The Cross and Sexual Abuse

Trigger warnings for sexual abuse/incest.

In “The Cross and Male Violence,” James Poling argues that patriarchal narratives of the crucifixion provide a kind of script for abusive relationships between men and women in Christian contexts, in which male abusers can take on a godlike role (all-powerful, all-knowing, to be obeyed), and female victims of abuse can play a Christlike role (obedient, subservient, suffering without complaint).  He cites Christianity and Incest, Annie Imbens and Ineke Jonker’s study of incest in Christian homes, in which female survivors of incest recounted how their religious upbringing led them to believe that being a good Christian meant they had to be resigned to their abuse and not speak out about it:

You must love your neighbor.  Not much attention was paid to standing up for yourself (Ellen).  You must always be the first to forgive and you must do so seventy times seventy times (Judith).  You must always serve, serve God.  Sexuality before and outside of marriage is bad (Margaret).  faith and standing up for yourself are conflicting concepts (Theresa).  You must sacrifice your own needs and wants, you mustn’t resist, musn’t stand up for yourself, must serve God, musn’t be your own person with your own ego (Amy). (Imbens and Jonker, 271)

Escaping the cycle of abuse is difficult in general, not just under Christian patriarchy.  However, Christian patriarchy explicitly labels suffering in silence as a virtuous emulation of Christ.  Further, it teaches that Christians must forgive anyone who sins against them – even that survivors of abuse must forgive their abusers.  Covering up or keeping silent about abuse is cast becomes righteous behavior, even a spiritual obligation.  Victims of abuse are taught to be more concerned about their abusers and how they respond to them than about their own welfare.  They learn that they are obligated to treat their abusers with love, kindness, and forgiveness, no matter what, without expecting or demanding any change in behavior, much less love or kindness in return.  This adds an additional spiritual and psychological impediment to speaking out about one’s abuse, and creates an environment that fosters enabling or dismissive responses to abuse.  Add in patriarchal teachings about men’s right to lead and women’s obligation to submit, and you have a culture that creates situations in which male violence against women is more likely to occur, more likely to be overlooked, enabled, or justified, and thus more likely to become an entrenched feature of church and family life.

The quotes below from Christianity and Incest (which I found here) explain further how theologies of male dominance and female submission in church, marriage, and family structures are intimately linked with male abuse of female partners and children in patriarchal Christian contexts:

Their Christian upbringing made these girls easy prey. Offenders used Bible passages or church-authorized texts in order to be able to abuse girls and to keep them quiet about it. Mothers were powerless to do anything about it. They were subservient to their husbands in everything, as was and still is requested of women marrying in Christian churches. (page xvi)

“In all of the interviews, the Mother is psychologically or physically abused by the father.” (page 121)

About the offender: “Father thinks boys are more important. He says so: “Good men father sons,” or he shows it in his attitude.” (page 123)

The girls try to keep their rapists away from them in every way possible. Screaming, yelling, or crying make little impression or are labeled “rebelling against Father,” for which forgiveness from God are required (Nell). ” (pages 127 – 128)

“Religion forces women to forgive their rapists, although those rapists have not asked for forgiveness. They are commanded to love their enemies. Moreover, Christian churches stress the love on one’s fellow human being so heavily that the words “as thyself” following “love thy neighbor” have very little meaning for these women.” (page 141)

“God the Father wants only the best for her. He is Almighty and merciful. When something happens to her and she wants it to stop, she must pray hard.” (page 141)

This to me is perhaps the most telling and tragic point, because it drives at the fundamental issue underlying all of these teachings that enable abuse in Christian homes: “Not one incest survivor had learned that it was important to love yourself as well.” (page 238)  In other words, these women had not been taught that they were worthy of love – not from themselves, nor from any one else.  Christian patriarchy teaches the exactly opposite – that we’re all completely unworthy of love, and that God loves us despite this.  And if their churches are anything like the ones I grew up in, they were probably taught that it was sinful to believe they deserved to be treated with basic human dignity.

12 Comments

  1. I was telling my friend at one point that no one tells you you didn’t deserve it. You might get told it’s wrong, that it was horrible that it happened to you, but the concept of “We are sinful people who don’t deserve anything” is so entrenched that I never got the words from any Christian that I’ve known “You didn’t deserve it.” (Of course, men always deserve whatever they want)

    My brother was once threatening me with a mallet. I told him that if he hit me with it, he would go back to prison. My mother told me I was being cruel to him.

    When I finally decided to cut off contact with him for all the abuse he put me through, my mother told me that there was “absolutely nothing” he could have done that would warrant me being unforgiving, and unwilling to reconcile. (And I quote, “Did he rape you? There’s no excuse for you not forgiving him!”) Since we were both Christians (I guess “Christian” was being used loosely here) I was required to reconcile because *he* wanted to. (He hadn’t apologized and actually claimed that he had never done anything to me) but because he was willing, I had to be to. She told me that if I didn’t forgive him, God wouldn’t forgive me, and so she worried about my soul (and then tried to claim that she hadn’t just implied that if I held unforgiveness God was sending me to hell).

    And ultimately, her response to “I don’t want to be around him because he’s horrible to me” was “Well, I’m not doing anything about it, he’s coming over whenever he wants, and you’re just going to have to deal with it.”

    I wasn’t raised in a hard-line patriarchal home, but there was always emphasis on submission, and the idea of “Sure women are equal…they just are weaker and different and shouldn’t be allowed to do certain things” and it’s become readily apparent to me that men are valued far more. And that means that I’m supposed to put up with whatever my father/brothers do or else *I’m* the one in sin.

