What Does Loving and Supporting Abuse Victims Look Like in the Church?

I’ve been writing a lot lately in the area of an unpleasant but necessary task of pointing out a claimed organization in my community that I believe has been doing a grave disservice to the organic church community at large and to victims of sexual abuse.  This is becaKONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERAuse of an individual whom I believe is misusing the issue to pursue personal grudges and revenge against people in his past in local Churches and his apparent desire to promote himself in the Organic Church community at large while attempting to wrap himself in the pain and suffering of other people to try and make his actions seem legitimate and selfless.  I will continue to expose and address that where I see it, but that is not what this post is about this time.

Abuse in all it many forms is a very serious issue for me however and so I want to step back from the immediate situation that I’ve been addressing, and point out that I believe that there are victims of abuse throughout the church community as well as other forms of abuse that Churches have either not addressed completely or have not addressed at all.

I believe that this is serious enough that it needs to addressed properly so that the issue itself isn’t lost when some unhealthy people attempt to co-opt it in order to pursue their own agendas.  I’ve been accused of trying to shame victims and delegitimize the issue to defend abusers.  This is ridiculous of course and simply a transparent ploy by a manipulative person to attempt to hide their own actions.  I do however want to share my perspective on this issue based on my past, my training and my experiences.

First, a little bit about my background and where I am coming from in addressing things.  You can see more information about me in my “about” section.  You can also see some of my story in a past article I wrote on why I identify with the term “Post-evangelical“.  I have worked in the past within an Evangelical Denomination as an assistant-pastor, pastor, district worker and as a lay leader I have served as an elder, chairman of a church board, and other roles.  I don’t say that to establish any special authority on my part, because in fact I’ve since come to see the divide between clergy and laity as artificial.  I say it to say that it’s been in my experience in the past to understand how many churches and denominations function and I’ve been personally involved in and observed investigations into sexual abuse and other forms of abuse at the local church level and the district level.  I understand both that there are issues of real abuse and there are also instances of false accusations or exaggerated accusations.  I also know too how easy it can be for religious organizations to revert to a form of “old boy network” and engage in a cover-up.  This has been evidenced in recent history in the very public examples within the Roman Catholic Church, but in fairness, and not in any way to excuse it in the case of the RCC, it is just as prevalent, and in some cases perhaps even more prevalent in protestant circles and while data doesn’t really exist that I’m familiar with in organic and home church circles, reason and common-sense would dictate that forms of abuse can exist as well in those circles.  I’ve had training in pastoral counseling and I’ve also spent a good deal of time and effort in my own life in moving through my own past as well as helping others move through theirs.  I care about people, and I care about those who have been abused in any form in their past.

Abuse exists in the Church wherever somebody misuses their position of power and/or trust to use another person to meet their own needs and desires instead of seeking to serve them in the example that Jesus Christ demonstrated to us of sacrificial love.

By that standard, abuse exists within the church regardless of the forms of organization it employs.  I happen to believe that the more hierarchical a church is in terms of placing power in positions, that it increases the risk that those positions of power can be misused and other subjected to many different forms of abuse.  That said however, even in less hierarchical forms of church the potential exists and even where there are no formal offices of power, even informal types of organizations can lead to abuse if there are people present who have their own sinful natures and past unresolved hurts.  Even informal groups tend to over time develop a sense of order and lines of power and authority and trust that is given can be taken advantage of and sadly, often is.

It’s true that wherever there are imperfect people, there will be wrongs done to one another.  It ultimately is a result of mankind’s lack of full acceptance and reliance upon God to varying degrees to walk in the fulness of all that Christ has provided for us.  The Church however is an organism of extension of the life and love of Christ and in that context the church  more than anything else (and anywhere else for those forms of church that focus on a building or institutional context) should be where hurting people are received, accepted and protected.

What I’ve observed often happens however, is that there is a tendency to focus upon those who have abused and harmed others and to recognize and extend the love and grace of Jesus Christ to such as those, but to do it without at the same time validating the needs of those who have been abused.  When that happens then something is indeed seriously out of balance.

