Category Archives: Do good

“Do I matter?”

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“Do I matter?

Have you ever been repeatedly irritated by something someone says?  You know – a quirky phrase misused, or a chronically mispronounced word?  The kind of thing that tempts you to want to correct, even though it’s not really worth embarrassing someone over?

That’s what the phrase “you matter” is for me.

It’s a sort of mantra these days, a slogan, or (if I’m generous) perhaps people intend it to be a conversation starter.  An acquaintance of mine says to me, “you matter” on a regular basis.  And to be perfectly honest, it’s just plain irritating.

I know what she’s trying to communicate – that my life has significance and meaning in the world.  But that is not what she is saying – at least not to me.

I know very little about her – we’re not friends.  There’s no mutuality to the relationship.  I spend time with her on a regular basis because of circumstances, but the level of intimacy required to know whether or not I matter is not there and for her to keep saying it is, well, irksome.  Maybe I’m just being a pedantic jerk – I don’t know – but every time she says it now I want to ask her, “tell me – to whom?”

OK, I get it.  In the great, grand scheme of things, everyone “matters.”  As Christians we believe humans are made in the image of God, and therefore we have inherent dignity and worth.  Human life has significance.  Most reasonable people agree with this even if they wouldn’t put it in these terms – it’s generally accepted that we shouldn’t be indiscriminately killed or consumed as food.  There is a quality about being human that is different from being an animal or a plant.

Apparently, some would argue that taking up space in the world as a human, then, is the essence of “mattering.”

I would not be among them.  Instead, I would argue that “mattering” only makes sense in the context of a relationship.  The significance and importance ascribed to one person must be valued by another.  In other words, the sentence is incomplete if we stop at, “you matter.”  We need to complete it by saying, “you matter to me.”  “Mattering” has to be in relationship to someone else or it’s nonsense.

To matter at all means that you are connected to another human.  Being human carries inherent dignity and worth, but you can have dignity and worth and be utterly alone.  If you matter to someone, it means that they have regarded your dignity and worth as something worth attending.  You are seen – your personality, your strengths, your character, your perspectives and thoughts, your hopes and dreams, and even your fears – as worth investing in, worth knowing.  Your presence will have been noticed – and valued – by another soul.

 

To matter to someone is to be held in a place of priority – to be “special” to someone in some way.  To matter to someone is to be regarded as worth investing time, resources, effort, and care into.  To matter to someone means your well-being is important to them and your flourishing is something they are willing to work toward.  In its simplest terms, to matter to someone means that you are cared about, and cared for.  It may not always rise to the level of love and affection, but it always rises above “the crowd.”

We respond warmly to it and derive a sense of our own significance and worth from it.  To matter to someone is to be significant and important to them.

That is what it means to matter. Mattering is always in the context of a relationship.  It’s absurd to think of it any other way.

So, why does all this talk about mattering matter to me?  Because as a survivor of abuse, I have often wondered – do I matter to anyone?  Is anyone interested in who I am – not just in what they can get from me but for what makes me a person, an individual, me?  It’s a question every survivor asks, so hopefully this public wrestling with words proves at least somewhat valuable to others.

Abuse strikes at the very core of a person’s identity.  It is inter-personal betrayal in the most foundational level of relationships.  Treachery that comes wrapped in the guise of what should be loving, safe relationships but are instead abusive, destroys a victim’s concept of having any meaning or significance in the world at all.  It makes sense that being exploited by the people you should matter to twists and distorts the idea of mattering at all.  Survivors not only struggle to understand the people and circumstances that surround them, but they struggle to understand their own selves, as well.  When those closest to you don’t serve to protect your being, when even your own skin can’t protect the core of who you are, what can?  Children growing up in loving, healthy environments never wonder if they matter to anyone – they know they do and inhale it with the air they breathe.  But this is not so for those who have been damaged and shamed by abuse.

Diane Langberg, PhD often speaks of how we need to learn about the abstract through the concrete.  She talks about how Jesus used ordinary things that even peasants would be familiar with – like water, bread, and wine – to teach us who he is and what he is like.  We all needed Jesus to be a man – the concreteness of God “in the flesh” – to really be able to understand his heart.  I think the same is true with the concept of “mattering” to anyone.

How can an individual understand that he or she matters to an invisible God if they’ve never known what it is like to matter to another human being?  How can they understand that “being used by God” is not the same as being used by those who abused them?  How can a person possibly understand what it means to have significance and meaning outside of a human relationship, if they’ve never known it inside one?

You see, mattering to someone is how we can come to understand that we matter to God.  We need the more tangible experience of mattering to someone “in the flesh” in order to understand that we even could matter to God.  The question, “Do I matter?” can only be answered in the context of a relationship, and the conclusion, “yes, I matter,” can only be arrived at through the experience of a relationship where we are appreciated, valued, and treasured simply because of who we are.

