Hope for the Sinned-Against

My 'Exodus'

 The Cross: Hope for the Sinned-Against

Elizabeth Aine Achimah


The church proclaims a gospel of forgiveness and reconciliation – a message that needs to be heard. Christ did come to save sinners. However, much of our practice as Christians and in the church focusses on the offender. That is, Christ’s death and resurrection brings good news to those who commit sins, recognizing that there is no sin that is beyond God’s grace.Yet, it seems to me that much of Christ’s ministry was caring for the down-trodden and the oppressed, and that the good news of salvation must also touch these lives.

Christians are quite adept at offering simple answers to complex suffering at the hand of others. These answers range from telling the oppressed that their suffering is part of God’s will to insisting that they must forgive. These answers tend to protect and care for the offender and not the one who is offended. Restorative justice practices attempt to care for all who are effected by the offender’s actions, including the victim and the community. Yet, these practices often do not live up to their promises and can potentially do more harm than good, despite lofty intentions. Moreover, I think that some of these practices can too easily slip into a misplaced hope that provides bandaids and not true healing for all parties. Forgiveness is easily construed as forgetting which in reality shoves the wrongdoing under the rug only to resurface at inconvenient times. This concern is echoed in the temptation “to worship an uncrucified Christ, rather than Christ who was crucified and has risen.”1

In this paper, I want to offer hope for the sinned-against, paying particular attention to victims of sexual abuse. I will argue that Christ is that hope and that if victims want an answer to the violence that has been afflicted on them.

From the Abstract to the Real World

Before looking at the complexities of this topic, I want to offer pieces of my story to help frame the discussion. I do this for several reasons. First, a theology that provides hope to the sinned-against needs to be grounded in actual experiences. Many of my friends are struggling with the question of whether there is hope and if healing is possible as they live in the day-to-day grime of the effects of being sinned-against. Theory and ideals have their place, but often somebody who embodies healing can articulate a hope that the abstract can barely touch. Second, this is the story that I know best. Too many proponents of either the justice system or restorative practices have not walked the road that victims have.2 I have come to see both the necessity and insufficiency of the justice system in particular cases. Third, as a victim of childhood sexual abuse (CSA), I feel I have a different perspective to offer than victims of other crimes. CSA frequently involves a breach of trust, which requires that there be a relationship of trust to begin with. CSA also by definition involves a power imbalance that differs from other breaches in relationship. For example, a child should not be held responsible for playing into a dynamic that allowed for sexual abuse in the same way that partners in a marital dispute can be. Fourth, my story involves broken and severed relationships with people who matter to me: my immediate family. Consequently, I have a deep interest in the restoration of these relationships that is not shared by all victims of crime. Fifth, the Church proper does not have the greatest history in responding to victims of sexual violence. Beste writes, “Although many Christian denominations have condemned sexual violence in formal church documents, they have barely begun pastorally to acknowledge the prevalence of sexual violence and its devastating effects and to take proactive steps to address it.”3

I recognize that there are weaknesses in this approach. This topic is close to my heart and this paper is a product of many years of thinking. Any theology that attempts to offer hope to the sinned- against is applied to my situation as the litmus test for whether it succeeds. This bias means that I may see potential solutions in a very narrow light as well as discount ways in which others have found healing and restoration.

I want to acknowledge at the outset that there are stories of restorative justice providing a sense of justice and restoration to the victim, offender(s) and community. When done with integrity and a genuine earnestness in all parties, restorative justice practices can encourage genuine healing and restoration. Ruth Morris provides stories in which alternative processes can be transformative for the various parties.4 She offers a very touching story of how a mother who visited her son’s murder in prison and was able to offer him forgiveness that played a very transformative role in his life. Morris writes:

The killer was still stuck in his problems, addictions, and vicious circles for a while. But the persistence of the mother of his victim overcame his resistance. She hounded him into growing. He has pursued treatment and education and new paths inside. When asked about the dramatic change in himself he attributes it all to the mother of his victim, who would give him no peace until he changed, saying repeatedly, ‘If you don’t make something of yourself, my son’s death will have been for nothing!’5

I have no doubt that other powerful stories exist. However, a lot of healing work has to happen in the lives of victims (or survivors of victims) and their perpetrators in order for such restoration to occur. Morris acknowledges the faith of this mother, something that many secular proponents of restorative justice practices leave out.

