“Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another? It is before his own master that he stands or falls. And he will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make him stand.”
This is a subject a little off the beaten path of my normal message of advocacy for victims of violence, but bear with me, because it is connected. The fruit of one conversation being held within the church is alienation and misunderstanding, plus a confusing anti-gospel burden placed on the consciences of a lot of people I know. In light of that good extenuating circumstance, I have a few things to say.
For a while now I’ve watched a small but persistent storm of messaging going by in some Christian circles, especially traditionally complementarian ones, that says women who pursue edgy style choices (such as tattoos or piercings, or dyeing their hair the colors of the rainbow) are actually rebelling against God-ordained gender roles, or expressing their inner wounding, or both. Of course conservative Christians have always been a little extra absorbed with appearances, and they build all sorts of cases referencing the roles of men and women, the essence of the gospel, and our role within culture to support their perspectives. While I agree that how we dress communicates something, I question the value of making this rather open-ended principle a focus — or worse, offering up a misinterpretation of what is being said. I have two main concerns. The first is that when we start identifying an “Us” versus a “Them” that is based on appearance we are actually self-protectively outlining the edges of our tribe. This binds wrongful burdens onto the consciences of some, and pushes others away.
Exhortations like this one, from one complementarian Christian pastor, amount to an assessment of the hearts of fellow believers based on their hair color.
In the ordinary course of things, God designed for much of [a woman’s] glory to be communicated through godly husbands, fathers, brothers, and other honorable men in appropriate ways. But unfortunately we live in a world of men that have abdicated this responsibility. Some have simply failed to be anything more than a bump on a log. Some have tried and given up. And still others have taken their own insecurities and frustrations out on the very women God entrusted to them to cherish and protect. This has left us with a world full of women starving for love, embittered with pain, and grasping for something, anything to fill that aching void. I certainly grant you that the sin involved in dressing a boy up as a girl is far worse, but you need to see the fact that it’s in the same category as a woman wearing her hair short like a boy, dying her hair clownish colors, or otherwise trying to attract unnatural attention. But no hair color will soothe your pain. No haircut will fill that void. No piercing, no amount of cutting, no number of likes on your Facebook sob story diary entries will give your confusion meaning.
Statements like this must be so difficult and humiliating for the women who have already gone and dyed their hair, which is really sad. They tend toward creating us/them divisions, not just between the church and the world, but within the church itself. As author and blogger Rebecca Davis astutely noted in a recent post about conscience and abusers,
Paul’s point about “knowledge” and “liberty” was that no Christian would be made any more or less holy by any religious activity (like offering to pagan idols) regarding any actions that were morally neutral in and of themselves because their holiness was accomplished in Christ alone.
A weak conscience, then, is one that doesn’t have the full strength of understanding of what Christ has accomplished…and as a result thinks that certain activities—like eating ceremonially cursed meat—would affect that standing.
Ms. Davis goes on to say that the Judaizers, whom the Apostle Paul battled fiercely, had “wanted to control the consciences of the new Christians in order to keep Christianity from being the free, transformative gift of grace that it is,” and she points out that pressuring believers to abstain from things that are actually morally neutral, such as hairstyle and clothing choices, can be just as confusing and debilitating as encouraging a weaker brother to participate in activities his conscience tells him are wrong.
Teachings that alienate some believers and bind burdens on the backs of others should obviously be resisted; but I have a second, slightly more nuanced, objection to the direction this conversation has taken. I work in advocacy for domestic violence victims, which means I get front row seats to the fallout from conservative complementarian* Christianity. Let me tell you, this world is not a pretty one — or perhaps I should say, this world can look good on the top, but it has a dark underbelly. Communities in which men are strongly dominant and in charge can be benevolent places to live, no argument there, but when they are not, they are perhaps exceptionally dangerous. Inside of a kind patriarchal culture, women and kids can be well provided for; inside a corrupt one, anyone not vested with authority in leadership may be very thoroughly cut off from avenues of escape. In my life, I’ve seen examples of both kinds of patriarchy. I know of good Christian men who believe that men should be in charge and are still good men, but I also know of many, many Christian men who have been corrupted by the undue power that is granted to them by their own theology and supported by the popular opinion of their peers.
