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Systemic sins: Why might we discount them?


I just finished reading “In God’s House” by Ray Mouton. It is a terribly disturbing novel (barely one as it is thinly disguised from  his real life) about the massive cover-up of pedophile priests in Louisiana in the early to mid 1980s. Like the Spotlight story in Boston more than 15 years later, those in positions of power in this story (or those who felt the loss of church integrity too much to lose) found ways to deny that a systemic problem existed. Some knew full well and denied the systemic cover-up and obstructed justice as often as they could. Others did not have the facts but chose to minimize the consequences when evidence was presented to them–frequently out of fear for bringing scandal to the church.

But before we get too self-righteous about the problem of child abusing priests, let’s consider how we respond when a system we love is accused of significant and systemic evil. Let me give you a couple of examples, beginning with the trivial

  1. The home run steroid era in baseball. If your favorite team had several players caught taking steroids. Would you acknowledge the problem and suggest that awards won by the team should be revoked…or would you point to the fact that all the teams (possibly true) had steroid users as well?
  2. The race and incarceration problem. African Americans are inordinately represented in prison populations despite being a smaller minority group in the United States. Of course the problem is complex. But can we agree that racial discrimination on a systemic level plays a large role?

Notice that both the trivial and the serious examples are complex and that multiple factors can be implicated in the problem. Notice also that not everyone involved in the incarceration issue are evidence of systemic problems. For example, there are good judges and biased judges. There are profiling police and upright police. There are wrongly accused and justly punished. And yet, we do have a serious problem of sending more Black men to prison than we do men of other races. Naming this problem does not condemn all involved in the justice system. But the problem still exists and reveals some systemic evil.

Is it possible to name a problem without going first to a defense (or attack of another’s position)? It seems this is our common first response when a system we love comes under fire.

Common System Defense Tactics

This week, after the events of Charlottesville and the debates over the statues of leaders of the Confederacy, we see some of these types of responses:

“Well, should we remove all statues, including Washington and Jefferson since they too are tainted? 

“Can’t we celebrate the values we see in General Lee?”

“The other side’s extremists also bear some fault.”

Let’s get specific about some of these tactics which are responses we may go to first, before listening to the concerns of the other:

  • Blame-shifting. Point out the sins/flaws of those pointing out the sins of the system.
  • Sin-leveling. We’re all sinners so no one can point a finger. If every system is tainted, then no system gets to call out the sins of another system.
  • Emphasizing the good. If a system has flaws, quickly point out the good it has done.
  • Pointing out the exceptions. If an exception to the complaint exists, then point it out to invalidate the complaint.
  • Taking the complaint to the extreme. If a system has flaws then take the complaint to the extreme to invalidate it. Example: Complaint: some statues need to come down. Response: So, I guess we need to remove all statues of those who stood for things we don’t like.

System Justification: An Explanation?

Aaron Kay and Justin Friesen discuss factors behind justifying a broken system in their 2011 paper, “On social stability and social change: Understanding when system justification does and does not occur.” They pinpoint 4 factors common in responses that justify maintaining status quo: system threat, system dependence, system inescapability, and low personal control. In other words, when a system I am connected to is threatened and I feel somewhat dependent on it, but it is a large system (e.g., a government or a religion), and I personally cannot make a change, then I’m likely to defend it. In the words of these and other authors, system justification is when “people are motivated to perceive existing social arrangements as just and legitimate” even if not always fair to all.  (Kay et al, 2009, p 421).¹ “…Thus, when little can be done to change [a system that is unfair], people will likely be motivated to justify their system in an attempt to view it in a more legitimate, fair, and desirable light” (Kay et al, p. 422). Why would we do this? The authors say to reduce the sense of threat and anxiety that would come in acknowledging a sick system.

It wasn’t that long ago that our country was embroiled in controversy around big tobacco companies. After clear evidence of tobacco’s role in causing cancer, some still insisted that control of tobacco companies (especially their advertising) would harm the country. These companies paid billions in taxes, they employed hundreds of thousands of people and farmers needed to make a living. They gave generously to many important non-profits. And anyway, the product was legal and bought on a voluntary level.

