A common maxim in our country is that before you can change, you have to acknowledge that there is a problem. In this week’s post, as part of Women’s History Month, return author Francisco Herrera speaks honestly and vulnerably about the moment that he realized that he personally wasn’t doing enough to fight sexism and gender discrimination and abuse. Centered on a very brief history of the study and treatment of trauma, he goes on to explain how easily even the most supposedly-sympathetic men in the church often don’t realize the ways in which they take too-lightly the stories of sexism and gender-based abuse, and then calls all men – starting with himself – to repent. Read, comment, and share.
Rev. Dr. Linda E. Thomas – Professor of Theology and Anthropology, Chair of LSTC’s Diversity Committee, Editor –“We Talk. We Listen.”
I write this post wanting to communicate with other men as we enter the last week of Women’s History Month. I pen these words hoping to honor women and to be rigorously honest, if not confessional, by saying something that may be jolting to many:
I never would have thought that I was the kind of man to be inattentive to the troubles that women experience because of their gender.
Having been raised by a single mother, coming from a family that had been near-irreparably torn apart by a father who violently constrained the lives of his children and abused his daughters, as someone whose adolescence has been scarred by the lashes of abuse from one of his mother’s boyfriends, and as a queer Latino who has spent much of his life either fighting against or being a victim of destructive expectations of masculinity – I thought that I had truly internalized the unavoidable truth that the women of the world need regular support and acknowledgement of the gender-harassment that they experience, and that I myself would be ever at the ready to provide such support and acknowledgement.
All of this changed back in December of this past year when a respected pastor, knowing some of the history that I mentioned earlier in this post, recommended that I read a book called Trauma and Recovery, by Judith Lewis Herman, MD. Having herself come from a difficult family life, this pastor had a feeling that the book would help me understand myself better, as the book had been very beneficial to her as well.
It was a truly engrossing read – but for as long as I live I will never forget that introductory chapter. Presenting an abbreviated history of the development of trauma studies, it identified the first shoots of the discipline as being in the study of ‘hysteria’ in the late 19th century – the illness given its name from the Greek word for uterus hystera, because it was first believed to be a condition only suffered by women. Described as a condition of “ungovernable emotional excess,” and despite being laden with the patriarchal assumptions of the age, the study of hysteria was still vital and ground-breaking because it was the first serious, clinical attempt by scientists to actually Chronicle and take seriously the emotional and physical suffering of women.
Though the study of hysteria would eventually fall out of fashion by the early 20th century, in the wake of World War I – with the thousands of returning combat veterans suffering under a strange new psychological illness known simply as ‘shell-shock’ – physicians searching for precedent in the medical record quickly found clinical research into hysteria their only point of previous reference. Just as hysterical women had exhibited heightened fear, vigilance, and were in a constant state of distress that could not be easily explained nor remedied, so similarly were thousands and thousands of men who returned to their homes after having spent months and years under the pall of sudden death at the hands of bombs and machine-guns – and the doctors seeking to treat these fractured former soldiers found the earlier research into hysteria to be the only useful theoretical/clinical basis as they sought to treat these who had been horrifically warped by combat.
And then at last, nearing the end of this introductory chapter, I read the following sentence – which immediately seared itself into my brain:
“Combat and rape, the public and private forms of organized social violence, are primarily experiences of adolescence and early adult life… Rape and combat might thus be considered complementary social rites of initiation into the coercive violence at the foundation of adult society.” – Judith Herman, MD. Trauma and Recovery.
After I read this I put the book down and stared out of a window for about 10 minutes as a terrible realization sink into me. Saying a war on women was not just a dramatic and effective metaphor for constant abuse that women suffer every day – it is a scientifically established fact. And in that moment, I had to confront the fact that, as sympathetic as I thought that I was, I had still always thought that ‘the war on women’ was just a metaphor. An accurate one, a fitting one, a true one – but still a metaphor.
And consequently, my witness on behalf of the suffering of all women was woefully incomplete.
The war on women is not a metaphor.
The war on women is a scientifically established fact.
To be a woman alive in today’s society is to be under constant attack.
To be a woman in today’s society is to risk post-traumatic stress that is essentially indistinguishable from the shell-shock experienced by men who have been in prolonged combat – and this constant state of potential violence is part of the very foundations of our country.
And finally, anyone who not only doubts this but actively works to try to dissimulate this fact is guilty of crimes against women.
But even in this simple juxtaposition there is a dreadful irony – the irony is that despite the fact that research into the suffering of women unquestionably aided the development of treatments for male combat veterans, this contribution has been long obscured. And what’s more, despite our country’s acceptance – imperfect as it is – with the stories of trauma from combat veterans, women who speak openly and boldly of the harassment they have suffered are still regular prey to the mockery and militant gas-lighting of wicked men.
Hence, ignoring or mocking a trans woman who has been beaten and violated is the psychological equivalent of telling the sole survivor of a wartime ambush that their pain isn’t really as bad as they say it is – and that they are likely making up the whole story for the sake of getting attention.
And this is horrifying.
And this is what many women – transgender, cisgender, and ambi/agender – must go through every day.
I had originally planned to compliment the observations in this post with stories from Scripture, testimonies from survivors of sexual trauma, even excerpts of anonymous testimony from candidates for ordination among the mainline denominations in the United States – but I decided against it. For I, too, had long been aware of such stories and thought that I had been able to make at least a faint of understanding and genuine empathy. But that one little sentence from Herman’s book proved me terribly wrong.
So instead of that, I am going to end with a prayer – and I am asking the men who read this, specifically, to add this prayer to their devotionals during the remaining days of Lent. We can change, yes, and God will aid us in our change.
But first we must atone.
All of us.
In this season of Lent, once again, you call us to repent – both of those things that we have done and those things that we have left undone. As men who benefit from this very unearned privilege, we beg you to pardon us for our willful sightless-ness to the constant and unyielding suffering of all of the women around us. As we look to the cross and the sufferings of Jesus – remind us that the physical and emotional terror of the cross is something that many women live, day in and day out, from the time of their birth until they return to their final rest in you. Fill our hearts with anger and courage to stamp out sexism and gender-based violence wherever we witness it – whether it manifest in word or in bloody deed. And if we ever choose to belittle and ignore the testimony of the suffering and pain of women, may our tongues stick to the roof of our mouths and our consciences be troubled so that they may know no peace. It is a terror and a shame the ways that men, since time immemorial, have aided and abetted this nightmare, and we need your help to stop it. Please help us, for we have failed. Please help us, we beseech you.
In the most precious name of our Savior, Jesus the Christ.
Before coming to Chicago Francisco Herrera studied classical music (viola and orchestra conducting) in his hometown of Kansas City, Missouri and then Geneva, Switzerland. After feeling the call to ministry at his home church in Geneva, The Evangelical Lutheran Church of Geneva, he returned to the US to enter seminary in 2005, completing his M.Div. from Chicago Theological Seminary in 2012. Since beginning his Ph.D studies at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago (LSTC) in Fall of 2013, he has also been developing his skills as a seminary instructor, both at LSTC and the Lutheran Seminary Program in the Southwest. And when he isn’t doing any of those things, polymath and scatterbrain that he is, Francisco likes to write worship and devotional music, blogs at www.loveasrevolution.blogspot.com, tweets at @PolyglotEvangel, and relishes in his duties as the Convener of #decolonizeLutheranism.