So let me just throw this out there. I know women of all ages who wear tattoos, who cut their hair, who dye their hair, who pierce their noses, their lips, and their bellybuttons. They do it for a whole host of different reasons, some meaningful, some not so much. I think it’s safe to say that most of these women are not trying to send a message, but are simply having some legitimate fun with color and creativity and individuality, just because they can (and as believing Christians, they certainly can): “Since you died with Christ to the elemental spiritual forces of this world, why, as though you still belonged to the world, do you submit to its rules: “Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!”? These rules, which have to do with things that are all destined to perish with use, are based on merely human commands and teachings. Such regulations indeed have an appearance of wisdom, with their self-imposed worship, their false humility and their harsh treatment of the body, but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence.”
But, as Pastor Sumpter suggests, there may in fact be some women out there who are in a state of social reaction, and are trying to send a message with their hair. What about them? What exactly might they be trying to say? Are they really expressing a deep woundedness because of the abdication of their husbands and fathers? Well…maybe. I would like to suggest that Sumpter is half right, but he makes both much too much, and much too little, out of what he sees, and in the process misses an entire demographic of women whose message really ought to be of interest to him, and to all of us who come from within conservative evangelical Christianity.
Some women have excellent personal reasons for not wanting to look like conservative women inside of a male-dominated culture. These are women who are refusing to wear the uniform of the enemy, and for them, that enemy may be the family or the church they just barely escaped from with their sanity intact. It may be the power structures that subjugated them, that kept them and their mothers and sisters and brothers and friends trapped and cut off from rescue. It could be the church that placed such a heavy emphasis on authority and submission, but failed to stress they had any worth that was their very own as a gift from God, and not derived from their position relative to others. It is perhaps the family that said their job was to be special and beautiful, but only in mapped out, predetermined ways. The enemy, as far as these women are concerned, is the whole system that sustains prerogative while suppressing individuals, that puts the structure first and the people inside of it second, that amplifies the voices of those with power, mutes the voices of those under authority, and offers those awful, empty promises that just a little more silence, submission, and long-suffering will make it all work out right in the end. The difference between me and Pastor Sumpter is that, instead of telling these sisters to toe the line, I think we ought to listen to them. This system is our system, and these wrongs were done by us.
If I could send a single message to all of complementarian Christianity in one fell swoop (hey, I can dream), it would be this: Stop trying to control outcomes. Stop trying to manage the behavior of your women and children, and instead, take a moment to go back and see these people as people. Let’s take some time to put right the harm our systems of power have caused. Let’s set straight the imbalances and the inequities, and for heaven’s sake, let’s all stop pretending they never really happened, or were just some fluke of a moment. We have to stop policing our boundaries and reinforcing all our favorite tribal taboos, and work toward real communication, understanding, and empathy instead.
To the women I want to say this. Dye your hair, my sisters. It looks creative and beautiful, just like you. Also, if (as I suspect) some of you do wear it as a flag that says you are opting out of a corrupt system of power that hurt you or those you love …. well, that’s something I can totally understand and sympathize with. To my daughters and the daughters of my friends, I want to say: Do nothing out of selfish ambition or conceit, or hatred, or contempt, or disdain, but always out of love, which may legitimately and honorably be defiant against oppression and systems of false piety. Blue hair and nose piercings may not be my thing, but insofar as you are drawn that way as a symbol of your true freedom before God, I love it, and I love you, and that’s something I can get behind.
And to the people who muse on the motives in the hearts of others, I have just this. Every time you frame the discussion this way — the khaki slacks vs. the blue hair, the conventional vs. the provocative, the us vs. them — you pass by an opportunity to see and talk with the people involved. Women have a lot of different reasons for flying the flags they fly. With all that brightly colored hair, they shouldn’t be too hard to locate. Why not go find one, and ask her about it?
Only that now you have taught me (but how late) my lack.
I see the chasm. And everything you are was making
My heart into a bridge by which I might get back
From exile, and grow man. And now the bridge is breaking.
For this I bless you as the ruin falls. The pains
You give me are more precious than all other gains.
