Religious trauma

Bedtime theology with the 10 yo and 7 yo...   

(Just finished talking about the story of the 10 plagues and had moved on to another book…)

7 yo: (Interrupting) Death angel….death angel….. (whimpers and cuddles up)

Me: Oh honey, are you still thinking about the angel of death in the 10 plagues story? I’m sorry. That is really upsetting isn’t it?

7 yo: Yeah, I’m scared.

Me: Oh sweetie, that story is from a long time ago. You don’t have to worry about that. Also, there are a lot of scary stories in the Bible and we don’t know if all of them happened exactly that way.

10 yo: What! Mom, I thought you believed in God!

Me: Well, I do. I believe in the truth of the Bible and Jesus and all the rest.

10 yo: But you said some of the stories aren’t true.

Me: Well, we don't know. Do you remember when you studied creation myths at school? Myths are stories that people tell to make sense of the world. They teach us things that are true and important, but it isn’t important if every single detail actually happened that way. We can’t know.

10 yo: Oh, okay, yeah.

Me: Does that make sense?

10 yo: Yeah.

Me: (To 7 yo) So you do not have to worry about an angel of death. That’s not going to happen to you. Jesus loves us and taught about loving all people and I believe all of that is true. Okay?

7 yo: Okay. But can I sleep with you and dad tonight?

We didn't even read the 10 plagues story; we read the Moses story tonight (baby in a basket, burning bush). I mentioned it briefly and then we moved on to another book. But my 7 yo was still scared (although he did later note that he's glad he's the second born son).

I was unware that religious trauma was a thing until well into my adulthood. I don't remember learning much about it at seminary (oddly). I knew that people had been hurt by churches and pastors, but I didn't use the word "trauma," and I thought these incidents were mostly big, bad and faraway, like sexual abuses in the Catholic church or Jim Jones-style Kool-Aid cults. It did not occur to me that religious trauma appears in churches near me (and you) and the aggressions are micro, too. 

I've spent some time reading author Cindy Wang Brandt, who has a book, podcast and social media presence about religious trauma. She's also a person who experienced religious trauma as a child. If you lurk in her Facebook group a bit (guilty) you read some intensely terrible stories about people who've come into adulthood scarred by teachings that led to guilt, shame, anger, self-harm and relationship dysfunction. People in the group are "deconstructing;" sometimes they stay in a faith tradition and sometimes they don't.

As I've read these posts over the years (but never posted), I've been surprised to find myself in a few of them. People talk about how scared they were as a child by Biblical stories of violence and judgment. Check. Others talk about the intense pressure they felt to "convert" others. Check. Still others talk about the purity culture movement that left them uncomfortable with and ashamed of their sexuality. Check. And I was raised in a mainline Lutheran church! 

I've written about this before, but I search for that sweet spot in the tension between exposing children to the more difficult passages of Scripture and protecting them from the trauma of them. Age makes a difference, and so does context. My seven-year-old is still pretty literal in how he reads things; my ten-year-old is edging closer to abstract thinking, which I sensed in his reaction.

I hope that since the bulk of my children's religious education is focused on God's expansive love and abundant grace, there's room to explore the harder texts without causing harm. It seems like a firm foundation of a generous and caring God comes first, creating the space for questions and doubts. We can be motivated by great fear or great love; I'm pulling for the latter.


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