One of the wisest statements about human nature I have ever heard came from a seventh-grade girl. I was leading a discussion on bullying prevention with a circle of middle-school students.
This insight helped me better understand what I had been observing in my restorative justice work. Many offenders harm others out of the unhealed energy of their past pain.
When confronted with the truth of their actions, their default reaction is usually to protect themselves. Why is that? Deep down, they do not want to be vulnerable or, better, they do not want to be vulnerable again.
We’ve all had small bleeding injuries on our hands from camping or gardening and because we may not be able to cover the wound and keep the dirt out, it gets infected. A day or two later, the wound is more sensitive to the touch; every bump hurts even more than the initial injury. Consequently, it takes several more days for it to heal well, assuming we help it heal. In many ways, this is a picture of how our relational wounds can last over time.
Whenever I meet with offenders in preparation for a dialogue with victims, it is common for them to protect themselves. They feel bad about what they’ve done, and deep down they feel hurt by wounds from their past. I’m always amazed how they let down their guard when they are treated with dignity and respect. This transition toward openness is important for them to eventually make amends and for them to heal some of the ongoing infection that is tied to their negative choices.
I’ve also worked with victims at the front end of a dialogue process, watching them similarly move from a protective place to an open place. Rebuilding trust is central.
These facilitation experiences have led me to a new conclusion: All of us, at some level, have victim and offender aspects within ourselves. We all experience hurts; we all hurt others. It is part of being human. Below the thresholds of criminal law, all of us have an inner victim and an inner offender.
In my reflections I have also come to see that Jesus provides a powerful way for us to find healing and forgiveness not only for our wounding side but also for our wounded side. In his death, he experienced what both offenders and victims experience. The reconciliation that flows from the cross happens at many profound levels, and the level I want to focus on is between our wounded side and our wounding side.
The two Hagar stories in Genesis have become for me a window into seeing how one person can be both victim and offender. These stories, each with the same two-scene structure, show the complexities of relational conflict as well as the spiritual aspect of relational healing. Scene One involves the escalating tensions between Hagar, Sarah and Abraham. Scene Two involves Hagar in the wilderness and her encounters with God.
Hagar clearly bears the brunt of Sarah and Abraham’s anxieties and lack of trust about being childless, but she is also not innocent in the whole affair. We read in Genesis 16 that after Hagar knew she was pregnant, she despised Sarah. Out of deep pain, Sarah is stirred by this negative energy and overreacts in two ways: She blames Abraham and she projects her negativity back onto Hagar. Abraham (in this interesting study of family systems) is passive. Sarah’s inner turmoil turns into abuse toward Hagar, and Hagar flees into the desert.
I want to note here that when Hagar flees, she is not only feeling hurt but likely feeling some personal shame for adding to the escalating tensions. This is a picture of how all of us, at times, are not just a victim or not just an offender but more often a combination of the two. Some months ago, I lost a job in an unfortunate situation where I felt hurt by others as well as shame for my part in the issues. This dynamic can make healing and resolution a more challenging process.
It is significant that Hagar, fully pregnant, finds a spring in the wilderness. She has enough esteem to tend to her own care. Next, we learn that God reaches out, engaging Hagar in therapeutic conversation. In brief, God emboldens Hagar to return to her family system and transcend the hardships, knowing she will bear a son that will have many descendants. Her son is to be called Ishmael, meaning “God hears” the one in misery.
We may think relational healing must involve all parties finding a way to sit down and talk things through. That is not always possible, and it is not always advisable. But here we see how we as individuals, in our spiritual journeys, can have our relational hurts addressed. Hagar, who experienced a kind of invisibility in her role as child provider, now experiences a deity who has seen her. She thus names the spring “Lahai Roi” after the “Living One Who Sees Me.”
In the second story, the family system now includes Isaac and Ishmael (Genesis 21). Again, Sarah’s negativity, triggered by Ishmael’s episode of mocking Isaac, draws the drama into needless escalation, but this time Abraham takes better responsibility in his role. With a more mature faith in God, Abraham sends Hagar and her son into the wilderness; however, they lack sufficient provisions to survive in the desert heat.
The first time she fled; this time she was rejected. Not every close relationship is sustainable. Imagine Hagar’s intense mix of emotions. All seems lost, and she begins to sob. The boy will die of thirst. But true to Ishmael’s name, God hears the boy crying and again the promise of blessing is pronounced. The first time Hagar found a spring; this time God “opened her eyes,” revealing a spring. The spring allows for new life and a new future. Ishmael then lives to father many nations, including today’s Arab Muslims.
