Rape Culture at BJU: How a Warped Theology Revictimizes Survivors

[Content note: discussion of rape apologism]

This last week, an investigative organization, GRACE (Godly Response to Abuse in Church Environments) released a long awaited report [PDF] on counseling procedures surrounding sexual trauma at Bob Jones University. The report was damning, particularly toward individual counselors who have been at the forefront of the BJU counseling program for decades.

The report revealed that the counselors were ill prepared to deal with cases of trauma following sexual abuse, and often asked improper questions too early into the counseling relationship. They failed, in many ways, to be safe spaces for their counselees, creating an environment of fear and shame around a person's history of abuse. The feeling that they are “damaged goods” was a frequent comment made by survivors who experienced counseling at BJU.

One particularly salient point of the report, for me, was a portion of the counseling philosophy itself. “All problems are spiritual,” the counselors repeatedly tell their patients and say in the classes for teaching counseling to others. Finding the spiritual root of the problem will help get all others in the right.

Philosophically speaking, this kind of thought has a long tradition in Christianity. Augustine talked about sin as “disordered love,” meaning that the correct spiritual priorities in a person’s life – the loves – had been rearranged out of their optimal positioning. A virtuous and healthy person had all their loves and desires in the proper order, startIng with love of God. A disordered and sinful person put other loves above God, therefore disordering their spiritual lives. In which case, all problems are, indeed, spiritual in nature as getting right with God fixes disordered love.

But Augustine’s philosophy, combined with a 20th century resurgence of dualism – the idea that the body and soul are separate, distinct entities – creates a dangerous potential for damage on the part of Christian counselors. 20th century evangelicals, in part thanks to the theological tradition of the Great Awakenings, have a sense of the body and the soul as separate entities - entirely apart from each other. I refer to this as "meatsuit theology" - our bodies exist as vessels for our souls and nothing more. This idea that the body is merely material and therefore to be disregarded is known as Gnosticism, after a third century heresy.

One of the foremost preachers and counselors at BJU, Dr. Bob Wood, preaches a philosophy he refers to as the “Trinity of Man.” Within this model, the body takes the least possible precedence, as it is confined to the earth and to the “flesh.” The spirit and the soul are far more important - and, importantly, separated from the body. In this view, things that “offend the body” should stay in the body. Soul injury – their euphemism for post traumatic stress disorders frequently suffered by survivors – is something totally under their control and possibly to move past with the work of the mind.

It is, quite literally, mind over matter.

Dr. Jim Berg, another counselor who was recommended for termination by the GRACE report, is quoted as saying that “What happened to your physical body…does not have to affect your spiritual soul.”

Predicating theology on the Gnostic treatment of the body as less important, less necessary to a person’s spiritual is unfortunately not uncommon. It is also a poor way to look at the world and to deal with traumas that affect a person.

This dualist treatment of the self creates a cognitive dissonance between who we perceive ourselves to be and what our lived experience actually tells us. One of the most challenging questions a friend ever asked me was, “If you were born in India to a Hindu family, do you think you would have found Christ?”

Such a question is, itself, based on the idea that there is some objective “you,” some outside Thing that is not tied to our bodies and our lives experiences. But the plain answer is, no, I probably wouldn’t because the “me” born in India to a Hindu family would not be the “me” born in South Dakota to a white Christian Protestant family. Every aspect of our body and social location contributes to and shapes how we perceive ourselves as people.

 I exist as I am because I am a white, cisgender, bisexual woman born to white, cisgender, straight parents in the Midwest. Even a simple change in the location of my birth would have resulted in a vastly different Dianna.

It is the butterfly effect, the subtle flapping of wings that causes our bodies to deeply inform who we are. There is no “soul” without a body, and counseling – particularly Christian counseling – that de-emphasizes the body in favor of “spiritual” problems does both their patients and their God a grave disservice.

Spiritual problems are material problems are bodily problems. As a sexual assault survivor, my relationship to physical intimacy and physical relationships has shifted and changed. The offense against the body cannot and must not “stay in the body,” as Dr. Wood of BJU suggests in the GRACE report. My body is not a town I visit on weekends when I want to blow a few bucks gambling. My body is who I am and a failure to treat bodily harm will ultimately fail to treat the person.

What this theology and counseling philosophy utterly fails to grasp is that it is impossible for something to affect the body without affecting the soul. What Wood and his compatriots propose here is effectively harmful coping strategies where those things that “happen to the body” are locked away and walls are built in the mind to keep the trauma at bay. For trauma survivors, this does not encourage engagement and processing and understanding of their trauma. Indeed, this merely confers suppression of pain, bottling it up and pretending everything is okay until those moments when it is suddenly, horrendously not.

I speak here not as a counselor, but rather as a theologian and a victim of trauma myself. Such gnostic teaching, especially in the world of sexual abuse, creates an environment that is hostile to survivors and encourages unhealthy methods of coping with PTSD and other harmful effects of having experienced abuse. It pushes into darkness that which would be cleansed by light.

But this is far more than a problem focused on Christian counseling. This is a theological problem affecting the whole of the American church. We see this kind of harmful, dualistic teaching throughout purity culture. In teaching men not to lust after women (both by encouraging modesty and demonizing normal biological reactions), we teach that bodily reactions are sinful and that our bodies are enemies to be subdued, not integral parts of our spiritual experiences on earth. We denigrate the flesh, denigrate the natural body, and then wonder why so many people have trouble healthily integrating sexuality into a healthy life practice.

The dualism that has permeated the church has created a colorblind, disability-blind, sexuality-blind vision of God’s kingdom, ultimately flattening it into a distorted vision of what it means to be made in the image of God. But I am who God made me to be, body and all, and that which impacts my body cannot be separated from that which impacts me. We must confront that reality.

[Photo via Daniel Foster, Flickr]