A Very Good and Thoughtful Letter
A reader tells me she read “an article that I like very much written by a Palestinian Christian who is engaged in peace efforts with Israelis and his perspective on the politics of victimhood, which I have seen as operative both in the current scandal, in the mideast and in my own life which I am convinced is directly contrary to the commands of Christ and which does not lead to healing and restoration for either victim or abuser. The phrase that really resonated was as follows:
Both Israelis and Palestinian Arabs strongly perceive themselves as victims, and therefore are unable to see themselves as a threat to the other. If we are the victims, then we cannot be the victimizers. The victims’ mentality causes them to be blind to others’ pain, aspirations and needs, and therefore justify their attitude towards the other. This perception of themselves as the threatened and injured party, also allows for fear and hostility towards the other.”
She then continues with her own story:
This is not an academic matter for me. I am not from a Catholic background myself but I am a seriously practicing Christian from a conservative evangelical Protestant family in the south and also the survivor of many years of very serious emotional and physical child abuse as well as sexual abuse.
My mother was (and still is) mentally ill (serious personality disorder/probable dissociative disorder) for which she has never received serious treatment. My father was a essentially passive man and classic enabler who although kind by himself, always supported mom and did not exert himself to protect us. As the eldest girl, I received the lion’s share of the physical abuse —- constant whippings with sticks or a metal flyswatter, having my head bashed repeatedly against the wall, as well as less formal beatings. I have no memory of being touched by my mother in anything but anger until I was grown.
Because I was the eldest, I was also my mother’s only confidante. She had a psychic break the summer I turned 12 and shared all her black thoughts with me. All I can remember of that time is 3 months of constant terror and the fact that I made contingency plans as to how to rescue my younger siblings if mom decided to do us all a favor and put us out of our misery by killing us before she committed suicide. (I had read about a depressed mother murdering her children somewhere). My private name for my mother was the “demon god”.
I was sexually abused (but not raped) at six in a matter that would be considered fairly serious today. It was completely non-violent, once only and relatively brief. I was hugely puzzled by the whole thing but not traumatized. I suppose that it might have been more distressing if I’d know nothing but love and kindness but as it was, it was, to my mind, just one more incomprehensible thing that adults did.
That’s enough details to give you a feel. My childhood and adolescence were completely consumed with fear, rage, and depression. I had a major breakdown at 19 and recovered very, very slowly. Then I underwent a conversion in college and gave my life to Christ. I think I was lucky that this all happened before the cult of victimhood became so popular. All I knew was that Christ desired me to follow him and commanded me to forgive. My 20’s were consumed by the struggle to become whole and to truly forgive. I prayed with all my might that God would make a way and he did. I received 7 years of intense pastoral care from a remarkable woman pastor and then a brief period of very intense psychological treatment from a renowned Christian psychologist. Somehow I was certain that healing and happiness was possible even though I had never experienced it. I believed Scripture when it said that God would give me the desires of my heart but I also believed that the way to healing and fullness of joy led through obedience and that full and free forgiveness was an essential part of obeying Christ.
It took me 10 years to grow strong enough emotionally and spiritually to let go of my demands that my mother “pay me back” for all the suffering she had caused me. The moment of freedom came when I was able to place my hands on my mother’s head and affirm out loud, as an act of faith in God’s creation, that she was a blessing. I ran delirious with joy around a local lake afterward, rejoicing over and over “ I have blessed my enemy.” “I have blessed my enemy.” Even today the memory of that moment can move me to tears. I was free at last.
Fifteen years later, the power of that moment is still a constant source of gratitude. My life is full of the things that once seemed impossible. I am privileged to be doing the work of my heart and am happily married. I can hardly remember what it was like to be depressed. My sense of gratitude to God, of being miraculously restored to life is still fresh. I don’t think that I will ever take the simple goodnesses of life for granted. I do not doubt that one of the primary foundations of my present happiness was that decision to obey Christ and wage the battle to both take my life back and to forgive the one who had despitefully used me. I am convinced the decision to forgive was an essential part of “taking my life back”.
And now back to my thoughts regarding the scandal of the moment. Of course, the abuse must be stopped immediately and children protected. The abusers must be held accountable as part of justice and as part of their own redemption. The decisions of the some Catholic bishops in this regard are completely incomprehensible to me. But all this has been covered exhaustively by others and I want to focus on responding primarily from the prospective of a victim who has experienced the power of Christ to redeem both victim and abuser.
I read a Catholic blog today that actually stated that child sexual abuse was worse than murder. May I say that from the perspective of a child victim, this is the most absurd thing I have ever heard! Only being caught up in communal hysteria can excuse it and I can only hope that when the author calms down, he/she will begin to feel more than a little silly about the whole thing.
