Journal Articles

Below is a list of journal articles written by the JMissions authors. The opinions expressed in these entries do not represent the position of any organization, but only reflect the position of the author.

Webmaster:"Author Avatars"
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Aziz: "Church Growth and God’s Plan"
(view article)

Brit: "There is a Little Bit of Jonah in All of Us"
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Brit: "Churches in Jerusalem and Bethlehem: Clinical Assessment and Needs"
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Aziz: "The Myth of Ethics/Morality in War"
(view article)

Marie: "Is War a Christian Value? (Sept.11th Commentary)"
(view article)

Wednesday, November 1, 2006

Churches in Jerusalem and Bethlehem: Clinical Assessment and Needs


Churches aspire to be God-driven entities that take direction from the Holy Spirit. However, being embedded in the world, churches cannot avoid being influenced by the cultural and social-political contexts in which they exist. So in writing about clinical needs in churches in Jerusalem and Bethlehem, I must first write about the cities and cultures of Jerusalem and Bethlehem.

Israel is a military state. Every native-born citizen is required to serve at least two years in the army after graduating from high school. This is highly problematic from a social and psychological standpoint. First, this means that the majority of the army is composed of young men and women between the ages of 18 and 21. When they enter the military it is during late adolescence, when the brain is not fully developed. The young men especially are still highly impulsive and are unable to calculate consequences of risky behavior at this stage of development.

Second, these adolescent soldiers are embedded in a violent environment. Israeli soldiers, whether recent draftees or seasoned fighters, have experienced many wars. The most recent was the war in Lebanon. The negative affects of war are well documented in psychological literature and these affects are greater on young soldiers. During these conflicts, soldiers are forced to commit acts of violence and see the effects of violence on their fellow soldiers. This environment alters their perception of what is acceptable and unacceptable behavior both in the army and out. This is further aggravated by the fact that these soldiers are raised in a culture that is racist towards anyone who is not Jewish. These adolescent fighters, who are raised in this toxic environment and who do not yet understand the consequences of their actions, are the people who man checkpoints. This creates a recipe for violence and unnecessary oppression.

The political situation in the country also affects the lives of an already suffering people. The city of Jerusalem is filled with tension. As you walk through the streets of the Old City you can feel the clash of cultures. Every historic site that you visit has a guide who has his or her own subtle way of communicating a political view. You cannot escape politics here; everyone begs you to take his/her side. Also, the Holocaust is ever-present in the consciousness of the Jews. This creates insecurity in them about their status as a nation. In order to defend against this insecurity, they oppress those of Arab descent.

Racism is evident in every interaction between these two groups. When people in Jerusalem walk down the street, get packages at the post office, buy groceries, and do other mundane human tasks, they experience either racism or privilege depending on which race they happen to be. Sometimes it is communicated subtly and sometimes overtly, but it is always present fueling the conflict.

Bethlehem is a very different city. Located in the West Bank, Bethlehem is characterized by oppression and lack of freedom. The Israeli government prevents Bethlehem and other West Bank cities from developing economically, such that most of the population is unemployed (this includes the Christians living in the West Bank). In the past, Bethlehem in particular has relied on tourism to alleviate poverty. However, tourism to Bethlehem dropped off after Israel completed the separation wall between Israel and the West Bank, and the recent Israeli war with Lebanon has further damaged the economies of both Jerusalem and Bethlehem. In and around Bethlehem, there are many checkpoints that generally humiliate the Palestinians and restrict their movement. Sometimes Palestinians even experience violent mistreatment at the checkpoints. These experiences live with them in their memories and are brought up every time they go through a checkpoint.

Bethlehem and other West Bank cities are considered what clinicians call a traumatic context. This means that the environment itself is traumatic due to a constant threat of danger. The unpredictability of this danger creates a hyper-aroused state in all occupants. It would be naïve to think that this kind of environment, as well as the environment in Jerusalem, does not have an affect on the relationships in the church.

Understanding these social and cultural factors, we can come closer to an understanding of the psychological conditions which affect Christians in Bethlehem and Jerusalem. The first condition that I want to describe is Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD. PTSD is a psychological condition that results from a person experiencing or witnessing severe violence or threat of violence. The common identifiable symptoms of PTSD are divided into three categories. The first, hyper-arousal, is defined as a constant state of alertness for danger. People who suffer from hyper-arousal can never relax, even when they are seemingly in a safe environment. Biologically their sympathetic nervous system (the part of the nervous system that controls the fight or flight response to danger) is altered to be in constant activation.

The second identifiable symptom is intrusive thoughts and memories of the traumatic event in the form of flashbacks (an actual re-experience of the event) and nightmares. Many people who suffer from PTSD cannot sleep at night due to these intrusions. The triggers for flashbacks can often be very subtle stimuli in the environment such as a smell, tone of voice, or sound that reminds the person of the traumatic event and causes the brain to react in the same way that it did at the time of the trauma. The third identifiable symptom is known as constriction. This is characterized by an altered state of consciousness in which the person dissociates and shuts down all bodily sensation. The victim goes numb upon experiencing one of these subtle triggers. He/she often experiences somatic symptoms such as physical illness or ailments that are connected to the traumatic event as well, but the victim is not always aware of this connection.

Traumatic events also have a profound impact on the person's basic trust in humanity and in whatever they take to be God. Victims of PTSD often have great difficulty building trusting relationships, particularly with those in authority. People who have experienced traumatic events in childhood are also more susceptible to developing problematic personality disorders such as Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) in adult life. This personality disorder is characterized by a lack of sense of self (making them often co-dependent), inability to regulate emotion (which often causes alcohol and drug abuse), intense and short lived relationships, constant real or imagined fear of abandonment, self injurious behavior, and short periods of depression in which the victim can become suicidal.

