Episode Description: The series up until now has focused on individuals who have experienced spiritual trauma, but that has left some questions unanswered: what about those who perpetuate or are complicit in spiritual trauma? What about those of us who may not even know that has been the case? What about systemic spiritual trauma that is part of the fabric of our cultures? In this concluding episode, we address the other side of spiritual trauma and hear from Mark Charles about the legacy of the doctrine of discovery.
Content note: this episode references residential schools.
Correction: This episode references a shooting at a protest and the perpetrator’s name in the audio is incorrect. The perpetrator was Kyle Rittenhouse, not Dylann Roof.
Run time: 1:24:41
Release date: Sep 6, 2023
- Website: wirelesshogan.com
- Twitter: @wirelesshogan
- Instagram: @wirelesshogan
- Unsettling Truths (Coauthored with Soong-Chan Rah, 2019)
Raffo, S. (2022). Liberated to the Bone: Histories, Bodies, Futures. Chico, CA: AK Press.
This podcast does not provide medical, counselling, or crisis services. If you are experiencing a mental health crisis, please contact your local emergency services. The views and opinions expressed in this podcast are those of the speakers and do not always represent the views of Sanctuary Mental Health Ministries.
Hi everyone, it’s Dr. Hillary McBride here and I’m so glad you’re joining us. If you’re listening to Holy/Hurt for the first time, please listen back to the first seven episodes. The podcast is meant to be listened to continuously like chapters of an audiobook, with the current episodes building off the previous ones. So, if you haven’t done so already, head back and listen from the beginning. Before we get started, just a reminder that this podcast was created for those with lived experience of spiritual trauma—if you’ve experienced spiritual trauma, I can’t guarantee that all of this will feel easy to listen to, but I can assure you there won’t be a lot of Christian language, prayers, or scripture used. If you are listening to this and spiritual trauma is something that’s new to you or unfamiliar, I’m so delighted that you’re here to learn more. When people without firsthand experience of spiritual trauma understand it and want to know more, I believe that we can build communities where we love our neighbors with compassion and wisdom. Okay, here we go, onto our final episode.
As I started to work on this project, in what feels like ages ago, I started asking the people in my life that I’m close to, and have trusting relationships of emotional depth with, about their experiences of spiritual trauma. You can imagine receiving this question was unsettling for some, and relieving for others, and more often than not it led us to this important place where the sting was. One question connected to one story followed by another, followed by dropping into a pocket of memories and place that transported us to a life that felt so different from the one they live now. Days later I would get more texts, there would be more phone calls—it seems like there were so many things that were there, under the surface, just waiting for the space to be witnessed, memories waiting to be held in relational spaces where they would be known, validated, and honoured—spaces where they wouldn’t be denied or ignored. It was after one of these conversations that a dear friend of mine sent me a message letting me know how relieved they were to be at a church that they’re attending now, where in their weekly community group no one is forced to pray aloud, no one is expected to orate a prophetic word, no one even has to close their eyes or fold their hands during prayer if they don’t want to. My friend described having so much choice, and bodily relief that came from space and right to choose. We talked about how there are these gross injustices that happen in some spiritual contexts, but also about how some communities or faiths seem to tote a clear preference for personality structures. There are obviously the overt traumas, and then there are these more subtle ways of preferencing people and making other people feel inferior. In some contexts, the person who is silent, perhaps shy or socially anxious, is praised for being more spiritually mature because of how slow they are to speak. In other contexts, those who are playful, fast to speak, loud in voice and opinions, are identified as immature spiritually, even sinful.
Still, in other contexts or church cultures, the extrovert, the one who finds joy in speaking up, in praying aloud, and talking to strangers about their beliefs—this person is considered somehow the ideal. They, as cultural script goes, are more filled with the spirit, more free. This temperamental difference, or even the overtalking that at times comes from difficulty with being at rest or in silence, is held up as what’s best, superior in some way. And the person who needs or wants more time, has no capacity or desire to speak aloud in front of others, let alone pray in front of the group—this person is somehow considered less full of the spirit, perhaps even needing intervention, needing prayer. As we talked about this, I heard my dear friend talk about how they felt shamed and devalued because of their temperament, the gentle demeanor, the quick to think but slow to speak style. And at times pressured and manipulated to behave in ways that felt dehumanizing, stressful, coerced into someone else’s idea of spirituality. And what this person showed me was something that I had never really thought of before. It was a moment where I was becoming aware that somehow I was on the inside of something, in a way I hadn’t seen before, I was benefiting from something without ever having really known it. As a person who more naturally fit into the temperament style expected of me in the communities of faith I was a part of, I experienced the benefits of being who was praised.
In a way that we sometimes see in the movies, a piece of insight drops into place and we’re confronted with something that changes everything. We see memories flash before our eyes, and I was all of a sudden looking at all of the times when I had done that to people that I loved. This kind of coercion or praising of one thing, or perhaps even pressuring people to be a certain way in a community context without really considering that maybe that didn’t work for them. Then, just as painfully, I started to imagine all the times I had caused more serious spiritual harm—including to people I didn’t know, people that I didn’t know but claimed to love. I’ll never forget these conversations because they opened something up in me, something that I didn’t want to unsee, and that I couldn’t unsee, and something that I needed to start asking. Not just had I perpetuated spiritual trauma, but how had I perpetuated spiritual trauma? How had I caused wounds to others? And what were the systems that I had not only benefited from, but loved, the same systems that had also hurt so many people? What are the legacies of that even still? And, why did it take me so long to ask these questions? Followed very closely by: what do I do about this now?
I want to pause here to say, I think there is something essential about the need for us as settlers, folks who are currently in the Church or have a personal or ancestral history with Christianity, to look at the wounds that our ancestors, and the systems we have been a part of—at least peripherally—have caused. I’ve learned that this is an important step in being in right relationship with each other, repairing the relationships that are broken including with the land, and the ancestors we have come from, and the Indigenous communities that are still very much amongst us, and guiding the work we need to do moving forward to build different systems while repairing the wounds of the ones that have caused such destructions in the name of God. But I also think that looking at that hurt that we have caused requires the capacity to do that looking, a sense of courage to wade into a pit of grief and know we have ground beneath us, spark inside of us, and community around us, to do that work and know we won’t collapse into hopeless, immobilized, a spiral of shame or defenses. So, as we venture into this topic here, and begin asking the questions about the spiritual wounds that we have caused, I want to invite you to reflect on how this fits into your journey of healing, and ask if this is something that could propel you into more wholeness, more health and more community, or if this is something that is important to come back to later, after more of the wounds that live unattended to inside of you get attention first.
When moving forward on this topic, it’s important to continue tracking your process internally as we encounter things that are hard to feel. You might remember from a previous episode, something I referenced about the Triangle of Experience. You might remember me saying something when we struggle to stay with our feelings, you know those core ones that move us into connection, and action and health—when it’s hard to stay with those we can easily get caught in our defenses. And there are obvious defenses, like denial, and avoidance, distraction, judgment, guilt, stonewalling—but other defenses that are less obvious, that include despair, the kind of depressed collapse state where we encounter this inhibitory block of anxiety or shame. All of these help us get away from what is otherwise hard to feel in our bodies, the sadness, the profound ache of grief that is appropriate when we see hurt and our role in it. The core emotions, you might remember, come with an arc form. When we stay with them long enough in our bodies and let them build until they come down the other side on their own, we can get to action, but not the kind of action that we use to rush into things when we’re desperate to avoid a feeling. So, if you do choose to move forward and listen to this, as we talk about it all together, perhaps you draw a triangle next to you, or hold the words “grief” or “what do I feel in my body?” in your mind, or actually on a note beside you, to remind you to return to your embodied emotional experience, especially as it returns you to the feelings that are essential to move you into healthy action. If disconnecting from our feelings is part of how we bypass the experiences that we desperately need to feel, then connection with our feelings while encountering difficult material is actually already something really different. If we are used to trying to think our way out of problems on our own, or rationalizing as a way of sense-making, then staying in the senselessness of it or asking for someone to join us in our not knowing, is already a way of doing it differently. It’s already a way of stepping into more wholeness and connection. And if you find yourself going into shame, I invite you to remember that I, too, am feeling the sadness and fear and disgust that lives underneath the defenses. I want to remind you that you are not alone, and you can imagine joining me in the complexity of staying with all of this. Join me, as we talk about the spiritual trauma that we have caused.
