Two weeks ago, I asked the question, “How should we treat our enemies?” and unpacked Jesus’s unprecedented answer to this question. Jesus taught that we should love our enemies – not to intensify divine payback in the afterlife, not to prove our moral superiority over them, not even to convert them to our religion. Jesus taught that we should love our enemies and will their flourishing simply because this is God’s character and command for us. God is an enemy-lover, so we should be too.
But a reader replied and told me that she thought my essay was one-sided and potentially harmful in light of her experience of abuse. She wrote, “Sometimes I may love the enemy too much and lose my own health and ability to function… It would not be right to act maliciously against them. But I may have to say no to helping them further.”
I agree with her, and I think Jesus did too. This week, I want to explore what Jesus said about those who abuse the vulnerable. In future weeks, I plan to explore how we can hold these two teachings of Jesus in constructive tension.
I’m always grateful for your feedback, including your questions and critiques. Thank you for stopping and thinking with me, and helping me do the same with you.
Jesus’s Condemnation of Abuse
“Submit and Forgive”
A student in one of my Christian Ethics seminars told me the story of a woman who was being abused by her husband. The woman went to the leaders of her church and asked what she should do. They told her that the Bible teaches that she should “submit” to her husband and “forgive” him.
But he continued to abuse her, and she returned to her spiritual leaders on two separate occasions for their help. Each time, they gave her the same instructions: submit and forgive.
Eventually, her husband murdered her.
(Incidentally, this happened in the head office of a denomination that claims nearly ten million members.)
This terrible story and others like it have haunted me. These pastors’ advice literally led to the murder of this defenseless woman.
Were they right? What did Jesus teach about those who abuse the vulnerable, and how should this shape Christian responses to abuse today?
Jesus’s Teaching on Abuse
Jesus did not intend for his ethic of forgiveness and enemy-love to justify and aggravate the suffering of abuse victims. To the contrary, Jesus’s fiercest words of condemnation were spoken against those who abuse the vulnerable:
“If anyone causes one of these little ones to stumble, it would be better for them to have a large millstone hung around their neck and be drowned in the depths of the sea.” (See Matthew 18:6-9; Mark 9:42-50; Luke 17:1-5)
In three distinct teachings, Jesus declares that it would be better to commit suicide or to be executed than to harm a vulnerable person.
In Matthew 18, “the little ones” are associated with children.
In first century Palestine, children were not cute symbols of gullible faith like they often are in our sermons. They were the most powerless and vulnerable (sub)members of society at the greatest risk of abuse. Think of Alan Kurdi, the three-year-old Syrian refugee who drowned off the coast of Turkey in 2015. This is why Jesus speaks of children’s “lowly position” (18:4).
So “the little ones” here represent those who do not have legal status or the physical ability to protect themselves. Jesus declares that it would be better to die than to harm someone in this vulnerable position. More specifically, he warns that if your hand causes abuse, it would be better to “cut it off” than for your entire body to “be thrown into the fire of hell” (18:9-9).
In Mark 9, “the little ones” are associated with outsiders.
Jesus’s disciples come to him and report that someone who was “not one of us” was performing miracles in Jesus’s name. They proudly announce, “We told him to stop!” (9:38). Apparently, the disciples saw helping others with God’s power as the tribalistic privilege of their inner circle.
Here Jesus repeats his fierce condemnation of those who “cause one of these little ones to stumble.” It would be better to die than to exclude a believing outsider. Jesus adds that everyone will ultimately be tested by God’s fire and warns, “Be at peace with each other” (9:50). For Jesus, these petty attempts to exclude others and exalt ourselves are hellish.
In Luke 17, “the little ones” are associated with the poor and suffering.
In this context, Jesus tells his raw parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus. Lazarus was a poor beggar – covered in sores and licked by dogs. He was so desperate that he sat outside the house of a rich man and longed simply to eat the scraps from the rich man’s table. But the rich man – dressed in purple and living in luxury – showed Lazarus no pity. Jesus says that when he dies, Mr. Rich is sent to hell and his hypocritical cries for pity cannot save him. But when Lazarus dies, he is taken to paradise, and God “comforts” him (Luke 16:19-31).
This is where Jesus gives his fierce warning against causing others to stumble. Here the “little ones” are the economically poor and physically suffering, those who are abused and left for dead. Jesus exclaims for a third time that it would be better to die than to mistreat someone in this desperate situation. Jesus adds, “So watch yourselves” and insists that the abuser should be “rebuked” (17:3).
Now, we should never minimize the radical implications of Jesus’s command to forgive and love our enemies (Matthew 5:43-48; Luke 6:27-36). This command was and remains revolutionary, attacking the selfish core of the human drive for self-preservation and violence. “Love your enemies” is one of the greatest treasures of Christian ethics and historic moral teaching.
But this command must never be isolated from the full body of Jesus’s teaching, especially his fierce condemnations of abusing vulnerable people – “little ones” – like children, outsiders, and the poor and suffering.
While Jesus calls us to sacrifice ourselves for others, including our enemies, he had zero tolerance for the abuse of the most vulnerable. Jesus insisted that it would be better to commit suicide or be executed than to abuse the vulnerable. The abusive hand should be “cut off” before it harms another. In the face of abuse, Jesus demanded careful accountability and stern rebuke.
Advice for Christian Community
Victims, Jesus stands with you and does not accept the abuse you suffer. Yes, Jesus calls each one of us to grow in forgiveness and self-sacrifice. But he does not remain silent about abuse. He repeatedly and resolutely condemns it as a deadly evil.
If you are a vulnerable person, I believe Jesus’s teaching gives you the full right to protect yourself against your abuser, without the lingering fear that you are violating Jesus’s teaching on forgiveness and enemy-love. You should not allow a false guilt to trap you in ongoing suffering. In fact, perhaps the most practical way that you can love your abuser is by preventing them from storing up God’s judgment against them by continuing to abuse you. Do not accept pseudo-biblical counsels that you must silently suffer abuse.
Abusers, your behavior cannot be excused by invoking Jesus’s teaching on forgiveness and enemy-love. If you are trying to manipulate Jesus’s words to shield yourself and pressure others to subject themselves to your abuse, be reminded that Jesus says – not once but three times – that it would be better to die than to abuse a vulnerable person.
Friends, if you know a victim of abuse, please stand with them and remind them of Jesus’s fierce words of condemnation against those who abuse their vulnerability. Love and protect them. If you know an abuser, please stand against them and remind them of Jesus’s fierce words of condemnation against their abusiveness. Love them and find wise ways to make sure that they are stopped.
Pastors, without stigmatizing and further endangering the vulnerable, make sure that you are cultivating communities with zero tolerance for abuse. Know your people, confront the abusive, and protect the vulnerable. Use all of your powers – personal, communal, and legal – to make sure that the vulnerable are protected and the abusive are brought to justice, whether this leads to reconciliation or separation. Your failure to exercise decisive leadership on behalf of the vulnerable could lead to their death.