A Cry For Justice

Awakening the Evangelical Church to Domestic Violence and Abuse in its Midst

Temptations and pitfalls of helping victims (victim-advocacy)

Christians, pastors, leaders, and bloggers sometimes talk about the evils of domestic abuse but use illustrations of abuse that are really extreme. For example: “What if a husband was kicking his wife’s teeth down her throat?” That kind of extreme illustration of domestic abuse may briefly arouse the concern of the average bystander who is inexperienced in domestic abuse, but it is of little help to victims. It paints a picture of what goes on in domestic abuse that is so extreme, so rare, that most victims will conclude “I’m not a victim because that isn’t how my partner treats me!”

When pastors and bloggers do that, I find it slightly self-aggrandizing. It comes across to me as if they are posing as experts who occupy the high moral ground but they really don’t understand enough about the issue. They may be more active on this issue than their listeners are, and I’m glad they are trying to raise awareness in others, but when they use extreme examples their message often seems to be tainted with self-promotion. And I find myself longing that they would read our blog and learn more about the issue by hearing from the many survivors we have here.

I myself have been aware of the temptation to galvanize my listeners — wake them up to the urgency of this issue — by using an extreme illustration or by giving a very long and involved description of a hypothetical abuse case. This temptation is most likely to come when I’m a bit frustrated with the ignorance or complacency of person I’m talking to, or when I’ve been triggered into emotions relating to (a) my personal experiences of domestic abuse, or (b) the way people have ignored, misrepresented or tried to shut down my work as an advocate for other survivors.

I want to look at this temptation-critter. How does it feel? What flavor does it have? What are its colors and stripes?  My feelings when I’m tempted in this way — and they’re not pretty — are that I want to shock my listener and shame them for their complacency and ignorance. I want to so galvanize them that they will go home and think about what I’ve said for a week, and fall on their knees before God asking for repentance. I want them to tell the world . . . okay, this is getting really nitty gritty. . . I want my former church leaders to come to me with heart-felt apologies and ask me to forgive them for the way they handled my separation from my first husband. Aargh. Confession over. I hope.

I was prompted to write this post after I read Phil Monroe’s article Lies and stereotypes told by helpers that hurt the cause of trauma recovery. Phil is a colleague of Diane Langberg, whose work we’ve endorsed before on this blog (see here).

Phil sagely noted: “I think we all run the risk of getting life out of other’s pain. And yes, it doesn’t help when we only tell extreme stories and so, without meaning to, minimize the suffering of everyday violence.”

Thank you Phil. Getting life out of other’s pain. What a pithy expression.

Effectively involving men in preventing violence against women is an Issues Paper from the New Zealand Family Violence Clearinghouse. They say that when trying to motivate men to be more active in the the goal of reducing male abuse of women, it is most effective to aim for a balance between engendering discomfort and showing empathic support. That is, provoking the men to feel discomfort about the prevalence of male violence against women, whilst showing empathy with where men are at now — their level of (mis)understanding of the issue, the pressures on them to remain silent in the face of violence-supporting narratives, the cultural expectations and experiences they have in being men.

Biblically, shame has its place as a motivator, and I’m sure we could come up with verses illustrating how God and His prophets sometimes shamed people to galvanize them into repentance and activism for justice. However, I guess like anything else, shaming can be overused and be counter-productive. And when I’m tempted to shame people unduly or excessively, I have to tell that temptation critter to get off my shoulder, and find ways to strike the balance between discomfort and empathic support. And that balance, I think, can be modulated and tailored to different listeners, depending to what extent the listeners are wittingly or unwittingly enabling, condoning or colluding with abuse.  And it’s not easy, but I try to improve.

Does any of this ring bells for others? Have you experienced anything similar?

30 Comments

  1. Annie

    Barbara, I think you have captured the essence of a theory in social psychology that claims that people are most motivated to change when they are made aware of the changes to be made, and feel that they are able to make the changes, that is, that they do not feel overwhelmed by the task. Advocates sometimes tend to paint a picture that is so discomforting that people naturally run away from the problem because they feel it is not solvable. I agree that pouring shame only complicates matters and gets the defenses up in people who may be only ignorant in their collusion of abuse and otherwise have soft and sincere hearts.

