. My body, completely and inexorably, was linked to, gathered up, gathered in, part of, and comprised in the body of Christ and the bodies of all other Christians through time and space. And it is that moment of clarity and assurance of identity and entanglement that grounds the virtual entirety of my work and my life.

Yesterday I found out that the man I received the elements from that day, who created and nurtured the space in which I, skeptical at best and despairing at worst, found the Christian life to indeed be possible, livable, true, had raped a young woman in his congregation. What’s more, he had manipulated, harassed, and abused her under the guise of therapy, of counseling, of healing in the name of Christ. And as of this writing, to my knowledge, he has not expressed any remorse or acknowledged any wrongdoing.

In an important sense, this formative moment and my formative time at this church is not dependent on this man as a figurehead. The church, and the goodness of it, was what it was for me—and is what it is—through the grace of God and by the witness of so many other people who moved through that building. The church is so much more than its pastor. And yet. His presence and influence are as inextricable from my time in this church as my time in this church is from my life and work today.

So what to do? First, weep and grieve. As a survivor of sexual trauma and emotional and spiritual abuse myself, I feel this betrayal personally, as deep in my body as I felt my place at that altar. As a sister survivor with this young woman who likely has knelt in the very same place I did, I am knit together with her in stomach-churning, heart-wrenching solidarity. I am keenly aware that the binding together of persons in the Body of Christ is not simply a romantic fuzzy-warm feeling of friendship, but a real, embodied connection that makes me cry and wail and vomit. And further, it means that I am simultaneously so linked with this man and his wretchedness such that I want to carve out my own heart, throw up my own guts.

I don’t know what’s next. I’m not sure how to continue my work in light of this (re)new(ed) trauma. On the one hand, it really doesn’t change the importance of the moment of its origin. In fact, it may indeed solidify or enhance it. But also it makes it a hell of a lot more complicated and more painful for me to do this work that has been so energizing and life-giving for me.

This post has been my own navel-gazey reflections on how this situation has affected me, though I was not directly involved, which may be unfair when there is a real victim who is well deserving of our energy and attention. But I do think it is worth voicing how such acts affect far more people than the individual victim alone. So many ripples of friends are hurting, angry, and questioning. If we are entangled (as I believe we are), such evil is not contained to two people.

Finally, your theology has consequences. And if those consequences are evil, your theology needs to be burnt to ash.