Letting Them Fall: Why Withdrawing Help from an Abuser is a Kindness

Photo by César Rincón, flickr.

Photo by César Rincón, flickr.

[content note: Hugo, references to abuse apologia] 

It’s a remarkable thing when a child learns to walk. Being in my late 20s, I’ve had the pleasure of seeing several friends embiggen their families through the addition of children, and I've watched those kids go from small, swaddled blanket balls to yelling, running, screaming short creatures of terror. Growing up is a weird and intensely brave process, and so is being a parent. When a kid is learning to walk, she first grabs hold of your fingers tightly, afraid to attempt to balance on her own. You get used to walking around bent over, holding their hand, aiding their balance as they go.

But eventually, terrifyingly, the child begins to let go of your hand. Her first walk is wavering, and she doesn’t get far before falling backward onto her diaper-padded behind. But she’s started, and now you’ll be lucky if she willingly takes your hands again. You’ve learned that in order to let her walk, you also have to let her learn. And sometimes that learning hurts.

I’ve been thinking about this in relationship to the grace the modern evangelical church offers abusers. Out of a genuine, well-meaning attempt at grace and love, we look at those who have done horrible things – the Hugo Schwyzer’s, the Joe Paterno’s, the John Wayne Gacy’s – and says that redemption is here, redemption is open. But we forget the qualifier – redemption must be sought, and redemption is not an easy, clean, or safe process. Redemption requires boundaries, it requires letting them fall, it requires removing your hand for some time.

When we insist on taking abusers at their word, when we buy their narrative of redemption without question and offer them grace without limits, we do two things: 1. We enable them to abuse further by not holding them to the consequences of their actions, and 2. We send a message to the victims that their abuser’s redemption is of greater priority than their need to feel safe and heal.

The modern evangelical church is full of enablers. Our warped theology supports a consequence-free redemption of abusers while punishing victims who want boundaries as “bitter.”

We are the parents who insist on holding your hand until your sure of your footing, unconsciously preventing you from ever finding that footing. We make abusers dependent on our kindness because it gives them room to abuse further – it doesn’t require them to change, it doesn’t require them to seek further help, it doesn’t require them to respect and obey boundaries.

We speak boldly of grace, of unlimited love, of how God’s sacrifice covers all of us, and we use these high-minded principles to dismiss wrongdoing, to remove boundaries, and to enable abuse in the name of being radically separate from the world. But in our desire to prove our radical separation with radical love, we become worse than the world in allowing abusers room to find new victims, to function without boundaries, and to continue to manipulate.

It is devastating to me that Hugo Schwyzer, no matter how much professional feminism pushes him out, will always have a place of authority in the evangelical sphere. He will continue to find comfort there, all the while continue to stalk, harass, and abuse women of color who demand boundaries and demand that his abusive behavior change. The modern evangelical church that preaches of radical grace is the abuser’s best friend.

And what response do we get when boundaries are enforced on behalf of survivors and victims of abuse? That we are being mean, we are being bitter, we are withholding grace. Desiring boundaries around an abuser is failing to love fully and failing to participate in the full grace of redemption. We are, in the oddest proclamations, abusing the abuser.

A parent letting go of their child’s hand doesn’t mean that hand is turning into a fist. It simply means that they are giving the child room to fail. Removing my “kind help” from an abuser and calling him on his shit is not desiring his harm – indeed, it is the most loving thing I can do if I hope for him to actually change. It is because I believe in radical love and grace that I refuse to let abusers have any room to abuse, to live without boundaries, to be caught when they fall.*

*Note of clarification: a friend pointed out to me that this sounds similar to the manipulative "this is going to hurt me more than it hurts you" language, and for that I apologize. My point is very specific and very focused upon abusers like Hugo Schwyzer, who seek refuge in the church because the evangelical concept of radical grace excuses all manner of sin. So this is not necessarily a broader conception of how to treat all people behaving in ways we don't like (in that way, it can easily become abusive) but of how to respond to unrepentant abusers  who seek refuge within the church.