Sometimes people ask, “How can I help you?  What can I do for you?”  when they learn about my struggle.  It’s a hard question to answer because I don’t know if they mean really do something or if they don’t know what else to say.  But If you really want to help a survivor of abuse, let them matter to you.  See them, know them, love them for who they are.  Let their flourishing be important enough to you to pursue.  Don’t look at the abuse only but appreciate their strengths and their character.  Learn of their creativity or depths of compassion.  Care about what is important to them and what they’re hoping for.  See past the damage and the work they need to do to become whole again, and delight in the complex, multi-faceted human being they were created to be.  Let them really matter to you so that they can taste and see the goodness and care of the One to whom they matter the most.  Answer their question, “Do I matter?” with, “Yes!  You matter a great deal to me,” for I have a sneaking suspicion that coming to believe that we might matter to someone is the gateway for believing that we might be loved.  And that, beloved church, is what survivors need to know the most.

 

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Somewhere Tonight

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Somewhere Tonight

Somewhere tonight there is a child whose reality will become her nightmares.

Her tender, neglected frame will have forced upon it hauntings that will never leave.

She is learning how tickles can turn to torment and

Breathless laughter to wide-eyed confusion and pain.

 

Somewhere tonight probing fingers and greedy mouths will penetrate her soul

Words and other things of shame and degradation will sear deeply into her forming self

Twisting, distorting her unlived life into invisible disability.

She will limp forevermore from wrestling with Evil personified as trusted foe.

 

Somewhere tonight her still-forming mind is doing the sensible –

Escaping the inescapable – trading wholeness for humanity, soundness for survival.

Somewhere tonight division, though protective, becomes her greatest vulnerability,

And the leaving in her mind a soothing, but self-imposed prison.

 

Somewhere tonight this child-turned-victim will fall asleep uncomforted.

She will wake, and no one will believe the permanent damage being done.

So she will conclude that she is vile, filthy, unseen, unknown, alone –

Accepting lies from those who should be truth-tellers.

 

It is for her I press on, this nameless, precious child.

It is for the knowing of her, seeing of her, and hearing of her silent cries.

It is for her I speak until she can whisper her own story

To her I speak from my own:

 

Though you will search, little one, a life-time from now

For meaning and explanation, none will come, save one –

Evil persists, endures until the end – and you, dear, cherished, beloved child

You will be asked to bring Light into that deep, black pit you know so well

– to rescue, redeem, and lift up another, because Mercy and Love endure forever.

Attention-Getting Love

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Attention-Getting Love

I had three little grandsons here recently while their mother, aunties, and I worked on a project.  Their presence not only brought delight, but a flood of memories.  Noisy, active children don’t fill my days anymore, and it’s admittedly easier to see the kinds of things I’m about to share now than it was when mine were young, but it occurred to me that caring for little ones is a beautiful picture of the love that Jesus showed to us.  While it might seem tedious and utterly insignificant to tie little shoe laces, encourage use of the potty again, or distract a tired toddler, the literal bending low and lifting up of vulnerable, needy human beings is exactly what Jesus did for us and what he calls us to do for one another – and he says it will get attention.  “By this will all people know that you are my disciples:  if you love one another.” John 13:35

As I watched my daughters serve me while they were also keeping tiny boys safe and happy I marveled at how they transitioned not only from one task to the next, but also between high-pitched cries for attention, help, or refereeing.  I smiled as I watched them handle all of it with grace and patient love.  I was drawn in and warmed by how they treated these three young souls.  It was attention-getting love.

I couldn’t help but connect some dots that have been swirling around my own head lately regarding the astounding way that Jesus showed us the unnatural kind of love we are to show one another.  I’ve benefited from hearing Diane Langberg say again and again that the Almighty Ruler of the Universe is the author and owner of all power and authority, yet he used it, not to control or manipulate mankind into subservient conformity to his will (which is what we typically think of as power – the ability to pressure, control, or force another to do one’s bidding).  Rather, Jesus used his power to rescue us from a sin-filled cesspool of our own making and then issued a gentle invitation to, “Come, follow me.”   She’s given me much to think about.

There are many examples in our culture of immoral, unethical, and unloving use of power and authority – governmental agencies that use their position not to protect and defend, but to bully and intimidate.  Bosses in the workplace who steal credit for ideas and productivity rather than holding up their employees for honor or recognition.  Religious leaders who use the sheep to feed unholy desires for praise or lust rather than protect them from ravenous wolves.  Husbands who bully and intimidate their wives to build kingdoms for themselves rather than cherishing and protecting them.  But Jesus calls us to do it differently.  He calls us to what he demonstrated to us by bending low and lifting up.

Because of this, passages like Ephesians 5 have begun to look different to me, too.  I have almost always heard this passage taught with a focus on headship and submission.  It has, at times, even focused on the instruction to submit to those in authority even when they are terrible because this honors God.

