by Heidi Hiatt
Every time the topics of abuse, dysfunction, and boundary violations come up, I cringe, knowing that the same old sanctimonious rhetoric is about to slither up my neck like a decrepit, toxic snail: “We’ll pray for you. You need let go of your unforgiveness. We hope that the root of bitterness will be dug out.”
In my mind I’m asking, “and do you realize how many people are driven away from the Gospel because of this damning, judgmental legalism instead of towards it?!!” Then mushroom clouds erupt from my ears in a white-hot flash of righteous anger.
While I am by no means a perfect example of my faith, I’m not shy about identifying as a Christian. Why should I be? A God who loves me personally sacrificed His Son so that I could live– and not just live now, but always. Don’t ask me to explain that. The concept blows my mind. But knowing there is a life beyond this, and that love is eternal, and that there is a reason to keep going even in those deep, dark, silent moments– it’s glorious.
While I’m thankful for a strong Christian heritage in some branches of my family tree, my faith has been born largely of adversity, not out of some blind adherence to the ways of my ancestors. One reason I hold tightly to God is because His love transcends the dysfunction of my earthly family, not because His love reflects that family. The Psalmist understood this, saying, “though my father and mother forsake me, the LORD will receive me” (Psalm 27:10).
While godly family members have had a major influence on my faith in Christ, certain overzealous efforts and timeworn legalistic platitudes could have driven me away from the Gospel the same way it’s repelled others who are dear to me. Legalism, simply put, is adding man-made rules on top of God-made rules as if a true believer is supposed to honor the whole shebang. It is a recipe for pain and conflict that has driven millions away from God and even to extremes such as suicide. Trying to please man on top of God can be an impossible task.
Legalism is self-serving and narcissistic. It is a way that men can feel better than other men, a holier than thou set-up which condemns those who don’t bow to the almighty cultural norms of a particular church or sect. One of the most blatant mistakes that overzealous, legalistic people make– and that drives people away from a loving, merciful God– is blaming the victims. What I mean by this is that their default, knee-jerk reaction to any sort of violence, particularly family violence, is to immediately make the victim feel responsible for what someone did to them.
I have experienced this to varying degrees my whole life and grieve at just how much damage it has done in my circles. It fractures families. Christians who do this are painting a false image of God, making Him appear to be an unapproachable, sadistic comandante who’s waiting to strike you with a bolt of lightning. To be told, when you’ve been mistreated, abused, or violated, that “it’s your fault” can be the least godly and most damaging thing that could possibly be said. But it’s also the easiest thing for them to say, because it avoids facing the real issues and addressing evil for what it is.
Ironically, “blame the victim” types often don’t know the victim’s whole story or enough of their circumstances to make a proper assessment of the life, but assume that they know enough to judge that person. Because of their own need to feel holy, or morally superior, or to maintain control or their public image of being someone who’s “together”, they don’t think twice about pummeling the bleeding soul standing in front of them. Mercy and grace go out the window as the claws come out, belittling the person who just tried to confide in them and adding to the crushing stress they’re already carrying.
These attacks on the victim can occur in a number of ways. After some conversations with an insightful relative I made a partial list of some of the most common behaviors of the “blame the victim” crowd.
1. Poor boundaries. Many of these blamers have poor boundaries and allow dangerous people in their circles believing that God will change them. God might, but in the meantime, as believers in Christ, they should discern between good and evil and protect those who need to be protected. Allowing abusers, stalkers, and some types of criminals to remain in close proximity to their victims is idiocy. If they believe those offenders need discipleship or counseling, that can be done far away from the victim and does not need to involve them.
Blamers also need to realize that just because the abuser, etc. is a family member does not mean that the victim is required to maintain contact with them. This is a common, glaring error in the church that puts hearts, souls, and lives in danger. If one person presents a threat to another, be it emotionally, physically, or what have you, there is no “Christian” requirement for the victim to maintain contact and keep putting themselves in harm’s way. Sometimes forgiveness, reform, etc. can only be done from a distance in order to keep the victim from being violated again.
Blamers like to chide victims for having boundaries. When discussing boundaries with people I like to point out that as a Christian you should have better and stronger boundaries with evil for that is what separates you from the rest of the world. Blamers believe that they are separate and sanctified, yet often deride victims for not acting like doormats. Remember, Christ said to turn the other cheek, not let yourself be used, beaten, raped, or killed.
