More confusing messages in “Is It My Fault” by the Holcombs (book review Pt 4 of 4)
[June 15, 2022: There have been some changes made to this post. For more information, read the Editors’ notes at the bottom of the post. Editors.]
This final part of the book review exposes the confusing double messages in Justin and Lindsey Holcomb’s book Is It My Fault?Hope and Healing for Those Suffering Domestic Abuse.
The Holcombs lament how the church falls short, but they seem to assume that churches will respond properly when a victim discloses.
They soft-pedal the need for the church to repent and change the way it deals with abuse. Their mention of how the church falls short is little more than a passing lament; they never give it center stage.
Now to give them credit, they do say good things like:
Some “help” [from friends, family and ministry members] — if misapplied — can actually hurt. Platitudes, prying questions, and shallow ‘biblical’ answers, for example, do more harm than good for the victim….In fact, many victims believe clergy have the most potential to help them, when in reality they are often the least helpful and sometimes even harmful. (16)
….many churches are woefully underequipped to deal with domestic violence. (27)
Unfortunately many victims who reach out to churches in times of need receive blame, disbelief, suspicious questions, bad advice, platitudes, and shallow theology instead of care and compassion. (201)
But they also make statements that seem to blithely take for granted that churches will respond properly when a victim discloses. [Trigger warning — sappy advice]
As you discern what your next step is, remember that you have a voice and there are resources available to you. You don’t have to remain silent anymore. Tell a friend, a family member, the authorities, a pastor, or a ministry leader. (180)
Religious beliefs sometimes cause women to feel that God does not permit them to leave, that marriage is forever, that this is their cross to bear, or that perpetual forgiveness of their husband for his repeated behavior is God’s expectation. Religious women are especially likely to cling to the belief that their violent husband wants to and will change his behavior. Here it is critical that the victim seeks out wise counsel from a trained pastor and counselor to help her navigate these issues. (52)
Whoa! Pastors and counselors are trained, but trained in what? Very often they are trained in things like sin-levelling, the mutualization of marriage problems, the use of couple’s counseling for all troubled marriages (abuser heaven if he can recruit the pastor as his ally), and Peacemakers philosophy. Pastors and counselors are not routinely being given pre-ordination training on the mentality of sin and the dynamics of domestic abuse. And if they get post-graduate training on domestic abuse, the chances are it resembles the stuff that is being offered at places like CCEF or DTS. Sigh.
In my view, the Holcombs ought to have done more than lament the church’s poor response, they ought to have proactively called the church to reform. The book lacks any tone of outrage about what is being done to women by abusers, and by some clergy and counselors. A sense of outrage is one of our non-negotiables for effective and Biblical abuse ministry.
My guess is that the average bystander and pastor will be fairly comfortable with Is It My Fault? because it tells the victim what to do, while giving church leaders something of a free pass — by not calling them to thoroughly review what they’ve been doing that may have made victims’ lives worse.
In Appendix 3 they list “Eight ways your church can reflect Jesus’ heart for women at risk”. But although the list mentions “stand with the vulnerable and powerless” it does not give any specifics as to how. Their list wraps up with this platitudinous vanilla advice:
As we react to the pain and suffering of women at risk, we should meditate on Jesus’ love and care for women. But God’s love should do more than just make us feel better — it should lead us to imitate His care for children, take action against evil toward the vulnerable, and pray for God’s peace and salvation to cover the earth. (203)
For me, “take action against evil towards the vulnerable” was too little, and way too late in the book. And the Holcombs failed to address the abused person’s excruciating dilemma when her abuser is a church attender and has numerous allies in the church.
I would have been much happier if this list had stated that churches ought to:
- learn how to recognize and resist the abuser’s efforts to recruit allies in the church
- proactively engage with secular agencies to hold abusers tightly accountable, including removing them from the privilege of church membership (excommunication)
- never talk as though, once she has separated from the abuser, the victim can freely walk the path of spiritual healing in the balmy light of God’s peace and love. — For unless the abuser’s power and control lusts are diverted elsewhere so his desire for vengeance against her fades, or unless he dies, or unless he is one of the very rare abusers who face their problem and work on reforming their character, her recovery will be hampered by his ongoing attempts to harass and control her and make her life miserable.
- the victim’s church should prohibit the separated / divorced abuser from attending services so the victim is not scared to go to church because her abuser will be there.