*I use the terms complementarian and patriarchal interchangeably. Both are meant to describe conservative Christian communities that place a heavy emphasis on the differences between gender roles, with the result that in family, church, and business, men are expected to hold the positions of leadership, authority, responsibility, and power, while women are expected to orient themselves toward their men and fill supporting roles.
In an earlier blog post I talked about why we should begin with belief when hearing allegations of child sexual or domestic abuse. Today I’d like to talk a little more about that.
- Assuming the victim must have misunderstood or misremembered details, or must be blowing things out of proportion is failing to take the claim seriously.
- Not asking enough questions is failing to take the claim seriously.
- Being uneducated about what patterns of abusive behavior look like is failing to take the claim seriously.
- In any case where there is a suspicion of verbal, psychological, emotional, physical, or sexual abuse, trying to get “the other side of the story” from the alleged abuser is failing to take the claims of abuse seriously, and will likely result in increasing the danger to the victim.
- In any case where there is suspicion that a crime has been committed, attempting to investigate is failing to take the claim seriously. Investigation of crimes is the domain of the civil authorities. When an allegation of criminal behavior comes up, it is no longer our call what we should do about it. It has to be reported to the appropriate authorities for investigation.
- Talking about abuse as though it is only physical is failing to take the claim seriously.
This last point is a doozy. Church leaders often talk a good game about providing refuge for victims of abuse, but then demonstrate the only thing that meets their criteria for abuse is physical battering. In a recent blog post, this pastor/counselor, and director of multiple counseling programs, said this:
Just as the act of adultery is a greater threat to a marriage than a lustful look (Matt. 5:27-28), there is a difference between physical assault and a harsh word. Because Jesus declared, “What therefore God has joined together, let no man separate” (Matt. 19:6b), every effort should be made to preserve marriages and to help both men and women who have fallen short of perfectly keeping the marriage covenant to change. Church leaders shouldn’t swing from the extreme of sending women back to abusive situations to the other extreme of encouraging the breakup of marriages which might be restored. A man who refuses to repent of controlling and angry behavior may be put through a process of church discipline which will often give the time and space needed for the abuser’s heart to be more clearly revealed.
He goes on to say,
While I agree that in many cases it is true that changed behavior will have no effect on a wicked, hardened man, the Bible explicitly gives hope that the Lord can use the godly behavior of a victim to soften the heart of a sinful spouse. First Peter 3:1-2 says a disobedient or unsaved husband might be won by his wife’s treating him better than he deserves. Proverbs 15:1 tells us that a gentle answer may turn away wrath. I know that these verses have been misused to wrongly send women back into dangerous situations, but it is also true that God can use the Christ-like behavior of a wife to reach an angry husband. Again, a distinction needs to be made based upon the degree of sinful anger (and the resultant danger), rather than quickly saying that a situation is hopeless and that the woman ought to give up and move on. If there is any doubt as to whether a woman is in danger, I would encourage church leaders to err on the side of safety by helping her get away (hopefully temporarily) and then work with the husband to gauge true repentance before trying to restore the marriage and bring the couple back together again.
- Educate yourself about the patterns of abusive (that is, coercive, controlling) behavior so you can recognize the red flags when you see them.
- Become a good listener. People often seek help hesitantly at first. Be a safe place.
- Ask good questions.
Take the time to become familiar with your own state’s laws on Intimate Partner Violence and Child Sexual Abuse. The important thing to know is that criminal violence does not have to include physical battering, and sexual assault does not have to mean what we think of when we say rape. Depending on the state, physical restraint and intimidation may also be crimes, and so may behavior intended to sexually gratify an adult at the expense of a child.
What beginning with belief does NOT mean:
- Beginning with belief does necessarily mean conclusive, implicit, unquestioning trust that everything the victim has said is 100% true.
- Beginning with belief does not mean casually sharing the allegations in social settings, although credible claims may in fact lead to social action.
What does it look like to fail to treat claims of abuse seriously?
In his talk for Awaken 2017, my husband made the comment that he wants to accomplish for abuse what we’ve seen happen within very recent memory for seatbelts and cigarettes. Once upon a time, cigarette smoking was not just socially acceptable, it said you were savvy, upscale, classy, elegant. There was also a time when nobody wore seatbelts in the car, EVER. And then suddenly — it almost looks like overnight in retrospect — everybody knows smoking kills you, and we buckle up first when we climb in. Today, the wave of disapproval I encounter when I don’t have my 70 pound child strapped into a five-point harness is almost palpable. That’s some serious progress.
