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Seeking Ears to Hear Stories of Abuse
It seems as if more people than ever before are sharing their stories of being harmed in the church. Many are listening. And yet, many are not. Or if they do hear, they aren’t truly listening. What can we do for those who are not listening, who seem unable and/or unwilling to attend with compassion and empathy? They don’t seem to have ears to hear. Can anything be done about that?
My short answer is this:
The best way of getting people to listen to stories is to simply keep telling stories. If people can be given ears to hear, it will happen through story.
Now, the long answer.
Stories invite readers and hearers to not only understand but, as Flannery O’Connor put it, have an experience:
“Some people have the notion that you read the story and then climb out of it into the meaning, but for the fiction writer himself the whole story is the meaning, because it is an experience, not an abstraction. The way to despair is to refuse to have any kind of experience, and the novel, of course, is a way to have experience.
The lady who only read books that improved her mind was taking a safe course and a hopeless one. She'll never know whether her mind is improved or not, but should she ever, by some mistake, read a great novel, she'll know mighty well that something is happening to her.”1
What O’Connor says about fiction stories applies equally to real accounts of trauma. For those of us who listen to stories of abuse survivors, true hearing requires openness to experience, willingness to allow something happen to us. As long as we take the “safe course” of deciding the meaning of another’s experience without listening at depth, we aren’t really listening, and we won’t be given ears to hear.
For Christians, we have more than merely human resources (important as those are, to be discussed below). We have already been given new hearts, hearts of flesh rather than stone, hearts that can feel. The problem is, we tend to an over-realized eschatology that neglects the need to bring our bodies into that felt experience.
In Colossians 3:12 the Holy Spirit commands us to
“Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience.”
The reality of being chosen by God is a gift, but a compassionate heart requires action, “putting on” the clothes of compassion which are available to us in Christ.
That is exactly where stories can help us become better and more compassionate listeners. Through the stories of hurting sheep God is calling Christians to awaken to the Christ-defaming damage being done in His name. Indeed, as Diane Langberg has said, “the voices of the traumatized are prophetic—the voice of our weeping God calling us to Christlikeness. The vulnerable, the oppressed, and the battered and abused are the call of God.”
Stories of trauma are the prophetic voice of God.
But what about having ears to hear God’s voice?
In our Western culture we are over-reliant on the left hemisphere of the brain.2 In general, our right hemisphere is underdeveloped, stunted, even impaired. With underdeveloped right brains, an unhealthy focus on the self,3 and general lack of the neurophysiological abilities needed for empathy, stories of trauma land on deaf ears.
What’s more, you can’t overcome a right-brain deficit with left-brain strategies (logic, argument, reason). Telling stories is predominantly a right-brain-to-right-brain activity.
However, it is possible for one person’s right hemisphere speech to awaken the right hemisphere of another. I can testify to this from personal experience. For much of my young adult life I had little to no awareness of emotion. If asked how I was feeling, I might reply with “Ok,” or “fine,” but the more honest would have been “I don’t know.” Spiritual disciplines, church, even therapy, none of that helped. What finally awakened me to feeling my own emotions was hearing stories. In seminary I participated in a few process groups that facilitated deep sharing of life stories, and everyone’s story had elements of loss, grief and pain. I found myself surprised by sensations in my gut and tears welling in my eyes. Directly forcing such empathy was impossible, but by attending with openness to another’s experience, I found myself resonating with that experience in my own body. In Flannery O’Connor’s Southern dialect, I mighty well knew that something was happening to me.
Southern Baptist pastor Chris Davis recently shared his own felt experience after listening to a story of trauma:
Chris issued a call to listen last December, but my conviction is Beth Moore’s story will be much more persuasive then any direct push for listening ears. Because stories work indirectly; they can quietly pick the lock on the back door of our hearts while the front door remains bolted shut and barricaded.