In an interview in the New York Times Magazine in 1994, a lawyer for Philip Morris had this to say to his daughter regarding tobacco,

And I told her that a lot of people believe that cigarette smoking is addictive but I don’t believe it. And I told her the Surgeon General says some 40 million people have quit smoking on their own. But if she asked me about the health consequences, I would tell her that I certainly don’t think it’s safe to smoke. It’s a risk factor for lung cancer. For heart disease. But it’s a choice. We’re confronted with choices all the time. Still, I’d have to tell her that it might be a bad idea. I don’t know. But it might be.

The author of that essay (with extensive interviews of Philip Morris executives) did not conclude that they were morally bankrupt individuals. Instead, he concluded,

The best answer, which isn’t particularly satisfying, is that people in groups behave differently, and usually worse, than they do singly. In speaking with these Philip Morris executives, I felt the presence of the company within the person. In the end, I felt that I was speaking with more company than person, or perhaps to a person who could no longer distinguish between the two. 

A Question and A Challenge

A question for each of us: Which “company” –system–are you so beholden to that you are inclined first to defend status quo? Your “companies” may include the NFL (the CTE problem), a political movement, a beloved pastor, a denomination, a school.

And a challenge: Be willing to discuss what is before moving on to what ought to be. Discuss the problems. Own them even if you have no power to change them. Then later you can have a discussion about what to do.


¹Kay, A. C., Gaucher, D., Peach, J. M., Laurin, K., Friesen, J., Zanna, M. P., & Spencer, S. J. (2009). Inequality, discrimination, and the power of the status quo: Direct evidence for a motivation to see the way things are as the way they should be. Journal Of Personality And Social Psychology97(3), 421-434.

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Podcast on Anxiety


Recently, I was interviewed for a podcast on the topic of anxiety by Walt Mueller and the good folks at the Center for Parent/Youth Understandings. You can listen here: https://cpyu.org/resource/episode-39-anxiety-with-dr-phil-monroe/

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Is it trauma or is it intensity/identity loss?


The current definition of PTSD requires an exposure to an intensely distressing event or events (either witnessed or told about in great detail) resulting in a pattern of intrusive re-experiencing, attempts to avoid such experiences and an ongoing negative cognitive/mood pattern. Such a diagnosis might be made after domestic and sexual violence, accidents, natural disasters, war, betrayal traumas, and even after hearing repeated stories of traumatic experiences to others (called secondary trauma).

Someone experiencing PTSD after life-threatening events might feel disconnected from family/friends, find it difficult to sleep, experience repeated nightmares, have difficulty not thinking about events during and after the traumatic experience, choose unhealthy coping patterns like alcohol abuse, or place themselves in situations where they re-enact parts of their trauma story.

But not everyone who has intrusive thoughts about a challenging situation, feels disconnected from their community (and previous self), drinks too much, or impulsively jumps back into danger have PTSD. Some of these same behaviors and experiences also show up in those who have left dangerous and all-consuming experiences and now do not know how to re-engage in regular life.

Consider these words of Dr. Steven Hatch, who spent time in Ebola clinics in Liberia at the height of the 2014 pandemic crisis in West Africa. He describes his experience after returning to his job at the University of Massachusetts.

To match the outside weather, my mood willingly turned dark. I withdrew from people, wandered about in a daze, and avoided public gatherings. When I did venture out, I carried myself in a completely different manner than I had before in my life.


The simple explanation was that I had post-traumatic stress disorder, and a few people, including some whose job it is to make such diagnoses, thought this to be true. (p. 239, Inferno)

He goes on to dispute his experience fighting Ebola as trauma. While difficult, he did not think it rose to the level of trauma experienced in war or even other more overwhelming Ebola clinics.