I was pondering this phenomenon this morning. In reference to abuse, what exactly would this global change of social expectations look like? Here are my ideas. I would love to see all of these things happen within the next twenty years. I am writing with a church audience in mind, because these are my people, and this is where I think the changes should start.
With regard to Child Sexual Abuse:
- Children would be taught from birth as a matter of course about bodily autonomy and consent.
- Every educator and children’s ministry worker would expect to be under scrutiny, and would invite and welcome that scrutiny. Not because we think they’re bad people, not because we want suspicion to be the norm, but because our norm especially where our children are concerned should be to trust but verify.
- Every Christian teenager would go through TWO studies on boundaries in healthy relationship — one sponsored by school, and another sponsored by church.
- Every crime or suspected crime against a child would be reported as a matter of course. People would understand that safety measures to protect the accused are built into our legal system, and that individuals outside the system are not responsible for exercising “healthy skepticism” or “assuming the best” when a crime is being alleged.
- All children would know that healthy play happens with doors open, lights on, and people around. Private places, secret places, and dark places are unsafe places.
- Social sleepovers and time with friends in general would receive much more parental attention. Houses of relatives and friends CAN be safe, but we should not assume so.
- Churches and schools would universally implement child safety policies and education along these lines, and would prioritize the education of their youth ministry workers about bodily autonomy, consent, and the power and responsibility that are incumbent on them as spiritual leaders.
With regard to Domestic Violence:
- Society would be broadly educated about the signs of an abusive relationship.
- Healthy relationship patterns and boundaries would be a common topic. Churches and schools would teach teens and young adults.
- Churches would stop talking so much about forgiveness, avoiding gossip, and believing the best, and instead would teach on speaking (and receiving) the truth even when it hurts, protecting the disadvantaged, oppressed, and voiceless among us, and about upholding our system of justice.
- Churches would begin as a matter of course to include the financial support of single moms as a line item on their budgets.
These are my ideas and my hope for the future. I would love to hear from you. What can you add?
I had the great privilege of working on the planning committee for this conference this past weekend, and wow, what an experience. The speakers were so, so good, and the way the church (leadership and staff of Real Life on the Palouse, courageous tellers of their own stories, and friends) pulled together to make this event possible surpassed even my most optimistic hopes. So many thanks go to so many people, I wouldn’t even know where to start, but let’s just say God was in it, so our thanks definitely go to Him. The conference in its entirety is now available at the link below. Please share freely — this is more than four hours of exceptionally good info for counselors, survivors, and churches. Let’s keep this conversation going, shall we?
To study psychological trauma is to come face to face both with human vulnerability in the natural world and with the capacity for evil in human nature. To study psychological trauma means bearing witness to horrible events. When the events are natural disasters or “acts of God,” those who bear witness sympathize readily with the victim. But when the traumatic events are of human design, those who bear witness are caught in the conflict between victim and perpetrator. It is morally impossible to remain neutral in this conflict. The bystander is forced to take sides. It is very tempting to take the side of the perpetrator. All the perpetrator asks is that the bystander do nothing. He appeals to the universal desire to see, hear, and speak no evil. The victim, on the contrary, asks the bystander to share the burden of pain. The victim demands action, engagement, and remembering.
from Trauma and Recovery, by Judith Herman
(photo credit goes to Peter Roise Photography)
Douglas Wilson of Christ Church Moscow has recently blogged against the best practices concept that when we hear allegations of mistreatment or crimes against women and children, we should begin with belief. According to him, beginning with belief is exactly what we must not do.
Let’s break this down a little.
Why begin with belief?
