Give all your worries and cares to God, for he cares about you. 1 Peter 5:7A little over a week ago, a video surfaced showing a candidate for President of the United States bragging about how and where he could touch women. Those of us watching the debate last Sunday night heard him dismiss his vulgar and violent behavior as locker room talk. Since then, I’ve amazed and inspired by the number of people who have come forward to talk about their own experiences of sexual assault. I’m not just talking about the women who came forward last week to talk publically about how this candidate abused them. I’m also talking about the many women, and some men, who heard these vile comments and found the quiet courage to tell their stories of rape and sexual assault; people who are releasing their shame; people asking for prayer; people who convinced themselves that it wasn’t that bad or that it could have been worse; people who have been kissed and groped in ways that have betrayed their worth and violated their wonder; people who were told it was their fault and have blamed themselves for their own sexual assault. Thankfully, a mighty chorus of faith voices, including many on the Christian Right, are reminding us all that this this candidate’s words cannot be dismissed as ordinary locker room banter. His attitude is indefensible in a country where 1 out of every 6 American women has been the object of an attempted or completed rape in her lifetime, and about 3% of American men as well. Bragging or joking about sexual violence is offensive and unacceptable. Perpetrators of violence, whether in action or in speech, do not recognize their victims as unique and worthy of respect. With such deep disregard and dehumanization comes shame: the internal sense of being “less than human.”
Today I’m talking about how we, as people of faith, and faith communities, can respond to emotional traumas -- not just sexual violence, but all of our losses and tragedies. We all bear the pain of those traumas within us. We all have had moments when a harmful life event takes us by surprise and overwhelms our physical, emotional, and spiritual coping mechanisms. Traumatic events are like earthquakes that fracture our core beliefs, our bedrock values, and our ways of coping. The more life- and self-threatening the shockwave, the greater the likelihood of trauma for individuals as well as for families and communities.
Spiritual practices provide ways for trauma survivors to counteract life-limiting spiritual beliefs that trauma may generate or reinforce. Whether we know it or not, we all have a theology about trauma. We all have a set of values, beliefs, and practices that inform what we think about God and how God responds to our suffering. Sometimes, our beliefs, values, and practices are life-limiting because they don’t bring freedom or justice to those who suffer. Life-limiting theology uses God to blame, shame, and cut-off survivors from healing. Unfortunately, some religious beliefs and faith communities reinforce self-blame and shame. Shame is an overall feeling that one is a bad or unworthy person. Shame is one of the emotional reactions to violence that comes with the dehumanizing dynamics of violence, an experience in which a trauma survivor’s basic dignity as a human being is violated. Sometimes, religious authorities are abusers themselves. They use religion-sanctioned shame to silence those whom they have wounded and make them feel responsible for traumatic experiences. Sometimes, people who experience trauma-related faith struggles believe in and experience God as punitive and abandoning. Trauma can cause us to question God’s love and humanity’s goodness.
On the other hand, survivors of trauma may be able to practice life-giving beliefs, values, and practices that connect them with God, with goodness, and with healing support systems. Life-giving theology can decreases anxiety and depression and increases emotional and spiritual growth after a traumatic event. Life-giving theology can help care seekers resist violence and compassionately accept the traumatic aftermath of violence in whatever ways possible. Life-giving theologies believe that God holds perpetrators accountable while taking into account the ways persons and families easily become caught in systems and cultures that often condone or ignore violence. The more we can learn to integrate life-giving theologies into our everyday lives, the more we can create spiritual practices that enact compassionate justice and wholeness into our personal lives, our families, and our cultural lives.
In church, we talk about the idea of wholeness quite a bit. Wholeness refers to a sense of completeness -- not leaving anything of significance out of the picture. In faith terms, we say human beings can become what we are created to be: being made whole in the image and likeness of God. If we strive to know God and the good, and to love God and the good, and to live God’s loving will, and if we work to integrate these three human powers in our minds, hearts and behavior, then we can become whole in the image and likeness of God.