This is how I understand Klyne Snodgrass’s explanation of the power of indirect communication:
“Direct communication is important for conveying information, but learning is more than information intake, especially if the learner is someone who already thinks they understand. People entrenched in their current understanding set their defenses against direct communication, and end up conforming the message into the channels of their current understanding of reality. But indirect communication finds a way in through the back window to confront a person's view of reality… A parable’s ultimate aim is to draw in the listener to awaken insight, to stimulate the conscience, and move to action. Jesus’ parables...are prophetic instruments...used to get God’s people to stop, reconsider their way of viewing reality, and to change their behavior.”4
Stories, like parables, are indirect. Like parables, stories are open to interpretation. Ultimately, while we would like others to interpret our experiences in only one way, the indefiniteness in interpreting stories is actually a good thing. As Eleanore Stump explains,
“Interpretations of texts—for that matter, interpretations of people and their actions [ie stories]—do not admit of rigorous argument. We can definitively rule some interpretations out, but it is hard to make a compelling argument that only this interpretation is right. Even a carefully supported interpretation of narratives is, in effect, only a recommendation to look at a text [or story] in a certain way. It invites readers to consider that text [or story] and ask themselves whether after all they do not see the text [or story] in the way the interpretation recommends. Interpretations present, suggest, offer, and invite; unlike philosophical arguments, they cannot attempt to compel.”5
I especially like the last line of that quote. Stories suggest, offer, and invite, but they do not compel. If someone does not have ears to hear, we cannot change that through will power. Stories of trauma invite others to consider how much was done to a sufferer, but unfortunately consideration with compassion cannot be compelled. Neither can we force others to agree with our interpretation. That is a left brain approach which is doomed to failure.
Yet, if trauma survivors continue to bravely share their stories, my hope is that through those stories Jesus will awaken hard hearts and deaf ears. I believe the Spirit can do this, is doing this, because these stories are an invitation for us to see Christ in those who are “hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison” (Matthew 25:44).
Jesus is calling. He is knocking and inviting. May the Triune God grant us more and more to listen with hearing ears.
Quote from Walter Benjamin
“The art of storytelling is coming to an end…It is as if something that seemed inalienable to us, the securest among our possessions, were taken from us: the ability to exchange experiences.”6
Instead of recommending written resources, this week I am recommending podcasts where spiritual & clergy abuse survivors are bravely sharing their stories. While written stories can indeed be moving and compelling, an audible story is more embodied and thus more likely to awaken us in body, soul and mind.
Safe to Hope, a podcast to “help women in crisis tell their story with an eye for God's redemptive purposes.” Their current series regarding adult clergy sexual abuse is heartbreaking and also very compelling.
Untangled Faith, “A podcast for anyone who has found their self disillusioned or discouraged in their faith journey and who wants to hold on to their faith while untangling it from all that is not good or true.”
Bodies Behind the Bus, “a podcast centering on the voices of spiritual abuse victims from within the Acts 29 network.”
If we continue to resist these stories of church abuse; if we continue to harden our hearts; if we persist in detached left-brain analysis of how these complex stories fit our black-and-white church polity and doctrine; if we allow our left-brain logic to evade these stories in debates of definitions for abuse and trauma and racism and oppression; do we risk becoming those who say to Jesus,
‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to you?’ (Matthew 25:44)
It is a daunting prospect, because we know how Jesus will respond:
Then he will answer them, saying, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” (Matthew 25:45-46)
Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose. Farrar, Straus & Giroux (1969), p. 73, 78.
See Iain McGilchrist, The Master and His Emissary.
See research by Sara Konrath et al at this page. Eg, “Changes Over Time in Compassion-Related Variables in the United States.”
Stories with Intent : A Comprehensive Guide to the Parables of Jesus. Eerdmans (2008), pp. 8-9, quoted from https://bibleproject.com/podcast/parables-subversive-critique/.
Wandering in Darkness: Narrative and the Problem of Suffering. Oxford University Press (2010), p. 27.
Walter Benjamin, “The Storyteller”, Illuminations, trans. H. Zohn, ed H. Arendt (1969), p. 83-109; quoted in Iain McGilchrist, The Master and His Emissary, p. 397.