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

Abuse, Christians, and…

Many want to deny, hide their heads, or walk away when the topic of abuse arises. But such silence only gives abuse an open door. I wrote about this four years ago on this blog. It might be best to read that post first:

especially-for-men-in-the-church

Thankfully some have begun to bring light to the dark recesses of abuse. Consider

Natalie Greenfield

Danni Moss

And there are more.

Lisa on this issue

My good friend, Lisa Cooper, tweeted these statements about abuse this morning on Twitter. They are so pertinent to the Christian Church. Here are Lisa’s own words about this:

Because of this whole #FreeKesha thing (which I have been tweeting about in brief this morning), I feel the need to make a few comments:

1) There are SO MANY MORE women who have been abused than you will ever hear or know about. This doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen.

2) For all of us involved in the church, this is a REAL thing that we need to talk about, and a real ministry opportunity.

3) Caring about our neighbor means helping them through abuse, rape, and all of the other horrible sins that have been committed against them.

4) This is not a conservative/liberal issue. Because I care about my neighbor, I care if they have been sinned against. This is so important!

5) When talking about purity prior to marriage, tread lightly because ¼ women have been sexually abused. Most cases aren’t reported. This does not make them “damaged goods” or “unworthy of marriage.”

6) As people who represent Christ, we should be at the forefront offering support to those who have been abused, not the ones questioning.

Watch for more from Lisa and Angela in a podcast in the near future.

What Does This Mean?

For the church in general, let’s be aware of this significant problem confronting the Church. There are many hurting people in our midst and in our community. They need love, help, and hope. Ultimately that is what Jesus offers to all of us. As the Gospel has been proclaimed and taught here, some came to me to explain what they thought would be a critical move in caring for the abused. They didn’t need my permission, but I was delighted and supported their ideas.

Our congregation  located not far from a well traveled interstate. Those who had approached me wanted to do something that they saw was lacking. They made laminated signs with emergency numbers for abuse victims. They took them to every business to post in the women’s restrooms. All but one place allowed them to post. The women who worked at many places were so appreciative, some in tears. We were addressing something that no one wanted to hear or see, but many on the other side welcomed this as one sign that someone cared. And our members have become not only sensitive to this issue, they have provided ministry to victims.

Pastors and seminarians: let’s not let silence and ignorance about abuse become our mode of operating. Any abuse does not reflect the Christian faith. Become aware of all that is involved. Lovingly and patiently minister and care for those abused, for their families and friends. Let the Church be a community of refuge and love.

Paul provides some great encouragement for the Church.

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction so that we will be able to comfort those who are in any affliction with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. For just as the sufferings of Christ are ours in abundance, so also our comfort is abundant through Christ. But if we are afflicted, it is for your comfort and salvation; or if we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which is effective in the patient enduring of the same sufferings which we also suffer; and our hope for you is firmly grounded, knowing that as you are sharers of our sufferings, so also you are sharers of our comfort. (2 Cor. 1:3-7 NAS)

Notice that: 10 times the word “comfort” is used. We are not “comfortable Christians.”

We are comforted Christians who comfort others with the comfort we receive from Christ.

Who Am I? Pt 5

Part 4 (with links to parts 12-3)

Forgiveness and justification were life-giving words to me. But the forgotten twins of guilt and shame frequently haunted me on my journey. Through the wounds that I have experienced and suffered some stand out boldly to me in almost every conversation regarding faith. Forgiveness and being justified, contrary to the world view, are true words of freedom. But these deep running wounds often resulted in feelings of guilt and shame, which clung to the memory of my sins.

From my own personal experience the weight of guilt and shame hung around my neck like a millstone. Guilt overwhelmed me in two ways: false guilt (guilt for something someone else had done), and true guilt (guilt for my own sins).

False guilt came through the physical abuse that I suffered from my father’s hand and the berating of my step-father’s words. I continually felt guilt that I had done something wrong, even when I had not. These feelings of guilt affected how I viewed myself.

Genuine guilt (from my own sinful words and actions) often arose by asking the “if only” questions of life. (“If only I would have not said that…, if only I would have behaved…, if only I would have made better choices…, if only I would have stayed in the military…”). Both types of guilt only served to sink deeper into the pit of despair.

Even more I learned the hard way that a life full of regret and disappointment fosters a sense of shame, shame before others and especially before God, for what I had done.

The burden of guilt and shame weighed heavily on me. With every job application, interview, and personal meeting I had with people, the shame of my choices became my constant burden. Even now I struggle with guilt and shame as my poor decisions resurface to drive me back into a pit of despair. The message of the scripture for us to, “…let us draw near with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water,” (Hebrews 10:22 NAS) was often lost on me in dealing with these emotions.