In addition, I do not want to advocate for apathy in practices that promote justice and restoration. Victims, offenders, communities – and churches – need to work towards justice and healing. Indeed, the church is called to hear the cries of the broken-hearted and to accompany all people on their journey towards healing and wholeness. Walter Brueggemann, while speaking of prophetic ministry, provides a call that I think can be extended to all Christians: “the task […] means evoking cries that expect answers, learning to address them where they will be taken seriously, and ceasing to look to the numbed and dull empire that never intended to answer them in the first place.”6

Bob Dylan understood this: What good am I if I know and don’t do/ If I see and don’t say, if I look right through you/ If I turn a deaf ear to the thunderin’ sky/ What good am I?7

According to Myrla Seibold, “There has not been adequate recognition of the long-term suffering of the deeply wounded individual who must endure ongoing pain, loss and other consequences of the offense.”8 We follow Christ’s example who was “deeply moved” and was moved to “weep” at the needs and suffering of those around him. Moreover, if we “claim to be [disciples] of the crucified one [we] must expect to participate in his sufferings; if [we] preach a theology of the cross, [we] will have to become a community of the cross.”9 What this looks like in practice is beyond

the scope of this paper. A very simple answer that needs to be unpacked is that the church should come alongside both offenders and victims to promote truth, healing and reconciliation without ostracizing either.10 This is undeniably very difficult and I would venture to say that the church is not very good at it.

My Story

For almost a decade of my life, I was a victim11 of sexual abuse. My perpetrator is my stepfather whom I welcomed with open arms into my life at a young age. In some ways, my story is not all that

unique. Abuse is rampant in society and there are far too many people who have experienced what I have – and worse. In other ways, my story breaks down some of the stereotypes of abusive families. My father was an educated man, an internationally-known ethics professor, a Christian leader and an active presence in the home. To the outside world, he was the perfect father.

The details of what happened need not be told for the purpose of this paper. In the words of one judge, the abuse was “unrelenting.” CSA has a way of effecting every aspect of one’s life. It frequently occurs within trusted relationships and the breach of trust led me to distrusting people in authority, and people who said that they loved me. I have struggled with feelings of worthlessness, shame and insecurities. I have wrestled with God and been perplexed at why a loving God would ignore a young girl’s daily cry for help and deliverance.

I disclosed the abuse to my mother on a couple of occasions, neither of which led to sustained change. I disclosed to my pastor who was obliged to report this to child protective services due to the young children in the home and at risk. The consequences of my disclosure have been great, leading to a complete severing of relationships with immediate and some extended family members. After numerous failed attempts to restore the broken relationship and a genuine concern for my young siblings, I went to the police with a statement.

I will not be alone in saying that our judicial system is not conducive to healing. The most helpful advice I received in exploring options was that revenge could not be a goal. Indeed, the judicial process is so unpredictable and vengeful actions can further complicate an already complicated process. The wounding in the actual process has created a wider distance between my family and myself. The process itself led me to despair far too many times. Five years later, he has been convicted and is serving his sentence.

Did this court process do anything to promote restoration? I found courage, strength and my voice -in testifying, despite it being the most unfriendly context to tell one’s story. I was vindicated in a sense with five judges over the process saying that they believe me. My most powerful experiences of God’s presence and love were infused into this process. Did the process move my stepfather to healing and right-relationship with God and those affected by his actions? I am not in a position to answer this, but I can say that while he was forced in a sense to listen to me share his ‘dirty laundry,’ he maintains his innocence to this day. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this process has left me wanting. The judicial system did not restore relationships nor did it promise it. It delivered judgement and consequence.

The Sinned-Against

Many theological responses to injustice focus on offender and God’s grace. Even our liturgies focus on God pronouncing forgiveness to sinners.12 The Book of Alternative Services offers a confession that recognizes that we sin against God. This is important, for indeed we do sin against God and God’s grace is big enough to cover all our sins. However, if Christ came for the brokenhearted and oppressed, we must also include those who are sinned-against in how we think about sin.13

