A number of years ago, a woman attending another church called me to complain about her pastor. Normally I would not give much attention to what at first seemed like idle criticism. But in this case, the woman was not asking me to intervene. She was simply telling a story about her past, probably hoping I would learn something. And the more I listened, the more I learned.
She had, unfortunately, lived through years of abuse from her husband. But when she finally separated from her spouse, she found her church and pastor to be more interested in rules and policies than in being supportive. The pastor told her it was her Christian duty as a wife to go back to her abusive husband.
This was abuse piled onto abuse. It was spiritual abuse. It was a blatant example of making personal beliefs and church policy more important than human need and suffering. It was an example of “unhealthy religion.” It’s the kind of religion that requires legal perfection while ignoring the greater virtues of love, compassion, understanding, and support.
Laws, policies, and rules of conduct can only approximate moral ideals. And real-life situations are often not as clear and tidy as the rule book might imply. Jesus certainly knew that. His attitude toward those who committed adultery, for example, changed according to the situation. He was, on one hand, rather strict with the Pharisees who asked him if he thought divorce was permissible (Matt. 19). Jesus knew that they rigorously upheld the law of Moses, which technically allowed them to divorce and remarry on a whim—as long as they had the proper paperwork. Jesus said, however, that in so doing, they were guilty of adultery and causing someone else to commit adultery. They had double the guilt even though they were blameless according to the letter of the law!
On the other hand, when the policy experts brought to Jesus a woman they had caught in the very act of adultery, Jesus reacted much differently (Jn. 8). He didn’t argue technicalities or legal requirements. And he didn’t claim that she was innocent. Instead of giving her an even heavier load of guilt, however, he expressed nothing but compassion. He said “I don’t condemn you. So, leave your life of sin.” Which to the woman was the same as, “You are free to get out of those abusive relationships!”
To those claiming the moral high ground, Jesus says, just because you follow all the laws and policies, does not make your religion healthy. To the victims of abuse Jesus says, I do not condemn you. Religion should be compassionate, not abusive. And Jesus never blamed the victim, even when the victim was, by someone’s standard, morally compromised.
The first part of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5, Luke 6) contains some of Jesus’ most compassionate statements about those victimized by religion, which in those days was thoroughly enmeshed with economic and political interests. Blessed are the poor in spirit, those who hunger, those who weep, and those who are persecuted for righteousness sake. In other words, Jesus says, blessed are the losers. Blessed are those who are abused by life, by other people, and even by their religion.
The term “blessed” seems a little vague, at least in today’s world. I find it meaningful, then, to borrow an expression from sociologist Brene’ Brown. She uses the term “worthy of love” to express the innate understanding that one is a valuable and lovable person who deserves to be treated as such. Whole-hearted people, she says, know that they are worthy of love. Their life circumstances may not be perfect. They may even be unlucky in love. But they know they are worthy of love. I think that exactly defines what Jesus meant by “blessed.” Worthy of love, says Jesus, are those who the competitive world hates, and who are poor, hungry, and full of sorrow. These people may look to the world like losers. But in God’s eyes they are worthy of love.
What are we to make of all this? Why does Jesus condemn the law keepers as being abusive and immoral? And why does he show compassion and understanding to adulterers? And furthermore, why does Jesus, in the same passage, go on to say that we should love our enemies? Can we really love our abusers? How does this make sense in real life? Here are three observations:
First, allowing a person or a church to continue to abuse is not right or moral. Even if the abuse is done for the sake of scripture or church policy, it is still abuse. Institutionalized abuse is, in truth, the worst kind because it masquerades as the right thing to do. But it’s actually persecution for righteousness’ sake. There is a time for self-sacrifice. But even Jesus did not allow people to walk all over him during his ministry. If you are the victim, the most compassionate thing you can do might be to get a restraining order, and perhaps separate completely. And that goes for cases of spiritual abuse as well as domestic abuse. But in all this, Jesus would have us seek justice, not revenge.
Second, if you’re Jesus’ enemy, be prepared to lose your enemy status fast. God’s grace and compassion are winsome and irresistible. Before you know it, you’ll be one of those people he’s calling blessed, worthy of love. Nevertheless, if you insist on destroying yourself with your own judgment, resentment and hate, you probably will. You have a choice.
Third, the difference between healthy and unhealthy religion has to do with using compassion instead of shame. Unhealthy religion uses shame in all its forms, including abuse, prejudice, condemnation and hate. Compassion, however, tries to turn enemies into friends but does not allow abuse to continue, even if it’s technically consistent with policy.
Instead of defending policy at the expense of people, we can advocate for victims, and defend the losers that Jesus loves. We’re all losers in some sense. We all need grace. And we all need to give grace. That’s healthy religion. Jesus said it best: “[God] the Most High… is kind to the ungrateful and wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful” (Lk. 6:36).
By Pastor Mike Leno