I’m Dr. Hillary McBride, and this is Holy/Hurt, a podcast about spiritual trauma and healing.
You might not be surprised to learn that I did a very thorough academic search on the psychological theory and research about perpetrating spiritual trauma, and then the subsequently necessary steps to healing. And you also might not be surprised to learn that I did not find much of anything. This is what we call in academic speak a “paucity of research,” strong air quotes here, because the gaping hole indicates a kind of poverty of sorts. Spiritual trauma, as you know, is still happening and will continue to happen. But what happens for those who perpetuate spiritual trauma and their steps to healing both in their own lives and the communities they exist in? Because there are so few resources, at least ones I can rely on to provide evidence-based interventions on this topic, I’m going to be pulling from other work about the perpetuation of other forms of trauma. But this is all complicated because spiritual trauma exists on such a continuum, from being implicitly interwoven into systemic ongoing cultural genocide through evangelism that we tend to avert our eyes from, to how we unknowingly participate indirectly in crimes punishable by law, like clergy sexual abuse, all the way to parents telling their children they are bad from the moment they are born, while communicating that they are telling them this because they love them.
What we do know about abusive behaviors and systems is that they are motivated by power and control. And power and control are almost always a defense and management system for fear. Sometimes the fear is so buried that a person doesn’t even know that it exists underneath it all, or what was underneath it a long time ago when the pattern of managing the fear originally developed.
It is my sense from what I have read that individuals who are perpetuating spiritual trauma at high levels of institutional leadership and impacting large groups of people rarely admit to causing spiritual harm. They likely have institutions around them that endorse them and scaffold their abusive behavior or hide it from plain sight, while also having large groups of followers who support their work and have found themselves under the charismatic leadership that often masks the domination, control, and abuse. These people, if ever held accountable, likely have such profound defenses against seeing their hurtful behavior, and likely wouldn’t seek support for the pain inside that is causing such harm, that it can sometimes be more reasonable to help the people around them develop health to ensure the patterns of abuse cannot continue with so much systemic support. The people at the centre of this—they often need long term support, significant losses to finally consider the impact of their actions, and long term and robust mental health intervention with ongoing consistent and skilful care. Not surprisingly, for many of these people, mental health supports are considered almost heretical, and if possible simply become a box to check, making it very unlikely that people access the tender, afraid, and vulnerable places that they need to be able to get to in order to change.
There are also another category of individuals: those who don’t have enduring abusive characteristics and legions of supporters scaffolding the abuse. These individuals have been tasked with leading incredibly unhealthy communities, and the expectation of perfection without access to support has left them crumbling under the pressure, acting out in ways that signal internal distress that feels too hard and too deep to name. These people are leaders who have mountains of their own wounds that were never attended to, often covered up with more strategies for coping than we could name, and really nowhere to turn. I have incredible hope for this group of spiritual leaders, especially during the moments where it seems like most things are collapsing around them. The façade is found out, the defense cracking, and the truth finally coming out about what was happening behind closed doors. These individuals, I believe, have the capacity to grasp the impact of their actions and also understand why they got so far from themselves to behave in a way that they did to manage their inner worlds. I have worked with and seen up close the complexity for these leaders who are forced, in public, to look at what they have done and the damage it’s caused, and then are able to see there are consequences to what happened. I’ve seen them work quietly and tirelessly for some time to tend to their own wounds and begin to change the root causes inside that drove it all. If this is you, I want for you to know that I imagine you, if not now then at some point, to have been riding the incredibly razor thin edge of profound despair and the nascence of something new. I believe there is a you inside who has the fortitude to tolerate the impact of what you have done and turn towards the parts inside of you that caused this pain, all while believing that you, too, are deserving of care—maybe more than you actually ever knew. In this fantasy, I want to imagine standing on that edge with you, or imagine going back in time to the moment that you felt this way, and remind you that the kind of leaders our world needs are the ones who look inwards, who take responsibility for the damage they’ve done, and invite in healthier systems and patterns, often leading, in many cases, by stepping aside all together.
And then in addition to those two categories of leaders or spiritual trauma, I think about the rest of us—those of us who did exactly what we were told, tried to be good in the eyes of the community we belonged to, and out of a dangerous mix of fear, love, and unexamined conviction, stepped into the role of trying to rescue, save, or heal others without an awareness of how these efforts actually helped or not. I think of the youth leaders who told their kids that girls’ sexuality was a threat to boy’s morality. I think of the pastors who prayed for the congregant born with Down syndrome, asking for them to be healed. I think of the community group made of white affluent western folks who went on a mission trip to build a house and evangelized, without awareness of the lasting damage this caused in the community after they left. I think of the parent who disciplined their child with a paddle, spanking them or hitting them because their pastor told them that it was the best way to love their young. I think of the community member who arranged to send the gay teen to conversion therapy because they all thought things would be better if the attraction went away. I think of people who stood outside of abortion clinics and hospitals with shaming signs and shouts, thinking this was a way to be for life. I think of the biblical counsellors who told people with mental illnesses to pray more, or memorize more scripture. I think of the church administrators who told the woman that she couldn’t speak from the pulpit, because they, too, thought this was a way to protect the woman from her own sin and suffering. I think of every church who believed that conquering the ends of the earth was actually a way to love, who thought that giving people the word of God in the form of white culture and colonization was a way to save them somehow from eternal suffering. I think of every churchgoer, leader, staff member, missionary, evangelist, preacher, and pastor, so convinced of their exceptionalism, their sense of chosen-ness and exclusionary superiority, that the thought never occurred to look at where that belief came from and who it was hurting.
When I think about healing, justice, and the road forward, the incredible complexity and variability of each situation and person stares back at me. There are just so many options, so many people, so many contexts, requiring their own attuned response—so many so that I couldn’t presume to offer a three-step prescription to make it all better. And that, the kind of making it all better—especially if it takes us away from our feelings—isn’t exactly what we’re going for here.
But, there are three categories of steps forward that I want to share with you:
- First, feelings. Letting ourselves feel the pain that comes from knowing, even with good intentions, that we hurt someone, or people. This can feel agonizing to stay with, but surprisingly, becomes easier to be with if we allow it not to go into this kind of shut down despair or shame of believing we’re bad. Feeling the grief of this is not meant to be something we shoulder alone, but something we hold in the context of communities, of relational processing, and the safety to explore what happened and why, without it taking us away from each other. Being able to tolerate our own feelings, without rushing to defend our actions, or fix the pain we caused in others, helps us to allow for the space for the other people to be witnessed in their experience. Not processing our own pain and not feeling it in our bodies can actually make us want to jump in, turning the process of what comes next to be all about us, to show people how sorry we are, desperate to rush a process along. Instead, what’s often needed is that we slow down to be with the grief that deserves to be felt, allowing for the witnessing of another’s experience, for their pain to be felt at their own pace. Feelings are relational and interpersonal; they are embodied processes; they are meant to be felt in our bodies. If that’s hard for us, as a species we can rely on one another to help us. This is in itself an important part of our healing journey, as many of us have been made to feel like we have to be alone with our feelings, or we have to do things—the hard things, or the reparative things—all on our own. But bringing ourselves into our feelings in an embodied way, and asking for help, is likely already a disruption to the process that created the hurt in the first place.