I know what it is like to fear for my life as a child at the hands of the very person who gave me birth and I know what it like to be sexually abused and I know which one I would choose! I happen to think that it’s a damn fine thing that I’m alive (although I realize that my opinion on that score may not be universally shared). I used to be so afraid that I would die young, before I had experience real healing. I couldn’t bear the thought that the experience of my childhood would be the sum total of my life. Being murdered by my own mother would seem to put the final, pathetic, grotesque seal on the whole tragedy.
But if our Christian faith is true, then the deepest truth, the greatest power in the universe is not sin or death but redemption. As C. S. Lewis wrote in the Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, redemption is the “deep magic beyond time” that brings life out of death and shatters all our earthly calculations. And as G. K. Chesterton wrote in his magnificent poem, “Glory in Profoundis” – “outrushing the fall of man is the height of the fall of God. Glory to God in the lowest.” There is nothing that a human being can do that Christ has not already died to redeem and transform into life. That includes sexual abuse.
No matter what the offense is, Redemption is always possible and it is always available to both the victim and the victimizer. This is good news indeed because all of us have been victimizers at some point in our life. If those of us who have been abused don’t yet know that about ourselves, then we have a long way to go. That is the special temptation of the victim: not just to acknowledge and feel our pain but to linger there when it is time to let go and move on. To assume that my suffering excuses any retribution that I take, excuses failure to take as much responsibility for my feelings and my life as possible, and ensures that I can never really victimize someone else because all that I do is excused by what was done to me.
I have watched my siblings wrestle with these same issues. The four of us who have, in different ways, pursued our life in Christ and striven to take back our lives and to forgive have experienced real if not perfect healing. Our greatest remaining sorrow is that our one brother who has clung to his rage and his identity as victim is on psychiatric disability. In his despair, he has become manipulative and abusive to those who have tried hardest to help. I don’t think that lack of forgiveness has caused his illness but I do suspect that his refusal to consider letting go of his rage is one of the factors blocking his recovery.
One of my quiet joys these days is that my mother seems to be experiencing some genuine happiness for the first time in her life. It is as though the final movement of my own healing is to see my mother becoming free to enjoy herself. I realize that in the current climate, rejoicing in the ultimate happiness of the one who made your childhood a living hell must seem unimaginably sick. One of the unexpected fruits of forgiveness for me was that I was suddenly free to see my mother as a person for the first time, a pathetically child-like, self-absorbed, but not unlovable fellow human being. But, you might say, I suppose it’s excusable. She is your mother after all. But a priest would be entirely different! Would it? How could betrayal by a relative stranger, however exalted his office, be more terrible than decades of rejection and abuse by the one person who has known me since conception and whose personal vocation it was to love me into life and maturity? Who most profoundly and immediately stands in God’s place in the life of a child: the one who gave you birth or a priest that you barely know?
What on earth do we think our Lord meant, when he commanded us to bless those who curse us and do good to those who despitefully use us? Of course, I must do all I can to stop injustice but that is only the beginning. How dare I, who have been forgiven much, not hope and pray for the ultimate transformation and happiness of my enemy? We know by faith that child abusers are not monsters simply because God does not make monsters. They are broken human beings like you and I who are trapped in a particularly horrific sin. Some of them may be a continuing danger to society. I may need to take stern steps to protect children from their selfishness but I am forbidden to rejoice in their fall or wish for their destruction. And I must do whatever I can to encourage their reclamation and ultimate restoration. Our Lord warned us solemnly about what would happen if we who have been forgiven much refuse to forgive those who sin against us. And what do I gain in the long run by clinging to my rage? What can I possibly extort from my enemy through my refusal to forgive that God can not give me in overwhelming abundance?
I have always loved C. S. Lewis’s little gem, the Great Divorce. As his dour Scotch guide on his day trip to Purgatory puts it, “you cannot in your present state, understand eternity . . .but you will get some likeness of it if you say that good and evil, when full grown, become retrospective . . .Both processes begin even before death. The good man’s past begins to change so that his forgiven sins and remembered sorrows take on the quality of heaven.” (p. 67-68). Heaven begins now for those truly want to be happy and are willing to jettison everything, including the dubious satisfaction of vengeance, that gets in the way. I think that this is what the French poet, Paul Claudel, meant when he said “there is only one real tragedy in life and that is not to be a saint.”
I must bear witness that my own childhood memories and sorrows are beginning to take on the quality of heaven and pray that all who are caught up in this present tragedy, victim, families, and abuser alike, will someday find it to be true as well. I can only affirm that real healing and genuine peace for abuse victims is to be found on the other side of the severe and scandalous discipline of forgiveness.
God bless and may we all meet merrily in heaven!
She then appends this article:
Who Hates More? Who is More Evil?
Due to the language barrier, Israelis and Palestinians do not read each other’s newspapers and watch their TV programs. Thus they are dependent on very selective information given to them about the other side. One example is when a Western group associated with Holocaust denial wanted to hold an international conference in Lebanon. The conference was cancelled due to the strong protests of Palestinian, other Arab and international scholars and leaders. However, Israeli media focused on the issue of the conference and its supporters, giving little attention to those who blocked the event.
