Rape Is Akin to Death, but Not the Final Word

Dr. Julia Feder is an assistant professor of theology at Creighton University in Omaha, Nebraska. Her research focuses on theological anthropology, suffering, and salvation. Her forthcoming book is called Trauma and Salvation: A Theology of Healing. Anna Groff and Julia Feder spoke on Oct. 18. This following Q&A comes out of their conversation:

Anna Groff: How does resurrection and life after death offers a hopeful framework for trauma recovery?
Dr. Julia Feder: We know that sexual trauma threatens us on all levels—physical, spiritual, emotional, social, and more. The Christian tradition understanding of salvation is about wholeness. But when a rape or sexual abuse occurs, we know in a very real way that the kingdom of God is not here. Christian tradition understands that salvation is both already and not yet. I think that’s helpful and necessary in the context of sexual trauma healing.

Salvation is both individual and collective. What does that mean for trauma healing?
There is risk in focusing on only individual healing. We are harmed and healed in community. Social and political cultures can do a lot to either help or harm us. Someone’s recovery from sexual trauma has a lot to do with how that individual’s community holds or fails to hold them. Victims seek transformation. They want to know that their world, their relationships, and their bodies can be trusted again.

Tell us about passive courage.
In the Christian tradition, the passive form of courage is commonly referred to as “endurance.” The language around endurance can give people the impression that we’re supposed to sit quietly and take whatever comes to us, or even that this is the model of Jesus. Victims have often internalized this, and it has been harmful for them.

For example, my mother has a bookmark from when she was a little Catholic girl in South Philly in the early ’60s. On it is written, “Do not fear suffering, for by enduring it, you can increase my glory and repair the sins of the world.” Many Christians have internalized this message, and it has compelled them to stay in unsafe and abusive situations.

But I don’t want to discard this language of endurance. It’s important to interpret it carefully. One way is to reinterpret the story of Jesus and lift his actions of active resistance, or bold courage. Martyrdom is not a choice that we make, but it’s a way to react when we don’t have a choice at all. It incorporates resistance into a situation in which you’re already passive.

What does “bold courage” mean for victims of sexual trauma?
There are many ways people can actively resist or demonstrate bold courage. Here are some examples:

  • One, seeking justice and accountability after the trauma.
  • Two, claiming authority over one’s body, perhaps by cutting one’s hair, learning self-defense, or getting a tattoo.
  • Three, seeking community and repairing relationships—not necessarily the relationship with the offender, but one’s relational capacity that the offender damaged. 
  • Four, seeking wisdom, agency, and resourcefulness.

You were quoted in an article with this: "It’s a crime akin to murder except that there’s no death and the victim goes on with life, carrying around this horror." Can you say more about how sexual assault is like murder?

The Christian tradition says that death is not the final word. It is really freeing for survivors to have the depth of pain and what’s been lost after the trauma they faced acknowledged, but also to know that there is hope and life after this. Trauma is never erased, but there is resurrection and life after death.

Feder’s writing draws on the writings of the Spanish mystic Teresa of Ávila and Flemish political theologian Edward Schillebeeckx to construct healing from sexual trauma as a mystical-political practice. In her previous position as a research fellow at the Center for Theology, Science, and Human Flourishing at the University of Notre Dame, she had the opportunity to work together with biological anthropologists to examine the centrality of symbol-making in the human niche. She continues to think and write theologically about human evolution, drawing connections between Edward Schillebeeckx’s understanding of human experience and imagination (particularly the role of “negative contrast experiences”) and biological anthropologists’ understanding of human symbolic behavior and cognition.