I just looked over an essay by Katie Mulligan that deals with the topic of redemptive suffering in the context of Tony Jones’ controversy/dialogue with feminists. Redemptive suffering is a very abused concept in Christian history. Many women in abusive marriages have been told to stay put and “bear their crosses” because their suffering somehow honors God. Enabling an abuser is not redemptive suffering; it’s allowing a lie to be treated as the truth. But Mulligan points out a different way that people in a position of privilege can allow for healing and redemption through a different kind of suffering in conversation with those who have been wounded.
When people who have been abused speak out about their abuse, it’s a traumatizing experience. Part of the way in which victims are silenced is the expectation that what they say will come out “appropriately,” that they won’t make unfair associations in their mind between the person who hurt them and the person that they’re talking to, that they won’t say anything that suggests that “all men” or “all cops” or “all white people” are “that way.” So they don’t say anything.
If someone has been wounded and you’re having a passionate debate about something else and they say, “When you talk that way, you sound like the person who did that to me,” don’t treat it as an argumentative trump card (“Oh you’re just saying that because you can’t beat me with logic and Biblical interpretation”). If a person says something like that, it has nothing to do with winning an argument because it means that the argument has ended for them. Their mind has gone to something else entirely. Whatever else you say, no matter how brilliant or logically irrefutable, you’re talking to the air, so don’t waste your time doing it. You can call it your victory by forfeit if you’re immature enough to need to be a “winner” like Charlie Sheen.
But if you’re wanting to be a “despised one” like Christ, then the moment someone’s woundedness appears in a conversation with you, your entire posture should be shifted into active listening and your focus should be on making the other person feel safe enough to let out whatever needs to be let out without having to worry whether it’s politically correct, theologically orthodox, or fair to you. You’re not “condoning falsehood” by allowing the raw, imperfect expression of a suppressed truth to occur in your presence even if things are said that you don’t agree with and will continue to disagree with despite your love and respect for the person who has said them.
Here’s how Mulligan puts it regarding the context of women with abusive pasts talking to men:
If women speak of abuse and triggers, and make unfair accusations–and after all, the men many of us are engaging are not the men who damaged us particularly (even if they are behaving in oppressive ways), is it not the lowest blow to be accused of spiritual abuse? What could men do with that suffering (and despite my snarky ways, I really am not intending to diminish that suffering in this moment)?…
Without the expectation that women will change their ways, stay present: place-share. Be vulnerable. In your willingness to stay in relationship and to engage along tender fault lines with compassion and the conviction that God can redeem this suffering, might it not be possible for me to see how I have sinned against you (a man) by assuming that you are just like all the other men who have caused my suffering?
A legitimate and virtuous form of redemptive suffering is to allow others to be vulnerable about their woundedness in your presence even if you get a few spiritual bruises in the process. Now obviously there have to be boundaries on this. If you’re in a relationship with another person whose woundedness overpowers you and oppresses you, then you need to put distance between you. Or you at least need to speak up to set your boundaries.
Most of the time that I raise my voice with my wife is when I’m venting about other people (if I’m actually upset with her, I don’t raise my voice; I get sarcastic and pouty and passive-aggressive). But listening to me holler even about other people is oppressive to her so she says, “Don’t raise your voice with me,” until I’m able to regroup and calm down, which I have to do if I want her to stay in the room.
Anyhow, if you’re in a position of relative stability and self-knowledge that allows you to handle being mistreated or misjudged by someone as part of the process of getting their woundedness out into the open, then your redemptive suffering can be helpful to God’s healing process for that person. Obviously if it’s done in a patronizing way or if you’re needing to make a show of it and get your martyrdom points, then that’s worse than just being clueless and arguing back. But you don’t need to protest when the wounded person categorizes you unfairly because of the -isms as part of their process of finding dignity.
When you swallow the push-back that on a logical level would be totally legitimate for the sake of creating safety for another person to be vulnerable with you, that’s a virtuous form of redemptive suffering. And if you need Biblical proof-texts, a few that come to mind are Galatians 6:2: “Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.” Or 1 Peter 4:8: “Love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins.” To me, both of these verses are talking about the way that what defines Christian community is the lack of a need to call out every single error and argue every point.
It is the sectarian haeresis (factionalism) of modern rationalism that has made Christian community impossible for those Protestants who would rather be correct than in communion. It’s always a balancing act of discernment, but the safety of Christian community depends upon the redemptive suffering of those who are capable of biting their tongues, especially when they’re talking to people who have been hurt and need to speak their way into a dignified redemptive narrative for who they have become after what they experienced. Many thanks to Katie Milligan for opening up this dimension to the Christian conversation about abuse.