They heard the sound of the LORD God walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the LORD God among the trees of the garden. Then the LORD God called to the man, and said to him, “Where are you?” He said, “I heard the sound of You in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked; so I hid myself.” And He said, “Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?” The man said, “The woman whom You gave to be with me, she gave me from the tree, and I ate” (Gen. 3:8–12).
Blame-shifting is among the first sins committed by man. When both Adam and Eve decided to disobey God, it was not long before Adam shifted the blame to another. When God called to Adam in the garden to hold him to account, Adam pointed to Eve, not himself.1 Instead of protecting the woman, correcting the woman, loving the woman, he went along with her sin and became a party to that sin. Then he blamed her.
Many are guilty of the widespread sin of blame-shifting. It is not a “male” sin or a “female” sin. It is a human sin. When the stronger vessel, however, shifts the blame from himself onto a weaker victim of sin, blame-shifting takes on an exceptionally sinister character.
When the abusive sexual predation of underage girls by former U.S. Olympics gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar2 was exposed, there was an almost knee-jerk reaction from some Christians to point out that Nassar’s victims were not the image of perfection. Some even went so far as to cast some blame on the victims because they wore “immodest leotards.” This nationalized and striking example of blame-shifting and victim-blaming was, quite frankly, disgusting. Sadly, it is but one example. This ham-fisted, dispassionate, calloused, focusing on the possible sins of a victim of a tremendously wicked act brings shame upon the Church. Not only does it testify of a Church that cares little for the victimized, but also of one that has little compassion for the lost. If a victim of rape is genuinely unregenerate and has glaring character flaws (something that is indeed possible), should the Church respond by suggesting that her imperfections somehow places, even partially, the guilt of that rape at her feet? Yet too often this is not only indicated as a possibility, it is smugly declared. Not only is victim-blaming theologically inaccurate and displays a false view of guilt, it is also profoundly uncaring and further harms the victims.
Martin Selbrede, in his excellent article on abuse in the church, said this in regards to victim blaming and other tactics of those who neglect victims:
Role Reversal involves thoughts or behaviors that treat victims as perpetrators and perpetrators as victims. . . what some psychologists call Reattribution of Blame. Turning the victim into a troublemaker and scapegoat saves an abuser’s colleagues from feeling grief over their own betrayal and from having to take responsibility for the effects of his behavior and betrayal of others and the church. Such slander of the victim “is a form of murder” and works to discredit the victim by destroying his/her reputation and integrity.
Wherever you find discussions about blame-shifting and victim-blaming, you will also find obfuscation, confusion, strawmen, and misunderstandings. Because of that, I want to take a shot at bringing about some clarity.
Danger and blame
It is true that potential victims of crime can place themselves in statistically more dangerous situations. If you walk around in neighborhoods with a high crime rate, the chances of becoming a victim of a crime will be likewise higher. However, does this voluntary statistical increase of potential victimization effectuate blame or guilt upon the victim? Let us test this logic:
1. My ethically ambiguous action or lack of action caused me to become slightly more at risk.
2. Therefore I am at least in part responsible for anything that happens to me.
The issue is that we can almost always make decisions that are statistically safer. We can invariably be safer and wiser. If I’m robbed in the daylight while taking a stroll in the nice part of town, and if I choose not to carry my firearm, am I responsible because I did not carry a Glock? Am I responsible because I did not chain my wallet to myself? What if a woman must walk through a bad part of town to get to work? I once spent a month walking through the worst neighborhood in my city. Five times a week I would walk through this very crime-ridden neighborhood at about four in the morning to open the coffee shop I was managing at the time. Would I have been I responsible if I had gotten robbed one dark morning? I could have chosen to wake an hour earlier and walk around the projects instead of through them. I could have quit my job so that I did not have to be in that neighborhood at all. I could have carried a firearm. I could have enrolled myself in a self-defense class. I could have made many different decisions that would have put myself at a lower risk. It is just a fact of life in a world filled with death and sin that there will be risks. This reminds of the fantastic line from the Lord of the Rings:
It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.
I can almost imagine a grumpy Baptist pastor condescendingly pointing out, matter-of-factly, that if Frodo did not want to be stabbed by Nazgul, he should not be walking along dark and dangerous paths in-between the Shire and the Misty Mountains. Should have stayed home, Mr. Frodo.
