Trigger Warning: This article contains details of trauma, sexual assault, rape, and abuse. Reader discretion is advised.
Eleven years old, I sat on my canopy bed in my small room, reading. The window behind me looked out over the climbing tree with its old navy rope leading to a branch twenty feet above. I had always failed at the PE rope climb at school, but when we had moved into our current home, my dad had made a rope climb in the backyard. I had exerted all my stubbornness to learn to climb it. Now, I was able to slip a book into a pocket and climb all the way up to sit on the branch above. I was so proud of myself. I had begun dreaming of being able to prove myself capable in seventh-grade PE. Because of my asthma, I had always scored low on physical fitness tests, but here was something my asthma could not inhibit.
Unfortunately, that first semester of my 7th-grade year, I was one of a few girls who was assigned first-period PE, which had only a boys’ class. There was one significant difference between the girls’ and boys’ PE classes. The girls’ class included gymnastics, with the rope climb; the boys’ class included wrestling, without the rope climb. As another way to see it, girls did bodies moving alone, working to overcome the pressure of gravity. Boys did bodies pressed together, struggling to overpower each other. Being assigned a boys’ PE class may seem like a small issue, but it was traumatic to 11-year-old me. You see, I had already experienced male bodies pressed against mine in ways no child should ever experience.
On that day, I would experience it again. An adult male family member came into my room to ask me to “help” him. I had gained strength and perseverance in climbing the rope, and I had been learning how to fight the body pressed against mine in wrestling. So, I stood up and told him no. And no. And no. And no. But he overpowered my no, a heavy-weight champion wrestling a lightweight newbie. I put up a good fight, but it wasn’t enough.
Later, I sat again on my bed and took out my journal. I had so many emotions raging through me. I desperately needed to speak them, but there was no safe person to listen. There was no safe way even to write them. All my thoughts and emotions erupted into two sentences: “I hate him.” and “He hates me.” I opened my journal to a random page and wrote one of the sentences in tiny, faint letters along the page seam; the other was too dangerous to write. I did not even understand the relationship between those statements as I wrote, “He hates me.”
I faced that same eruption of thoughts and emotions three decades later, after experiencing abuse by my former ministry. My employers had repeatedly stated that they loved me, yet when I explained that their actions were both unethical and in violation of their own policies, as well as deeply harmful to me, as affirmed by my counselor, they insisted that I was at fault for not feeling loved by their harmful actions. My family member had also claimed his abuse came from righteousness. I was the only one who acknowledged feelings of hate—a feeling that the church deemed evil. In the aftermath, I spoke the other of the two sentences to a friend on Facebook Messenger: “I hate them.” I sensed a profound change in her communication after I wrote that. Before, her words communicated connection. After, her words communicated withdrawal. Later, when I was nearby, I asked if she wanted to see me. She didn’t. A single written sentence had severed a relationship.
My friend had cut me off for expressing feelings of hatred towards my abusers … but who truly hated whom? Was I the hater? Or were my abusers the haters? Is hatred an emotional response, or is hatred the action to which the emotions are responding? Too often, the church has condemned the emotional responses of abuse victims as evil and ignored or excused the abusive actions which evoked the response.
Go and Do Neighbor
If the church truly desires to support abuse victims, then we must learn to recognize the relational nature of emotions. The Maasai of East Africa have a different way of understanding relationships which can help English-speaking churches properly understand emotions. Among the Maasai, there is no word for grandchild. Grandmother is Nkokoo, and grandfather is Kakuyiaa. But a grandmother also calls her grandchildren Nkokoo, and a grandfather calls his grandchildren Kakuyiaa. The words do not identify individuals, but instead, they name the relationship between two people: an originator and an offspring two generations apart. In English, we use separate words to emphasize each individual’s specific generation. The Maasai emphasis on identifying the relationship, rather than the individuals in that relationship, is alien to English speakers.
AND THIS IS A PROBLEM.
In the Good Samaritan story, Jesus told his listeners to love their neighbors as themselves, but a religious leader responded by asking Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus answered by telling a parable of a man who had been robbed and was left bruised and beaten. In the story, three different people passed the wounded man. Two, leading citizens, avoided him and refused to help. But one, a foreigner, did everything he could to help. After finishing the story, Jesus asked, “Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” The religious leader replied, “The one who had mercy on him.” Jesus then told him, “Go and do likewise” (Luke 10:25–37, NIV).
Go and do neighbor. In Jesus’s story, “to neighbor” is not to live next to someone nor to be of the same nationality or ethnicity. To neighbor is to be actively present in the needs of someone you pass as you do life, as Jesus exemplified. It is to build that other up, to strengthen and heal them. For the Maasai, Nkokoo is a word marking a relationship in which there is an originator and an offspring, a source of life and the life that the source helped create. This is how Jesus used the word neighbor. Neighbor marks a relationship in which one does neighbor and the other receives neighbor. There is an originator and a receptor.