Andrew Sung Park offers a Korean concept to capture this aspect of sin. The word han “is a physical, mental and spiritual repercussion to a terrible injustice done to a person, eliciting a deep ache, a wrenching of all the organs, an intense internalized or externalized rage, a vengeful obsession, and the sense of helplessness and hopelessness.”14 This word captures the deep pain that I, and many other victims, have experienced in a way that the English language does not. It is a word that captures the innocence of the victim in the case of CSA.15 Child abuse is one case in which I would disagree with Miroslav Volf’s sentiment that there are no innocents.16 There is a power imbalance that negates any responsibility, even implicit responsibility. Not all situations in which people are wounded share this. For example, our community house broke down this term due to mistreatment that went too far. Still, each house member played into the dynamic leaving each one of us culpable in some way. However, as Gal writes, “Due to their dependency on adults, children have very little control over their environments, and, therefore, often cannot escape harmful situations.”17 Therefore, the violence inflicted upon children should be dealt with differently than situations involving consenting adults.

Violence Demands an Answer

Violence demands an answer. There is something very human within us that cries out for an answer to the injustices that touch our lives and those whom we love. We very quickly try to understand why such violence happened, searching everywhere for answers. The answers that we seek in our anguish need to be more than intellectualizations. We look for an embodied answer. That is, we need someone to answer for the wounds inflicted and frequently demand that the offender suffer in some way for the injustice of their actions.

Steve Bell, Canadian Christian singer/songwriter, wrote a song that has shaped much of my thinking around this topic.18 His foster daughter was found with men who had taken advantage of her. He was outraged at this. His lyrics echo my own cries as well as those who have walked with me.

Somebody told me about it/ And it burns me up at night/ What kind of man could choose to spoil a child?/ Who do you call to make it right? […] Somebody’s gotta pay for this/ Nobody gets away unless somebody dies/ And its confirmed that there’s been pain/ to satisfy the rage of the losses she’s sustained since age thirteen/ Only then can the rest go free.19

The psalms often provide cries for wrongs being righted in addition to prayers of deliverance and protection. Some of these psalms have been troubling to Christians and non-Christians alike for their gut-ridden honesty. The words of Psalm 137 are a cry of anguish from an oppressed people praying harm upon their oppressors: “Daughter Babylon, doomed to destruction, happy are those who repay you according to what you have done to us. Happy are those who seize your infants and dash them against the rocks” (Ps 137:8-9). Arguably, this is one of the most offensive set of verses in the Hebrew Bible. John Ahn writes:

The recent ordeal of the psalmist’s own children becomes the synecdoche for all lost children of the 587 B.C.E. group […] What is painfully interesting, however, is that the words of the curse are enveloped in a lay blessing formula projected not to any third person but to Yahweh (the antecedent), who is called upon (not only to remember but moreover) to do likewise. It is this retributive act and image of God dashing innocent children against the rock that immensely troubles us.20

Troubling images aside, I think these verses speak to our deep need that demands an answer to the violence that we witness and incur.

The Trouble with Revenge

Revenge is a tempting way to answer this need. There is something very satisfying about envisioning your offender suffering in ways that are as great or even greater than the suffering they have caused in you. However, such satisfaction is momentary and exacting these fantasies will only exasperate the situation. The momentary bliss of revenge leaves the aftertaste of knowing that you stooped to your offender’s level. Moreover, violence that begets violence continues a cycle of wounding without mitigating or healing the wounds. Volf writes, “In addition to inflicting harm, the practice of evil keeps re-creating a world without innocence. Evil generates new evil as evildoers fashion victims in their own ugly image.”21 Revenge, however tempting, cannot be the answer.

Flirting with Restorative Justice

CSA survivor and author, Laura Davis, highlights victims desire for deep sense of reconciliation that is both most prized and most difficult to achieve. She claims that we desire reconciliation “that is deep and transformative, in which intimacy is established (or reestablished), past hurts are resolved, and both people experience closeness, satisfaction, and renewed growth in the relationship.”22 She advocates for processes that involve a lot of preparation and work before the various parties come together. Moreover, deep wounds, such as those created by CSA, require work that is “far more complex, long-term, and demanding.”23

Restorative Justice (RJ) practices attempt to offer a solution to understandable desire for revenge on behalf of the victim and the community while recognizing that revenge is not restorative for any of the affected parties. It also seeks to incorporate all afflicted parties, recognizing that criminal offences are relational.24 Some RJ advocates believe that the retributive justice system and restorative practices are fundamentally incompatible.25 Others theorize that RJ practices can be integrated into the retributive system.26 Dignan outlines the five main RJ practices that have been used: court-based restitution, mediation, conferences involving families, community reparation, and healing circles.27 Each of these practices recognizes that crime creates a ‘debt’ that effects many people including the victim and the victim’s community.

