Thoughts on Redemption in the Wake of Abuse: Agents of Damage versus Agents of Healing

“Good or Evil?” © Scott Maxwell / Fotolia #6928112.

“Good or Evil?” © Scott Maxwell / Fotolia #6928112.

[This post is part of the #IStandWithSGMVictims campaign on Twitter, and the #IStandWithSGMVictims campaign on Facebook.]

I suspect that acquiring a deep understanding of how relational dynamics works in the real world is something that takes us all a lifetime – as does our applications of those healing skills to bring Kingdom transformation on earth as it is in heaven. My journey with Jesus on that pathway to peace has unfolded in unexpected ways. But the longer I go with Him, the more spiritual sense it all makes. Here are some snapshots from my journey in learning about victimization and recovery and how it involves Agents of Damage and paradoxical parallel Agents of Healing.

Awakening to the Realities

Since before Kindergarten, I’ve been aware of how we can inflict damage on one another, even when we’re trying to be good. So, the practical reality of being a sinner never exactly caught me by surprise. Since high school, I’ve become increasingly aware of how it makes a difference when we stand up for those who’ve been victimized or marginalized. Maybe because my parents exhibited a lot of the characteristics of what Jesus called “people of peace,” a leaning toward justice was just natural.

Since college, this form of advocacy has taken on deeper meaning as a type of spiritual transaction that brings personal and social transformation. I learned much from my sister, who began in the mid-1970s to work with survivors of domestic violence. This naturally led her into such related roles as rape crisis advocate, and trainer in church and community for child sexual assault prevention.

I listened to her stories, those of the people she served with, and those of my own friends. That instilled in me a stronger understanding of the general dynamics of abuse, a deeper sense of outrage at the damage, plus a desire to do something myself to make a constructive difference. It seemed to me that activism with survivors of abuse was exactly the kind of thing Jesus Christ would do in today’s world. And, given how pervasive all sorts of bullying, abuse, and violence are in both Church and community, what a great place to make a Kingdom kind of difference!

Finding My Own Ministry Niche and Perspective

As it turns out, I have worked in a range of recovery-oriented ministries involving men and women from backgrounds of abuse and trauma – physical, emotional, verbal, sexual, spiritual, political, warfare. Not to diminish anyone’s individual story, but it does seem to me that there is a high degree of similarity on how the variety of forms manifest the damage and responses overall. Maybe the list of typical responses is universal, though the unique combination is personal: grief, stress, emotional pain, numbing, substance abuse, even reenacting the causes by abusing others. So, much of my ministry has focused on producing resources to help explore the underlying issues and find practical solutions for transformation.

In my writing and mentoring work, I’ve grown in my perspectives on how certain kinds of transformation take place. I’ve concluded that specific categories of wounds are best healed by a sort of culturally or spiritually similar but safe person from the unsafe one who caused the wound. For instance, I’ve had many conversations with women my age who were terribly hurt by men, and somehow, my presence as a man in sitting with them and listening as they pour forth the specifics of their story makes a visible difference. I can see it in their face, their eyes, especially when I speak truth, like saying: “What he did to you was awful! You didn’t deserve to be treated like that!”

A male friend, acknowledging the damage done to a friend by another male … some kind of spiritually significant thing happened in that moment. I didn’t even have language to put to the idea, but I saw what it did in action. Somehow, it seemed that a very particular kind of advocate could make a powerful difference as an agent of change when he or she possessed specific, inherent qualities that made him or her serve as a unique “agent of healing” – a parallel but redemptive opposite from the “agent of damage” who inflicted the relational wounds.

Personal, Social, and Political Transformation

I kept seeing this “dynamic of the redemptive opposite” emerge elsewhere. It didn’t have to be with an individual, it could be with a group, class, or category of people. How specifically does this work for transformation? In great part, I think it’s a paradox, a mystery of our faith. It’s kind of like the concept of “transference” in therapy. The psychological issues of the client are uncovered and put upon the therapist as a safe representative who can “take it” and not lash back, nor abandon the client.

