When Religion Matters

By Annie Hardison-Moody

Hardison-MoodyDuring the course of my first two years at Emory, I have heard many stories from women who have experienced gender-based violence.

In these interviews and conversations, a question usually escapes from me as an almost visceral response: “How did you get through it?” How does one survive? What helps one to heal? What is healing? These questions have brought to light that, for many women affected by gender-based violence, any sense of healing or justice is often bound up with their own religious practices and spiritual beliefs.

As a graduate student in practical theology, I have spent the last two years exploring these intersections in my own predissertation research and as a research assistant on a project that investigates the connections between women’s reproductive health and their spirituality. Working with women at both a homeless shelter in Atlanta and a domestic violence shelter in rural North Carolina, I have been struck by the ways that women talk about their spirituality, religious practices, or beliefs when describing violent encounters or talking about how they are able to survive and thrive in spite of these experiences.

One woman I talked with came to know God as she walked the streets alone at night, praying that she would not be raped. Another talked of how she longed to share her experiences of domestic violence with women at her church because she wanted to be comforted and supported by the women in her community. And yet another woman spoke about how she found the conviction to leave her abusive partner through prayer and meditation. For these women, religion matters.

As a practical theologian, I am very interested in the theological significance of women’s statements that, for example, “God was there” in the moment of rape. Does God provide a witness to the event? Does God provide a promise of future justice? If so, what does that justice look like? Does God provide a sense that someone cares about what has happened? In other words, I wonder how starting with the fact that “God was there” changes the ways that we think about violence, suffering, survival, justice, healing, and the role of God in bringing these things to bear.

if women invoke religionWomen’s narratives of the interweaving of religion and spirituality in the search for healing and justice are also significant beyond the field of theology. The fact that women narrate their healing in terms of religion or spirituality has practical consequences for those who provide care for women affected by gender-based violence, and it also asks us to think critically about the ways that religion itself emerges (or not) in discourse around gender-based violence.

Practically speaking, if many women find that they turn to religious practices or beliefs in dealing with their experiences of violence, how might caregivers best support them in their healing process? Some physicians are now taking an integrative approach to health care, asking patients about their spiritual practices and finding out who they are as people. For those of us who work with women affected by gender violence, we might begin to take a “whole person” approach as well. It can begin with simple questions like, To whom do you turn for support? What does healing look like for you? How do you find healing in your own life? What kind of woman do you hope to be?

When we pay attention to the everyday ways in which women find justice and healing in their lives, we might find that religion is already imbedded within their narratives and lived experience. If that is the case, we might help women to think creatively about how they might best seek out healing. Can we connect them with a supportive clergy member? Can we find resources they might explore on their own? Most important, will we try to listen and understand? Additionally, if religion emerges in women’s everyday experiences of violence and healing, those of us involved in work around gender-based violence need to be willing to have a conversation about how we think and talk about religion at programmatic and theoretical levels. If women invoke religion when they talk about their experiences of violence, it makes sense that we (academics, leaders, service providers, NGO workers, etc.) need to pay attention to the ways we talk about religion as well.

As Philosopher Susan Brison writes in her book Aftermath: Violence and the Remaking of a Self, “In order to recover, a trauma survivor needs to be able to control herself, control her environment (within reasonable limits), and be reconnected with humanity. Whether the latter two achievements occur depends, to a large extent, on other people.” As the “other people” who hear narratives of violence, I urge us to listen to all parts of the narratives women offer, examining how or if religious beliefs and practices shape the ways that women are able to “get through it” as they envision transformation and healing from gender-based violence.

Annie Hardison-Moody is a third-year graduate student in the Person, Community, and Religious Life program in the Graduate Division of Religion. Her work explores the intersections of religion, health, and healing, particularly around women’s reproductive health and gender-based violence.