Annalise Acorn offers an intellectual critique of Restorative Justice while acknowledging its strong appeal. While she is writing from a legal and not necessarily a Christian perspective, she does have a deep understanding of the Biblical concept of shalom and the desired wholeness behind RJ practices. As a former Crown Attorney, she recognized that victims generally cared more about an apology than punishment and her heart ached for the many victims that did not receive either in the arduous process. She contemplates what she refers to as the “wholesome carrots” of RJ:

It seemed so right-headed to organize the energy of our sense of justice around these far more positive goals: renewal of the victim’s dignity, security, and sense of belonging in community; the perpetrator’s contrition, his coming to accept the validity of shared norms prohibiting harmful conduct, his active participation in helping to repair the harm to the victim; and, ultimately, through this process of accountability and repair, the social redemption of both victim and perpetrator and their return – without stigma – to a position of acceptance and participation in the community.28

She then considers an example of a man who was brutally attacked and became paraplegic as a result. RJ advocates praised the offender’s desire to “take care of” the victim, yet the courts mandated a sentence. Acorn raises many questions that are important for us to consider. What does it mean to “take care” of a paraplegic man? Are they going to provide funds for 24-hour care that is now required? Are they going to sit with the man and care for his emotional, social and spiritual needs? Does the paraplegic man want anything to do with the people who created his condition? Are the offenders genuinely sorry and offering to help to restore? Or are they sorry they got caught?

Her criticism raises three important foundational questions that must be answered prior to attempting any practices that aim at restoration. First, is the offender willing to admit his guilt? The retributive system has an incentive within the system to admit guilt early in the process.29 Still, the courtroom is filled with individuals fighting for their innocence for crimes that they have committed. RJ success stories often speak of how the victim is able to impact the accused in a way that transforms the accused.30 For a practice to be just, it cannot simply use the victim (once again) for the offender’s benefit. This leads to the second question: is the victim ready to engage in RJ? Typically, the Canadian justice system puts a time limit (6months to 2 years depending on the nature of the crime) on when crimes can be reported. Given what we know of the healing process, the victim may not emotionally be ready to engage in practices such as mediation which require multiple meetings with the offender. Third, does the victim want to be restored to right-relation with the offender?

If the various parties are not ready to engage in RJ practices, then the process may be neither just or restorative. These three questions get at the heart of the debate around whether RJ practices should be used: Who is RJ for? In theory, it should be beneficial to the victim(s), offender(s) and the community; in practice, it tends to be for the offender. A process that allows for the healing required to make it beneficial for all is frequently beyond the means of RJ advocates.31 Moreover, there are two very practical problems that impact a process that attempts to bring both restoration and justice to relationships. First, remorse on behalf of the offender cannot be forced. Seibold writes, “Remorse without concrete actions of repentance means little, and it should not be used as the basis for pressuring the victim to feel obliged to extend blanket forgiveness.”32 Second, forgiveness cannot and should not be rushed. Seibold again writes, “Trying to circumvent this stage by hurrying to get to forgiveness in the hope of more rapid healing will only delay the ability to truly forgive and move on.”33 Indeed, when both these problems cease to be such, the potential for restorative justice is immense.34 That is, a truly repentant offender will seek to do anything (s)he can do to help the victim, and a truly forgiving victim will receive this offering.

My struggle with restorative and retributive justice practices is best expressed once again in the words of Steve Bell’s song:

So I don’t feel guilty about it/ Imagining that I could be/ the reaper grim enough to make it right/ The problem is/ There’s no one with enough to lose/ to the pay for this.35

My stepfather was sentenced to four years – a rather long sentence given current law. After a third of his sentence, he will be able to apply for release on bail. This sentence is laughable given that he was convicted of eight years of crimes and I have been separated from the family I hold dear for an additional eight years. The consequences I have suffered are deep and, at times, been all encompassing. To be clear though, no amount of jail time is sufficient to pay for what he has cost me. There is no amount of money, community service or suffering that is sufficient to “make it right.” This can be chalked up to anger and bitterness.