    How true it is that everything we do must be tailored and modulated to the individual listener. It is the ignorant who try to attribute single causes and force singular solutions to problems such as abuse in marriage. Alas, evangelical teaching tends to promote this kind of thinking.

  2. patricia

    I never really thought of it in that way but we also don’t want to shut down the real stories of extreme violence that can happen when we ignore the every day violence. I think both stories are useful and necessary. I don’t tell people these things to shock or shame but as an example of what can happen in context. I think that is real. In addition, that story IS a part of the victims story and when we discourage them from telling (even publicly) as a part of their story we run the risk of reshaming and victimizing them. When I tell my story I tell the bloody parts, the parts about the guns and the strangling….because that IS my story.

    • Amen, Patricia. I fully agree with what you’ve said, and I thank you for saying it.

      To me, there is a vast difference between you telling your story, with its bloody parts and the guns and the strangling. . . and the would-be advocates who are not victims themselves, telling that type of extreme story. And I know it’s sometimes dangerous to assume we know people’s motives, but I think that some of the time we can sense what a person’s motives are in telling a story . . . and if there is wrongful self-feeding in their motives, we can sense it.

      I have little doubt that when you, Patricia, tell your story, you do it with no wrongful self-feeding motives. You may have a mixture of motives (wanting justice, wanting vindication, wanting validation, wanting to simply vent your anguish, wanting to educate others about abuse, for example) but I don’t think I would sense that any of your motives were wrongful. Does that make sense?

      This stuff can be tricky, because so much of it boils down to our subtle gut feelings, but that self-aggrandizing stuff which I alluded to in my post — the ““What if a husband was kicking his wife’s teeth down her throat?” comment, which I actually heard recently from the mouth of a respected pastor and academic in a podcast, — that kind of stuff has a very different flavour for me, than the account given by the victim herself.

      • Gee this gets me thinking even more. . .
        Maybe some of the self-aggrandizing “feeding off other’s pain” stuff is partly (only partly) due to the vicarious traumatization that some supporters of survivors experience when they listen to the raw stories of survivors.

        Vicarious traumatization is a very real phenomena and well discussed in the psychological literature. It’s one of the reasons why psychiatric profession has the highest suicide rate.

        But I don’t think that vicarious traumatization is the only contributor that gives rise to self-serving motives in the way one does victim-advocacy.

  3. Jesus' Beloved

    Amen, Barbara. Amen. I have found that when I have tried to tell others about the abuse I’ve gone through, I am on the witness stand and I’m facing a jury that is not going to believe me until I provide enough evidence in their eyes. And it’s exhausting. It is very similar to being raped and having to convince people that I am not overreacting or lying or that I didn’t “ask for it.” I rack my brain, trying to think of the worst thing my husband has done to me and serve that up to them in my defense, and that usually does the trick. But the question is, why does the burden of proof fall so heavily on me in the first place? Or more to the point, why are women passed off as “imagining things”, “crazy” or “expecting too much in general” when it comes to abuse? It’s maddening.

    I have lost friends and family members because I finally stood up for myself against my husband’s abuse and left him after 17 years. He convinced everyone that I was the one that abused him because I left for no reason that he could think of, and my saying he abused me was really just me making things up because I’m delusional and expect him to treat me like royalty. If asking someone to not call me names and yell at me and force himself on me is expecting to be treated like a princess, then I guess I am guilty of that.

    I find tremendous comfort in knowing, finally after all these years of thinking otherwise, that my God HATES abuse. He hates what my husband did to me. It was blantant sin and can be called nothing less. Once I realized this, I finally had the strength to leave. And I find strength in knowing that God knows what was done to me, that He knows the truth even if others won’t or can’t see it. What’s more, I know that God will contend with those, including my husband, who have contended with me. Every morning I read and meditate on Psalm 18 to see in vivid color how my God responds to my cries for His help, and how incensed He is when He sees me being abused. I read this morning about how He draws me out of deep waters. The Hebrew word for “waters” means tears. God pulls us women who sit in a pool of our own tears after our husbands shame us, mock us, tell us we’re worthless, and He personally lifts us up in His arms. To be treated with that level of tenderness after being dishonored for so long compels me to love Him back.

