‘Cutting Edge: Witnessing Rites of Passage in a Therapeutic Community’ Elizabeth Baxter
in Controversies in Body Theology ed. by Marcella Althaus-Reid and Lisa Isherwood (London: SCM Press, 2008) pp48-69
While there a number of Christian books offering advice and help for self-injurers and their families, it is rare to discover theological thinking about self-injury. Within this book, which focusses on theology and the wounded bodies of women, Rev’d Elizabeth Baxter, Executive Director of Holy Rood House, Thirsk, has contributed an essay drawing on her personal experience as pastor and chaplain to a Christian therapeutic community.
Within her essay, she describes self-injury in theological and psychological terms, and sees self-injurers as Christ/Christa figures whose wounds tell a story, and calls upon the Christian community to walk alongside them as witnesses and agents of structural change.
Within just 21 pages (including references) Baxter covers a lot of ground. She considers cultural blood rituals such as the scarification practiced among the Suri people of Ethiopia as well as the closer-to-home ‘blood brother’ rituals of young people. She also mentions the ceremonial cutting of the prophets of Baal in the Old Testament and, above all, the figure of the crucified Christ, whose wounds bring redemption to others, and who is himself resurrected.
In speaking of self-injurers Baxter invariably uses the term “cutters”, perhaps as shorthand for the variety of ways in which people injure themselves. Her archetypical self-injurer is a young female with a background of abuse and trauma, and she discusses self-injury in the context of the after-effects of abuse. This means that, although I am a former self-injurer myself, this essay has little to do with my own lived experience, as my background is different.
For Baxter, a cutter’s scars tell a story, for they are the means by which the pain of abuse may be externalised and made visible when verbally speaking pain is impossible. They are also transformative, a way in which a cutter may re-enact her abuse, but this time under her own control. I’m reminded here of the way in which some people have found BDSM useful to re-enact their abuse and, by controlling it, change the narrative and begin healing.
She discerns threads of Christian theology, and especially of substitutionary atonement within self-injury, therefore often using the term “Christa” to describe her archetypical self-injurer. Using a reference to 1 Peter 2:24 (‘He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed.’) she sees the self-harming of an abused person as the taking upon themselves of the sins of the abuser, expiating them in their wounds. Just as Christ was wounded by the people around him, so the abused person is wounded, and chooses the rich symbolism of blood to express that wounding.
Baxter sees a redemptive motive in self-harm, both in the control over the injury, and in its ability to reintegrate a self that may be fractured into disassociation or depersonalisation. Cutting brings with it the hope of healing from pain, expressed most visibly in the self-caring rituals performed after injury, though this feeling may be short-lived, and cutting can become addictive.
Coming from the perspective of a chaplain to a therapeutic community, Baxter has some suggestions for those who encounter self-harmers. She counsels against shaming the self-harmer, as that is likely to be counter-productive, but instead walking alongside them, acknowledging the importance of cutting for them at this time of their life. She advocates being a witness to the self-harm, respecting it as a courageous act to be accepted as part of the process of healing. Witnessing and acknowledging the pain the cutter is feeling is a way of reconciliation, and witnessing without intervening is important, for in the self-injury the cutter is communicating the pain of abuse, and that needs to be acknowledged. She compares it to Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane, seeking disciples to stay awake with him in his agony, and suggests that the whole church, not just specialists, should be prepared to be wakeful witnesses to Christa when she is cutting, and on her journey to healing. Within community, one person’s self-harm has a wider meaning, revealing the systems of oppression that have caused her abuse. The church-community should therefore speak where the self-injurer is unable to, promoting justice, challenging oppression, and freeing the self-injurer’s voice. Just as the church follows Christ in his journey to the cross, so the church should journey alongside self-injurers on their own journey towards redemption.
As I mentioned earlier, this essay focusses on a specific type of self-injurer: young, female, and with a background of abuse. The community focus is also evident, so those who self-harm in isolation, and who hide their wounds are not the focus here. That said, the essay is not intended to cover every type of self-harm, nor to provide a treatment plan, but is a theological reflection. It is an interesting one, particularly in its consideration of the benefits self-harm gives the person, and in its advice that should be acknowledged. I would like to see a greater discussion of the structural meaning of self-harm, of the self-harmer as scapegoat for the community in the Girardian sense. I would also counsel some caution in the identification of the self-injurer as Christ/Christa, for that could lead to a cutter identifying as a self-harmer as part of who they are, making healing much more difficult. There is also a thin line between acknowledging what self-harm does for the person, and promoting it as a healing mechanism – I tend to refer to self-injury as a “maladaptive coping mechanism”. It has a use for that person at that time, but it is maladaptive, and something to seek healing from. Finally, the call to the Church to be witnesses to the pain of others, and to be a voice for the voiceless is an important one, and the reminder that we are all called to be healers, all witnesses is one we should give heed to.