The April 2012 General Conference featured a terrific talk by President Uchtdorf, “The Merciful Obtain Mercy,” that reinforces the importance of being forgiving and non-judgmental. He “bottom lines” his message with the following statement: “This topic of judging others could actually be taught in a two-word sermon. When it comes to hating, gossiping, ignoring, ridiculing, holding grudges, or wanting to cause harm, please apply the following: Stop it! It’s that simple. We simply have to stop judging others and replace judgmental thoughts and feelings with a heart full of love for God and His children.” Earlier in the talk, he cited D&C 64:9, “Forgive one another; for he that forgiveth not . . . [stands] condemned before the Lord; for there remaineth in him the greater sin.” For the vast majority of Latter-day Saints, such messages are wonderfully received. When it comes to judging and hating and resenting and holding grudges, yes, we should “stop it.” Most listeners would also hear in an earnest spirit of striving to do better the scriptural statement that those who fail to forgive others are sinful—perhaps condemned even more than the one who did the offending.
But what about abuse victims? What about those who have been physically, sexually, emotionally abused—sometimes relentlessly and violently? How would they hear such messages? Is a warning that they must forgive their abusers, rapists, torturers or else they are even worse sinners than them a good one to hear? Can certain messages that are wonderful in most cases (and no one is imagining that abuse victims were on President Uchtdorf’s mind when he gave his remarks) be heard in spiritually and emotionally damaging ways by those whose self image distorted by internalized shame over the abuse they received as a child or whose lives are in danger or souls are being warped by abuse even in the present? Can such messages actually re-victimize these people? Are there circumstances in which even the beautiful message of “Families Are Forever” be heard as a threat—heard in such a way that a person might express a deliberate choice to live in hell rather than be forced to associate with their abuser(s) in heaven? The answer is yes.
In this episode, LDS therapist Natasha Helfer Parker and blogger and abuse survivor Tresa Brown Edmunds share deep insights about how important it is for all of us, whether it is through official church capacities or friendships or other relationships, to understand and keep in mind the realities of abuse and all the ways it can affect its victims. Through sharing therapeutic tools, reflecting on gospel themes, recasting scriptural stories, and deep dives into ways the Atonement might provide healing for abuse victims, Parker and Edmunds both educate us and give practical advice about how we might help rather than harm. They discuss the mindset of victims that often includes deeply internalized shame and warped thinking about their own role in the abuse, the effects of trauma and helplessness on physiology and normal bodily responses that manifest in many and varied ways beyond the victim’s control yet somehow still get carelessly talked about (often in wrong-minded gospel frameworks) as if these “problems” are actually the victim’s fault, that if they were only stronger or a better person they would just suck it up and move on. In cases of deep victimization, if healing is the goal, should “forgiveness” of one’s abuser(s) even be on the therapeutic or spiritual agenda? Are there ways that the expectation that the victim will eventually forgive the perpetrator actually be an obstacle to their healing, to proper boundary setting, to their reclaiming their own lives and power? Might forgiveness better be seen as a possible result far, far down the line in the healing process, if it ever happens—always with a clear message being sent to this person that whether they are ever able to forgive or even associate with their abuser(s) again implies absolutely nothing about their strength, goodness, or worthiness to be loved? This discussion is a difficult one but powerful and very important. We encourage you to share it widely. Let’s learn better how to be healers.
We look forward to a good and deeply respectful discussion in the comments section below.
Exponent II issue (pdf) with Tresa Brown Edmund’s article on Abuse (see p. 32). Natasha Helfer Parker also has a short essay in this issue (see p. 18)
Amazon links to books mentioned in podcast by Natasha Helfer Parker:
How Can I Forgive You? by Janis A. Spring
Integrating the Shattered Self by Nicki Roth