Microaggresion as Chronic Abuse by Denny Wayman

May 24, 2020

Rev. Dr. Denny Wayman

As a pastoral counselor one of the most frustrating moments is when a person of color is being treated unjustly but the incident is either denied or claimed to be an over reaction by the person of color. These incidents are a form of abuse that have a deep and devastating effect on our brothers and sisters. It is difficult as a counselor to bring God’s healing to this pervasive disease that is pandemic in our broken world.

In this article my experience as a pastor, superintendent and counselor inform the church and Christian schools, as well as the larger culture, that these Microaggressions are actually Chronic Abuse.  I explain, in part:

“When I teach the basics of counseling to pastors, I note that there are two general types of abuse: Acute and Chronic.

To explain the difference, I will have a person place their hand on the table and I will make a knuckle of one finger and tap their hand lightly. As I continue to do so I will say, “that doesn’t hurt, does it?” Nodding in agreement, they acknowledge that each of my taps are not individually painful.

But then I ask, “What if I tapped you for the entire day we’re here in the class?” They will then have a rather anxious look to which I will say, “And what if someone did so for 15 years of your childhood?”

When the awareness sinks in that some traumas cause damage not because of any single incident but rather due to their repetition, they understand that is Chronic Abuse.

I then say: “But imagine instead that I bring out a baseball bat and with a hard swing hit your hand?” That, I explain, is Acute Abuse.

Therapists define Acute Abuse as “a single incident that occurs in life.” It is not a minor injury like the tap of my knuckle, but an abuse of such force that the person can remember it clearly: who did it, when it occurred, what they were doing when it happened, and other emotion-filled memories.

These are, of course, traumas that require the healing of a skilled doctor and a therapist to restore health to both body and soul. This healing is assisted by the clear understanding by both the abuser and the person receiving the abuse that the action is harmful.

But what makes Chronic Abuse so difficult to heal and therefore its impact more pervasive throughout a person’s life is that its damage is not a specific injury to body but a repeated injury to soul. As “repetitive abuse occurring over an extended period of time,” the injuries of Chronic Abuse may seem slight and almost insignificant.

Often the individual transgressions themselves are not remembered and, if they are, the abuser often does not take responsibility for the pain they cause. When confronted, the Chronic Abuser may react by questioning the memory or even emotional or mental health of the one they abused since they themselves have no memory of such behavior, and seldom own that it is abusive or accept the implication that they are an abusive person.

Healing Chronic Abuse is therefore more difficult to both identify and find the support needed to bring an end to the abuse and experience healing.”

After explaining the developing research on Microaggression and its three types: Microinsult, Microassault and Microinvalidation, the article continues:

“The reality that a dominant culture insults, assaults and invalidates those of other groups is revealed not only in our national culture but also in our Christian culture. The destruction done by men to women through subtly abusive behaviors cannot be underestimated.

One can only imagine what the church would be like if we had returned to the equality of Eden before the Fall. Similarly, if Chronic Abuse of those who are of a different racial background or socio-economic group or educational level had not permeated the church and Christian schools, how much more reflective of Christ’s Kingdom they would be.

My own Free Methodist tradition was shaped by the early wisdom of our founder, B.T. Roberts, who worked to end this kind of abuse long before we had the language of a microaggression.

As an abolitionist, he fought to bring equality between the races and end slavery. He wrote and championed equality between the genders within the church wanting to ordain women. He tried to end the practice of renting pews, which shamed the poor by forcing them to sit on the “free pews” in the back of the sanctuary.

And finally, he instituted equality of clergy and laity such that education did not set some over others but both equally lead the church.

But though this is in our DNA as FM Christians, the truth is that sin permeates all hearts and “the other” is often the target of both Acute and Chronic abuses.

The scholars are noting that as racism and sexism are being driven below the surface by society correctly describing them as improper behavior, the abuse now becomes subtle and often unrecognized. The systems of ordination, hiring, tenure, advancement, board membership and positions of leadership reveal that this subterranean sin continues to limit what God has intended for His people.

The solutions attempted often have the effect of causing more distance and disunity. Conversations about micro-aggression that are intended to inform or confront the other can quickly become adversarial.

Shame and guilt arising from being confronted about a micro-aggression often elicits defensiveness and counter-accusation. Counselors have uncovered the truth that when a person is shamed or made to feel guilty, rather than having the opportunity to see the truth in love, such shame and guilt actually work against both individual and organizational change.

The power of love, which cares for both the individuals and the organization, is the necessary ingredient for true change, both within ourselves and between us. Our commitment to healthy relationships encourages safe interactions in which unintentional abuse can be explored with loving vulnerability.

We must not damage one another and our organizations through cycles of accusation and defensiveness. Instead, we follow the guidance of Scripture as we “Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.” (Ephesians 4:3).

Similarly, persons who are recipients of Chronic Abuse benefit from having wise counsel that explores how to lovingly express their pain in healthy relationships as well as how to protect their own souls as they “forgive those who sin against us.”

By coming alongside one another, those who experience Chronic Abuse, can provide wise counsel, ongoing mentoring and opportunities for healthy forgiveness, which is the very definition of healthy community.

The true solution follows the biblical guidance for all sin. Individually and as churches and Christian schools, we provide opportunities for God to do His work.”

After exploring how God heals individuals and organizations through confession, forgiveness and repentance (turning around), the article culminates with this:

“We need to continually evaluate systems of governance, ordination, appointment, tenure, board representation and leadership by their results.

Dominant-race males, must, for their sake as well as the kingdom’s sake, be only one voice among equally empowered women and people of color who represent the future of the church. To accomplish this, we need to think clearly how we chose leadership.

I experienced this in our own FMC General Conference when a woman nominated for bishop responded after I said I was going to vote for her, “Only if you think I am the best candidate!” To which I responded, “We have a committee of lay and clergy leaders who spent hundreds of hours interviewing and analyzing and deciding who is ‘best.’ Therefore, all five nominations for bishop are each one capable and gifted leaders.”

So now the question is, how do we get all the perspectives at the table of leadership? If we only see the world from one perspective, then we will miss those who come from the great variety of human beings.

The power of God to restore us to the kingdom of His people is dependent on Christians living with a daily diligence that identifies and ends chronically abusive microaggressions. If we do not, then we will continue to experience deep, daily injury to our souls.”

To read the entire article click here.