- Second, curiosity and exploration. Being able to hold our sense of goodness, even in the midst of the pain we have caused, allows us to also be curious, turning towards our own experiences and reactions, but also our history, and the systems we exist in that perpetuate the hurt and have done so for so long. We can ask questions like: what did I not know, and why did I not know it? And what’s kept this going for so long? What would have happened if I gave up the things that I was doing? What would I have been afraid would happen? What did I think was going to happen if I kept doing what I was doing? How might it have impacted other people? How can I learn what is true in ways that don’t ask the people I’ve hurt to be in relationship with me without expecting them to owe me the story of their hurt? And are there resources out there that might show me how this kind of experience impacts people long term? What are the bigger systems at play that keep all of this covered up, or seemingly okay for so long? What would it cost those systems to change? And what would that even look like? We can also ask, what is my relationship to power? What is my relationship to control? And what is my relationship to fear?
It’s very hard to see ourselves clearly, especially in the areas where we have the most defenses. So, doing this can mean inviting other people to help us see what we can’t see, welcoming the trusted and wise voices of elders, educators, therapists, or wisdom-keeping community healers, to help us look at what is hard to look at on the inside of ourselves and in our actions. Sometimes this means searching for information and education put out by scholars, community educations, or authors, who can help us learn more about the experiences of the people that were previously invisible to us. For example, if we have previously held ableist ideas that impacted our spiritual leadership, leading us to try to pray about certain people’s disabilities, we might purchase the book My Body Is Not a Prayer Request by Dr. Amy Kenny, to help us understand where our thinking went wrong and how we can do it differently. Ideally, we do this in a way that honors the gift and sacred wisdom of those who educate us about the places in life and culture that have caused them pain, so we don’t take and dehumanize more in an effort to understand why we were dehumanizing in the first place.
- Third, repair. I believe that feeling our feelings, and ultimately exploring the broader picture that contributed to the trauma that we are part of causing, helps support us to live in a good way. It helps us learn from our mistakes, tolerate the distress that comes from exploring what went wrong and what was unseen, and helps us build something better. Although I do not want anyone to experience suffering or feel the overwhelming weight of a crushed spirit, I do believe that hurt and repair is actually part of life and health, that we cannot ever do it all perfectly, but we can learn from what we did, and grow, to live in such a way that leaves a more gentle and loving tread on the earth, and the connections we are a part of. I believe we are better able to repair when we have the sense of our internal worth and goodness that endures, even when we face the hurt we’ve caused. Repair can look so many ways, especially in situations like this where the hurt is known but not encountered personally, or we can’t have relationship with those we hurt, or the communities that we were a part of when we were causing harm still continue to operate. Repair can sometimes mean changing our actions in small and meaningful ways that are not just for the performance of change, but allow us to head in a different direction with authenticity and sustainability. Sometimes it means publicly acknowledging our insights and our plans to move forward. It could also mean stepping back, and instead giving social space and power to those we have hurt and those like who we’ve hurt. Sometimes repair means actually seeking out the specific people we’ve hurt, letting them know of our intention to apologize, and creating space to listen to them, and trust their ability to choose if this feels useful for them or not. Repair might mean asking a person to tell us what it was like that we hurt them, or in private, repairing the wounds inside of us that made us act that way. Repair might mean actively working on building new systems, ones that function in a way that’s different than the old ones we got caught up in. I often think of repair as doing the opposite of what created the wounds. In many cases the wound creates a sense of being devalued or afraid. In this case the opposite might be to witness in a way that values or creates the experience of being emotionally nurtured and cared for. It’s not a perfect formula, but it can help us clarify where our action for repair needs to go.
Recently someone said to me: our relationship matters to me, and I’m so glad that you told me that what I did hurt you. I am sorry for … fill in the blank. I was so caught up in what was happening for me, I didn’t pause to reflect on how my actions would impact you. I’m going to work hard to be thoughtful and slow down next time I’m in a situation like that. From what you’ve told me, I know it hurt you, but I want to know more about what that was like for you. If you felt like it was the right time to do so, could you tell me about how that has been lingering in you since then?
This is not a perfect apology or repair for all experiences, relationships, or contexts, but it mattered to me, and it did repair the wound in our relationship. This person showed me that they could hear that they could really make space to receive my hurt, they wanted to be in connection with me, and they wouldn’t make it all about them when I told them what hurt me. They didn’t get so stuck in a grief or shame spiral that their pain about my pain eclipsed my ability to be with my hurt, which would leave me feeling the need to care for them. They didn’t get defensive and explain all the reasons why they did what they did. They did the opposite of what caused the hurt: they showed me that they saw what went wrong and made the space to consider my experience. And that mended something between us.
The numerical order implies that there is a trajectory of linearity, but really I can imagine each of these points in a Venn diagram, overlapping and mutually influencing each other, all working together to help us change our direction. My other point of direction is that these suggestions are useful no matter what you’ve done, or how aware you are of what you’ve done. Even if you are not in a spiritual context now, haven’t been in the past, or are sure you have not participated in spiritual trauma for someone else, these are skills and questions and processes that you likely need to know in some area of your life.
It was right around the time that I started asking about how I, too, had contributed to the spiritual trauma of others, that I found the work of Mark Charles and the book he published with Soong-Chan Rah in 2019, called Unsettling Truths: The Ongoing, Dehumanizing Legacy of the Doctrine of Discovery. I was already very aware of the history of colonization in Canada and the USA, the stolen land of the Indigenous peoples of Turtle Island whose land I and my family are uninvited guests on. I have learned of the horrors of the church sanctioned residential schools, whose ongoing effects are very real and live on today in the bodies of the survivors, their families, and their children, and their children’s children—and aware of the cultural legacy that impacts us all. I have also become aware of the way that the Crown had stolen much of the land, not kept good on treaties made, and had actively covered up genocide. I had not yet learned of the role that the Church had played in colonization and the genocide, abuse, manipulation, theft, segregation, enslavement, and dehumanization of the Indigenous peoples of Turtle Island. Let’s just say this work was a wake-up call to me. In the blend of church and political history, social psychology, and theology, Mark Charles and Soong-Chan Rah, piece by piece put together the puzzle of how a non-violent, relationally-oriented, compassionate mystic from a poor brown family could be turned into a white western European icon for imperialism, exceptionalism, violence, and dehumanization. Their work has been important for me to see how this religion that is so dear to me, and part of my family legacy and cultural identity, is so implicated in spiritual harm for others. It has helped me see how I am part of a web of spiritual trauma, benefitting from, even perpetrating, this system that has caused so much destruction. At times this has made me want to distance myself from anything that even hints of the imperialist Christendom, or the organized form of religion as a whole. Other times, it has made me want to claim the identity more, feeling the full weight of the grief along with others in my community, and allowing that to be a kind of witnessing, allowing the grief to be the beginning of a metamorphosis of myself, and of the systems that shaped me and caused this harm. Still other times, it has made me want to slow all the way down, and see myself in the middle of this web, pain being passed down to me by my ancestors, that I continue to pass on, but also realizing that when I look at it this way, I see our interconnectedness. I see the interconnectedness that begins to heal the wounds caused by the illusion of our individuality, those too a product of white, western European Christendom.