But this focus is unhelpful for two reasons.  The first is that it leaves too many doors open for abuses of power to be tolerated when they should not be.  For example, while there may be times we need to stick it out in difficult circumstances, “Wives submit to your own husbands in all things,” does not call a wife to submit to oppressive control or abuse.  But this verse is often used by abusers to keep their wives in groveling submission to them.  It is incredibly difficult to de-tangle the truth of what Scripture teaches from the distortions wielded by abusers – pastors need to be clearer on this.  Without the counter-balancing instruction of when it’s right to stand against sin, submission to power and authority in all circumstances becomes the understood teaching and many suffer needlessly because of it.

The second (and more important) reason this kind of approach is unhelpful is that it misses the main point of the passage.  The book of Ephesians is about unity in the body of Christ.  In the previous chapters Paul explains how unity and love for one another is even possible through Christ and then in chapter 5 he tells us how.  He starts off by saying, “submit yourselves to one another out of reverence for Christ.”  In other words, because you love and revere Jesus, you will honor him by loving one another as he did.  Here’s how…

Wives, do everything you can to serve your husbands in order to help them thrive and flourish – your focus is their good.

Husbands, lay aside all your selfishness and do everything you can to love your wives in order to help them thrive and flourish – your focus is their good.

Children, your parents have been given to you to help you thrive and flourish – honor them and it will go well for you.  Parents – especially fathers – make sure you don’t do anything that exasperates them in that process – your focus is their good.

Workers, work hard and sincerely do everything you can in order to help your bosses thrive and flourish – your focus is their good.

Bosses, help your workers thrive and flourish – your focus is their good.

None of this is about claiming power or authority in these common roles.  Jesus turns our ideas of power and authority on their heads!  Paul is telling us, “despite any power or authority you might have, don’t act like the world – act like Jesus!  Instead of using your power and authority to oppress, use it to serve, protect, and build up.”  The point of Ephesians 5 is this:  all of you, no matter your role (or what you think it might entitle you to) – use it to serve as Jesus served, love as Jesus loved, honor as Jesus honored, lift up as Jesus lifted up.

As I watched my daughters serve my grandsons in this way it got my attention, drew me in, and caused me to praise God.  This is how Jesus loves us.  When we serve, love, honor, and lift up the vulnerable, weak, and helpless around us – especially those over whom we have power or authority –  we are loving the way that Jesus loves.  And that beloved church, gets the attention of a world that is starving for attention-giving love.

“What do you do when your friends are rapists?”

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“What do you do when your friends are rapists?”  Is a question I ran across in a blog post written by Shane O’Leary on Theology Corner.  I have to admit to being both intrigued and horrified by what I read.

Shane does an excellent job of describing the inner-turmoil that everyone goes through when they’ve learned that someone they’ve known and trusted is accused of (or confesses to) something as heinous as rape.  The swirling fog of dissonance is real and it’s difficult to shake off and gain clarity.

I commend him for putting it out there, really – it’s an honest and accurate depiction of the wrestling match that goes on inside a person’s head.  “What should I do???”  But I was deeply saddened that he never answered his own question.

Shane offers three scenarios (I don’t know if they’re real recollections of actual events or if he made them up for the sake of the piece). Regardless of whether or not these particular stories are real, they are indicative of the kinds of real life scenarios that ordinary people might run into in the course of their own friendships.  Three women in three different settings are devastated by what “good guys” have done to them.  Three women’s lives are forever changed by the actions of “friends.”  Three moral dilemmas that Shane – and maybe you – faced where doing the “right” thing is eclipsed by doing the expedient thing, doing the loyal thing, or in fact, doing nothing at all.  In each of the three cases, Shane knows the rapist as a friend – not as a rapist.  The grappling with the truth of that horrible reality while at the same time trying to figure out what he should do in the face of it all (if, in fact, he should do anything at all) is the whole of the post.  I recommend reading the post yourself.  If nothing else, I hope it makes you think deeply about the times you’ve been faced with (or will be faced with) doing the right thing when it might cost you dearly.

I don’t know this author.  I’d like to think that his choice of leaving the questions unanswered was a stylistic decision purposefully used – to make his readers think, perhaps, or make them uncomfortable enough to ask the questions in their own circles of friendships or colleagues to try to find answers.  But it has become painfully clear that in the face of crisis, most of us don’t know what to do.  We might wrestle with the questions, but often we wrestle long enough that the opportunity to do anything at all passes and our de facto decision to do nothing has been made for us.  These are matters too serious to leave hanging in the thin wisps of theory – we need to start actually offering some concrete solutions to one another.  We need to be prepared for the day when we’re faced with this heavy responsibilities.  We need to know what we will do.

In response to Shane’s repeated question, “what do you do when your friends are rapists?”  I’m posting my response.  Hopefully this at least gets the conversation started:

Dear Shane:

I deeply appreciate the honesty that you share here – the wrestling and the fog are real and you describe them well. I hope these things represent the real inner-turmoil you have had if these are true stories. They are for me.

