Earlier this year, a memorial to rape survivors was temporarily in place in the reflection pool of the Washington Monument. The letters floated in blood red on the water’s surface, reading “I CAN’T FORGET WHAT HAPPENED BUT NO ONE ELSE REMEMBERS.” Upon encountering the image, my first thought was “Of course, that’s why we have the church.” It was only on later reflection that I realized what a strange thought that may have been. Not everyone has such an experience of the church.
Trauma, such as sexual assault or the murder of a mentor, reforms our ability to narrate an understanding of self and the world; it becomes difficult to narrate in ways that are life-giving. It is through the help of community leading us to grace that the ability to narrate is again reformed, that identity and agency are relocated. The church is a place of community that first gathered around an event of trauma and an event of grace. We first gathered because of the crucifixion and resurrection of a man from Nazareth.
And we continue to gather around that same event, and its echoes in our own lives. In the Lord’s Supper, we hear Jesus in solidarity with the rape survivor: his body, too, is broken at the beckoning of abusers. The church remembers this. The church enacts this. The church refuses to turn away from systemic abuse, exploited power, a humiliated victim, a broken body, blood prematurely poured. We won’t shield our eyes to the violence, but continue to observe it, expose it, to name evil for what it is.
So rape, along with other abuses, is not just the problem of the survivor. Every act of violence is my problem, is your problem, is the church’s problem, is God’s problem.
The church is full of people who can’t forget what happened. The church is a community that holds.
This is incredibly hopeful, painfully hopeful. If we can tolerate the remembrance of this one act of violence, we can see, hear, and hold all acts of violence. If we can see the human glory in one victim, we can narrate the glory we see in one another. If we can believe in the resurrection, the new life, given to one man, then we can hold the hope that new life is available for each survivor. We are a community of witnesses, and through our witnessing, we become agents of change, bearers of grace, affirmers of agency and embodiment.
I don’t have a clean answer for why many churches don’t do a better job of engaging trauma , especially when the entire organization is built around the remembrance of trauma. Fear and shame, I’d guess. But I will say that meaning occurs where we make it, together. And if you can’t forget what happened, please come find someone to remember with you.