The Voice of a Sexual Abuse Survivor
The more I work with domestic violence survivors, the more I realize how many have been sexually abused as children. I am no longer shocked in my counseling sessions when someone begins sharing how their father, uncle, brother or cousin sexually abused them when they were young. I almost expect this now. How truly sad is this?
Recently, I heard the talk of Denver Seminary professor, Erin Heim, who was sexually abused as a child by a family member. She spoke during one of our weekly chapel services. Because Dr. Heim is a Bible scholar, she has a very unique perspective on the suffering she experienced. It was so awesome, I just had to share it. She focuses on childhood sexual abuse, but these thoughts can apply to domestic violence survivors as well. To hear the entire talk, (a little over 30 minutes), click here. For those of you without enough time to listen to the entire thing, I will summarize it below. I will begin my summary at minute 15 of her talk.
Dr. Heim points out that abuse survivors are often encouraged to hide what happened to them. She says that justice begins when we see, name and remember our abuse. She gives three examples of places where God sees the downtrodden in the New Testament. The first is Mary, the mother of Jesus, in her Magnificat, (Luke 1:46 – 56). In this song, Mary praises God for being mindful of the humble state of his servant Mary. In verses 51 – 53 she says:
[God] has performed mighty deeds with his arm;
he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.
He has brought down rulers from their thrones
but has lifted up the humble.
He has filled the hungry with good things
but has sent the rich away empty.
Next, she talks about a father whose son was possessed by a demon. In Luke 9:38, this father asks Jesus to “look at” his son. He wants the Lord to see his son. Jesus does see him and goes on to heal him.
Her final example is of the criminal who died on the cross next to Jesus. Some think he was a thief, others think he was a murderer. In Luke 23:42, the criminal says, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Jesus promises to not only remember him, but that the criminal will be with Jesus that day in paradise.
Dr. Heim says that God’s remembrance brings justice. He sees Mary, the boy and the criminal. The cry to be seen is the cry of the sexual abuse victim. She talks about Amber Wyatt, who at age 16 was raped in Texas. Not only was she not believed, but the people of this town harassed her and drove away from their town. Her rapists were never prosecuted. Erin points out that the poor often receive very little justice. There will always be those without power who will not be believed. Our “justice” system is often far from just. Justice will have to come from somewhere else.
Justice comes from being seen and remembered.
Jesus not only remembers abuse victims, but sees them in the midst of his shame. When we think about Jesus’ crucifixion, we see the physical horror of it, but miss the humiliation he experienced. Matthew 27:28 tells us that Jesus was stripped as the Roman soldiers mocked him. Later, as he hung on the cross, the soldiers cast lots to see who would get his clothing. Dr. Heim pointed out that what we often don’t realize is that Jesus himself was a victim of sexual assault. When we see paintings of the crucifixion, Jesus is wearing a modest loin covering. But this is not accurate. Jesus was hanging on the cross completely naked. The Romans had devised a punishment that was incredibly physically painful. But more than that, it was shameful, humiliating and degrading. As Jesus hung dying, his genitals were revealed to his mother, his followers, his murderers and the Roman soldiers.
The shame of Jesus forces us to see the shame of abuse victims. Jesus sees them, remembers their abuse, and stands there in solidarity with them. Jesus understands their shame because he experienced it himself. He brings the scars from his death with him into the Godhead. In Hebrews 12:2, the author encourages us to:
[fix] our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.
What does it mean when it says, “for the joy set before him”? Did Jesus experience joy as he hung dying, naked before the world? No, his joy was looking forward to what his death would accomplish, the saving of millions. His joy does not erase the shame of his experience. Abuse victims also carry their burden of shame, although they did nothing to deserve it.
These victims can scorn the shame others try to place on them, just as Jesus did.
Dr. Heim says, “That which intended to shame Jesus instead dignifies all those who suffer.” God experienced, God remembered, God saw and God redeemed his suffering and yours. She admits that she did not want to share her pain in front of everyone, but she had to share because she had a fire in her bones. The church is full of people who have been sexually abused.
The statistic is 1 in 3 women globally, and 1 in 4 or 5 women in the United States will experience sexual abuse. Approximately 1 in 9 men also suffer in silence.
Dr. Heim concluded her talk with these thoughts:
- We can take comfort in knowing our God is a god of justice. He sees and remembers what we have gone through that the world has forgotten. He is with us in our worst memories, walking beside us in our pain and trauma.
- God longs to bring his justice near, and shine his light in dark places. This begins with victims telling the truth about what happened to them, and naming their brokenness.
- Nothing is more precious for a victim to hear than, “I believe you and I would like to hear your story.” Not every victim will get to hear these words, which is profoundly sad.
- Erin spoke to the victims who were no doubt sitting in that chapel. She said, “Your stories matter, and I believe you. No one would invent something so painful and shameful. I wish it had not happened to me. But even if no one remembers your abuse but you and your perpetrator, God sees and remembers, he bears witness to your story. You are not forgotten. Your pain is not erased. You are looked upon, acknowledged and remembered by the living God.”
- The Christian church needs to get better at seeing, listening and acknowledging abuse because this is the only way to bring justice and healing to the victims. We need to demonstrate that God is a god of justice who wants to bring true healing.
- Jesus is no stranger to sexual shame, and this is not a taboo topic. We don’t need to hold victims at arm’s length. Jesus is our advocate. He has experienced the trauma you have experienced. He declares victory in those dark places. In his death and resurrection, all wrongs are set right. No wrong will be forgotten. No hurt is too big or shameful. We serve a God that overcame shame.
- When they get to God’s kingdom, he will: wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away. (Revelation 21:4). Their suffering, mourning and pain will one day be turned into dancing, (Psalm 30:11).
Thank you, Dr. Heim for your courage and your willingness to scorn your own shame to help liberate others from theirs. I will close today with the prayer you prayed at the end of your talk.
“Jesus, we praise you that you remember me too, and that you will remember #metoo. God, we praise and thank you that you are a God who comforts us in our afflictions. I thank you that you have comforted me. I pray that you would use my halting words this morning to comfort those who need comfort, and to challenge those who need challenging. Lord, I pray that the church might become a safe place for survivors to share their stories, and find healing and rest that they so desperately need. Give us the courage to care more about people than about institutions and to care more about truth than reputation. We are in desperate need of your grace and your mercy. Would you grant us peace, Father, Son and Holy Spirit? Amen.”
May the Lord bless each of you today.