Gathered by Love
Synopsis: We need to come clean about the ways we have used scripture to silence and disempower those who have been abused. Part of the problem is our reluctance to admit that we and our people can be abusers. Being victimized doesn’t strip us of all power. As Denise Anderson, coordinator for racial and intercultural justice with the Presbyterian Mission Agency, says, “Even at the receiving end of someone’s bad behavior, I can control my own response. I still have agency.” Jesus’ teaching on loving my enemies is about using my agency in such situations. And if I’m the one who has done the slapping, it’s about putting myself at the mercy of the person I injured and how that person will use her or his agency.
Before we dig into these scripture texts, we need to come clean about the ways we have misused them to silence and disempower people who have been abused. This is especially true when children and women are abused by sexual predators. A news headline this week has been about Cardinal McCarrick being defrocked for sexually abusing an altar boy many years ago.
Another sexual abuse case our family has been dealing with involves the abuse of young girls in mission boarding schools in the Philippines during the time when we lived there. Our children attended a mission school but not as boarding students. It happened at other schools but they had mutual friends—this gets a little too close to home.
What such stories have in common is a culture that perpetuates abuse. That’s why defrocking a powerful (now retired) cardinal will not remedy the problem. We need to address the underlying culture of patriarchy, power over vulnerable people, secrecy, and the assumption that it can’t happen here—we’re good Christian people. Denise Anderson, coordinator for racial and intercultural justice with the Presbyterian Mission Agency, asks a penetrating question:
What if [we assume] that the hearers (and the preacher) are the slapper, the thief, or the opportunist who takes advantage of a vulnerable person? Because the truth is we often are, and that realization is an affront to the way we like to view ourselves and our place in the world. We’re the good ones, the ones who live to make things better—until we’re not.
Come on—we’re not slappers. That’s hard to own up to. I’ve worked in Christian agencies and as a pastor for most of my life and can testify that there are slappers and abusers among us. I know because I’ve heard the stories and have even been abused and demeaned myself. Mostly, I kept silent and moved on. I now realize how mistaken that was because that’s what abusers expect.
Once, when I insisted on a mediation process not much happened and that person still has a powerful church position. It takes a strong will to pursue something like this; we resist taking action and tend to sweep things under the rug. We hope it will go away but it just goes underground and perpetuates a culture of abuse. We tend to remain silent and look the other way because abusers are good at both ingratiating themselves to powerful people and intimidating those they have power over. I’ve seen it work both ways. When they’re confronted, they can even portray themselves as the victim of people out to get them.
To bring it even closer to home I need to ask, “Am I a slapper?” I once lost control and angrily slapped my daughter. I’ll live with that the rest of my life even though I apologized and asked her forgiveness. Sure, she was pushing my buttons but I was the adult. I know I can slap. And when it comes to verbal slaps, I’m even more guilty. Which of us can say we’ve never slapped?
Both of our scripture texts are from the perspective and response of the person who has been abused. Joseph’s startled brothers certainly expected him to seek retribution when he revealed himself to them as their brother, now a powerful ruler in Egypt. But he was able to break with the past and rise above the abuse he had experienced.
Notice that he didn’t just sweep what had happened under the rug. He even tested them in various ways. Even though they were living with the horrible memory of what they had done when they sold him into slavery, he now invited them to put that pitiful past behind them. He opens them to a different future. According to biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann, “The power to create newness does not come from detachment, but from risky, self-disclosing engagement.”
Jesus’ teaching on loving our enemies is such risky engagement. It’s not about being silent. As Zora Neale Hurston asserts, “If you are silent about your pain, they’ll kill you and say you enjoyed it.” Instead, our scripture texts make the claim that being victimized doesn’t strip me of all power. As Denise Anderson says, “Even at the receiving end of someone’s bad behavior, I can control my own response. I still have agency.” Jesus’ teaching on loving my enemies is about using my agency in such situations. And if I’m the one who has done the slapping, it’s about putting myself at the mercy of the person I injured and how that person will use her or his agency.
We may experience violence but, as followers of Jesus, we should not regard ourselves as victims shaped and determined by the hostilities and abuse heaped on us. It’s so easy to respond in kind, play dead, or whine to others, but such responses merely perpetuate the cycle of violence. We can, instead, take a different kind of initiative. The key is to not react but to act according to the gospel principles of love, forgiveness, and generosity. I know from experience that this is never easy and that it doesn’t happen quickly. I know I have a harder time forgiving and can carry grudges more easily than some people do. I see that trait in my extended family and realize that I share it.
Recognizing this in myself is the first step toward healing. I can be more forgiving and generous toward them when I recognize that abusers have almost always been abused themselves and that they response out of the pain they carry in themselves. Recognizing that gives me more empathy and makes me want to stop harboring resentments. Lay them down, they’ll destroy me.
In his work with victims of abuse, a friend of mine learned to know a woman who had been sexually abused by her father when she was a child. Now her father was an old, broken man and she refused to have anything to do with him. Considering the pain he put her through and how he destroyed her life, I certainly wouldn’t insist that she reach out to him. She told my friend that she knows that the Bible tells her to forgive, and perhaps she’ll slip in a prayer of forgiveness when she’s on her deathbed. Sometime later, she changed her mind and said that she wants to forgive her father because she doesn’t want what he did to have such control over her life. It was a significant step in her personal healing.
Fred Craddock says that responding with love, forgiveness, and generosity “is not a covert strategy for a soft kill (‘whip them with kindness’) but is a pursuit of that life one learns from God who does not reciprocate but who is kind even to the ungrateful and the selfish.” In contrast, Bobby Kennedy had the motto “Don’t get mad, get even.” He learned it from his dad Joe Kennedy and I assume it goes way back in history. Likewise, President Donald Trump has two well-known mantras, “Always get even” and “Hit back harder than you were hit.” This is how he responds when confronted.
Such retribution hollows out our humanity and destroys a society. The Law of Moses sought to tamp down this kind of escalating conflict with the dictum of no more than an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. But even that, as Gandhi noted, eventually leaves us blind and toothless.
I say this to emphasize how far parts of our American political culture are from the teaching of Jesus who taught us to never respond by reciprocating the hostile behavior of others. We, instead, respond, as children of our God who never reacts in kind but acts in love and grace toward all. We love our enemies. We need people who can model that kind of love for us. What examples do you have? We need them to show us how it’s done because, as Carter Heywood says:
We’re not automatic lovers of self, others, world, or God. Love does not just happen . . . Love is . . . a willingness to be present to others without pretense or guile. Love is a conversion to humanity—a willingness to participate with others in the healing of a broken world and broken lives.
 T. Denise Anderson, “Living by the Word,” The Christian Century (January 30, 2019): 18.
 Walter Brueggemann, Genesis: Interpretation (Louisville: Westminster, John Knox Press, 2010), 345.
 As quoted in T. Denise Anderson, “Living by the Word,” The Christian Century (January 30, 2019): 18.
 Fred Craddock, Luke: Interpretation (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1990), 90.
 As quoted in Imaging the Word (Cleveland: United Church Press, 1994), 138.