Rene Girard died a couple of days ago. I’ve read one of his books, “I Saw Satan Fall Like Lightning From Heaven”, and it was incredible. It showed how ancient religions all heavily depended on the scapegoating mechanism, the random selection of some sacrificial victim on which to place the blame for the problems of the community, and lynching him. This lynching has a powerful effect on making the community feel like their problems were ameliorated and thus creating catharsis and solidarity, that the problems of the community really do feel like they are solved, and thus the lynching was justified. So this lynching over time takes on mythic proportions, and are reenacted in sacrificial ritual. Very interesting. Girard shows how Christianity upends the whole scapegoating mentality, showing that the problems of the community are not due to evil outsiders but the sin in our own hearts. The envy and covetousness that rules in all our hearts and causes our communal conflicts escalates and escalates, until it’s all located on one bad person- usually some victim already culturally accepted as a suspect- a creepy old woman, a foreigner, a Jew, a homosexual, etc, and sacrifice him. It’s a bit beyond the scope of this post to do justice to Girard’s insights, but I highly recommend his books. Girard really should be viewed as one of the seminal thinkers of the 20th century.
What Christianity points us to is the problem of sin and covetousness in our own hearts which feeds the conflict in our communities and the scapegoating mechanism that keeps it at bay. God takes the side of the victim, shows him to be innocent. Christ Himself is the ultimate example of this, the truly innocent victim that by His sacrifice takes away the sin of the world, and fully exposes the scapegoating mechanism in the process. The result has been that Christian society, unlike other societies especially of the ancient world, has always been intensely concerned with the innocent victims of society- the poor, the slave, the woman, children and the like.
I raise this because of the way I see a lot of people talk about abuse and victimization today. Girard points out how the devil’s tactic, his own scapegoating mechanism having been thoroughly exposed by Christianity, is to try to use Christianity’s very concern for victims to create a new set of scapegoats.
Look at this post, for example. Shane Lems gives us ways to identify the spiritual bully and abuser (first posted here). He gives us a list of signs by which we can recognize them. When we take the whole picture, Lems seems to be saying that there is no hope for these people. Any defense that they raise is just proof that they are bullies. One of the signs of the abuser is that they will play the victim and gather allies; therefore any protestation of innocence is just further proof of guilt.
Note that every one of these accusations could have been made of Jesus; many of them were. He gathered allies. He “played the victim”- “Why do you seek to kill me?” He protested His innocence. He introduced tremendous confusion. He used the Scriptures against the Pharisees. And etc. But according to Lems’ article, once you have identified the abuser, suddenly your obligations to follow the Scriptural patterns of church discipline are out the window. You don’t listen to them or anyone else defending them. You just shun them, reject them, get rid of them. He says,
If you’re a layperson in the church, watch out for these people! These aren’t Christians who have a tender conscience and need your open arms and open homes. In fact, it’s best to stay away from such people. If you’re a pastor or elder in a church, these bullies and abusers are the people from whom you have to protect the flock!
This is a huge problem. It does not follow the Scriptural procedures for church government, and it does not reflect the Biblical teachings on grace, humility or the awareness of self-deception. Once you think you’ve decided someone meets this list of criteria, all of a sudden you don’t have to treat them as fellow Christians anymore?
Rev. Lems quotes Jeff Crippen’s book “A Cry for Justice”. This is an author who claims, among other things, that when someone comes to us with a claim that they are being abused, we should believe them, and immediately treat the other person as an abuser. He will give you the signs to know how to spot the abuser- some of them are listed in Rev. Lem’s article. Mr. Crippen quotes a number of passages to support his claim that we should just believe the one claiming abuse, but they all amount to the fact that God wants justice, and wants the church to support the oppressed. None of them support his claim that it’s right to reflexively believe the one who claims to be a victim or even that we should be predisposed to believe them. He downplays the Bible’s concern about false witnesses:
This is what God’s Word warns us about. Are there Scriptures that deal with false allegations? Yes. But clearly the main thrust of Scripture in this area is NOT to restrain some excessive thirst for righteousness and justice, but quite the opposite.
Quite the contrary, the commandment not to bear false witness is one of the Ten- the ninth in fact. We have more than one prominent story of false accusations being used to destroy people- Joseph and Potiphar’s wife, and Nabal and Ahab both spring readily to mind. One might even remember Jesus Himself, murdered by false accusations. The Bible’s concern for scapegoating is very prominent, in fact. Abel, Jacob, the prophets, David, many others- all victims of false accusations. The Bible’s concern for false witness is so great that if someone made a false accusation against someone else, then whatever punishment that person would have received, the perjurer receives instead:
16 “If a false witness rises against any man to testify against him of wrongdoing,
17 “then both men in the controversy shall stand before the LORD, before the priests and the judges who serve in those days.