Yes, the world is dangerous, and we should be wise. There is, however, a significant ethical distinction between increasing risk by a minuscule statistical point and playing Russian Roulette. Walking home in the dark or driving a car at night is not comparable to sticking a partially loaded revolver in your mouth and pulling the trigger. The difference is not merely a matter of degree, but also of type. One act is a sinful disregard for life, de-facto attempted suicide, and a form of self-murder. The other is living life in a world with sin.
When we examine the logic of intrinsically tying guilt to any victim of any crime, the argument falls apart. Because risk is both constant and variable, to be consistent in such a case, we would have to say that any and all injustice was partially the fault of the victim. To reduce this argumentation down to its essence: “By merely being alive in a fallen world, anything that happens to you is partially your fault.” Victim-blaming falls into lunacy if applied on a consistently-logical basis. At most, we can judge wisdom in some circumstances, but even that can be an exercise in conflicting motives, experiences, and opinions. Taking hindsight into account limits even important debates on wisdom. After an injustice occurs, it is easy to look back and think of a myriad of acts that could have lessened the harm or prevented the harm altogether. Very often there can be good reasons to drive late at night, for example—even on St. Patty’s Day. There can be excellent reasons to walk through “the hood” in the middle of the night. Further, when something terrible does happen, we rarely know all the circumstances involved.
Discerning Christians should be careful not to commit the sin of Job’s friends. Far too often I have heard the words of Eliphaz echoed by Conservative media talking heads, social media pontificators, and pastors:
Remember now, who ever perished being innocent? Or where were the upright destroyed? According to what I have seen, those who plow iniquity And those who sow trouble harvest it. By the breath of God they perish, And by the blast of His anger they come to an end (Job 4:7–9).
Job’s friends spoke for God when they did not know the plans of God or the heart of Job. They pronounced guilt upon a good man only because of what happened to Job. Not only did they sin against Job, they also sinned against God.
God does bring ruin to the wicked (Prov. 10:29), but that does not mean we know the mind of God in how redemptive history plays out. The rain falls on the just and the unjust (Matt. 5:45). Good things happen to bad people, and bad things happen to good people.
There is futility which is done on the earth, that is, there are righteous men to whom it happens according to the deeds of the wicked. On the other hand, there are evil men to whom it happens according to the deeds of the righteous. I say that this too is futility (Eccl. 8:14).
We must judge righteously and not assume guilt, or—a more severe sin—assume things about God’s workings, because there is a calamity or injustice. God did not respond favorably to the “friends” of Job and their unrighteous proclamations:
It came about after the Lord had spoken these words to Job, that the Lord said to Eliphaz the Temanite, “My wrath is kindled against you and against your two friends, because you have not spoken of Me what is right as My servant Job has. Now therefore, take for yourselves seven bulls and seven rams, and go to My servant Job, and offer up a burnt offering for yourselves, and My servant Job will pray for you. For I will accept him so that I may not do with you according to your folly, because you have not spoken of Me what is right, as My servant Job has” (Job 42:7–8).
God blesses wisdom and hard work, and He also punishes wickedness. We must not, however, pretend we’re deity and sit in judgment of others because they fell victim to the lusts or greed of others. There is no Doctrine of Retribution in which every turn of seemingly good fortune must be a mechanistic response to personal virtue. Likewise, every injustice done is not evidence of the wickedness of the victim. This sort of mechanical thinking is nothing short of a false prosperity gospel.
“Well that’s Job,” I can imagine many readers thinking. And they are right. Not every victim of abuse, injustice, and calamity is a Job. That is clear. What about, for example, the intoxicated woman who stumble home in the dark in bad part of town, and the only reason for being in the bad part of town is because that is where she likes to sin by promiscuity and drunkenness? What about when that woman is sexually assaulted in the dark by an opportunistic predator?
