Mercy for the downpresser man is not the first step. Or the second, or third.

Two recent posts — one by Dianna E. Anderson and one by Chauncey DeVega — tackle the same difficult question. They’re writing about different specific topics, but the underlying concern is the same.

The particular matter in Anderson’s post — “Loving at Arm’s Length” — considers the matter of Hugo Schwyzer, a male professor of gender studies whose current feminist writing is shadowed by his reprehensible “pre-sobriety” history of predatory and abusive behavior toward women. For more context (which may be disturbing), see “On Hugo Schwyzer” at Are Women Human?, which summarizes both his history and some of the recent discussion about what it means.

In Christian circles, that discussion inevitably comes to include the core Christian ideas of grace and forgiveness. Those are dangerous ideas. They are and ought to be scandalous ideas. But they can also be abused.

And it’s that abuse of those ideas that Anderson — and DeVega — examines. Here’s Anderson:

The question has continually arisen: “What about grace for Hugo? Isn’t it our duty to forgive what he did and honor his repentance?”

As Sarah Moon answered today, that is fundamentally the wrong question to ask: unlimited grace for the abuser means that we limit grace for the survivor.

Christianity is, first and foremost, about grace for the hurting, for the damaged, for the abused. Look at Jesus’ ministry: he spent a lot of time preaching about subverting the current social structure, the last shall be first, etc. He also spent his time healing. He healed those considered fundamentally unclean: lepers, beggars, the blind, the crippled. It is a fundamental message of Christianity that God brought the outcasts in. It is the fundamental grace of the upside down kingdom.

She goes on to discuss the scandalous wideness of God’s mercy — that grace extends, radically, to all the outcasts, ultimately extending to include the oppressor as well as to the oppressed. But while grace may ultimately include even the oppressor, grace does not begin with the oppressor.

The first word to Pharaoh is not “All will be well and all will be well,” but rather, “Let my people go.”

Instead of asking the wrong question — “What about grace for Hugo/this abuser?” — Anderson says:

The question needs to be “How can we protect and love the least of these? How do we show grace in a way that loves both the abuser and the abused?”

It doesn’t mean telling the abused that they need to set their own boundaries while we let the abuser run rampant.

It doesn’t mean telling the abused that they need to have grace and forgiveness for an abuser.

It doesn’t mean handing a man with a history of abuse a voice in a movement where abused people seek comfort.

… As a member of a religion that claims to love the outcast, I will always — always — prize the life of the abused over that of the abuser. Both are outcasts because of misused power, but one made the choice to wield power in a way that damaged, while the other is damaged because of that wielded power.

That same dynamic — including both those who used power to press down on others and those who were pressed down by that power — is at work in Chauncey DeVega’s post on “Empathy and Compassion for the Oppressor.”

DeVega is responding to a Psychology Today column by Mikhail Lyubansky on “Ten Things Everyone Should Know About White Privilege Today,” which he mostly commends as a helpful introduction to the subject. But he notes that Lyubansky’s ninth point is “problematic.” Here is Lyubansky:

9. The privilege discourse is missing an important element:empathy and compassion for the oppressor. Social justice activist, Kit Miller (a White woman), observes that empathy has a hard time flowing upstream.

… In the context of race relations, this means that there is not much empathy coming to white folks from across the racial divide. This, of course, is perfectly logical. It is certainly not the responsibility of the oppressed and marginalized to take care of the oppressor’s emotional needs. Suggesting otherwise would be, at best, an egregious expression of white privilege. Yet, it is also true that those who oppress others … are themselves harmed by their own actions or lack of thereof.

This is where DeVega slams on the brakes. He responds:

Lyubansky’s social justice take — that one needs to show empathy for those who are deeply invested in maintaining their disproportionate power and control over society to the disadvantage of people of color in mass — as Whiteness works to maximize the life chances of its owners, participants, and allies (to the detriment of others), is simply a bridge too far.

That bridge too far extends, I think, from Lyubansky’s asking the wrong question. “Should we have ’empathy and compassion for the oppressor’?” is the wrong question in precisely the same way as “What about grace for Hugo/this abuser?” is the wrong question.

It is the wrong question, in part, because other questions must come first.

The matter of “empathy and compassion for the oppressor” should not be introduced until we have first addressed, answered and satisfied the matter of empathy and compassion for the oppressed. And empathy for the oppressed means a refusal to settle for anything less than justice for the oppressed.

Only after that, after that is fully satisfied, can we turn to Lyubansky’s question as a valid concern. Until then, as Anderson writes, our understanding of grace or empathy or compassion must be one that “holds those who would do us damage accountable”:

This is a grace that recognizes the ways in which society privileges some voices over others, and a grace that chooses the damaged, the less-than’s, the have-not’s, over the voices of privilege.


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  • histrogeek

    The nearest group to these outcast oppressors are the tax collectors. They oppressed the poor and were viewed as collaborating, rapacious scum by all including higher ranking members of society. Jesus loved them unconditionally but did point out what they needed to do if they were to enter the Kingdom. Basically stop oppressing the poor. Jesus certainly didn’t privilege tax collectors, even if one was an apostle, and I don’t recall anyone telling the other apostles to stop picking on poor Matthew/Levi.
    So in the end all an ex-oppressor can expect is, you’re forgiven now that you’ve changed and now you’re the same as the rest of us. That latter phrase can be taken either as your life needs to suck as bad as the rest of use, or you better work your ass off to make sure that everyone’s life is better because yours is the same.

  • Silly_pl4c3

    Forgiveness and grace for the abusers and oppressors means that we, in our infinite mercy and compassion,  won’t cast them into a fiery pit of everlasting torment by next Tuesday like we were originally planning to.  If they were expecting more from us, then maybe they’re not as repentant and contrite as they ought to be.

  • Madhabmatics

    For the question: ” “How can we protect and love the least of these? How do we show grace in a way that loves both the abuser and the abused?””

    I’ve always liked this hadith as an answer:

    “The Messenger of Allaah said: ‘Help your brother, whether he is an oppressor or is oppressed.’
    A man asked: ‘O Messenger of Allaah! I (know how to) help him when he
    is oppressed, but how can I help him when he is an oppressor?’ He said: ‘You can restrain him from committing oppression. That will be your help to him.’

    Showing grace to someone actively causing harm just legitimizes that harm. Stop their harm first.

