identity, abuse, and cruciformity – does ‘being like Jesus’ mean staying with an abuser?
[“Cruciformity” – character shaped in the cruciform and self-giving pattern of Christ]
Two extremes exist today among those answering this question. One extreme is this: the biblical mandate to “turn the other cheek,” modeled in the humiliation of Jesus, requires those who are abusive relationships/marriages to stay the course, loving their spouse in a way that “denies self and takes up the Cross” for the sake of the other. I’ve heard a pastor say this almost verbatim, and wanted to say, “Doesn’t being like Christ require YOU to step in and take the abuse for her?”
A second extreme, however, runs away from the tension of cruciformity, finding a hundred different ways of avoiding the radical demands of the Gospel for one’s life and character. The most extreme of these options is found in a feminist interpretation (“cruciformity is a uniquely masculine, even misogynistic reading likely injected by Paul”). There are assumptions there that just don’t fit the data, and moreover, don’t allow the tension in Paul’s theology to be what it is.
Both extremes are too simplistic and, in my estimation, represent extra-biblical agendas. In fact, while the two extremes remain polarized and largely at war with one another, I’d like to offer an alternative. These are thoughts-in-process, and I’m hopeful for feedback, pushback, and clarification from the readers.
First, I’d suggest that cruciformity is at the heart of Paul’s theology, as well as the identity of Jesus. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that the energy behind it is found in the Trinity and its self-giving circle of love. That said, I cannot call cruciform theology misogynistic. Yet, at the same time, “using” it as a way of encouraging an abused woman (or man, for that matter, though I will stick with the most statistically significant gender) into a supposedly selfless act of staying in relational proximity to the abuser is, in my estimation, criminal. Self-sacrifice is motivated by love, and an abused woman often has no category for “loving” her spouse selflessly. In fact, she does so at great cost not only to herself and her own maturity. And, she fails to hold her sinful spouse accountable for his abuse. Apparent “selflessness,” in other words, may appear noble, but may not really be loving at all.
Second, I’d suggest that Jesus (and Paul, for that matter) could live in a cruciform manner is because they had had a “self” to deny. Let me explain. It takes having a self first to lose a self. The reason we celebrate the self-sacrifice of Paul, or Stephen, or some of the early church martyrs is because they a self (a sense of self-identity?, a “stable” self?) and chose to give it away. Often times, abuse victims have no such life, and no sense of self. In fact, many were erroneously taught and habituated into believing that they were worth crap, to be blunt. This is a denial of human dignity, basic to all image-bearers (even if they are “totally depraved,” as a Calvinist would argue). Remarkably, we hear instances of impoverished people who give up possessions more freely than the rich. In my estimation, these are examples of people who, though economically poor, are spiritually rich. But, abuse victims are, by and large, spiritually and emotionally impoverished, and need help from the powerful – those in a position to step in. The abused have no “self” to give up, because it was absorbed and shattered by the abusive power of others in their lives. Sanctification often becomes by stepping into the very first stages of identity-formation, requiring the church to take seriously a unique discipleship among those who are abused and powerless. (This “discipleship,” sadly, often falls to professional counselors who lack theological/biblical trajectories. And while professional counseling may be needed, the church ought not back away from its primary role in discipleship).
Third, women who I have counseled need time and space to disconnect in order to reconnect. Space does not permit elaboration on the virtues and vices of separation, but at least some level of separation is often needed for the abused to gain a sense of perspective and identity, and the abuser to be awakened to his own sin. This can be a difficult process, and is often confusing for pastors. As a pastor (and a licensed counselor with a PhD in Psychology), I empathize. I’ve dealt with counselors whose primarily answer is, “Get the hell out of there” with no larger context for growth, change, and reconciliation. A significant part of my New Exodus Model of Soul Care is devoted to this shortsighted perspective. But again, time doesn’t allow elaboration. It’s important, most of all, to note the significance of a process which affirms the evil of abuse to the victim, shows protection and care, affirms her dignity (without minimizing her own sinful contributions), and instills a vision for life as God intends for it to be lived. This is hard, and I can attest to the fact that it takes time, time that some pastors cannot handle because they are anxious to see “resolution,” “forgiveness,” and “reconciliation.” I assure you…I want those things too…but patience is needed.