When the church humbles itself and repents, when its biased teaching, its neglect of victims and its enablement and molly-coddling of abusers are things of the past, victims of domestic abuse will find it much easier to come out of the fog and experience the antidote to unjust treatment and stigmatization: honor, esteem and respect.
They give some good descriptions of abusers and their tactics:
Abusers often find ways to hurt the whole person. They shred their victim’s sense of self-worth, crush their wills and violate their bodies. (69)
If you aren’t sure if you can break things off, or if you think that the cycle will naturally be broken if you leave, it’s important to see the whole picture and to understand what he might do in response. As you will see, the worst parts will always subside if he doesn’t think it’s an effective way to keep you in his power, but when he has lured you back, nothing will have changed. And without intervention, the frequency and severity of abuse tends to increase, spiralling downward in the cycle of abuse. (43)
The abuser’s apologies and affectionate gestures in between the episodes of abuse can make it difficult to leave. He may make you believe that you are the only person that can help him, that things will be different this time, and that he truly loves you. However, the dangers of staying are very real — as you will experience anew every time the cycle starts all over again. (46)
But they sometimes use language which obscures the responsibility of the abuser:
Domestic violence is dangerously good at hiding itself, yet it is extremely prevalent — and extremely damaging — in our world today. (59)
The problem with that sentence is that the abusers are made invisible. Domestic violence is the agent which ‘hides itself’. So the abuser’s agency and responsibility are airbrushed away!
(For an academic paper on how language is used to obscure and minimize violence, click here.)
They sometimes do a reasonable job of honouring victims:
Those who have been abused are often actively resisting their abusers, but all too often, their resistance goes unnoticed by outsiders….if you’ve resisted your abuser, you’re showing that you’ve maintained something of your humanity and self-esteem in the face of horrendous abuse. If this is you, you should be supported, celebrated, assisted and encouraged — not blamed, offered platitudes asked suspicious questions, and told bad theology….All victims do things to oppose abuse and to keep their dignity….They stand up against, refuse to comply with and try to stop or prevent violence, disrespect, and oppression.
Of course, abuse is dangerous territory, so usually victims resist it in small and subtle ways. Others may not even notice the resistance so they assume that victims are “passive” and “they do not do enough to stand up for themselves.” In fact, victims actively resist violence. (53-4)
But they undo this by dishonouring victims in a variety of ways:
a) They patronize and subtly disparage victims
In Jesus, the God who delivers us from evil also offers us a path to healing. And it’s time to let this truth transform the shape of your story. (17)
These words suggest that the victim is at fault because she hasn’t been letting the truth about God’s healing and deliverance transform her story. The Holcombs take the superior position that THEY know when it’s time for her to let the truth of God transform her story. And they imply that up until she read their book, she hadn’t been letting God’s truth transform her story — and the implication of that, in turn, is that since she hadn’t been ‘letting’ God’s truth transform her story, she must have been been hindering, blocking or preventing it. (naughty, naughty victim!) And again, the abuser’s responsibility is evacuated. They make it sound like it’s the victim who has blocked God’s truth, not the abuser.
The Holcombs have patronized the victim by implying that prior to her picking up their book, she hasn’t been letting God heal her and deliver her from abuse. How insulting! While she has been doing her out-and-out best to survive under the oppression and lies of her abuser, she has been praying to God for healing and deliverance — often praying for months or years or decades! How dare they belittle the victim by telling her “it’s time”? — especially when they have not directed church leaders that it’s time to start putting abusers out of the church as per 1 Corinthians 5!
I am pretty sure that the Holcombs didn’t mean to blame-shift, and will be distressed to think they might have done so. All I can hope is that they listen to my feedback and take it seriously. If they and other authors and teachers reject my feedback as ‘typical Barbara Roberts, always being ultra-critical’, that will be disappointing.
I believe that most decent people do NOT want to condone or enable domestic abusers and do NOT want to blame victims. But very often, because they don’t have enough understanding, they DO use language that obscures the responsibility of perpetrators and blames victims. All we can do about this is keep giving our feedback, as the afflicted ones, to whoever will listen. And hope that by our continual dripping, the stone will wear away.
Another example of disparagement —
Under the subheading “Anger”, they say:
Deep in the hearts of victims, anger swells up against the perpetrator, their rage inflamed by suffering. Anger is a natural and even healthy response to domestic violence. While nearly all victims appropriately experience anger, most express it poorly or not at all. (87)
I will give them the benefit of the doubt: they might have meant “most victims express anger very little or not at all. But their actual words — most victims express anger poorly — bear too close a likeness to the unjust accusations of her abuser and his allies, and to the admonishments dished out to her by well-meaning people.
