Essay / Culture

Love the Perpetrator as the Survivor? Correspondence with a Friend about Loving Your Neighbor as Yourself

A friend and I had a conversation about a situation of systemic and personal abuse she was suffering, which turned into correspondence between us. With permission, I have polished up my exchange with Lori (a pseudonym), as a reflection on what it means for a victim to properly love a perpetrator—a excruciatingly difficult challenge.

Lori: Last week during our conversation, you proposed a question along the lines of: “Should we feel bad for the perpetrator or the victim in an abusive situation?” Would you expand on that a little more? Maybe what your viewpoint is or where you are coming from on that question?

My response: Good question. Just to be clear—I wasn’t trying to make perpetrators innocent, or turn them into the victims. I was just asking you to think about how deeply distorted and perverted someone’s beliefs, desires, emotions and motives need to be for them to be in the kind of place where they could perpetrate such acts. They seem, from outside, like the ones who have the power, who chose to enter and create such horrific and abusive situations. But if we were to look at them more carefully, I think we will see that they are walking disasters. It wouldn’t be unfair, I think, to suggest that the hurt they give others is an outward sign of the disaster that their own lives already are. It takes a disastrous state of being and living to do such vile acts. Understanding this dynamic doesn’t solve everything, but it does seem to be one point from which we can get a bigger picture—a vantage point from which we can both hate and love, without weakening or dismissing either. Does that help at all? You don’t have to agree with me, of course!

Lori: How you explained it makes sense. Whether I agree or not is still up in the air. Before I started thinking through that part of the conversation I wanted to make sure I was clear on what you were presenting. It’s a hard topic.

My response: It’s certainly hard. You’re sure right about that—and I only face it from a distance at this point in my life. I’m aware that talking is cheap.

Lori: Ok. So I’ve thought through my response as best as I can. It’s such a jacked up subject. It’s so hard to even try to reconcile this part of life or even want to reconcile it. I agree with your explanation a few days ago. Perpetrators deserve to be treated humanly for the sole reason that they are human. They should have basic needs provided (according to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs) and should have access to help just like victims. Many perpetrators are passing on their own hurt. Many have distorted beliefs and live in an alternate reality.

“Those who deny freedom to others don’t deserve it themselves.” Abraham Lincoln

I can’t bring myself to even come close to wanting to treat perpetrators like humans, especially mine. He knows exactly what he is doing. Perpetrators steal their victim’s freedom and suffocate their ability to feel like they belong. I’m left with the aftermath of daily talking myself out of suicide and feeling paranoid every turn I make. How do I even view someone like this as human and as an equal? In our conversation, you mentioned that perpetrators are not the monsters society makes them out to be. It feels like they are, though. And every interaction I have with the perpetrator confirms in my mind what kind of monster he really is. I’m seeking justice, but at this point I don’t even understand what form justice should take.

Perpetrators control with no remorse of their actions, unless they get caught.

I feel like I’m babbling and not making sense. It’s hard to explain what it’s like without you having been there. This dude is jacked up. He has been for years probably. He is a walking disaster. He’s a piece of shit.

Feel free to send your rebuttal and questions.

My response: Just to be clear, you absolutely make sense, and are both clear and eloquent.

“This dude is jacked up. He has been for years probably. He is a walking disaster. He’s a piece of shit.”

Exactly.

And he needs to be treated accordingly.

That doesn’t mean that he should be allowed to continue, be tolerated, or praised. It means us holding him accountable. It means society helping him get treatment. It means punishment that can enable and facilitate him seeing himself for who he really is, and perhaps becoming something quite different. (And what does that mean? Probably something between community service on the one hand, and the death penalty on the other, though I am open to both extremes, depending on the circumstances)

What does it mean to love a walking-disaster-piece-of-shit man, who has become a monster? It means to treat him exactly like he is: pathetic, pitiable, disastrous, willful, culpable, monstrous… It means containing the damage for others. It means him (hopefully) facing the damage in himself. It means a combination of both punishment and attempts at restoration and reparation.

And it means that the community as a whole needs to be part of that – not just one survivor of his disaster. The first step in loving someone would be acknowledging their whole condition, and treating them as such, in the hope that they might be able to do so as well. And that means confronting him and holding him accountable—something you need a whole group and society to do with you, because you can’t do it by yourself (not because you are weak, but because this is simply not an individual responsibility—it is something only the community can and should do, for its members).

So I think that we absolutely agree. If there’s a difference between us, it’s that I’m trying to give a bigger picture, but one that doesn’t deny anything you’ve said—or very little of it. I think you’re doing the right thing, from what I can tell, and I’m proud of you, for what it’s worth. And I also recognize that my use of “accountable” and other like terms is quite thin at certain points—this is little more than a sketch, a suggestion, made by someone who cares, but is dangerously far from the front lines.

Lori: I honestly don’t know how to respond. I’m not used to such an answer.

My response: Because it is so…. weird? Offensive? Wrong?

Lori: Because I’m not used to Christians who believe in a Jesus who flips tables and calls out injustice. Why do you choose this approach compared to the typical response that has been presented of showing grace (like Jesus did) and move on?

My response: The answer is pretty straightforward, really. A gospel of grace alone is not the true Gospel, because God is not a God of grace alone. He is gracious, but his is a grace that is one with his justice, patience, love and so on. Some Christians distort one of God’s attributes and make it carry too much weight, and then switch the tables on you when you aren’t looking—but that is just an abuse of doctrine (and it’s not just liberals or just conservatives that do this—everyone dabbles in this at times, unfortunately). Or to put it differently, yes, God is a God of grace—but the kind of grace that is so rich and deep that it wants nothing but the best for others, and therefore wants true justice for them.

I’m not asking you to treat the perpetrator with mercy alone. Or justice alone. Or to do this alone. I’m asking you, though I’m afraid to even say the words because of the magnitude of what I am asking, I’m asking you to take in the whole picture: to relate to him with the whole of God’s character fully in mind, and to relate to him with the whole of his miserable life and interior states in mind. Nothing less than that will allow you to remain fully human, while treating him with both the justice and mercy he needs and deserves.

Lori: I hope God is that way. I think I can believe in a God like you describe. But the current one I know isn’t a leader I would even want to subject myself to.

Concluding thoughts

My chief concern in this exchange is to help Lori and myself think about things with an appropriately wide frame of reference—one as big as the Gospel. And as I understand it, the Gospel includes the terrifying command that we love our neighbor as ourselves. That sounds easy enough, until we actually try to love ourselves, and get ourselves to do something that we know is good for ourselves, but nonetheless can’t seem to make ourselves do. And it is all the harder when we try to love a lovely person to whom we are deeply bound, like a spouse, friend or child. But to add to this impossible task, what does it mean to love a perpetrator? By definition, this seems impossible. But it isn’t. For while we were yet enemies, while we were yet perpetrators, God loved us and sent his Son for us.

But what does this love look like? To answer this question, we do best to explore the full shape of the Gospel, with all the resources of divine simplicity at our disposal. For the love we are to wield is no weak, spineless and sentimental love. It is a love bound up with and inseparable from the full character of God, in all his holiness, grace, righteousness, patience and mercy. Only such a love, only God’s own love, is a love strong and resourceful enough to equip us to love a perpetrator.

NB: This post originally appeared on Dr. Johnson’s website. 

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