As we discuss sexual abuse, we think it is important to address the problem that churches rarely respond to victims well. Many Christians will focus solely on the importance of the abuser repenting and the victim forgiving. Abuse is treated as though it impacts identically two people: the abuser and the victim. But this isn’t the case. Recently, Joel Miller wrote an excellent piece highlighting the limitations of this paradigm by analyzing Josh Duggar’s public statement. Miller notes how Josh references himself over 20 times while only obliquely hinting at his victims twice. If abuse only impacts two people, talking about one’s self can seem a lot like taking personal responsibility. But abuse does not impact only the abuser and the abused.
When we recognize the communal reality of sin, we need a way for people to blow the whistle and say, “I’ve been sinned against!” A person who comes forward ought to be taken seriously and soberly. There is a problem in the community, and the Christians who gather together need to take action in order to seek God’s justice lived out through communal repentance. But that rarely, if ever, happens. Instead, anyone who tries to sound an alarm that he or she has been sinned against is treated with grave suspicion and often gets a number of admonishments. Accusations of sexual abuse go against the grain because they call into question the abuser’s character. Abuse is about lording power over another; abusers frequently pick out people in the community who are least likely to be believed if they can ever summon the courage to come forward.
As Christians, we cannot speak of sin’s potential to rupture our relationships with other people if we do not have space for victims to say “I have been sinned against.” Part of the reason why sexual abuse is so insidious is that abusers depend on forcing their victims into silence and removing their victims’ ability to object to what is happening. Even if a victim attempts to pursue a “Matthew 18” approach in an effort to stop the abuse, the victim will at some point need to go to the Church in order to say, “I have been sinned against.”
Churches encourage people to deal with their own personal sin by avoiding judging others. There are times and places when it is appropriate to tell people to remove the log from their own eye, yes. However, instances of sexual abuse should not be occasions for admonishing the abused to focus on his or her own sins. Well-meaning Christians have assumed far too often that a victim comes forward because he or she needs help forgiving the abuser. Really, victims come forward to help expose a larger problem affecting the entire community, and forgiveness is a lengthy process that cannot be taken lightly. A church that demands victims simply forgive their abusers is a church that absolves itself from its responsibility to all of its congregants.
Christians can be notorious in asking victims to identify whether their sin had any part in the abuse. Especially if the victim has a developed or developing female shape, an absurd number of Christians will respond by peppering her with questions like What were you wearing? Did you have anything to drink? Did you say or do anything that could have indicated that you were open to sex? Were you immodest in anyway? How was your hair styled? and other such nonsense. Asking people who have been seriously violated to sear their own consciences for any hint of wrongdoing is spiritual abuse. Christians who ask these questions are not interested in providing comfort; these questions are about placing blame.
Unfortunately, many pastors and biblical counselors are experts at adopting a patronizing tone when talking with survivors. They focus on how the survivor needs to forgive and repent for his or her own part lest the survivor cultivate “resentment.” We can’t think of a more effective strategy for ensuring that sexual abuse victims do in fact come to a place of resentment…of the church and the shoddy theology used to justify this pastoral approach.
Recognizing that sin is communal opens the door to a different pastoral approach. Communities that see the communal nature of sin will ask themselves questions like, “How have we contributed to this situation? What changes can we make so that this never happens again? How can we help other churches be more proactive in this area? What can be done to ensure that the allegations are investigated by appropriate legal authorities? How can we extend pastoral care to known victims? Are there other people who have been victimized? What can we do to hold the abuser accountable?”
There’s a tension for Christian communities. An abuser that goes to confession has taken a sacramental step towards his or her own healing. In traditions that do not practice sacramental confession, an abuser might share with an accountability partner which can also be a step toward healing. We are strong advocates that the seal of Confession must never be broken. Any person walking a path of repentance must be encouraged to continue his or her journey. We are constantly falling down and getting back up in order to grow towards Christ. A victim who seeks the church because he or she has been sinned against is calling attention to how the communal nature of sin directly impacts the community. Communities must be walking their paths of repentance together, changing policies and procedures that permit people to be victimized. Our churches must strive to be the most compassionate, the most loving, the most truthful, and the most hopeful communities in existence. But that can only happen when communities are constantly searching out their hearts so that God can shine light in every dark corner, including the culture of silence that permits abuse to continue.
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