However, I think it is deeper than this. My stepfather simply cannot pay the price of what he has done. At the most, he can offer a humble and repentant apology. Here I echo many, many victims who consider such an apology to be the greatest gift that their offender can give them.37 I am reminded of Christ’s words on the cross. In his final moments, he uttered a prayer for those who “do not know what they are doing” (Lk 23:34). When we sin, I think we very rarely think through the consequences of our selfish gain. In Bruce Cockburn’s words, we are a people who “don’t know how much trouble they can brew.”38 I highly doubt that in the moments my stepfather chose to use me to fulfill his desires that he had any such perspective.

As a Christian, I know I walk on dangerous ground in speaking of someone else’s sins and claiming to fall into the category of the “sinned against.” This is dangerous ground because I too sin, and sin-against others. I cringe at the wounds that I have inflicted on others. I probably will never forget standing in front of a friend who cried because of my actions and the knowledge that those tears were caused by my deliberate choices grieves me to this day. Moreover, I am unable to hold onto thoughts of revenge as one who has been sinned-against as I consider my guilt before God and the love he has poured out in my life through grace and forgiveness. Alanis Morissette says this best:

I am the biggest hypocrite […] I’ve been out of reach and separatist/ heaven forbid average (whatever average means)/ I have compensated for my days of powerlessness/ I have abused my so-called power – forgive me/ You mean we actually are all one?39

When I look at my stepfather’s actions, I cannot help but see myself in him. I have not committed the same crimes. However, I too have used others for my selfish concern, rejected others, lied, and hurt others. When someone has committed an action that we consider abominable, it easy to to label the wrongdoer and separate ourselves from them. Miroslav Volf rightly points out that there is a problem with such labels: “it describes not simply how ‘they’ and ‘we’ ought not to behave, but it implicitly portrays ‘them’ as the kind of people ‘we’ are not.”40 Volf argues that our victim/offender dichotomy misguides us into believing that there are those who are innocent, and those who are not.41 None of us can stand before God with a clean slate “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom 3:23).

Through this lens, I feel compassion for my stepfather for his sin is no greater nor any less than my own. Add to this the scary reality that many abusers were once abused and the desire to exact revenge dissipates. If I want an answer to the violence I have endured, I cannot look to my stepfather. He simply doesn’t have enough to lose to pay the price for this. Reconciliation is important. However, as Mary Elizabeth Mulling Moore argues, “Reconciliation is needed, but not first with the offender. Reconciliation is needed with the Spirit of life and with oneself, then with family and friends.”42If we look to those who hurt us to offer what we need to find healing and restoration, we will be continuously be disappointed. We need a different answer to our deepest questions that emerge from the pain of being wounded by another.

Stumbling upon a different answer

Traditional interpretations of Christ’s work on the cross focus on the offender. That is, we tend to focus on the fact that Christ sacrifice ultimately brings salvation and forgiveness to sinners. Our hymns and praise chorus encourage us to reflect on the cross that “saved a wretch like me.”43 Drawing on the theology of the book of Romans, a popular praise chorus sings of the cross bearing the weight of sin: “This the power of the cross/ Christ became sin for us/ Took the blame/ Bore the wrath/ We stand forgiven at the cross.”44There is definitely good news in this message for a sinner like me.

Our brokenness is no doubt in part because of our own sinful nature. But I wonder if Steve Bell captures another component of Christ’s work on the cross. However, our brokenness is also as people who are sinned-against. The good news of the incarnation, life, death and resurrection of our Lord addresses both.45 Arnold refers to Christ’s work on the cross as being the “violence of love.”46 Through love, Christ takes on the agony of the violence in the world.

Steve Bell had a series of dreams47 that provided a different sort of answer. He dreamt that he was standing in front of his foster daughter’s offender with a gun in hand, ready to shoot. The next dream, he stood again in front of the offender, only Christ stood between them. In the final dream, Steve stood with a gun, ready to shoot the offender and Christ said, “Shoot me instead.”

And who’s going to pay for all these crimes?/ Some dream about avenging mine/ I suppose, but nothing will suffice/ Unless you stumble across it/ like a dream I had last night/ about a man who chose to pay the price/ On a tree, silently, and still/ Just long enough for me to kill.