18 “And the judges shall make careful inquiry, and indeed, if the witness is a false witness, who has testified falsely against his brother,
19 “then you shall do to him as he thought to have done to his brother; so you shall put away the evil from among you.
20 “And those who remain shall hear and fear, and hereafter they shall not again commit such evil among you.
21 “Your eye shall not pity: life shall be for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot. (Deu 19:16-21 NKJ)
This passage shows a very high level of concern regarding false witnesses, and demands “careful inquiry” into a matter, not just running off to judgment.
Exodus 23:1-3 among many other places addresses false witness, not running with a crowd to do evil, not being swept up by a mob to lynch someone. It specifically tells us not to favor a poor man in his dispute- the Bible recognizes and refutes any preferential treatment given to the supposed underdog. Poor people, women, children, the weak, are just as capable of lying as the rich, the strong, the man.
Proverbs 6:19 says that a false witness is one of the abominations that God hates. It’s definitely a concern, and one thing I’ve learned is that anything the Bible warns us about, especially something we see crop up repeatedly, is something we can bet we’re going to actually see in practice.
Here’s an article from Jeff Crippen claiming that anyone who comes to the defense of the one you have identified as an abuser is probably an abuser as well. So that’s a good way of scaring off any potential defenders of the subject of your lynch mob- guilt by association.
We never assume guilt without proving it by Biblical evidence. We never assume our ability to see people’s hearts, to “discern” by some list on the Internet of the “signs of abusers.” We must recognize the deceptiveness of our own hearts. Whether it be domestic abuse, pedophilia, bullying in the church or whatever, the Scriptural procedures must rule. Assumption of innocence, careful examination of evidence, giving both sides a chance to be heard, always desiring the restoration of the brother, being very cautious of our own ability to deceive ourselves and be deceived by others. The idea that we can accept a man like Jeff Crippen’s definition of how we can spot an abuser, and then we can put him in a box labeled “wolf” and then the Biblical procedures of church discipline and concern for truth no longer matter but he can just be “gotten rid of” as soon as possible without any concern at all for the well-being of the one you have labeled an abuser is absolutely contrary to the gospel.
We also must recognize the very powerful scapegoating tendency built into our hearts by sin, the desire to focus the blame for all of our problems on other people. Is there abuse? Are there men who beat women, men who molest kids, people who are bullies in churches? Of course. But there are also liars, and some of them are women and children and the poor, who recognize just how potent the accusation of abuse is, and use it to get their way. I’ve seen it more than once. The Bible tells us these stories too.
And we are all sinners. We have all abused people. It might be comforting to think of a nice bright line with all the bad guys (wolves, bullies, abusers) on one side and all the nice people like me on the other. But this is a classic scapegoating setup, a classic way of transferring all the problems of our own lives onto some evil monster who we can then lynch and feel better about ourselves. This is absolutely encouraging us to do what Exodus 23 forbids, running after a crowd to do evil, being quick to accuse and find guilt. Following Jeff Crippen’s advice on this, as Rev. Lems is encouraging us to do, basically lets us take anyone we don’t like, label them as an abuser, and then shun them and run them out of the church without due process or possibility of forgiveness. This is absolutely horrible teaching, and we must reject it.
If you’re going to read Jeff Crippen, I’d also strongly suggest you read Rene Girard.
Your problem is not the other guy. Your problem is you, always you. It’s not what goes into a man that corrupts him, it’s what comes out of his own heart. Jesus was the ultimate victim of abuse, and because of the righteousness of His own heart, that abuse from evil men never kept Him from being faithful to His heavenly calling, and in the end He overcame and God vindicated Him fully. This is where our trust must be.
So absolutely, the church should be advocating for the victim, those subject to the evil abuse of others. But we must do so in the way Scriptures tell us to, and fully recognize the deceptiveness and the limitations of our own understanding, that sometimes the one we think is the victim is actually the bully.
*Edited for clarity and grammar.
*Update: Rev. Shane Lems is a pastor in the OPC, a denomination with which the RCUS has fraternal relations. I have a great degree of respect for the OPC and for its ministers, though I have not met Rev. Lems personally. I think the teaching I linked to above is unwise and mistaken, and has the potential to foster a great deal of abuse, but that should not be interpreted as saying that Rev. Lems himself is a false teacher, a bad pastor or anything like that.
This issue in particular is one I think that is particularly difficult to see clearly on, as we all hate abuse and bullying, and hate to see people victimized. I have been involved in my fair share of very difficult cases in churches in which abusive behavior was taking place, and believe I have been the target of it myself. I have also been the target of accusations of it. This is why I believe we need to be sensitive to both sides of the issue, and why it is so important to mistrust ourselves and apply the Biblical principles of church government to all cases impartially, whatever the appearance of the matter.
*Second update: I had a good exchange with Rev. Lems via email, and he wanted me to know that his blog post should not be taken as a whole-hearted endorsement of everything Crippen teaches. So that’s very helpful. Thanks, Rev. Lems.