First, because sexual assault is most often the crime that brings the most contention regarding who is to blame and what we are blaming whom for, and it is also the crime in this hypothetical, one thing needs to be made very clear: though walking alone in a dark alley in a bad part of town may increase your statistical likelihood of being mugged, that is not necessarily true of crimes like rape and sexual assault. Regarding sexual assault and abuse, a staggering 85 to 90 percent of women who report sexual assault know their attacker. Even if we take into account possible inflated statistics and false reports, we should not ignore these alarming statistics. Most of these crimes take place with a disproportionate power dynamic. Victims are usually female or a child. The abuser is known; a boyfriend, family member, friend of the family, teacher, priest, doctor, or pastor. The idea that women and children will be safe from injustices as long as they behave themselves is a myth. Though it is true that wisdom can decrease the likelihood of many crimes, it is precisely the people we should be able to trust who are most often those who sexually exploit and molest. Though the front-loaded hypothetical of a flamboyantly sinful rape victim is often brought up, it is not nearly as pervasive as a relatively innocent girl being molested or abused by a known or trusted authority figure. Predators find opportunity by looking at vulnerability and privacy. Opportunity is found behind closed doors and by building trust far more than in dark alleys.
Responsibility and blame
Considering that, two questions stand out to me.
1. Who is responsible for what?
2. What do we mean by “responsible,” “blame,” or “guilt”?
When I say “responsible,” I am talking about moral culpability—the actual guilt of sin. I am not talking about an abstract responsibility or stewardship to be careful and wise in life. I am talking about moral culpability for individual sin. I should note that it is possible to bear the weight of covenantal guilt; however, covenantal guilt is not a category of guilt to which either position is referring in this discussion. When we focus on individuals bearing guilt, everyone is only morally responsible for their actions, not the actions of others. I believe firmly, therefore, in individual responsibility. Though I am responsible for any unwise decision that put me at higher risk, I am not responsible for the sins of those who would hypothetically victimize me. Who is accountable for what should be clear. What we mean by “responsible” should also be clear. There are few things more deplorable than claiming that a rape victim is even partially guilty of rape, even if it is true that she may be guilty of other things.
When presented with a clear case of sinful abuse or sinful neglect that caused great harm, there is something peculiar and almost twisted in pointing instinctively to the victim and stressing the sins in their life while they lay dead or harmed from someone else’s crimes. Whether people are making those sorts of comments because of a desire to score social media points against “Cultural Marxism,” or because they are as cold and callous as they sound, they are not presenting Christian character.
To lay even some of the moral culpability on the victim is hatred to both the victim and the criminal. It artificially inflates the guilt of a victim, thus causing false guilt and further trauma. It also lessens the guilt of the abuser. It creates a vile opportunity for the victim to become the scapegoat for the abuser—a sacrificial lamb to be slaughtered to sate the conscience of the truly guilty party. When the inward thoughts of an abuser resort to excuses such as, “She shouldn’t have worn that short skirt and tempted me like that. What did she expect being dressed like that? She shouldn’t have led me on. She shouldn’t dress like a prostitute if she doesn’t want to be treated like one,” the abuser is repeating the rhetoric of the victim-blamers. When we give an opportunity for the guilty to shift their responsibility onto someone else, we do great harm to the Gospel. If they can dismiss their sin, they will also dismiss the forgiveness of their sins.
How then should we treat sinners who suffer injustices? First, by serving them. Love them enough to understand the pain and trauma they are going through. If they are still in danger, help them to safety. And, of course, share the Gospel. We don’t minimize their sin, but we also don’t, with a haughty scoff, maximize their sin as if they are equal to their rapist or abuser.
Consider this a pastoral admonition: many #MeToo victims are lost in their sins. We can address their sins like a Pelagian street preacher, calling them whores (or more polite versions of the same thing) on social media and virtue-signaling our supposed lack of virtue-signaling. Or we can love them while also taking their sin seriously. We should always correct sin and point to the cross as the answer to all sin, but we should also do so in compassionate ways that do not further marginalize those who have suffered tremendous victimization. This is hardly a call to “go soft” on sin, but rather a commonsense call to address the sin of a victim for the sake of the victim and not for the sake of emoting your self-righteous indignation for so-called Social Justice Warriors.
- It is significant that God called to Adam first and not to Eve. This does not lessen her sin, but it does speak to the leadership role Adam should have played and did not. Adam, as a covenantal head, bears responsibility. It was not just for himself and Eve; fallen humanity has Adam as their covenantal head.(↩)
- I highly recommend this interview of a victim of Nassar.(↩)