Learning this made something click about the large scope of these conversations on spiritual trauma, If the legacy of the church on Turtle Island, or North America as we know it, is built on a foundation of spiritual trauma, it makes sense that this is woven into so many expressions of the culture of our religions now. I imagine, among other things, spiritual trauma and our culpability as uninvited guests, as ground down into the soil of the culture of Christianity here in the West. If the church grows out of the soil of this history, of course spiritual trauma would be part of what springs forth, an ingredient of our legacy of harm, abuse, oppression, set the foundation for the history of the Church here. It makes so much sense to me that if that was part of the foundation, the legacy, that more trauma would come from that, and we might hardly even notice it when it’s happening, having been convinced that it never happened—or worse, that it was actually part of God’s plan. I was so moved that Mark Charles accepted my request for a recorded conversation, and feel honored to be sharing this with you. A brief snippet of this conversation was included in an earlier episode, but we’re including it here in context of the larger conversation that Mark and I had. Here is Mark, who will introduce himself again in Navajo.
31:00 INTERVIEW WITH MARK CHARLES
(Introduction in Navajo) Yá’ át’ ééh. Mark Charles yinishyé. Tsin bikee dine’é nishłí. Dóó tó’aheedlíinii bá shíshchíín. Tsin bikee’ dine’é dashicheii. Dóó tódích’ íi’ nii dashinálí.
Hello, my name is Mark Charles. And in our Navajo culture, when we introduce ourselves we always give our four clans. We’re matrilineal as a people and our identities come from our mother’s mother. My mother’s mother is American of Dutch heritage, and that’s why I say Tsin bikee’ dine’é, loosely translated, that means I’m from the wooden shoe people. My second clan, my father’s mother is Tó’aheedlíinii, which is the waters that flow together. My third clan, my mother’s father, is also Tsin bikee’ dine’é. And my fourth clan, my father’s father, is Todích’íí’nii, which is the bitter water clan. It’s one of the original clans of our Navajo people. I also want to acknowledge I moved from my home on the Navajo Nation to Washington, DC about seven and a half years ago. And where I live now is the traditional lands of the Piscataway. And I want to honour the Piscataway as the hosts of the land where I now live. I want to thank the Piscataway for their stewardship of these lands. And I want to just publicly state for your podcast, how humble I am to be living on these lands today. So, it’s great to be with you Hillary, thank you for inviting me to be on today.
I’m so grateful to have you, and I’m so grateful for us to be anchoring the conversation in land and in lineage—that feels so, so good and right and appropriate given the conversation we’re having today. Can you tell me a little bit about how you understand spiritual trauma? Maybe even when you hear those words what comes to mind?
32:32 Mark Charles
Well I think there’s a lot, you know when you look back over the history of the Church, the Church has been complicit and initiated a lot of oppression and violence, and that has caused trauma in a lot of people. This is going back 1400 years at least. The challenge, I find, when we talk about trauma, is most people understand trauma as something that afflicts the victim. And so someone who is on the receiving end of abuse, someone who is on the receiving end of violence, someone who has something happen to them that may be outside of their control, they are often identified as they are the recipients of this trauma. They are the victims of this trauma. And that is the way a lot of our conversations around that is framed. And that’s not inaccurate. You know, the boarding schools, the residential schools as you call them in Canada, were a very direct form of spiritual trauma that was enacted upon native students who were taken from their homes and raised in these military style boarding schools. And the punishment and the rejection and all the stuff that they received, forced assimilation and so on that happened in those boarding schools, did cause a very specific spiritual trauma in that. And there’s a lot of dialogue out there around that type of trauma. And I think that’s all good. And, you know, when I usually frame the dialogue around that type of spiritual trauma, I frequently will talk about kind of the progression of what you would call a PTSD, which is a post-traumatic stress or even a post-traumatic stress disorder. And a PTSD is an individual diagnosis for someone who’s experienced usually a single horrifying event. So if you’re assaulted or if you’re in a battle or you’re in a car accident you can have what’s called a PTSD. It’s an individual diagnosis, it affects you mentally, physically, emotionally, relationally. It’s kind of this all-encompassing condition, but it’s individual from a single event. There’s also something, and not as many people are aware of this, of what’s called a complex PTSD. So, a complex PTSD doesn’t come from a specific event, it comes from a series of events. So, if you get PTSD from being assaulted, you can get complex PTSD from living in an abusive relationship. If you get PTSD from being in a battle, you can get complex PTSD from living in a war zone.
And psychologists, as you are well aware, have observed that the symptoms of a complex PTSD can be observed in the children and the grandchildren of the people who experienced the trauma. There’s not an exact understanding of how it got there, but they can definitely observe the symptoms in the children and grandchildren and future generations of the people who experienced that trauma. And then we have what’s called an HTR, historical trauma. And this was first observed in Native communities. And HTR is not an individual diagnosis, it’s actually how psychologists understand the dissatisfaction in a broad community. So it was observed in Native communities after residential schools. You can see it in the States in African American communities after enslavement and segregation and Jim Crow laws. You can see it in Japanese Americans in the US after internment camps. You can see it in Jewish people after the Holocaust. I frequently refer to HTR as a multi-generational communal manifestation of a complex PTSD. And so when you’re preparing to discuss things in a public setting, I find it’s very helpful to be aware of the PTSD, the complex PTSD, and the HTR that most likely is going to be present in my audience. So if I’m speaking to a room of Native people or other marginalized peoples, of women, I will be very aware of the history and of what happened within that community, and either warn people about possible triggers or make sure that people are aware of the content of my discussion so that we don’t derail the conversation. And being aware of the PTSD, the complex PTSD, and the HTR is very helpful in engaging in these types of dialogues.
And so, yeah when you look at the spiritual abuse of the Church, and especially as a Native man, I look at the way that the Church has literally weaponized the scriptures and it uses the scriptures, often in ways we’re not even aware of. One of the examples I will use frequently is, you know for example I was reading the scripture, I was reading the Bible with my daughter, this was several years ago. We were reading the Bible before she went to bed. We were reading the Book of Genesis, and we were reading about Sodom and Gomorrah. Now, I remember the lesson of Sodom and Gomorrah when I was in Sunday school with the flannelgraph and all the things going on. And, you know, the judgment comes on Sodom and Gomorrah and Lot and his family escape. And God says to Lot’s family don’t turn around. And Lot’s wife turned around and turns into a pillar of salt. And it’s a lesson about being obedient to God and not looking back. And that was very much ingrained in me when I was in, when I was in Sunday school. But if you read that story, right, the whole story—Lot, actually Abraham, God said he was going to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah. And Abraham is bargaining with God for, he’s negotiating with God for the fate of the city because his nephew lives there. And he starts at a hundred and gets all the way down to ten, and he stops at ten because, I am assuming he knew the size of Lot’s family, and that ten would be a safe number of righteous people living in the city, so if he got to ten he would save the city and save his nephew. And so the angels go into the city as men, and they go into Lot’s house and he’s staying, they’re staying with Lot. And, right, as they’re in the house, the men of the city come knocking on the door and they say, hey send out those men we want to be with them. And Lot, protecting the men, say to the men of the city, don’t do this—here take my daughters, they’re virgins. And I’m reading this to my daughter, right. And I’m like, I looked at her and I said, “Honey, no man, I do not care who they are, ever has the right to speak about you or to you that way.”
And the problem is, is we teach this lesson in Sunday school, and we pinpoint Lot’s wife who turns around, and she does turn around and turns into a pillar of salt. And what’s troubling about that is that passage portrays a God who is more concerned about a woman who turns around, than a man who pimps out his daughters. Right? If you want to understand why there’s so much abuse in the Church today, especially towards women, we have to look at what we’re teaching in our Sunday school, where we are literally giving our young children the lesson that God is more concerned about a woman who turns around than a man who pimps out his daughters. And that’s one of the seeds of incredible spiritual abuse.
You said it. That’s it. Got shivers when you say that. I think you’re getting into some really interesting things here about misogyny, and I think the way that we understand who God is and use that for a particular agenda, and perhaps read into who God is the agenda that we already have. I’m curious about if you could add into there some pieces around the Doctrine of Discovery as it relates to spiritual trauma.
