Abuse and Hermeneutics

Note: If this article hits too close to home—stop reading and call your counselor or pastor now.

=======================================

Wow! What a combination! How can either of these be related? I have considered this for the past few weeks and hope to make some sense in the connection between the two topics.

Abuse

As a pastor, I have found the issue of abuse is real. As an environment is created for trust and safety, then stories about abuse begin to trickle out. Stories of pain, fear, uncertainty, shame, guilt, etc.

Abuse is serious and more prevalent than many pastors and churches think. Denial does not work, does not address the issues, does not help those abused, does not give the abusers help either. It is a systemic problem in the church.

One theme continued to come up in these discussions:

“Why don’t the churches and spiritual leaders acknowledge this problem?”

“Where is there support in the church for abuse victims?”

“Why don’t most people in the church believe me about abuse?”

These questions stayed in my mind over the past few months. As a starting point, in our own church we pray for those who have been abused and for the abusers. But these questions are deeper than even that. “Why don’t people understand?” I have taught Hermeneutics in our seminary the past five years, and in fact, I am teaching it this quarter. And that led me to a startling revelation. Is this question (and solution) really a problem of hermeneutics?

Hermeneutics

In general terms, hermeneutics is “principles of interpretation.” How do we interpret what is written, spoken, seen. In everyday living we unconsciously use some kind principles of interpreting each of these. In specific terms as a Bible teacher, we use this to refer to principles of interpretation applied to the Biblical texts.

There many approaches to Biblical hermeneutics. The one I have found the most helpful over the past 35 years is one presented by Dr. James Voelz in his book What Does This Mean? (Principles of Biblical Interpretation in the Post-Modern World), and also his video and audio lectures in iTunesU.

I will not cover everything in the book, but one specific aspect of his approach is key in Biblical interpretation, and now critical in interpreting abuse. One of the challenges of interpretation is asking the question: “What does this mean?” Voelz notes that the word “mean” is used in three different ways (Voelz uses the term “levels” to separate the three):

1. What is the sense of the text?

2. What is the significance of the text?

3. What is the implication of the text?

Consider one example Voelz addresses: Luke 7:14-15

And He came up and touched the coffin; and the bearers came to a halt. And He said, “Young man, I say to you, arise!” The dead man sat up and began to speak. And Jesus gave him back to his mother.

Level 1 interpretation: 

Taking the words at face value as marks on the page. So: Jesus healed a dead young man and gave him back to his mother.

Level 2: interpretation: 

This significance of this event (action) is provided in the following verse by what the people surmise what had happened.

Fear gripped them all, and they began glorifying God, saying, “A great prophet has arisen among us!” and, “God has visited His people!” (Luke 7:16)

Scripture does not often provide a level 2 interpretation. And sometimes what is recorded as level 2 is wrong—no, not that Scripture is wrong, but that someone’s interpretation of an event is wrong, i.e. when the Jewish leaders claim that Jesus is demon possessed (John 8:48).

Level 3 interpretation: 

What is the implication of Luke including this event? In other words, at this point we are looking at the author to see what it tells us about the author’s motive, audience, etc. This is by far the hardest aspect of interpreting a text, and there are few resources to help.

Note how confusing this could be if people in a conversation claim “This is what the text means” and they use a different “level” to give an answer. Thus, I think Voelz gives us a helpful map through this confusion as we look at the Biblical text via the three levels. He also shows that this can be used to interpret actions as well as words.

Understanding Abuse using Hermeneutics

The light came on for me when I put together that Voelz’s three levels not only applies in Biblical interpretation but in all interpretation. That is, we also interpret events/actions that happen in everyday life. And this brings us back to abuse.

So I began asking how to interpret abuse? For the sake of illustration I am presenting a hypothetical case that involves a man physically abusing a woman. This can equally apply to sexual abuse, verbal abuse, emotional abuse, etc. Also, abuse is not limited to men as abusers.

By using three levels we can begin to sort out not only what happened (level 1) but also how to interpret the actions (level 2) and how to interpret the “author” (abuser) (level 3).

Level 1: 

The man hits a woman repeatedly. Level 1 seems relatively simple, but we are isolating one event. As the abuse continues then each Level changes. But in public the abuse is not “evident.”

Level 2: 

There are really three responses to interpreting what happened: abuser, abused, outsider.