I could, however, recall the event [death of a toddler] in my mind without being emotionally overwhelmed, but also just as importantly I was able to still experience emotions about it, feeling appropriately somber. I just didn’t feel traumatized. (p 240)

So, what was his problem?

What I did share with many other volunteers was a sense that I didn’t belong in the States, for the work in West Africa was far from over. I desperately wanted to return, and almost within days of coming home I was trying to figure out how I could get back to an ETU [crisis Ebola center]. What I missed was the profound sense of purpose that such work had provided, and I slowly realized why people talked of “missing the war,” a phrase that always seemed discordant to my ears. You miss being in the midst of senseless butchery? Great. But I belatedly realized it was that purposefulness, the sense that you were doing something that was deeply and truly meaningful, that drove people back to such unstable situations. (p. 240-41)

There you have it. The seeming loss of crystal clarity or purpose in life can be very painful. When you are in an intense helping situation as Dr. Hatch was, every movement leads towards life or death. At the end of a day, you can count who lived and who died. No ambiguity. In addition, you are doing it with a team of people all committed to the same thing. You share the same vision, goal, and daily experience. You do not have to explain anything. And in these intense situations, you can have the kinds of intimacy not often experienced even in your immediate family. Also subtract mundane activities (grocery shopping, cleaning, taking care of children, etc.) that may not need to be done.

This is a recipe for distress upon return.

Return to regular life where you are expected to do these seemingly inconsequential activities AND where you have no one around to save AND no one who was present with your toughest experience…and you have a recipe for trouble. You may find it difficult to find joy in light of intrusive thoughts of recent emotionally intense experiences. You may long for a return to that sense of purpose and value. Because others do not understand and aren’t part of your “tribe” you may withdraw or find other ways to numb the pain.

Loss of identity and intensity may mimic trauma symptoms. They may be significant to need treatment. Military ending tours of duty, missionaries returning from field, humanitarians returning from doing crisis work, church planters leaving high stakes urban church plants, and trauma healing trainers returning from intense experiences may be at risk.

What can be done to prevent this distress?

  1. Probably nothing will take care of the problem. One could not go do intense work. Or one could become a crisis junkie. Neither are good options.
  2. But developing re-acclimation plans can help. Yes, training done before entering the intense experience will set the stage for healthy returns but post-tour of duty re-entry work is more important. The Army has develop protocols for re-entry by beginning the process even before leaving the “theatre.” Creating space for coming off the “high” giving time to process and following-up in the early days back can help. Involving family in the re-entry planning and building activities that can elevate family intimacy upon return will help immensely.
  3. Encouraging time and space to lament and process in group settings. This is where a therapist can help. Group process helps to put words to experiences and acknowledges impact on identity. This can also help re-connect with meaningful activities and experiences at home. One has to re-learn that meaning is not solely connected to intensity.

I have some very small personal experience with this. I’ve had intense experiences in international settings. When I have returned, I have sometimes found it hard to be at home when my head was still overseas. Being able to share with Kim and others helped. Practicing lament helped. Learning to be mindful of the present also helped me remember what has meaning and value in everyday life.

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Historic child abuse prevention course


Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment and my seminary, Biblical Seminary, have teamed up to offer a 3 credit course for seminarians on the topic of child sexual abuse prevention and response. This course will run on our Hatfield campus on Monday nights during the month of June. To my knowledge, a course like this has not been offered before. I highly encourage you to send your pastors or church leaders for some continuing education.

Press release and details here: Curriculum Press Release or go to the BTS site to see it here.

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Complex Trauma: Going Deeper, By Diane Langberg


As part of our staff meeting today we watched this video by Diane Langberg. It reviews the 3 stages of typical trauma recovery process plus focuses on the impact of the work on the counselor. Self-care is a common conversation these days. However, a few lines stuck out to me:

Unless we take care of ourselves, we will not be able to bear witness…. Vicarious trauma is not something done to us but a consequence of having empathy…. Evil and suffering also provide an opportunity to expose the weak places in [the counselor]…. Seek out the antidotes to the poison that you sit with…[these antidotes] are not just good coping mechanisms but part and parcel to living the life obedient to God.

