Since I wrote my last post on my concern regarding Christian leaders identifying with Ravi Zacharias instead of with his victims, I learned that I am in good company. For example, Kyle J. Howard wrote an excellent article for RNS and Jacob Denhollander tweeted, and many others have contributed to this conversation. I am encouraged by this public push back against common pithy theological ideas that groom communities to support predators.
And now, since I promised more on “Twitter Theology and Abuser Allies”, here ya go.
In my last post I listed a number of reasons why Owen Strachan’s “That could have EASILY been me” tweet and all the other “But for the grace of God there go I” claims are dangerous. Then I unpacked a bit of number 1on the problem of identifying with abusers over victims.
The focus today is on numbers 2 - 7. These will be scattered throughout the post, instead of one by one, since they are usually interlocking ideas.
2. It implies the one making the claim – and the abuser they identify with – are victims.
4: It justifies judging others as sinful for not affirming this.
5: It normalizes abuses of power and presents them as ubiquitous and unchangeable.
6: It is not true.
7: One unintended benefit of this theological claim is that it reveals hearts.
Here is a phrase to know for anyone that wants to create environments safe from abusers: victim stancing. I first came across this phrase while reading Anna C. Salter's works on predators. It is a tactic used by offenders to manipulate by evoking compassion for the abuser. Salter* writes "“Offenders manipulate with “pity parties”.*
It basically means that the offender mimics the stance of a victim, or if you prefer, they play the victim. This means abusers intentionally get others – including their victims - to feel sorry for them. They use our compassion to spin reality, gain support, minimize the harm they did, and to slander victims and their supporters. If you do not recognize victim stancing when an offender does it, whether from a pulpit or in a personal conversation, then you are vulnerable to becoming an ally for that abuser, and for abusers in general.
Christians are particularly vulnerable to this tactic. [Look for more on why this is in a future post].
So, if abusers play the victim, then what and whom do they imply victimizes them?
Well first, God of course, although they never say that directly. It is implied with all the Purity Culture** teachings that claim men are at the mercy of their maleness. Since God created them male, with all things sexual as their defining weaknesses – whoops! I mean with all things hetero-sexual as their defining weaknesses, they are designed to lust, objectify female bodies (especially young ones, including teens and sometimes pre-adolescent children), be visually stimulated, need sex for release, or to destress, and to experience intimacy.
Therefore, they are victims of God's design.
So, the logic goes, expecting males to master their thoughts, impulses, and desires is unreasonable. They were created as “the weaker brother” needing females to take on the burden to keep men from sinning. The idea is that men are unable to really control any of this.
What else are Christian men "victimized" by? Sexualized culture? Advertising companies? HBO? Song Lyrics? Pornhub? Short skirts? Low Self Esteem? Childhood Abuse?*** Actually all of these and more have been used to excuse abuser behaviors.****
And yet, there are plenty of men that have control over their thoughts, behaviors and impulses. Meaning Strachan's tweet is simply not true. Not every Christian leader or layman is steps away from being the next Ravi. And such men are not some kind of magical unicorns. They are simply mature men. Either they have done the work necessary to grow in areas of self discipline, patience, and empathy, or they never struggled with these vices to begin with. So, what does this mean? It means that those that claim they can not control themselves are disingenuous. They either never tried – why should they? Ya know, since who can fight against God's design. Or they simply do not care to try.
And here is the problem with this: Salter’s research* reveals that when predators use the phrase “I can’t” it is “I won’t” in disguise. This attitude of entitlement is a catalyst for abusive behavior and sexual violations.
Yet, those that do not struggle with Ravi's vices, and that do not proclaim with Strachan their imminent decent into abuse without the grace of God, are judged harshly and accused of being arrogant, self deceived, and dangerous. Meanwhile, the reality is that those that do identify with Ravi, are the potentially dangerous ones.
Jacob Denhollander summed this up in a twitter thread recently and explained, "If you imply, I could easily be an abuser, it implies by necessity that there could easily be victims. Best case scenario, you've got a lot of leaders trying to seem humble but actually implying something quite frightening."
