I spend a good bit of time listening to adult survivors of childhood sexual abuse reflect on ways that the worship and theology of their faith communities impacted their experience of abuse, its traumatic consequences, and their subsequent ability to struggle toward survival and construct lives that feel worth living.
Even though it is now pretty widely admitted among those who study this sort of thing that faith communities often attract folks who abuse children, it is still somewhat rare to come across congregations in which adult members consider it their responsibility to proactively work at protecting children from such harm. In communities that do confront the issue outright, a commitment to address children’s vulnerability to abuse is usually understood as a commitment to implement child protection policies (i.e. two adults with any group of children at all times, windows in classroom doors, etc.). Child protection policies can make a real difference and their importance ought not to be downplayed.
At the same time, when I listen to survivors of childhood abuse reflect on the complex relationship between abuse and their participation in communities of faith, it is clear to me that a commitment to confronting this particular violence doesn’t end with policies. If communities of faith are willing to acknowledge that the abuse of children (and the adults they grow into) is a serious problem and want to constitute themselves as communities that resist this violence and care with/for those who have survived it, we need to reflect on the theology that grounds and organizes the life of our communities. Since most Christian communities do the lion’s share of their theologizing, explicit and implicit, on Sunday mornings, we need to reflect on the ways we worship.
Consider, for example, a practice central to Christian worship: Communion, Eucharist, Lord’s Supper. When we share bread and drink together our desire (often) is to strengthen the bonds of authentic commune/ity both with one another and with the Divine. We mean for this sacred meal to manifest the love of God in and among us. But, for several reasons, participation in this practice can impact those vulnerable to or experiencing abuse quite differently.
When it is explicitly stated or implicitly suggested during the ritual that Jesus demonstrated his faithfulness to God by being willing to endure bodily harm and execution as an expression of love for the people trying to hurt him, children in the pews who are being hurt or might soon be hurt are paying attention. When communion theology emphasizes the need for Christians to follow Jesus’ example of loving enemies even to the point of death, many who are suffering harm, diverse in age and circumstance, interpret this message to mean that the Christian way to regard one’s perpetrator is to show love by being willing to endure continued harm, no matter how bad it gets. Jesus, after all, was willing to die for people who were entirely undeserving. Academic theologians have myriad ways of scooting around the ethical and theological pitfalls of this message, but the complexity and nuance cultivated in liberation, feminist, womanist and queer (to name a few) readings of this central Christian narrative do not often show up on Sunday mornings.
There is a gap between what both theologians and non-academic Christians think theologically and the theology expressed and taken up in our bodies in the practices that shape us. Children understand that the physical/spiritual/social space of worship and communion is sacred. They sense the authority this space holds with adults in the community. That the act of communion appears to be both important and trusted by adults is all the more reason for a child to internalize its embodied message sincerely. The belief that can come to inhabit children alongside the food and drink they ingest is that if they desire to emulate the love of Jesus it is right for them to accept the abuse of their own bodies just like he did.
There is another way that participating in communion can exacerbate the harm of abuse. For some abuse survivors participating in communion as an adult can be a retraumatizing experience that brings back the pain of abuse they experienced as child. Especially for those who were orally raped by adult men, the invitation to put Jesus’ body into one’s mouth can be frightening and intrusive. Sharing bread and cup in adult life, for these, derails processes of rebuilding life and self post-trauma and exacerbates the pain they experienced as children.
These are two tiny windows into the significance that theology, ritualized and embodied in worship, can have for children who are either vulnerable to abuse or who have already been harmed by it. In addition to implementing child protection policies, communities of faith are ethically and theologically obligated to reflect on what our faith practices say to children (and adults) about what Christian love looks like in situations of harm, about the place of safety – complex and contested as it is – in Christian life, and about a whole host of equally difficult and pressing subjects integral to thinking and living theologically in light of abuse.
 If you would like to add your voice to this conversation, visit OurStoriesUntold.com and plug in through the blog or contact me through email.
 Because communities of faith are often places where many children gather, where adults tend to trust that their children are safe, and where it is perceived as positive for close, intergenerational relationships to develop, etc., those who abuse children can gain access to one-on-one time with children relatively easily and without raising suspicion.
 This interpretation of the biblical narrative that informs the meal is most common, perhaps ironically, in faith communities that maintain an explicit commitment to peace, nonviolence and/or social justice, such as my own Mennonite Church USA and Mennonite Church Canada.