For her common experience is that if she expresses her grievances to the abuser, to church leaders, or to family and friends, or if she gets angry about the injustice they are condoning and committing and letting pass, they tell her she has expressed it unfairly, without good reason, too dramatically, with too much emotion, with too little emotion, with over-exaggeration, too controllingly, too weakly, too timidly, too confusingly, too ambiguously, too vaguely, too harshly, at the wrong time, in the wrong way, in the wrong tone of voice = POORLY.
Once again, though they meant well, the Holcombs have disparaged the victim and echoed the accusations and insinuations of the abusers and their allies in society.
One more example of disparagement —
This one is confusing. It starts off okay but ends with a weird twist in the tail that makes me think the Holcombs needed a dictionary check.
Scripture does not always describe anger as sin. God is angrier over the sin committed against you even more than you are….Certainly Scripture is clear that anger is a dangerous emotion, though it can be righteous (directed at sin) or it can be sinful (delighting in vindication). (88)
It is sinful for us to take vengeance on our abusers. Rom 12:19 and Heb 10:30 say (paraphrase) ‘Vengeance is mine,’ says the Lord. But this is the first time I’ve heard that it’s sinful to delight in vindication! Unless you take an obsolete meaning of the word, vindication is a good thing. We may delight in vindication with a clear conscience!
Definition of Vindicate (link)
1) To clear of accusation, blame, suspicion, or doubt, with supporting arguments or proof.
Our society permits people to sue for libel so that they may vindicate their reputations.
2) To defend, maintain, or insist on the recognition of (one’s rights, for example).
3) To demonstrate or prove the value or validity of; justify.
The results of the experiment vindicated her optimism.
4) Obsolete To exact revenge for; avenge.
And yet another example of disparagement —
The Holcombs do a good job of explaining that forgiveness doesn’t mean forgetting the abuse or pretending it didn’t happen; and it doesn’t mean giving permission to repeat the abuse; nor does it require that the relationship be restored. But then they say:
Forgiveness means that the victim decides to let go of the experience in order for God to deal justly with her abuser. It is the decision to move on and refuse to tolerate abuse of any kind again. (89)
There are two piercing needles in this, so let’s take each sentence separately.
First sentence: “Forgiveness means that the victim decides to let go of the experience in order for God to deal justly with her abuser.” The problem is the words ‘let go’. They will spin the victim into perplexities: “Am I ‘holding on’ to the experience of abuse? Is ‘holding on’ unforgiveness? What is ‘holding on’ anyway? Are the Holcombs suggesting that victims typically gnash their teeth and nurse a wish to take vengeance on their abusers? Am I doing that? What am I holding onto? Am I being unforgiving by wanting a bit of honesty and respect from my abuser? — and wanting justice and support from the church? What am I not letting go of? It must be something wrong with me: I must be crazy that I can’t figure this out!
Second sentence: “It [forgiveness] is the decision to move on and refuse to tolerate abuse of any kind again.” The assertion that ‘forgiveness is moving on’, is a re-prick of the ‘holding on’ needle above. But the words ‘refuse to tolerate’ are a new problem.
After all the Holcombs have said about how the abuser crushes the will of the victim by means of coercive control and power tactics, how the victim nevertheless resists the abuse (and needs to be celebrated for doing so), and how victims stand up against, refuse to comply with, and try to stop or prevent violence, disrespect, and oppression — the Holcombs undo it.
The Holcombs have defined forgiveness as ‘refusing to tolerate abuse’. This inverse of this definition runs as follows: if you tolerate abuse, you are unforgiving. What a deft swipe of the victim-blaming knife they’ve given here!
Trigger defuse: what the Holcombs say here doesn’t make sense! The fact that it doesn’t make sense to you, dear survivor, shows that you are sensible and logical: you are unwilling and unable to make ‘sense’ from nonsense. You are not crazy.