    When others do not get what we go through or do not care, God gets it. And He does care. What’s even better is He has the power to do something about it.

    Thank you Barbara, for advocating for all of us who have been ignored and wrongly judged for far too long.

    • twbtc

      …my God HATES abuse.

      Jesus’ Beloved, I love this phrase.
      Instead of Christians telling victims the lie that “God hates divorce”, they should be saying “God HATES divorce abuse”.

      • joepote01

        Yes! God hates ABUSE!

        In fact, ABUSE is the EXACT issue addressed in the second chapter of Malachi from which the oft misquoted “God hates divorce” is derived.

        Malachi chapter 2 is God’s pronouncement against ABUSERS…those who treacherously violate covenants.

        It is NOT a pronouncement against victims escaping abuse through divorce. Read in context, this is very clear!

      • Cheering you on, Joe!

      • joepote01

        Barbara – 🙂

    • Barnabasintraining

      …or “expecting too much in general” when it comes to abuse? It’s maddening.

      I heard this one too and it was shocking. Actually, in light of the truth, everything I heard from the victim’s detractors was shocking. For that matter, that there were victims’ detractors at all…:(

  4. Gary W

    There needs to be a better English word than shaming for what you are advocating. There is a difference between that shaming which is effective to heap on condemnation and that shaming you advocate, which I would understand to be effective to overcome individual and societal strongholds of unexamined–and wrong–ways of thinking and perceiving, with a turning from consequent sin as the result. I submit that when Jesus did what you are advocating we tend to see it as bringing conviction. His granting of leave to whoever was without sin to cast the first stone comes to mind.

    The problem with using the word conviction for the kind of shaming you are advocating is that it can and does carry connotations of condemnation. We need an English word that conveys only that process by which one comes to a recognition of their own faults, whether through third party agency or through self-discovery. We also need a word that recognises the Holy Spirit’s role. For now, all I can think of involves over-much linguistic gymnastics. We could refer to “Holy Spirit lead bringing of another to recognise their faults, leading to repentance,” or “Holy Spirit inspired self-recognition of ones erroneous ways of looking at things, leading to the renunciation of sinful strongholds of thought.” I guess that, for now, I will have to be content to use the various forms of “shame” and “conviction,” accompanied by extended qualifications of the intended meaning.

    • I agree Gary; it is a dilemma. You are not the only one who has not been able to pin it down in a single word. Even the Apostle Paul had to use more than one word to parse this.

      2 Cor 7:10

      For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret, whereas worldly grief produces death. (ESV)

      and 2 Cor. 10:5

      Casting down imaginations, and every high thing that exalteth itself against the knowledge of God, and bringing into captivity every thought to the obedience of Christ (KJV)
      We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ (ESV)

      And the reformers could only condense it this far:

      Q 87. What is repentance unto life?
      A. Repentance unto life is a saving grace, whereby a sinner, out of a true sense of his sin, and apprehension of the mercy of God in Christ, doth, with grief and hatred of his sin, turn from it unto God, with full purpose of, and endeavour after, new obedience. Westminster Shorter Catechism, Qn 87

      By it [repentance], a sinner, out of the sight and sense not only of the danger, but also of the filthiness and odiousness of his sins, as contrary to the holy nature, and righteous law of God; and upon the apprehension of His mercy in Christ to such as are penitent, so grieves for, and hates his sins, as to turn from them all unto God, purposing and endeavouring to walk with Him in all the ways of His commandments. (Westminster Confession, chapter XV paragraph 2)

  5. I appreciate you bringing up this point. The extreme cases get the headlines and can be very tempting. But they keep the majority in bondage, as if the day-to-day bullying, coercion, verbal raging/demeaning just isn’t *quite* enough to be actual abuse.

    For years, I thought I wasn’t abused for this reason. I told my counselor that my ex never hit me because he only hit me once and, we all know (wink, wink) that those who hit always repeat the procedure. So he couldn’t have meant it, right?

