A Call to Protest by Michelle Panchuk

Stephanie Nicole Nordby
Thursday 14 February 2019

The world is full to overflowing with pain.  It is a relentless source of dismay for a person of faith to struggle with the omnipresence of radical, destructive suffering.  But for the source of suffering to come from the church and be justified by its Scripture and traditions is a kind of toxic, crushing pain that is hard to endure. It is particularly wounding for abuse to come from one’s own home.[1]

As Wendy Farley sees it, the problem of evil consists not only in the fact that the world is overflowing with banal and horrendous evils, though this is a deeply troubling issue in its own right.  The problem that concerns Farley is that people come to God (through the church) asking for bread and apparently receive stones and serpents in its place.  It is that they live with the psychic and spiritual trauma that such encounters inevitably leave in their wake.  This is the phenomenon of religious trauma.  Someone endures religious trauma when their encounter with a religion harms them in ways that diminish their capacity for engaging in religious or spiritual practices in the future—when their search for the divine leaves them so personally and spiritually fragmented that it undermines personal agency.  How aught religious communities respond to the knowledge that spiritual trauma exists and that we are, if not individually, at least collectively responsible for much of it?  I want to suggest the one important way that Christian communities can fulfill their obligations to survivors of religious trauma is by incorporating protest, both against God and against systems of oppression, into their liturgical practices.

What Has Liturgy to Do with Trauma?

Traditional Catholic and Anglican liturgies consist of two movements: the liturgy of the word and the liturgy of the sacrament.  On one level, the two movements reflect the two central aspects of spiritual life.  The liturgy of the word addresses our epistemic commitments, and the liturgy of the sacrament engages our embodied selves.  On another level, the entire liturgy, in both its movements, is permeated with bodily expression.  One kneels at the alter; one speaks, sings, and prays blowing air across one’s tongue and lips; one makes the sign of the cross over one’s breast; one listens to the vibrations of words chanted, bells rung repeated, choruses sung echoing through the cathedral and across the centuries. Liturgy can be a powerful spiritual experience for embodied creatures like us, but this power is a two-edged sword for those living with the effects of religious trauma.

Liturgy’s integration of epistemic commitments within embodied practices coincides beautifully with the latest advances in trauma therapy.  In recent decades leading trauma therapists have come to realize that not only the mind and brain, but the entire body, play a central role in storing and processing traumatic memory.  This is why talk and exposure therapy alone are only marginally successful in aiding recovery, while embodied therapies like EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprogramming), yoga, dance, and art therapy in combination with traditional talk therapy tend to produce better longterm outcomes for survivors.[2]  Like the latest forms of therapy, liturgy integrates practices of the mind and the body into a holistic experience.

On the other hand, the sights, sounds, smells, and emotions associated with trauma (which in religious trauma will be associated with religion) can also trigger post-traumatic responses such as dissociation, intrusive memories, and panic attacks.  For example, Serene Jones quotes a trauma survivor’s reaction to the Eucharist:

In an instant, I’m terrified; I feel like I’m going to die or get hurt very badly. My body tells me to run away, but instead, I just freeze. Last week it was the part about Jesus’ blood and body. There was a flash in my head, and I couldn’t tell the difference between Jesus and me, and I saw blood everywhere, and broken body parts, and I got so afraid I just disappeared. I thought the bathroom might feel safe, but even it scared and confused me. I forgot my name.[3]

The embodied practices of liturgy pose a real risk for survivors of religious trauma for whom any aspect of liturgy, from kneeling, to praying, to hearing particular passages of scripture or hymns might be experienced as an unbearable psychological or physical assault.  As such, religious communities must strive to create opportunities for liturgical engagements that empower survivors and foster post-traumatic healing, rather than retraumatizing them.  While it is impossible to guarantee an environment free from potential triggers, I think protest liturgy may constitute one way forward.

Is Protest Spiritual? Is it Healing?

The Scriptural tradition provides numerous examples of conflict with, and protest against, God in the wake of confusion and suffering.  When Abraham and Moses challenge God’s intentions,

God listens and relents.  When Job protests his suffering and demands an audience, God speaks.  When Jacob wrestles with God and survives, he receives a blessing.  When a pagan woman refuses to submit to Jesus’s suggestion that she is an unworthy dog, Jesus commends her faith.  Even Jesus himself echoes David’s cry of despair: “My God, My God! Why have you forsaken me?!”  At the pivotal moment of Jesus’s life, we hear an accusatory question rather than a triumphant shout or submissive whisper.  Marylin McCord Adams suggests that confrontational engagements with God like these can have great spiritual and psychological benefit for survivors of religious trauma:

Praying angry helps to heal, because—by calling God to account—it asserts worth… Praying angry is an act of integrity: it foregoes politeness to tell stark truths about how the situation looked and felt to the survivor.…Praying angry is good medicine because it differentiates the survivor from God, from the Church, and from predator priests by daring to contradict official points of view. Praying angry pits the interests of the survivor against the interests of the predator, the institutional church, and permissive Divine providence.[4]

One thing we know about trauma is that the severity of the post-traumatic response is correlated with the degree to which the event was overwhelming and incapacitating.  The corollary is that recovery often involves re-claiming agency.   Although it is neither a panacea nor an appropriate or healing exercise for every survivor, protest liturgy allows for the epistemic and bodily expression of agency in the very context in which religious trauma undermined agency.  This can help to minimize negative post-traumatic responses both to liturgy and in other spheres of life.   Although Adams conceives of protest as manifesting primarily in personal prayer, given the corporate responsibility for many manifestations of religious trauma, I believe that incorporating this emotional posture into public liturgy would both mirror the marriage of mind and body so essential in trauma and provide the church body with an opportunity to stand in empathetic solidarity with the ones who have been harmed.  If it is true that when one member suffers all the members suffer with it, then perhaps it also be true that when one member protests suffering, all the members should protest with it.


Michelle Panchuk an assistant professor of philosophy at Murray State University.  Her current research is situated at the intersection of philosophy of religion, trauma theory, and feminist philosophy.  She is especially interested in giving a philosophical account of, and response to, the phenomenon of religious trauma, as well as exploring the nature and effects of epistemic injustices in religious contexts.  Her other interests include  metaphysics, medieval philosophy, the history of Russian philosophy, and introducing students to the joys of the practice of philosophy.  Outside of the office and the classroom, she enjoys reading to her daughter, spending time with family and friends, and promoting awareness and resources for responding to religious abuse.



[1] Wendy Farley, Gathering Those Driven Away: A Theology of Incarnation, (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011).

[2] Van Der Kolk, 205-358. Sharon Stanley, Relational and Body-Centered Practices of Healing Trauma: Lifting the Burdens of the Past, (New York: Routledge, 2016).

[3] Serene Jones, Trauma and Grace: Theology in a Ruptured World (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 7.

[4] Marilyn McCord Adams, “Praying Angry and Surviving Abuse,” blog Reverberations: New Directions in the Study of Prayer. http://forums.ssrc.org/ndsp/author/marilyn-adams/ (accessed July 17, 2017).