As a victim I will offer my suggestions – I’m not a therapist, I’m no expert, I have no formal training to say this is what one “ought” to do. But since you ask the open-ended question with such eloquence, and seem to be genuinely asking, I will offer a possible answer.

You do the right thing.

You put yourself in the shoes of the victim and do the right thing. The protective thing. The honorable thing. The God-glorifying thing. You imagine that these girls are your sister, your mother, your close friend if you have to, but you do what Jesus did – bend low, serve the needy, the vulnerable, the oppressed, the wounded. You lift up, you rescue, you resuscitate.

You go back and admit where you’ve failed – where you’ve retreated from standing firmly against sin and shrunk back as a coward hiding behind ignorance. If you’re not guilty of these crimes yourself (and everything you’ve described is a crime) you ask the victims if they want help in reporting the crimes. You ask them if they need help in finding help. You tell them you believe them. You tell them that what happened to them was not their fault. You offer to walk with them through the ugliness of the pain and the torturous path of healing and you keep that promise no matter what.

You do what the Good Samaritan did and set your life aside for a time to help the battered and bloodied victim of criminal activity survive and heal. Oh God! What will it take to wake us up? You do the right thing, Shane. You do the right thing.

Regarding your friends who are rapists? You let the consequences of their criminal activities have their full (hopefully redemptive) effect. You report them. You call them out. You risk the relationship for the sake of righteousness if that’s what it costs, but you do the right thing here, too. And then you walk with your friends, if they’ll let you, through the pain and the ugliness of harsh discipline by a loving Father who loves them too much to let them continue in the paths of wickedness without calling loudly, “Come home! Come home!” If they are really your friends, you will love them too much to let them continue down those roads, too.

It’s not that knowing what the right thing to do is that hard. It’s doing it.

Do the right thing, Shane. Please, do the right thing.

Humbly,
Laurie

Is The Church Ever a Refuge for the Abused?

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Is the Church Ever a Refuge for the Abused?

This question came up in a recent twitter thread in response to outrageous comments which have resurfaced made in 2000 by yet another leader of a major Christian denomination (Paige Patterson, President of the Southwestern Baptist Seminary, part of the SBC).  These comments, similar to John Piper’s comments in response to how women should respond to their abusive husbands, are quite literally nauseating to those of us who have suffered at the hands of abusive husbands.  But they should be nauseating to every decent human being, too.  These statements are inexcusable and yet, both men, prominent leaders in Christianity, refuse to retract their words.

Additionally, new high-profile cases of pastors and church leaders committing, covering up, or being dismissive of the damaging impact of abuse in their churches seem to be coming to light each week.

It makes everyone wonder, is the church ever a refuge for the abused?

While these cases are horrific – I mean truly and thoroughly horrific – it would be wrong to denigrate the whole of the body of Christ with the same broad brush.  We have a shamefully long, long way to go in righting these damaging wrongs against the vulnerable in our midst, but there are some shining examples of loving pastors, elders, and church leaders who are desperately trying to understand these issues and their impact, stand for righteousness, protect the vulnerable, and be the agents of change in this culture of cover-up.

I know – I am blessed to be a member of one such church.

My pastor and elders are by no means experts in the fields of abuse of any kind – they would be the first ones to admit to that.  But they have sought to faithfully – and lovingly – walk beside me on the darkest path I could ever imagine.

They have been humble enough to learn – though the learning curve has been steep and difficult for all involved.  They have been gracious enough to be challenged by a deeply wounded family and yet remain compassionate and kind at all times.  They have been willing to re-think positions they’ve held dear in light of newly acquired understanding of the dynamics and impact of abuse.  And they have wrestled with their own hearts about how to respond in faithfulness to scripture and compassionate care for my children and me.  And because of all of this, they have also had to endure false and ugly accusations against them because of their willingness to stand against evil.

This has not been an easy road for them or for me.  This has, at times, been a torturous process.   It has been years-long, and we’re still not on the other side of it all.  I have had to be both sufferer and tutor on a path that I don’t know how to navigate either.  But these men have been willing to try to see with new eyes what it means to shepherd, protect, and defend one of the flock who was being devoured.  They didn’t know how to fight this battle before I came along, but they have been willing to learn and then learn some more in order to do so well.  My pastor, in particular, has been doggedly faithful in leading them in this.

I know that I am in the minority.  There are too many – far, far too many – abominable stories emanating from pastoral responses like the ones above.  The norm is for pastors, in their woeful ignorance and sometimes arrogance, to think that abuse is a marital problem rather than an insatiable desire for controlling power and domination emanating from an idolatrous worship of self.  Those of us who love Christ and understand his call to all of us to be humble servants in his kingdom need to relentlessly call for our leaders to be knowledgeable and discerning in the issues of abuse of all kinds.  But let us also, with reverence and deep appreciation honor those who, like Jesus, use their power and authority to bend low, protect, deliver, and help set captives free.