These stories have spoken to me during my own time of healing and job transition. They help me see how the entanglement of relational conflicts, sometimes too complicated to untangle, can lead to a resolution that begins with a fresh encounter with God. They also help me see that my wounding side and my wounded side can find what I call “parallel healing.” If they started together, they can heal together.
As we apply these insights, a four-part framework emerges that can help guide any type of relational problem, whether or not there is good dialogue with another person or other people.
After a situation of conflict or clashing, certain parties will experience ongoing emotional hurts. Recall again the illustration of the hand injury that does not get ointment and a band-aid but gets infected. Without receiving help from others and without having the humility to see the hurts for what they are, one’s journey from hurts toward healing will be stalled.
Let me return again to restorative dialogue with victims and offenders of crime. A key goal for any facilitator is to prepare both parties to come together for safe, constructive conversation.
A good facilitator will have confidence that any face-to-face meeting (which is always voluntary) will result in positive outcomes for everyone. The most straightforward cases—involving one remorseful offender and one empowered victim—go the fastest and smoothest toward resolution.
But not all cases are straightforward. Multiple offenders or victims can add complexity. Sometimes a victim, say of an assault, may have been a part of an earlier provocation, making both parties a mix of offender and victim. Even in the dispute resolution cases I’ve mediated, hurts and regrets can be on both sides. The more complex the clients, the more complex the resolution process.
And what if there is not an opportunity for safe, constructive dialogue with others in your lives, where walls are more prominent than bridges? What then? This is where Hagar’s story is helpful. Between our hurts and our healing is opportunity for us to receive help and to grow in humility. This can involve some personal work where our own inner offender and inner victim come face-to-face for safe, constructive dialogue.
Once we begin to see that our own woundedness and woundingness are wrapped up in each other’s history, energizing each other, as it were, we open ourselves up to new realms of forgiveness and compassion. In my own experience, I had a profound moment of encountering God’s forgiveness. As my mind was troubled by sorting out the side of me that felt hurt and the side of me that felt shame, I experienced a new release, knowing that God’s forgiveness covers both sides.
This is where a broader view of Jesus’ ministry and death on the cross can help us greatly. He bore not only our sins but also our sorrows; not only our wounding habits but also our wounds. This bearing of everything that weighs us down frees us up then to bear the sins of others; we grow in compassion as we understand how their hurting actions stem from deeper, unhealed hurts.
Consider the time when Jesus encountered the paralyzed man, forgiving his sins before healing his body. What sins were forgiven? Certainly not sins of greed or violence or indulgence. His sins amounted to the social stigma of being a “bad person” deserving of a physical handicap. Jesus releases him from this weight of sin. Similarly, Jesus’ forgiveness for prostitutes is not just for their sinning but for their wounded sinned-upon-ness.
The reconciling work of Jesus, therefore, not only brings peace between God and humanity and, by extension, between people as enemies; it also brings peace between an individual’s inner victim and inner offender. Having dignified us through divine invitation, God has provided a safe, constructive way for us to face the hard truths about ourselves. God pronounces forgiveness for our wounding others and for our wounds from others.
Just as Sarah’s past pain was touchy in relation to current rubs, so our past pains are linked to our current sins of hurting others or even hurting ourselves through compulsive addictions.
But the cross of Jesus broke the wounded-wounding cycle. That’s how the resurrected Jesus could say to Thomas, “Touch my wounds. Experience them as healed wounds.”
They were not touchy, where Jesus might say, “Ouch.” Rather, we touch the wounds to gain Spirit-power for ministries of peacemaking and forgiveness.
A few years ago my teenage daughter told me about being bullied by other high school girls. My first reaction was to find those girls and verbally shake them up so that they would stop. But on further thought, I knew they were complex individuals who were hurting inside.
As bullies, they had once been bullied. I told my daughter, “When you see them again, think about how underneath their insecure actions of bullying is a source of pain. Seeing them that way will give you compassion for them, and you will no longer fear their presence.”
In a similar way, I have found that with God’s help and with greater humility, I can see myself in a new light, where my victim and offender sides can now meet each other in the grocery store of my heart and greet each other face-to-face, no longer captive to the energy of avoidance.
Thankfully, this God-born compassion and reconciliation has given me a way to lean away from a past of hurts and lean toward a future filled with the fruits of healing.
Ted Lewis lives in Duluth, Minn., and works as a restorative justice trainer, mediator and consultant for conflict resolution programs and church communities.
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