  • Kirala

    Showing grace to someone actively causing harm just legitimizes that harm. Stop their harm first.

    Well said.

  • Kirala

    I’m not sure I agree with the categorical statement “the oppressed before the oppressors”. If that were the case, Jesus would not have been able to forgive the tax collectors or include them in his followers until every person oppressed by those tax collectors was also willing and able to forgive.

    I agree that before they qualify for inclusion, oppressors need to repent (i.e. turn around go the opposite direction from the Bad Thing until they strike the Good Way). I agree that before they qualify for inclusion, oppressors need to do their best to make restitution. I agree that former oppressors need to be kept out of safe spaces where oppression victims gather for support. I agree that the oppressed immediately before me needs consideration before the oppressor immediately before me. (Heck, if the oppressor is truly repentant, they ought to be ready to voluntarily exclude themselves from the presence of those harmed by their actions or by similar actions.  There is that vital caveat to Step 9 of 12 step programs, after all.) I agree that it’s not my place to tell a victim that they need to forgive their oppressor. Basically…

    The matter of “empathy and compassion for the oppressor” should not be introduced until we have first addressed, answered and satisfied
    the matter of empathy and compassion for the oppressed. And empathy for
    the oppressed means a refusal to settle for anything less than justice for the oppressed.

    …this makes sense to me, provided only that “justice” is meant in the positive sense of “creating a whole, healthy, flourishing society” and not in the negative sense of “oppressors must pay for their sins in a zero sum game with the oppressed”.

    I don’t know. I started this as a public defender’s daughter thinking of her father’s repentant former clients being denied a chance to rejoin society. If we waited for every murder victim to receive justice, no murderer would ever receive forgiveness. Then I went back and read about Schwyzer. Grace at Are Women Human? seems spot-on in identifying the problem there: not his past, but the fact that he seems to think he can simply lie and omit it. He shows less eagerness for forgiveness than forgetfulness – a privilege no one should demand. So perhaps that rant isn’t applicable.

    Regarding privilege, I’m not sure that a white cis-gendered heterosexual middle class American Christian has much room to talk. On the other hand… well, if a white cis-gendered heterosexual American Christian man can speak, I suppose I can too. I don’t think oppressors, current and willing or former and not, merit any special consideration. I do think that all humans merit some consideration. I haven’t seen this forgotten in today’s society at large – not to the point where it causes me any worries – but it being possible, I would like an emphasis on compassion for all being pretty immediately behind the emphasis on compassion for the oppressed, not at the bottom of the list. Trying to categorize everyone on a scale of relative privilege and oppression seems like a human rights nightmare in the making.

  • Münchner Kindl

    ” Yet, it is also true that those who oppress others … are themselves harmed by their own actions or lack of thereof.”

    This sentence to me sounds similar to what Fred has often said about the Evangelical subculture, who are exploited by a few jerks at the top with the scares about demons, Satanic baby-killers, gay marriage storms etc. Fred points out the harm done by the gullible masses, both with their direct hate and the laws and politicans they support. But he also repeatedly shows christian compassing in wanting to rescue them from this fearful place where they are exploited and make them real christians and full humans again, instead of (as many of us more normal people tend to) react to hate with hate and to gullibility with scorn.

    So there is a grain of truth in there: bigots are sorry people who need help overcoming their bigotry.

  • JarredH

     So there is a grain of truth in there: bigots are sorry people who need help overcoming their bigotry.

    Perhaps, but only if they first seek to overcome it themselves.  To stick to the example/topic I’m most personally familiar with…

    Yes, a lot of conservative Christians have been fed a lot of lies about gay people.  They here all kinds of things from their pastors and the “approved” public figures.  Such people fill their head with misinformation and lies to stoke the hatred and fear.

    But here’s the thing:  The people swallowing those lies are still choosing where they accept their (mis)information from.  For whatever reason, they choose to listen to and believe what a bunch of (allegedly) heterosexual (mostly) men say about gay people and “the gay lifestyle” rather than hopping over to their local LGBT-friendly pub or coffee house or their local LGBT community center and see what QUILTBAG people have to say for themselves and see the “lifestyle” first-hand.

    And in the end, I don’t think that helping bigots overcome their bigotry should really be the job of the targets of said bigotry anyway.

  • Deird

    And in the end, I don’t think that helping bigots overcome their bigotry
    should really be the job of the targets of said bigotry anyway.

    Maybe it should be the job of some other former bigots?

  • JarredH


    Of course, I think it becomes to ignore the fact that some of these people want to be misinformed and remain bigoted.   To me, there’s an often-frequent undercurrent that such people are the way they are simply because “they don’t know any better,” which I think is bull.  Some of them take great pains to avoid “knowing any better,” and are quite resistant to any attempts by anyone to “set them straight.”  I’ve lost track of the number of times where I’ve explained to someone why what they were saying was incorrect, only to have them turn around and parrot the same misinformation ten minutes later.

  • Michael Chui

    I actually disagree somewhat.

    The issue isn’t that there are other questions that must come first; I think those other questions should definitely be asked first, and grappled with first, but I don’t think they have to be satisfied first. Here’s why.

    Part of the abuser’s perspective, the oppressor’s worldview, is a distortion. If you satisfy the questions of empathy and justice for the abused and the oppressed first, you feel like you’ve won. You’ve beaten the abusers and oppressors. But that isn’t true: you’ve merely driven them underground. You’ve given them an excuse to believe that while they may have been right, they lost; how would you deal with such a belief? “It’s a setback. We’ll be back.”

    And so they come back, learning from past mistakes, planning with better strategies, executing them more effectively. How can you expect less of them?

    If instead you empathize with them, somehow (and I don’t presume to know how; I’m still working on this part), if you can convince and show them that their oppressing and abusing is wrong, is an evidence of immorality, is not in their own interest, and so on: whatever gets through: you satisfy both sides of the power imbalance at once. You get people like Gates and Buffett actively working from the other side.

    This isn’t the job for those who are disenfranchised, whose most pressing concern is not being disenfranchised; this is the job for those who aren’t, who have the time and space and energy to work on it. There aren’t merely two sides, as Lyubansky implies: there is also those of us who make up the bridge across the divide.

  • VMink

    And so they come back, learning from past mistakes, planning with better strategies, executing them more effectively. How can you expect less of them?