Is the church ever a refuge for the abused?  It is grievous that the question has to even be asked this way.  Jesus would take cords and make whips out of them for those dishonoring the character of his Father with such callous disregard for his little ones.  But thankfully, there are faithful, Christ-honoring shepherds who love him, and his flock enough to stand up for the oppressed, stand against their abusers, and defend against harm.

Thank you strong and gentle shepherds – your reward in heaven is great.

How Could This Happen?

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I wept as one young woman after another came forward and bravely faced him. I silently cheered them on as the tears freely fell down my face and onto my shirt – I didn’t care who saw me. These brave women faced the demon who had tormented them and they survived. They will remember that moment, too, and it will strengthen them when the black memories seek to haunt them – and they will. Along with many, I look forward to hearing their stories of victory and grace that surely will be told.

Besides the sheer weight and magnitude of the evil done (which, in truth, is incomprehensible), a number of things have struck me hard with this story as a result of questions that are being repeatedly asked. In an effort to help the church become better equipped at walking alongside abuse survivors, I’m writing today to both educate and, hopefully, equip the body with tools of understanding and discernment to use when facing abuse in their midst. The questions I’ve repeatedly heard are, “Why didn’t they tell someone when this was happening to them?” “Why didn’t the other adults who knew do something?” and “Why was it so easy for this guy to convince people he wasn’t abusing anyone even after credible allegations were made years ago?”

Why didn’t they tell?

A common thread through almost every single testimony was that of the victims not knowing what was happening to them when the abuse took place. It’s difficult for many people – people who have no history of abuse – to comprehend how someone could not understand where moral, ethical, or legal boundaries ought to be when it comes to touch, behavior, demands, or even language. People tend to imagine themselves in the shoes of a sexual abuse victim and believe they know what they would do. They think – rationally, calmly, and from the safety of their homes and abuse-free lives – that they either wouldn’t put up with what these victims endured or that they would report it immediately. But that is so far from the experience of a victim that it is neither realistic nor reasonable to expect.

It was clear from these testimonies that all of these girls and young women were vulnerable to ongoing sexual abuse because they did not know that what was happening to them was abuse. They were expertly lied to. Little children simple can’t know that what is happening to them is inappropriate adult behavior until someone explicitly tells them so. They are dependent on the adults in their lives to teach them what is right and what is wrong. When a trusted adult abuses them and tells them that this is a “normal” procedure (or some other lie), they can do nothing but believe them and to accept the behavior as normal and right. They might know they don’t like it. They might know that it hurts. But child victims don’t know that what is happening to them is wrong. Because it’s usually done by someone who is trusted, it is accepted.

But even young women can be easily convinced that the abuse that is being perpetrated upon them is something they must accept. Abusers always enjoy a position of power over their victims – if they didn’t the victim wouldn’t submit. There is vulnerability inherent in abuse, no matter what kind it is, and no matter how old the victim is. But there is another dynamic going on for victims as well. Unless we are given specific information about what abuse is, where the boundaries are, and when to tell, we tend to generate a personal definition of abuse as “something worse than what I am experiencing.”

Seeing one’s self as a victim of abuse is repulsive. As noted above, child victims simply don’t know that they are victims, and the truth is, adult victims rarely see themselves as victims until someone else points it out to them. In fact, it typically takes a long, long time to come to terms with the fact that someone you love and trust is hurting you for their own pleasure, gratification, and/or satisfaction. A long time. It presents as a cognitive distortion of such magnitude that it is very difficult to come to accept as truth. This was also evident in many of the testimonies given last week.

Additionally, and not insignificantly, victims are not stupid. They know full well what it will cost them to openly accuse their abusers of their crimes. The goal of coming forward might be to get abusers to stop, but it often doesn’t happen because of how difficult it is to make abuse charges stick, and to be believed. It is a very common experience for telling someone about abuse to come at an indescribably high price to the victim. Victims have already been terribly wounded by the abuse – not many want to open themselves up to wounding again by the shaming, blaming, and attacking that will surely come if they tell.

Why didn’t adults do something?

A second question I’ve heard surrounds the incomprehensibility of adults knowing that something was amiss with this man and yet they did nothing to stop him. It is hard to detangle the complex web of complicity, cover-ups, and failure on the parts of so many adults in authority, but it is clear that many had opportunity to do something to protect the vulnerable but failed to do so. Complicating the very disorienting truth of not understanding what was happening to them, victims did tell, but what we know from testimony after testimony is that they were not believed, or that their stories were minimized or ignored, or worst of all, they were made out to be the ones doing something wrong by calling a trusted adult’s character into question. This is a very common experience for abuse victims – both children and adults, and the damage done by this is incalculable.