40:23 Mark Charles
Well, so the same way we just talked about how the scriptures have been weaponized against women, and they portray a God who is, again, more concerned with a woman who turns around than a man who pimps out his daughters. And in much the same way, the scriptures have been weaponized against people of colour and marginalized people, other marginalized people—and especially against Natives. And we see this in the boarding schools, where you know the message is, hey Jesus is white, like the majority culture. And he really demands that you worship him in an assimilated manner. You have to learn English, you have to understand our customs. You have to give up your pagan ways. And you have to even give up your own creation stories and your relationship with Creator. And you have to embrace the creation story that’s in the Book of Genesis. And, you know, all of these things. And this is, this is where it becomes incredibly damaging. Once the scriptures get weaponized and you have the majority, the dominant culture using these scriptures to oppress other people, the challenge with that is the people doing the oppression feel justified. So, one of the things—the Doctrine of Discovery, right, the series of papal bulls written between 1452 and 1493, says things like invade, search out, capture, vanquish and subdue, all Saracens and pagans whatsoever, reduce their persons to perpetual slavery, convert them to his and to your use and profit, right? It’s the Church in Europe, saying to the nations of Europe, wherever you go, whatever lands you find not ruled by white European Christian rulers, those people are subhuman, and their land is yours to take. So, the Doctrine of Discovery dehumanizes Indigenous peoples. So, this is the doctrine that allowed European nations to go into Africa, colonize the continent, and enslave the people because they didn’t see them as human. And God calls us to love other people. So once we dehumanize them, now they can exploit them just like they feel the right to exploit the environment.
And so once you take away their humanity, now you’re no longer accountable to treating them well. Now they’re there—again this is the Western view of creation, which is now it’s there for our exploitation and profit. And so by dehumanizing African people on the continent of Africa and Indigenous peoples, right, this is what allows Columbus to land in what they call the New World. And even though there were millions of people living here, they claimed to have discovered it because there were no people here by their definition, right? We were savages. And then the narrative of that goes even further. And this goes back to John Winthrop when he’s in the Boston Colony and they’re talking about—he’s preaching his sermon, “A Model of Christian Charity.” And he essentially refers to what they are doing as they are here to claim their promised lands. And this promised land narrative, which Europeans, pilgrims, puritans, all these settlers use, this is what even drove the myth of manifest destiny, right? Once you believe that you have God’s permission to claim your promised lands, you’re God’s chosen people and God has given you promised lands. A plain text reading of the Book of Exodus, or Deuteronomy and Joshua, you now have permission to commit genocide. I mean, God literally said to the Israelites when they went into Canaan, leave no man, no woman, no child, no animal left alive. Kill everything that breathes. So, promised land for one people is literally God ordained genocide for another group of people. And so this, when you have this mentality, this worldview that says you are superior, you’re God’s chosen people, God has given you these promised lands—that allows you, that gives you spiritual justification to commit genocide.
Now, in the south in the United States, we called that Manifest Destiny. Canadians were a bit more polite, they didn’t rebel against the Crown the way they did in the thirteen colonies did here. But you still made it from sea to shining sea, right? I mean, the reason we had a revolutionary war was because King George in 1763, with his Proclamation of 1763, he took away the right of discovery from the colonies. So the thirteen colonies in the south said, no we want that right for ourselves and they rebelled, and the colonies up in the north in Canada said, okay that’s fine, you can keep the right of discovery. Right? So, Europeans still had the right of discovery, it’s just it was the colonies that wanted it. In Canada they agreed that the Crown could maintain the right of discovery. And you still made it from the east coast to the west coast, enacting incredible damage across the same area. And so, right, when you have this history, and you have this very strong lineage of horrific actions—not just residential schools but literal massacres and genocide and history of enslavement and other dehumanizing actions—you can’t do this without being affected psychologically, right? I mean people know this. We’re very aware of this. And one of the things I found very interesting was as I was lecturing about this history around the United States, and I was talking about how the US got from the east coast to the west coast, and laying out the massacres and the genocide that was being enacted, talking about this history that’s rooted in the Doctrine of Discovery. After my presentations I would have two lines of people. One line would be a line of people of colour, and they were solemn but almost giddy, right? They were very excited that I was laying out specific dates and characters and events and policies. And they got to the front of the line and said I knew the history was that bad, thank you for confirming what I knew was there. Then I would have a line of white people, and they would get up to me and they were like a deer in the headlights, right? Their faces were just like a sheet. And they all said the same thing to me: I had no idea the history was that bad, tell me how to fix it. And after seeing that literally presentation after presentation, week after week, month after month, and eventually year after year, I began to recognize something in the response of my white audiences, but I couldn’t put a finger on it.
I actually said to some of my colleagues in the psych field, I said I think I’m observing trauma in white people, but I had no way how to categorize it. I had one colleague who was at least intrigued enough to explore it with me. And I flew out to his office. We spent twenty-four hours together, and we looked at research. We watched some videos, we had some conference calls with people. I laid out all of the stuff I was observing, and we had this great in-depth discussion about it. And at the end of our time together, my colleague said to me, he said, Mark you’ve—he said, when you arrived here I was skeptical that you were observing trauma in white people. But you’ve convinced me, you’ve convinced me you’re observing trauma, but I have no clue how to categorize it. I don’t know where to place it or what to do with that. And so at least I left that meeting knowing I wasn’t crazy, or at least I wasn’t alone in my craziness. But I still didn’t know what to do with it. You know, I looked at things like people who call it like settler trauma or survivor guilt, or things like that. But none of those really fit what I was observing. It wasn’t, it wasn’t giving me what I wanted. And then I found this book, it’s a book by a psychologist named Rachel MacNair. And in her book, she’s trying to understand what she calls the psychological consequences of killing. So her research was about if society gives you the right to take a life—you’re in law enforcement, you’re in the military, you have a position in society where you have been given the authority and the power to make a life-or-death decision about somebody else.
48:45 Mark Charles
Her research said, what does do to you psychologically? What impact does that have on you? And she found that it creates a perpetration induced traumatic stress, which she calls PITS, and that’s the title of her book. And she identifies that PITS has all of the symptoms of PTSD. The primary difference is that PTSD afflicts the victims of a horrifying event and PITS afflicts the perpetrators or the person who caused it. Now, again, she’s looking at individual people enacting specific actions, and what does that do to you. And again her book, I love Rachel and her research, I’ve had many, many conversations with her. Her and I can talk for hours, and it opens up a whole fascinating line of questioning. But by identifying that the psychology of killing creates—when you have permission to kill, it creates a perpetration induced traumatic stress. Once I found her book, and literally all I had to read was the cover, right? Once I found the cover and I’m like, oh my gosh, she connected the dots. Like, she found this way of identifying this trauma in the perpetrator that I’ve been observing. So once I had her research and went through her book, I was able to make the hypothesis that if PTSD has a multi-generational communal manifestation at a complex level, which is what we call HTR or historical trauma, then might not PITS also have a multi-generational communal manifestation at a complex level, which is what I was observing as the trauma of white America. And once I was able to categorize it as a trauma, right? Then there’s tons of research. I mean, the first symptom of trauma is shock and denial, right? Which automatically explains so much about why white America and probably even white Canada are unable or unwilling to look at their own history and acknowledge what they’ve done, right?
