Rev. G. van der Schee, February 2021
Are you guilty if you commit a crime under duress, for example if someone forces you with a knife to your throat to rape or even kill a child? For judges this is a complex question. In the Dutch law books it is (so far) not clear. And in the book of God, that book of justice and mercy, is there light and hope? I would like to search there with you for an answer, especially if you have experienced such a horrible situation.
Before I do that, I'll tell you briefly how I got involved in this subject. Or rather how deeply this subject affects me.
I know from direct contact how complicated it is for such a perpetrator-victim to let those bizarre memories, which you try to survive by hiding them very deeply, surface in yourself. You are disgusted with yourself, you fear that every moment the police is at the door to take you away. How do you live on when you might have information about a child of someone who is missing. What do you do when you meet the parents at the mall, or hear things on the news that you know more about? You can't live with that unless your soul is rescued, freed from it.
When I first heard about this, I could hardly believe that this happened (in the Netherlands). But I had read about how child soldiers in for example Africa are brainwashed and forced to kill. Ellen Lactor, American clinical psychologist who has counseled survivors since 1982, writes about these and other practices. I have come to clearly understand that victims who are coerced to harm or kill other victims under direct torture carry no responsibility for these acts, whether as adults or children. Any resistance or hesitation, any plea to the abuser to stop, typically results in an escalation in torture, including intensifying or prolonging the current torture, adding an other form of torture-electroshock is easily remotely delivered to devices attached to victims, or intensifying the torture of the second victim. The abusers mock resisting victims for having brought the further torture on themselves and for having caused further harm to the intended secondary victims.
I myself am also reminded of the more than one hundred thousand German soldiers who were forced to fight under the Nazi system in Normandy in 1944. In a chapel in a large cemetery with black crosses, I read some of their letters in 2005, written to family or loved ones back home; it was heartbreaking. Ordinary young men, young fathers: what choice did they have? How they had to cry their souls out to lose their precious lives on an inhuman battlefield.
We return to the question of whether God's book gives hope and light to people who are perpetrators-victims? The Bible has special sides: it clearly distinguishes between good and evil, between light and darkness. But there is also a special connection between guilt and forgiveness. Jesus showed this in his own life. He died vicariously for all our sins. In the case of guilt and feelings of guilt, God wants the deepest restoration of your soul, so that guilt and feelings of guilt do not burden you and you do not shut yourself up with shame. The one criminal hanging on the cross next to Jesus understood that and seized his last chance for salvation by asking Jesus for mercy, we read in Luke 23: 39-43.
Another story that can help you walk the path of freedom with God's help is about the terrible King Manasseh. In 2 Kings 21:16 it says that he shed much innocent blood ''until all Jerusalem was filled with it''. ''Unforgivable'' is my reaction when I read this. Later, when Manasseh was cornered and at his wits' end, he prayed to God for help; he chose to humble himself and by God's grace came to recovery (2 Chronicles 33:12-20). David writes about the liberating effect of such a prayer around guilt and blame in the impressive Psalm 32.
What a brave choice to face your own darkness in the light of God and choose to go another way, with God's help.
When I was a pastor/teacher teaching about Isaiah, I came across a wonderful explanation of Isaiah 1:18. It is about the depth of God's forgiveness for you and me. God invites us to a judgement, where the acquittal is already fixed as far as He is concerned:
Come now, let us have a trial together, says the LORD.
Though your sins were like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow;
though they be red as crimson, they shall be as white wool.
As a Dutchman, I am not familiar with the crimson of the carmine oak that grows in the Middle East. When I read the following explanation about crimson, it moved me deeply.
Isaiah uses for crimson the Hebrew word תּוֹלָע , which also means worm. We also encounter this word in Job and the Psalms.
Crimson refers to the dye made from the dried body of the worm, the female which incidentally looks more like a maggot looks like a worm. When you read Isaiah 1:18, we see parallels between Isaiah's imagery and the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross.
When the worm produces young, she attaches herself so firmly to a branch or tree that she cannot get loose. She forms a hard shell over the eggs to protect them. When the larvae hatch, they live protected under her body and feed on their living mother. After a few days, when the young worms can take care of themselves, the mother dies. At that moment scarlet liquid leaks out, colouring the wood to which she is attached. But the young worms are also colored red for the rest of their lives. Three days after the mother dies, her body loses the scarlet color and turns into a kind of white wax, falling to the ground like snow. It is a beautiful picture of what Jesus did, although Isaiah did not see this in his time. The picture, which we see after Jesus' sacrifice on the cross, transcends Isaiah's time. Creation bears witness to the glory of God!
Source: ETS Old Testament lesson Isaiah
Are you guilty or not? With God, the question of guilt that I began this piece with fades away. Guilt of coercer or forced, He wants to forgive each one for their part in evil. Whether it was done knowingly or by force. God does not look legally, at the act, but as a Father at the person, precious creature and sometimes so far from His good way.
Guilt and blame are difficult and painful. It brings you down, makes you powerless and gives you restlessness, even at night. You do not easily confide the feeling to someone. Not even easily to yourself. It is shameful, sometimes very deep, sometimes vague. Shouting it over does not help. And it doesn't go away by itself, unfortunately.
What to do with it then? I wish you courage for the first step: to talk about it with yourself and a trusted other, on the way of liberation. Jesus can help you with the first step; He knows you completely, your actions, words, thoughts and feelings, but He does not reject you. On the contrary, He graciously invites you to become free from guilt and blame. That sounds heavenly and it is heavenly.