When God was a victim: What a child abuse survivor taught me about Good Friday

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Crucifix on the Klein Matterhorn - courtesy of On Being via Flickr

Crucifix on the Klein Matterhorn - courtesy of On Being via Flickr

As Good Friday approaches, many hurting people deeply struggle with its meaning and its God.  It is my hope that we will be challenged as we find hope and comfort in the words written by a dear friend.  A friend who has so often been the ‘flash of light’ in my life that reflects the very real presence of God.  The same God loves, pursues, and never lets go.  May each of you encounter this amazing God during this special week.  – Boz


To the believer, Good Friday is the most difficult of days. From Gethsemane to Golgotha, the passion of Christ stirs enormous feeling and leaves behind an ache that can only be relieved by Easter. If not for the joy of that empty tomb, few of us could bear the road to the cross.

To the believer who is also a victim of child abuse, the commemoration of Good Friday can be particularly painful.  Although the abuse of our Lord may remind a survivor of their own pain, there is often a deeper anguish, an anguish once taught to me by a woman I didn’t know, a woman I still don’t know.

On a Good Friday afternoon in my hometown, I made my way to the church of my childhood. Little did I know that I was being watched and my presence would impact a young woman and instill in me a lesson I will hold until my dying hour.

Several days after that service, a college student appeared in the doorway of my university office. She didn’t want to give me her name, didn’t want to tell me very much at all about her life, she simply wanted to thank me for getting her through Good Friday. As she spoke, tears filled her eyes and she held up one finger—letting me know that if I could hang on for just a minute, she would be able to collect herself and finish telling me what she had come to say.

When she regained control of her emotions, she told me she was a survivor of sexual abuse, and that she had been abused within the church. Like so many before and after her, she had made an outcry against a respected member of her faith community but she was met with disbelief from her family, her church, from everyone she loved, from everyone who professed to be a Christian.

She told me that Good Friday was a day of bittersweet turmoil. In contemplating the suffering of Jesus, she felt a kinship with God that was stronger on Good Friday than any other day of the year. Surely, she told me, this was a God who could understand her prayers, a God who, in the words of Isaiah, was “despised and rejected of men” and has “borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows” (Isaiah 53:3-4).

Crucifix on the Klein Matterhorn - courtesy of On Being via Flickr

Crucifix on the Klein Matterhorn – courtesy of On Being via Flickr

Although her closeness to Christ compelled her to church on Good Friday, there was another feeling at war with her desire to worship the God of sorrows. In the very house of the Lord, she told me, she was tortured by an irony of temporal and eternal significance. “How can we worship a God who was a victim of abuse,” she asked me, “if we can’t love the victims of abuse sitting in the pews with us?”

This, she told me, is why it meant everything to see me in church. She had heard me speak on campus, had read my writings on child abuse, and longed for the day when someone who raised their voice for abused children would also share her faith. She held out no hope of ever hearing a sermon about child abuse, much less a Bible class or concerted ministry to help those who suffered as she did. She simply wanted to know there was a Christian, any Christian at all, who understood her pain and was willing to speak up. That lifelong prayer was answered when she saw me walk into church. This is what she wanted to tell me and, as soon as she had said it, she walked away and never reached out to me again. I looked for her on campus and at church, but I never saw her.

Over the years, no question has haunted me like the one posed to me by this survivor of abuse. How can we worship a God who was abused if we are unwilling to reach out to the abused among us? This irony is particularly brought home when we consider the impact of Good Friday on our world. Although Christians are primarily focused on the role of Good Friday in obtaining our salvation, the events on Calvary also deeply influenced the course of earthly history.

In his book Vanishing Grace, Philip Yancey writes:

The cross upset the long-standing categories of weak victims and strong heroes, for at that moment the victim emerged as the hero. The gospel put in motion something new in history, which [Gil] Bailie calls ‘the most astonishing reversal of values in human history.’ Wherever Christianity took root, care for victims spread.

Yancey further contends that the success of movements for human rights, civil rights, women’s rights, minority rights, gay rights, disability rights and even animal rights “reflects a widespread empathy for the oppressed that has no precedent in the ancient world; classical philosophers considered mercy and pity to be character defects, contrary to justice. Not until Jesus did that attitude change.”

When Billy Graham decided to preach in the Soviet Union during the Cold War, a Christian critic accused him of setting the church back 50 years. Reverend Graham retorted “I am deeply ashamed. I have been trying very hard to set the church back 2,000 years.”

If the Christian community has any hope of one day displaying genuine empathy for victims of child abuse, we must set the church back 2,000 years and fully contemplate who it is that we worship. The scriptures tell us that Jesus, the very son of God, was a descendant of a sexually exploited woman (Joshua 2, 6:22-25, Hebrews 11:31; Matthew 1:5) and was frequently seen in the company of other sexually exploited women as he promised not only his help, but the very kingdom of God (Mt. 21:31).

Jesus scolded his disciples for keeping children away from Him, claimed that the angels of children have direct access to his Father and that being tossed in the sea with a millstone around our neck would be a better choice than to hurt a child (Mt. 18:6,10). Jesus also had strong words for those who preached in his name but failed to care for the suffering in their midst—promising to one day tell these false Christians “I never knew you” (Matthew 7:23; Matthew 26:41-45).