For the abuser: “She just wouldn’t listen to me. I wanted her attention.”

For the abused: “I love him and trying to do what he says.”

For the outsider: “Look how his wife tries to please him.” (the outsider never sees the effects of abuse, at least initially, so only interprets what they see her do in public, namely trying to appease him.)

Level 3: 

There are also three responses to interpreting what happened: abuser, abused, outsider.

For the abuser: “What is wrong with her?” (the abused tells something about her but the evaluation/interpetation is controlled by the abuser)

For the abused: “What am I doing wrong that I can’t please him?” (the abuser tells something about herself but from the abuser’s perspective, guilt, shame play a major role here)

For the outsider: “That couple looks so happy, what a model of love for others.”

Notice that each level illustrates different interpretations depending on the role each plays in the “action of abuse” and the one who controls the narrative interpretation at each level.

The deadly part of this cycle is that the abuser controls the interpretation at all three levels for himself and her. And typically the abuser knows how to say and do things to bring the abused wife back to him. Thus, it is now at least understandable why it takes a woman who is physically abused to leave the man seven times before she finally does leave for good—if she lives long enough.

So what?

So much more can be explored in this topic. But this may help set the tone for understanding what happened and the consequences of interpreting at each level.

Where does the church fit into this? In one sense the church is the “outsider” in the above scenario. Notice what happens then. The abuser controls level 1 (he will abuse at will). He controls at level 2 (changing the interpretation as time goes on), and he will always blame the one abused (level 3). The narrative the church accepts (level 2) is also controlled by the abuser. And at level 3, the church hears about the abused, but only as interpreted by the abuser  (“the fault lies with her”).

What happens if the abused woman begins to speak out, to identify what happened (level 1), what is the significance of what happened (level 2), and to tell about the abuser (level 3)? Ironically, she is seen as not truthful because she is attacking a person (level 3) and not the situation (level 1) and therefore “she doesn’t really get what happened” (level 2). It’s almost as if she is abused once again when she is met with anger, hostility, etc. because “she is disturbing this fine relationship.” Her pain, experience, value as a person is challenged at the very time that she needs genuine support.

This is already a longer post than I usually write. But there is so much more to write about. My goal in this post is to give the church some insight into abuse and begin to interpret abuse in all three levels and see where the pitfalls exist for the church and especially church leaders. My hope is that this will generate open discussion about this church problem.

And ultimately my hope is that the church begins to deal with abuse and provide love, care, and help for the abused, the abuser, and all family members involved.

Let’s go back to those questions from the abused:

“Why don’t the church and spiritual leaders acknowledge this problem?”

“Where is there support in the church for abuse victims?”

“Why don’t most people in the church believe me about abuse?”

Are we listening to the questions? Are we interpreting in light of what the abuser is saying, and the abused is afraid to say anything to contradict that? Now we have something to think about and come to grips with in the church. Abuse is real—the pain, fear, guilt, shame, anger, frustration are real. The Gospel is specifically there for this situation.

I have discussed this understanding of abuse with other people, and they find it helpful. May you find it to be so, too.

Psalm 34:18 (MEV)

The LORD is near to the broken-hearted, and saves the contrite of spirit.

Ps 147:3 (MEV)

He heals the broken in heart, and binds up their wounds.

Isa 61:1 (MEV)

The Spirit of the LORD God is upon me
because the LORD has anointed me
to preach good news to the poor;
He has sent me to heal the broken-hearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and the opening of the prison to those who are bound;

Luke 4:17-18 (MEV)

The scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to Him. When He had unrolled the scroll, He found the place where it was written:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me,
because He has anointed Me
to preach the gospel to the poor;

He has sent Me to heal the broken-hearted,
to preach deliverance to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to set at liberty those who are oppressed;

=============

All promises were fulfilled in Jesus Christ (2 Corinthians 1:20). Now those promises continue in the Church‘s life and proclamation of Jesus Christ. May it be so in the Church today.

Advertisements

About exegete77

disciple of Jesus Christ, husband, father, grandfather, great-grandfather, teacher, and theologian
This entry was posted in Meditatio, Pastoral Formation, Tentatio and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Abuse and Hermeneutics

  1. Erma says:

    Excellent observations

    Like

Comments are closed.