“There is no such thing as a bystander when it comes to abuse.”
The following is another excerpt from the book I am writing about my experiences being a Biblical counselor to abuse survivors:
Abuse Has No Switzerland
As I have mentioned many, many times in the past, “There is no such thing as a bystander when it comes to abuse!” Intentionally or unintentionally, we automatically side with either the victim or the offender. There is no neutral territory, no middle ground.
Abuse does not and cannot happen in a vacuum: it happens in relationships; it happens in families; ; it happens in churches; it happens in communities.
Evil people don’t look evil – they look just like everyone else. So, becoming aware of and sensitive to the warning signs of abuse and abusers is necessary if we are going to answer God’s call to rescue those caught in abuse.
Failing that, by default we provide aid and comfort to those who abuse because, wittingly or unwittingly, we ensure an environment where the abuser feels safe to carry out their evil against their victim(s).
There is a sense of desperation and hopelessness for many survivors that flows from the reality that most people around them do not recognize the signs and symptoms that indicate abuse is happening.
Ironically, despite such a large cross-section of the populace who have experienced or witnessed abuse, there is a veil of ignorance overshadowing the realm of abuse and oppression. It prevents these co-survivors from being aware that it is happening in the lives of others around them.
There are two main reasons for this that I have seen: First there is the self-denial and minimization that survivors engage in when considering their experiences. The abuse/oppression has been miscategorized as something else, or it has been minimized and declassified in their mind as abuse.
The second main reason co-survivors are unaware that abuse is happening in the lives of others is our human tendency to project our standards of behavior on to other people: “I can’t image (or, I would never think of) treating someone that way, so I can’t image someone actually being that evil to someone else.”
The result is that we call authoritarianism “a firm hand”, we call physical beatings “discipline”, we call verbal/emotional abuse “she was just angry and didn’t really mean anything by it”, and we call the isolating of victims “protecting them from the world”.
There are innumerable other ways we fall into this trap of corporate denial, but you get the idea.
The question is, then: How do we stop providing aid and comfort to this enemy?
First, we have to understand that it is never okay with God for one person to misuse or abuse another person!
Second, we have to commit to becoming better educated about the warning signs of potential abusers and the signs of ongoing abuse. Our hope is that this book will be a useful tool to help with that.
I cannot tell you how heartbreaking and traumatizing it is for someone who is experiencing abuse to have what is happening to them be ignored, overlooked, or – worse yet – discounted, minimized, denied.
Jennifer’s story is another example of how this happens in the church. Jennifer is a pastor’s wife. She grew up in an abusive and neglectful home. Her family of origin had stringent rules of behavior that allowed no margin for error. Violation of those rules met with such severe punishment that she still has scars on her back and on the backs of her upper thighs.
The punishment for violating the rules never took place in front of others – it was always reserved for when the family had withdrawn to the confines of the four walls of their home. So deceptive were the parents about the abuse the children were subjected to that they intentionally presented a false front to everyone around them.
In fact, the parents presented a calm and understanding face to the world at large when one of the children spilled something or allowed their voice to get too loud or used the wrong utensil to eat with. But this was only a front.
Jennifer describes one incident in particular when the family was at a church barbeque and picnic. She had been carrying a paper plate loaded with food toward the family table. Two other children who were running and playing collided with her and the plate of food got mashed food-side first into her little white dress.
She was horrified! Jennifer remembered her mother specifically telling her before they left the house not to get that dress dirty!
Terror-stricken and hyper-anxious about the severe beating she knew was coming, Jennifer wet herself. The shame she felt was overwhelming and she ran and hid inside the church – but not before she saw the dark look pass across her mother’s face.
The anxiety this little nine year-old girl experienced at that moment resided in the pit of her stomach clear up until she sat in my office at age 48.
The pastor’s wife found Jennifer cowering in one of the Sunday School rooms, having seen what had happened and having watched Jennifer run into the church. She felt bad for the little girl and her heart went out to her.
Sadly, however, this kindhearted, well-intentioned woman of God was convinced in her own mind that Jennifer’s reaction was due to embarrassment – not terror.
The pastor’s wife sat on the floor next to Jennifer, pulled the curled up, whimpering little girl on to her lap and began to gently rock her, gently trying to console her. She used reassuring words, declaring to Jennifer that everything was going to be all right, that there was nothing to be ashamed about, and nothing to worry about.
Jennifer wanted it to be so –so much so that she started to almost believe this kind and loving lady. When she weakly said, “My Momma’s gonna punish me real good,” the well-intentioned but uninformed woman failed to hear the firm resolve in the little girl’s tone.
Had she been better trained, her ear would have picked up the sureness with which that statement had been made and, perhaps, she would have pursued a line of questioning that would have cracked open the veil of deceit that concealed the long-term violence Jennifer and her siblings had been subjected to.
