Pastor Elaine Heath discusses the Bible’s hope for those who have suffered through sexual assault and how the church can become a safe place for survivors.
Mutuality (MUT): In your book, We Were the Least of These, you discuss the biblical concept of Jesus making the unclean clean, and how this is a particularly powerful concept for survivors of sexual assault. As a survivor yourself, how has the church responded to you in ways that made you feel unclean?
Elaine Heath (EH): First, teachings that support patriarchy, whether they are overt or subtle, reinforce the shame and the sense of uncleanness that comes because of sexual abuse. I cannot tell you how many thousands of times I’ve heard from the pulpit, read in Christian magazines and books, and heard in Sunday school classes that women need to submit to men. And for a woman who has been assaulted, whether as an adult or a child, that taps into her sense of being overridden, violated, and unworthy—the sense that you don’t get to have a voice and you’re supposed to sit down and take it. That’s how these teachings are heard and felt by survivors.
Second, many messages from the church shame people who have been divorced, regardless of the reasons. There may be more compassion for divorced people today than in the past, but it’s still a problem. Often pastors will make blanket condemnations of divorce, without any kind of nuanced thinking. They’re not thinking at all about the many of us who are divorced because we were being battered or abused. For the survivor of violence, those kinds of statements make you feel like, “Wow, I survived violence in my family or marriage, and now I’m going to get beat up for surviving that violence. My church is going to reject me. I’m not going to be allowed to take communion, or to be a leader in some churches. Or, in some churches, I’m going to hell no matter what. There’s nothing I can do about it.” I have experienced that personally, and I know many, many people who have experienced it too.
A third problem is the church’s general obsession with sexual sin, and the failure to think of it with a nuanced and mature understanding. There’s a tendency to think of sexual sin with the assumption that everybody who participated in the sin did so willingly. There is often a failure to think of sexual sin in terms of violence done against another person. This lumps those of us who’ve been raped or who were sexually abused as children together with someone who is out there cheating on a spouse. This too taps right into the shame and the sense of uncleanness.
And fourth, the sexualization of women is a rampant problem in the church. I remember being taught when I was in my twenties and thirties that women and men cannot work together or be friends because it will always become sexual. And the problem was always the women—it was the women alone who would turn friendships into sexual relationships. Which, of course, is ridiculous! And it spills out into all kinds of other areas. When you’re a female survivor of sexual violence and you hear messages like that in the church, you’re hearing, “It was your own fault that you were sexually violated. The men couldn’t help it. You’re just female, and that overwhelms men’s ability to control themselves.”
When I was in one of my pastoral care classes in seminary, my textbook was full of warnings for the male pastor who was going to counsel a female parishioner. It said that women parishioners will often try to seduce the male pastor, so he must be very careful. He must make sure his secretary was in the room anytime he counseled with a woman, and he had to leave his door open—all safeguards so the woman wouldn’t overwhelm him. The book said nothing at all about predatory pastors, or what to do if you’re a female pastor.
This fits in with interpretations of the Bible that blame women for the fall and evil in the world, as if Eve seduced Adam. Again, this is an incorrect, patriarchal interpretation of the fall. And those teachings tap right into that sense of uncleanness, the belief that “there’s nothing I can do about this. I’m permanently warped. I was born bad.”
MUT: What specific passages in Scripture really helped you heal from the abuse and these harmful messages in the church?
EH: I think the pivot point for me was a very intense prayer experience in which I was reflecting on the passage that says, “Whatever you do to the least of these, you’ve done to me.” I realized, “Wait a minute! There was a time when I was young that I was ‘the least of these’!” I had a profound experience of seeing Jesus with me and in me, suffering with me through the things that had happened. And it just undid me! That experience and prayer stayed with me for days and days. I could scarcely think of other things—it was just constantly in my awareness. It opened my heart and mind to a different way of thinking about Jesus. I realized that Jesus is with us and in us when we experience sexual abuse, and those things are happening to him, through us. There’s a tight bonding with us in our suffering, and, as a consequence of that, then, my eyes were opened to read the Bible in new ways with a number of texts.
In my chapter on Jesus’ death and resurrection in We Were the Least of These, I explain how one aspect of Jesus’ crucifixion was explicitly sexual assault. When Jesus was stripped naked and tortured, it was an act of sexual violence. It was meant to heap complete shame upon him. I see clearly Jesus’ solidarity with those of us who’ve been raped, stripped against our will, pinned down and violated.
I also remember reading the story of the Levite and the concubine in Judges 19. I’d read it before, but by this time, I’d done a lot healing and recovery work. All of a sudden, I saw in that story every woman who is a victim of battery and murder at the hands of her religious husband. If you study the battering cycle, then you see that all those pieces are in the story. That was a turning point for me, too. I wrote an article that was taken and shared in a number of therapists’ offices. It opened up dialogue, allowing me to listen to other people’s stories and reach new levels of understanding.
MUT: As we read your book, we were struck by the story of the bleeding woman (Mark 5). How is this passage encouraging to you and to other survivors of sexual assault?