In my limited ministry experience I have encountered these feelings of guilt and shame on numerous occasions. Going back into prisons and jails to minister to others, I fight the “if only” statements ring resoundingly like being stuck in a bell tower at the noon hour. “If only I wouldn’t have gotten caught…, if only my parents would have loved me more…, if only the cops wouldn’t have been so quick to get there…, if only I would have made better choices…”

While every circumstance and situation in this environment is different, I discovered a common refrain: the heart felt plea/question of the individual is like my own. This is not limited to a prison life. Recently I sat with my best friend who was taken to the ER for a serious blood clot. Sitting by his side and with his family their words echoed in my head, “If only we would have eaten healthier…, if only I would have gone to the doctor…, if only I wouldn’t have yelled at my dad….”

The separation that sin causes that robs us of the peace, comfort and hope that only Christ can offer; and guilt and shame rise up to push harder against the gospel.  I have also learned that two passages help me deal with the guilt and shame:

Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you (not the removal of the filth of the flesh, but the pledge of a good conscience toward God) through the resurrection of Jesus Christ. (1 Peter 3:21 HCSB)

Note that Baptism saves, and cleanses the conscience. Further, my battles with shame were not unique as expressed in the Psalms and Isaiah prophesied (fulfilled in Christ, therefore mine by faith in him):

Guard my soul and deliver me; do not let me be ashamed, for I take refuge in You.  (Psalm 25:20 NAS)

“Fear not, for you will not be put to shame; and do not feel humiliated, for you will not be disgraced; but you will forget the shame of your youth, (Isaiah 54:4 NAS)

In Christ, everything is given freely in Christ: forgiveness of sins, cleansing of conscience, and freedom from shame.

In the wounded healer ministry the gospel alone serves as the sole source of comfort to me or anyone who if feeling the weight of sin.

“A minister is not a doctor whose primary task is to take away the pain….When someone comes with his loneliness to the minister, he can only expect that his loneliness will be understood and felt, so that he no longer has to run away from it but can accept it as an expression of his basic human condition…No minister can save anyone. He can only offer himself as a guide to fearful people.” (Wounded Healer)

The wounded healing of the wounded healer is comprised of making his own wounds a hospitable place for those who are wounded and looking for understanding and consolation. Understanding my own wounds and healing serves as the starting point of ministry with others. It is only when I begin to look at the miraculous restoration and healing that Christ has worked in my life that I can begin to understand that in my woundedness that I can become the source of ministry for others.

Who Am I? Pt 2

Who Am I? Pt 1 The story of abuse continues…

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

So life began anew for my mom and me. Within a year she had married a Baptist minister, and we moved to a little town, where we settled into a parsonage prepared to begin a new life. My mind was ablaze with the opportunity to start fresh and no longer live in the uncertainty and pain that the prior years had brought.

Unfortunately, it didn’t take long before the new reality kicked in and my hopes and dreams were extinguished. While my step-father was not physically abusive, he was very verbally abusive and morally demeaning toward my mom and me. While living in the parsonage next to the church, my step-father would often treat us like his personal slaves, demanding that we cater to his every need. He would often berate us with his words saying things like, “You are too much trouble to have around.” When not being wait upon hand and foot he, would vacillate between totally ignoring us and critizing us in front of other people for any action or word that was done that was not up to his standard.

Again this was quite a different message from the one that we would hear him preach and teach from the pulpit on Sundays. He, too, proclaimed to the people how caring, kind and compassionate God is, and how we are to mirror those same qualities in our lives. For me as a freshman in high school the hypocrisy of this situation, coupled with my past experiences, was just unbearable. Any thoughts of God’s grace, peace, and mercy toward His children switched back to that of being good for others and brought with it some serious doubt as to whether God even cared at all. My mother was not immune to this pattern of thinking either as we had a few occasions where we would be able to share our feelings and frustrations in a rare moment of privacy.

While this new reality and cycle of abuse began to affect our lives, it lasted only eighteen months. Upon returning from school one day, again holding my breath as I entered the door, I encountered my mom who was obviously distraught and crying. Earlier in the day she had been diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor; she was given less than a year to live. I will never forget the raw emotion that came from both of us that day as we sat in each other’s arms crying and begging God for His mercy. Upon his arrival home, after hearing of this diagnosis, my step-father – the pastor – demanded that we pack up all of our belongings and get out of his house because, “he didn’t have time to deal with this sort of thing.”