To suggest that tolerating abuse is akin to being unforgiving is a slight on the character of every victim. Speak it off! Shed it! Repel it! Dear reader, rather than allowing that disparaging insinuation to eat at you, I suggest you say to yourself: “My abuser used evil tactics of power and control to oppress and hold me in bondage. People who say that forgiveness means “refusing to tolerate abuse of any kind again” have disparaged me. But they do not understand that I was constantly doing things to guard my safety, my dignity, my personhood. He often flipped me for six, but I learned to choose my battles carefully. I may have given him (and others) the impression that I was ‘tolerating’ this mistreatment — and I tried my best to tolerate it because I’d been taught that was how a good Christian spouse should behave — but in hidden ways, sometimes even hardly apparent to myself, I was creatively resisting the abuse and was doing things or thinking things to keep my integrity and dignity intact, while he was finding ways to destroy my integrity and strip away my dignity.
Another example of patronizing —
Domestic violence maligns a victim’s sense of self and communicates that they are stupid, filthy, foolish, worthless, defiled, impure, damaged, gross, screwed-up, unwanted or dirty.
But God never calls you to any of these things. And this is not the identity He has given you.
Making the transition from a victim identity to an identity in Christ is offered in God’s redemptive work through Jesus. Of course, if you are a victim of domestic violence, that that is part of your story that you should not deny or minimize. But if you let it become the reigning story about you, then your identity will be founded on disgrace. (84)
For those of us who are okay about describing ourselves as victims, this passage sounds like we are being maligned for having the ‘victim identity disease’. Why pit ‘victim identity’ against ‘identity in Christ’? They’ve made it sound like it’s either one or the other, but they can both be true; and the survivor who feels both terms are true for her ought not be made to feel that her thinking is wrong.
But the worst part for me in the quote above is “if you let it become the reigning story about you”.
Let me explain by means of satire:
Such unwise victims for letting abuse become your reigning story! Just switch channels and let Christ’s identity become your reigning story. What’s that you say? You can’t switch channels because the abuser’s holding the TV remote? Well, recite the following mantra (condensed from pp 84-86):
Making the transition from a victim identity to an identity in Christ is offered in God’s redemptive work through Jesus. I am a child of God. I have received the righteousness of Christ. I am redeemed. I am forgiven. I am a new creation, God’s workmanship, reconciled to God. I am a saint, chosen, holy and beloved, child of light, pure, blameless, glory of God, and above reproach.
What’s that? Did you say you know all that, but the mantra doesn’t help? That what you really need is safety and the abuser made accountable so you don’t have to fear his harassment any more? Did you say you are wondering when we might put him out of the church so you could feel more safe? Oh, sorry, I’m on the God channel, can you call back later? Oh, and you could try ringing the phone numbers in Appendix 1, Getting Help; and Appendix 2, Making a Safety Plan. But the mantra works for us! It oughta work for you! If it doesn’t, it’s because you’re not letting it!
b) They belittle victims
Under the subheading “The Emotional Effects of Domestic Violence”, the Holcombs say:
In addition to finding the energies to take necessary action to protect and preserve herself, the victim will also need to know where to find assistance. For a victim who has not even been allowed a say in the running of her own home, finding this help can be an overwhelming prospect. (72)
Yes, abusers often control a lot of the way the home is run. But victims always resist in creative, shrewd, careful and often hidden ways, valiantly doing their utmost to ensure that the home is run so that the family members’ real needs are met and things do not fall in a total heap (which they often would, if the abuser’s actions and edicts were the only thing that ruled).
Let me bring in a piece of wisdom from Respecting and Listening to Victims of Violence: A handbook for those who are supporting women who have been abused by an intimate partner by the Calgary Women’s Emergency Shelter, Alberta, Canada:
Responses versus Effects
It was only in the 1970’s that the problem of family violence began to be talked about in our society, and that programs were started for victims and perpetrators. To show that the problems of family violence are serious, advocates for victims talked a great deal about how victims are affected by abuse. While it is still really important for everyone to know how dangerous and how very hurtful abuse is to victims, the problem is that looking only at how victims are affected by abuse results in a one-sided and overly negative view of victims. Consequently, there are now many stereotypes of victims. One of these is that they are “damaged.” Another stereotype is that victims are somehow to blame for the abuse they have received from their partners. Because onlookers may not pay attention to how victims respond to abuse (which can be subtle), they may assume victims are abused because they do not speak up for themselves, are weak, or are poor at setting boundaries.
In fact, in our experience, all victims, even small children, resist being mistreated. When we look at the way victims always respond to the mistreatment, we realize there is no such thing as a passive victim.