    When I finally get to the financial/emotional state where I can officially cut off all contact with them, I’m pretty certain I’ll be considered a heathen and disowned.

    • That’s horrible. I’m sorry. The idea that everyone is equally sinful and every sin is equally bad is so poisonous. It ends up working so evil, incredibly damaging behavior is minimized, and trivial offenses (or things that aren’t offenses at all) get blown up into huge, serious issues. It makes the obligation to forgive more important than the obligation to not abuse people. Evil.

      Speaking from personal experience, it’s not much fun to have your family consider you a heathen and disown you, but it can be a LOT better than sticking around for more of their abuse. Hope you’re able to get some distance from them soon.

  2. @Presentlyhuman: You didn’t — and still don’t — deserve any of that.

  3. @presentlyhuman : I wish for you nothing less than the strength and the means to cut off all contact with your abusers as soon as possible. You will be surprised at how much you are capable of, particularly emotionally, when you do so. The strength you’ll have, the clarity of thought, and the support from people who aren’t in to subjugation and abuse will be liberating. Best of luck.

    I do want to say, as a man who grew up in a household where mom was the only female, that so many of these concepts can be used for general subjugation just as easily as they are used in the abuse of women. So much of what presentlyhuman writes sounds so familiar, about forgiving abusive family members, about parents being unwilling to put their foot down and “take a side” or even acknowledge the wrong.

    Another thing I think about is how much of these traits I have in myself. Having been raised in a situation where so many of these things were natural, authority-driven concepts, it seems to me only natural that when I spread my wings and abuse all by myself. And so I consider how I have treated people, what I have done to get what I want, and why. And it occurs to me that for a period of years in adolescence and young adulthood, I often was accused of being very sexist, very misogynistic. And on some level, I really didn’t understand the complaint. Sure, I had little respect for women, but the truth is that I had little respect for men, too. I think this comes from the unique experience of growing up under the thumb of this kind of twisted application of “church doctrine” (I shudder to think that it really doesn’t require any twisting to read it this way, but I digress) in a household where the lines weren’t really drawn by gender. This encouraged me to freely apply these concepts to everyone. So yeah, I wasn’t being a misogynist, just an ignorant but equal-opportunity jerk.

    • You will be surprised at how much you are capable of, particularly emotionally, when you do so. The strength you’ll have, the clarity of thought, and the support from people who aren’t in to subjugation and abuse will be liberating. Best of luck.

      So true!

      so many of these concepts can be used for general subjugation just as easily as they are used in the abuse of women.

      Completely agreed. And I think one of the effects of how we think about the relationship between gender and power, and between power and abuse, is that it erases the experiences of people whose abuse doesn’t fit into the expected pattern of male aggressor – female victim. Precisely because we thinking of having/wielding power as masculine and being on the receiving end of the exercise of power as feminine, it makes it difficult for any abuse besides male violence against women to be taken seriously. I think this is particularly the case where women or minor children are the abusers.

  4. My parents really had no idea how to handle the abuse that was done to me, so they sent me to a “christian” counselor and talked to my church youth group leaders. I learned that there wasn’t anything I could have done because of the “sins of my father”. According to them, my being violated over a period of years was inevitable because my own sperm donor (I won’t call him ‘father’) raped my mother to produce me.

    I was expected to forgive my abuser, immediately, or damn myself to hell. I was forced to attend church and youth group and school with him, despite my own protests.

    It looks like I’ve been damned to hell.

    @ presentlyhuman- I’ve been reading your blog and I find it heartbreaking yet healing at the same time. Thank you for being so brave.

    • According to them, my being violated over a period of years was inevitable because my own sperm donor (I won’t call him ‘father’) raped my mother to produce me.

      And yet they claim that God is loving? Wow. I’m sorry, Gin. It breaks my heart to think that this has happened, and is happening, to so many people in these churches and folks just pretend everything is fine.

  5. Wow, I didn’t expect replies to me. Thanks for the encouraging words! I’m afraid sometimes that I’m blowing things out of proportion, and that I’m being the terrible person for wanting to get away from my family, so it’s nice to hear that maybe I’m not the crazy one. Thank you!

    • I’m afraid sometimes that I’m blowing things out of proportion, and that I’m being the terrible person for wanting to get away from my family, so it’s nice to hear that maybe I’m not the crazy one.

      I think it’s fairly common for survivors to feel this way – I know I have a lot of the time, and it’s been so helpful to hear people outside my situation confirm that I’m not making things up or exaggerating. You’re not blowing things out of proportion, and you’re not the terrible one. There’s no excuse or rationalization at all for what your family has done and is doing. If they won’t change then the best you can do is take care of yourself (and that’s not selfish!).

  6. belle etranger says:

    I just found your blog, and am a little late in commenting… I cried while reading this article, because it describes me perfectly… the impossibility of the whole situation…. I grew up in a IFB background and was raped and abused during my childhood and teenage years. Of course this dramatically shaped my world-view, and I still struggle with my beliefs regarding the True God and what it means to be a True Follower of Him. There are more of us around than we realize. It is/was not your fault. You are a precious child of God. He loves you for who you are, and I do too. Hugs and prayers to each of you as you heal from the harm inflicted upon you by this evil system.

    • Belle, I’m so sorry you went through all that. I think you’re right that there are many more survivors of all kinds of abuse in fundamentalist/evangelical churches (or who’ve left those churches) than most people realize. And of course living with abuse from the same people who are presenting themselves as righteous representatives of a holy, just, loving God really messes with one one sees God . . . I started this blog both as a way of healing from emotional and spiritual abuse, and in the hopes that it would help others heal from their experiences of abuse, too. I hope the blog can be that kind of a place for you, if you keep reading.

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