I was sitting in a room with a group of women waiting for the simulcast event to begin. We had pulled couches and comfy chairs next to tables and filled our plates with salad, chips, and appetizers while exchanging introductions and catching up with those we already knew. This was my fourth year hosting this gathering; it was comfortable, without stress, and I was anticipating some great insights and inspiration as I had experienced in years past. Previously, I had left the times with a concrete call towards action, a spark of what felt like a revival, an opportunity to release things that were disrupting my movement towards what God had created me to be; in short, I had expectations.
What became clear in the first hour, however, was that there had been a shift. As the tone was being set, a specific example of weaponized force was used to present an example of how to “bring light” into the world. I froze in my seat and quickly looked to the side to see if anyone else had the same startled reaction and I observed that the other participants had become still, as well, but no one said anything. The event was happening live and in a different social context in which our group resided, so I chose to extend the benefit of the doubt that this was probably a cultural issue and that it wouldn’t impact the rest of the weekend.
But later in the evening, I was distressed to hear a speaker admonish the thousands of women listening that they “were not victims,” and my heart lurched in my chest. The woman on stage, who I do believe loves Jesus, shared her belief that anxiety and mental distress is removed if there was earnest prayer. I thought about the people in the room, myself included, that had been victims, that continued to be oppressed by systems that supported racism and sexism, that never chose to have their safety, dignity, self-worth, and voice ripped away from them. For those who have experienced trauma, abuse, neglect, and household dysfunction, we may have been able to forgive those that did us damage, but all the forgiveness that is available at this human level does not remove the symptoms of trauma that are left behind.
To say that, we “were not victims,” plays into this notion that we were somewhat responsible for not only the damage that occurred to us, but to be the agents of healing from that damage.
She was not the only speaker to draw some lines like this at the event and I found myself having to stop the simulcast several times to assure the group of women that some of the things that were being said would not align with my understanding of the gospel and the teachings of Jesus. I was confused and concerned, but I hadn’t found clarity about what was at the root of my growing distress.
Toward the end of the event, all participants were offered an opportunity to join an online training that would prepare us to disciple those around us for an annual fee of $149 and I realized that the thing I had been struggling with all weekend was the voice of privilege. The women in the communities that I serve don’t have $149 dollars to participate in this limited opportunity. The former and current foster children with whom I work are, in fact, victims of broken systems and communities that failed them and their parents. The people of color who I live with are subject to hateful speech and action, are scapegoated in groups, and are subject to bias on behalf of security personnel. Discounting the experience of those who Jesus termed “least of these” by telling them that they needed to have more faith not to suffer from the damage that had been done to their hearts, souls, bodies, and brains – that does not come from a place of compassion.
Compassion literally means “to suffer with.” If we are telling people that their suffering is their own fault and they are responsible for the aftereffects of someone else’s actions, how does that fit into who Jesus was and is? If we are telling women that they are qualified to disciple if they can commit to $150 and a year of online participation, what demographic of women are being equipped?
When we tie Christianity to this false notion that we need to be the ones to take responsibility for our healing, we are presenting a weak and faulty version of good news. The good news that Jesus sent his own ambassadors out with was that God was continually faithful and present with humanity. This message went out before the death and resurrection and somewhere along the line we have forgotten the part of the lesson that the people that were sent out were not trying to convert people to a religion, invite them to a worship gathering, tell them the ways they were wrong, but to live among people, work for and with them, and to bring healing. When you live among people and actually enter into relationship, you understand their histories, stories, struggles, pain, and joys. By being there, you get the great privilege of being the incarnation of the witness of God’s promise to never leave or forsake people.
That type of privilege doesn’t discount the effects of a broken world on a person. That type of privilege has developed enough of connection to offer a safe and healthy place for recovery. That type of privilege seeks to remove barriers for those with whom they are in community. That type of privilege speaks peace and comfort to those in distress, but never shame or blame. That’s a holy, God-honoring and humanity-honoring type of privilege; one of sacrifice, service, and humility.
To be perfectly clear: I am not angry with the leadership or the people involved with the event. I do believe that they love and want to serve Jesus. But I think that this was a wake-up call to examine a greater issue facing our Christian worshiping communities in the United States; by and large,
we are blind to the fact that we are leading from a type of privilege that moves us out of the space of compassion, out of the mess of living in the midst of suffering, away from the things that don’t make us feel safe.
When we look at the definition of pure religion from James 1:27, the first half of the verse addresses ministering to those who are suffering (specifically single women – mothers or not – and children who have lost a connection to biological parents) and the second half is an admonishment not to become conformed to the patterns of this broken world. When we lead, make policy decisions, and engage in interactions that treat people as less than worthy of having voice, being valued, and having their needs (for safety, dignity, compassion) met, we are falling right into the pattern of the world that says we are responsible for our own destiny and making our way, that we are self-made people, and that those that suffer must have done something to deserve it.
We need to stop victim shaming. We need to be humble enough to engage in relationships that will help us to stop punishing people for symptoms of trauma. We need to remove barriers to community and stop demanding that people come to us to be served in relationship. We need to create spaces that are healthy and healing.
If we don’t, then we need to be honest that we have made a religion out of depending on ourselves and own our functional atheism.