    I find this observation interesting because we do indeed see this.  In the ever-present struggles for equality on the part of racial minorities and women, we find the same attempts to suppress and oppress them recurring again and again; the only thing that has changed is the vocabulary of that oppression.  Essentially, much like the generational model of warfare, it is only the weapons and the strategies have changed.

    For example, through hard work, outright legal segregation is illegal and taboo in our society.  Very well; those racial bigots in power change their vocabulary and change their method of attack.  They do ‘end runs’ around the core issue of people of color being equal to white people.  Instead of attacking the destruction of segregation on racial and pseudo-scientific grounds, now they seek the removal of the Fourteenth Amendment on pseudo-economic grounds, knowing full well that it will impact the most powerless in our society, which includes people of color.

    Your enemy is learning and adapting.  They have not given up.  They are still fighting their wicked fight.  When, in discussing the diminishing membership of the KKK, a mainstream newspaper can use the term moderate racist without irony, then the problem still exists.

  • SJ

    I spent 7 years in an abusive marriage, and at one time my spouse and I received counseling from a woman whose approach to our problems was  to empathize with my spouse while trying to help him see that his abusive behavior was — as you say above — not in his best interest. She was pretty effective at convincing him to change significant portions of his behavior, but in doing so she wound up reinforcing the problematic idea behind his abuse: that it was acceptable to continue acting in his own best interests, regardless of the cost to those around him. Essentially, she taught him to be more subtle and weasely in his manipulative and controlling behavior — and as a result, I stayed in the marriage much longer than I otherwise would have.

    Obviously that’s only one instance, but I can’t help feeling that she ultimately did significantly more damage to both of us by her attempts to empathize with the abuser.

  • Michael Chui

    I certainly agree that empathizing is the wrong solution in many cases. One of the key differences in your situation is that separation and divorce are valid options, whereas something on the scale of “the racial divide” is something we’re not actually okay with leaving on the table.

    I tend to employ a double standard between societies and individuals. I’m perfectly okay with saying to an individual (not as a group, but in person and as personal advice) that they should pull themselves up by their bootstraps. But I’m also strongly in favor of the social safety net and programs like affirmative action to boost their chances on the macro level.

    With individuals, you can go harsh and say, “You fucked up. No more cookie for you.” And from a therapist’s point of view, it might then be a good idea to start having separate sessions or something, to deal with fallout. Because, at an individual scale, fallout can be cleaned up. At a societal scale, we’re talking about the equivalent of secession and civil war. Or a split Congress where politics is mostly about which team is winning.

  • Kirala

    I don’t think that one should empathize with the abuser in the presence – immediate or metaphorical – of the abused. Especially not when the abused is still bleeding and the abuser still active.  That’d be under the category of “teach ’em to feel some empathy and act like a decent human being; if they’re incapable of learning, contain ’em by whatever means necessary”.

  • Lliira

    And that is an excellent point. Couples counseling for abusive relationships is notorious for doing actual harm. Counselling an abuser merely makes him better at being an abuser, and more sure of himself in his own abuse. It makes the abused doubt herself and think things like, “well, it’s not really his fault because I should have been more careful not to say X because of his mommy.” Treating abusive relationships like normal relationships helps the abusers and harms the abused.

    The exact same thing is true of social justice and the basic ways we behave in society. Sure, abusers are human beings, not monsters. But the people with power are not the ones who need our help. They have too much power and too much sympathy and too much of everything already. Maybe, within certain religions, they need God’s or Allah’s or Hera’s forgiveness, but it is not my job to play god. It is my job to stop the abuse. And saying, “aw, you poor abuser, I feel so bad for you” has been shown not to do that. It has been shown to  add to the pain of the abused.

  • Michael Chui

    It is my job to stop the abuse. And saying, “aw, you poor abuser, I feel so bad for you” has been shown not to do that. It has been shown to add to the pain of the abused.

    I absolutely agree with that, but I don’t think you go far enough. There are many, many methods for stopping the abuse. Most of the ones we actually use, however, tend to be short-term. They stop the beating in progress only to trigger two more tomorrow. They get a judge to agree only for the police to fail to enforce the order at the critical moment. They allow blacks to vote only to push them mostly to the slums.

    Stopping the abuse in the moment is the right thing to do. But it’s not the only right thing to do. I think Kirala’s point is really useful as a rule of thumb: if the abused’s presence is there, then empathy becomes double-edged. But after you’ve stopped the abuse in the short-term, someone needs to also apply empathy in a more private or targeted setting and convince them to stop abusing in the long-term. It doesn’t have to be you. But someone has to do it.

    It’s nice, for instance, that so many young people find gays to be normal and non-demonic because they’ve got gay friends. But is that really the only kind of progress we’ll manage? Are we going to have to wait 70 years for every change to stick? In the case of abusive relationships, you can pull the abused out (and you should absolutely do that), but that doesn’t stop the abuser from entering another one and starting the cycle over again.

  • SJ

    I really appreciate your perspectives in these comments — you’ve described what it feels like to be a survivor in ways that resonate really deeply with my own experiences, and that I have not (yet) been able to put so clearly into words. Thank you for that.

    My own experience is consistent with yours, in that I have seen MANY people leap to defend the abuser, or to minimize the horror of what he/she has done, or to suggest that perhaps the victim just misunderstood. I think this is especially true when the abuser doesn’t fit into the stereotype of an abuser.

    In public, my ex is soft-spoken and unemotional; a clean-cut athlete who loves to cook and goes home on a regular basis to help his dad out on the family farm. When I finally decided to leave the marriage, my own mother couldn’t believe this man was also a rapist and an abuser; she was certain that I must be having an affair. She insisted on staying in contact with him for a long time after we split up, including having him over for coffee and cutting him a really good price when he bought my dad’s old truck. To my knowledge, she is no longer in contact with him, but when his name comes up in conversation, she often comments how it must have hurt his family so much to learn what he had done, and that she wonders what in his past caused him to do that.

    She may be a little dense, but my mom loves me; I truly don’t believe she would say or do those things if she had any sense of how deeply they hurt me — how they completely gloss over the reality of the nightmare that I lived, and the incredibly difficult decision I made to leave. She just can’t imagine what it feels like to me, and unfortunately she also can’t hear me when I try to tell her just how badly that hurts.