Ultimately, I believe the sinned-against will have to wrestle with God. After all, there is much pain in trying to sort out how an omniscient, omnipotent and omni-benevolent God can allow deep suffering at the hands of others. Walter Brueggemann, in discussing Israel as the sinned-against by Pharaoh, emphasizes the need for God. He writes, “What Israel requires […] is not guilt, punishment, and repentance, but an intervening advocate who can and will work justice, and extricate Israel from this unwarranted suffering.”48 We hear the Israelites cry out to God over and over through the Hebrew Scriptures. In my own story, I cried out daily for God to protect me and I have had to wrestle with why God didn’t answer my earnest cry. True healing began when I allowed my cries to be cried out to God. Until then, I was “pacing the cage,”49 caught in the struggle with no hope of escaping. There are interesting theological answers to this question. However, in a sense, God needs to be put on trial.50

This may be offensive to some. However, so are the cries of the Israelites who have been crushed by the Babylonians. Moore writes:

The idea of being real with God is thoroughly distasteful, even threatening, in a world where individuals and nations put so much effort into making good impressions on others, where certainty is valued, and where the admission of not knowing is tantamount to defeat. Furthermore, this is a world where people are fooled by appearances, and where the desire to impress others is often stronger than the desire to do justice and walk in integrity.51

Scripture provides various examples that make us want to cry out and question him. Andrew Sung Park provides one such example:

God was silent at the moment Abel was murdered. God did not intervene! […] How can the God of justice be absent in the event of such appalling injustice? Rather, God set a mark on Cain to protect him. A murderer walked out free. The mercy of God [seemingly] conflicts with the justice of God.52

If we cannot take our revenge and anger to God who hears our gut-driven prayers, where else do we direct the feelings that so frequently lead to more violence and suffering? God can handle our angry cries: “There is, however, no such thing as more pain than God can bear, and part of what it means to trust in God is to know that God can and will bear whatever cost in suffering faithfulness in love may require.”53

John Douglas Hall writes that the church needs to be “spheres of truth, places where people can give expression to the anxiety of meaningfulness and emptiness – without being utterly debilitated by the experience.”54 The cross is where the emotions of deep roundedness can be taken. The cross is where suffering both avenges and vanquishes evil.55 The cross:

represents the many innocent victims who suffer injustice, oppression, and the retributive interpretation of suffering. It is the symbol of God’s han. Jesus’ cross is great advocacy for the victims of abuse, violence, and unjust oppression, opposing abusive power unto death. The victims would be healed in his solidary woundedness with them and would be vindicated by the power of the cross that demands offenders to repent of their sins.56

Christ, in His love for the brokenhearted, risks a vulnerability on the cross capable of “absorb[ing] the full horror of another’s pain.”57 This vulnerability has a way of speaking love into a wounded heart in a way that no theodicy or other explanation can. This vulnerability paid the cost of justice which involves both forgiving the sinner and healing the sinned-against.

I have always been touched by the interactions between Jesus and Mary before Lazarus was raised from the dead. Jesus took his sweet time to get to Bethany upon the news that Lazarus was dying. Mary brings her question to Jesus: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Jesus’ response was simply to weep. No theological explanations nor any justifications; just tears. As Seibold writes, “To the wounded one whose heart cries out for vengeance, God offers something more wondrous than just the capacity to forgive. He offers his own heart, a heart that flows with compassion to the poor and the broken.”58

Only Then Can the Rest Go Free

Once again, I return to Steve Bell’s song:

Somebody’s gotta pay for this/ Nobody gets away unless somebody dies/ and it’s been confirmed that there is pain enough satisfy the rage/ From the losses she’s sustained by age thirteen/ Only then can the rest go free.

It is in meeting the suffering Christ who bore our sin and our pain that true freedom and healing can be found. The price has been paid. The rage we feel can be surrendered as Christ willingly takes on the our pain of being sinned against. We see also that Christ bore our own iniquities. It is through the cross that we discover who we really are. Our suffering and woundedness takes on a different perspective. We are invited to partake in Christ’s suffering. We discover through the cross that we are utterly loved beyond what we can even imagine. Through the cross, we become free to be who Christ has made us. My favourite children’s story is the story of how toys become ‘real.’ The stuffed rabbit asks the Skin Horse, the oldest toy in a children’s nursery, what it meant to be real:

“Does it hurt?” asked the Rabbit.

“Sometimes,” said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. “When you are Real you don’t mind being hurt.”

“Does it happen at once, like being wound up,” he asked, “or bit by bit?”