I discovered, though, that it didn’t have to be in an overtly spiritual or religious context, it could also be social or political. For instance, did you know that what’s historically considered the first “men’s movement” in America actually consisted of pro-feminist men in the 1960s and ’70s who stood alongside women and worked with them to make social changes through the feminist movement? Think of the significance of that … when men so often have acted as agents of damage in holding down those who hold up half the sky, men could also serve as unique agents of healing by supporting women in the cause of social justice without seeking to control the women or the movement.

Regardless of your opinion of counseling or of political feminism, do reflect on how it perhaps shows a more universal human principle at work in the dynamics of damage and healing. And if this agent of damage/agent of healing thing really is a human universal, then it had to come from somewhere …

The Theological Roots

It took me a few decades to see the solution as wrapped up in the idea of “agents of damage and agents of healing.” But the more life I experience, the more I feel the scriptural reality is that healing from relational wounds most deeply occurs when steps toward reconciliation are initiated by an agent of healing who parallels the specific kind of person who inflicted the damage.

This provocative truth for transformation emerges theologically from Romans 5:9-12 and 1 Corinthians 15:45-49. These state that by one man (Greek: andros – MALE) – by the First Adam – sin entered the world and death came as a result of sin. Then the Second Adam/Last Adam, Christ, resolved the issues of sin and death both by taking upon Himself the penalty for sin and by removing the separation caused by sin. Jesus Christ is the representative male agent of healing who brings relational restoration to all of us who were excluded because of another male, Adam.

So, Jesus Christ is the Lamb of God who “takes it” for the whole world, and He is also The Good Shepherd. This may be the best theological example for what it means to be meek – not weak – and to live out this kind of redemptive role. His advocacy is the antidote to the damage. It heals the wounds and empowers wholeness. He counteracts death and restores life. This truly is one of the most amazing of mysteries of our faith!

The Application to Abuse Situations

When we come to the issues of spiritual abuse, I believe I’ve seen the same dynamics at work. Agents of healing help us as survivors identify how we were specifically victimized by agents of damage from an authoritarian system of abuse. For instance, some of the most inhumane treatment I ever received – put-downs, sarcasm, silencing – all came from the founding pastor of a church plant. Some of the best mentoring I ever received – building up, kind words, listening – all came from the founding pastor of another church plant.

Keeping those opposite treatments by similar kinds of people in perspective helped me find a centerpoint of sanity. No, “my” abuse wasn’t about some weird law of attraction where I always drew harmful people to myself and so “deserved” it – otherwise, how could I have ended up with the pastor who brought healing? Yes, I wasn’t perfect in what I thought or did during that ugly situation of abuse, but no, I wasn’t responsible for “causing” that abusive pastor’s words or deeds. (As it turned out, he pretty much treated anybody and everybody the same way. But I didn’t see that at the time.)

All of this is why I believe churches and ministries must regularly evaluate how “safe” they are for anyone and everyone to find an environment that both welcomes them and challenges toward redemptive transformation. I will be writing much, much more about how to start or reconstruct safe ministry environments and then sustain them, but I’m writing from experience not from doing a mega-book-report after reading everyone else’s theories on the subject. So, I had to begin with difficult real-world toxic systems of abuse, so I could ensure that, to the best of my abilities, I could find realistic and theologically rich solutions that would make sense.

So, what follows is an overview of key ways that agents of damage in spiritually abusive situations do their particular deeds, and how parallel agents of healing bring a specific point of redemption into that wounding. I’ve come up with 10 roles – well, actually, nine roles and one mega-role. I’m not putting much more than basic descriptions here. I’ll expand on them in my forthcoming curriculum, Do Good Plus Do No Harm. But for now, see how these pairings help you think about toxic versus healing systems.

