church of the martyrs

Does “Love” and “Forgiveness” Apply to Abuse and Trauma?

@sakuramautoki asked:

When we Christians use words like “forgiveness” and phrases like “True love keeps no record of wrongs,” I find myself wondering how that would apply to certain contexts, namely with victims of abuse (sexual, physical, emotional/mental)? I wonder if we should even be using these words when speaking with victims/survivors of abuse and how it might come off as to them?

For example, when we say to forgive an abuser, what does that look like? Does that mean we forget the harm they did and pretend like everything is okay? Do we welcome them back with open arms? The same questions also apply to phrases such as “love keeps no record of wrongs”. I ask because as Christians it would be good to be mindful how these words and phrases can sound like and that we tend to throw these terms around much without thinking. What is your take on this?


Hey dear friend, I truly appreciate your heart and care in this question. I am with you absolutely 100% here. The Christian culture so easily falls into a martyr syndrome that unnecessarily risks our safety, and it so often assumes that “church people” have no pre-existing baggage that makes “love and forgiveness” an extremely painful endeavor.

The thing is, love must absolutely include truth, wisdom, boundaries, and grace for yourself. Love is not enabling, pampering, coddling, or letting someone off the hook—or it wouldn’t really be love at all. 

For those who have been abused or traumatized: Forgiveness doesn’t mean friendship. No one should ever be rushed into forgiveness for the sake of “getting right with God.” We need healthy boundaries. We need to recognize patterns of unrepentant abuse and gaslighting and manipulative language that will only guilt-trip you back into a vicious cycle. We can never mindlessly open the door again on an abusive relationship.

Many well-intentioned Christians try to act the part of a psychologist or social worker or therapist and have absolutely no idea about the real dangers of abuse, codependency, and compassion fatigue.

The other thing is that “Christian love” is overly romanticized, where if we just love enough, then we get the Hollywood montage of reconciliation and hugs and high-fives. But having been at the deathbed of many, many patients in the hospital, I hardly ever see it work out that way. Abusers will use up good will and spit it right out. Survivors of abuse have tried again and again to reconcile, only to find out that opening the door to their heart is no better than unlocking the cage of a pack of wolves.

It’s absolutely atrocious that preachers harp on forgiveness without listening to the stories of their churches. And still, Christians are slammed with the Bible to “forgive” because “it’s the Christian thing to do,” without any nuance for individual situations and without, you know, reading the rest of the Bible that says a lot of other stuff about abuse and trauma. God is for the victims, for the abused, for the survivors. God is for the exile, the foreigner, the despised, the despondent who crossed the Red Sea. Jesus told us to be as pure as doves and as wise as snakes. Pure, but wise. Wise, but pure.

There’s a destructive idea in Christian subculture that breeds a martyr-hero syndrome, at the expense of yourself, and eventually everyone else. I spent too many years consumed by the “sacrificial radical love” model of Christianity, which required that I pour out more than I had—but it only scooped out my guts and left me bitter and resentful and exhausted. I had to remember that only one person really did love all the way to death so that we wouldn’t have to.

My friend once asked me, “Are you trying to be like Jesus, or are you trying to be Jesus? Because you can’t be crucified for all these people. He already did that.” I had to re-work my idea of love and forgiveness to include self-care and proper distance.


When Jesus was dying on the cross and said, “Father, forgive them,” let’s notice that Jesus did not say, “Father, help me forgive them.” It was very specific wording. In other words, Jesus was concerned that his murderers would find forgiveness from God, but not necessarily that Jesus would “feel forgiveness” towards them. Jesus was deliberately not condoning the murderers’ behavior, but also concerned for the destiny of their souls.

This is a perfectly balanced love that cooperates with truth. Of course, Jesus did offer forgiveness to them, and to everyone else who was ever born, and we’re called to work towards such divinity. But no, we’re under no such illusion that we must befriend those who have hurt us or hurt the ones we love. Jesus may pour out unlimited grace from a cross, but each of us are finite beings, with limited resources, who must go to Jesus who says, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.”

Since I’ve started working alongside social workers and psychologists, I was at first surprised how blunt and to-the-point they were. But they’ve seen hundreds, maybe thousands of abusers and victims, and they’ve heard all the excuses and rationalizations. They know that victims feel obligated to stick up for their abusers and that abusers will hijack language around forgiveness to be taken back. The medical staff’s sole goal here is to advocate for the victim. That requires tough talk, no bull-crap, no beating around the bush, but actual love that’s as sharp as surgery, for both sides. The victim needs to know it’s okay to call the police and get a restraining order and defend themselves. The abuser needs to know they’re actually an abuser and that “forgiveness” is not some cheap ace-card that glosses over all they did.

In that kind of love, people are held accountable and responsible, because that sort of love is for the very best of each person, not to trap them or trick them, but to help them heal. So for the abused, it will mean empowering them with boundaries and the ability to say “no.” It will mean re-framing their religious obligations to “forgive.” It includes safety and boundaries and self-care. And perhaps one day, it includes the hopeful possibility of reconciliation, whether on this side of life or the other.