Authority figures of all sorts – parents, coaches, administrators, trainers, and medical personnel knew about this man’s abuse and did nothing. They were dismissive. They were indignant at the accusation (rather than the abuse). They worried that they would forfeit their positions, be cut off from the sport they loved, or miss out on the gold medals (ie – their glory) they coveted. They were willing to sacrifice child after child on the alter of fame, power, and prestige. Some didn’t want to make waves. Some thought they wouldn’t be believed. Some didn’t think it was bad enough to make a stink about. All of them are culpable. All of them bear a heavy weight of responsibility. And the same will be true for each of us if we suspect that abuse is taking place and don’t do all we can to stop it.

The only appropriate response to a report of abuse is to move heaven and earth to make it stop. Period. Nothing else is more important. Not protecting the perpetrator’s reputation, not waiting to try to figure out if the victim’s story makes sense, not protecting a system’s reputation, or a complicit adult’s aspirations, wealth, or career – nothing. The betrayal of the adults in these girls’ lives and their failure to protect them before and after the abuse is every bit as bad as the abuse itself. I’m glad to see that this is not ending with one man’s sentencing because there are many who failed these girls. And this is a very common experience for abuse victims, too. We would do well to listen to their excuses and examine our own hearts very closely to see if there is any similar thinking lurking there. Any time we “don’t want to be bothered,” or “don’t want to make a fuss,” or want someone else to take care of it, we are doing the same thing that these complicit adults did.

How did he get away with it for so long?

The third question I’ve heard many ask is, “Why was it so easy for this guy to convince people he wasn’t abusing anyone even after credible allegations were made years ago?” As all abusers do, this perpetrator went to great lengths to cast doubt on his victims’ claims. Even after he was convicted, he continued his attempts to try to excuse his behavior, explain it away, or deflect attention away from what he did in order to try to minimize both the charges against him and any possible consequences he might need to pay. His tactics ranged from distorting the truth and calling abuse a “medical procedure,” to calling into question the veracity of the testimony of his young victims.

As I was scrolling through social media to see what people were saying I ran across a very encouraging series of Tweets from Wade Mullen (@wad3mullen), professor at Capital Seminary and Graduate School in Pennsylvania which address this issue head-on. Mullen offers a list of 12 tactics abusers use to disorient and confuse both victims and those trying to make sense of what is being said when a victim comes forward with an allegation. These are classic abuser tactics, and Mullen puts them into a concise form so that we can learn to recognize them when someone is trying to deceive or confuse us.

Mullen’s list is below in its entirety. It is excellent. It takes a messy, confusing set of tactics abusers use to discredit their victims and obscure the truth and helps us see what’s really happening. Clarity, above all else, is needed when dealing with those who consistently distort and misrepresent the truth. It is encouraging to hear Christian leaders speak truth into this topic. It often takes a long time to realize what is really happening in many cases of abuse – perhaps this helpful list will make it easier to clear a way through the fog in less time. As I’ve written before, trauma stories are often disjointed and messy when they first come out. It is easy to become frustrated with a victim’s lack of clarity and the way the details come out in “bits and pieces.” It is the nature of trauma to render victims speechless, but Mullen’s list helps explain the things abusers do to make it even harder for victims to be clear enough for others to understand and believe them. Hopefully you will begin to understand why those walking alongside need to be patient – and careful – to listen well to victims of abuse.

Here is Mullen’s list of 12 ways abusers attempt to redefine what they’ve done:

“Lately, #metoo and #churchtoo and now #175years victims have been emboldened to share their stories. In response, some abusers have issued statements in an attempt to define the “incident” in the way they want everyone to define it. Here are 12 of the many tactics we’ve seen recently:

