by Gale Wenk du Pont

According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, 1 in 3 women and 1 in 4 men have experienced some form of physical violence by an intimate partner. And many more have experienced verbal, emotional/psychological abuse and stalking. But it is important to recognize that domestic violence happens to all people, all genders in both heterosexual and LGBTQIA2S+ relationships. Considering the frequency with which domestic violence occurs, it is likely that we have members sitting in our church pews who are currently experiencing or have experienced domestic violence and we don’t even realize it.

The hallmark of traumatic experience is that it typically overwhelms an individual mentally, emotionally, and physically. According to Judith Herman’s book “Trauma and Recovery, trauma is characterized by feelings of intense fear, helplessness, and loss of control. Joni Sancken in her book “Words that Heal: Preaching Hope to Wounded Souls” uses the term “soul wound” which she describes as pain that lingers within those who survive trauma and other wounding experiences. The trauma of domestic violence can lead to many physical conditions such as neurological disorders, chronic pain, disability, hypertension, cancer, and cardio-vascular diseases. The mental health effects include depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder, and suicidal behavior. Traumatic events produce profound and lasting changes in psychological arousal, emotion, cognition, and memory.

A trauma-informed approach is based on the recognition that many behaviors and responses expressed by survivors are directly related to traumatic experiences. Trauma-informed care views provision of service, in the case of the church, worship, faith formation, pastoral care, and all other things we do as the church through the lens of trauma. Trauma informed in the context of the church means to shine the healing light of Christ on traumatic and other wounds. It involves having a basic understanding of trauma and how trauma impacts survivors, understanding that survivors experience trauma triggers and unique vulnerabilities. The services that the church provides need to be designed to acknowledge the impact of violence and the trauma on people’s lives. A trauma-informed approach is sensitive and respectful, seeks to respond to traumatized individuals with supportive intent while consciously avoiding re-traumatizing them. Trauma informed care shifts the philosophical approach from “What’s wrong with you?” to “What happened to your?”

This case study may help you to better understand the impact of the church on those experiencing domestic violence. Mary is a young woman whose husband began to verbally, emotionally, and physically abuse her shortly after they were married. She suffered injuries including a damaged windpipe from choking, a dislocated jaw from a punch to the face and severe neck pain and headaches from having her head slammed against a hard surface repeatedly. She reached out to the church, but the pastor considered divorce a sin and encouraged her to submit in marriage, telling her “you made your bed, now lie in it” and suggested couples counselling. Feeling betrayed, she stopped attending but a church member reached out after she hadn’t see her in church for quite a while, and Mary was eventually able to share her story and the member believed her and provide the support she needed. She ended up leaving the church because she no longer felt safe in a place that was supposed to be her sanctuary.

Mary’s story is one of many survivors of domestic violence that are members of faith communities. Many have left because their voices were not heard and received similar responses to what Mary did from leadership. Many question God, express anger at God or even blame God and need support to work through that. When members struggle to feel seen, heard and loved in a place that is supposed to love and protect its most vulnerable, that can end up doing more harm than good. When people don’t understand how to speak with someone who has experienced trauma, what they say can inadvertently cause more harm.  But a validating response can make it easier for the person to open up about what is happening to them and help them understand it is not their fault. This can also give them the courage to leave the abusive relationship.

In communities of faith, abuse often stems from toxic theology that asserts male power, dominance and authority over women. The church has often believed the falsified stories of male abusers, over the lived experiences of women. Churches need to know about preventing, recognizing, and responding to domestic violence occurring in their midst in a trauma-informed way.

Trauma-informed dialogue means understanding how trauma impacts a person’s life including their behavior and cognition. It provides a non-judgmental listening ear, without jumping to solving the problem and blaming the abuse on the survivor. It involves recognizing that the ways in which we do or say things may be triggering causing survivors to relive the trauma.

To support those experiencing domestic violence, churches need to implement a culture of care which establishes a safe space for its marginalized and vulnerable members. Faith leaders should have an understanding of trauma-informed care, and educate themselves on domestic violence, the causes and effects, so they can teach on it from a theological lens. For those experiencing domestic violence to feel safe, they need loving, supportive communities that will take notice when they are hiding in shame and oppressed by fear. So one of the first things churches need to do is be able to recognize the signs of domestic violence which include frequent injuries with self-blaming excuses, “I’m so clumsy”, visible marks, clothing out of season to cover bruises, unsettled demeanor such as agitation and flinching at someone approaches them or in response to loud noises, depression, deferring to the abuser when asked a question, and isolating themselves from others.