2. Denying the trauma. If you don’t understand someone else’s trauma, it’s easy to dismiss it. We understand PTSD, for example, in the context of war and acknowledge that many soldiers come home with it. But how many in the church realize that victims of family violence can also suffer from PTSD? A great many do. Regardless of whether the effects that violence have had on a victim’s life can be classified into a known diagnosis or not, that violence has very real effects on victims’ minds, hearts, and physical health. That trauma exists whether blamers want to acknowledge its existence or not.
3. Denying the abuse that is still happening. Blamers frequently do not understand the dynamics that drive family violence, namely power and control. They wouldn’t know what abuse is if it were happening right in front of them– and it does. In a frightening twist, blamers are often people in positions of power within the church. They are those who counsel parishioners in failing marriages and run ministries in which people are likely to need help with problems like domestic violence.
Unfortunately, when a victim comes forward and says, “I just had a horrible fight with my husband and I’m afraid it’s getting worse,” their solution is not to connect the victim with a domestic violence advocate, but to discuss the ways they can “get their husband to stop doing that.” This is the “wear a pretty dress, do your hair, make sure a delicious casserole is waiting when he gets home” approach. It is a total denial of what is happening to that woman and the danger she is in.
Blamers like to assume that you stay away from certain people because of what’s happened in the past, as if you’re not letting go of it. In their book, if you’ve truly forgiven the person, then you should let that person back into your life. They are blind to the fact that you’re not keeping your distance because of the past, but because of what that person is still doing.
A lot of abusive people will never change and many get more abusive in time. They also learn more covert ways to abuse their victims over the years, meting out their punishment in ways designed to make the victims look crazy and them like the good guys. They’re con artists.
4. Failing to call evil what it is. Blamers don’t want to call someone in their own family evil, especially if that person considers themselves a Christian. They also don’t want to label any other Christians as such. This is the part at which I remind them that there are both sheep and wolves in the church and sometimes the most successful wolves are those with the most glamorous sheepskins.
Domestic violence, divorce, and other horrors happen in Christian families as much as they do in the rest of the population. It’s a sad fact that sits right next to another tragedy, the tragedy that the church is often the last place people go for help. Those I work with on domestic violence advocacy issues know I’m a firm believer that the church should be the first place victims go for help. Until all Christians can recognize evil as evil, though, this will never happen.
Hurting another human being when it isn’t in self-defense is evil. Trying to berate them, belittle them, control them, molest them, sexually assault them, hit them, and otherwise violate their boundaries is evil. Church, why aren’t we as a whole getting this? Saying yes to Jesus means saying no to evil and when He said, “do unto others,” He wasn’t kidding. As author Joel Rosenberg says, “misunderstanding the nature and threat of evil is to risk being blindsided by it.”
5. Endangering the victim by not taking them seriously. When blamers deny what a victim is enduring and how it’s affecting them, they become a party to their undoing. Denying the danger someone is in, be it psychologically or physically, doesn’t make it go away. As I mentioned in the boundaries section, blamers often see nothing wrong with pushing victims to “reconcile themselves” to their violators which often places the victims in harm’s away again.
6. Making the victim into someone they’re not. Anyone who’s dealt with domestic violence or crime knows that victims are often questioned as if they’re the suspects. Blamers are adept at this tactic. Rather than find out what truly happened and learn the victim’s side of the story, they automatically stereotype a victim who is standing up to their attacker as overly sensitive, needy, damaged, or any other derogatory and convenient term that comes to mind.
After they’ve had their “pep talk” with the victim about their “unforgiveness” and how the victim should practice their unsafe brand of reconciliation, they condemn the victim if they don’t do things their way. This can lead to all sorts of judgmental, damaging gossip that can make others question the victim’s motives and credibility. Blamers: just because a victim doesn’t handle their situation your way doesn’t make them un-Christlike. Please separate your legalism from your faith.
7. Lack of discernment. What is the most universal behavior of sociopathic people? They prey on your sympathy (thank you, author Martha Stout). Blamers frequently get sucked into the suspect’s ploy for sympathy, especially when it is someone close to them. They simply don’t want to believe that their relative or close friend is capable of what the victims are saying they are.
