There is No Neutrality, No “Innocent” Bystander When We See Abuse
John 7:12-13 And there was much muttering about him among the people. While some said, “He is a good man,” others said, “No, he is leading the people astray.” Yet for fear of the Jews no one spoke openly of him.
Let us hear what Judith Lewis Herman says about this kind of silence which is, in practice, a kind of neutrality:
The conflict between the will to deny horrible events and the will to proclaim them aloud is the central dialectic of psychological trauma. . . . When the truth is finally recognized, survivors can begin their recovery. But far too often secrecy prevails. . . . Witnesses as well as victims are subject to the dialectic of trauma. . . . 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. . . The weakest one remains the losing party in this silent and unequal dialogue.
In order to escape accountability for his crimes, the perpetrator does everything in his power to promote forgetting. Secrecy and silence are the perpetrator’s first line of defense. If secrecy fails, the perpetrator attacks the credibility of his victim. If he cannot silence her absolutely, he tries to make sure that no one listens. To this end he marshals an impressive array of arguments, from the most blatant denial to the most sophisticated and elegant rationalization. After every atrocity one can expect to hear the same predictable apologies: it never happened; the victim lies; the victim exaggerates; the victim brought it upon herself; and in any case it is time to forget the past and move on. The more powerful the perpetrator, the greater is his prerogative to name and define reality, and the more completely his arguments prevail.”
Trauma and Recovery: The aftermath of violence – from domestic abuse to political terror [*affiliate link]. Judith Herman, Basic Books: 1997].
So there it is. Whether the abuser is a raging husband or a raging political dictator, each one works his own scale of terror upon his victims, and the tactics are remarkably similar. Judith Herman’s book is excellent and one that should help abuse victims recover.
As Herman notes, there is no neutrality in the trauma of abuse. The bystander — that’s you and me — cannot merely by-stand. To do so is to choose, and the choice is for the abuser. Evil only asks that we remain quiet and still. Divert our eye and go on about our business. This is at least part of the explanation for the blank stare and tic of discomfort we see in people when we talk to them about abuse. Bystanders know that to acknowledge the reality of abuse and the plight of the victim is to force a choice between good and evil, right and wrong. To stand with the victim on the other hand is to be required to take action, to pay a price, to take on a share of the victim’s burden. Normally, the perpetrator wins as bystanders choose for him by turning away and just forgetting. This is why an innocent person can be mugged or even murdered on a public street in front of witnesses, and no one does anything.
Christians do not have the option of remaining neutral and thus choosing the side of evil. Our King has not given us that option. If we will not confess Jesus and his cause before men, then He will deny us before the Father. Here all around us are victims, usually women, being terrorized, beaten, treated like slaves or worse, raped and sodomized – here they are. That is what we are saying in this blog. That is what more and more Christians who have suffered at the hands of abusers are saying — and they are beginning to shout it. It is enough. Enough of the church turning a blind eye, choosing the side of the abuser, and sending the victim away into the hinterlands. The King is sick of it. He calls us to repent, and if we will not, He will spew us out of His mouth like lukewarm, putrid milk.
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