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Writing on the Wall: The Double Standards of Religious Trauma


For as long as I can remember, I've been in the Church. It's a familiar story for a minister's daughter. I sang hymns on Sundays and snuck bikkies from the platters after the service – the scotch-fingers were always the best. When I was little, I knew everyone in my small country church, and everyone knew me. I lived on the church grounds, in a small house with a graveyard out the back, and I loved it there, loved learning about the God who loved me, and how I was to love and cherish all things in creation, as He did.

Then I grew up.

There's a lot of things that you get introduced to, very sharply, once you hit the public school system. In high school, people told me I was stupid for believing the things I do and "hadn't I ever heard of evolution, or science?" My dad was a science teacher and a minister, so at first, I honestly didn't care too much. But after a while, you start to wonder if maybe they're right after all. If God is really a bully in the sky or just a fable. Like Santa—a once-a-year thing that you keep going for kids. My parents split up, and then I left school disillusioned, convinced that love was something that can only end, that truth was a lie, and that God wasn't real.

People since then have started posting online about this thing called religious trauma. Basically, a form of psychological abuse brought about by religious teachings, often centred around shame, penance, and guilt. It rang in my ears because it sounded familiar—not, as it turned out, from my church-based experience, but from my father.

My father is an emotionally abusive narcissist. When he and my mother divorced, I had to take a stand not to enable his treatment of the rest of my family. I told myself: If he ever apologised for his actions and took steps to make sure it wouldn't happen again, I'd forgive him. He sends me these emails, blaming me for cutting him out of my life, and tells me this: God is forgiving and merciful, and so is my dad, so if I repent, he'd forgive me. Whatever broken faith I had left dug in a knife because how dare he act like he was God, and not my father who sins?

It's tough to unlearn the culture you grow up in, and losing your religion is a form of trauma in and of itself. A lot of what I had built my faith on came back to my dad, so when I lost my trust in him, I lost my trust in my religion too. I came back to God last year during the pandemic, and I thank Him every day because of it. I have my people back, my surety, my hope, and my culture. But I still have these emails, and they still hurt. With every Bible verse he sends me that is wildly misinterpreted and incredibly hurtful, I still wonder if I'm not the bad guy here.

These days, many people tend to lump all forms of religion into the same box as they do abuse of power and traumatic teaching. You can see it in people who dismiss Islamic worshippers as terrorists or my very own Christians as bible bashers and homophobic. It's a sad reality that whatever group you're part of, there's always people who do wrong under the banner of their beliefs. People like my dad. Understandably, people want some kind of response, something to stop the ongoing trauma they've experienced—I want injustice to stop too. Often, organisations such as the Church can be slow to act or corrupt. But instead of pursuing understanding and mutual respect, we see a lot of responses based on anger and founded on trauma, people saying that “all Christians are this” and “all Muslims are that,” and it hurts because we're not. It's not my religion that's traumatic; it's the people who misinterpret and mistreat it that are.

As a Christian, this is what I'm called to do:

“Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.”

This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it:

“Love your neighbour as yourself.”

Matthew 22:37-39.

Before anything, I am to love. I'm not out to judge people or condemn people who don't agree with me, or abuse anyone, ever. Understanding is the foundation of respect, and I want people to respect that though I live a different way, and have a different set of beliefs, that doesn't mean they're any lesser. Not every Christian is my dad. Most aren't, actually. My culture and my religion is not something I need to be saved from or enlightened against. Different does not have to mean traumatic.

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