Forgiveness – Trauma and Healing
by AJ Fox
September 30, 2018
As we start today, may I take a moment to speak to the content of this service. I will be talking about trauma, although I will try not to speak to specific trauma.
This week has been hard enough for many folks as it is.
This September we have spent our time together exploring the theme of forgiveness. And when, sorta at the last minute, this service plopped in my lap, I was thinking about forgiveness as a cultural process.
Specifically, I immediately began formulating a message in my head about white supremacy and racism and how we cannot move past or expect forgiveness for trespasses or trauma that are still occurring today and that we still fail to acknowledge. How understanding power dynamics is the first step to healing. How understanding and listening to people of color when they tell us about the oppression that they face is fundamental to finding a path forward from our country’s foundation of racism.
And I told Laura that the sermon would be about that. And I told Justin the sermon would be about that. And then. And then this week happened, and I watched as so many people I love had their lives, and their wounds, split wide open.
If you are not personally triggered by the national conversation unfolding about sexual assault, you likely love someone who is.
In every personal private conversation I have had in the last week, people have shared that they feel triggered. Raw. On edge. Exhausted. I have sat with personally and stood witness digitally as friends have shared their stories of trauma and abuse. Online and in long distance phone calls and in living rooms across this nation right now, people are carving out space to sit – to sit with their trauma, and the system that petitions for the rights of that trauma.
I don’t believe that is singular to my experience. As our nation has this conversation, the members of our beloved community are a conduit for the pain and trauma of this experience.
And here we are again holding up those around us, those who find home in this beloved community. Because so many of us stopped our lives this week to sit with and acknowledge the traumas we carry and the traumas of others. Because this, above all else, is the purpose of community. To hold each other when the world cracks us open.
Regardless of our theme this September, far be it from me to declare how forgiveness in each of our lives should appear. Because forgiveness implies trauma, wounding, trespass. And thus far, we exist here, we stand here, in a culture that allows this wounding to continue. A culture who would throw, arguably has thrown, all of it’s vulnerable onto the pyre to protect itself from self-reflection and justice.
At this moment, it is rarely forgiveness that those who have done violence to others are asking. Instead, it is continued status quo of a power dynamic that facilitates and upholds that violence. It is the most basic continued cultural acceptance of pain and trespass.
There are many stories of wounding in this congregation. Sharing those stories is often an important part of processing and healing. Allowing space for that is particularly hard when we are without a minister currently, but we wanted to make sure that you all had the opportunity to share with this congregation.
You may have been handed a blank index card or you may have found one on your seat. If you feel like sharing, with your name or anonymously, your experience with trauma, we offer this place. Outside in the Channing room we have created a space to share those stories.
If you choose to share, you can go there after service and add your story. There will also be ribbons of paper available to show support. Please do not feel obligated to share, or to go and sit with these stories. You get to choose your involvement. For many of us, simply coming to church, sharing a cup of coffee, and going home is an act of strength today.
For those of you who share, and for those of you who do not, we offer you our love. We stand together in Beloved Community and affirm that we see you, and we believe you.
Downstairs the kids share an affirmation. We are Unitarian Universalists. With minds that think, hearts that love, and hands that are ready to serve. Minds, hearts, hands.
It is something of a truncated version of the James Vila Blake affirmation. Love is the spirit of this church, and service its law; this is our great covenant. To dwell together in peace, to seek the truth in love, and to help one another. Mind, hearts, hands.
But minds and hearts and hands come in different ratios, different proportion, on different hours, days, weeks. And this has been a week of heart.
For those of us who want hands. Who want actionable items. Who want a path forward, and service by behavior.
A culture allows individuals to do harm is built on a culture that does not value consent. One way to disarm that culture, moving forward, is to uphold consent. Consent in everything. Consent not only as it applies to sex or violence, but as it applies to your daily interactions with others.
In battling the cultural tendency towards upholding a history of violence and abuse rooted in power dynamics, it can be easy to feel overwhelmed. But the path forward, I firmly believe, is build a culture that affirms consent.
This is particularly important for kids, because kids are young and malleable and arguably the most good can be done as it relates to kids, but it is also vital for adults. Because adults exist, and they feel, and so many adults in this room have spent the week cracked open, and the way we help them is by actively practicing consent with them.