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What does resilience look like in the face of traumatic experiences?


Does a resilient individual appear as if stress and trauma has not lasting impact? Does it mean we bounce back as if it never happened? Are there better ways to think about resilience in real life?

In 2014 I gave a presentation reviewing the topic of resilience (definition, examples, threats to, and helps) at our annual Trauma Healing Community of Practice hosted by the American Bible Society.

Sometimes we consider only resilience as an individual trait. I spend a bit of time talking about community resilience. Video is 25 minutes and associated slides (not embedded in the video) can be found here: 2014 COP Resilience.

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Diane Langberg on Shame


A few years ago, Dr. Diane Langberg presented on the topic of shame at the 2014 Community of Practice hosted by the American Bible Society. She describes the toxicity of shame as a distinct part of trauma, especially betrayal trauma. You will learn about the cognitive phase of shame, kinds of shame experienced and how the response to shame takes one of 4 common forms (i.e., withdraw, avoid, attack self, attack others).

Make sure you watch to the end as she shares some insights to how God understands and responds to our problem of shame. See how Jesus enters in to our shame.

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Why we need a theology of trauma


[Previously published April 2015 at http://www.biblical.edu. The faculty blog no longer exists there thus re-posting here]

We live in a world shaped by violence and trauma. This week that I write 147 Christian Kenyan university students were killed because of their faith. Such horrific forms of violence shock us. But they shouldn’t given that in our own country violence and trauma are everyday occurrences. While some of our local brothers and sisters face actual death, all of our communities are shaped by soul-crushing abuse and family violence. Take the most conservative numbers we have—1:6 males and 1:4 females have experienced sexual assault before age 18—and realize that a large portion of your friends and acquaintances have traumatic experiences.

In a congregation of 100, 20 of your fellow church members are walking around with invisible wounds of sexual violence on their bodies and souls. And that number says nothing about those walking around with other invisible wounds, such as caused by domestic violence, racial prejudice, sexism, bullying and the like. Were we to include these forms of interpersonal violence the number would likely reach 70!

As my friend Boz Tchividjian asks, what would the sermons and conversations look like if 20 of our mythical congregation of 100 had just lost a house in a fire or a child to premature death? Wouldn’t we be working to build a better understanding of God’s activity in the midst of brokenness rather than passing over pain as a mere hiccup of normal life?

Yet, we continue to imagine trauma as some sort of abnormal state.

Ruard Ganzevoort[1] tells us that, “When one looks at issues like these, we must conclude that our western societies are to no less degree defined by violence and trauma, even if everyday life is in many ways much more comfortable” (p. 13). Thus, Ganzevoort continues, we must “take trauma and violence not as the strange exceptions to an otherwise ‘nice’ world” (ibid, emphasis mine). He concludes that while we have a strong theology for sinners, we have a less articulated theology for victims.

What if we were to read the Bible in such a way to build a theology of trauma for victims? What would it look like? I would suggest that Diane Langberg’s maxim sets the stage quite nicely: the cross is where trauma and God meet. Jesus cries out due to the pain of abandonment by the Father. Since we do have a high priest who understands our trauma (Hebrews 4:15), we can read the entire canon from the frame of trauma—from the trauma of the first sin and death to the trauma of the cross to the trauma just prior to the coming new heavens and earth.

Key Themes in a Theology of Trauma

Reading the Bible through the lens of trauma highlights a few key themes beyond the foundation of a God who Himself knows trauma firsthand in the unjust torture and death of Jesus:

Anguish is the norm and leads most frequently to questions

When more than 40% of the Psalms are laments (and that doesn’t count the primary themes of the prophets!) we must recognize that anguish is most appropriate forms of communication to God and with each other. But we are not alone in the feelings of anguish. God expresses it as well. Notice God expresses his anguish over the idolatry of Israel (Eze 6:9) and Jesus expresses his when lamenting over Israel (Luke 13:34) and cries out in questions when abandoned by the Father (by quoting—fulfilling—Psalm 22).

