September is Suicide Awareness Month. The World Health organization has reported that someone dies by suicide every 40 seconds. Are we creating safe spaces to talk about suicide? Are we creating safe spaces that make room for listening and understanding?
As part of our work to foster open dialogue about suicide, we have been working with Disability Concerns to raise awareness about suicide. The article The Narrative of Suicide opens with a discussion on the theology that suicide is a sin and then asks us to consider how this is a very narrow perspective that needs to be challenged.
This article will address the impact of rape as it relates to suicide. The complexity of suicide is larger and deeper than we often give space for. The hope is that we as faith communities will spend more time understanding the conversation and finding space for grace, understanding, and support for those of us who are struggling. Please be aware that the following conversations are centered on the topic of rape. Please care for yourself accordingly. If you need support, please feel free to reach out to us at any time (via email or by connecting with us on our website).
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Expanding our understanding of suicide as it relates to sexual abuse
A friend of mine was raped some time ago. As I watch her move on her life, she often alludes to the dark memories she has, the triggers that she has to navigate through as she tries to move forward in her life, and the overwhelming impact this incident has had on her world. She shares her emotional journey on social media, allowing her story to educate and support others in their journey. This is a brave space she enters on a regular basis.
One day she shared how triggered she had been by the movie Audrie and Daisy. After Googling a bit to find out about the movie, I realized I would never be able to watch the movie. Having a movie reel playing in my head of the horrific true story would be too much. But I was drawn into the story and found myself researching the terrifying details of the incident.
I will leave it at your discretion to find out more about this true story, but as a mother to two teenage girls, the story was heartbreaking and terrifying. It involves the brutal rape of two girls and the eventual outcome is that both girls succumb to suicide, which came about as a direct result of the ongoing impact and trauma of their attacks. I chose to explore one of the girl’s life through her own lens of her instagram account, and I cannot find the words to express my utter sadness watching her ongoing struggle that resulted from one horrific night that was forced upon her by others who felt she was to be used and discarded.
My question for you is how do we, as the church, have conversations about this? No longer can we sit with a simplistic perspective on suicide when trauma, such as sexual assault, plays such a significant role in the equation.
Recently, I was listening to the Evolving Faith Podcast Ep. 10: Under the Wings of the Spirit with Dr. Cheryl Bridges Johns and she spoke about the very upsetting chapter in the Bible: Judges 19: A Levite and His Concubine. Dr. Cheryl points to the lack of safety in houses of patriarchy that are spoken of in the Bible. This is a story of the sexual assault of the man’s concubine when he throws her to the crowd of men demanding sex—the lack of care he has for her is utterly disgusting.
What is the purpose of this story being in the Bible? Is it to demand that we pay attention to the atrocities of sexual abuse and work to eliminate the narrative from our history? The similarities between Judges 19 and the Story of Daisy Coleman (star of the movie Audrie and Daisy) are eerie. While the concubine succumbed to her injuries from her vicious sexual attack that evening, Daisy did not, and lived with the haunting memories until she felt there was no way to continue. Can we judge Daisy for her decision to end her life, or can we demand justice for Daisy and pursue the important work of abuse prevention within our churches? Justice is exactly the space we need to sit in.
Violent rape by a stranger often gets sensationalized in the media, these are the attacks that we hear about. However, most rape happens in more common contexts, by someone who is known. Whatever the context, the experience of rape is profound. Those who experience it lose a part of themselves; their world is turned upside down and they begin to second guess all of their perceptions and everything they thought they knew. They may struggle with trust and relationships their entire lives.
In addition, unlike other crimes, the one victimized often gets blamed: “Didn’t you know what would happen when you attended that party?” “Why were you walking after dark?” “You shouldn’t have been drinking.”
How often do we attend a party, walk after dark, or have a drink, without the expectation or experience of rape; shouldn’t people be able to do that?
Blaming the one who’s been victimized makes the rest of us feel safer. If they did something to “deserve” it, then maybe it won’t happen to us. The truth is no one deserves to be raped, ever! Rape is always a violent violation—a choice for the one who chooses to rape, and an extreme powerlessness, with no choice, for the one who experiences it. The impacts go deep and are long lasting.
Another biblical story of rape is in 2 Samuel 13, the rape of Tamar. It includes all the circumstances that are so often seen in experiences of rape. For example, as in this biblical story, most rapes are premeditated, most are with someone known, the dynamics of power and vulnerability are evident. Afterwards, the experience is often minimized, responses include, “Be quiet now . . . don’t take this thing to heart.” In other words, get over it. And similar to our own systems of justice, the one with all the power, King David, does nothing. Tamar’s response is appropriate, putting ashes on her head and weeping aloud.
What is the role of the church in these situations? How could we make a positive difference?
Ongoing conversations about the long term effects of sexual abuse need to be a part of the dialogue. Safe Church provides the following resources to support this: Sexual Abuse Awareness: Resources
Books we love, because they help us to help us understand:
- The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma, by Bessel van der Kolk M.D.
- Ruined: A Spiritual Memoir, by Ruth Everhart
- Try Softer: A Fresh Approach to Move Us out of Anxiety, Stress, and Survival Mode--and into a Life of Connection and Joy, by Aundi Kolber
- The Cry of Tamar: Violence Against Women and the Church’s Response, by Pamela Cooper-White
Resources to connect to for further support:
- NAMI - National Alliance on Mental Health Awareness
- Sanctuary Mental Health Ministries
- Shalem Mental Health Network
For your quick reference, here are nationwide emergency numbers and crisis lines:
- Canada: 911, Crisis Services Canada: 1-833-456-4566
- United States: 911, National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255
- United Kingdom: 999/112, Samaritans: 116 123
- New Zealand: 111, 1737, Lifeline Aotearoa: 0800-543-354
- Australia: 000, Lifeline: 13 11 14