How We Marginalize Abuse Survivors: Valuing Forgiveness Over Protection

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I have previously explored several ways that faith communities and homeschooling organizations can marginalize abuse survivors. One way is with the phrase “the spirit of Ham” or “the sin of Ham.” The Bible story of Ham’s transgression against his drunk father Noah in Genesis 9 has sometimes been used to attack adult children who “uncover the nakedness” of their parent’s sins (e.g., alleged abuses against the adult children). But the sin of Ham was not exposing abuse — the sin of Ham was his sexual abuse of a family member.

Another way survivors are marginalized is with the phrase “all have sinned,” a reference to Romans 3:23: “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” The verse is sometimes referenced to imply that, “Well, everyone sins so abuse is a universal problem that is not inherent to our community.” But “all have sinned” does not mean that sins in your own community are nonexistent or less important than sins in other communities. “All have sinned” should be a wake-up call to come to grasp with the skeletons hiding in our own closets.

I want to talk today about a third way that we marginalize abuse survivors: valuing forgiveness over protection. Many people believe forgiving an abuser should be the top priority for an abuse survivor. For example, Natalie Greenfield, a homeschool alumna and survivor of child sexual abuse, experienced this after she publicly revealed her abuse: 

I remember sitting in church, week after week, wondering if that was the day someone would come and put their hand on my shoulder or ask me how I was doing, if I needed anything, or maybe if they could just give me a hug. It never happened. A few months after I’d gone public about the sexual abuse, I received a letter from a friend: a guy who was also friends with my abuser. He told me I should forgive my abuser and then look for the ways God was revealing sin in my own life. I felt angry and misunderstood. ….I didn’t know what I needed back then but now I know. I needed love… I needed a community that understood abuse so they’d understand how to be there for me when I needed them.

While forgiveness can provide significant psychological benefits to a survivor, Jesus makes clear that the safety of children should be top priority: “Let the little children come to me,” he declared in Matthew 19:14. “Don’t stop them.” He also proclaimed in Matthew 18:6 that, “If one of these little children believes in me, and someone causes that child to sin, it will be very bad for that person. It would be better for them to have a millstone tied around their neck and be drowned in the deep sea.”

Forcing a survivor of child abuse to forgive their abuser—when that survivor does not feel safe doing so or is not protected against further abuse—is an action worthy of millstones. It re-victimizes the child and it places other children at risk. When child abuse happens in your community, your top priority should be ensuring that all children are safe and protected from the abuser. 

In the Bible we see a good example of this principle in action in the story of Joseph and his brothers. In Genesis 37, when we are first introduced to Joseph, he is a 17-year-old child. Because he reports the evil actions of his brothers to his father, his brothers conspire to abuse and kill him. In verses 23 and 24, “they attacked him and tore off his long and beautiful coat. Then they threw him into an empty well that was dry.” Then they sell him to Midianite traders as a slave for 20 pieces of silver.

I think sometimes we focus so much on the epic narrative arc of Joseph’s story that we lose sight of the fact that it begins with child abuse and child trafficking. At 17 years of age, Joseph is beaten and thrown into a pit by his adult brothers. This is sibling child abuse. Joseph is then sold into slavery—which is human trafficking.

Joseph is extraordinarily resilient. He survives despite all the odds and eventually becomes the governor of Egypt. What is interesting, though, is that Joseph nearly falls apart when his brothers later come to Egypt in desperation due to the famine. Despite all his current power, Joseph is still the scared, hurt child inside that he was when he was 17.

But Joseph is smart. He decides to protect himself before he forgives his abusers. In Genesis 42-45, Joseph puts his brothers through a number of tests to ascertain whether they have had a change of heart—to see if they are currently abusive. And make no mistake, the tests are grueling! He does not simply ask them a few questions and then content himself with their answers. He puts them through a rigorous process. Only when he is absolutely certain that they have had such changes of heart that they are willing to put their own lives on the line now to protect Benjamin, their youngest brother, does Joseph reveal himself to them. Only when the power dynamics are in his favor does he open himself up to reconciliation.

The Bible clearly puts Joseph in the positive light in this narrative. So what we can learn from the Bible story with relation to our contemporary situations? What messages does this story promote regarding child abuse and child protection?

In her book The Children of Israel: Reading the Bible for the Sake of Our Children, Danna Nolan Fewell writes:

“For children who have been the victims and survivors of domestic abuse and who are struggling with issues of forgiveness, the story of Joseph may offer a significant model of psychological and emotional interruption. For although Joseph claims when the brothers are at last reconciled that, though they meant their actions for evil, God use them for good, Joseph is still careful to forgive his brothers only after he is in a position of power, removed from any further abuse at their hands” (p. 111).

I think the story of Joseph highlights that protecting children and abuse survivors from their abusers should take priority over and against forgiving abusers. It is entirely appropriate—and even necessary—for abuse survivors to take whatever precautions they believe are necessary to ensure they do not become re-victimized.

As faith and educational communities, we, too, should do everything we can to make sure children and survivors are safe and protected. This means we should be following best practices for child protection, we should transparent to all families in our communities about known offenders, and we should not push survivors to forgive. We should work with survivors, not against them. And we should never, ever use marginalizing phrases like, “You need to forgive and forget” or “You need to forgive and move on.” We should replace those words with words like, “You deserve to feel safe” and “We will do everything we can to protect you.”

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Author: R.L. Stollar

R.L. Stollar is the Executive Director of Homeschool Alumni Reaching Out.