Thursday, January 5, 2012

Secondary Post-Traumatic Stress: an aspect of child abuse often yoked to religion

There it was in bold black print, NAZI GARB PROVOKES OUTRAGE, Jewish sect dons outfits to bash media. It was a page 4 article, a reprint from an Associated Press article by Aron Heller in the Fort Wayne Journal Gazette on January 2nd. It also recounted the bullying of Israeli girls, dressed in their ordinary modern way, being jeered and spat upon on the way to school as they passed through Ultra Orthodox neighborhoods. It was said to be a part of the demand that women be seated at the back of the bus and greater segregation in public by gender. There was an accompaning picture of Ultra Orthodox children dressed as if compelled by Holocaust times, protesting that Ultra Orthodox religious customs are not being carried out in today’s Israel.

When I passed that section of the newspaper to Annelie her response was similar to many Israelis: child abuse. Actually, I have heard similar stories as a young pastor In deep bayou country. The city limits signs in a neighboring small city once read, “Nine thousand, nine hundred and ninety-nine Good Catholics and One Damn Protestant.” One of our young church members told me what it was to pass the local Catholic Church: hat off or else. Not too different from a chairman of the church board in another pastorate. When, as a boy, his Italian family moved into an Arkansas town. They were told, “Methodist or Baptist or leave town!” 

Religion, in its bullying aspect, does not seem to differ from culture to culture, the language is different, the attitudes similar. It is not too far away from a black friend’s experience when, as a child, her family moved as the first one of “their kind” into a Pennsylvania town. The “pre-judgement” of prejudice is so often preceded by the sanctified feeling, “traditional.” What is particularly interesting about the Israeli story is the religious demand – actually, cultural – is laid on others by remembered suffering. 

Suffering can inspire. This as supremely illustrated by Jesus on the cross. Gandhi’s fasts in India challenging Britain to live out its ideals are such.  Similar scenes provide a motivating horror, as in the Arab Spring’s beginning when a man burned himself to death. In other illustrations, challenge by suffering leaves many feeling ambiguous, such as signs on lawns reading, “Pray and fast  for life” (implying against abortion). At the very extreme of the spectrum, there are countless jokes on the theme of some mother making a career of suffering in order to control her family. 

What is it about religion - so often inspirational and deeply humanizing in our relating to the neighbor - that can turn some to aggressive manipulation? Being empowered by one’s religion should be no incentive for a power grab. The human bonding inherent in the word “religion” is different from the “all about me” expressed in sectarian ways.

 In the opening illustration, what is being described is “secondary” post-traumatic stress. “Disorder” would not be inappropriately added. There is a contrived flashback in the remembrance of death staring me in the face. There is  the pervasive anxiety, the rage, the alienation, the troubling interpersonal implications. What is different is that in the primary experience there is a loss of control; in the secondary – taught – experience there is a passion to be controlling. In this reversal of domination the abuse of those once directly traumatized is passed down to – and on - others.
Can you imagine anything more abusive than having your grandchildren taught to immediately experience the Holocaust – or flinging those feelings at the grandchildren of others who also lived it? A memorial is one thing, having following generations internalize it, and then act out on it is another. No one can avoid having PTSD and then it is very difficult for any of us to shake off its consequences. What is avoidable is perpetuating it as a hammer to be used on others as it was used on us.

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