On the other side, when the previously mentioned rabbi cried out for the destruction of Palestinian homes and their death, Palestinians attributed these sentiments to all Jews. They failed to hear the voice of many Israelis condemning the rabbi’s words.
While we understand and perhaps accept the variety of feeling and opinion within our own group, we do not recognize the debates and disagreements within the other group. Rather, we see them as one group united together against us.
3). Moral superiority . Thus, we decide that we are more peace loving, trustworthy, and honest. Our values become a moral authority, and we view with contempt those who have different values. Often we will not mix with those who do not share our moral standards, as they might change or corrupt us. The feeling of moral superiority allows for separation and protection; and can justify hatred or legitimize mistreatment of them.
During the pope’s visit to Syria, President Bishar Assad gave an example of this attitude of moral superiority, when he likened the actions of the state of Israel to those of the Nazis; declaring that they are violating all human, moral principles. On the other side, Israeli President Moshe Katsav recently gave a speech where he spoke of a huge gap between us and the enemy [Arabs] in the areas of morality, ethics and conscience, as the Arabs are coming from a “totally different galaxy.”
4). Perceived threat/victimization. Both Israelis and Palestinian Arabs strongly perceive themselves as victims, and therefore are unable to see themselves as a threat to the other. If we are the victims, then we cannot be the victimizers. The victims’ mentality causes them to be blind to others’ pain, aspirations and needs, and therefore justify their attitude towards the other. This perception of themselves as the threatened and injured party, also allows for fear and hostility towards the other. Therefore violent action is justified, and some politicians use these fears to promote their political agenda.
Biblical Principles and Response
As Israeli and Palestinian believers we feel and experience with our people the effect of the conflict. Awareness of the dynamics of hatred can help us not to allow hatred to overcome us. Biblical principles can help us in this difficult situation.
1). “So God created man in his own image,” (Gen. 1:27). All people are created in God’s likeness. Thus, as believers we are not permitted to dehumanize or demonize the other, as all are formed after the image of God. We are commanded to act in love and respect towards all of God’s creation.
2). “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23) All of humanity is fallen and in need of restoration, regardless of their ethnicity or religious background. The prophet Amos spoke to not one, but many nations on their responsibility for their own sin. Also as individuals it is clear that “At one time we too were foolish, disobedient, deceived and enslaved by all kinds of passions and pleasures. We lived in malice and envy, being hated and hating one another” (Titus 3:3). We are all in need redemption from the sin of hatred and restoration through the power of resurrection.
3). Hatred is a destructive sin. In Romans 3:10,14-17, Paul quotes: “There is no one righteous, not even one…. Their mouths are full of cursing and bitterness. Their feet are swift to shed blood; ruin and misery make their ways, and the way of peace they do not know.” As believers we should mindful that hatred and hostility leads to violence and murder of those created in God’s image. We must be alert, for Jesus warns that in time of trial, “many will turn away from the faith and will betray and hate each other” (Mt. 24:9-11).
4). We must deal with the sin of hatred within ourselves and our people before judging others. The blame that we assign to others, our bitterness at their offenses, falls second to the recognition of our own sinful natures. Jesus spoke to individuals, asking us to take a sincere look at ourselves before passing judgment on others. “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?” (Mt. 7). We are called to introspection and self-examination before confrontation with others. Before we preach about the other’s hatred we much check our own hearts.
5). How then are we to respond to our enemy? How do we react to hatred? Jesus’ answer is clear: “But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you (Mt. 5).” In many conflicts around the world, even believers in Jesus find themselves on opposite sides of the fence. However, we cannot follow God and stay in the darkness of hatred, “Anyone who claims to be in the light but hates his brother is still in the darkness” I John 2:9. Jesus asks us to take more than a passive role. We are prompted to take a stand against evil, and to take action by loving one another and even those who hate us.
Paul instructs us on how to treat one another: “Be devoted to one another in brotherly love. Honor one another above yourselves…Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse….Do not repay anyone evil for evil….Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God’s wrath…Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (Rom. 12: 9-21).
As humans, to love those who hurt and persecute us is difficult. Thus we rely on the Holy Spirit to help us fulfill God’s calling on our lives. “In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness” (Romans 8:26). Although we might be unable to resist the anger, bitterness and hatred that so quickly springs up, we remember that “No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us” (Romans 8:37). In this world that preaches revenge, we must stand in radical opposition to the sin of hatred that separates us from God and from each other. “Above all, love each other deeply, for love covers over a multitude of sins” (1 Pet. 4:8).
Musalaha – Ministry of Reconciliation
PO Box 52110, Jerusalem 91521, Israel
Tel: 02-672-0376, Fax: 02-671-0897