Sunday, March 1, 2015

Charisma's Breathtakingly Insensitive Column on Trauma Survivors

Charisma Magazine has never been known for its sensitive or sane commentary, but a recent column has me seeing red. "15 Traits of Wounded Warriors", a February 17th commentary piece by Joseph Mattera, was so breathtakingly insensitive toward people who have survived trauma that I felt compelled to respond. "15 Traits of Wounded Warriors" inaccurately depicts traumatized people as selfish, belligerent, and deeply flawed.

"It is well-known that those who have been emotionally damaged tend to inflict their hurt and pain on other people," the column begins. Without providing any evidence for his assertion, Mattera claims that traumatized people cope with their pain by lashing out. He warns readers that unless churches approach their congregants in a holistic manner, "our congregations will be filled with people who are spiritually gifted but act like emotional infants." By assuming that traumatized people are emotionally stunted, Mattera infantilizes trauma survivors and refuses to acknowledge their resilience.

Mattera claims that "a large percentage of those who have been sexually abused become the abusers of others...". First, this assumption is inaccurate. Research indicates that very few sexual abuse survivors become perpetrators themselves. Second, Mattera propagates the "vampire victim" myth by claiming that victimized people go on to victimize others. In doing so, Mattera brands them as somehow tainted and dangerous due to their trauma.

The Charisma column was also dismissive of bigotry. According to the column, traumatized people often cultivate a victim complex, accusing others of racism, misogyny, or homophobia.
"Hurt people often portray themselves as victims and carry a "victim spirit." Often hurt people can cry "racism," "sexism" and "homophobia," or they often use the words "unjust" or "unfair" to describe the way they are being treated, even if there is no truth to this. (That is not to say that sometimes there really is racism or sexism in some instances; this is just used as an example.)"
I would like to remind Mattera that bigotry is real, and that claims of bigotry should not be minimized or dismissed just because their originate from a trauma survivor. I would also like to remind Mattera that oppression -- the experience of ongoing bigotry -- is itself traumatizing and must be taken seriously as a social problem. Scorning traumatized and marginalized people from a position of privilege helps no one.

Later in the commentary piece, Mattera repeats his assumption that trauma survivors are emotionally stunted and immature. The idea that traumatized people are capable of resilience and growth is ignored.
"Hurt people have the emotional maturity of the age they received their (un-dealt with) hurt. For example, if a girl was raped by a man when she was 12 years old, unless she forgives that man and allows Christ to heal her heart and allay her fears, in that particular area of her life (sexuality with a man) her emotional growth will stop; even when she reaches her later years she may still have the emotional maturity of a 12-year-old."
Some trauma survivors may regress or experience difficulty moving ahead, especially if no one has helped them heal and if self-determination has been repeatedly stolen from them. This does not mean that all trauma survivors are emotionally stunted. Assuming that all survivors are emotionally frozen at the age of their victimization is not only insulting, but it prevents us from seeing survivors as individuals in all their richness.

Traumatic experiences can result in post-traumatic stress disorder, intrusive thoughts, and flashbacks. "Hurt people often erupt with inappropriate emotion because particular words, actions or circumstances "touch" and "trigger" past woundedness," he claims. Sights, sounds, and smells associated with a traumatic event can trigger flashbacks, in which a survivor vividly re-lives a traumatic incident. Trauma victims who experience flashbacks should be treated with compassion, not ridiculed for "erupting" into "inappropriate emotion".

One of Mattera's most disgusting assertions was that trauma survivors are vulnerable to demonic possession. Mattera insists that the minds of survivors are "a breeding ground for satanic infiltration and deception", which is so ridiculous that I will not dignify it with commentary.
"Hurt people are susceptible to demonic deception. I am convinced that most of the divisions in the church are caused by saints who lack emotional health and project their pain onto others.

Satan works in darkness and deception, and stays away from the light. Hurt people often have destructive habit-patterns that are practiced in the dark. Hence, their mind becomes a breeding ground for satanic infiltration and deception.

If the church would deal more with the emotional health of the individual, there would be less of a foothold for demonic infiltration. Also, there would be stronger relationships, stronger marriages, healthier children, and a more balanced approach to ministry with less of a chance of pastoral and congregational burnout."
Throughout the commentary piece, Mattera makes several disturbing and unsupported assumptions about trauma survivors. The judgmental tone of the column casts survivors as dishonest, malicious and self-absorbed.

  • "Hurt people have learned to accommodate their private "false self" or "dark side" which causes them to be duplicitous and lack integrity."

  • "Hurt people are often self-absorbed with their own pain and are unaware that they are hurting other people."