- Because of the power imbalance inherent in an abusive relationship. When one of my kids comes crying into the kitchen and claims her brother hit her on the head, I do not begin with belief, but with investigation. I reserve judgment, call the other child, and ask for his side of the story; but this is exactly what we must not do when dealing with allegations of abuse. Why the difference? Because an abusive relationship always involves a significant power imbalance, and any attempt to interact within or bring healing to the situation must begin by taking that imbalance into account. Abuse has a range of meaning, but in the vocabulary of advocacy, it speaks of the systematic misuse, entrapment, or domination of another person. Abuse of this kind silences the voice of the person who is being abused, it cuts her off from saving relationships, and it removes her power, or her ability to act. You see this dynamic when a husband is pervasively dominating his wife, when a parent systematically oppresses a son or daughter, and any time an adult relative or friend, a counselor, a coach, a caregiver, or a significantly older sibling preys sexually upon a child. Wherever one person holds a position of privilege, strength, authority, seniority, or greater knowledge, and uses it to take advantage of someone smaller, weaker, and less able in the world, you have abuse. Where you are dealing with allegations of abuse, your first priority must not be to flush out the whole truth of the situation to your own satisfaction, but to preserve the safety and return the voice of the victim.
- Because disclosure is costly for the victim. Women who speak up about their husband’s mistreatment, and children who disclose sexual abuse at the hand of a parent, sibling, relative, or friend, are putting a lot on the line. They risk losing relationships, the affection and approval of friends and family, and the lives they are familiar with. The choice to disclose abuse is not an easy one: it typically comes from a place of desperation, and we need to begin by honoring that likelihood. Diane Langberg, a Christian trauma counselor with many years of experience, has said this: “Keep in mind that it is extremely rare for an alleged victim to lie about child sexual abuse. It is a fair assessment of the body of research on lying to say that most people lie on a regular basis. However, numerous studies have documented that it is rare for children or adults to lie about abuse. When victims to lie, they tend to lie to protect their offender, not to get him or her into trouble.”
What is belief?
Belief is serious and careful listening. It is willingness to hear, ask probing questions, and act on the basis of what we learn. When we begin with belief, we assume for the moment that what a child is saying about having been sexually assaulted, or what a woman is telling us about the way her husband mistreats her, is statistically very likely to be true. When we begin with belief, that will lead us to do certain things:
- We will act immediately to offer safety to the woman or child in question. If there is severe or systematic abuse in the home, our first priority must be to provide options that support the safety of the victim. We need to deliver a message that we are there unconditionally to support and help as needed–whether by talking about safety plans, providing financial assistance, or even merely offering a safe, supportive space in which to discuss the situation.
- We will encourage reporting to the proper legal authorities. Sexual abuse of a child is a felony in all fifty states, and any caregiver who suspects it is required to report it. Domestic abuse should often be reported as a crime, as well.
- We will NOT try to get “the other side of the story.” Often appropriate in counseling, in an abuse scenario, because of the exposure it entails to the victim, this would be a serious breach of trust. When we have been trusted with sensitive information in an abuse scenario, our first priority has to be the safety of the weaker party. Furthermore, if a crime is being alleged, it needs to be investigated by the appropriate people. Running to check with an alleged child predator or wife-beater about the truth of the allegations can create any amount of harm for the victim, and may constitute obstruction of justice. Investigation is not the role of the church, the counselor, or the advocate.
What about “Innocent until Proven Guilty”?
Isn’t what I have said at odds with some of our most dearly held principles as a church and as a nation — that an accused person is innocent until proven guilty? Tim Fall has written an wonderful blog post about this topic here; but the short answer is no. The legal system exists for precisely this reason. It is in court that an accused person has opportunity to clear his name of false allegations.
While some do take the position that the role of the church is to sit with authority as a judge between parties in a dispute, I am coming more and more to believe that the role of the church is very different. The role of the church is not to sit as the impartial judge between parties; it is not to provide spiritual comfort and acceptance alike to sufferers and to those who afflict them; and it is not to fill the role of the father confessor, until it has successfully exposed the sins of all parties involved. The role of the church is to follow Jesus in defending the weak and underprivileged, in standing against the wicked, and in lifting the burdens from the backs of the oppressed. We need to do better.