    I wish my mom were just an especially dense or difficult case, but unfortunately that seems to be a pretty common pattern in my experience.

  • dutchs

     Seriously profound observation. This is exactly what happened to racism. It wasn’t defeated, merely driven underground. Now it’s back, craftier than ever.

    Whenever I try to get liberals to understand why the Tea Party is angry, I run into a firestorm of denial. Empathy doesn’t mean endorsement or agreement, merely seeing things from someone else’s viewpoint. Surely people who are enlightened can manage that. I used to think.

    One thing the privileged can do that the non-privileged can’t: articulate the problem while not looking like they’re merely arguing from their own self interest or making excuses. And conservatives hate it when people like George Soros do that. Their rationalization is that Soros can afford to give away millions in taxes because he won’t miss it.

  • P J Evans

     It would be nice if the people you’re defending would find some space in their hearts so they could recognize that liberals are people too, and are free to make their own decisions and their own mistakes.
    Soros is not funding astroturf groups pushing liberal views, he isn’t trying to write his religious views into law, and he isn’t trying to take away civil rights from everyone who doesn’t appear to be straight, white, wealthy, and male.
    (The tea party apparently thinks all of those are great ideas, and it seems to have tantrums when it gets told no.)

  • Grimgrin

    Rather reminds me of Solzhenitsyn: In this thick volume we have pronounced absolution so often. I hear cries of astonishment and indignation. Where do you draw
    the line? Must we forgive everyone?

    No, I have no intention of forgiving everyone. Only those who have fallen. While the idol towers over us on his commanding eminence, his brow creased imperiously, smug and insensate, mutilating our lives— just let me have the heaviest stone! Or let a dozen of us seize a battering ram and knock him off his perch.

    But once he is overthrown, once the first furrow of self-awareness runs over his face as he crashes to the ground — lay down your stones!

    He is returning to humanity unaided. Do not deny him this God-given way.

  • Kirala

    I feel the need to reiterate Madhabmatics: oppression needs to be stopped first. The greatest compassion one can show an active oppressor is to stop the harm they do and make them aware of it.  This is not, however, the greatest justice one can achieve, nor should it be the greatest justice for which one should aim. The greatest justice is one in which there is no ranking of greater or lesser, former wronged or former wrongdoer; the greatest justice is one where all souls are equal, all lives given what they need to flourish, and all lives giving and receiving love to the best of their ability.

  • Aliaras

    I’m also gonna disagree.

    In order to bring about a more just world, we *have* to have empathy for the oppressor. Empathy means listening, understanding, being able to see someone else as fundamentally like yourself. If we have empathy for the oppressor we cannot fall into a dynamic of us, the Good People, and them, the Evil Oppressors. We are all capable of being oppressors, and we must be aware of that in order to make any progress. 

    Empathy also allows us to listen when they say that they are scared, hurting, and insecure, and address those emotions. We can’t let that prevent us from justice, but we can avoid indulging in revenge. Empathy is the difference between punishment (“you are an Evil Person and deserve to hurt”) and rehabilitation (“you did evil things, it hurts, but it will be okay — go, and sin no more”). 

    Basically, empathy is important. It doesn’t mean forgetting, it doesn’t mean no consequences, but it does at least mean understanding and compassion.

  • Mary Kaye

    One of the therapists trying to help deal with our mentally ill child offered me the idea that you can have empathy (understanding what the other is feeling) while withholding sympathy, which has more of a flavor of siding with the other person. 

    So when he cuts himself or slams his head into the wall, I can recognize and acknowledge to him that it hurts, but I should not offer comfort or change my policies.

    I think it’s the “offer comfort” part that is the most difficult in this area.  Abusers often have rotten lives themselves. It’s appropriate to see and acknowledge that.  It’s not appropriate to offer them comfort in any way that might make it easier or more pleasant for them to continue to abuse, just as I don’t want to lavish bandages and attention on my son’s self-inflicted cuts lest I give him reason to cut more.

    And we constantly have to watch out for the fact that abuse is very, very often done by a person higher on the societal ladder to a person lower on it.  Society is biased to offer more to the person higher on the ladder.  We have to make a proactive effort NOT to do this when the higher person is the abuser, no matter how natural it feels.

    The example that leaps to mind is the fuss over whether some young men who had committed gang rape were being harmed by the publicity surrounding the case, without any proportionate concern over the young women who had been raped.

  • Bill Hiers

    Does it work? Is he actually hurting himself less when you don’t show him attention for his self-inflicted injuries? You do not say one way or the other; merely that you decided to take this approach.

  • Mary Kaye

    Bill Hiers writes: 

    Does it work? Is he actually hurting himself less when you don’t show
    him attention for his self-inflicted injuries?

    So far the result is a cautious yes, but with the caveat that if self-harm method A doesn’t get attention he may switch to method B.  The progression was diarrhea, coughing fits, vomiting, self-bruising, self-cutting.  He hasn’t done any of those in a week and a half now, and I am hoping that he is finding other ways to cope.

    The current strategy is that if the self-harm is too severe to ignore, we go with police and hospitalization.  That doesn’t please him, so it’s an incentive not to escalate.  We also give daily bonuses (in the household currency which can be used for video games and other priviledges) for absence of self-harm, and that also seems to help:  it means he gets attention, praise, and a tangible reward for abstaining.

  • Original Lee

    I used to read Hugo’s blog, but I stopped when he started drifting, IMO, towards a stance of  “I’ve learned all I need to from my past mistakes so nobody needs to talk about it any more.”

    I think “love the sinner, hate the sin” is one of the most difficult parts of Christianity.  I find it difficult to separate the person to whom I should show Christian love from their actions, particularly someone who says one thing and keeps right on doing another.  OTOH,  isn’t the story of Saul/Paul intended to show us the path to take towards allegedly reformed oppressors?

    If the oppressor really has had a Road to Damascus moment and shows it through subsequent actions, can we demand that their behavior be perfectly the way we wish all the time?  The analogy I keep thinking about is drug addiction.  Some addicts are able to keep to the straight and narrow for all the rest of the subsequent lives, and some are not.  Some of those who backslide beat themselves up for their slips, and others don’t.  Should we treat all of them the same because they all were addicts in the past?  At what point can we stop keeping that little piece of knowledge near the forefront of our minds when dealing with them?  I think the answers are no, and at no time.