“it doesn’t happen all at once,” said the Skin Horse. “You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t often happen to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real, you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.”59

God can use our suffering to transform us into who we are meant to be. It is a slow, and often painful process, in which so much of what we hold onto is surrendered. Our revenge, our pride, and anything else that we hold onto is “loved off.” It is through this love that makes us “Real” that we can echo the words of Paul: “What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christ and be found in him” (Phil 3:8-9a).

Freedom to Love

Transformed through the cross, we become free to love  – and free to love those who sin against us. Seibold is worth quoting at length:

When we have been deeply wounded, someone has acted unlovingly toward  us. The antidote is to be bathed in love until we are so filled up with love that we can begin to imagine letting some love flow out into forgiveness. Forgiving must flow from love, and forgiving is a form of loving. When we are sufficiently full of love – love that we are receiving and love that we are giving – we will naturally be drawn to offer forgiveness.60

Seibold recognizes that the freedom to love our offenders must be grounded in the love that Christ has offered us. Processes that aim at loving the offender first will fall prey to the deeply troubling problems of restorative justice. When the sinned-against meet this love in Christ, the natural outcome will be to extend love and forgiveness to the offender. It is through this love that we are able to find the strength that reconciles and restores relationship.

A friend recently sent me an article of the well-known Christian speaker Joyce Meyer. While theologically, we are on different pages I have always admired her ability to speak so openly about her history. She too had lost contact with her family. Her story of healing gave me hope at the beginning of my journey. Her offender – her father – took ill, and Meyer took on the responsibility of caring for her aging father in spite of all he had done. At the end of his life, she had the privilege of baptizing her

father.61 Where there has been healing, a lot of grace and love pours out in ways that may even surprise

us. When God’s love touches a person’s life, miracles happen and deep restoration can flourish. This kind of love enables us to “take risks, to care for the other in a way that causes the other’s fate to affect one’s own, to give to the other at real cost to oneself, to chance rejection.”62 Indeed, grace transforms ugly things into beauty.63


There’s a lot of pain… but a lot more healing. There’s a lot of trouble… but a lot more peace. There’s a lot of hate… but a lot more loving. There’s a lot sin… but a lot more grace.

There’s a lot of fear… but a lot more freedom There’s a lot of darkness… but a lot more light. There’s a lot of clouds… but a lot more vision. There’s a lot of perishing… but a lot more life.64

In conclusion, I have tried to offer a theological response to the sinned-against. The church tends to focus on practices that attend to sinners. Despite the importance of this focus, it has often been emphasized at the expense of focusing on the brokenhearted. Those who have been sinned-against ultimately cannot look to their offenders to bring the healing and restoration that they desire. Instead, the sinned-against must look to the cross. There, they will discover the outrageous and healing grace that God pours into our lives. It is through the cross that the sinners and sinned-against will find healing and wholeness.


1   L. Gregory Jones, “Healing the Wounds of Memory: Theology and Psychology on Salvation and Sin,” in Care for the Soul: Exploring the Intersection of Psychology and Theology (ed. M. R. McMinn and T. R. Phillips; Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2001), 242.

2   Annalise Acorn, Compulsory Compassion: A Critique of Restorative Justice (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2004), 7.

3   Jennifer Erin Beste, God and the Victim: Traumatic Intrusions on Grace and Freedom (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007), 115.

4   Ruth Morris, Stories of Transformative Justice (Toronto: Canadian Scholars’ Press Inc, 2000).

5   Morris, ibid., 183.

6   Walter Brueggemann, The Prophetic Imagination (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2001), 13.

7   Bob Dylan, What good am I?

8   Myrla Seibold, “When the Wounding Runs Deep: Encouragement for Those on the Road to Forgiveness,”in Care for the Soul: Exploring the Intersection of Psychology and Theology (ed. M. R. McMinn and T. R. Phillips; Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2001), 296

9   Douglas John Hall, The Cross in Our Context: Jesus and the Suffering World (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003), 140.

10 Miroslav Volf, Exclusion and Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation

(Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1996), 58.

11 I choose the word ‘victim’ carefully. The word in the literature and therapeutic word is ‘survivor.’ However, the label survivor still ties ones’ identity to the abuse and I feel it negates the gravity and non-responsibility of the sinned-against. In my life, I have adopted the word ‘thriver’ but will stick to ‘victim’ for the purposes of this paper.