And this "humbleness" is dangerous as well. How so? Kyle J. Howard explains in the article I linked above, “If a person is not on the precipice of falling into patterns of sexual predation and is stating they could be the next Zacharias, it seems to me they are expressing false humility. The outcome of this false humility is a normalizing of abusive and predatory behavior.” (italics mine).
This is the danger. Expressing false humility this way, grooms the community to expect abuse as normal and since it is normal it is not really very serious. It minimizes criminal behaviors and conflates them with "sin".*****
So, Strachan and others, whether or not they are intentional, are grooming their followers to expect abuse from their male Christian leaders, and to identify with abusers or be judged for not identifying with them. This grooming also teaches others to focus on self, to ignore victims entirely, to support and protect abusers, and to do nothing to prevent abuse except trust God's grace to hold potential abusers in check.
That last one is a doozy, so I will repeat it, Strachan and other leaders that identify with Ravi, and their followers that have been groomed effectively, see no reason to do anything to create safe sacred spaces free from abuse, instead they choose to do nothing to prevent abuse except trust God's grace to hold potential abusers in check.
No offense intended to God, but over the last few years it has become evident that this approach has failed woefully.
Too many see no need to learn about abuse dynamics, including not listening to victim/survivors in order to learn how abusers think, act, groom, and deceive. They see no need to train their pastoral staff, leaders, or congregations by hiring experts, such as G.R.A.C.E., to teach the best practices for protecting the vulnerable in Christian communities, and responding to abuse disclosures and abusers.
Just ignore the fact that God created us with agency and expects us to be responsible for the wellbeing of those we shepherd and minister.
For it is not just those that may become abusers that contribute to abuse in our churches and organizations. Jacob Denhollander says that "it's not simply the heart of an individual that leads to abuse on this scale--it's also a systemic issue. If you are in a position where you could easily carry out abuse on that scale, the system itself needs to be changed so that you *couldn't* do it.”
So, since it is systemic, there are levels of responsibility. Those with the most power and influence have the most responsibility. This is scriptural.
Yet, even those of us with the least amount of influence should learn about abuse dynamics and abusers. We all have a responsibility to listen and learn from victims/survivors. We all have a responsibility to examine our theological ideas in light of the truth of abuse. For example, what beliefs function to welcome, protect, and support abusers? What values do we hold that leave the vulnerable unprotected and unsupported?
After all, if we believe something that enables abuse, and/or anything that harms the vulnerable, then you can guarantee that teaching is not of God.
*Anna C. Salter Transforming Trauma: A Guide to Understanding and Treating Adult Survivors of Childhood Sexual Abuse page 215, 1995.
**For more information on the dangers of Purity Culture check out Sheila Wray Gregoire's website particularly her analyses of popular Christian books on marriage andor sex. Also check out Sarah McDogal's youtube channel, Linda Kay Klein's Pure: Inside the Evangelical Movement that Shamed a Generation of Young Women and How I Broke Free, and Dianna Andersons's Damaged Goods: New Perspectives on Purity Culture.
***Childhood abuse does not cause adults to abuse others. This belief slanders victim/survivors by implying that all victims will abuse others and can not be trusted. This is summed up in another pithy common phrase that I hear so often when discussing abusers "Hurt people hurt people." The majority of victim/survivors do not and will not abuse others. Having been abused is not an excuse nor an explanation for abusing others.
****Many of the comments on social media following the report of Ravi’s abuses of power assumed he had experienced pain and suffering that caused him to abuse. They empathized with him, minimized his behaviors, and like Strachan, made no mention of the victims or the suffering Ravi caused them.
***** Sin is in quotations, not because I do not believe abuse is sin, but because is not only sin. It is criminal. Nor is it equal to other sins that are not as destructive and damaging to the abusers' soul, and the victim/survivors' whole self. Sin Leveling is a common response to abuse, and it needs to stop.