I’m currently reading through Proverbs of Ashes by Rita Nakashima Brock and Rebecca Ann Parker. In the chapter I’m reading, Parker shares some thoughts about several different theologies of suffering and what these theologies say to and about survivors of abuse.
One of the theologies Parker addresses is the “moral influence” theology of suffering (pg. 41). This theology states that by accepting violence, as Christ did on the cross, we can appeal to the conscious of our oppressors and change their hearts, saving their humanity.
Moral influence theology seems to be popular among many social justice-leaning and pacifist Christians. This is the theology behind some forms of nonviolent resistance, according to Parker. Parker believes that nonviolent resistance can be effective in some situations and for some people. But it has it’s problems (emphasis mine):
I am troubled that “moral influence” theology makes acceptance of violence a strategy to move perpetrators of violence to repentance. This theology assumes every violent perpetrator has the empathy and moral conscience necessary to be moved by the suffering of others. And it makes every victim an agent of God’s call to repent and accept mercy. This makes the repentance of the perpetrator more important than the suffering of the victim. (pg. 41)
So much social justice is oppressor centered, or abuser centered. Moral influence theology may work in some circumstances–sometimes radical activism that involves submitting to violence in order to expose the violence inherent in systems of oppression can lead to change. But this theology runs the risk of focusing on changing those who are hurting others, while ignoring those who are being hurt.
I see social justice Christians, like myself, become so concerned with changing abusers, that they forget to worry about the health and safety of survivors. I see social justice Christians who are so concerned about reminding everyone of the humanity of the oppressors that they neglect to affirm the humanity of the oppressed. I see this just about every day, so I found myself writing “Hell Yes!” in the margins of my book when I read this quote (emphasis mine):
Perpetrators of violence lose their humanity. So do victims. Strategies for social changes must address the consequences of oppression for those who are injured by it. It is not enough to glorify and praise victims for their forbearance or to see them as servants of the perpetrators’ conversion . . . The survivor needs healing, not just to change the system, but so she herself can become free (pg. 41)
Parker calls us in this chapter to stop treating survivors of abuse and oppression as merely tools for changing the hearts of the oppressors and abusers. I think those in privileged positions have a tendency to do this to marginalized groups that we are “allies” to. We expect oppressed people to educate us, to inspire us, to quickly and kindly forgive the mistakes we make that hurt them. In doing so, we affirm the humanity of the privileged, but treat the oppressed as if they are nothing but tools for change.
We may do this to ourselves, as well, in areas that we are oppressed. I know this is something I did with my abuser. I thought that, if I accepted his abuse patiently and lovingly, he would see how much he was hurting me and be moved toward change. I tried playing the role of his conscious, of his Holy Spirit, and I did it through submitting to violence.
Parker is right. Too often, our attempts to change the world are concerned only with healing oppressors and abusers…
…but who will heal the suffering victims? Who will take the crucified down from the cross and grieve? How will their lives be restored or redeemed, their bitter anguish salved? (pg. 42)
These are questions that matter. Let’s start asking them.