    I thought kicking the dog wasn’t really violence. Pinning me to the counter or the wall or the bed wasn’t violence, even when he kept going until I was hysterical (we all know females get hysterical, right? Just another overreaction. . .) Pulling a gun on the kids wasn’t violence because he didn’t pull the trigger.

    What we went through is horrifying. And, it’s enough. Mine doesn’t have to be bigger than yours to justify why we’re hurting.

    • my ex never hit me because he only hit me once and, we all know (wink, wink) that those who hit always repeat the procedure. So he couldn’t have meant it, right?

      I thought kicking the dog wasn’t really violence. Pinning me to the counter or the wall or the bed wasn’t violence, even when he kept going until I was hysterical (we all know females get hysterical, right? Just another overreaction. . .) Pulling a gun on the kids wasn’t violence because he didn’t pull the trigger.

      That reminds me of something I think Lundy said (can’t find the refernce, shucks)

      Men in a batterers group:

      The guy who used financial abuse and controlled his wife’s social life says, “That wasn’t abuse! I never raised my voice at her!”
      The guy who would make a point of conspicuously cleaning his gun when his wife objected to his haughty attitudes says, “That wasn’t abuse! I never touched her!”
      The guy who shoved his wife against the wall says, “That wasn’t abuse. I never hit her!”
      The guy who hit his wife with an open hand says, “That wasn’t abuse. I never punched her!”
      The guy who punched his wife says, “That wasn’t abuse! I never beat her up!”
      The guy who beat up his wife says “That wasn’t abuse! She never had to go to hospital!”

      etcetera

  6. Valerie

    I think this speaks to the heart of the issue- namely that in Christian circles the target/victim has the burden of proof. I think we have learned to take the extremist position at times because of the heavy load that has been put on us.
    “They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on people’s shoulders,
    but they themselves are not willing to move them with their finger.” Matthew 23:4

    When I first made small “peeps” of cries to those around me about feeling mistreated in my marriage, the response given to me was to give me more burden. “That’s just men…no marriage is perfect…you have to look at your part in this…have you examined YOURSELF?!” This “advice” was given to me by fellow bible study women! I promptly retreated back to my turtle shell and accepted their burden and blame.

    When I finally realized I was being abused I felt stronger to be able to use an extreme example of physical abuse to get my point across to a “Christian” woman who was eager to spew her venom at me. She cleared her throat in disgust and in the most condescending tone she could muster exclaimed, “Are you saying he’s doing that to you!!!?” No, I said he wasn’t but I was trying to explain things in a way she could better understand. She only cleared her throat again and attempted to shame me by asking, “Who would even think about things like that?!!!” Her point was that this whole discussion said something about me that I could even have such visions in my mind.

    Contrast that to the comment from a new Christian friend that recently wrote to me, “When you hurt, I hurt.” Now behind whose words do you see Jesus in these two real examples?

    I get frustrated when much of what I’ve come across written about abuse speaks of overt violence, name calling and swearing. My husband never did any of those things. His MO was covert and he was a master chameleon in hiding his abusive ways. Like so many others there were times I wished he would hit me so that I could finally get support.

    • twbtc

      When I first made small “peeps” of cries to those around me about feeling mistreated in my marriage, the response given to me was to give me more burden. “That’s just men…no marriage is perfect…you have to look at your part in this…have you examined YOURSELF?!” This “advice” was given to me by fellow bible study women! I promptly retreated back to my turtle shell and accepted their burden and blame.

      Valerie, you stated this so well. I am sorry you had to experience that “helpful advice”. This is what that type of advice does: sends the victim, who is bravely attempting to escape the fog of abuse, back into the fog. This type of “advice” is not helpful, in fact, it can put the victim in greater danger.

      We need to start calling this “helpful advice” what it really is: Victim-blaming! Victim-blaming because it negates the responsibility of the abuser and blames the victim for being a victim because she didn’t do x, y, or z. This is victim-blaming 101!