We all have a choice about how fully we embrace a culture that upholds consent, and we can build that culture with our daily actions. I suggest these three goals.
First – Ask permission to touch the body of another.
Ask before you hug someone. Ask before you touch someone. Ask before you tickle a child. Our cultural power dynamics mean that some people have been given culture rights to the bodies of others. The way to heal this is to – full stop – respect bodily autonomy. Do not pat someone’s back or wrap your arm around someone or hug someone without asking permission. Yes – this sounds like it breaks up the flow of conversation. It will, sometimes. Then you get used to it, and it makes the hugs you receive more authentic. Moreover – you do not know what another person’s needs are. It might be that today what they need is to NOT be touched. The only way you can know that is to ask.
Consent, actively pursued during times of intimacy or times of vulnerability, must be built on a foundation of consent pursued during our daily life.
This is especially true for children because this is what teaches them what others are allowed to do. “May I tickle you?” “Can I have a high five?” “Would you like a hug goodbye?” And then, yo. STOP if they say no. Or frown. Or look down at the ground. Anything short of enthusiastic consent is not consent.
And then respect it. Someone was just kind enough to share what their boundaries were, and you have the privilege of actively uplifting that boundary. For some folks, that boundary is really hard, and they have shared it with you.
Second – Uphold a world that is not controlled or limited by our bodies.
Even it is a compliment, keep in mind that making comments about people’s physical body, especially about facets they have no control over, can be harmful or set negative precedents.
You, and your children, and your children’s children deserve to walk this world unimpeded. Practice finding something to talk about with folks that is not their corporeal body.
For folks carrying trauma, especially, a comment about their body can take them back into their bodies, in a way that is potentially harmful.
For children, a comment about their body reinforces that their body is their being and the most important part of them. And it enforces that their value is tied to something they have no control over.
The best way to support personhood is to allow someone else to exist.
Third – Ask permission for the mind of another.
This is the one that is the hardest for me, a fully formed adult, and the most relevant to our interactions with other adults. Learning to ask for time, and to respect a no if a no is given, is so tough. If you are about to share Big Things, or even little things, ask first!
“I have some thoughts about household budgeting, would you like me to share my experiences?”
“I have some experience with chronic pain management. Would you like me to share?”
Consent means actively asking for a yes, not just waiting for a no.
Consent in conversation means actively asking for permission to share our thoughts and emotions, and respecting it if there is a boundary there. Not questioning why, respecting.
Conversation is an interaction, and having boundaries in those conversations is healthy. If you find yourself in a conversation that feels uncomfortable, make it clear that you are not willing to continue in that conversation. “I don’t want to continue this conversation.” If you find yourself having that boundary drawn with yourself, practice consent. Step back, redirect. This is especially hard weeks like this week, when we are all on edge, struggling with huge emotions, and looking for space to share.
These three things – Asking for permission for physical touch, keeping comments about bodies to a minimum, and asking permission before you dive deep with people. – build a world that is safer for those walking with trauma, and builds a world where children are empowered to actively advocate for themselves.
I would like to close now with something like a prayer. For those of you who feel discomfort with the idea of prayer, I am with you. But this is not a prayer to the known or unknown corners of our personal theologies (or absence thereof). This is a prayer to each other, written by Unitarian Universalist Heide Cottham, in response to this week. And it felt important to share.
To those in our beloved community and to people beyond.
We humble ourselves before Survivors and we offer unyielding, unending love. We see you.
To those laying bare their past, reclaiming their stories, we offer you steadfast belief and send strength, comfort, and our own voices should yours falter. We see you.
To those reliving their stories in silence, chosen or coerced, we offer you steadfast belief and send strength, comfort, and our own voices to protect yours as long as you need. We see you.
To those witnessing, we offer gratitude and solidarity. Your work now is difficult, poignant, and necessary. We offer, too, gentle encouragement for self-care, self-witness, and self-love. We see you.
To those searching their hearts and histories for their own roles in other’s stories, we offer the sacred space of journeying and the words of Survivors. Your search is heavy and crucial. We see you.
To those who have turned their backs, we offer you a waiting place on this side of belief. We send to you our sight, our stories, the maps leading back to us, and our hope. We see you.
We humble ourselves again before Survivors and we offer unyielding, unending love. We see you. We believe you.
We see you. We believe you.
We see you. We believe you.
We see you. We believe you.