Then churches need to establish safe, not perfect spaces. False belief in a perfect community may result in those experiencing domestic violence not wanting to speak out and share their stories for fear of being imperfect in the perfect space. Abusers are cunning with a perfect public persona leading to others to hold them in high esteem while shaming or blaming their abused partner. To establish safe spaces, communities of faith must develop systems of accountability that protect survivors, because when they feel safe, they will reach out for help. The church needs to learn how to listen and speak with survivors, because language is especially important in dealing with trauma victims. That starts with believing. Let survivors lead their story. Frame questions without judgment focusing on asking open ended questions that encourage survivors to describe events in their own words without influencing the narrative by placing preconceived ideas about what happened. This gives survivors control to tell their story on their own terms, at their own pace. It is listening without providing feedback. It is important to remember when talking to survivors that trauma changes the brain, so memories are not filed in places they may not have been before. The brain doesn’t recall them until the survivor encounters a specific trigger and that memory is found. As a result, survivors are often assumed to be dishonest, purposely withholding information or changing their story. Survivors also may not recognize or name their experience as trauma. Being in a chronic state of stress can numb one to danger over time, and make it difficult to recognize the extent of the risks they have faced. Give survivors permission not to remember everything.

And churches need to learn how to help, because ‘thoughts and prayers’ just don’t cut it. Ways in which churches can create a safe space is to support them in establishing a personal safety plan, whatever that looks like for them because there are many fears and social constructs that force victims of domestic violence to stay in their abusive relationships., Churches should be familiar with community resources for referrals for emergency housing and other services they may need such as domestic violence shelters and counselling.

Trauma can present with different responses from day to day and person to person – there is no one size fits all of how it shows up. It is important to recognize that survivors may experience triggers, which are psychological or emotional responses to reminders of trauma, which can range from mild discomfort to acute distress. Triggers are events or situations which in some way resemble or symbolize a past trauma. It can become difficult for survivors to stay grounded in the present as past experiences come flooding back. Triggers represent danger and may be sights, words or sounds, smells, objects, significant life events such as an anniversary and can take them back to the place where they feel as if it is happening all over again. Triggers can lead to behaviors like hypervigilance, agitation, sleeplessness, poor appetite, lack of energy and fearfulness. They may also experience physical symptoms such as headaches, increased heart rate and blood pressure and sweaty palms. They may abruptly leave where they are because it feels unsafe.

Because language is so critical in interacting with those experiencing domestic violence, sermons are often triggers if the preacher does not pay attention to potential violence and trauma in the text. There are many troubling texts in the Bible that speak to violence. Scripture has also been used to condone and perpetuate violence, especially against women. A classic example is found in Ephesians 5:22-24 “Wives be subject to your husbands as you are to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife just as Christ is the head of the church, the body of which he is the Savior. Just as the church is subject to Christ, so also wives ought to be, in everything, subject to their husbands.” This text is among many that have been manipulated by abusive husbands to assert power over women. Taken out of context, the passage can be used to instruct women to remain in relationships despite the violence and abuse they are experiencing.  Instead, those passages can be re-interpreted to uplift the humanity and autonomy of all people.

Joni Sanckin advocates trauma aware exegesis which leads to trauma sensitive preaching, looking at scripture through a trauma lens -what may be triggering in the words of scripture. She identifies several steps that a preacher can take – 1) name what is troubling in and around the text; 2) Describe the structure, movement and plot of the text; 3) Apply trauma-sensitive interpretive tools. If we go back to the story of Mary who was punched in the face and had her jaw dislocated, the words of Matthew 5:39 “but I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other check too” may be a trigger and may cause her to question how God might want her to suffer even more injury.  Sancken suggests that a disclaimer or warning be given at the start of a reading or sermon that may describe violence that could trigger those who have experienced trauma. Sermons should allow the gospel to counterbalance wounding experiences by focusing on the good news, hope and the promise of Jesus even when addressing brokenness. Tell stories of compassionate witnesses and share stories of survivors with their permission. Sermons should always end with hope. It is important to find ways to counter the pervasiveness of toxic theology that subjugates people to abuse and speaks out against domestic violence, empowering those facing abusive partners to break the cycle of silence and violence.

The goal of trauma informed care is to help survivors develop resilience, the ability to bounce back and to reconfigure their lives, the ability to change and rebuild one’s life after trauma. This will allow survivors to recover, grow, learn to trust again, focus on strengths, and heal. When the church uses trauma-informed practices, the toxicity of patriarchal theology can be unlearned, the survivor’s holistic care can be prioritized, and policies that pursue accountability and justice can be established. Survivors can then thrive in safe spaces and access healing through intentional love and consistent support from communities of faith. Let’s model Christ’s love by prioritizing survivors in communities of faith: protecting their bodies, believing their stories, offering safe spaces for their healing, and creating a culture of communal care.