They’re in a state of shock and denial. They don’t know what to do with that. And it’s so clear, right? When she looked at, in Rachel MacNair’s book, she looked at a very comprehensive study on Vietnam veterans in the US, and she looked closely at this quote by Socrates who said the doer of injustice is more miserable than the sufferer. And so I could make observations like yeah, you can’t enact 500 years of dehumanizing injustice against another group of people without traumatizing yourself. And so once I was able to make the hypothesis, then I was able to start developing tools that I used in my presentations, in my writings, where I would prepare for those presentations, understanding that white people were another group of traumatized people. Now, my job, I was not trying to convince white people they were traumatized. I couldn’t care less or not whether they believed me. I just treated them as traumatized. And I was also, I had to be very clear that white people were not victims of trauma, right? This was a perpetration induced traumatic stress. And so this came from what was, what they enacted, what was enacted on their behalf, what benefits they were receiving because of what was enacted. They’re not a victim in this by any stretch of the imagination, but this is a perpetration induced traumatic stress at a multi-generational communal and complex level. And so what this did for me is it gave me some of the most effective tools to keep my white audiences from derailing my work. I was already, and most speakers were already preparing for the PTSD, the complex PTSD and the HTR that exists within our communities of colour, who were on the receiving end of these horrific injustices.
Those aren’t the demographics that are most disruptive during this type of work or during these types of dialogues. The most disruptive audience is white people. They’re the ones who stand up and accuse you of lying in the middle of your lecture. Those are the ones who are going to stand up and just fly off the handle and go off the rails, and completely co-op the entire session when you’re trying to raise these issues. And so I found that by preparing for my audiences as a group, my white audiences as a group of traumatized people, I could actually keep them in their seats and get them to hear the entire history. And the challenge is, is right, in at least in the US, I can only talk with confidence here. I mean I’ve been, I spend a lot of time in Canada so I know there’s a lot of similarities, but I will speak with the most confidence about what I experience and observe here in the United States, is we have two paradigms that we put white people into here in the US, which is we put white people are racist, right? We just blanket statement—you lack pigmentation in your skin therefore you’re racist. Now, the challenge with that paradigm is first of all it leaves white people with no agency, right? There’s no way for them to join the conversation if they are inherently racist simply because they lack pigmentation in their skin. Second, it means anytime a white person disagrees with me, I have to treat that like a threat. And either go on the offense against them or defend myself. Again, that doesn’t lead to healthy dialogue. So, that’s not a healthy paradigm. The other paradigm we have here in the US is that white people are fragile, right? After the lynching of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Robin DiAngelo’s book, White Fragility, like shot to the top of the New York Times bestseller list and stayed there for months and months and months. And while Robin has a lot of really good insight into, I think, some of the psyche behind whiteness, I struggle with her paradigm of fragility.
Because when you define something as fragile, you really only have one of two options of what you do with that object, right? Either you intentionally break it, you ignore the fact that it’s fragile and treat it as something that’s not fragile, and you break it, or you treat it with kitten gloves, and you don’t let anything of harm come near it and you protect it. And so when we view white people as fragile, it means we’re either intentionally breaking them, or we’re not letting anything dangerous get around them and smoothing everything over. And neither of those lead to healthy dialogue. When you understand trauma, right, the first symptom of trauma is shock and denial. And so, again this explains immediately a lot about white communities and why they ignore parts of their history and get offended when things happen. But the other thing, right, is when you’re dealing with trauma, people with trauma have what are called triggers. So a trigger, it’s a sight, a sound, a smell, something that takes you out of your current reality and brings you back into the chaos of the moment of when the trauma occurs. Right? In severe cases, your adrenaline will start flowing, you’ll go into fight or flight mode, right? You’re just, you’re all about protecting yourself. You’re on this high, high, high alert. And when someone’s triggered, it’s really no use arguing with them, right? When they’re in fight or flight, when their adrenaline is flowing, when they are truly back in the chaos of the moment they are merely about survival. And that is not the time to argue or even try to reason with someone at that point. When you deal with someone who has been severely triggered, the best thing to do is A) keep yourself safe, and B) keep them safe. Don’t let them bring harm to themselves or to others.
But then the other thing is when you understand that this is a traumatic response—again this isn’t white people are racist, or it’s not white people are fragile so white people are racist, okay you’re a threat I just have to deal with you that way, or you’re fragile so I have to smooth it all over. When you understand that it’s trauma, after the episode is over, maybe the next day, maybe even a week later, you can go back and actually you should go back and say, okay we have to talk about that, right? That was not normal. And we’re both well aware of that. You know when someone comes out of a trigger response, they are quite aware that they were doing some things that were not normal. And so when you understand they’re traumatized, now you have at least an expectation or an opportunity to go back and say, okay we have to talk about that. Because obviously that was not a normal reaction to what happened, to what we were discussing, what we were talking about. And that creates a line for dialogue where we can now actually talk about what about what was said, what was presented, what was shown, what triggered you and that led you to create this very overt response that was incredibly disruptive. And so again, by viewing white people as traumatized, I now have a whole slew of tools to keep them in their place, and to keep them safe, and to keep my audience and myself safe, but ultimately to get down to the deeper point of conversation which is where we need to go. So, yeah, so I found this has been an incredibly helpful paradigm. You know if I, if I were an academic or if I were actually a psychologist, I would probably do research on this, or you know, do something else. But I’m an activist who’s out on the field. I’m someone who’s merely trying to keep white people from calling up, and standing up and calling me a liar and disrupting my presentations. And I found by understanding them as traumatized, that gives me the best set of tools I’ve ever developed to keep them in the dialogue, and ultimately to teach them the history. You know when they disrupt it, when they stop it, when they are able to derail the session, now they can claim well I don’t know the history. I don’t know, I never, we never got through that part. If I can find a way to keep them in their seats, I can teach them the history, and then—especially if I can keep them from getting triggered but let them hear it—now they have to wrestle with what they’ve learned. And that is going to lead to something healthier in the long run.
Now, Mark, as you’re saying this, I’m just aware of the incredible skill, the incredible clinical skill and labor that you’re doing around regulating other people’s nervous system. Like this is profoundly skillful as I’m listening to you talk about it. And it’s also, again, profoundly hopeful, too—because whenever I think about trauma I think about, it’s almost like we’re getting an accurate diagnosis on what the injury is. And then whenever we understand the injury then we, like you said, understand how to navigate around it. But also as the clinician, I’m thinking about the hope about being able to repair the fragmentation. Like there is something inspiring about knowing if this is trauma, then there’s something we can do about it.
59:22 Mark Charles
Well, let me tell you actually what I think is the most helpful piece about this.
When, and the Church unfortunately is horrible at this. So, when you cause hurt, right, intentionally, or unintentionally, it’s a healthy response that you feel guilt. Not crippling, overwhelming guilt, but it’s a helpful response that you understand I did something wrong, and I shouldn’t have done that, and I want to make some kind of amends. The problem is, is when you justify your actions or when your actions are justified for you, there’s no space to deal with that guilt. So, in the chapter I talk about—I was the driver of a car in high school where my brother was a passenger and we had a single car accident and my brother died. And I was dealing, I knew I was dealing with trauma. I survived the accident. I had a pretty severe head injury. I actually lost my memory an hour before the accident, and it didn’t come back until slowly days later. All of that, right, this is signs of my body protecting itself and trying to survive and everything else. And I knew I had been traumatized by that accident. The biggest challenge I faced though, is every time I tried to bring up the conversation of was the accident my fault, well-intentioned people: Mark it wasn’t your fault. There was no conclusive evidence of, it was anything you did wrong. This was just God’s will. This was God’s timing, right? It wasn’t your fault. Don’t go there. And so I was left with these incredible feelings of guilt and no place to explore them, or to even feel them because every time I tried to bring them up, I was shut down, again by well-intentioned people who were, like, didn’t want to see me go through that and didn’t know what to do with what I was talking about. And once I did this research and I found this understanding of a perpetration induced traumatic stress, I immediately knew that’s what I was dealing with after my accident. Now, I found this research almost ten years later, but once I had it I’m like, that’s exactly what I was going through. Actually, it was almost probably fifteen years later, but I’m like that’s what I was going through, is—I knew I was the driver of the car. I knew it was a single car accident. It was fairly clear it wasn’t a mechanical failure. And so I knew either something I did or didn’t do, whether I fell asleep, whether I overcorrected for something on the road, whether I just got distracted, I don’t know. This was before cell phones. So, you know that wasn’t, but it was like, it was—I knew there was something I did or didn’t do that most likely caused the accident. And to be honest, I never felt peace until I owned that. And I was able to say, yeah, something I did or didn’t do, not only caused the accident but resulted in the death of my brother. And I didn’t get peace until I owned that and acknowledged my own actions and the consequence of my own actions or inactions.
