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Creighton theologian's research explores healing, salvation following sexual trauma

Julia Feder, PhD, assistant professor, Department of TheologyFor the survivors of sexual trauma, efforts at healing come on several different planes.

A professor in Creighton University’s Department of Theology is tackling some of the theological approaches to trauma recovery through the lens of salvation and courage.

“Salvation is about wholeness,” said Julia Feder, PhD, an assistant professor of systematic theology whose forthcoming book is titled Trauma and Salvation: A Theology of Healing. “God desires our wholeness and not just in the spiritual or otherworldly sense, but in the personal and the physical. Salvation has as much to do with this world as the next. To bring sexual violence and healing into a conversation about salvation is to talk about wholeness in a difficult way.”

Over the summer, Feder and two undergraduate students serving as her research assistants pored over thousands of pages of case studies of rape, sexual assault and sexual trauma, ranging from single instances to the widespread sexual abuse during periods of colonization and enslavement.

The investigation was harrowing.

“It’s very graphic and very hard reading to do,” Feder said. “But it also reinforces that there is a lot about trauma we don’t understand. Victims of all kinds of trauma act in ways that are not logical or reasonable. In sexual assault cases, so much of that comes out in court documents that blame a victim for acting in strange ways, even reaching out to the accused. But it’s a case where you’ve undergone something horrific and you’re still trying to make sense of it.”

The physical and psychological wounds incurred in cases of sexual assault have been well documented, Feder said. But there’s still room for talking about the spiritual abrasions that take place in the aftermath of sexual trauma. Since the early 1980s, Feder said a handful of books have taken aim at a theological reckoning of rape and sexual assault but her study, she hopes, is taking a new tack on the issue.

Theologians Jennifer Beste, PhD, Shelly Rambo, PhD, Edward Schillebeeckx, PhD, along with the writings of mystic St. Teresa of Avila, have all informed Feder’s work in important ways, especially in the vein of considering trauma, especially in the aftermath of a sexual assault, as a sort of death in life.

“It’s a crime akin to murder except that there’s no death and the victim goes on with life, carrying around this horror,” Feder said. “It’s not an intuitive situation at all and we tend to want to ascribe some linear narrative to it when, in actuality, sexual trauma is full of gaps and moments that escape understanding.”

In the notion of death in life, Feder said she hopes her work can show that resurrection — the transformation of death in the Christian mythos — can be applied to trauma recovery, not just resurrection as the miracle that it is, but as a persistence of life, even in the face of utmost difficulty.

That persistence, Feder said, is exemplified in two forms of spiritual courage that are laid out in the New Testament and which might both have a place for survivors of sexual violence.

“There’s the aggressive, bold courage of going to battle,” Feder said. “And there’s the passive courage of holding on when your options are limited, of endurance in suffering. I want to lift up both of those options as worthy expressions of life after trauma.”

Where the passive form seems to bespeak Christ’s overall witness in his own life — the turn-the-other-cheek, meek-and-mild Jesus — there’s also the righteous, fervent Jesus overturning the tables of the moneychangers in the temple. Jesus was a rebel, after all, never countenancing the outrages of oppressors and abusers.

“I think we tent to lift him up on his cross, going gladly to suffer,” Feder said. “In some of the cases we read, we saw that as the motivation for many abused people to stay with their abusers. But I think there’s a message that’s worth telling today that is the more aggressive, assertive courage. We want people to be creative, to be loud, to do whatever they can to resist. You have to keep that trauma from taking over your soul and oftentimes, that requires the more aggressive form of courage.”

Feder pointed to a story told in three of the Gospels in which a woman suffering from a bleeding disorder convinces herself she will be healed if she merely touches Jesus’ clothes. In a crowd, the woman succeeds at making contact with Christ’s cloak and he feels that some power has drained from him. Wheeling to face the throng of followers, Christ asks who touched him and the woman admits what she’s done. Jesus replies that her faith has healed her.

“That kind of persistence and pursuit of one’s own wholeness is that assertive courage,” Feder said. “To pursue to the point of transgressing cultural boundaries to heal herself is a demonstration of faithfulness, of being secure in her own salvation. It’s a beautiful story of faithful action. It’s doing the next right thing. That’s how trauma survivors experience grace.”

Aiming to have the book ready by next summer, Feder aims to delve into several crosscurrents in the research, including looking at sexual assault across race and ethnicity, the prevalence of sexual assault in prisons and the scars left by sexual abuse in childhood.

“I want to expand that conversation,” she said. “There is a lot we still need to talk about in this area of trauma and if we can expand and enhance the research, even the sheer volume of cases documented, we can begin to look at the wider effects and how we can talk about healing and also prevention.”

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