J.S.

so I’ve always sort of liked the idea that within the communion of saints there the Heavy Hitters, the Career Saints who are invoked widely and in situations of grave need—I’m talking your Catherines and Francises and Theresas, the Twelve Disciples and Michael; the Big Time Major League saints who intercede on behalf of so many, and so are always in conversation with the divine, case managers for the sick and dying and hurting and faithful of the world.

but that also means that there’s a bunch of saints hanging around who are just—minor holy women, lesser martyrs, incidental virgins, doctors of the church who never managed to find a publisher. They’re not prayed to very often, and rarely called on to manage the difficult cases; they have a lot of free time.

so what do you do, if you’re a saint with some free time on your hands? You answer all the not-quite-prayers, the “jesus, don’t turn red don’t turn red’ muttered by cab drivers and the “christ, can you just try it to see this from my point of view?” spat out by a furious girlfriend and all the “oh god please let me make this meeting in time” “please don’t let me fail” “I’m so tired I hope I can get home”

or maybe I just like the idea that every time you mutter “god, let me be okay” there’s some girl killed in 9th century for refusing to marry who falls into step beside you—and though no book or chronicle or living person remembers her name, she squints up at you and says with holy authority, “yeah, you’re going to be fine.”

The Holy Innocents (1st c.) are the children mentioned in Matthew’s Gospel 2:16-18. These were baby boys ages 2 years and under who were ordered to be killed by King Herod as he sought the life of the Baby Jesus. The children were slaughtered within two years following the apparition of the Star of Bethlehem to the Three Wise Men. They died not only for Christ, but in his stead. The Church venerates these children as martyrs, though it is uncertain how many children were killed, whether a small number, or in the tens of thousands. The Latin Church instituted the feast of the Holy Innocents in the fifth century. St. Paul’s Outside the Walls in Rome is believed to possess the bodies of several of the Holy Innocents. Their feast day is commemorated on December 28th.

Thomas Cranmer

Archbishop of Canterbury and Martyr, March 21st, 1556

Merciful God, through the work of Thomas Cranmer you renewed the worship of your Church by restoring the language of the people, and through his death you revealed your power in human weakness: Grant that by your grace we may always worship you in spirit and in truth; through Jesus Christ, our only Mediator and Advocate, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

1 Kings 8:54–62; Romans 11:13–24; Luke 2:25–35; Psalm 119:73–80

The Martyrdom of the Forty Martyrs of Sebastia.

The Martyrdom of the Forty Martyrs of Sebastia.

On this day also the holy forty martyrs of the city of Sebastia were martyred. Emperor Constantine the great had appointed his friend Lecius ruler for the east and commanded him to treat the Christians well. When he arrived to his headquarter, he ordered his subordinate to worship the idols but they refused and cursed his idols. That night some of the soldiers and their children, from the city of Sebastia, made an agreement among themselves to go to the governor confessing their faith. While they were sleeping the angel of the Lord appeared to them, strengthened them and comforted their hearts.

In the morning they stood before the Governor and confessed their faith in the Lord christ, he threatened them but they were not afraid. He commanded his men to stone them, but the stones came back upon those who stoned them. He ordered to throw them in a nearby lake, which was icy. Their organs were severed because of the excessive cold. One of them whose strength was weakened, went out of the icy water and entered the bath house nearby the lake. The heat in the bath house melted the ice that was on him but he died quickly, and lost his reward.

One of the guards saw angels descending from the heaven and in their hands crowns, they placed them over the heads of the thirty nine martyrs and remained one crown in the hand of the angel. The guard went down into the lake shouting “I am christian…I am christian.” He took the crown that was in the hand of the angel and was counted among the martyrs.

Among the martyrs, were young men, whose mothers encouraged and strengthened them. Because they remained in the lake for a long time and they did not die, the Governor wished to break their legs, but the Lord took their souls and reposed them. He ordered to burn their bodies and to cast them after that into the sea. As they were carrying them out of the lake, they found a young man alive, so they left him. His mother took him and tried to threw him on the wagon with his mates but they put him off the wagon again for he was still alive. His mother took him and he died in her bosom so she put him back on the wagon. They took them outside the city and cast them into the fire which did not harm them, then they casted them into the river.

On the third day those holy martyrs appeared to the Bishop of Sebastia in a vision and told him: “Go to the river and take our bodies.” He went with the priests, deacons and the people to the river and found the bodies. They carried the bodies with great honor and placed them in a beautiful shrine, and their strife was heard in all the countries.

May their prayers be with us and Glory be to God forever. Amen.

4

The image of Monsignor Romero is ubiquitous in El Salvador. Salvadorans have endeavored to remember the Archbishop by busts, murals and sculptures, and also in small private sanctuaries, by naming their children or tattooing his face skin. Murdered on March 24, 1980, Romero will be beatified 35 years later, on Saturday, May 23, 2015.

You should know that young people today who remain pure will be counted among the martyrs of our Church on the Day of Judgment.

  • St. Paisios the Athonite