Religious Trauma and the Binding of Isaac

1200px-sacrifice_of_isaac-caravaggio_28uffizi29“Deceived, tied up, and held at knife-point — all by his own father? Because God said so? Talk about traumatic!” an older lady exclaimed.

I was sitting in a lectionary Bible study this morning, discussing the story of the binding of Isaac (Genesis 22:1-19) as many lectionary users may have done today. And let’s just say the conversation wasn’t easy. The bunch of us, perhaps especially those who are parents, appeared aghast at a God who would lead Abraham to the point of so nearly killing his son Isaac.

What stood out to me was the group’s conception of the event as traumatic.

This summer, I’ve been doing some particularly focused reading on the topic of religious trauma, starting with the work of trauma therapist and contemplative activist Teresa Pasquale and moving next into the pastoral perspective of PCUSA minister and writer Carol Howard Merritt.

According to Pasquale, “trauma in a religious context can be seen as any painful experience perpetrated by family, friends, community members, or institutions inside of a religion” (Sacred Wounds, 22). Some of the more difficult yet all-too-real case examples that Pasquale cites include sexual abuse perpetrated by religious leaders and ostracism of LGBTQ persons initiated by religious leaders. She goes into great detail regarding types of trauma, types of trauma responses, symptoms and treatment of PTSD, and more.

In my seminary studies this past year, I learned that one of the lenses through which I might conduct Bible study (and through which, it turns out, I enjoy conducting Bible study!) is through the lens of trauma theory. This simply means reading biblical narratives with an awareness of the psychological experiences occurring within and among the characters.

What psychological experiences might be occurring within Abraham, for example? Fear. Dread. An anxious hope that indeed, as promised, “God himself will provide the lamb for a burnt offering,” thus sparing Isaac from death (Gen. 22:8).

And Isaac? Shock. Anger. Betrayal. An anxious, adrenaline-filled relief that, in the very last second, indeed “Abraham looked up and saw a ram, caught in a thicket by its horns. Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt offering instead of his son” (Gen. 22:13).

Two truths are evident:

  1. The binding of Isaac qualifies as a traumatic event — an instance of religious trauma to be exact. I can imagine Isaac triggered for years to come, sweating or hyperventilating or experiencing other panic symptoms at the sight of normally neutral or even good things such as firewood, knives, an altar, or his own father. I can imagine Isaac as a teenager reminding his father of the event during times of familial conflict. (“You almost killed me that one time! What kind of loving father does that?”)
  2. God provides. The keyword “provide” occurs at least three times in the story, in verses 8 and 14. What’s more, in two of those occurrences (verse 14), Abraham names the place “The Lord will provide”; as it is said to this day, “On the mount of the Lord it shall be provided.” Naming of people and places was a significant act in the ancient world, which suggests God’s provision as a significant theme of this story.

Importantly, Truth #2 does not negate Truth #1 — lest we try to become entirely saccharine about what’s happening here. God’s provision in the end does not give us permission to ignore a person’s painful process leading up to the end. A story that only looks at the end is no good story at all.

And, on the flip side, Truth #1 does not negate Truth #2 — lest we try to become entirely cynical about what’s happening here. A painful process does not give us permission to ignore God’s provision in the end. A story that neglects to look at the end is no good story at all.

What does this have to say to survivors of religious trauma?

First, religious trauma is real. As Pasquale wrote:

“I want to validate your hurt. If you have been negatively impacted by others’ actions or the experiences you have had inside a religious or spiritual context, I am so sorry. I am terribly sorry the places, spaces, and faces who were supposed to show you the ultimate expression of love showed you something negating” (Sacred Wounds, 21).

Isaac, I want to validate your hurt. I am so sorry.

Second, survivors of religious trauma can have hope. God provides in the end. Or if you prefer to think of it this way: life provides. Life keeps going and life can provide family, friends, helping professionals, and/or communities (whether religious or not) that have some goodness in them if we’re willing to see and receive it. Life provides breath and body and beauty, exemplified in the “healing exercises” Pasquale offers centered around breathing, grounding, and forms of art therapy. In short, life provides.

Isaac, I want to share in your hope. I am so thankful.

It’s hard for the hurt and the hope to coexist. But I think that’s what the story of the binding of Isaac, and the story of any religious trauma, has to tell. It’s not an easy story. But it’s a good one.

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2 thoughts on “Religious Trauma and the Binding of Isaac

  1. Pingback: Religious Trauma and the Binding of Isaac | More Than A Beard

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