By Linda Crockett
In the new social-political landscape that is emerging in 2017, one thing seems clear: those of us who care deeply about protecting the most vulnerable have much work to do. And survivors of sexual abuse are among those who are uniquely equipped to resist injustice and stand as bulwarks against power that is used to harm “the least of these”. Unfortunately, doing this is just as likely to anger people today as it did the disciples when the crowds brought children to Jesus. Happily, this earned the disciples a rebuke, while the children received his protection and praise.
When I was at the Women’s March in Washington, DC in January, I was deeply moved not only by the massive crowd but the broad array of issues and concerns expressed by participants. I was glad to see so many church groups represented! From environmental advocacy to keeping immigrant families together to ensuring Muslims are not discriminated against to affordable health care to sending a loud message that bragging about the crime of sexual assault is not acceptable – even if you are rich and famous – the overarching theme seemed to be protection of the some of the most vulnerable among us. Even though it was reported that the March organizers declined sponsorship by pro-life women’s groups, many of these women are also moved to action by the desire to protect.
Our work with Samaritan SafeChurch/SafePlaces is focused on ending child sexual abuse and empowering adult survivors. In the near chaotic pace of executive orders, proposed legislation, inexperienced leaders suddenly catapulted to some of the highest offices in the land – and the resulting anxiety in the general public, our work in prioritizing protection of vulnerable children from sexual harm, and empowerment for survivors, is even more critical.
For many years, child sexual abuse has lived between and within the “cracks” of other social justice movements and initiatives. It has been part of efforts to prevent sexual assault, domestic violence, child abuse, human rights violations, and more recently, trafficking. Yet it occupies only a small space within these much bigger movements and has never been consistently centered. It receives a tiny portion of all philanthropic support in the United States. And yet it can totally change the trajectory of a child’s life and impact adult physical and emotional health, safety, economic security and even the ability to stay alive, as sexual violation in childhood significantly increases the risk of suicide. It is up to us to ensure that the cries of the one in four girls and one in six boys who are sexually abused do not go unheard and untended in the cacophony of alarm being raised about so many justice issues ushered in after the 2016 presidential election.
SafeChurch is part of a national cohort formed by the Just Beginnings Collaborative (JBC) focused on ending child sexual abuse. Most leaders in the cohort are public survivors and represent the marginalized communities that are endangered by actions that target Muslims, people of color, refugees and immigrants, those with disabilities, and LGBTQ folks. These survivors live at the intersections of multiple forms of oppression, including child sexual abuse.
To take the trauma of sexual violation in childhood into the transformative fire that shapes survivors who often bear other forms of oppression into leaders determined to protect others from similar suffering is a challenging and risky endeavor. Those who have managed to do this bear scars – but also deep wisdom about resistance, and the courage it takes to practice it. I am privileged to walk with these leaders in the JBC cohort, and committed to helping raise up other survivors – and allies – into the kind of leadership we need during the times ahead.
As a woman who experienced sexual and other abuse as a child growing up in a poor, uneducated, rural family with lots of Old Testament religion but little Gospel, I know all too well the agony of the struggle to simply survive. Protecting your spirit, that small God-spark, when it is not possible to protect your body, is an imperative if you don’t want to lose your mind. It is also an act of resistance – a word many people are claiming these days without fully calculating the price to be paid. However, the skills forged by necessity in childhood in order to survive can be valuable when consciously repurposed in order to resist injustice.
For example, survivors are not easily “gaslighted” into believing a reality constructed with alternative facts. Many of us survived that in our childhood when we were told what we experienced did not happen, that we are crazy, and that we are simply imagining the most intimate parts of our small bodies are being regularly violated. We recognize attempts to manipulate people into questioning their perceptions and sanity. This skill helps us to raise the alarm early when we see manipulation happening.
Many of us also learned how to dissociate from overwhelming inescapable trauma, our very neurobiology altered as our bodies perceived that fight or flight were not options. As such, our physiology adapted and prepared a very different kind of neuro-cocktail to be disbursed at the first sign of danger, a cocktail that helped us to numb the pain, to mentally check out, to allow our spirits to float above our bodies until the deed was finished. Although dissociation can be problematic when carried through to adulthood and changing it as an automatic response to stress is part of healing, many of us retain the ability to withstand pain by willfully numbing ourselves, do controlled brief mental “check outs” to avoid being overwhelmed, and stay attached to our spirits even when they take flight.
Finally, we are also acutely attuned to the abuse of power, as the sexual violation of a child is one of the most egregious abuses of power an adult can commit. When we see those in power abuse their authority, we are quick to name it.
Let me be clear: No survivor has an obligation to be public with their story, or be a leader in church, community, organization or social justice movement. Their responsibility is to heal, and to NOT become like those who hurt them. That alone is a huge accomplishment.
But rest assured: Those who journeyed through the “belly of hell” as children and have risen with fierce determination to speak their truth and protect the vulnerable will be among those leading the resistance to the abuse of power, wherever it is found. And these days – it’s not hard to spot.