In my experience here, I have found that almost the entire population of the country suffers from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder to varying degrees. This includes Christians in Jerusalem and Bethlehem. For example, many Christians in Bethlehem are suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and problematic personality disorders due to childhood traumas and the experience of living in the West Bank under occupation. The traumatic context of Bethlehem makes it extremely difficult for Christians to feel safe, even in church. There is great mistrust in their relationships. They see threats where there are no threats. They are hyper-vigilant and irritable. They have great difficulty controlling emotions. These are only a few ways in which PTSD affects Christians in Bethlehem.

For some church members, the constant threat of danger does not only come from the Israeli government. Those who have converted to Christianity from Islam are in danger of being killed by their families for this conversion. Since the culture dictates that an unmarried man or woman must live with his or her parents until marriage, disciples cannot escape these dangers in the home. This results in a great deal of fear and secrecy in churches.

Family pressures also make reaching out difficult. Due to the great emphasis placed on family in the Arab culture, many Christians have family members in the same church. This causes many problems. For instance, if one family member is struggling in his faith or decides to leave the church, he will most likely take his family members with him. Christians who stay with the church when a family member leaves are under tremendous pressure from the family to be loyal to their brother or sister, and will often serve as a messenger between the one that has left and the rest of the church. This makes it very difficult to resolve any conflict that may have resulted in the person leaving.

There is also a very strong emphasis placed on getting married in the Arab culture. Female Christians cannot leave their parents' home unless they are married. The family is very involved in the marriages and more or less arranges them with little or no input from the person to be married. Since many Christians have a conviction to only marry believers, they often suffer from family problems and depression regarding marriage. The emphasis on marriage creates problems in relationships that are built inside the church as well. There is a focus on getting married rather than building a beneficial and God-focused relationship. As a result, many church dating relationships become co-dependent and have resulted in the couple leaving the church in order to pursue the relationship quickly without the nuisance of beneficial advice.

In a culture where many decisions are made by the family, it is challenging for Arab Christians to really own their faith and follow God out of an individual choice. Often, Christians here replace the expectations of their family with leadership hierarchies. The clergy/laity system is present in most if not all churches in Bethlehem, because it is supported by the Arab culture. However, just because the culture supports it does not mean that it is any less harmful. It burns out leaders quickly and causing their work to be a burden rather than a joy, and it also stunts the personal growth of the Christians. When church leaders in Bethlehem try to give the decision-making power back to the Christians so they will begin to take responsibility for their own faith, the freedom is met with resistance from the disciples.

Christian churches in Jerusalem also suffer greatly from their environment. One church I studied is made up of nine members, six of whom are from Jewish descent. The remaining three members are part of the leadership team. I find it ironic that God has arranged this church such that two Arabs and an American are leading a church full of Jewish people. If this fellowship were a unified and loving group, it would be a great testimony of God's love to the city of Jerusalem. Instead, there is great tension between the leaders of the Jerusalem group and those they lead, because the political climate and culture is influencing the church to the point that it cannot move in any direction.

There are a few key social factors which influence the Jerusalem Christians. First, some suffer from PTSD symptoms and have histories of abuse as well. Their abuse histories and the oppressive quality of the political environment breed mistrust in the church. Next, the racism that pervades society in the Holy Land is also present in churches on both the Arab and Israeli sides. Church members often hold radical political views that create division and mistrust.

These environmental contexts influence the relationships in the churches and create challenges to being a God-driven, Spirit-led church. As one might imagine, having a church with many people who suffer from PTSD and/or BPD can make loving relationships and reaching out very difficult. I have been living in Jerusalem and working with churches in Jerusalem and Bethlehem since June 2006. My focus has been two-fold: first, to address the issues mentioned above, and second to help renew hope in the groups by increasing reliance on our sovereign God, who holds all of these challenges in the palm of His hand.

In order to bring this about, I have implemented several projects. About six weeks ago I began an open ended therapy group for women in a church in Jerusalem. Since then, the women have been exploring how problematic emotions such as intense anger, anxiety, and guilt are connected to past traumatic experiences. Currently, they are helping each other to identify emotional triggers and working to separate emotions connected to past trauma from their present situations. The group is just beginning to build cohesion and trust that will facilitate lasting change. I am also planning a women's retreat for Christians from Jerusalem and Bethlehem on the theme of God's grace. Finally, I am helping leaders from the church I am working with in Jerusalem coordinate a workshop for their Jerusalem church on identifying and changing racist ideologies. The workshop will facilitate discussions about Zionism and other beliefs that contribute to the tensions between the Jewish-Israel and Arab disciples.

A month ago, I led a training session in one of the Bethlehem churches for the leadership team on how to support Christians who are suffering from PTSD and/or personality disorders. The training included tips on how to take into account the emotional lives of people when counseling, teaching, and correcting these disciples. This has been the first of many steps in Bethlehem. I also started a coping skills therapy group based on a treatment model that was designed specifically for people suffering from PTSD and BPD. The group is learning and practicing skills to understand and control emotions. They are currently learning the skills of regulating emotions and will soon begin working on skills to help them tolerate and reduce distress.

I am very pleased with the direction of the projects that God has placed on my heart to implement here. Since the therapy groups are still in their beginning stages it is very important that they continue to meet, and I hope to be able to continue this work throughout the year. I believe that God will use these projects to bring about great change by May 2006, when I am scheduled to return to the United States. I am convinced that God has great plans to glorify Himself through the Jerusalem and Bethlehem churches, and I am grateful that through his immense grace I have the opportunity to be part of these plans. Please keep the Jerusalem and Bethlehem churches in your prayers as we seek to implement these exciting changes, and pursue God's will for the churches in the Holy Land.

Love in Christ,

Brittany, MSW, LCSW

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