Note: the people who originated the response-based approach put forward in this handbook are Nick Todd, Allan Wade, and Linda Coates. They can all be found at Response Based Practice, the site from which I obtained the Language graphic above. I’ve recommended Allan Wade and his colleagues’ work on this blog before.
c) They issue orders to victims
In the Bible, the psalmist never shies away from telling the truth of his dire circumstances — and neither should you. (67)
The word ‘should’ is a trigger for victims because often it seems like an order from a sergeant major. It would have been better to say ‘neither need you’. Any time the victim is given an instruction about what she should or shouldn’t do, the chances are she will feel pressured — coerced to obey the ‘should’. The abuser and the church have been telling her what she should do for so long already, she needs no more ‘shoulding’; she only needs information, encouragement and liberty to make her own choices in her own time, while she judiciously and continuously assesses and balances her risks according to her particular and changing circumstances.
Allow God to fulfill His promises to you after so many promises have been broken. (83)
By telling the victim to allow God to fulfill His promises to her, they imply that she has been not allowing God to fulfill his promises to her. Not only does this point the didactic finger at the victim, it also shifts responsibility from the abuser, rendering him invisible.
Other things they say that will trigger victims
a) They use inappropriate scriptural examples
Some of the most poignant examples of God’s deliverance include people we might not expect. For example, after Cain killed Abel, God promised to protect him. (118)
Cain was an abuser and a murderer! God punished him by making him a wanderer and fugitive in the earth. When Cain whined about the punishment, God promised to give an even more severe punishment for anyone who murdered Cain. That is a protection of sorts, but not really a deliverance. The application of this example to abuse victims is offensively inappropriate. Is the victim on a par with Cain: wicked and deserving of punishment? Is her longing for deliverance like the self-pitying complaining whine of Cain? Why did they bring Cain up at all?
b) They use the sin-levelling cliche ‘we are all broken people’
We believe that the deepest message of the ministry of Jesus and the Bible is the grace of God to all of us because we are all broken people in a broken world. (17)
On the term ‘broken people’, see here for some good remarks by one of our readers. On sin-levelling, see my post Are all sins equally bad? Are all transgressions of the law equally heinous?
Take home message: How people use language is of vital importance in the field of abuse and violence
Many authors, preachers and advocates are unaware of the ways that language is often used to:
- conceal violence and abuse
- obscure perpetrators’ responsibility
- conceal victims’ responses and resistance, and
- blame and pathologize victims.
Authors, preachers, leaders, and supporters of victims: when you talk about abuse, we would love you to use language that:
- reveals the violence and abuse
- clarifies the responsibility of perpetrators
- elucidates the responses and resistance of victims
- contests the blaming and pathologizing of victims.
An excellent way to learn how to do this is to listen to the feedback of victims.
Reading the posts in our Triggers tag would also provide a crash course in the language that triggers us as victims. So far as we are aware, few Christian leaders read or heed this material, as yet. But we plug on.
After all, we are only doing what the Holcombs themselves said we should be honoured and celebrated for doing. This is straight from the Holcomb’s book, with comments in brackets by me:
Those who have been abused are often actively resisting their abusers, but all too often, their resistance goes unnoticed by outsiders….if you’ve resisted your abuser [there’s no IF about it! — all victims resist abuse] you’re showing that you’ve maintained something of your humanity and self-esteem in the face of horrendous abuse. If [not if. Because] this is you, you should be supported, celebrated, assisted and encouraged — not blamed, offered platitudes asked suspicious questions, and told bad theology….All [yes, all] victims do things to oppose abuse and to keep their dignity…. They stand up against, refuse to comply with and try to stop or prevent violence, disrespect, and oppression. (53-54)
So, I hope the Holcombs and any other authors, theologians, pastors and counselors who read this book review will not judge us for standing up against, refusing to comply with, and trying to stop or prevent violence, disrespect, and oppression. I hope, instead, they will support us and celebrate us and assist us and encourage us. 🙂 If so, we will support and celebrate and assist and encourage you!
[June 15, 2022: Editors’ notes:
—For some comments made prior to June 15, 2022 that quoted from the post, the text in the comment that was quoted from the post might no longer be an exact match.
—For some comments made prior to June 15, 2022 that quoted from the post, the text in the comment that was quoted from the post might no longer be found in the post.
If you would like to compare the text in the comments made prior to June 15, 2022 that quoted from the post to the post as it is now (June 15, 2022), click here [Internet Archive link] for the most recent Internet Archive copy of the post.]
Posts in the “Is It My Fault?” review series
Part 4: Is this post.