“Our responses to the vulnerable expose who we are.”
As I said, three great books on abuse in the church have released this fall. Diane Langberg’s Redeeming Power: Understanding Authority and Abuse in the Church is now completing my set of reviews. Dr. Langberg is an expert in this field, as she is an internationally recognized psychologist who has counseled many who have suffered abuse of power. This book concentrates on the dynamics of power, broken down into three parts: Power Defined, Power Abused, and Power Redeemed. What I think I like most about Langberg’s book is her emphasis on personhood. So, when breaking down the different types of power, she begins with our personhood, saying, “to be human is to have a voice…Abuse of power silences that self and the words, feelings, thoughts, and choices of the victim.” And, “to be human is to be in relationship…Abusive power violates and shatters relationship.” And, “Third, to be human is to have power and shape the world…Abuse quashes and removes power.”
Dr. Langberg explains that all power is derivative of God, for the purpose of glorifying him and blessing others. And we are called to sacrificially use our power in the path of the cross. But here’s the thing, “Vulnerability and power are intertwined.” “Just as power can harm or bless, vulnerability leaves humans open to being blessed and hurt, to good and evil.” When we are vulnerable, we are offering a gift of our self, but we are also open to be wounded and exploited. In every chapter Langberg points us to Christ. I love how she spent time in her chapter of vulnerability pointing out how Jesus put on our vulnerability in the flesh.
I also loved her chapter on deception. Deception is always involved in abuse. It is hard to reconcile the good person we think we may know with the abusive acts they commit. Often, the deception starts with themselves. They ration that they have a good, higher purpose that justifies the action. We all do this at times, but abusers are practiced in the art of deception. “Self-deception is like a narcotic in protecting us from seeing or feeling that which is painful to us.” And this can be done at a systemic level as well, perpetuating lies as truth, as it becomes easier and easier to disregard the people they are harming.
Another chapter I wanted to highlight is Power in Human Systems. “Systemic abuse occurs when a system, such as a family, a government entity, a school, a church or religious organization, a political group, or a social service organization, enables the abuse of the people is purports to protect.” Too often the goal is to protect the system rather than the people.
“So system abuse applies when a system that is designed to serve people is instead destroying them, reducing, harming, wasting, and dehumanizing those created in the image of God. Dignity, vibrancy, impact, creativity, building, and producing are silenced and crushed.”
“The overt or stated purpose is not the governing one.” This happens because, whether the leaders recognize it or not, there is already a susceptibility of abuse within their system. They are facilitating abuse. Those who question, or victims who come forward, become alienated. This is perpetuated by others in their care who enable them. We often don’t think of the ones who try to take a neutral position or who are just plain blind to abuse as being compliant to abuse. Langberg explains that those who do that choose comfort rather than disturbance. “Instead of facing truth, they discredit and ignore. Why? Because acknowledging the truth will completely disrupt the system…We don’t want to see because it threatens our belief in the virtue of our leaders and the worth of the system…We would rather believe a reassuring lie than an utterly inconvenient and disturbing truth.”
“We give more credibility to power.”
Later, Langberg talks about how this complicity darkens our own hearts with excuses and justification. We get folded up into the abuser’s darkness. But the righteous thing to do to help both the victims and the abusers is to expose the truth. “It’s righteous to expose a leader’s arrogance. It is unrighteous to minimize or excuse it.” “Any godly response to abuse requires restorative actions that work toward the recovery of the image of God that has been distorted.”
Charles Spurgeon said, “Leniency to the dishonest is cruelty to those whom they injure.”
Again, Jesus stood against anything and anyone who destroyed the humanity of others. He never dehumanized. He “made them more vibrant and human.”
The whole book is good, but I will highlight one more chapter—the chapter on Power between Men and Women. Langberg challenges our cultural paradigms of masculinity as looking nothing like Jesus. “We simply keep repeating theological words almost like a mantra: leader, head, submission, authority, God ordained.” Do we even know what they mean? Or, “Much has been said throughout the centuries about what it means to be female. Men have said most of it.” Hey, Dr. Langberg said it, not me. Instead of sanctifying the unbiblical, harmful, reductive teaching handed down to us, she calls us to humility before the word of God. Is your church a welcome place for little girl’s and women’s brains? What messages about women do our sermons convey? She asks church leaders if they are asking the women in their church what their experience is there. Many churches use a poor interpretation of the creation account to clobber women. Additionally, a wrong concept of headship is often used to promote authoritarian rule over women. Again, we need to look to Jesus, our head, who “is power bending, power wounded for the sake of his bride. Headship is cruciform; it goes by way of the cross.” The head is the first to serve, the first to sacrifice.
There’s so much more in the book like the intersection of race and power, trauma examined, spiritual abuse, and the redemption of power in the person of Christ. A major theme is the need to listen to the vulnerable and the victimized. I love how she ends the book talking about that.
“I have said repeatedly that the voices of victims today, of those abused and violated and crushed in our ‘Christian’ circles, are in fact the voice of God to his people. Through those we have mistreated, he is turning on his light, exposing us to ourselves (and others), pointing out the cancer, and calling us to fidelity in him alone…”
“Victims are vulnerable, struggling, wounded, broken, and in need of extensive care. They are a picture of who we all are before God. And we are to be a picture for them of he who is with us, the One who came from the heights to the depths for those who were vulnerable, struggling, wounded, broken, and in need of extensive care.”