EH: There were such strict laws about ritual purity in Jewish culture. If you touched a dead body, then you were unclean. If you were a woman and you were on your menstrual cycle, then you were unclean. If you had sex, then you were unclean. If you touched someone who was unclean, then you were unclean. There were a number of things like this, and in order to be clean again, you had to complete certain rituals. The bleeding woman had been bleeding for many years, and in her culture, that made her ritually unclean. She had not been able to touch anyone or go to public worship in years. But Jesus breaks all these rules. He touches her, and she is made well.
Looking back at the Old Testament, we see that people took their gift to the altar to be sacrificed to the Lord, and that the altar made the gift clean. The altar sanctified the gift. In the book of Hebrews, there’s this very elaborate theology of Jesus being the altar, the priest, and the gift—all three at the same time. What we see in Jesus is that instead of the uncleanness rubbing off on him, Jesus’ virtue rubs off and makes the other person clean! Every time Jesus heals someone, he brings the virtue and sanctity of God and puts it on that person who is ill, who is struggling, who has been demonized. When the bleeding woman touches Jesus, he feels the virtue go out of him and into her. It’s sort of a reversal of uncleanness; the making clean, the making well. That’s what the concept of shalom is all about—shalom is the making well, the making whole, the bringing of well-being. When Jesus touches with this intent to heal, what he brings is shalom.
An important aspect of the bleeding woman’s story has to do with the theology of retribution, which blamed the victim and was common in that time and culture. If you were sick and you stayed sick, it was because you or someone in your family had sinned. People saw this woman’s problem and blamed her for it—they were ashamed to be near her. But Jesus publicly praised her. He said, “Your faith has saved you.” And what a shocking thing that was, because everyone else thought she was in that bind specifically because she had the wrong kind of faith! They blamed her for her own illness, which is what we often do in our culture to rape victims when we say, “If you’d dressed differently, then that wouldn’t have happened to you.” But Jesus restored shalom for this woman. Now she could be part of the faith community again. And maybe she could even challenge their bad theology by the fact that her faith made her well.
It is vital to remember that Jesus is not bound by our cultural and religious taboos. He’s beyond them and he’s determined to heal us, and to include and welcome those who have been marginalized in our world. He is not ashamed of us. He is not ashamed of our dirt or our illness. He is full of love and compassion, and he sees our good future and relates to us through that lens. There is a way in which Jesus is proud of us! It is amazing.
It’s these kinds of revelations that have helped heal me, and it is incredible to see the light bulbs of awareness come on for other survivors, too. It is a precious and holy thing to observe. And survivors of this kind of violence, who are healing well and who put their faith in the Lord, become conduits of extraordinary grace, prayer, compassion, and restorative power in the world.
PASTOR ELAINE RESPONDS: What redemptive steps can churches take to support survivors of sexual assault?
1. Make sure that all of our pastors and lay leaders are informed.
Ministry leaders should all learn the first steps to take to offer support to those who have suffered abuse and to recognize people who may be survivors. Almost no seminary that I know of requires this kind of a class for people who are going to be pastors. Many seminaries don’t even offer a class like this. And this is something that congregations could change by insisting that graduates need to have this training in order to work in their churches.
We all need to become much more informed about the ways in which childhood sexual abuse can set people on these trajectories in life—which include more battering and more sabotaging of one’s life—so that we can help people transition out of those cycles of behavior and relationships. We must also become much more compassionate and informed about divorce in the case of violence. Violence breaks the covenant just as surely as adultery does.
2. Ensure our teachings promote justice and healing.
We must relentlessly work to deliver the church from patriarchy and all its manifestations. This has played an important role in my healing and recovery. I turned a corner when I found CBE and realized that I was not alone in my hunch that the Bible was for women too.
We could also develop more healing liturgies for people who are in recovery from assault of different kinds. When someone is receiving spiritual direction or going for pastoral care, they will typically reach threshholds in their recovery process when they are ready to take the next step forward and let go of the past. Usually then, the spiritual director or pastor has to create a liturgy or some kind of a healing ritual. It would be helpful to have more liturgical resources for those kinds of situations, and for pastors to know where to get them.
3. Learn about and avoid trigger phrases.
There are definitely trigger phrases that can set off survivors of abuse. Here’s one: “If you don’t forgive those who sinned against you, God won’t forgive you.” Does this mean that God is weaker than our capacity to forgive? And what do we mean by forgiveness? In reality, forgiveness is a process that one enters into with God’s help, and it might take a long, long time to forgive someone for a terrible evil. Any kind of talk about women submitting to men can be another trigger, as well as any suggestions that Eve seduced Adam.
4. Provide congregants with resources and support.
Every church should form a partnership with at least one or two therapists who have special training in recovery from sexual abuse and domestic violence, so that referrals can easily be made. Do not assume that every therapist has training in this issue.
Work with local shelters to provide information to congregants about services available for persons to recover from sexual abuse, from rape, from domestic violence. Place a small pocket on the back of the stall doors in women’s bathrooms, and fill it with cards providing help lines and places to go for assistance. Small cards are easy and discrete for someone to take and put in her purse.
And finally, host Sunday school classes, small groups, and even retreats addressing sexual violence. Consider inviting a therapist who works with survivors to lead a Sunday school class or small group for several weeks. Or offer healing retreats, such as the one I describe in the back of We Were Least of These where Christian leaders who work in the area of recovery from assault and who also hold advanced theological degrees can facilitate more nuanced discussions.