10 Pairs of Roles in Systems of Damage versus Healing

Here is a chart of the 10 pairs of mirror opposite roles that I see in the Dictators versus Survivors systems. (Click on the chart to view a larger, clearer version of it.) Note: Although I’ve selected images for each of these roles, I am only using the Dictator and Survivor images here. I will present the entire set in a forthcoming “visual guide” to systems of power abuse and support for personal recovery.

Agents of Damage vs Agents of Healing Chart

Agents of Damage vs Agents of Healing Chart

Final Thoughts

I didn’t create this framework in order to box people in and be done with them. Rather, it’s to expand our thinking to help us identify critical differences in tactics of abuse so we can see how to function in the appropriate opposite way that can facilitate healing. Was someone you know harmed the most by shushing from a Silencer? Being welcomed by an Includer and valued by an Approver may all be helpful. But, at some point, the specific issues of being prevented from saying what they thought needs to be addressed, and it seems that a Listener is best equipped to be the redemptive opposite for that specific wound.

Finally, I know how tempting it is to use these lists and concept sets as labels, but that is a misuse. It marginalizes people. To quote that famous philosopher … okay, so it was Dana Carvey … “To label me is to ignore me.” But reality is always more complex than reasoning will ever reveal. So please, don’t put people in a box as if all they are is a Survivor or a Perpetrator, an Advocate or an Enabler. Actually, one person can play a mixture of any number of roles from one side of the overall system, Damage or Healing. They can even be involved in roles from both sides simultaneously – still being abusive and harming others while starting to come to terms with their own status as a victim.

The core effect in any authoritarian system of abuse is that it removes its subjects’ right and responsibility to think for themselves, feel for themselves, discern for themselves, imagine their own preferable future, determine their own decisions and courses of action as they see best (either alone or involving others), associate with the people they decide to engage with, and deal with the consequences in their choices. In short, it dehumanizes people, reducing their value to merely what they contribute to keeping in positions of power those who lord their authority over them. The roles people play in these toxic systems are insidious. They inflict deep damage – but it is not impossible to overcome.

All of this is why I believe we as Christians need to be people of peace, who ensure that the environments in which we work, worship, and serve are safe places for redemptive transformation. This is one of the most practical ways we can embody Christlike character – as those who provide advocacy, support, and empowerment for all who journey from a situation of victimization to a role as a Survivor.

“Support” © Scott Maxwell / Fotolia #1320810.

“Support” © Scott Maxwell / Fotolia #1320810.

8 thoughts on “Thoughts on Redemption in the Wake of Abuse: Agents of Damage versus Agents of Healing

  1. This is brilliant and insightful! This gives me a lot to think about. Creating safe and welcoming environments for redemptive transformation is truly something we need to work on. Your article raises the level of awareness.

    • Thank you so much for your comment, Beth. That is kind of you to say and I’m glad it’s stimulating some thought about the practical issues we have in creating safe spaces for ministry, teamwork, personal growth, etc.

      When I think through my own situations in malignant ministries or otherwise with toxic leaders, I can identify the people who played each of these roles. Same with situations that brought great relief, healing, and recovery from abuse. My hope is that survivors will find those redemptive agents of healing in their life, and also that those people who’ve been trapped in roles as perpetrators or perpetuators of damage will find in their mirror opposite “healing partner” some keys to what real repentance could look like for them … Wouldn’t that be glorious for Christ’s Kingdom? Silencers learning to become Listeners, Negators eventually becoming Approvers, Commenders of unqualified/abusive leaders transformed into Defenders of abuse survivors. If the systems of overcontrol are going to stop, part of our task is to equip people with specific trajectories of transformation that fit what they’re dealing with in causing damage to others. Otherwise, one organization may fold, but unchanged people will start a clone.

      So, anyway, much food for thought.

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  5. This is absolutely brilliant and profound. A friend sent it to me, and I’m posting it on FB forthwith. I’m thankful that old posts can still be accessed, and I’m thankful that you took the time and energy to put your ruminations into words.

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