Open your mouth for the mute, for the rights of all who are destitute. Open your mouth, judge righteously, defend the rights of the poor and needy. (Proverbs 31)
Give justice to the weak and the fatherless; maintain the right of the afflicted and the destitute. Rescue the weak and the needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked. (Psalm 82)
O LORD, you hear the desire of the afflicted; you will strengthen their heart; you will incline your ear, to do justice to the fatherless and the oppressed, so that man who is of the earth may strike terror no more. (Psalm 10)
Hello everyone. Today I am excited to introduce a new ministry organization to you — one that I believe has the potential to significantly improve how the Christian church supports victims of domestic violence. My husband, Peter, and I learned about the Psalm 82 Initiative recently through Naghmeh Abedini, who has over the past year become a very vocal and high-profile advocate for women caught in abusive marriages, and who has consulted about her own case with founder Thomas Pryde. read more…
“Destructive behaviors and attitudes can sometimes be difficult to describe succinctly. That’s why an emotionally destructive marriage is not usually diagnosed by looking at a single episode of sinful behavior (which we’re all capable of), but rather repetitive attitudes and behaviors that result in tearing someone down or inhibiting her growth. This behavior is usually accompanied by a lack of awareness, a lack of responsibility, and a lack of change.”
The Emotionally Destructive Marriage, by Leslie Vernick
“It doesn’t matter how heartfelt an apology your partner makes to you if later he takes it back. And he doesn’t have to come out and say, “I don’t feel sorry anymore about what I did” or “I didn’t really mean it when I apologized.” He can retract an apology in any of the following ways:
- Saying later that you shouldn’t be so upset about what he did and that you should be over it by now (and it’s even worse if he says this in an angry, impatient, or judgmental tone)
- Saying later that he felt pressured into making an apology “because you wouldn’t leave me alone about it” or similar words
- Repeating the behavior that he apologized for, and then acting like that shouldn’t bother you
- Blaming you now for what he did in the incident that he had apologized for (for example, if he goes back to saying that you drove him into cheating on you, or if he says that you are the cause of his legal problems because you “had him arrested” for abusing you)
- Saying “I’m constantly having to apologize to you!” as if somehow it’s your fault that he keeps treating you so badly
There are good reasons why his apologies don’t affect you much anymore, and why you trust him less and less over time. He keeps knocking all the meaning out of his apologies, and then pitying himself when he sees that saying “sorry” has stopped working.”
Daily Wisdom For Women Involved with Angry and Controlling Men, by Lundy Bancroft
To study psychological trauma is to come face to face both with human vulnerability in the natural world and with the capacity for evil in human nature. To study psychological trauma means bearing witness to horrible events. When the events are natural disasters or “acts of God,” those who bear witness sympathize readily with the victim.
But when the traumatic events are of human design, those who bear witness are caught in the conflict between victim and perpetrator. It is morally impossible to remain neutral in this conflict. The bystander is forced to take sides. It is very tempting to take the side of the perpetrator. All the perpetrator asks is that the bystander do nothing. He appeals to the universal desire to see, hear, and speak no evil. The victim, on the contrary, asks the bystander to share the burden of pain. The victim demands action, engagement, and remembering.
Trauma and Recovery, by Judith Herman
“Sometimes reality gets turned on its head, so that wrong becomes right and decency becomes cruelty. I have, sadly, known women who experienced this kind of inversion within their church, temple, or mosque. The twisting of reality begins when the woman takes the leap to tell people that her partner rips her to shreds verbally, or that he pushes her around physically, or that he degrades her sexually.
To her shock, some people react as if the source of the ugliness were in her instead of the abusive man. She starts to get whispered about, people stop smiling and stop reaching out to her, and she feels the atmosphere around her turn to disapproval and rejection. And instead of supporting her, the community rallies around the abuser, viewing him as the victim of a vicious, falsely accusing woman.
I hope this never happens to you. But if it does, it becomes deeply important for you to battle against isolation; when a whole community turns on you, you can feel as if you’re suddenly living on the moon. Reach out for help. Try not to internalize the message that you are bad; you’ve done nothing wrong. Your spiritual community should be there for you, and they are the ones who are behaving badly. Fortunately there are spiritual communities that come through for abused women. I hope you are able to find one soon. In the meantime, draw on resources and keep yourself connected.”
Daily Wisdom For Women Involved with Angry and Controlling Men, by Lundy Bancroft