Despised and rejected, a man of sorrows, acquainted with grief.

Peace happens…in context of chaos

Psalm 23 comes to the lips of many during times of trouble as it expresses peace and rest during times of intense trouble. Shadows of death yet comfort; enemies around yet feasts. Peace happens but rarely outside of chaos and distress. Consider Jeremiah 29:11, frequently quoted to those going through hardship to remind them that God has a plan. He does have one, but recall that the plan was to live in exile among those who see the Israelites as foreigners and second-class citizens!

The kingdom of God in the present does not promise protection of bodies

Try reading Psalm 121 aloud among those who have survived genocide or been raped repeatedly by soldiers. “The Lord will keep you from all harm.” Really? You lost 70 family members? You cannot maintain your bladder continence due to traumatic injury to your bladder? Where was your protection? Our theology of God’s care must take into consideration that He does not eliminate disaster on those he loves. Recall again the trauma wrought on those God chose to be his remnant. They were the ones ripped from families and enslaved by the Babylonians.

God and his people are in the business of trauma prevention, justice, and mercy responses

The kingdom of God is not for those who have pure beliefs. The kingdom of God is for the poor in Spirit, the persecuted, those who provide mercy and those who hunger for justice (Matthew 5). True or pure religion is practiced by those who care for the most vulnerable among us (James 1:27). Jesus himself is the fulfillment of healing as he claims Isaiah 61 as fulfilled in his personhood and mission (Luke 4:18-21). We his people are the hands and feet to carry out that binding up and release from oppression.

Recovery and renewal during and after trauma likely will not eliminate the consequences of violence until the final return of Jesus Christ

Despite our call to heal the broken and free those enslaved, we are given no promise that the consequences of violence are fully removed until the final judgment. Rarely do we expect lost limbs to grow back or traumatic brain injuries to be erased upon recovery from an accident. Yet sometimes we assume that traumatic reactions such as startle responses, flashbacks, or overwhelming panic should evaporate if the person has recovered. A robust theology of trauma recognizes we have no promise of recovery in this life. What we do have is theology of presence. God is with us and will strengthen us guiding us to serve him and participate in his mission to glory.

There is much more to say about a theology of trauma for victims. We can discuss things like theodicy, forgiveness, restorative justice, and reconciliation. But for now, let us be patient with those who are hurting as they represent the norm and not the exception. And may we build a missional theology of trauma, not only for victims, but also for all.

[1] Ganzeboort, R. Ruard (2008). Teaching that Matters: A Course on Trauma and Theology. Journal of Adult Theological Education, 5:1, 8-19.

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Trauma and the Church presentation this Friday night


This weekend, Foundations Christian Counseling is hosting a 2 day conference, Counsel From the Cross at Spruce Lake Retreat. I will be speaking Friday night (8 pm) on “The Cross, the Church, and Trauma: Making the Church a Safe Place for Victims of Trauma.” Use the 2nd link above to register for the day or the weekend.

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Watch live stream presentations on power that harms or heals


Starting Tuesday, The Mission: Trauma Healing ministry of the American Bible Society will livestream its 2017 Community of Practice. You can link up here. Conference begins at 8:30AM EDT.

Here are a few of the notable plenaries

  • Tuesday 11 AM: The Good, Bad, and Ugly of Trauma, By Diane Langberg, with Phil Monroe
  • Wednesday 9 AM: The Exploitation of Power in Cultures, By Sherwood and Judith Lingenfelter
  • Wednesday 3:30 PM: Your Power as Facilitator, By Phil Monroe with Diane Langberg
  • Thursday, 9 AM: How to Empower People who have Lost Their Power, By Michael Lyles, MD
  • Thursday, 11 AM Power in Trauma and Healing in Rwanda, By Baraka Paulette

There are other presentations but these are some of the key presentations on the topic of power. Hope you can make it online.

 

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