In my past I’ve experienced different forms of abuse and I’ve also to be honest, directed abuse toward others in the context of both family and church.  To varying degrees in both direction I’ve found that that is a general observation that is true of most of us.  However, I’ve also had experiences that demonstrate what I’ve said above in terms of the need for those who have abused others in any form, whether sexual, spiritual, physically, emotionally, mentally or any other form for those who have been abused to know that their experiences and wrongs toward them matter and that they are going to be loved, protected and supported.  This is especially important when the abuser(s) remain within the local church body or connected in some manner.  Victims need to know that they are safe, will be protected and can establish and maintain healthy boundaries and that abusers are not going to be enabled by their church to continue to abuse them.

chairs-58475_640In the past this struck home to me in a very intense and personal matter as I watched someone who came into a group I was a part of who came for the stated purpose of dealing with past issues in their life which included both being abused as a child and then also abusing others in the same manner that they’d been abused.  I was impressed in one sense with the honesty of the person in admitting that in a place that was designed to be safe to encourage just these sorts of honest revelations.  I was part of a team that worked with participants in this group and over a period of several days I watched this person deal with their own pain and seek to resolve and address their feelings about what had happened to them.  I noticed however that it was very difficult for that person to accept responsibility for their own actions in harming others.  This continued to build until a time came where several addressed the situation.  Not unlike many who have abused others, there was readiness to enter into the anger, shame, sadness and fear emotions that they were carrying from their own tragedy but instead of having empathy for those that they in turn abused there was a sense of entitlement or self-defense that in effect said, I was abused and mistreated and so it’s no wonder I acted out and hurt others in this way.  When this happens however, we lose a vital part of our own humanity in that we seal ourselves off from feeling empathy, compassion and concern for other people.  They become objects instead of fellow human beings with hurts and pains of their own.  Perhaps we can accept the hurts of other people when it is not us that have harmed them, but when we just deal with our own actions in principle and apologize to God or even confess in general to others of our past wrongs, as important as that is, it isn’t as full as when we look into the eyes of another person whom we have hurt and see their hurt and pain and empathize with them and take responsibility for what we have done.

In this particular situation, because the people who had been hurt weren’t present and couldn’t be, I saw something that was both terrifying and deeply profound in another.  The defenses that were present in this abused/abuser were challenged by having them sit and stare into the eyes of another participant who was “safe” and able to stare back and begin to hear the very difficult words that they had to say.

“I am so sorry for what I did.”  “I am ashamed of what I did and how I hurt you.”  “I am sorry that I robbed you of your childhood.”  “I am so sorry that I took from you something that was not mine to take.”  “I am so sorry that your memories of me are those of a monster who hurt you.”  (and other continued as the person struggled to repeat these phrases and mean them.)

As the emotions and struggle built within the one who was challenged to do this, I felt emotions of my own arising.  In my own past, rather than becoming someone who then abused others (not that I’m not capable of it) my own ways of coping with things was to maintain the role of a victim or in some cases to become a rescuer.  I looked at the pain and struggle of the person who was having to face these things and move past the defenses to feel true compassion for another person and I had an overwhelming desire to intervene, to somehow say that everything was OK and that I was sure that others would understand, but I didn’t do that and instead I watched and felt the struggle and realized that it was right what was happening, for the abuser and also for many there who themselves had been abused too.  As the situation escalated others in the group who had been abused in their childhood and past, came together behind the one who was acting as the surrogate victim and they too looked the abuser in the eyes and in a controlled way, expressed their own sense of loss and pain for what had happened to them and suddenly the struggle ended.  The one who had abused and was struggling with connecting to the pain and suffering they had caused broke down and began to weep and the anger and entitlement melted away and there was a catharsis in the room as abused and abusers stood up and embraced together as fellow human beings with the defenses lowered and a willingness to both forgive and to be forgiven without in anyway lessening the pain and suffering of others.

group-hug-raam1-428x303I was struck when I saw this with how rare this is and at the same time how precious and how it was worth the time and effort to go through the very difficult and awkward process of not throwing the victims under the bus as it were in order to try and quickly smooth over the confessions and admissions of the abusers.  Rather than being a time of revenge or punishment for it’s own sake, the very uncomfortable process of addressing the victims as personally and with as much respect as possible became as pathway to freedom, healing, grace and restoration for everyone, and in a very real sense I look at things like this that I’ve seen in counseling and clinical situations and I’ve come to the conclusion that there is much here in terms of how church “should” look.

Much of the opportunity for “church” to look like this is lost when it becomes about systems, hierarchy, programs and worship services that isolate us from one another.  We trade looking into other eyes and learning to connect not just intellectually but also emotionally and other levels and learning that the power of fellowship and community and the ability to confess both our wrongs and our hurts can become gifts that we give to one another.  How much have we lost by turning “church” into a location and putting people in rows staring at the front to hear a lecture and teaching but losing that personal connection that I believe was always intended to be a core part of what “church” is.

There’s much more to be said of course and that can be said, but I want it known that am not about hiding abuse or minimizing it in any way.  In fact, I care enough about it that I’ll speak up when I see the process being misused because I believe that in the end, that does a grave disservice to victims and lessens their voices where they exist and need support and advocacy.

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