So when people commit these horrific violences, or these violences are committed on their behalf, and they are receiving some sort of benefit from that violence on a regular basis, right? And yet that violence is explained as, no this is what God expected us to do or this is what you know, right? So, there’s no place to take that guilt. And I can tell you from firsthand experience that guilt is going to eat you alive until you actually deal with it and acknowledge it. And so, you know, this is why I think white people get so distraught over these things because the longer you bury psychological damage like that, the uglier it looks when it finally rears its head, and it comes out in some very, ultimately, some very destructive and painful ways. And so, I think this is the challenge for when you deal with all spiritual religion, a lot of, a lot of spiritual trauma is the Church is so afraid of—because the Church does not know how to deal with guilt in a healthy way, it either smooths it over quickly or just lays it on and manipulates people with it, right? Rarely does the Church respond to guilt in a healthy way. And so, what it does is it creates a space where the people who have committed these wrongs have no place to go with their guilt, and they have no place to, in a healthy way, work through it or deal with it—which only leads them to continue to act and behave in unhealthy manners. And so, and this is true on both the PTSD as well as the PITS side of the coin.
And so I think this is where the Church has, and you know the co-author of my book, Soong-Chan Rah, the book he wrote prior to our book is called, Prophetic Lament. Which I think is one of the great places where we need to go once we’re experiencing these types of emotions. Lament is not about repentance or even forgiveness. Lament is about sitting in the brokenness and allowing the depth of the brokenness to seep into you. And because you know Soong-Chan points out the Church, Western Church is anemic at lament. It’s horrible at the process of lament. It’s terrified of lament. And so even if it goes there, it jumps out very, very quickly. And so yeah, we’re carrying around a lot of these emotions and we’ve had no place to process them. You know, and here in the United States there was a young man named Dylann Roof [note: should be Kyle Rittenhouse], who took a gun into a protest situation and ended up shooting a black person. And he was held up as a hero by many white people, and he was condemned as a murderer by a lot of other people. And as I’ve thought about Rachel MacNair’s book—and he went to trial and he was found innocent, right. Because of the way it went down. And so he was found innocent. And so he was given by society a license to take that life. I know, I am absolutely confident, that young man is feeling guilt, crippling guilt because he knows what he did. But society is giving him no space whatsoever to deal with that guilt. And I would anticipate his life is not going to go smoothly until he’s able to wrestle with that. Right? Again this is why Rachel MacNair calls it a perpetration induced traumatic stress. Where just because society gave you the right to take a life, that doesn’t mean you feel good about that. That doesn’t mean that you’re just, you can just wash away your conscience. And so yeah, I’m actually—I feel bad for Dylann [note: should be Kyle Rittenhouse] because I anticipate his life will be incredibly difficult, psychologically, until he’s able to have the space to acknowledge to himself, and to society what he did and deal with it in a healthy way.
1:06:51 Hillary McBride
You are, you’re articulating the importance of feeling the feelings that so many of us haven’t had the space to feel, and particularly in faith communities have been discouraged from feeling in a healthy way, in addition to allowing the brokenness to seep in, for us to be with the reality of the guilt. Are there other things that you think on a systemic level, too, that we need to do as the Church to repair the wounds that we’ve caused?
1:07:29 Mark Charles
In the book that I wrote with Soong-Chan Rah, Unsettling Truths, the book was reframed from our original thesis as a public rebuke of the Church. And our conclusion is that the Church, left and right, conservative and liberal, holds the values of the Doctrine of Discovery at a very core level. And both sides are absolutely complicit in its dehumanizing actions. And both sides believe in Christian nationalism. They frame it differently but they both, both sides believe in it, because again that’s what justifies their past. And so we conclude at the end of the book that in its current state, the Church does not have a role in healing what was broken, because its only solution will be to make the nation Christian again, which is not going to solve anything, that’s what caused the problem. And so the only option for the Church to get into a place where it can actually be the healing community it was intended to be, is to go through the process of lament—and not the anemic, I’m going to dip my toe in lament and take it out and say I’ve done something, but a lament that sits there. And one of the things that I point out is in the scriptures and in my experience, when the people of God lament, God, Creator, always, always, always shows up. Creator does not come as quickly as most of us would like, but Creator does come. Because the Western Church is anemic at lament and jumps out of the process as quickly as it can, the Western Church has never met Creator in a space of lament. There’s a whole aspect of God’s character the Western Church has never met because it has not stayed in lament long enough to meet God there. And if the Church can stay there long enough, I think it can actually be transformed. But it has to be willing to sit there.
And so one of the ways I phrase it is, I am calling the Church into a season of lament. Not a period of lament, a season of lament because it’s Creator who changes the seasons. So stay in lament longer than you feel comfortable and until Creator shows up. And I also tell people that one of the other damaging things to the Western Church is its hyper individualistic worldview. Right? And I’ve seen this in so many of my lectures, where I’m giving a lecture and there’s usually, it’s usually a white male who becomes visibly distraught, but in a healthy way—I can tell they’re not going to blow up at me, but they’re wrestling with things in a healthy way or they’re wrestling with things and they’re not going to blow up at me, but they’re hearing it, they’re taking it in, and they’re wanting to do something about it. And these are the people who, after my presentations, are usually the first ones to jump up and say, I’m sorry, or to say can I wash your feet? Or to do something else like that. And I’ve learned to stop them and explain to them, right, that A) I’m not mad at you, individually, right? I’m not mad at you, and you’re apologizing to me is not going do anything here. Right, you’ll apologize, we’re in a public setting, we’re both Christians. I, of course, have to forgive you then, and then you can go home. You know the challenge is, is your worldview is hyper individualistic and you’re hearing this history for the very first time. And so you literally have 1400 years of oppressive history weighing down on your shoulders. And the only thing you can think of is how am I going to go to sleep tonight? So you want to apologize to me. I would have to forgive you. You could then go home to your bed in the suburbs and know that you heard about this injustice. You confronted it in yourself, you confessed it, and now you dealt with it.
Meanwhile, I’ll go back to my Native community, and you’ll get to enjoy the benefits of that injustice. And I’ll have to go home and deal with the dregs of that injustice. And nothing’s changed. Nothing’s changed. So, I tell them, I said you feel guilty? Yeah. Good. You should, this history’s horrific. You absolutely should feel guilty, but you have to learn how to understand, and you have to understand how to experience that guilt at a communal level, not at an individual level. And this isn’t just you. This is what was done on your behalf. This is what your community has done. And you have to learn how to experience that at a communal level. And the problem with hyper individualistic worldviews is when you, when you can move guilt off the individual onto the communal level, then that’s like you’ve been absolved of it. Right? So now, good I don’t have to deal with it anymore. I mean, no you have to still deal with it. But this is something we have to correct through systemic change, not through your washing my feet or you’re asking me for forgiveness. This is about we have to change the system. And the problem is, is because the Church doesn’t stay in lament long enough to allow the brokenness to, to understand the depth of the brokenness, they’re then not willing to put in the work to change the system. They want a quick, simple solution because they don’t understand the depth of the brokenness. And so I point the Church over and over and over again back to lament, and I exhort them to stay in lament until they meet God there. That is their best path into becoming a part of the healing that is so desperately needed. But I literally have to tell the Church, yeah, you can’t lead this process. A) you caused it, B) you’ve weaponized your own scriptures to justify it, and C) I mean this goes back to my book, right? You wrote Christ out of ecclesiastical history and inserted Constantine, right? You’ve written Christ out of your own, out of your own history. So you don’t have the tools you need to actually bring the healing that’s necessary.