  1. The details of a victim’s story are disruptive to the image of the abuser. Therefore, abusers will give it a label and say nothing more about it. Her details may destroy their definition of the “incident” and reveal coverup of a crime, not a mistake which the abuser regrets.
  2. Although he was an adult in a position of authority and trust, the abuser gives the impression it could have been consensual and typical. This tactic is called blurring and hides the truth without putting the abuser in the indefensible position of telling an outright lie.
  3. Abusers take every opportunity to mention the abuse took place a long time ago in a place far way. We tend to care more about recent harm done to those close to us (our own children). By amplifying these gaps in time and place, they create distance between you and the story.
  4. Abusers place great focus on their “redemptive process.” By using qualifiers like “full” to describe responsibility and “every” to describe the steps taken, they promote themselves as exemplary models of redemption. We should then trust them when they say it was “dealt with.”
  5. a) Abusers use a very subtle tactic I call polishing. Just as your shoes look better after you polish them, which in turn improves your overall appearance, abusers polish the people who have known about their abuse but have nonetheless supported him. b) By stating the behavior was known by other leaders and relatives who have continued to support him, abusers use them as a witness to their narrative. Now followers will have to reject the witness and credibility of their leaders and friends if they are to reject the abuser.
  6. Even though the story is about pain inflicted on the victim, attention is given to the abuser’s pain & how saddened he is. This is called supplication and it causes his followers to pray over him, applaud him, and call him worthy. Sadly, he receives what the victim never did.
  7. Abusers can be quick to say “I’m sorry” or “I was wrong” but real apologies include a full and complete confession without explanation or excuse and an offer to accept penalizing actions. Restitution begins immediately with the victim and includes cooperation with the law.
  8. When abusers can’t refute a story, they try their best to dilute it. Diverting attention away from the crime and toward the perceived positive outcomes like lessons learned and the good they have done since, causes followers to view negative events in a positive light.
  9. When abusers state how uncharacteristic this behavior is of them, that they never engaged in similar behavior before or after the incident, they are trying to convince people they should not be linked to this kind of behavior. It may be true, but it doesn’t need to (be) said.
  10. Abusers may make a big deal about their pursuit of forgiveness and make it more important than the pursuit of examination. However, truth must precede confession which precedes forgiveness which precedes change. Forgiveness is exploited when it prevents discovery of truth.
  11. Abusers will try to conform themselves to the side of the victim, so as to keep people from taking sides. When they claim to be on the side of the victim and offer healing, but avoid the truth, they put the victim in a trap. When she doesn’t concede she’s seen as unforgiving.
  12. Abusers will abuse the Bible by quoting passages on mercy, love, compassion, grace, and forgiveness. They boost teachings that will serve their cause and belittle teachings that threaten their image (truth, justice). It’s another trap that seeks to pit you against Scripture.

“Abusers who engage in this complex process of managing the impressions others form of them will always confuse their targets. It is easier to manipulate and control confused people. The abuser will then influence their thoughts so that they voluntarily act according to his plan.”

The only thing I would add to this helpful list is that when the abuser’s attempts to reframe the story fails to convince anyone that the victim isn’t telling the truth, he will go to great lengths to smear her reputation, and call her sanity and trustworthiness into question. This, too, is a classic tactic. These are good to know and understand as you wade through the many, many stories coming out into the light. All of these are common experiences for victims of abuse.

What can the church do?

Believe that abuse takes place in all the places you would never suspect. Believe allegations of abuse – the incidence of false reporting is rare, and it should not be used as justification to not pursue the truth. Protect the vulnerable, seek justice for those who have been oppressed.

And, beloved church, as we seek to minister to every sinner – abusers included – let us not focus on the things abusers say, but much more on how they conduct themselves over the course of time and through the testing of stress, struggle, and consequences. Abusers who are truly repentant will abhor all that they’ve done, not seek attention for any of it. They will seek the victim’s well being – even if it costs them much. Abusers need to be held accountable because the temptation to abuse again will be incredibly strong, and will be a life-long battle.

Victims, on the other hand, need much care. They will almost certainly need counseling with qualified counselors, and a lot of patience, love, and compassion as they try to learn how to carry their stories of abuse with them for the rest of their lives. As Christians, we love stories of forgiveness and redemption – and we should. Our Savior bent low to rescue us from our own filthy messes. But when it comes to abuse, we must not be easily fooled into believing words of repentance and change. As C. H. Spurgeon noted, true repentance can be seen when we dread our sin “as the burnt child dreads fire.” Until that is evident in an abuser’s life, we would be wise to question everything.

May God be glorified, church, as we arm ourselves with knowledge and seek to find ways to respond that bring no further harm to the vulnerable, even while seeking to call the guilty to repentance.

Enough with the #MeToo stuff already

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jilbert-ebrahimi-33575Enough with the #MeToo stuff already, right?

It’s not going away, is it?  Every week more men are being confronted and exposed by angry women.  Enough already, right?

Christian women are among those reporting, too, however, we, the church, are very uncomfortable with angry people.  We want things quickly tied up into neat theological packages.  We think that because we can read from the “angry” parts in our Bibles to the bits that talk about settled trust in God’s righteous dealings with wrongs in the space of (maybe) ten minutes or so, that our anger, grief, or pain should be dealt with in about the same amount of time.  Sometimes we’ll give it a week or two, but that’s about our limit.  We know that’s silly, but still, we recoil when we hear someone express how the crimes of those in power have impacted their lives and made them angry.  So enough with the angry women and all the tiresome dredging up of old wounds.  Just move on, right?

Beloved church, it’s time to wake up.

John 13:35 says that people will know we follow Jesus because of our great love for one another.  But the very, very sad truth is that a woman can call a Domestic Violence hotline and get more care and compassion than she can from far too many churches if she tells someone there she has been victimized.  They believe her story – we want her to prove it.  They listen to her halting, disjointed words that are almost impossible for her to get out – we get frustrated because she doesn’t make sense.  They ask questions that help her think – we don’t say anything because we don’t know what to say.  They offer real and material assistance to help her get safe and get out of the destructive relationship – we debate whether or not she should go.  They follow up with her to make sure she is stable and safe, they offer counseling, and make sure her children are ok, too.  We… usually don’t.

