This article is designed to complement a sermon preached at Barneys Broadway on conflict resolution at Christmas.
How could the gospel be good news to victims of domestic and family violence?
A personal story:
I read recently that the police are called to respond to more incidents of domestic violence on Christmas day than on any other. As a former victim of DV, this resonates. Christmas is often a time of greater relational intensity, of conflict, and heightened familial expectations. Other victims will know the bizarre charade of insincere warmth and ease that this season often necessitates. You will laugh with everyone, aware at every moment that things might take a dark turn. You will monitor your own behaviour, lest you step on any trip wires. You will be looking for warning signs in the abuser, and doing whatever you can to avoid danger. It can be an awful time.
I escaped my abuser when I left the family home, and about a year later I became a Christian. It has been quite a journey to understand just what the gospel means to how I process the past, and how I deal with my abuser now. What first happened for me was a recognition that what had happened growing up was actually wrong. That had never been clear to me, mostly because I interpreted the silence and inaction of other family members as tacit affirmation of the abuse. It took a wise and caring mentor – in an instance I remember with uncharacteristic clarity today, twelve years later – to call it for what it was. As I grieved properly for the first time, and anger and bitterness arose in me, my next impulse was to recognise the need to forgive my abuser and my family for their complicity. This was the hardest thing I had ever done, and one of the things that enabled me to appropriate the gospel more fully. Forgiving my abuser felt like a death, but one of the blessings of that experience was a greater, more experiential, understanding of the cost with which Jesus purchased my own forgiveness. I’m grateful for that understanding, and I’m grateful that my experiences give me a visceral means by which to understand my own sin before God; although my sin is not like my abuser’s, I can see the capacity for great darkness within all of us, and I can see how deeply that hurts and dishonours the one to whom it is directed. I have sinned against God just as my abuser has sinned against me (and Him). It is amazing that God offers me forgiveness as readily and abundantly as He does.
The more I have appropriated the gospel, the more healing I have experienced. In the gospel, I see the worth I have in God’s eyes, I see that that cannot be taken away or undermined, I see that God has plans to bring justice as well as mercy and full healing to the world – including me.
However, I have come to realise as I have grown as a Christian that the abuse has left marks on me which impact on the way I understand the gospel. More pertinently, I have come to see that those marks actually distort the gospel, turning it from good news to bad news. It is those that I want to focus on today as I suspect that they might affect other Christians dealing with their own experiences of abuse. I want to attempt to unpack the dynamics of the gospel to see how they might be misappropriated or misunderstood in situations of abuse, and try to disentangle them from this error.
So many of the elements of the gospel, extracted from the whole picture, can be tools in the hands of an abuser, and can even be tools in the hands of a victim who unwittingly perpetuates unhelpful behaviours in the name of godliness. Take Jesus’ sacrifice, for example. Sacrifice can become a virtue in itself, absent the particular purpose and frame which the gospel gives it. But why Jesus gave himself up, to whom, and for what purpose, matters. Sacrifice is not a good in itself. You can sacrifice to an idol, and that would not be a good thing.
What I have come to realise is that I need a more robust understanding of the cross; not merely of those parts which affirm previous habits or values, but also the ones that challenge them. I suspect that this is true for all of us. I suspect that there are particular ways that victims of abuse need to be encouraged to take hold of the gospel – a gospel which speaks truth and hope to experiences of abuse.
This is not intended to be a comprehensive approach, and I’m not even fully confident that I have the best grip on these truths yet, but I offer this as a start.
The gospel’s resources:
Let God’s standard shape what you expect:
All families have a normalising impulse – it’s what makes life workable. We find ways of accommodating the particular habits, preferences and inclinations of the members, and unfortunately for abuse victims, that also tends to include accommodating the abuse. This has the effect of affirming the abuse; we think ‘I must have deserved it because no-one seems to be speaking up’. It can also work to minimise the significance of the abuse; surely, we think, if it was that bad, someone would have stepped in by now.
This is where it is vital to let God’s word speak to us. His word brings clarity about what is good and evil. Jesus’ own life demonstrates to us that no claim to holiness or power or righteousness is compatible with violence. Jesus is completely holy, and yet deals with others with love and grace. Jesus is supremely powerful, and yet never oppresses anyone in his use of power. He never uses his power for his own sake, but only to do His Father’s will. I have begun to find Jesus’ teaching on love helpful not only in how I think of my treatment of others, but also how others treat me. In particular, I have found that my experience of abuse leads me to dismiss abusive and unkind behaviour easily. However, when I consider what Jesus would have me to do a brother or sister, I am forced to recognise that what I would not accept for someone else, I should not accept for myself.
See how Jesus deals with conflict:
It is helpful to see just how Jesus dealt with oppressors. It has taken me a long time to see that Jesus is no pushover. He speaks back to the high priest and to Pilate (see for example John 18). In particular, he speaks confidently of the truth.
In his life, Jesus never fails to offer a challenge to wrongdoing. He offers truth to those who do not see it.
His death is the same: the cross is not Jesus’ meek submission to evil, but his confrontation with it. It is an act which intends to put a definitive stop to wrongdoing, not to allow it to continue unabated. Likewise, I am beginning to see that Christians are not called to keep submitting ourselves for abuse without having confronted it with the truth, without calling it evil, without challenging it with the knowledge that God stands against it.