A typical case of child abuse involves conduct that is contrary to hundreds of passages of scripture and the clear, unequivocal words of Jesus Christ. When we contemplate the words of our Lord on the abuse of children, and we realize how far short of the mark we fall in protecting these children, our only recourse is to adorn ourselves in sackcloth and ashes—and then put into practice the teachings we claim to revere. By our fruits, God will know us (Luke 6:43-45).

Good Friday is once again upon us. As we gather to remember the suffering that split open the heavens, countless children pray we will also remember their suffering. We may not know their names, but rest assured they are in our churches and they are watching us from a distance. Watching and wondering if the worshipers of a God who was a victim of abuse, have room in their hearts for the victims sitting beside them.

Victor Vieth is a former prosecutor who gained national recognition for his work at addressing child abuse in rural communities. He went on to direct the National Center for the Prosecution of Child Abuse, a program of the National District Attorneys Association (NDAA). He worked with the NDAA and Winona State University in developing the National Child Protection Training Center, which is now a program of Gundersen Health System. He is on the board of directors of GRACE (Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment) and is pursuing a Master of Arts in Theology through Wartburg Theological Seminary.

  • Wendy

    Oh how I needed this today! It has been a season of grieving for me. (This grief is deeply rooted in a flagrant and flippant dismissal of my heart by the university I attended.) I have recently forced myself through the motions of being a responsible adult, but have felt disengaged from work, family, friends…a feeling of distance that cannot be reattached. It’s the first time in years that I have not looked forward to my favorite holiday: Easter.

    This post restores my hope that people will eventually be able to love us in the ways we claim to love Christ. Yes, please — I long for the heart of the church to be reset 2000 years! I both crave and fear the acceptance Christ offers. Although I have grown greatly in this area, it is hard to imagine (and act on that imagination) Christ’s love when human representatives act in opposition to His truth.

    Thank you for refocusing me today. This post will be my meditation and prayer this weekend.

  • Pamela J Watkins

    Boz, GRACE and Victor Vieth:

    Thank you for your mission, your practical approaches, and your insightful comments…I have, also, tremendous grief at the conduct of misaligned “Christians” who delegate victims of abuse into the realm of denial, disbelief and disappointment.
    As a professional who is a practitioner specializing in abuse in the church, as well as specializing in Munchausen/Fabricated or Induced Illness in Another, I encounter victims of abuse daily as forensic and clinical psychologist. I am now a person who can speak about what is was like to be a victim of over 25 years of abuse by a so-called, still practicing “Christian” in a pastoral role. This high level pastoral female was able to convince her pastor husband that the accusations of abuse by me were founded in demonic/psychotic delusions. Regrettably, the church, her family, and the police/law enforcement didn’t understand the implications and clusters of abuse by a perpetrator of Munchausen by proxy abuse. I chose now to inform, educate and eradicate this variant and unusual form of the MOST lethal abuse known…and will be reaching out publically and professionally as a psychologist/lawyer/criminal justice advocate for victims of MbP abuse. Thank you for this opportunity to read about others who chose to protect victims of abuse by clergy and others in positions of power. May God bless our mutual paths and to Him be the glory. Dr Pamela J Watkins

  • Fran

    Jesus is the son of God (Matthew 3:16,17) and is in subjection to his Father, God (1 Corinthians 11:3). God is in a superior position to his son, Jesus (Psalm 83:18). God has never died and never will (Psalm 90:2); but his son, Jesus, did die once Franfor mankind (John 3:16).

  • Ben

    Very nice article. Most of us don’t remember fellow human beings who are suffering during our Good Friday remembrance of the passion of Christ. It’s very important that Christians don’t just go through the motions of going to a service on religious holidays but put their heart and soul in caring compassionately for those around us who are suffering. Jesus preached that we learn to love our neighbor as ourselves.

  • ColleenInWis

    Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.

  • I want to comment on this as some didn’t really appreciate me being on here since I am on the registry myself but here goes. Remember that song we learned in Sunday School. “Who can take away our sins,.nothing but the blood of Jesus”, that still holds true today as it did yesterday and forever.
    God is a God of patience and yes he loves each and everyone of us that come to him in True faith and repentance.
    There was a lot of sexual abuse in the bible and all other kinds of abuse. Even Mary Magdalene some might speculate might have been a prostitute. I sort of have my doubts but there are all types of abuses in the bible but the main thing is to forgive.
    I know that’s hear for the Christian, but if you can’t forgive others than how is the father gone to forgive you.
    In the Old testament there was a lot of child abuse and I’m sure a lot of sexual abuse. You the amazing thing about God is he is the God in the good times and the bad at least that’s what the Song “God on the Mountains” is all about.
    I know people all over the world suffer from sexual abuse all the time but if one can prevent it than that is a blessing.
    Sure we all go thru this life with our ups and down’s but if you have God on your side than He will help you in all your trails and tribulations.

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  • Peggy Kryzsko

    thank you so much for this article,written that we can all process.
    GOOD FRIDAY is a very numbing day for me.It just is.Kind of like that young
    woman in your article,where do you go,who wants to talk about the issue of clergy abuse from the altar? One is rather on there own.that hasn’t changed.
    One just tends to keep moving to find that person who will listen. A time will come when the unexpected happens and that person will be there.

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