12 Ruth C. Duck, “Hospitality to Victims: A Challenge for Christian Worship,” in The Other Side of Sin: Woundedness from the Perspective of the Sinned-Against (Ed. A. S. Park and S. L. Nelson; Albany: State University of New York Press, 2001), 166.

13 Leah Coulter, “A Pastoral Theology for the Sinned Against: Adult Christian Women Sexually Abused as Children,”

PC&CSD (2001): 187-205.

14 Andrew Sung Park , The Bible and Han in The Other Side of Sin: Woundedness from the Perspective of the Sinned- Against (Ed. A. S. Park and S. L. Nelson; Albany: State University of New York Press, 2001), 48.

15 Park, ibid., 47

16 Volf, ibid., 79-85.

17 Tali Gal, Child Victims and Restorative Justice: A Needs-Rights Model (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 1.

18 This paper is a continuation of thinking expressed in a recent sermon that I preached. The text can be found online:


19 Steve Bell, Somebody’s Gotta Pay

20 John Ahn, “Psalm 137: Complex Communal Laments,” JBL 127 (2008): 267-289.

21 Volf, ibid., 81.

22 Laura Davis, I Thought We’d Never Speak Again: The Road from Estrangement to Reconciliation (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2000), 3.

23 Davis, ibid., 33.

24 James Dignan, Understanding Victims and Restorative Justice (New York: Open University Press, 2005), 94.

25 Interestingly, when exploring options, one of the leaders of the Mennonite Central Committee Restorative Justice program informed me that in the case of CSA, especially when it involved a family member, the retributive criminal system usually needed to be invoked before any RJ practices would be effective.

26 Dignan, ibid., 107.

27 Dignan, ibid., 108-126.

28 Acorn, ibid., 2

29 This can be one of the mitigating factors in reducing sentences or even sentencing something less onerous than house arrest or community service.

30 Morris, ibid.; the majority of case studies focus transforming the offender.

31 Acorn, ibid., 12.

32 Seibold, ibid., 303.

33 Seibold, ibid., 302-303.

34 Davis, ibid., 46.

35 Bell, ibid.

37 Acorn, ibid., 5.

38 Bruce Cockburn, Love Loves You.

39 Alanis Morrissette, One.

40 Volf, ibid., 58.

41 Volf, ibid.

42 Mary Elizabeth Mulling Moore, “Teaching Justice and Reconciliation in a Wounding World,” in The Other Side of Sin: Woundedness from the Perspective of the Sinned-Against (Ed. A. S. Park and S. L. Nelson; Albany: State University of New York Press, 2001), 146. 

43 John Newton, Amazing Grace.

44 Keith Getty and Kristyn Getty. The Power of the Cross

45 Hall, ibid., 122.

46 Johann Christoph Arnold, Seeking Peace: Notes and Conversations Along the Way (Farmington: Plough Pub. House, 2000), 33-37.

48 Walter Brueggemann, “The Shrilled Voice of the Wounded Party,” in The Other Side of Sin: Woundedness from the

Perspective of the Sinned-Against (Ed. A. S. Park and S. L. Nelson; Albany: State University of New York Press, 2001), 30.

49 Bruce Cockburn, Pacing the Cage

50 This was first expressed in a blogpost: https://thestrengthoftheabsurd.wordpress.com/2013/03/30/god-on-trial/

51 Moore, ibid., 152.

52 Park, ibid., 48.

53 William C. Placher, Narratives of a Vulnerable God: Christ, Theology, and Scripture (Louisville: Westminster John

Knox Press, 1994), 20.

54 Hall, ibid., 131.

55 Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship (London: SCM Press Ltd, 1964), 130.

56 Park, ibid., 57.

57 Placher, ibid., 18.

58 Seibold, ibid., 308.

59 Margery Williams. The Velveteen Rabbit: Or How Toys Become Real. (New York: Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing

Group, Inc; 1991), 5-6

60 Seibold, ibid., 317.

61 Charisma News Service. “Joyce Meyer Forgives, Then Baptizes Father who Sexually Abused Her,” Online: http://www.connectionmagazine.org/2002_05/ts_joyce_meyer.htm

62 Placher, ibid., 16.

63 U2, Grace

64 Robin Mark, Outrageous Grace

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