  • Robyrt

    Jesus didn’t tell the tax collectors, “Wait until everyone you have harmed is completely satisfied, then we’ll talk.” He told them to stop their bad behavior and sat down with them like everyone else.

  • Lori

    Jesus didn’t tell the tax collectors, “Wait until everyone you have harmed is completely satisfied, then we’ll talk.” He told them to stop their bad behavior and sat down with them like everyone else. 

    Taking the stories at face value Jesus had one major thing going for him that we do not—he knew for a fact if the repentance was genuine. He did accept at least one repentant tax collector, but he also essentially rejected other people who said the right things, but didn’t actually have the right heart.

    Without the gift of mind reading things are a lot trickier. Trying to make it sound as if there’s a cut & dried right answer to how to deal with abusers is, IMO, less about being “Christian” than about trying to dodge the hard work of figuring out what to do in tough situations. If “accept them like everyone else” is the blanket answer then there’s a lot of hard questions one doesn’t have to ask, a lot of uncomfortable conversations one doesn’t have to have and no real risk of being wrong. If it all blows up the “good Christian” can just sit back and say. “I did what I was supposed to do in Christian love. The results are in no way my fault.” That’s comfortable, but it’s not right.

  • piny

    I appreciate this discussion very much, Fred, and your usual insight, but I feel it’s important not to frame this in terms of Hugo’s abusive history.  He’s edited posts on his blog to obscure the timeline in self-serving ways, and his account of events has been deceitful.  He’s not even trying to make amends.  He’s trying to protect himself from the consequences of his behavior.  

  • Erista

    It doesn’t mean telling the abused that they need to have grace and forgiveness for an abuser

  • Erista

    It seems to me that some people are saying that, no, one should try to include both the abuser and the abused.

    The problem is that you often CAN’T include both.

    Let’s say that a father rapes his young daughter. Eventually, she becomes an adult and is able to break off her relationship from him. Then a local church invites both him and her to services, knowing full well what he did. Now let’s say that he agrees to go. Once she knows that he is going, do you think she will feel safe going in? Or do you think she will feel she can’t go, because if she does go, she’ll have to endure the blows that come from simply being around him?

    One of the problems with abuse is that the abused will fall into the exact above situation. To make matters worse, if the abuser “repents,” the abused may end up in a situation where they are rejected by the “forgiving” community because the abused is not willing an/or able to forgive the abuser.

    I will never, ever, ever get involved in anything where there is a reasonable chance that I will run into my abuser. Never, ever, ever. This is not a matter of choice so much as it’s a matter of self-preservation. I know some people will not believe me when I say this, for people have not believed me when I said it before, but it is nevertheless true. I can’t be around him without being injured. It’s not possible. So, if someone includes him while knowing this, they are choosing for me not to come. If they choose that, fine. I don’t expect to be included in everything, and I don’t expect him to be excluded from everything. But please, please, please don’t try to turn it around as if I am the one choosing to be excluded. The only thing I’m choosing is to not be further wounded.

  • hapax


    One of the problems with abuse is that the abused will fall into the
    exact above situation. To make matters worse, if the abuser “repents,”
    the abused may end up in a situation where they are rejected by the
    “forgiving” community because the abused is not willing an/or able to
    forgive the abuser.

    This really hit me hard, because I have a dear friend in exactly this situation.

    My friend, who is strong and brave and wise, was able to stand up and face the community and tell it like it is:  [I paraphrase] “I *do* empathize with him.  I understand what he was feeling, what drove him to act the way he did.  But that does not change the fact that what he was doing was wrong.  He hurt me.  He hurt other people.  He is *still* hurting me, every time I see him, every time I think of him.  He is *still* hurting people, when the damage he did to me causes ME to behave  badly, and cause pain to those I love. ”

    “In my Father’s house there are are many mansions,” and I have faith that the Divine Mercy, Justice, and Wisdom can find a place for all of us.  But that doesn’t mean that I, with my very flawed imitations of those virtues, have the right to demand we all share a room right now.

  • Bill Hiers

    I suffered emotional abuse from my own father growing up. He was in the military and obsessed with everything being “just so,” including having his own ideas of exactly what sort of son he wanted. And when I started turning out to not be that son, he became cold, distant and authoritarian (well, moreso than before). I pretty much went in fear of the man. He eventually divorced my mother, telling her she wasn’t the wife he wanted, and I wasn’t the son he had hoped to have. I can’t remember what his opinion of my sister was. He left us wrecked financially and emotionally.

    Anyway, this left me with self esteem totaling roughly zero for most of my early adult life, and I still struggle with this rejection. He’s remarried now with a son who better fits his idea of the “perfect child.” And yet he still wants a relationship with me. And I feel compelled to give it to him, visiting him at holidays and such. But am I doing this because I forgive him, or because I am, even as an adult, intimidated and prone to obeying him? Is it wrong if I want to forgive and love him despite how he cast me and mother and sister aside?

    I know this story likely doesn’t quite fit into the topic of discussion since the abuse was never physical – and indeed was mostly just my father being a domineering prick who wanted to have his way, and quit when he couldn’t bend us to his will, or, at least, when we broke from being bent too much (i.e. my low self esteem and other emotional problems) – but I feel he mistreated me anyway and considering the lasting impression it has left on me, there are times when I am torn between forgiving my father honestly, and continuing to angrily despise him, and uncertain if I still see him out of genuine love or simply out of habit.

    I want to. I want to be one of the abused who finds it in themselves to forgive the person who wronged them. But it’s very hard. Because even though he treats me nice now, there is always the trace of that mean father who I feel abandoned me when I didn’t please him… and I feel very much like a little boy again then.

  • Erista

    Is it wrong if I want to forgive and love him despite how he cast me and mother and sister aside?

    I’m sorry that all this happened to you, and I wanted to respond to this question.

    No, it is not wrong if you want to forgive and love him. Nothing that you can do at this point can be “wrong.” Love him, hate him, forgive him, reject him, any and all can be right. The only question is to how it will impact you. Will it hurt you? Damage you? Fulfill you? Heal you? Those are the questions that are important now, and I certainly don’t know the answer to them. You might know the answers, and you might not. If you don’t, you’ll have to decide if the answers are worth the risk you’ll have to take trying to find them.

    But I want so much for you to know that whatever response you have to him will not be wrong. Whatever you feel, it is not wrong.

