This was the focus of a day long workshop I attended at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary on Jan 25, 2015. I’ve often thought about the difficulties this amazing ritual has for children and others who are not yet baptized, but I hadn’t yet considered the difficulties communion could present for survivors of abuse. My deep thanks go out to Hilary Scarsella for making this the focus of her Master’s thesis and to the fine group of church leaders who worked with her on this topic this past year. I learned much. I hope my gleanings are helpful for others.
Communion prayers often focus on acknowledging our sin, emptying ourselves of distractions, obedience, loving self sacrifice, and forgiveness and reconciliation. These are helpful Christian disciplines, but how we approach these topics can make all the difference between feeding the souls of abuse survivors or adding to their pain.
1) Sin. Survivors often carry burdens of false personal guilt about implied complicity in the abuse they suffered. Communion leaders can broaden the way they talk about sin by moving from an individualized focus to those things that keep God’s people from aligning with God’s presence in our world. This allows for appropriate confession of sin without burdening survivors with false guilt.
2) Emptying. Survivors often feel very empty; like there’s not much personality left after the abuse they’ve endured. The reasons for “emptying” language in prayers of approach to the communion table are to help us set aside distractions, so let’s use that language instead.
3) Obedience. Survivors have generally been challenged to obey their (mostly male) abusers. Hierarchy and patriarchy can easily perpetuate a negative image of God as perpetrator for women and non-leaders. Abuse survivors need opportunities to say NO to God, trusting that God is big enough to accept this.
Calling participants to say yes to God’s dream is a positive way of naming obedience. By sharing leadership with both genders and laity during the words of institution and the serving of the bread and juice and using words that invite rather than stress obedience these negative triggers can be minimized.
4) Loving Self-Sacrifice. This is what Jesus did for us on the cross. The concept is very important for Anabaptist Christians as well as many others. However, survivors need to recognize Jesus as their protector, and can easily see themselves as needing to mirror Jesus’ suffering by complying with abusive demands.
The Hebrew word for “sacrifice” actually means to make a space holy. this is a meaning that is redemptive for all. Jesus sacrificial death can also be redefined as his refusal to let ways of domination win. If we do this, focusing on his sacrifice can be healing rather than damaging.
5) Forgiveness and Reconciliation. Jesus died and was raised from the dead to make reconciliation possible for all creation. Communion is the ritualized meal that can make us all one and help us live into God’s shalom.
However, survivors need to name their pain. They need to continue resisting abuse to heal. Forgiveness is a long journey. It is possible without contacting the abuser, and is often seen as positive, but reconciliation is often not possible, and can be destructive if the survivor is not ready for it.
When communion liturgies challenge us to forgive others as God has forgiven us, and to live as reconciled people, care needs to be taken with the wording so that it is sensitive to the journeys of healing on which participants may find themselves.