The Bitter Root
I believe that this is the framework through which we must understand emotion words. There is an action of emotion and a reaction of emotion. Emotion words mark the relationship of action and reaction, not simply the reaction. Whenever there is an emotional response, we must recognize that there has been an emotionally charged action at some point. God Godself declared, regarding Israel, “Because of all their wickedness in Gilgal, / I hated them there” (Hos 9:14, NIV). Evil actions evoke strong emotional responses.
Compassionate actions also evoke strong emotional responses. As Jesus ate with another religious leader, a sinful woman came in and began anointing Jesus’s feet. The leader was disgusted at Jesus for allowing a sinner to touch him, so Jesus told him a story about two people indebted to a money lender. One had a small debt, the other an immense debt. The money lender forgave both debts. Jesus asked the leader, “Now which of them will love him more?” The leader hedged his answer, “I suppose the one who had the bigger debt forgiven.” Jesus replied, “You have judged correctly.” Jesus saw the woman’s emotional outpouring of love toward him as an indication that she had received Jesus’s active love toward her (Luke 7:38–40, NIV). As the Apostle John wrote, “We love because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19, NIV) — action and reaction.
Too often in the church, we do not understand emotion words correctly. Hebrews tells us: “See to it that no one falls short of the grace of God and that no bitter root grows up to cause trouble and defile many” (12:15, NIV). Many religious leaders use this verse to condemn abuse victims, women like Naomi, who changed her name to Mara, or Bitter, because life had been bitter to her. Are the victims’ emotions the “bitter root” or is the abuse the “bitter root”? The Hebrews passage uses the words root and cause, not leaf and effect. The root is the invisible source of a plants’ life, from which all the visible parts grow. The visible leaves grow from an invisible root. We see the leaves and not the root, but the root is the source of the leaves. Without the root, there would be no leaves. We must recognize that the bitter root we are to prevent from growing up to defile many is the cause or source of the bitter emotional response, not the bitter response itself.
The Bitter Herbs
God commanded the Israelites to include bitter herbs in their Passover celebrations in order to remember the bitterness of their captivity (Exod. 12:8, Num. 9:11). Herbs are leaves, not roots. Miriam’s name, which also means Bitter, tells us the bitterness the Israelites felt at the bitterness of their oppression. During Passover, the Israelites commemorated that bitterness. God connects this remembrance of bitterness to action, telling the Israelites to remember their bitter oppression so that they will choose to love the foreigners among them, even as God does (Exod. 23:9, Lev. 19:33–34). “For the LORD your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, …[He] loves the foreigner residing among you, giving them food and clothing. And you are to love those who are foreigners, for you yourselves were foreigners in Egypt” (Deut. 10:17–19, NIV). Their remembrance of their own bitter emotions was to become a motivation for godly action.
Significantly, it is through the “Bitter” women, Miriam, Mara, and Mary, that God gave us Moses, David, and Jesus. The bitterly oppressed cried out in their bitterness, and God responded by sending a deliverer. Though the church often responds to the bitter cries of victims with condemnation, God meets a victim’s cries of bitterness with deliverance.
Emotion words mark a relationship between action and reaction, root and herb, and it is essential that the church learn to distinguish between root and herb as we witness victims’ bitter-woundedness. We must stop silencing their emotional responses. Weeding is ineffective if we simply cut off the leaves. As we have seen repeatedly in the church, more weeds will simply grow from the root. Understanding that the emotional response we see comes from a hidden root requires us to change how we address emotional responses. Instead of silencing the victims’ responses, we must listen to the victims’ cries to help us find the root so we can uproot it and deliver the victims from their source of bitterness. As we face the ongoing exposure of the Church’s failures to address abuse well, I urge us to ask, “Who acted hate to whom? What is the root of these bitter herbs?
 Rebecca Davis also explores the issue of the victims’ bitterness in her book Untwisting Scriptures: that were used to tie you up, gag you, and tangle your mind (Justice Keepers Publishing, 2016). She includes an important examination of the damaging bitterness teachings of various church leaders as well as an examination of the Bible passages that condemn bitterness, including the OT reference to “a root bearing poisonous and bitter fruit” found in Deuteronomy 29:18 and the NT reference to “the gall of bitterness” found in Acts 8:23.
For further reading, also see, Beth Barret, “A Time for Lament,” Jesus Creed, June 29, 2021, https://www.christianitytoday.com/scot-mcknight/2021/june/time-for-lament.html.
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