One of the most persistent hindrances to creating a safe and healthy environment is a culture accustomed to constantly rationalize and justify abuse of power, be it emotional, spiritual, physical, or sexual. When it comes to rape and sexual assault, we have a term for this phenomenon: “rape culture,” the way in which every day culture supports and enables the objectification of women that leads directly to their abuse. More and more people are beginning to realize that everyday sexism is directly related to normalizing the abuse and assault of women and young girls. We are less comfortable admitting that abuse in all its forms is supported and enabled by our culture, both outside and within the church. We are not comfortable confronting the truth that the “minor” abuse we tolerate everyday is not minor, but is supporting epidemic rates of abuse and leading to the most severe forms of abuse also being tolerated.
Abuse in all its forms leaves a lifelong impact. Unaddressed, it leaves deep wounds that harm everyday life and relationships. Still, we are trained to shrug it off and move on. Often we will hear survivors of the most obvious forms of abuse refuse to get help, or press charges. “It could’ve been worse … it wasn’t that bad.”
“It wasn’t that bad” is probably the most common line of thought abuse survivors and others in their life use to justify continued patterns of abuse and deny the need for support and therapy to heal and rebuild their lives. Admitting the reality of one’s deepest hurt and betrayal is hard enough on its own, but harder still when a survivor is surrounded by models of denial: people who teach us that the way to respond to deep emotional wounds is to deny they hurt, to shrug if off and move on. Often the church teaches this kind of denial by insisting on a pernicious form of forgiveness as the answer to nearly any situation. When we tolerate subtle abuses of power on a daily basis, drawing a line in the sand once a situation has gotten out of control and admitting it was abuse with all the devastating consequences that come with it becomes incredibly difficult, almost impossible.
For some time, I have thought Jesus’ enigmatic words about how anyone who follows him must hate his father and mother (Luke 14:26) have something to do with abuse – not that Jesus is teaching us to literally hate our families, but that at every level of our lives and society, evil has been normalized, so that following him fully requires a radical rejection of everything we have been taught to see as normal. When we live in the world of his grace and truth, none of those daily abuses are normal anymore, and we cannot love in the same way anymore. Sometimes that means the courage to not “forgive and forget” constant patterns of abuse but to leave toxic relationships and rebuild in the new kind of space the gospel creates. Other times it means the courage to confront someone who has unintentionally harmed you and work towards healing and restoration.
But none of this is possible without looking at the reality of everyday abuse in the face and refusing to be okay with it. Healing begins by telling the truth about our lives and their pain, not rationalizing it away by comparing it to greater horror stories you know, or saying “parents have always ‘been hard on’ their children,” or, “husbands have always mistreated their wives.” This may be true in a broken world, but it does not make it acceptable. The kind of healing the gospel gives means resisting the myth that “it wasn’t that bad.” The truth is:
- If you were bullied, mocked, or belittled as a child by family or peers, it was that bad.
- If you were neglected and isolated as child, it was that bad.
- If you were raised in the presence of physical violence, it was that bad.
- If you learned to fear the men in your life, it was that bad.
- If you were raised in a home where you weren’t loved, it was that bad.
- If someone you love is controlling, manipulating, and putting you down: it is that bad.
The list of examples could go on and on. One way to break the chains of denial can be to ask yourself whether you would be okay with another person you love experiencing these things. Sometimes it takes that overwhelming feeling of protectiveness we feel toward those we love most to realize how we should feel about our own pain. The good news of the gospel is that we are loved, the beloved of God, and in this new reality nothing short of abundant life (John 10:10) is what God intends for us. There is a world of abundance and joy we can enjoy without fear; living in that world requires every day rejecting the old world’s “normal,” and instead choosing a healthy and life-giving way of sharing life together.