That was not the case, however, and the pastor’s wife eventually calmed the terrified little girl enough to coax her in to returning to the picnic area and rejoining the festivities. Jennifer’s mother gave no indication at all that she was in the least bit upset about the mess on Jennifer’s dress or that her daughter had shamed herself and her family by losing control of her bladder.
On the contrary: “Momma” was all smiles and laughter as if nothing had gone wrong at all.
Jennifer started to have hope, started to believe that the pastor’s wife had told her the truth and that this time, there would be no beating for breaking Momma’s rules.
She relaxed and started to run and play with the other children, even making light-hearted conversation with her mother a couple of times, gaining confidence in her hope because her mother was responding in-kind.
When the party broke up and the families gathered their things, Jennifer furtively cast glances at Momma, assessing her mood, searching for some sign that the feeling in the pit of her stomach could go away and never return.
The children laughed and compared stories about their adventures at the picnic, and the atmosphere in on the ride home was relaxed and easy — like a real family.
There was absolutely no sign that Momma was angry. In fact, Jennifer started to feel like maybe she had been forgiven! The stain on her dress was a reminder to her that Momma could not have forgotten the accident.
But, maybe Momma realized it wasn’t her fault. Maybe…
The car was unloaded, their things were put away, and the children all headed upstairs to bathe and get ready for bed. The tight knot in Jennifer’s stomach began to release its grip.
She started to actually feel happy for the first time in — oh, she didn’t know how long!
“Jennifer?” she heard Momma say. “Get yourself up to my room.”
All of the anxiety-filled terror came rushing back with a vengeance, overtaking her little mind and heart so powerfully that she almost fainted. That meant the beating she had been falsely led to believe would not be forthcoming was about to be unleashed on her frail little body.
Of all the terror-filled moments of her life, she couldn’t remember one that was so intense.
She couldn’t feel her legs move as she climbed the long stairway to the second floor and moved to the large room her parents shared at the end of the hallway.
The only thought that kept racing through her mind was, “Ohmygod, ohmygod, ohmygod, ohmygod…” She couldn’t breathe through the fear.
To this day, the details of the beating she received that night are but few bright flashes of memory buried under an overriding sense of searing pain.
The violence and brutality that took place that night was a repeat of hundreds of other such incidents that would also be replayed hundreds upon hundreds of times more in the years to come, but with one marked difference – it seared her soul a little more with each stroke of the belt.
When the belt broke and the beating still continued, her mother continuing to wield the remaining piece at least to the point where Jennifer passed out, part of her mind mercifully escaped the scene, not recording the remained of the night in a part of her memory where she could recall it from.
School was out, so no one had reason to take notice that Jennifer was not around for over a week following the picnic. Her parents told the people at church that Jennifer was home “with a touch of a bug”, which was why she wasn’t with the family the following Sunday.
The other children did not let on that Jennifer had been laying on her stomach with cold compresses on her back and bottom since her last “discipline” session. No one was any the wiser.
Oh, and the pastor’s wife? She took them at their word — she had no reason not to, right?
She had no reason to believe that Jennifer’s statement, “My Momma’s gonna punish me real good,” was anything more than an frightened child’s overstatement.
She had no reason to think anything of the fact that none of the children in the family ever did anything that hinted of rebelliousness or mischievousness – they were just remarkably well behaved children.
The pastor’s wife had no reason to think there was anything untoward about a family with four school-age children where the girls were always pristinely dressed, the boys were never scuffed or dirty, and the children were always, always, always obedient, compliant, and submissive in their demeanor to everyone. They never squabble or even tussled.
Good-hearted, well-intentioned people in the church who “Give folks the benefit of the doubt”,”Let’s not assume the worst about people”, “People are basically good”…these are nice ideas, but not founded in reality and not Biblically based.
Human beings are selfish and fallen, not “basically good”. Humans beings are scoundrels at heart and rebellious toward righteousness and justice.
God specifically warns us in His judgment oracle in Genesis 3 that men and women will tend toward selfish domination and overbearing approach to relationships – and we see it played out in the very next chapter when one brother beats to death (dare we say “physically abuses”?) the other.
We need to be better students of human nature – we need to study human nature from God’s perspective, not secularized psychology and sociology.
We, the Church, need to listen more attentively and be more prayerful about what we see and hear from those around us.
And we need to be more cognizant of the fact that, under the right set of circumstances, every one of us has the propensity to selfishly abuse others.
Only then can we stop believing that “it doesn’t happen here with our people.”
Only then can we stop pretending abuse isn’t happening.
And it is only then that we will start standing with and for the abused instead of with and for the abusers.