  • "Hurt people often transfer their inner anger onto their family and close friends."

  • "Hurt people interpret every word spoken to them through the prism of their pain."

  • "Hurt people often occupy themselves with busyness, work, performance and/or accomplishments as a way of compensating for low self-esteem."

  • "Hurt people often attempt to medicate themselves with excessive entertainment, drugs, alcohol, pornography, sexual relationships or hobbies as a way to forget their pain and run from reality."

  • "Hurt people need to forgive to be released and restored to freedom."

The commentary piece concludes by arguing that mandatory forgiveness and Christian faith are the antidotes to trauma.
"The Gospel of St. John 20:23 says that we have to release the sins of others if we are going to be released. This means that if we do not forgive others then the very thing we have become victimized with will become a part of our life. For example, alcoholic fathers breed alcoholic sons if their sons do not forgive and release their fathers.

The good news is that, through the efficacious blood of Christ, we can all be healed and set free from all past hurts so we can comfort others with the same comfort we ourselves have received from God (2 Cor. 1:4)."
The idea that faith can heal all pain is facile. Healthy forms of faith can help traumatized people heal, but toxic forms of religion can exacerbate trauma. Mattera's attitude toward forgiveness is also highly problematic. He assumes that trauma can only be healed by forgiving one's perpetrator, which ignores the messy, complex realities of healing. Many forms of therapy and introspection can promote healing, and each survivor's path to peace is unique. To boot, forgiving wrong-doers is not a cure-all for trauma. If and when to forgive is a deeply personal decision, and Mattera has no right to command forgiveness from survivors. Why should victims feel pressured to forgive offenders? Why isn't the pressure on offenders to take responsibility for their crimes?

"15 Traits of Wounded Warriors" was disturbing because of its stereotypes, callousness, and victim-blaming. The commentary piece could be summarized as "trauma survivors are selfish, vicious, immature demon-magnets who bring suffering on themselves because they won't forgive." Traumatized people are caricatured as train wrecks who inconvenience others, rather than human beings with whom we should empathize.

Attitudes like this infuse cultures of victim-blaming and impunity in too many congregations. When churches not only fail to hold perpetrators accountable, but chastise victims for not forgiving their perpetrators, we should be outraged. When victims are treated as damaged goods because they were victimized, we should be outraged. When such attitudes are promoted by a Christian website, we should be outraged.

I've worked for an anti-violence organization for the past eight years and volunteered at a domestic violence shelter for ten. I regularly sift through research on trauma as part of my job. My work brings me into contact with trauma survivors. I can say with confidence that Mattera's stereotypes are inaccurate. While traumatic experiences increase the likelihood of negative health and well-being outcomes, they do not automatically turn people into harpies.

Trauma is very common, and countless people around us are trauma survivors who have endured violent victimization, childhood maltreatment, natural disasters, war, and other horrors. Trauma survivors are not bad people "over there"; they are our loved ones, neighbors, and colleagues. They are as capable of love and anger, confidence and doubt, triumphs and mistakes as anyone else. They are not harpies -- they are human beings, and they deserve respect.


  1. if a girl was raped by a man when she was 12 years old, unless she forgives that man

    This is perhaps the most nauseating example yet of the bizarre Christian fetishization of forgiveness. Who the hell is he to imply that the victim in such a case is obligated to forgive?

    Whenever I see a religious figure preaching forgiveness of some grotesque crime, it makes me wonder if he himself or some admired member of his sect might be guilty of that crime. There's a little too much talk about the virtue of forgiveness in some official Catholic Church statements about the molestation cases, for example.

    1. Infidel -- Nauseating is an understatement. Mattera shows a complete lack of empathy for sexual abuse victims. He has no right to demand that a victim forgive her abuser.

      Personally, I think forgiveness as a healing tool is overrated. How is it healing to say, "Oh, that horrible thing you did to me is okay"? Where is the self-respect in that? Righteous anger and real life justice are better tools for healing.

  2. I'm going to go out on a limb here and predict that Mattera is both projecting and victim-blaming because he has something seriously egregious to hide. He is a perpetrator of trauma and thus feels compelled to justify and exonerate himself by blaming his victim(s). I'd put money on it.

    1. Agi Tater -- I don't know if he has anything to hide, but I do know that he's seriously lacking empathy for victims!

  3. This is just awful.

    Charisma is truly one of the more vile Christian publications. Definitely promotes nasty New Apostolic Reformation superstition.

    1. Brian -- Charisma has shown itself to be insensitive, superstitious, and bigoted. Yuck!


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