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

Guest Post: “How can we worship a God who was a victim of abuse if we can’t love the victims of abuse sitting in the pews with us?”

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.