Barbra Graber, Rachel Halder, and Hilary Jerome Scarsella at the Dove's Nest conference in November 2014.

Barbra Graber, Rachel Halder, and Hilary Jerome Scarsella at the Dove’s Nest conference in November 2014.

In November 2014, Our Stories Untold attended Dove’s Nest’s “Protecting Our Children and Youth Conference” as both conference participants and speakers. OSU partner Hilary Jerome Scarsella, a doctoral candidate in theological studies at Vanderbilt University, led a seminar titled “Children, the Peace Position, and Vulnerability to Abuse.” I was completely blown away by much of what she said, as the truth resonated deeply with my own knowledge, hurts, and disagreements with the church based on my experiences as a survivor. Though the truth resonated with me, what she said had never been articulated for me before. It was a brand new way of looking at theology from the eyes of an abuse survivor.

During this seminar Hilary explained that at the heart of peace theology, we’re attempting to create right relationships with each other, with self, and with God. Yet, the way we tell Biblical stories—not the actual stories themselves—are perpetuating abuse within our communities and are destroying these relationships with each other, self, and God.

Hilary reasoned that when we tell the story of Jesus being willing to die as an example of what it means to be in “right relationships,” we end up emphasizing relationships with our enemies, relationships with those who hold power over us, and relationships with people who “don’t deserve our love” as the most important and “right” relationship—relationships exemplifying peace theology. And when we tell the story of Jesus willingly dying on the cross, we’re also saying that the way to respond to a situation in which people have power over you is to love them. Therefore, the way you love them may look like allowing your body to be physically tortured to the point of death.

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Hilary Scarsella presenting at Dove’s Nest Conference in Omaha, Nebraska, November, 2014.

There is much more that Hilary rationalized in terms of what children being abused get out of Biblical stories, including the story of Jesus dying on the cross. Ultimately, what I took away was that all people, including children, go to church looking for meaning. And in this quest for meaning, often the language and theology used to give meaning is actually counter-intuitive to a person’s spiritual growth and relationship with self, others, and God.

How can we set up the story of Jesus in a way that protects children and doesn’t cause further harm in abuse situations? That’s a pretty huge question. And we feel fortunate to have Hilary working to answer it in hopes of protecting abuse survivors from the spiritual harm that can come from the language used by the church.

As you read the request from Hilary below, we invite you to share your own experience with Biblical texts. It can be hard sometimes to speak our own truth, which goes against all that we have been taught and understand to be “the way.” Yet through our own vulnerability and acknowledgement of how language and stories have effected our own understanding of self-worth and relationships, we can co-create a more beautiful future in which people can come to the church and biblical texts through an understanding of spiritual self-actualization as opposed to oppression and pain.

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Calling All Survivors!

The wisdom you’ve gathered along your journey of healing can help transform the ways we think about God, the Jesus story, and faith. I invite you to contribute to a collaborative project that takes the experiences of survivors as important sources for doing theology (i.e. thinking about God and Jesus in ways that breathe love and life into all).

I’m working on my PhD in theology at Vanderbilt University, and I’m doing this work because I want to make space for the voices of survivors to reshape the systems of belief that define communities of faith. Over the next few years, I’ll be seeking out survivors’ theological wisdom on a number of themes, and right now I’d like to invite anyone who is interested to talk to me about your thoughts on Jesus – his life, death, resurrection, and his significance in your own story of harm and/or healing.

You don’t need to know a thing about theology to contribute! The fact that you are a survivor makes you perfectly qualified.

Be the change by helping Hilary and OSU create a new theology for survivors of sexual abuse! We hope to hear from you.

Please comment here or email me at Hilary.j.scarsella@vanderbilt.edu if you are interested. Your anonymity will be protected, and I will be in touch with you about the details. We can set up a time for a phone conversation. Or, if you prefer, I can send you a list of questions that you can reflect on and respond to by email. If you want to talk more in order to decide whether or not you want to participate, I welcome that conversation as well. My deadline for collecting responses is March 31st.  Again, all you need is a willingness to share your own honest experience with the Jesus story and a desire for the church to learn from survivors.

– Hilary Jerome Scarsella