Abusers in particular love to twist things around to make themselves look like the good guys and get everyone to frown on the supposed immaturity/insecurity/faults/weaknesses/shortcomings/fabrications/exaggerations, etc. of the victims. And many Christians just fall for it! Christians– those who are supposed to have the Holy Spirit living within them to show them right from wrong– sometimes fall all over themselves to accommodate criminals and abusers as if they’re the “real” victims.
Unacceptable! When someone comes to you and tells you that they’ve been violated or mistreated, you should start by believing them and making sure they’re safe, not rushing to defend your buddy or brother who “couldn’t have possibly done that.” It deeply troubles me that so many believers don’t pause to consider how much trouble the victim might be in or to ask God for His insight before they rush to defend the wolves.
8. Damning the victim’s future. Blamers are masters of limiting God’s grace. Even those who might provide genuine and desperately needed help to victims act as if God’s mercy for their situation only goes so far. A blamer might have the wisdom to help a victim out of an abusive marriage– and may God bless them for doing so. But they might simultaneously be lecturing the victim that they can never be married again and must adhere to a monastic lifestyle. They will readily bust out scripture to support their attempt to control the victim’s life, going as far as to assure the victim they will go to hell if they don’t do things their way.
In my church we believe that victims of certain circumstances can be married again and a senior pastor convinced our congregation of this through scripture. There are violations of the marriage covenant that render it broken and there are some circumstances too dangerous to go back to.
To say that the victim has to spend the rest of their life honoring a broken covenant is ludicrous. That limits a God who specializes in second chances, healing, and redemption. It limits His infinite grace. Yet is exactly this threat of hellfire and damnation for daring to allow God to make something magnificent out of our brokenness that condemns many victims to stay in potentially deadly relationships.
Ultimately, blamers who put the onus on victims are just adding to the stress that the victims are already dealing with. They are helping keep them in the shadows rather than taking their hands and walking with them into the light. By adding all their nitpicky little rules, regulations and rituals to what is supposed to be a simple relationship with a loving and forgiving God, they could very easily be turning more people away from Heaven than towards it.
It breaks my heart to see how this supposedly pious behavior misrepresents the God who wants to be a Father to His children– a truly worthy father, a very different father from the earthly one many victims have had. Why would non-believers want anything to do with a God who makes them feel like what happened to them is primarily their fault? That is, however, exactly what is being represented to them by the astounding number of “blame the victim” believers.
It is important for blamers to remember is that it’s not up to them to decide what’s best for another adult. They need to respect the choices that an adult victim/survivor has made and not make it their mission to bend another human being to their will. God Himself has given each of us free will and we are to help others conform to His image, not our own. Exercising some sick, selfish need to control others and make them feel like less of a Christian for standing up to evil requires a long, hard look in the pool of reflection.
Next time you are tempted to start lecturing a victim about the walls they put up to protect themselves and their family, or start dictating to them how they should feel or act, consider who you are an ambassador for. Is this really how you want people to see Jesus, as judge, jury, and executioner of the wounded? How does a self-righteous, pharisaical dissection of the victim’s supposed mindset, heart, and actions serve to further the kingdom? Are you risking their soul just so you can feel morally superior?
Imagine the victories that could be achieved if you would put your energies into being strong support for victims rather than picking them apart. Consider whether the way you treat victims of crime and violence is driving people towards the cross or away from it. Then adjust your approach accordingly, because the way the church is responding to the horrors in our society has influenced millions of people to turn away from the faith.
Are you a part of the solution or part of the problem?
If Jesus had tried to make everyone happy, we would all be lost. If self-centered people are angry at you, it means you are learning to say no to evil. If mean people are displeased with you, it means that you are standing up to abuse. If pharisaical Christians judge you, it means that you are becoming like your Savior. If your parents don’t like the decisions that you as an adult feel God has led you to make, it means that you are growing up. –Henry Cloud
Heidi Hiatt, MA recently graduated as a Forensic Psychologist. You can read more of her posts at her personal blog, Truth, Justice, and All-American Allergen-Free Apple Pie Straight Talk in a Crooked World