June 4, 2015

Ding Dong the Witch is Dead! A Pastor's Response to the Death of a Childhood Abuser

A recent obituary penned by some of the children of a recently deceased mother wrote this startling piece for their local press:

Marianne Theresa John­son-Reddick born Jan 4, 1935 and died alone on Sept. 30, 2013. She is sur­vived by her 6 of 8 children whom she spent her lifetime torturing in every way pos­sible. While she neglected and abused her small chil­dren, she refused to allow anyone else to care or show compassion towards them. When they became adults she stalked and tortured anyone they dared to love. Everyone she met, adult or child was tortured by her cruelty and exposure to violence, criminal activity, vulgarity, and hatred of the gentle or kind human spirit.

On behalf of her children whom she so abrasively ex­posed to her evil and vio­lent life, we celebrate her passing from this earth and hope she lives in the after­life reliving each gesture of violence, cruelty, and shame that she delivered on her children. Her surviv­ing children will now live the rest of their lives with the peace of knowing their nightmare finally has some form of closure.

I just heard several hours ago that my stepmother of almost 13 years is dead. Of what and how I do not know. She was young. I know that. So painful is it to even think of her name I refer to her as she throughout my autobiography.

It’s 1:30am and I can’t sleep. I don’t know what to think or to feel. The above is pretty much what I would like to express to the world. I would like to go to her funeral, stand and let everybody know what this person was truly like and how much damage she did while alive. I want her to get her just desserts even though I know, thanks to Christ, I will never get my own.

I am a pastor. I should know better. I do know better.

I know, deep in my soul, that Jesus experienced every form of suffering when he was in the world. “He was despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief” (Isaiah 53:3). Jesus was betrayed and tortured. He is well acquainted with your grief, and he will never leave you(John 14:18). I know, therefore, that perceived wisdom (my own included) demands that I forgive this woman who caused me such pain. I know it’s the Christian thing to do. I know that he who has been forgiven much ought to forgive much in return.

I know.

Yet, I want to make public my frustration at crimes she never paid for. At the same time, I want to be magnanimous in my forgiveness as Christ has been in his for my sin.

Instead, I feel conflicted.

I thought I might dance a little jig or even feel a sense of release and elation at news I long dreamed about and ached for as a kid. This is a woman who drove me to such despair that I attempted to set her on fire in her (drunken) sleep when I was no more than 10 years old. But there is no jig. There is just a heaviness of heart and the nagging itch of my suffering and her evil never admitted in this life. The problem is that I want to feel joy at her passing. I want to rejoice in the belief that she will face the judge of all the earth for her crimes against me. I want to revel in the thought that she is having her own spiritual Nuremburg moment right now. That ‘father time’ has caught up with her and her sins are about to be found out and brought into that terrible, perfect light. That the angels in glory will see just what a monster she truly was.

But I don’t feel joy that I want to. I just feel sad. Sad for a woman who wasted her life in bitter anger and expressed it through the mental and physical torture of children. Sad for the trail of devastation she left behind. Sad for the family members she hurt and betrayed. Sad that, despite these things, people will mourn her passing. There will be tears at her funeral. There will be stories of her good side or of things well done and said. Things I never experienced. Things I can scarcely believe are true about her.

I am conflicted further when I think about my own family today, almost three decades after she beat me for the last time. My wife of 17 years lies next to me, soundly sleeping. My girls (12 & 13) are in their rooms. Because of my childhood, they have never known violence in our home. Because of my pain, they have never known cigarette burns on pale, skinny arms. Because of my nightmares, they have never spent endless lonely nights in locked cupboards without food and clothing. Because of my shame, they have never known the horrors of being stripped and mocked in front of drunken strangers. Because of my scars, they have never known hunger so deep they’ve been forced to eat their own faeces. Because of my upbringing, they’ve never been beaten with poles and sticks. Because of my childhood, they’ve never been knocked unconscious for failing to wash a dish properly.

Because of her they’ve never known the horrors of deeply psychological and traumatic abuse.

Of course, they’ve never known these things primarily because I know Jesus. I know the bittersweet truth of Genesis in my own life. “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today” (Genesis 50:20 ESV).