  • Tehanu

    What Erista said goes for me too.  Plus this:  you said “I know this story likely doesn’t quite fit into the topic of discussion since the abuse was never physical….”  Abuse is abuse whether it leaves physical bruises or not.  There may be people on this thread who did experience physical abuse but your pain is not less valid than theirs.  You have a right to your own feelings.  I sincerely hope you find the answers you’re looking for, but don’t denigrate your struggle because somebody else might have had it worse.

  • Lliira

    Here is what happens with abuse, over and over again:

    Someone else chooses to abuse you. 

    People tell you to forgive the abuser.  They tell you you’re being mean for excluding him. They tell you he’s so nice now, and they saw him trying to be nice to you, how could you be so mean to him? Why are you holding such a grudge? Often they tell you this while he is still abusing you. When you get the courage to finally say to these people that he is still abusing you, these people tell you if you had been nicer to him he would not have abused you again. It happens in private life, with personal abuse, and in public life, when we’re told to forgive people like Colson.

    Excuse me for not caring one tiny little bit about empathy for abusers when that is what they already get, mountains and rivers of it. And when people who are abused are constantly re-victimized by others telling us how we are supposed to feel and act and how we’re the ones with a problem for not being able to “let go.”

  • Michael Chui

    I have a question. Are you responding to me, or am I misunderstanding the purpose of your comments? Because this has now crossed the line into being humiliatingly painful to me, and I am wondering if I’m simply taking your comments too personally.

  • Lliira

    TW: Rape and abuse.

    I’m responding directly to anyone who says we need to have more empathy for abusers. I didn’t mean to humiliate you or cause you pain, and I don’t know your history. But in my history, and the history of oh so many of my friends, especially female friends, are abusers not being punished one little bit by anyone at all, but those who are abused being punished when we say, “I don’t want to be in the same room with him, he abused me/does abuse me whenever I am in a room with him.”

    We have been told by people to have empathy for the people who treat us as things, who revel in our pain, who enjoy causing us suffering. When are they told to have empathy for us? The minimal amount of empathy necessary to not do things to us that we do not want done? To regret what they’ve done? To ask forgiveness from us, knowing that it is not a right, that we do not owe it to them? Well, none of them have ever felt enough empathy to ask for forgiveness from any of us, so there’s that.

    When victims of abuse get lots of empathy and society prioritizes stopping abusers over looking the other way and persecuting the abused, then I’ll be willing to talk about empathy for abusers. (Beyond the empathy that everyone gets for being a human being — that’s not exactly escapable anyway, and I don’t think people who don’t feel it now are necessarily teachable.) 

    You said this:
    at an individual scale, fallout can be cleaned up. 

    No, actually, very, very often, it can’t. Very, very often, the damage is permanent. I haven’t seen the person who abused me since high school. And I pushed things down for over a decade, because I had no idea, at 17, what else to do. In retrospect I see the harm doing that did to me and my relationships. Stuff bubbled up again a couple years ago, when one of my friends was almost raped, posted about it (she’s incredibly brave), and a whole lot of vile excuses for human beings decided that it was her fault. And that, in fact, most women who were raped were actually not victims: the rapists were the real victims. I wish I were exaggerating. 

    When someone says “we should forgive abusers,” nearly anyone who was abused — and that’s a whole lot of people — has heard it already. A lot. And what we haven’t heard a lot is this: he should not have done that to you. You did not deserve it. You do not owe him anything, he is the one who owes you, and he can never truly make up for what he did. Tell me what I can do to help you. 

    I’m marrying the first person who said that to me. That is how unusual it is.

  • Michael Chui

    You didn’t need to know my history. All you needed to do was pretend I was worth reading and responding to based on my words, or simply ignore me if I wasn’t. I never said anything you claim I did. I did not say that we should forgive them. I did not say we should be nice to them. I did not say we should be enable them.

    And when I talked about fallout, I did not mean the victim. That was pretty clear from the context, I thought.

    I was friends with the abuser in an abusive relationship. He was absolutely and unequivocally wrong in his perspective and what he did. The last time we spoke was the night of his breakup. I was on the other side of the country, so there was nothing I could physically do, but I talked to him for 8 hours and the result was that he didn’t blame her for leaving him, and didn’t try to win her back. Afterwards I felt sick and said to another friend, “I could have been him. That was scary.”

    Different story. I am currently friends with a woman who had a child with her lover. When the kid was young, he cheated on her and she decided to get out of the abusive relationship she was in. I didn’t know them at the time, so maybe someone did try this, but to this day, he is still hounding her and making her life hell.

    In the first story, I was able to apply empathy because she wasn’t present; he was alone at home, on his computer, talking to me. I had his respect and his trust and I was able to use it to make them both better off. Apart. In the second story, I would never have been able to get through to him without hurting my friend. So I chose to never learn anything about him more than was necessary to call the police on his address if I was worried about her safety near him. I chose to have no empathy for him, because I was not a good person to deal with it.

    Importantly, in neither of these cases was I the victim. I was a third party. If I were the victim, I would have no obligation to have empathy. That’s not the victim’s job. The victim should go and be safe, and heal. That’s why the rest of us exist, to take up the responsibility of fixing the abuser.

  • Lliira

    Wait a damn minute. You are telling me what I supposedly “needed” to do. That, if I thought you weren’t “worth responding to,” I should have ignored you, because — why? Because what I said disturbed you for some reason? So I should keep my mouth shut? That I could not possibly have found it worthwhile to say something to you in response to what you said, because? Which is saying that, basically, what I said, which was by the way not easy to say, was worthless. Which is exactly what abuse victims are told over and over again.

    Don’t tell me how to respond to someone who is talking about things that affect me. Don’t do it. And don’t tell me that you didn’t say anything I claim you said when I was actually quoting you! I never said you said to “enable” them, I said there are more important things to do that virtually never get done. And you are not disproving me with your response.

    The things you just said in your comment — that I should have not responded to you at all? That I should have just sat here and kept quiet? That I should not have told my story at all, or said what happened to me and the way I have been treated and the way my friends have been treated, I should not have spoken up? I should not have said, hey, wait a minute, all this talk of empathy for abusers (which was not only addressed to you, by the way), where is the talk of empathy for victims? That I should have sat on my hands and not bothered/dared to speak?

    Well, par for the course. I should be used to it by now. I’ll just shut up now and stop hoping.

