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Grassroots Reformation vs Societal Denial
It is so much easier to forget, repress and deny. In her book Trauma and Recovery: The Aftermath of Violence, Judith Herman traces a generational pattern of societal denial following periods of increased awareness of trauma. Should we be surprised to see similar patterns in the church?
According to Herman, there can be no progress in healing trauma apart from political movements. In Herman’s account, “political movement” has a broad meaning, referring to grass roots concerns which arise from heightened awareness of societal evils. The problem, Herman contends, is that trauma “provokes such intense controversy that it periodically becomes anathema.”1
She argues this thesis by tracing three forms of trauma addressed in the 20th century: hysteria, shell shock or combat neurosis, and sexual and domestic violence. To the first corresponded “the republican, anticlerical political movement of the late nineteenth century in France”; to the second, “the collapse of a cult of war and the growth of an antiwar movement”; and to the third, “the feminist movement in Western Europe and North America.”2
Her thesis in a sentence:
“In the absence of strong political movements for human rights, the active process of bearing witness inevitably gives way to the active process of forgetting. Repression, dissociation, and denial are phenomenon of social, as well as individual consciousness.”3
Herman’s account has no theological grounding. Christians should be all the more aware of this pattern, because God’s Word teaches us that “[Sin] hides what ought to be seen and considered, conceals circumstances and consequences, presents what is not, or things as they are not.”4
Sin, we learn from its very entrance in God’s good world in Genesis 3, is deceitful. Cornelius Plantinga Jr. transposes that capacity for deception into the register of plural self-deception:
“Self-deception is a shadowy phenomenon by which we pull wool over some part of our own psyche. We put a move on ourselves. We deny, suppres, or minimize what we know to be true. We assert, adorn, and elevate what we know to be false. We prettify ugly realities and sell ourselves the prettified versions…We know the truth — and yet we do not know it, because we persuade ourselves of its opposite. We actually forget that certain things are wrong and that we have done them. To the extent that we are self-deceived, we occupy a twilight zone in which we make up reality as we go along, a twilight zone in which the shortest distance between two points is a labyrinth.5
So I find myself wondering if and when that societal propensity, common to all of fallen humanity throughout history, will push our present awareness of abuse in the church from view.
But I am not primarily concerned here with the negative, diagnostic task. Herman’s solution is a biblical, Christian solution which the church can and must pursue. Indeed, the church has demonstrated this solution in previous generations. We might explain the Protestant reformation thus: a period in which the evils of corrupt clergy and church institutions were kept alive in social consciousness long enough to effect real lasting transformation.
Or consider a slightly more recent historical example of a Christian grassroots social reform movement, namely, the 19th century anti-slavery movement in England.
There were many leading figures of this movement, most notably William Wilberforce. But as Richard Lovelace observes,
“in order to bring about such widespread and costly changes in their culture, these leaders had to be riding the crest of a powerful grassroots revival.”6
William Wilberforce was a member of the Clapham perish church pastored by John Venn. Other members of the Clapham Sect, as they were eventually called, included Henry Thornton, Charles Grant, Edward Eliot, James Stephen, Zachary Macaulay, John Shore, Granville Sharp, Isaac Milner, Charles Simeon, Hannah More, John Hatchard, Thomas Babington, Thomas Fowell-Buxton and Thomas Clarkson.7
These were all devoted Christians (as well as some of differing religious convictions who still shared their social concerns). But they were not just private Christians. They were connected to various positions of influence in the church and English parliament. And it is in that complex web of social connections that a movement became strong enough to withstand opposition long enough to prevent the return of societal denial, repression, and dissociation of the evils of slavery. They accomplished this through a variety of means: many of the Sect wrote individual books and tracts; they created their own publication, Christian Observer; they organized public meetings and other associations, most notably the Anti-Slavery Society; and of course they lobbied for change in parliament. These various means were not merely aimed to influence political leaders; in the words of Wilberfoce, "it is on the general impression and feeling of the nation we must rely rather than on the political conscience of the House of Commons. So let the flame be fanned continually."8
William Wilberforce would not have accomplished much if anything on his own. The pressure to deny evil, even and especially subconscious denial, is strong and cannot be withstood in isolation.
Add to that subconscious denial the very conscious pushback against church abuse advocacy apparent in many corners of the church and it becomes clear.
Reformation will not happen without a unified movement.
Quote from Judith Herman9
The perpetrator’s arguments prove irresistible when the bystander faces them in isolation. Without a supportive social environment, the bystander usually succumbs to the temptation to look the other way…To hold traumatic reality in consciousness requires a social context that affirms and protects the victim and that joins victim and witness in a common alliance. For the individual victim, this social context is created by relationships with friends, loves, and family. For the larger society, the social context is created by political movements that give voice to the disempowered.
What do such movements look like in the church? Lovelace observes that the members of the Clapham Sect modeled the biblical pattern of prayer-generated reforms, with the leaders customarily spending up to 3 hours a day in prayer.10 Many other grassroots renewal/reform movements were similarly founded in prayer (eg Zinzendorf and the Moravians at Herrnhut). For those of us with a shared conviction and concern about abuse in the church, might such concerted prayer (obviously not to the exclusion of action) be the proper focal point of our efforts? We are in different churches, different denominations, different regions and countries, with so many obstacles to collaboration. But we share share a desire for reformation, for the purity and unity and peace of the church. Might we unite in prayer, asking God to fulfill his promise to shepherd and feed his flock with justice (Ezekiel 34:16)?
Trauma and Recovery: The Aftermath of Violence — From Domestic Abuse to Political Terror (New York: Basic Books, 2022), p. 9.
Trauma and Recovery, pp. 12-13.
Trauma and Recovery, p. 12.
John Owen, The Nature, Power, Deceit, and Prevalency of the Remainders of Indwelling Sin in Believers, in The Works of John Owen (Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust), 6:213.
Not the Way it’s Supposed to Be, p. 105.
The Dynamics of Spiritual Life: An Evangelical Theology of Renewal (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2020), p. 47.
See “The social work of the Clapham Sect: an assessment”, by Nigel Scotland, and The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.
Spring, David. “The Clapham Sect: Some Social and Political Aspects.” Victorian Studies, vol. 5, no. 1, 1961, pp. 35–48. JSTOR.
Trauma and Recovery, p. 11-12.
Dynamics of Spiritual Life, p. 370.