The Courage To Speak: Confronting the Reality of Abuse in Our Communities
There’s no easy way to talk about these things—about violence, and terror, and the vice-grip hold trauma has on our lives. If a time eventually comes when it doesn’t hurt to talk about the people you loved most harming and terrifying you, that time hasn’t yet come for me, or for anyone I know who’s survived domestic violence.
So why do we? What good does it do to recount the most painful realities in our lives?
For me, part of the answer is because I am trying to find freedom from its grip on me. I’m searching for healing, and we don’t find healing by avoiding pain or the truth. We find it by facing it, by walking into it, and finding our way all the way through to the other side.
Like other abuse survivors, inscribed into the core of my being is a conviction that I do not matter, that my pain does not matter, and that what happened to me does not matter. That somehow what happened to me must’ve been deserved. Speaking up is one way to insist that I do matter, that what happened to me does matter, and that it wasn’t my fault.
But I’m also trying to speak up on behalf of everyone else on this journey, and for those who love them. Because it is a hard, hard thing we are doing. Studies and statistics have shown that abuse is a widespread epidemic with devastating impact—on both its victims’ lives and society at large. Yet when someone first finds the courage to face the abuse they’ve suffered, they often feel as though they are completely alone, an eerie silence the only response to their questions.
In a culture uncomfortable and afraid of facing the reality of abuse and the trauma it causes, minimizing the past to live in denial can seem the easier path. But abuse survivors need all the support and help they can get to find the courage to press through the silence and through the lies into the truth and into healing.
And that’s why we desperately need followers of Christ to step up, to resist the pressure to minimize others’ wounds in order to protect their abusers, and instead hear our stories and stand in solidarity with us.
The theme of advocating for those victimized and silenced by the powerful is pervasive throughout Scripture. It’s in the anguished lament psalms grieving injustice against the vulnerable (eg: Psalm 36:1-4,10), in the desperate pleas of the prophets for God’s people to pursue justice (eg: Isaiah 1:17), and in Christ’s insistence that God is a God of justice who is with the vulnerable, broken, and defenseless of the world (Matthew 5:3-11).
But an outside observer to the church likely wouldn’t know wouldn’t know that advocacy for the marginalized and abused is meant to be a central rhythm in the lives of followers of Jesus. The silence or even dismissive posture so often seen in the church towards those working through the trauma of emotional or physical or sexual violence bears little resemblance to the convicting calls of the prophets, the mournful prayers of the psalmists, or the declaration of Christ himself. More often, we’re prone to implicitly collude with the abuser by putting pressure on the victim to be silent, or to “forgive and forget,” even if their abuser shows no sign of deep repentance. I don’t recall ever hearing the word abuse or the need to address it and repent of it spoken from the pulpit, though I’ve heard a message pressuring believers to surrender anger and “forgive” more times than I can count. We speak of the gravity of sin in the abstract, while refusing to talk about the tangible damage of the grave sin of abuse—of the devaluing and exploiting of those made in God’s image. When we hear of marriages near the brink of divorce due to abuse, we’re more prone to pray for the marriage to be saved than for the abused spouse to find healing and freedom—as if we believe the institution of marriage is more important than defending the worth and dignity of a human being.
In my own experience, the few times I have, tentatively, voiced the need for prayer through the pain of estrangement from unrepentantly abusive family members, I haven’t received prayers for healing and strength as I work to protect my heart and life. Instead, I’ve received prayers for my heart to soften. Prayers for reconciliation, as though my refusal to be abused is bitterness, and reconciliation is desirable at any cost to the victim.
But I don’t refuse a relationship with abusive people because I am bitter or hard-hearted. Because I love them, everything in me longs to deny or minimize the truthful reality of what they have done and to pretend our relationship is okay. In some ways, for me at least, it would be far easier to let myself continue to be mistreated by those I love than to set firm boundaries and say “no more.” But real love isn’t enabling others’ sin. In my situation, separation was the most loving action I could take.
I continue to push against the silence by speaking up about abuse because I know how hard it is to find the courage to break free and say, “This is not okay. This is not love.” And I speak up for the sake of children, including the children I hope to have one day. Because if I believe my abuse didn’t matter, one day a part of me may believe I’m justified in treating my own children that way. And the legacy of abuse needs to stop with me.
Victims of abuse who have found the courage to confront what happened to them and speak up understand more than anyone why people are so often silent about abuse. It can take years of processing and therapy before an abuse survivor begins to comprehend the gravity of what happened to them and the need to break the silence. Confronting abuse is difficult work, and its work none of us are equipped to do on our own. But we need followers of Jesus to be willing to learn, to join us in this struggle. And we need our brothers and sisters in Christ to affirm to us the truth, that we do not owe a close relationship to anyone merely due to biology or history or superficial professions of love. That our safety, dignity, and flourishing is far more important.
For our healing, and for future generations’ health and safety, we need people with the tenacity and courage to surrender the illusion that all is well and instead do the hard work of educating themselves about abuse. About its different forms, about how abusive people can and do manipulate the gospel to preserve control, and about how to be an advocate for those who are being mistreated.
More than anything, we need to know that we’re not alone. We need our brothers and sisters in Christ to hear our stories, to believe us, and to come alongside us as we learn what it means to live in true love and freedom. We need each of you to join us in this fight.