  • Michael Chui

    I realize that I’m not a very good communicator. That said, I didn’t think I was that opaque. So you know what? You’ve convinced me. I was wrong. I’m sorry for the hurt I’ve caused you. I hope it doesn’t stick. I’ll be going now.

  • EllieMurasaki

    For what it’s worth, Lliira, I’m glad you spoke up, and I have hugs if you want them. I’m sorry I can’t do more. (Though RAINN is going on the list of places to donate to when I have money again.)

  • Kirala

     Lliira, victim-shaming is almost as monstrous as victim-blaming. Victims should be entitled to all empathy, shelter, and protection. Abusers are not entitled to forgiveness from their victims. Abusers are not entitled to any sort of coddling or excuses. Victims should not be asked to just get over it. I doubt I could ever feel comfortable in the presence of my former abuser, nor would I want him around children under any circumstances.

    However, the first part is because I was one of his victims. I think I have every right to feel that way; I think that those connected with me have every right to be uncomfortable with him and no right to tell me to play nice. I don’t feel comfortable extending that to the entirety of society. If he repents, if he someday decides to be a decent human being, I want there to be some place where he can actually become a decent human being rather than an outlaw. Third parties ought to be able to forgive him, provided he repents. I would expect, as evidence of his repentance and as a way of making amends, he would voluntarily exclude himself from much contact with children – at least young girls. (I have no idea if he caused any problems with boys.)

    You don’t have to wish even for that much for your abuser. You have every right to wish that person to hell for eternity. You have every right to choose to advocate for victims first and always. No one in their right mind wants to advocate for abusers first. I was arguing for the more vague oppressors, which can but need not include abusers, after aid has been given to victims, if and only if the oppressors are credibly former and credibly repentant, and by third parties or those who are for all practical purposes third parties. (Pope Maledict says many nasty things which are harmful to me as a class, so I’m not quite a third party, but for all the harm I feel I might as well be. If someone else perceived harm to themselves or their loved ones, that would make them a victim rather than a third party.) There are a LOT of caveats. However, I do not think that all victims in the world receiving justice ought to be a prerequisite for any oppressor to receive forgiveness or acceptance from anyone, which is the impression I got from this post, which is the statement with which I disagree. I think that’s where the comments in this thread are coming from. Not let’s-give-everyone-warm-fuzzies, certainly not oh-you-need-to-get-over-it. I’m very sorry if anything I’ve said brings up that hurtful and wrong response to your memory.

  • Lliira

    No one in their right mind wants to advocate for abusers first.
    If only that were so. My experience has taught me otherwise. Though I suppose it depends on what you define as “right mind”, but I don’t think all the many, many, many, many people whom I’ve seen say that rapists are victims and women and even children who are raped are the ones to blame, all the people who respond to women who come out as victims of sexual abuse by threatening to sexually abuse her again, all the people who tell those who were abused as children that they must keep in touch with abusive relatives or they’re bad bad people, and etc. ad infinitum, are mentally ill. (And I’m not sure that sentence was grammatical.) And I’ve known lots of mentally ill people who would never say or do those things. 

    Our society treats victims terribly and lets abusers off the hook again and again. Most abusers never have to answer for their actions. People don’t want to think that they could be victims too, or be reminded of the times when they were victims. And so abusers have plenty of aid and comfort, and their victims have very little. Self-preservation dictates not coming forward and saying you were a victim, because doing so will probably make your life worse and the person who abused you will probably never be held to account.  

    I’ve seen victims excluded and re-victimized because others insisted on forgiving abusers and keeping them around. Often. In fact, I have seen it so often, then when it does not happen, when a group decides to exclude an abuser rather than his victims, it’s kind of a shock. 

    I don’t know how you got the impression that Fred’s post was supporting some extremely strange and impossible idea that all victims in the world must receive justice before any oppressor can be forgiven. When people talk like Fred did here, they mean the people that were oppressed by the oppressor must receive justice, which includes the oppressor changing, admitting his faults, and asking forgiveness, not expecting it, and knowing it is not something he “deserves”. I think the use of Hugo Schwyzer as an example shows this.

    It is true that until our society changes in fundamental ways, other questions must always come before the question of empathy/forgiveness for the oppressors. Because right now, in this society we actually live in, empathy and sympathy and help for victims is incredibly, phenomenally rare. And justice for victims is even rarer than that. 

  • Kirala

    I think the use of Hugo Schwyzer as an example shows this.

    I think this is absolutely true – now that I know who Hugo Schwyzer is.  Fred’s description is quite vague: “a male professor of gender studies whose current feminist writing is
    shadowed by his reprehensible “pre-sobriety” history of predatory and
    abusive behavior toward women.” If you look at my first post, I started composing before checking the remainder of the context and seeing that Schwyzer is definitely not credibly repentant. I think the point stands that Fred’s description of Schwyzer is not enough to condemn him – I could conceive of a repentant misogynist who wanted to work for women’s rights, and I wouldn’t, say, want to forbid such a man from joining a large political organization working for women’s rights.

    Of course, the whole thing’s a moot point for people who are familiar with Schwyzer. Perhaps most people are, and I certainly should have researched before going off on a tangent. Still, I do approach this largely as a public defender’s daughter who is tired of seeing ex-cons and recovering addicts as acceptable targets for all sorts of prejudice and abuse. If the chance for redemption is tangential to this article, I think the support of oppressors is tangential to Lyubansky’s point. Lyubansky seems to support all sorts of methods to identify, call out, and deal with privilege and those who feel entitled to it. I think it unfair to confuse a call to universal compassion with a call to feel sorry for those poor abusers.

  • Erista


    all the people who tell those who were abused as children that they must
    keep in touch with abusive relatives

    The counselor at my high school (among other people) said this to me after I informed her of my intention to break off all contact with my abuser. You see, I was grown up now (then), and I could act as the adult, keeping his abuse in check. And what if I regretted breaking it off later, and he wouldn’t take me back? He was my dad after all, and the only father I’d ever have.

    So yes, this kind of stuff absolutely happens, and I can vouch for it personally. As much as we would like for this kind of thing to never happen, as much as we would like it if no one in their right mind did stuff like this, it does happen and said people do it.

