war trauma

As one who directs the Seminary’s Global Trauma Recovery Institute, I can say this: trauma recovery is kind of sexy these days. And that isn’t always a good thing.

Here’s what I mean: it seems everyone is talking about the problem of trauma, whether the traumas of child sexual abuse, domestic violence, human trafficking, ethnic tension, urban violence, or military service. Organizations and cities are becoming “trauma-informed.” But awareness of the problem of trauma on individuals and communities is not just for secular organizations and mental health professionals. The church too is getting that trauma is the mission field of our time (as per Diane Langberg) with pernicious impact on faith and spiritual vitality.

Don’t get me wrong; this attention to the previously hidden problem of trauma is a really good thing. Those with hidden and previously considered too shameful problems can now have their struggles validated. Traumatized individuals can feel their problems aren’t “just in their heads.” We may not know what to do to help some victims, but we do know we can support and encourage those who are in significant emotional pain. Hear me: this is a very good development.

But…sometimes we can jump on certain bandwagons in ways that end up harming the very people we want to help. Sometimes our motives are pure; other times not so much. Let me point out two particular ways we can add to the hurts of those who suffer with trauma symptoms.

Lies for personal gain

Let’s tackle the ugliest reality. Some people find that their capacity to talk about the traumas of others brings public attention and is a way to sell themselves as a hero. It doesn’t happen much, but when it does and the public recognizes fabrications for what they are, those who are true victims are harmed. Either victims fear being seen as self-aggrandizers or the public develops a tin ear to similar cries of injustice. Most recently, I received this story from a friend documenting the outright fabrications of a well-known crusader for rescuing girls from sex trafficking in Cambodia. Let’s give her the benefit of the doubt. Maybe she started with good intentions, but it appears that greed and the need for more limelight produced outright lies and thus the misdirection of donor money intended to help victims in need.

While this story might be unusual, what is not so unusual is the need to stretch the truth in order to garner a larger piece of foreign gifts available for humanitarian relief. How many mouths did you feed? How many tents delivered? How many traumatized people did you treat? Do you have pictures of naked and starving children? All the better to mobilize donors to your work…until the next compelling disaster. Linda Polman, author of The Crisis Caravan: What’s Wrong with Humanitarian Aid paints a rather stark and ugly picture of the need to stretch the truth to keep the relief machine running. If that isn’t bad enough, she also suggests that much of the well-intended relief may actually harm, especially in war-zones.

Stereotyping for simplicity sake

Outright lying for the sake of self-promotion is not the only way we can harm those who continue to suffer from past traumatic experiences. We can also harm by painting victims in such a manner that they exist only as victims, those without resources or strengths. Our reasons for painting such a black/white picture are less to gain personal attention but rather are intended to keep an easily distractible audience focused on the core problem. We fear that victims with complex backgrounds and resources may be overlooked.

For example, might we be tempted to tell only of suburban trafficking of young girls grabbed off the street and thrown into the sex trade in order to keep the audience aghast at the heinousness of sexual slavery. What happens if our stories also include adolescent and young adult women with less than virginal characters who make poor choices and get caught in something bigger than they expected. Does such a story still keep the audience’s attention?

In a recent interview on Radio Times author Philip Klay (rhymes with lie) discusses a common problem he faces as a veteran of the war in Iraq.

“Either I find people who want you to be super Navy Seal, bad-ass character who can kill you in thirty-seven different ways…or a passive traumatized vet who is a victim of poor foreign policy and an object of pity.”

Sometimes, to help the audience see the damage of “invisible wounds”, we fall prey to stereotypes that end up harming those who do not fit the image we have painted. Our images may create “an object of pity” but in doing so may hinder us from seeing the resources and power in the victim. By not seeing their capacities, we treat such individuals as incapable of being resilient and of little value other than being that object of pity.

Whether we lie for personal gain or to bring attention to hurting, both cause harm to victims and to our own souls. Let us endeavor to tell the truth, even when inconvenient. Whatever good we do will be of greater value for the name of Jesus Christ.


+1 # Barbara Roberts 2014-06-21 01:47
Well said, Phil! I have been thinking about this phenomenon that you describe, so reading your post was timely.

Since my focus is domestic abuse, I see this mostly in the domestic abuse subset of the trauma field.

I have heard of or observed women who are survivors of domestic abuse who gain a measure of recovery and then start helping other survivors. . . . but they want to maintain the position of 'expert' so they keep their "helpees" in the position of needy victim. I confess that in my early days as a recovering survivor/ would-be advocate, I did this myself. And I am moritifed about it now. Thankfully the woman I did it to has accepted my apology and forgiven em.

In the cases I've heard about or witness, when the victim/survivor starts to gain strength the 'helper' pushes her back down, belittling her or trying to control her, rather than encouraging her to make her own choices and honoring her dignity and self-agency.

It's like the Queen Bee who has to be queen of the hive. She needs those she is the self-styled supporter of, and she needs them in an unhealthy way. It's too enmeshed. It's disrespectful. It can easily verge into controlling behaviour by the helper.

I have also noticed another variant of what you are talking about, Phil, in pastors who pontificate about the evils of domestic abuse but who use illustrations that are really extreme (e.g. "The husband was kicking his wife's teeth down her throat"). That kind of extreme illustration of domestic abuse may momentarily pique the sentimental outrage of the average bystander who is inexperienced in domestic abuse, but it is of very little help to victims. It paints a picture of what goes on in domestic abuse that is so extreme, so rare, that most victims will feel 'I'm not a victim because that isn't how my husband treats me!"

When pastors and bloggers do that, I find it self-aggrandizing. They are posing as experts who occupy the high moral ground, but they really don't understand enough about the issue.
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0 # Shirley 2014-06-21 06:47
Thank you for this. I live in South Africa and work as an OT. I can't watch TV or read newspapers anymore-generally negative and the race card is so often played. I need to keep my focus on God and His character. What He has called me to do. Difficult when you also struggle to trust those in the church.
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0 # Teresa 2014-06-21 17:03
This is a very thought-provoking article. Barbara's comment regarding domestic abuse very much resonated with me in the tendency of those speaking out about it to make the abuse examples so heinous that anyone would be outraged about them. I agree that it makes lesser abuse seem small by comparison, and the conclusion is that it isn't "real" abuse if it isn't over-the-top. I'm sure this applies to other types of trauma as well.
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0 # Philip Monroe 2014-06-24 10:07
Hi Barbara, Thanks for your comment. I think we all run the risk of getting life out of other's pain. And yes, it doesn't help when we only tell extreme stories and so, without meaning to, minimize the suffering of everyday violence.
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0 # Tiffany Clark 2014-06-24 11:34
I'm grateful to see trauma finally receiving the recognition that it needs. In my own experience, much of what complicates the healing process is the well-intentioned ignorance or flat-out denial of those closest to a survivor. The more truly traumatized a person is, the less likely they are to "promote" themselves as such.

In seeking to develop a biblical theology of trauma, I've been encouraged to see the redemptive ways that God uses trauma as a cycle of death and resurrection.
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0 # Philip Monroe 2014-06-25 19:55
Tiffany, Like your posts and encourage you to write more on this messy theology of trauma and recovery!
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