See how Jesus affirms his worth and ours:
The cross speaks of our unworthiness and guilt before God. I suspect that victims of abuse would tend to affirm this truth easily because this is a familiar narrative for us. However a more robust understanding of the dynamics of the cross would be to recognise that it is because of Jesus’ supreme worthiness that the cross is so significant. It is not that Jesus did not have worth, or that he was not mindful of his own rights and wellbeing, but that he recognised the value of giving them up.
It is easy for abusers and victims of abuse to take Jesus’ self-giving sacrifice and turn it into a model for their submission to their abuser.
But let us be clear about what happened on the cross. Jesus says in anticipation of that event that he would lay down his life. No-one would take it from him. (John 10:17-18). Jesus understood the value of his life and he offered it to the Father whose will he knew to be good, and whose intentions he knew to be absolutely trustworthy. That is a very different situation from one of abuse.
See how the cross makes us responsible:
Moreover, the cross should lead all to see their sin more clearly, including our responsibility for it. Before the God of the cross, abusers should find no room to downplay their patterns of sin, use other names for their behaviour, or attribute their abuse to their victims. The cross is a truth-revealing event – publishing the news of just how wrong our wrongs are. It is a justice-doing event – indicating that our wrongs should not be merely papered over but dealt with in their fullness. And it is a responsibility-acknowledging event – each one of us finds ourselves before the judge, who sees exactly what we have done, our exact measure of responsibility.
I suspect that each of us sits somewhere on a spectrum when it comes to blame-taking and blame-giving. Many of us are used to allocating responsibility to others when grappling with a conflict; it’s easier to see what the other person has done wrong, than to see our own contribution clearly.
Others have the other default; they see their own wrongdoing, and feel it is their responsibility – perhaps even their Christian responsibility – to downplay, excuse or minimise the behaviour of others. Abusers are well-versed in maximising this impulse to perpetuate their abuse.
Add to this an understanding that all people are sinful, and the inherent complexity of most human interactions and conflicts, and we see how a perfect storm is created. The abused can be led to mine their experiences of abuse for their own contribution and wrongdoing, to apologise for all that they have done or not done, and to make amends in whatever way they can. Each of these things can feel particularly Christ-like; after all, did not Christ go out of his way to make things right between us and God? Didn’t Christ lay down his rights for others? Didn’t Christ think of others before himself?
Yes, to all of these things! But we must recognise how these things, absent a more comprehensive understanding of the dynamics of the cross, can become convenient tools in the hands of the abuser, and can be used to perpetuate cycles of abuse.
To determine and acknowledge our own responsibility within a conflict is a healthy, and godly thing to do, but in an abusive relationship it can take on an unhealthy form, one which buys into one of the primary narratives by which abuse is propelled – that there is something inherently wrong with the victim that, if changed, would somehow change the abuser’s behaviour.
Take comfort in knowing that God knows the full measure of our own sin; it means that he alone is able to see what our own responsibility within each confusing, messy and painful situation is. We can ask Him to reveal to us what we need to know and understand in order to deal with the situations we are facing.
Understand the dynamics of grace:
Grace never denies sin or downplays it, but sees it for what it truly is: a wrong done to another and to God. It calls sin sin, but then meets it with grace and justice. Grace is not grace which does not first recognise a wrong to be addressed.
Look for the transformative dynamic of the cross:
Through Jesus’ resurrection and the giving of the Holy Spirit we are given new life with God, with each other and the world. This is a fundamentally transformative event – changing our identity and capacity to live for God, and our hope. This truth can be misused; if God is the God of ‘second chances’ and ‘new life’ surely that should be offered to offenders as well. This is undeniably the case, provided there is truly a ‘newness’ to the new life the offender professes to live. We are not raised again to live the old patterns of sin, but to live for Christ. No offender has the right to claim to live for Christ whilst repeatedly, deliberately and unrepentantly denying him by their actions.
Draw on the comfort of God:
One of the things that I have found most comforting in grappling with the abuse I experienced is knowing God for who He is. That there is no darkness, no hint of, or inclination towards sin within him, is profoundly comforting. No other relationship offers me the kind of security that this basic truth does. Even great people will let you down. But that’s not even within God to do. What an amazing thing to be able to rely on! I want to relate to God in the fullness of who He is: a warrior, Father, brother, friend, protector, judge, advocate, saviour. I find meditating on each of these qualities (and more) helpful in grappling with my experiences because they enable me to see God, myself, and my experiences more clearly. If I consider that God would not be willing to advocate on my behalf, the Scriptures challenge me, because that is how He reveals Himself. More and more I’m learning to rely on who He is, to trust that He will act according to His character, and to praise Him for the hope He offers me.
If your situation involves family violence
Police: If domestic or family violence is occurring now or there is an immediate fear it is about to happen, it should be treated as an emergency by calling 000.
Domestic Violence Line – 1800 65 64 63
NSW – A 24hr – 7 days a week telephone support. Assistance and referral line for all victims of family violence in emergency
Anglicare Sydney (provides counselling in family violence situations)
Phone: (02) 9798 1400