I am conflicted because I realise that my own family lie peaceably unmolested because of God’s goodness in my life and, perversely, her evil in it too. God has used her evil for the good of my family. The thought that my pain has been used for good comforts me as I grapple with why these things were permitted to happen to me. The thought that she should get any credit, however true, is abhorrent.

Even now, at 2:30am, as I trawl through online press cuttings and see familiar faces all over the court’s pages and the obituaries, I feel a deep gratitude for Jesus. Old family and friends imprisoned and/or dead at criminally young ages. And I find her photo. She looks like an old woman, even though she was not. A lifetime of self-abuse has ravaged her features.

That could have been me. That was my own road to self-destruction until Jesus intervened. I live today only because Jesus found me and turned my life around. He gave me hope. He gave me a spiritual family. Brothers and sisters who have loved and cared for me. He used godly people to teach me personal responsibility for my own sins. He used godly people to teach me how to be a real man, a faithful husband, a loving father, and a (average) pastor.

He is teaching me still.

Yet, still I feel conflicted. I am angry with myself. I feel like my toing and froing over forgiveness and the rationalisation of my suffering is somehow betraying my childhood self. A spiritual battle rages on. The old man berates the new while the latter fights for peace. The old man wants to take me on a trip down (painful) memory lane, trawling up old wounds and savage rage long since soothed with the balm of the gospel. Of course, he’s popped by from time to time in my Christian life, but it seems like he’s pulled an armchair up tonight and he’s here for an extended visit.

The new man is winning.

Just.

Two decades of living for Jesus has evened the odds against two decades of self-loathing, shame, anger, and destruction. It seems that even the sovereign control over her death means that I am able to be conflicted without complete self-implosion. The same Holy Spirit that raised Christ from the dead is helping me to draw on my decades of biblical knowledge and personal experience with which to vanquish the poisonous darts of the devil.

It’s 4am, and I am suddenly reminded that I am not the person I was 30 years ago. Maybe she did change at the end? An awful thought crosses my mind. What if she, like me, found the true forgiveness and peace of Jesus Christ? No. There was no evidence to suggest it. How would I know? I haven’t seen her for 30 years. No! Surely not? God wouldn’t do that to me? He’s on my side, right? He wouldn’t let me down by saving my chief tormentor, would he?

Imagine that.

That would be the ultimate cheat, wouldn’t it? Pardoned, at the death, for her heinous crimes against me and who knows how many others? I don’t like that thought.

I suddenly realise that if it were true, then I’d be like the angry brother in the parable of the prodigal.

I want God to overlook my sins. I like it when he does that. But hers? That’s a stretch. I tell myself I’m a better person than she was. Is that true? Maybe now. But any good in me belongs to the Holy Spirit. I hurt people. I abused people. I stole. I lied. I murdered in my heart. I too have done awful things.

I think about Romans 12:17–21:

“Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everybody. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: ‘It is mine to avenge; I will repay,’ says the Lord. On the contrary: If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head. Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”

I don’t like that very much. I want to be her judge and jury.

Do I trust God to be hard enough on her? Will he let her off on a technicality? Will he forgive her? Maybe he doesn’t know the full story, and I need to fill him in on the details.

Pathetic, I know.

Sinful.

Arrogant.

I want to comfort myself by comparing my innocent suffering to his. Jesus understands me because we have suffered together. But, tragic though it is, my pain doesn’t really compare to his cosmic distress. My anguish, though real, is not even a pinprick on the little finger of his nail pierced hand. My suffering is infinitesimal in light of the cross of Calvary as he took the wrath of God upon himself to rescue the poor, the lowly, the proud, the greedy, the arrogant.

The child abusers.

He died for awful human beings like my stepmother.

Like me.

I roll over and try to sleep chewing on that awful truth.

She doesn’t need my forgiveness any more than I need her repentance. We both need the former from him, and he requires the latter from us.

Thankfully, in Jesus, he grants both to all who come.

It doesn’t tie it all up in a neat little bow, but at least sleep comes knowing that, ultimately, the judge of all the earth will do right and act justly.

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