How many of us can say that we have that kind of wholeness? That sense of completeness? That kind of integration? It’s not too difficult to see that we live in fearful and painful times. And in response many become tired, bitter, resentful, or simply bored. Where are we supposed to find nurture and strength? What will it take to survive our times? What is required of those of us who feel called to enter fully into the agony of our times to speak a word of hope?
One of the spiritual practices I want to introduce is the idea of relinquishment. The Medieval Christian mystic, Meister Eckhart said, “God is not found in the soul by any kind of addition, but by a process of subtraction.” All great spirituality is about letting go. I am not saying just get over it. That’s just irresponsible and cruel. I’m talking about a spiritual process where we become aware of our needs, empowered for change, and able to hand over shame, blame, and life-limiting theologies. Another word for it is detachment. The monk Thomas Merton put it this way: “We cannot see things in perspective until we cease to hug them to our own bosom. When we let go of them we begin to appreciate them as they really are.” Spiritual relinquishment says, “I willingly yield my care about what other people might think of me. I allow myself to keep an open mind to other interpretations of my religion and my personal spirituality. I let go of my attachment to the material things that surround me—I can take these or leave them; it is all the same. I release the negative emotions that have created a comfort zone for me—they no longer serve me. I give up the need to judge others’ thoughts and beliefs.”
Relinquishment has to do with giving -- giving all your worries and cares to God because God cares about you. Relinquishment has to do with forgiveness -- deciding not to hold on to the ways that coping with trauma makes us want to hold on to our pain, get revenge, or reinforces our role as victims. Life-giving theology, and life-giving spiritual practices speak truth to power with compassion and love. They are formed not from denial and repression, but from struggle and prayer. When we forgive we don’t forget the harm someone caused. We don’t ignore the pain or say it does not matter. I’m talking about how each of us can release bitterness and hatred, how each of us can free ourselves to move on and make choices grounded in our strength rather than victimization. Forgiveness opens our closed hearts to give and receive love fully.
Let me be very clear: Relinquishment, detachment, letting go -- these are all ways to open the heart to someone who has caused you tremendous pain. This is a practice not a test. Forgiveness is not a test of your spirituality. Many people put themselves in company with family and “friends” who are profoundly painful to be with because they feel they “should.” If your heart's not ready, then pushing harder does not create more compassion. This is not like getting through a grueling Zumba class at the gym where you feel a sense of accomplishment by being able to make it through without collapsing or fleeing. The choice to exclude a person or experience from your life can be the more compassionate choice for yourself. When your heart opens to your own suffering, and your own well-being, that compassion for yourself can open wide enough to include even the one who caused you suffering. But this is something that your heart will tell you — not something that your mind can decide or force.
Let me say it again: Spirituality is not a test. If you feel toxic when you are in the company of someone who has hurt you, then you earn no points by forcing yourself to be there and enduring the pain. Deciding to not be with someone who makes you feel terrible, even if that person is your family or “friend,” is an act of courage — honoring yourself and the truth being spiritual means we stop “trying” to be a more spiritual. It’s about practicing ways to open your heart without judgment to who you are and how you are. Trust your heart; if it is ready to embrace someone who has harmed you, it will open, without force.
Jack Kornfield offers a meditation for those who seek to offer forgiveness for those who have hurt or harmed us. Recite: “There are many ways that I have been harmed by others, abused or abandoned, knowingly or unknowingly, in thought, word, or deed.” Let yourself picture and remember these many ways. Feel the sorrow you have carried from this past and sense that you can release this burden of pain by extending forgiveness whenever your heart is ready. Now say to yourself: “I now remember the many ways others have hurt or harmed me, wounded me, out of fear, pain, confusion, and anger. I have carried this pain in my heart too long. To the extent that I am ready, I offer them forgiveness. To those who have caused me harm, I offer my forgiveness, I forgive you.” Let yourself gently repeat these directions for forgiveness until you feel a release in your heart. For some great pains you may not feel a release but only the burden and the anguish or anger you have held. Touch this softly. Be forgiving of yourself for not being ready to let go and move on. Forgiveness cannot be forced; it cannot be artificial. Simply continue the practice and let the words and images work gradually in their own way. In time you can make the forgiveness meditation a regular part of your life, letting go of the past and opening your heart to each new moment with a wise loving-kindness.