Building Bridges: A Necessary Step to Authentic Healing

When natural disasters and mass acts of violence devastate a community, we often feel a basic, human impulse to come together and aid those who have been harmed. Whether or not faith in God plays a central role in your life, most of us feel a profound impulse to help one another when faced with shared trauma. Sadly, our communal compassion is often short lived. As soon as the question turns from “How can I help?” to “How can we stop this?” our feelings of unity disperse like a faded dream and the bitter divisions the separate us reawaken. Is there a way to overcome this discord in the aftermath of tragedy? I think there is.

Before I get to that, however, I should share with you that I am not a man of faith. But unlike many agnostics or atheists, I do not view the concept of God with a skepticism that borders on hostility. I have tremendous respect for those who have received the gift of faith through the grace of God, even though I have not been so blessed. I have, however, been blessed to know some very wonderful, compassionate, and healing members of diverse faiths. I do not wish to challenge anyone's religious beliefs, my goal is instead to share some important thoughts so that the faith (or lack thereof) a person professes does not compound the harm done to victims of abuse and trauma. That said I view any religious group or zealot that uses faith to provoke division as anathema. Likewise, I denounce any person who condones acts of abuse or violence in the name of faith.

Since there is often bitter discord between the secular and faith-based communities whenever the topic of abuse comes up, I feel it is important to reiterate that I see no need to alter anyone's theological views unless these views are used to inflict abuse. I contend further that those who harbor, abet, and/or enable abuse in order to protect their church or community are using a distorted view of faith. This misuse of faith is tragic, because under certain circumstances faith can be a very important piece in a person’s healing journey.

Abuse – the intentional infliction of trauma on another person – is the most significant public health threat we face, and it is the only one that is entirely of our own creation. The long-term physical and psychological impacts of abuse-induced trauma on victims are better understood every day. Further, the ubiquitous nature of abuse is only now beginning to be comprehended. Take one isolated form of abuse – sexual abuse. We know now that 1 out of every 4 females and 1 out of every 6 males will be sexually abused before the age of 16, and many more people are abused as adults. More people struggle to cope with the long-term impacts of sexual abuse than suffer from heart disease or diabetes[1]. And that represents only one type of abuse. The Adverse Childhood Experiences study shows almost 60% of the US population reported having experienced at least one form of adverse childhood experience. [2] What exactly does that mean? Over 180 million people in our country have lived through, “verbal, physical, or sexual abuse, as well as family dysfunction (e.g., an incarcerated, mentally ill, or substance-abusing family member; domestic violence; or absence of a parent because of divorce or separation)”. [3]

Abuse does not discriminate. It does not matter whether you live in a red state or a blue state. It does not matter if you stockpile guns or promote peace. Man or woman, rich or poor, conservative or liberal, all of us struggle to cope with the effects of abuse. For thousands of years people have accepted that abuse is simply part of the human condition. Why? Why do we normalize staggeringly high levels of abuse?

Accidents happen. Hurricanes and earthquakes happen. Abuse does not just happen; abuse requires an actor and a choice. Abuse is a profoundly human act. The existence of abuse in our world is a creation of man, and as such it is wholly our responsibility (as opposed to God’s) to account for, and ultimately reduce.

Neither punishment nor prayer represents the whole answer, but both can be important pieces of a comprehensive strategy to address the man-made epidemic of abuse and violence. There is strong evidence that there is something we can do that will drastically reduce the impact and incidence of abuse. By working together to promote an agenda of healing, remarkable transformations in individuals and communities are possible. I have lived it as a survivor of sexual abuse; as Executive Director of MaleSurvivor I have seen countless stories of healing transformation.

When a survivor does the hard work of healing it improves the lives of those around them. Implementing informed, effective, and proven treatments for the psychological and physical harm caused by abuse has the potential to reduce overall suffering and improve our quality of life in the same way that widespread use of vaccines and preventative medicine has. But today it is only the lucky (or obstinate) few who find the support and information they need to heal. And although the economic and social impact of abuse is well understood and undeniable, it often seems almost impossible to work together to address this epidemic of our own making. Instead, we often stigmatize and shame victims into silence.

The tragedy is not that bad things happen, but that bad things happen more often that they should because of that stigma and shame. Children who are raped are accused of “making it up” or worse, “asking for it”. We lavish glory and honor upon athletes and soldiers who fight with courage and valor, yet turn our backs when they struggle to face the demons born of those battles. The profound commonness of abuse creates the assumption that abusive behavior is just part of the natural experience, or perhaps is evidence of the “sinful” nature of man. I would challenge that belief for the reason stated above (i.e. that abuse is an act of man).

I hope to engage my friends (and even those who might not consider themselves a friend just yet) in all communities of faith and begin a dialogue with them about how we can all promote an agenda of healing. I am convinced that GRACE is a perfect organization to begin such a critical conversation. In recent months, I have reached out to GRACE Executive Director, Boz Tchividjian, and have asked for his assistance in making this happen. Our joint hope is to bring together leaders of the faith community and abuse survivor advocates to begin a new discussion – one that seeks to create an agenda of healing that transcends divisions of faith, age, and gender. We invite each of you to join us in this historical dialogue, one that we believe has the potential to transform and heal all segments of our society. Boz and I believe that a natural outcome of this dialogue will be the sponsoring of a National Summit on Healing. This historical event will bring together individuals from differing walks of life and worldviews who share the common bond of working together to end abuse and promote healing.   Please join us.

If you are interested in joining this dialogue, Chris Anderson can be reached a canderson@malesurvivor.org and Boz Tchividjian can be reached at boz@netgrace.org.

[1] National Health Interview Survey, 2010  pp 5-6 http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/series/sr_10/sr10_252.pdf
[2] http://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/preview/mmwrhtml/mm5949a1.htm
[3] Ibid

Christopher Anderson is the Executive Director of MaleSurvivor. A passionate advocate for the rights of survivors of sexual abuse, Chris joined the organization in 2007 after coming to understand the extent to which the sexual abuse and trauma he suffered as a child profoundly affected his life. He now speaks publicly about his own experiences as a survivor of sexual abuse, how MaleSurvivor helped him progress in his own healing, and about how vital it is that we offer our support survivors.