A Modern Parable.
A woman is raped on the New York City subway, and nobody intervenes.
Three of her close friends and several mutual acquaintances are in the subway car when it happens. They are chatting with one another and having a lovely time, other than the unfortunate rape business. They all feel bad about the rape; they really do, but it’s not like THEY raped her or anything. The guy who raped her was psycho. Everybody agrees.
After the rape, the poor girl is crying hysterically. Her makeup is ruined. Her skirt is torn. Her hair is messed up. She needs medical attention and help filing police reports. Her friends rally around her. They tenderly embrace her and accompany her to the hospital. After that, they take her out for a fabulous day of shopping and spa treatments, and generously pay for all of it. They take her out to dinner to affirm their friendship and engage her in sympathetic conversation– some about the rape, sure, but also more positive topics. Talking about the rape is awkward, negative, and draining, and the most important thing now is to move on from that terrible experience, enjoy the wonderful outing they’re having, and focus on positive future plans.
After a while, the woman asks why her friends didn’t intervene. How could they just sit there chatting and do nothing to stop the rape?
This question of hers is tremendously unfair, almost like she’s accusing them of being rapists, which they definitely are not. What kind of a friend could ever imply such a thing, especially when they’ve all been so supportive? Some of them hadn’t been facing in her direction and didn’t even see the rape. One or two kind of suspected that a rape might be happening but weren’t sure, and a couple of them saw it taking place, but didn’t know what to do. One stood up for her after the fact, and angrily chased the rapist down the subway platform. In a perfect world, sure, they all might have responded better and averted harm to her, but for heaven’s sake, it’s in the past now. People make mistakes. Rapes happen; it’s part of the fallen world we live in, and besides, this was a very unusual situation that will probably never happen again.
The woman can’t seem to let it go and move on. She has become a twisted, selfish, emotionally unstable person because of her bitterness. Her friends have gone out of their way to love her the best way they know how. They have supported her and condemned the actions of the rapist, but somehow that’s still not enough for her. She is ruining their trip at this point, although nobody wants to be unkind and say that. They realize she’s been through a lot and they truly don’t want to add to it. Mostly though, they don’t want to keep enabling her unhealthy interpersonal behavior and mental dwelling on the past by continuing to entertain this discussion. The most loving response is to set boundaries so that she will establish a healthier, more independent life and move on from all of this.
Standing on the subway platform again, her friends regretfully turn their backs on her. They wish her well, and leave her sobbing in the station. It is a difficult but noble act of tough love. They will pray for her, and they will miss her terribly, the wonderful friend she used to be. But they’re also right about her having been the problem, because once she is gone, everything is pleasant and copacetic again in the subway car.
The preceding story is fictional except for the premise of a woman being raped on the New York City subway and nobody intervening. That has happened on a number of occasions, and has been cited as a glaring example of the “bystander effect,” a common phenomenon in social psychology in which many people are present to observe someone being harmed, but no one does anything to stop it.
People who experience abuse and its aftermath, including victim blaming and secondary victimization from those they turn to for support, learn harrowing things about human nature and behavior. We all like to think that we would stand up for someone who was being harmed, but there are all kinds of social dynamics and thought processes that tend to combine so that most people, even good, well intentioned people, don’t actually do so, and can even end up blaming the victim.
In Scripture, widows and orphans provide an excellent parallel for abuse survivors– those who are socially and financially vulnerable and in need of embrace and protection. Effecting justice for them is one of God’s strongest mandates. Failing to do so carries His harshest condemnation. Whether or not the church does so is a litmus test for the sincerity of its worship.
You shall not mistreat any widow or fatherless child. If you do mistreat them, and they cry out to me, I will surely hear their cry, and my wrath will burn, and I will kill you with the sword, and your wives shall become widows and your children fatherless. -Exodus 22:22-24.
Stop bringing meaningless offerings! Your incense is detestable to me. New Moons, Sabbaths and convocations— I cannot bear your worthless assemblies. Your New Moon feasts and your appointed festivals I hate with all my being. They have become a burden to me; I am weary of bearing them. When you spread out your hands in prayer, I hide my eyes from you; even when you offer many prayers, I am not listening. Your hands are full of blood! Wash and make yourselves clean. Take your evil deeds out of my sight; stop doing wrong. Learn to do right; seek justice. Defend the oppressed. Take up the cause of the fatherless; plead the case of the widow. -Isaiah 1:13-17.
When abuse happens, good churches often treat not talking about it and not taking sides as points of honor, and as the correct spiritual response. Just be kind and sympathetic to all parties, do whatever you can to quietly serve those who are hurting, and don’t discuss it out of respect to those involved.
But that’s a woefully inadequate and even counterproductive response when someone has experienced life altering harm. It’s not enough to be nice to the widow. You have to plead her case.
Pleading her case includes believing her, intervening to stop the abuse, openly taking her side, standing up to others who don’t, eagerly listening to and learning from her experience, and fully validating the extent of the damage done to her without judgment. It means empowering and respecting her, allowing her be the arbiter of her own choices and needs, and seeking to care for her needs as she defines them. In cases where a church has mishandled an abuse case, even unintentionally, pleading the widow’s case means comprehensively examining and relentlessly correcting all factors that contributed to the injustice that was done so that nothing similar is allowed to happen to anyone else in the future.
There is no place for making light of an abuse survivor’s perspective. There is no place for telling her to get over it. There is no place for elevating one’s own discomfort and inconvenience in hearing about the abuse over the actual injustice that was done to the person who experienced it.
Abuse is a common life issue– as common as prostate cancer in men, and 2-3 times as common as breast cancer in women. Nobody gets a pass on developing basic understanding and sensitivity surrounding this issue. If you don’t understand, or if you think you understand but a survivor is telling you that you don’t, please learn.
Here’s a great list of vetted resources to get started over at A Cry for Justice!