We have no excuse.  We are wrong to ignore this – painfully, willfully, persistently wrong.  We can no longer claim ignorance.  #MeToo won’t let us – neither will the statistics that reveal the church has the same problem the rest of society has.

When the #MeToo movement hit social media I wondered what the response in the church would be.  To my great disappointment, it has been largely a continued silence or a collective whine about how angry all these women are.  (Individuals are crying out for justice, but churches are not.)  There was even an article touted by people I respect called #MeToo, But God, which was a call to neatly (and quickly) tie up the package of pain that these women bear into tidy theological boxes that make us feel more comfortable but actually increase the pain of the already wounded.

I think that a part of our problematic response is that things like #MeToo lump all manner of sexual misconduct into one complaint.  We publicly agree that all sexual misconduct is wrong, but we privately acquiesce to some of it.  Sexual innuendo in the office doesn’t really seem that bad to some.  “Harmless” touching doesn’t seem like something to really get that upset about – women have been dealing with that sort of thing for millennia, right?  Well, I would argue that is part of the problem.  But even if you think those sorts of claims can hardly be categorized as “sexual harassment” please be careful of your blanket responses to the “lumped together” complaints, too.  Many of the #MeToo participants have been attacked, abused, and treated as worthless garbage by those who exercised positions of power or authority over them or were supposed to love and care for them.  They have been traumatized and typing six characters on a social media post is the closest they’ve ever come to telling anyone.

These are your family

Beloved church, we cannot continue to have so callous a disregard for the broken and the suffering in our midst.  We must learn what we need to know in order to come alongside the hurting in a way that actually offers comfort and care.  These women are our sisters, mothers, daughters, and friends.  They are sitting in the pew next to you.  They are teaching your children, holding your infants, and helping you love Jesus.  They are your family.

I agree that the only hope in all of this is God’s redemptive work, but I also know the desperate struggle of wrestling with the dual realities of the abuse of power and God.  The agonizing wrestling that seeks to reconcile a good God knowing about the abuse and him doing nothing to intervene is not as simple as adding ‘but God’ to the end of ‘me, too.’  Think about how difficult it is to get to the place where you might be able to say, “I was molested, but God,” or, “he raped me, but God”… Try to fill in the rest of that sentence  “… had a perfect plan for my life that included violence that radically changed everything and distorted all that I believed before”??  While this might be true, I hope you can see that it is an intensely difficult truth to grapple with – one that requires a great deal of wrestling with God over a long period of time.

Adding, ‘but God’ will make you, the listener to the story feel much better. But it won’t help the woman in your church fighting for faith.

Grieve with those who grieve without insisting they say things in a way that helps you feel more comfortable with their pain. If you can do that, you may indeed comfort them and eventually have the standing in their lives to help them discover the ways they can include the, ‘but God’ parts – when they’re ready to do so. Taking them there because that’s what you want to hear is neither comforting nor helpful. You end up being like Job’s friends and have the potential to add more pain and do significant damage to an already wounded person.

Let them be angry if they are angry – you probably would be struggling with anger, too.  But don’t stop there – ask them if they would be willing to tell their story, then listen way more than you speak.  The story may come out in bits and pieces, it might not seem to make much sense, it may be fuzzy and unclear (kind of like the #MeToo narrative) – listen anyway, and don’t draw conclusions about where you think she ought to be. Just be there and listen, and try to imagine the gravity of what she is telling you.  She has witnessed evil incarnate and that is no small thing. Please be gentle.

Redemption will be revealed, but not by you

There is redemption to be revealed in every one of these stories, but the victim needs to uncover it.  But listening (or not) will reveal something about us, too.  Standing with someone in pain is also painful. None of us wants to stand there for very long without relief.  Your presence in their pain communicates a great deal.  Do not underestimate this.  But ignoring it communicates something, too.  It communicates that their grief does not matter to us, that their painful wrestling with God is not significant, and that what we value most is theological accuracy and not the human being wrestling with it. I have been blessed by a few faithful comforters along the way.  But I have encountered far too many who have lacked the strength and courage it takes to walk alongside suffering well.

This coming Sunday is Right to Life Sunday.  It is about the dignity and value of each life.  It is not essentially about life vs death, but it is about the inherent value and worth of each human being made in the image of God.  Sexual trauma shatters that image for each victim.  We see ourselves as worthless, invisible, and discarded.  And part of that message comes from being silenced into obscurity.  You can help restore it if you simply listen and seek to understand.

Jesus showed us how when he entered into the grief of, and wept with, Mary and Martha over the death of their brother, Lazarus.  He went to them, and he wept with them, knowing full well that the very next thing he was going to do was show them, ‘but God’…