The police were eventually called as I lunged at him, swinging my fists erratically and cursing him with every ounce of my strength. We were escorted away from that home, only with what possessions we could pack in ten minutes, to begin yet again but now with new and frightening realities in our lives. At this point God was truly nothing more than a fictional character that only existed for a small few who had never experienced life to the extent that I had.

Picking up and moving on, coupled with the diagnosis of cancer and chemotherapy, brought with it numerous challenges and frustrations. At the age of sixteen my new reality had become: trying to maintain all of my school work, caring for a chemo patient, maintaining a steady income flow, and still trying to find time to be a teenager. My daily routine typically consisted of getting up to fix breakfast, scheduling appointments, going to school, coming home to relieve the caregiver, going to work at a movie theater or gas station, coming home to do homework and finally passing out on the couch from sheer exhaustion.

As medical insurance began to run out and my graduation from high school was approaching, I was left with little choice but to join the military to help support my mother and provide the care that she needed. Again, not learning from the past, I stood with eager anticipation and hope as to what this new change would bring.  All of my pay was sent home to provide care for her. I was granted special leaves of absence so that I might continue to support and care for my mother. In basic training, I began to attend the worship services and hear those messages of God’s grace peace and mercy, and although I was still hardened in the heart the appeal to the call of such things tugged at my heart.

Was this the turning point? Not at all…

Who Am I? Pt 1

I have invited a friend to share his life story of the “lonely, broken, and forgotten” and The Hurting and Christmas. It will be five parts. Be sure to read all five.

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

I begin with a reassurance of understanding of Nouwen’s words in which he rightfully calls the reader‘s attention to this point:

Making one’s own wounds a source of healing, therefore, does not call for a sharing of superficial personal pains but for a constant willingness to see one’s own pain and suffering as rising from the depth of the human condition which all me share (Wounded Healer, 88).

The intent of this section is not to boast of myself or to talk solely about the miraculous work and blessings that God has done in my life. The intent of this section is to recognize the sufferings of my own heart and to make that recognition the starting point of service for ministry

Both of my parents were police officers who had a passion for their jobs. As a young man growing up and due to the nature of my parents’ work, my weekends were mainly spent with my mother’s parents where I would often find myself ripped from the confines of a comfortable bed and drug to church every Sunday morning. I would go, attending Sunday school and church with them, and hearing Biblical stories that told of a caring, kind and compassionate God that desired happiness and peace for His sheep. After church we would go out to eat; then I would be dropped off at home where I lived a far different reality than what I heard talked about in church.

Returning to my home it was not uncommon to find my father intoxicated and my mother crying. My father was often very physically abusive toward my mother and me; he would take out his anger and rage from his stress-filled job on us. Most of my early childhood memories involve beatings, trips to the hospital, and numerous occasions of my mother packing and both of us leaving only to have us return hours or days later to endure the same abuse in some sort of insane cyclical pattern.

My thoughts would often wander to the message that was spoken at my grandparent’s church, and even as a young man I could not help but feel that the message of a kind, caring and compassionate God was something for other people, not me. This was simply the norm for me growing up, through elementary school and junior high. I lived in a household where I held my breath coming home, entering the door to see what I would find. “Be seen and not heard” was my imposed mantra as any words or mistimed actions would often lead to physical punishment for me or my mother.

This pattern continued for many years but one day something happened to break the cycle. When I was in eighth grade I can clearly remember getting a call to go to the principal’s office. This was not uncommon, lest the reader think too compassionately upon me, as I often found myself getting into trouble as a younger man. Through my rebellion of my home circumstances I would regularly skip school or classes, get involved with the “wrong crowd,” and experiment in drinking and marijuana use – you name it, I probably got caught doing it.

So heading to the principal’s office that day my only thoughts were of how severely punished I would be for getting caught in whatever I had done. Approaching the office that day and seeing the two guidance counselors, my grandparent’s pastor, a few police officers, my mom and the principal my heart sunk—I knew I was really in for it. Desperately searching my mind for what I had done, for what possible thing that I did that would warrant such an gathering of people, I was in for a surprise. They began to explain to me that earlier in the day my father had been shot and killed in a drug raid.

I can remember sitting in that chair and looking at my mom with a smile beginning to creep across my lips as this new reality began to set in. To others the reaction might have seemed strange, but to me through this death was newfound freedom that had been granted to my mother and me. We no longer had to face the reality of abuse and torture that we endured. Even in this time where God and church seemed to be a place of make believe and fantasy I could not help but join in with prayer that the pastor offered, one of a new reality and the promise of God not to leave or forsake us. In my childlike mind I truly believed that God had taken my father’s life to spare us the hurt and suffering that we endured for so many years.

I was free, or so I thought…