    It kind of makes me angry, actually. In our dialogs about fictional situations (like fictional books), our society acts like child molestation and intimate abuse are terrible things that can never be forgiven, but in real life, our society punishes survivors of child molestation and intimate abuse and comforts the perpetrators. I mean, does anyone remember that case where a young teenage girl was gang raped by a bunch of men, and then they town still managed to blame her? That’s the world we live in. We can’t pretend that the town would of course never blame her, that they would reject the perpetrators and leave them no comfort, because that’s not what actually happens.

  • David Coulter

    Someone serving an oppressive system is slave to evil who needs the liberation that only grace can bring. They’re not an enemy to be defeated. How can we say to *anyone* that God doesn’t have enough grace for them?

  • EllieMurasaki

    God may have enough grace to redeem an abuser, but some of us are abuse victims and some of us are atheists, and leaving it up to God just doesn’t get justice done fast enough for the abuse victims.

  • Lori

    Someone serving an oppressive system is slave to evil who needs the liberation that only grace can bring. They’re not an enemy to be defeated. How can we say to *anyone* that God doesn’t have enough grace
    for them? 

    Man, way to totally miss the point.

    This sort of thing is not the reason that I’m an atheist, but it helps.

  • Dave

    Someone serving an oppressive system is slave to evil who needs the liberation that only grace can bring. They’re not an enemy to be defeated. How can we say to *anyone* that God doesn’t have enough grace
    for them?

    Maybe I wasn’t reading carefully enough, but I’m not seeing Fred as claiming God doesn’t have enough grace for those who serve oppressive systems. It seems pretty clear to me that he’s talking about the grace that humans extend to one another.

    Humans, unlike God, are finite. The human capacity for grace is finite, as well.

    To spend a finite resource as though it were infinite, without concern for who will be left without when the well runs dry, is just as poor a spiritual practice as it is a financial one.

  • Erista

    I can’t speak for God, but I can speak as someone who spent years advocating for victims of domestic violence: Abusers aren’t “slave(s) to evil” that are “serving an oppressive system,” they are perpetrators of an oppressive system visiting evil upon others. No one is forcing them to abuse for their own safety; they choose to abuse so as to get what they want. To act like there is some outside force that is making them lift up their boot and stomp on their cowering victim is untenable. Each time abusers pull back their fist, they choose to send it flying forward into another human being.

    If someone who sets out to hurt another human being so as to gain power and control over that human being can’t be called an enemy, I don’t know how you would define enemy.

  • Beroli


    Someone serving an oppressive system is slave to evil who needs the
    liberation that only grace can bring. They’re not an enemy to be
    defeated. How can we say to *anyone* that God doesn’t have enough grace
    for them?

    You know…I remember reading an article about Catholic Church abuse scandals  (including, but not limited to, priests raping altar boys) which noted that a great deal of the problem was the Church’s tendency to treat the abuse as an offense against God, a matter between “sinner” and God. The authorities would determine to their satisfaction that the “sinner” had repented of the “sin” and was now right with God, and then they’d treat the concept that the actual victim was…was even involved, really, as an impediment to God’s will. If it wasn’t enough for the victim that the rapist had been judged Sincerely Repentant by a bishop, then clearly the victim was a worse sinner than the rapist had ever been.

    If you do not understand why this viewpoint is atrocious, you should not express an opinion. On anything. Ever. Go be somewhere else until you’ve mastered the very basics of being a functional member of society.

  • Kirala

    And in the end, I don’t think that helping bigots overcome their bigotry
    should really be the job of the targets of said bigotry anyway.

    Starting with Lyubansky’s original post and going on down the line, it has been specifically stated that victims and targets of bigotry and abuse are NOT expected to show any grace to their enemy. Lyubansky says, in the midst of the ellipses Fred elides, “It is certainly not the responsibility of the oppressed and marginalized to take care of the oppressor’s emotional needs.”

    It is the responsibility of those who are not the victims to first stop the abuse and take care of the victims and then to try to use what resources are left to help the perpetrator to become a decent human being.

    I am all for helping victims first. I also think that there is a difference between an abuser and an oppressor. An abuser has immediate contact with their victim. If the abuser cannot show basic human sympathy to someone with whom they interact, the abuser is pretty far gone off the deep end. The oppressor may need only that contact to be reminded that the victim is an actual human with human rights. Education and empathy are unlikely to help an abuser situation; they just might help a more abstract bigotry problem.

    But to reiterate again, these are ideas for third parties. Victims are never responsible for helping their abusers or oppressors.

  • TheFaithfulStone

    I think Kirala has the right of it.

    I don’t think that the victim is under any obligation whatsoever to forgive, have empathy for, or anything else to their abuser.  If they want, fine, if they don’t want, also fine – the point is to not subvert the agency of the victim in any way by telling them what they OUGHT to do.

    Now, in this particular case, I don’t think Hugo Schwyzer is contrite enough, I don’t think he’s far enough along the path to being a decent human being to be allowed to “speak for” victims of abuse (I’m not sure he’d ever be THAT far along) but I also don’t think that people who think that he IS are intentionally or unintentionally complicit in all of his past crimes, or in other abuse.

    While it’s important that we absolutely not infringe upon the agency of the victim, it’s also important that we not turn abuse into an unforgivable sin and abuser into untouchable monsters. I think that the thing that “gets” me is that Chauncy De Vega defends “websites set up to denounce the perpetrator” (in the comments) and implies that if he were REALLY SORRY, he’d shut up and take his medicine.  That may be true, but it kind of leaves a bad taste in my mouth.

    On the one hand, I want to have sympathy and empathy for the victim.  On the other hand, I don’t want to preclude empathy for the abuser.  I understand (intellectually anyway) how anybody feeling anything other than anger for an abuser can feel like additional abuse to the victim – but that seems to make the possibility of any growth on the part of the abuser dependent on the grace of the victim, and maybe that’s the way it ought to be – but I doubt that any of us would want to be judged solely by people that we’ve wronged.

    We’re all responsible for hurting someone.   The electricity and raw materials that I used to write this post could have fed a Sudanese village for a week.  I CHOSE to do it.  Poor children died so that I could earn (maybe) a few “likes” on the Internet, and a probably a healthy round of (well deserved) “fuck off”s

    Maybe it’s because I have mercifully not been subjected to the righteous anger of people who have every right to hate me that I that while I may not have to forgive people who’ve wronged me, I’d like for society to give them as many chances as possible.