I’m feeling so, so moved and so grateful for the work that you’ve done. Not just in this conversation, I mean, the kind of the way that you are participating in systemic change—it feels like quite something to witness even in this conversation. Can I ask how it was for you to share all of this with me? I mean this is just, as we think about ending, I’m attentive to you as a person not just as a conduit for information.
Yeah. This is why I started with a conversation about who you are and what you’re doing. Because I do invest myself in when I talk about these things and so.
When it just feels like an interview it’s harder to invest myself emotionally, but once I know the person I’m talking to and we have a chance to talk, and make it more relational than just interview, that’s a much better place. And that way I end up—but yeah I feel, these are the types of things I want people to understand. And so, this is one of the reasons I willingly invest in these types of conversations over and over again.
Recently I read the book Liberated to the Bone by Susan Raffo. It was medicine to me. In it, she invites folks who are in healing professions to reflect on where their lineage of care comes from. She suggests that if we feel drawn to a particular lineage, that we ask a series of questions over and over again throughout our lives, without allowing ourselves to feel satisfied with easy answers. In her book, she writes this:
“Who are the people who live lives that they shaped into teachings you have learned from? What happened to them? Are their descendants still freely and easily practicing these traditions on their own terms and supported by their own elders? If they are, how can you honor these descendants and their elders, showing gratitude for how their practices have taught you. If they’re not, how does this shape your gratitude? What can you do to support their descendants in any of their work to reclaim their languages, traditions, and cultural practices? Why do you feel drawn to this particular lineage? Where did you first learn about it? What did you think or hope for when you first encountered the teachings of this lineage? What about your life experience resonated with what you’re learning? What are your peoples relationship to the people who created this practice? Was there harm there? Connection and mutual learning? Distance and ignorance? If there was harm, what are you doing to repair that harm? How are you working to make sure that, as you learn and are deepened by these cultural traditions and practices, the descendants of those who gave birth to this practice are also cared for and cared about? On their own terms and in their own ways.”
Although she is speaking about people who do healing work of various sorts, I think so many of these questions apply to those of us who find ourselves in religious or spiritual traditions. Especially if we have found ourselves within a tradition through birth or family culture, or through later in life experiences of connecting deeply with how the meaning positively impacts us personally. It may be time for us to ask the questions about legacies of harm, and culture and community impact. Reflecting on spiritual trauma has made me at times feel paralyzed. Other times I’m able to bear the weight of it without freezing, lingering more in reflection. I’ve asked myself on many occasions now, how could I, unknowingly, cause or benefit from someone’s harm? How could any of us do that? I picture the pain, fear, and power of my ancestors handing pain down a long line of people to me, and feel the grief and fear of realizing I have done that, too, and I will continue to do that. I will hurt people without knowing it. I may even hurt people, and know it, and not choose to stop it, believing somehow that what I’m doing is right. I will look away from someone who needs my help, and in a way become complicit in their wounding. I will have a safer, more comfortable existence because someone else is hurting in a system built to dehumanize them, and value me, and I’m sure that sometimes I’ll pretend that that isn’t even happening, or will not even know the extent that it goes to. I think this is true for all of us.
But when I sit with this longer, I realize that for me, in a way the freeze is actually easier than the grief of feeling it all. Grief is so, so painful, yet such an important part of our healing. I was speaking at an event recently—a network of churches invited me to speak at their visioning conference for the next number of years, and when I saw the booking request, and the title of their conference I thought they must have got the wrong person, they want me to come talk about spiritual trauma to their network of pastors and leaders in a conference oriented towards creativity and hope and visioning? This can’t be. And then a piece of insight kicked in and I realized that this was actually the most hopeful thing. It’s naming the wounds, and allowing them to be felt, pulling them back out from under the rug we swept them under, allowing them to see the light of day, this is actually the most incredibly hopeful thing. It’s the systemic vision of what happens in trauma therapy: at some point people seek out support because the task of navigating around all the things that are unprocessed actually pulls tremendous energy from them. It’s life energy being used to shove things down, and to pretend those hurts don’t exist. And that shoving things down or sweeping them under the rug is so costly to our systems. It’s costly in an individual and collective way. It hurts us to ignore the hurt that we’ve caused or that we’ve experienced. And as painful as the grief is, it’s actually the doorway to healing and hope. It is a necessary step for mending the damage done, and it is less costly in the long run than continuing to wear out and cope, pretending the pain isn’t there.
Grieving the wounds we have, and that we have been a part of, really witnessing the pain we have passed between us feels like holy work to me. It’s the kind of spiritual practice I want to be a part of. And when we don’t have to do it alone, we don’t have to get sucked under by the weight of it. In fact, often what makes it unbearable is thinking that it’s all about us and that we have to feel it all on our own. The grief of feeling this all reminds me that this pathway that pain creates is like an open channel. I imagine pain like this kind of sludge in a bucket, passed back and forth between people in a lineage, each person behind me an ancestor, each person in front of me a child or community member to come. Each time the bucket is handed over some sludge sloshes out, and it causes trauma to the people and the land around it. But what if there were also other buckets being passed along, buckets full of love represented by water, and each time this water spills out it nourished the land, and created sustenance for the hard work of living? What if the root of connection between us all still existed, but resources could also be passed along the channel, this pathway of joined hands? What if what was so good about life is that we knew there would always be enough water, that there would be more than enough of what we needed there to be? When I think about this expanded view, recognizing that resources, love, courage, wisdom, kindness, nurturance, are also passed along the pathway between us, and there is everything we need in the chain of connection to face pain, to heal and repair, it’s not so hard to keep going. In fact, the future feels hopeful. This allows me to know that even though I’ve caused pain, and will continue to, that I have the courage to face that, to keep going, and to look for where love is coming into me, and through me, too. I have an unwavering, unshakable belief that we’re good, that we’re created good, and are still good, even if that goodness feels very far away, or is tucked so deeply inside of us and is covered up by all of this pain. My hope is that this project was like one of those buckets of water, passed between us in a way that brings life to you, and your community, and those who come after you.
In the past seven episodes, I have offered you a practice at the end. But today with this episode, I want to invite you to spend some time reflecting on the feelings you’ve had after listening to the conversation with Mark. You might go for a walk, grab a pen and journal, call a friend, or use that voice memo function on your phone to get closer to the feelings you have as a result of what you heard. You could start with the prompt: what I notice right now in my body is…
Thank you for listening. May you know deep down inside of you that you are good and loved. May you know spaces and connections where you are nurtured, challenged, and witnessed. And may your pain be met with love and kindness, allowing you to meet the pain of others with love and kindness too, and may every bit of this be part of our collective healing. Thank you so much for joining us today.
The Holy/Hurt podcast was written and recorded by me, Dr. Hillary McBride. Executive producer: Leslie Roberts. Sound editing by: Bradley Danyluk and Micaela Peragallo. Music and scoring by Jon Guerra, adapted from the album Ordinary Ways. Strings performed by Valerie Guerra. Logo and art from Courtney Searcy. This episode’s guest was Mark Charles. This podcast was made possible by Sanctuary Mental Health Ministries. Sanctuary is an organization that equips the Church to support mental health and wellbeing. They provide free resources that meaningfully engage the topics of faith and mental health. The content is developed in collaboration with mental health professionals, theologians, and people with lived experience of mental health challenges. These resources prepare communities of faith around the world to raise awareness, reduce stigma, support mental health, and promote mental wellbeing. To learn more and access these resources, please visit sanctuarymentalhealth.org
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