What does loving your neighbor look like when your neighbor spent his teen years sexually preying on younger girls? What happens when your friend and fellow congregant, or someone you trust, is accused of sexually abusing another? It is easy to assume that we would act rightly and with justice toward victims, but in reality not all survivors are supported. Sometimes the abusers are the ones given “grace.”
I saw this happen in heartbreaking ways within my own extended Christian community. A friend came forward sharing that she had been sexually abused for years by her brother.
This brother and sister had been my close neighbors and friends for most of my life, and I had every reason to believe her because of his behavior toward me. One of many examples occurred during a sleepover when I was around the age of nine. I couldn’t comprehend why her older brother would want to have a long chat with me in a thin bathrobe, with nothing underneath, slowly opening it more and more until he was exposed. I pretended not to notice and he lost interest and left, leaving fear in his wake. I also didn’t understand conversations that referred to him doing “boyfriend and girlfriend things” with children much younger than him. I now look back with horror at these and many other behaviors I observed or encountered.
When we shared these experiences with our community as adults, I naïvely thought everyone would be as heartsick as I was that so much evil had happened in our community. I was wrong. Survivors that spoke out were viewed as the problem instead of the abuser. Some comments I heard included, “Even if it is true, we all sin and fall short,” or “She needs to forgive and not talk about this publicly,” and “That boy’s life is going to be ruined.” It was devastating.
I was further disheartened to find that this response is not uncommon in churches and stories of similar situations and attitudes continue to hit my newsfeed. The truth is that many Christians have upside down values, and have turned biblical concepts on their head so that abusers can flourish and survivors are silenced.
We need to do better.
Who is my neighbor?
An expert in the law once wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” Jesus answered with the famous parable that we know as “The Good Samaritan.” It gives powerful advice on how we should treat sexual abuse survivors within the church, and can help turn upside down values right-side up again.
In Luke 10:29–37, Jesus tells a parable of a man who embarked on a journey, only to be robbed, stripped, beaten, and left to die. A priest first came across him, but instead of helping, crossed to the other side of the street. A Levite followed soon after and did the same. Then a Samaritan on a journey showed up. At that time, there was bad blood between Samaritans and Jews. But the Samaritan saw this man crumpled on the ground, and he had compassion. He not only stopped, but also bandaged him, “pouring on olive oil and wine.” Then he used his own animal to carry the victim to an inn, paying the innkeeper to care for him. At the conclusion of the parable, Jesus pointedly asked his audience, “Which of these three do you think proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” (Luke 10:36). The expert of law answered correctly, “The one who showed mercy to him” (Luke 10:37).
“Compliance is not consent.”
Mercy is a beautiful trait of Christianity and this parable gives weighty advice in how we should treat others with love. Tragically, in an upside down paradigm, many survivors haven’t been on the receiving end of mercy, but have been pressured to give cheap grace to their abusers instead. Rachael Denhollander, the heroic sexual abuse survivor whose courageous stand helped bring the predator Larry Nassar to justice, shared in an interview with Christianity Today, “Church is one of the least safe places to acknowledge abuse because the way it is counseled is, more often than not, damaging to the victim. . . . It is with deep regret that I say the church is one of the worst places to go for help.”
This bitter truth is demonstrated when church leaders and communities walk to the other side of the road to avoid getting involved in the aftermath of violence or sexual abuse. They may remain silent, overlook, or fail to report
abuse, or even cover it up. It is also true when survivors aren’t protected, but pastors bypass helping and head straight for ill-advised reconciliation processes that force victims to ignore their wounds, dignity, and hope for a better future. When the vulnerable can’t find health and healing within the church, they are forced to look outside of it.
The Samaritan’s beliefs fell outside the boundaries of theological orthodoxy (John 4:22). By making a Samaritan man the example to follow, Jesus was rebuking religious hypocrisy that was correct in doctrine but lacking in love. The Good Samaritan may not have fully understood who God was, but he showed what loving a neighbor, the second most important commandment, looked like. This mirrors the experience of many survivors who, after the church failed them, find compassion and help from those who do not know God. We should take this reality as a rebuke and a call to learn, listening to the hard-earned wisdom of survivors as well as those outside our church tradition. In Jesus’ parable, we find a clear picture of how victims should be treated in a God-honoring church.
There’s a few specific things we should pay attention to in this parable.
Notice first that the Samaritan’s actions were based on his seeing the victim. If we don’t educate ourselves about the pain of sexual abuse, we will never truly “see” the wounds within our communities. One excellent resource for church leaders and communities in grasping this important issue is Mending the Soul: Understanding and Healing Abuse by Steven R. Tracy. Once we clearly see the problem of sexual abuse, we should then feel compassion as the Samaritan did. His actions flowed from his heart attitude. When we make comments that dismiss or minimize sexual abuse and victims, it points to a lack of both love and wisdom. True change must begin in our hearts and minds.
His heart attitude then leads to action. The Samaritan tends to this man’s wounds by pouring costly wine and olive oil on him, likely his own provisions for his trip. He goes even further by sharing his pack animal, giving up his own comfort for the comfort of another. Make no mistake, helping others in pain can be a costly venture. The Samaritan gives us a beautiful picture of sacrificial love that lavishes valuable resources on a wounded stranger. Supporting a survivor can be uncomfortable in a hostile world. Friendships can be lost, relationships strained, and disapproval from your church may even come your way. But Jesus teaches us here that giving up comfort to help others is how we show love to our neighbors.
Finally, the good Samaritan brings the victim to safety so he can continue healing without the fear of being attacked again. He doesn’t simply drop the man off and forget about him when he reaches the most convenient inn on his journey. He takes care to provide long term support until he has healed, promising to come back to settle any bills. Healing from sexual abuse or violence takes time, and the Samaritan recognizes his neighbor’s need. He could have felt pretty good about himself for his previous care, but his generosity continues until there is no longer a need for assistance.
It speaks to the strength and character of survivors that so many have been able to tend their wounds, find safety and healing, and provide compassion and care for others, without the support of their church behind them. Thankfully, the church can do better, and this parable gives us a compelling framework for the biblical care of survivors. Like the wounded man in the parable, they deserve compassion, sacrificial care, a safe place, and support until healing is complete. This is compassion at work.
But what about the abusers? Aren’t we commanded to love our enemies too? Yes. And to love an abuser is to put a stop to their soul-crushing sin, to confront, to help them recognize what few abusers ever do—that they alone are truly at fault—and that their sins aren’t just spiritually damaging, but crimes with consequences as well. This is what mercy and compassion looks like in the face of real evil.
The law expert asked Jesus a question to justify his actions toward others, but after hearing this parable, he understood which man proved to be a loving neighbor. Jesus’ final words to him are spoken to us as well, “Go and do the same.”