Fourth, a decision to stay in relationship with an abuser requires significant spiritual/emotional strength. Some of my clients have chosen to stay. They have an internal strength and sense of identity (rooted deeply in Christ, not in the devastating “arrows to the heart” from the abuser). This choice often comes after significant self-assessment in relationship with wise counselors and pastors. It also comes in the context of community looking in on her well-being. When or why she should stay is not answered by filling out a checklist, but by working through some pretty heavy questions and with very wise counsel.
Fifth, staying makes her no more heroic than the women who needs to leave. One of the tenets of a New Exodus Model of Soul Care is that God meets us at our various developmental stages, not giving us more than we can handle. Thus, his patience with Israel when they complained shortly after leaving Egypt is developmentally appropriate, while at the same time His impatience and anger with Israel’s complaint much later (post-Sinai) is also appropriate, and not at all a mark of inconsistency in His character. If anything, it’s a testament to His wise parenting. What is heroic is when a woman makes a difficult choice, taking the road-less-traveled at great cost to herself. And, very often, a woman who leaves an abusive man does so at great cost to herself, and finds that spiritual and emotional maturity is propelled from that choice.
Sixth, a trajectory that does not aim for forgiveness and reconciliation is not biblical. I’ve lectured on this a lot in recent years, because my sense is that many counselors take their clients to a fuller, richer sense of self, and leave them there. Doing this puts the client in peril. In fact, in my experience, it often unleashes an angry man-hating narcissist into the world. That’s blunt, but its as honest as I can be. I’ve worked with literally dozens of abused woman, and if I’ve learned anything it is that I do my clients no favors by “terminating” with them too early. In fact, when they feel like they are ready to go, I’ve been known to say, “No, the really tough stuff starts now.” This is because I’m convinced that maturity requires discerning the various stages of or manifestations of cruciformity for the person. Again, it requires too much to write further on this, but begs questions: What, then, does she do with her ‘righteous’ anger? How does she move through anger to sadness? How/when should she re-engage her abuser? What is a vision for her further growth and maturity? Again, many churches I have consulted with have few answers to these questions. There must be a long-term vision that moves toward deeper forms of cruciform living.
Seventh (and last, for now), the church must act more like Christ. I’m grieved that when I see pastors who are unwilling to take the hard steps of intervening in abusive situations, but who (from a distance) throw condemning grenades into an already difficult situation (ie. “she’s in sin if she leaves”). I don’t care if he’s an elder. I don’t care if he tithes more than anyone. You are called to be Jesus, and to lay down your life for the weak, helpless, and powerless among you. I see pastors siding with the powerful over and over again. I am so grateful, in this respect, to be in a new place and at a new church, distanced from what seemed to me to be an epidemic in the South. It’s good to see the church being the church here. I’m being healed, myself, of the sin of cynicism and resignation which was born out of countless examples of pastoral complacency, ignorance, and fearfulness. Our vocational identity, as pastors, needs to be rooted in the cruciform life of Christ. That requires us look beyond the behavior (as the Pharisees failed to do), and to have a vision for the widow, the orphan, the prostitute, the abused, the child – those who, by definition, are stripped or impoverished or disengaged from of a sense of identity. We, the church, intervene, even if it’s dangerous, to rescue, protect, love, support, challenge, or lift up. My sense is that the Christian church is a laughing-stock to many precisely because we’ve failed in this. We would do well to look at the example of the early church that practiced this in a way that puts the most powerful and wealthy church in all of history to shame.
These seven thoughts are preliminary, and I invite your thoughts as I look to define these things more clearly, and publish them in time. I wish I could be more precise. I would caution those who want clear examples, noting that situations differ and motives are harder to discern. It’s because of this that I believe we default to more simplistic behavioral categories which relieve the tension and messiness. Yet, as pastors, if our desire is to avoid tension and messiness, we’re in the wrong vocation.