Why I publish my concerns about various abuse advocates (part 4 of series on ChurchCares)
You may be wondering why I am publicly articulating my concerns about various abuse advocates. I have searched my heart and don’t think I’m motivated by self conceit or sour grapes or a desire to be combative. And I certainly don’t do it because I relish being reprimanded on social media!
I do it because I care very much for victims of domestic abuse. And one way I can help victims is to help the wider body of Christ think carefully and biblically about abuse advocacy and counseling.
Victims do not all have the same views. You may think a particular advocate is fantastic. Another victim may think that particular advocate is teaching some things that are confusing, unhelpful or even hurtful. If you are a victim of abuse and have not sensed anything wrong with the teaching of the advocates I critique, please have patience and respect for those victims who have a different perspective. And vica versa – I will do my best to have patience and respect for those who do not share my views. And note: I far prefer to read your thoughts at this blog, rather than on Twitter or Facebook. Those platforms don’t encourage nuanced conversation.
It is all too easy to use words in ways that hurt survivors of abuse
My brethren, be not every man a counsellor, remembering that we will receive the stricter judgement. (James 3:1 NMB)
Even if you are an esteemed advocate or counselor who works with abuse survivors, it’s all too easy to use words in ways that hurt survivors – especially if you have not suffered that kind of abuse yourself. When advocates do that, I pick up on it very quickly. I can’t help it. This awareness is just something I’ve acquired over years of hearing from hundreds (probably thousands) of victims, plus being a survivor of abuse myself in childhood and adulthood.
When I see other advocates giving teaching that can hurt or confuse victims or send them down time-consuming false paths, it really worries me because I feel for all the victims who are being confused and hurt. So I sometimes try to give my feedback to those advocates. I give feedback as constructively as I can. I hope the advocates will reconsider their words, but they often ignore me.
I know that I’m not the only survivor who is bothered by the language of certain advocates. I know this because other survivors have written to tell me so. They tell me they sensed something ‘not quite right’ about the way that advocate put things, but they might not have been able to put their finger on what was wrong. These survivors tell me that my insight about that advocate’s approach has helped disentangle their own confusion…and thus helped their recovery.
Someone suggested to me that I just let the SBC and the wider church ‘muddle along’ in raising awareness about abuse. But if high-profile advocates are putting out ideas that are somewhat unbiblical (and are therefore not all that helpful to victims) and victims have told me that I help them analyse what is being taught so they are better able to differentiate the chaff from the nourishing grain, then ought I keep silent? Is it right or wrong to let the church just muddle along?
When we are talking about abuse, the language we use is very important.¹
Obfuscating the perpetrator’s responsibility
“To obfuscate” means to obscure the understanding or judgement, darken, throw into the shade, dim the sight, bewilder, stupefy.
When advocates use language that obfuscates the perpetrator’s responsibility, it worries me. One way in which advocates can do this is by referring to abusers and their allies as “we” – thereby suggesting that all of us are abusers or allies of abusers. In my view, Diane Langberg sometimes does this.
Another way advocates can obfuscate abusers’ responsibility is by advising victims to take on the burden of prompting or provoking the abuser to change. In my view, Leslie Vernick is one of the advocates who does this.
Concealing the resistance of victims
It worries me when I hear advocates use language that conceals victims’ resistance rather than shedding light on and honouring the ways victims have judiciously resisted the abuse.
To learn what I mean by “honouring the resistance of victims”, I encourage you to read Honouring Resistance: How Women Resist Abuse in Intimate Relationships. It is a PDF booklet and it won’t take you long to read. Note: if you have been abused you might want a trigger warning because reading it may bring up memories for you to process. But I promise it will help you understand and see through the fog of all the labels that have been unfairly plastered on you.
It worries me when advocates use language that pathologises victims. To pathologise something is to represent it as a disease. By extension it can mean representing someone as wrong, as defective in some way.
One way in which advocates pathologise victims is by implying that victims who feel fear, timidity, resentment, or anger are wrong – so they need to change.
The “you are wrong” messages echo the accusations which abusers and their allies have hammered victims with. To tell a victim “you are wrong” sounds so close to “you are to blame; the problem is your fault; you should fix yourself and get your act together.”
All the ‘shoulds’ and victim-blaming messages pile up and bury the victim.
Advocates who tell to the victim to “work on herself” are inadvertently replicating the messages that abusers tell their victims.
Another way advocates can pathologise victims is by suggesting that victims are “enabling” the abuse. As I wrote years ago in my post Enabling? Sins of the victim? I do not object to a victim reflecting on her past and saying about herself, “I enabled my abuser”. But I do think it’s unhelpful when other people take the liberty of stating that victims are enabling their abusers.
When advocates say that victims enable abusers, they are not taking into account the meticulous brainwashing and mind control that perpetrators do to their victims. They are not taking into account how, with male on female domestic abuse in particular, the perp systematically disassembles the target woman.
Advocacy specialisation is inevitable and valuable – but it has its own risks
Advocates often specialise in different areas and modalities: sexual abuse, spiritual abuse, domestic abuse, system-analysis, psychology & counseling, theology, investigation, journalism, and the justice system. One thing I’ve noticed is that those who specialise or have experience in one area do not necessarily understand other areas very well.
Here are some examples.
- If someone grew up with a psychologically abusive parent they often don’t understand intimate partner abuse very well…though they may make the mistake of assuming they do.
- Someone who has specialised in sexual abuse advocacy may think they understand domestic abuse, but they may not.
- Someone who has primarily suffered or studied spiritual abuse will not necessarily have an in-depth grasp of sexual abuse, or intimate partner abuse.
- A Christian counselor who has devoted a lot of time trying to teach more conservative Christian counselors might speak to general audiences as if they are all counselors and church leaders…but general audiences include many survivors who are at various stages of awakening and recovery.
None of that is unsurprising. But it’s hard to get advocates to see their blind spots. When they have become so specialised and skilled in one area, it is easy to fall into the trap of being resistant to feedback from others who have different skills and perspectives.
The advocate comfort-zone
Furthermore, an advocate can easily fall into the comfort-zone that comes from being esteemed as an expert and getting paid for dispensing your wisdom to audiences who are less aware of abuse than you are.
If, as an advocate, you rely on income from corrupted organisations, you are less likely to boldly expose the corruption in those organisations. You might indirectly point to their obstinacy – by euphemism, by allusion, by generalities – but will you challenge and nail the corruption that you see in that organisation if you are enjoying or reliant on their payments? Will you tell yourself that it’s okay to compromise because, after all, you are influencing some people to be more aware of abuse than they were before?
The problem is, every compromise you make lets some victims of abuse down.
¹ I created the graphic about language from the work of Allan Wade and Linda Coates, especially their article Language and Violence: Analysis of Four Discursive Operations – link takes you to a pdf of that article which was originally published in the Journal of Family Violence (2007) 22:511-522.
Other posts in this series on the ChurchCares teaching team. ChurchCares is the SBC’s upcoming video series which they are producing to help churches to respond to abuse.
Pt 3: Diane Langberg is advocating for abuse victims, but… – there is an extensive & illuminating discussion thread at that post
Pt 5: Leslie Vernick – various responses that domestic abuse victims have to her work. – there are well over 100 comments at this post! The commenters are sharing illuminating and helpful ideas.
Other posts at this blog about advocacy