    • anonymous

      I get frustrated when much of what I’ve come across written about abuse speaks of overt violence, name calling and swearing. My husband never did any of those things. His MO was covert and he was a master chameleon in hiding his abusive ways. Like so many others there were times I wished he would hit me so that I could finally get support.

      This is exactly my experience too. In fact, I didn’t even recognize that my husband was abusing me until after he abandoned me–it was so quiet and manipulative, so not the loud and obvious abuse I had grown up with and could recognize. I was in therapy my whole marriage and the counselor never recognized the abuse in what I was reporting (stonewalling, financial control, withholding affection).

      I still wish for an external mark for my internal wounds. The abuse I experienced over two years had a hugely detrimental effect on me…I am financially destroyed and my confidence is in shreds. Despite this, I don’t feel entitled to the time it is taking for me to heal because my experience is tame next to the 20 year marriage filled with physical violence.

  7. Valerie

    When I wrote my comment there were no other comments yet posted and I find it very interesting that Jesus’ Beloved brought out this same viewpoint about feeling the burden of proof, which tells me, “Houston, we have a problem”.

    I am starting to think what we must make our accusers repeat this phrase if they believe it is true: “God hates divorce…so much so that He tolerates abuse in order to prevent it”. Who is willing to make that claim? Simply stating “God hates divorce” is a statement- not a solution to a real live problem.

    • Barnabasintraining

      “God hates divorce…so much so that He tolerates abuse in order to prevent it”.

      I hate to tell you, but I have heard this preached. The wording was slightly different, but not much. 😦

      • Cari

        Same here. By my own family.

      • Hi Cari, welcome to the blog. Sorry to hear your family was so hurtful to you.

      • Brenda R

        Valerie & BIT, I am adding: “God hates divorce…so much so that He tolerates abuse in order to prevent it”. to my reply list to remember. Anyone who would preach this is irresponsible and doesn’t know the heart of Jesus.

  8. “the balance between discomfort and empathetic support…”

    Not an easy task, but necessary to find this balance…speaking the truth boldly and lovingly…I for one have benefited from your advocacy, Barb, and am thankful for your strength and love shown to many of today’s “orphans and widows” in their distress. This is true religion in action!

  9. Bebaioó Charis

    Going about my day today I was thinking about the article Jeff wrote that had Pol Pot in the title, and what Lundy Bancroft had to say in the video that was recommended in this article. In the comments section, Barbara also suggested a PDF about Honoring Resistance that I read. All this information was so very good and I was again reminded that it shouldn’t have taken till this point in my life to be given this material. To have it so beautifully bless my mind and my heart. But today was the day that God had in mind for me to receive it. To be able to receive it like the balm and blessing that it was. And your article today reminds me of this as well. That we can’t speed up or hurry other people’s preparation for receiving this truth. We can (and should) still speak this truth, put it out there wherever we can, but until God open’s others minds and hearts to be able to receive it, it just can’t be forced.

    Many years now with God showing me his truth and this is the lesson that I am finally coming to accept. That we don’t have to hurry, and in fact, we can’t hurry God’s plan. I know the frustration you feel Barbara because you so badly want to help others who are being abused, to reach them and possibly prevent others from being in dire straits and also to allow people to know the truth about abuse and truly turn and help the helpable. All of you here are doing an awesome job, so just keep doing it. God will help those who need it to find you. Your strength and resolve and love and Bible-searching are so necessary for those of us so broken by abuse. So don’t get discouraged, God is using you and blessing people because of you.

    Some lyrics from a song by Tedashii titled “Finally,” “….Encouragement is cool dependin’ what it’s based on….Empty aim, unless it’s in His name….” So, thank you for your sincere, Biblical encouragement, you are changing lives.

  10. joepote01

    The caution against using the extremes when speaking or blogging makes sense. It’s something I try to avoid…but not always.

    One of the difficulties in blogging is the broad audience of potential readers.

    On the one hand, in writing to potential victims, I definitely don’t want to give the impression that abuse is defined by the extremes. And even writing to others, it’s important to emphasize that abuse is much more than just the extremes.

    However, sometimes…in order to be heard…in order to make a point…we must discuss the extremes in order to help people follow their no-divorce stance to its logical conclusion.

    It’s not always an easy balance…and I’m sure I don’t always get it right. Hopefully, I improve… 🙂

    Thanks for the important message, Barbara!

  11. G. F. Mom

    Yes, well, I appreciate your desire to be sensitive and maybe that is best for some but for others they seem to respond much better when somebody explodes they actually learn something. But I think it’s probably right to flick off that critter when you know it might be a trigger response.

    The other day I got triggered by a family member who implied my abuse happened because of my interpretation of Christian patriarchy but it was her husband (who lead me to trust in Jesus for salvation), who had been one of my spiritual support teachers. Her husband actually had a very, very, very, bad interpretation of a wife’s role in marriage and submission to a heathenish (at the time) type of husband.

    Basically, everyone tells me I was stupid in a nice way. Well, I just have to say I was always for years torn between submitting to my husband and God. I was torn between the two for years when I would pray I would pray and tell God I didn’t know what to do. There was always a conflict of interest between my husband and scripture. And when I felt a conviction and acted upon it it was taken away and that scripture that says the woman was the one deceived meant that if I felt the Holy Spirit I should ask my husband what he thought and then I would submit and I became convinced that that pretty much was what I was always to do. I was isolated.

    I’m just tired of people wondering out loud why I thought turning my brain off was what a godly wife does. It wasn’t that simple and I just can’t articulate that great all the process it took to give up my zeal. Some of it was my own weaknesses but not having the right theology, with isolation, an unequally yoked marriage, the need for basic things like support kicked in at a weak point when I had no safe relationships besides my husband and family and when my husband yelled at me after acting upon a conviction. It startled me and I changed my course with great conviction. He had said I wasn’t empathic enough with a victim of church abuse who was actually abusing the members in retaliation. I cited the proper scripture to contend with her and when I told my husband he yelled at me and made me believe I was self-righteous and that I should empathize with her. Phooey! Glad my husband sees his BIG mistake now.

    I guess the point is showing emotion is really effective for some people. My husband once told me that sometimes I might need to yell at him to get his attention because he’s like a little kid. Some people just prefer to hear, see, or read the gravity in someones response and then they get shaken up. And God can use it even if the person has righteous indignation but then there is always that scripture James 3:17 just came to mind. “But the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere.”

    P.S. I’m better from my PTSD now so I have been visiting here more again and I’m sure you guys have no idea how much you help people through this blog and comments.

    [Ed’s note: Comment slighlty disidentified for safety reasons]

    • Brenda R

      G.F.Mom.
      I think you articulate very well and glad you found this blog. It has meant a lot to me as well. What James says is very true. Wisdom from heaven has all those qualities. Remember also, when Jesus found the greedy selling in the place of worship, he had a whip and turned over tables.

      Whether or not H told you that you would have to yell at him, you should not have had to. He was a grown man, not a child. You do have to be firm and lay down rules for a child, but raising your voice should still be down the line on how to get them to respect your authority.

      Twisting scripture to make you the bad guy was a terrible thing for him to do. I pray that you are healing and God is foremost in your life. ((((HUGS)))) and prayers for you.

      • G. F. Mom

        Thank you, Brenda R. I am healing and God is who I aim to please first.

  12. Finding Answers

    (Airbrushing….led here by the Holy Spirit…..)

    Following on an earlier post, wondering why I did not follow the usual pattern of dissociation when my anti-x unexpectedly moved out, saying he had filed for divorce.

    First dot. In almost two decades of “marriage”, this was the first time he took responsibility for an action.

    Second dot. In almost two decades of “marriage” this was the first time he addressed me directly.

    Third dot. In almost two decades of “marriage”, this was the first time he spoke the truth.

    Fourth dot. In almost two decades of “marriage”, this was the first time he treated me with a level of respect.

    Connecting the dots…..

    In almost two decades of “marriage”, this was the first time I was visible.

    In almost two decades of “marriage”, this was the first time I was treated as an adult.

    In almost two decades of “marriage”, this was the first time I was allowed to say what I felt.

    Yes, I was shocked. But for once, I was me. I had no reason to dissociate.

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