Mitchell R. Morrissey
Denver District Attorney
Unit 4:
Theological & Spiritual Issues

: To identify possible theological and spiritual reactions to victimization and offer strategies for addressing them with spiritual integrity.


Victim Care: Issues for Clergy and Faith-Based Counselors
Theological and Spiritual Issues – Lesson Five
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Reading: God and the Victim

Chapter 3: The Mark of Evil (Dan B. Allender)
Chapter 11: “Forgive and Forget” and Other Myths of Forgiveness (Dan.B. Allender)

(See Assignment below)
Lament for a Son (Nicholas Wolterstorff)
Man’s Search for Meaning (Viktor Frankl)
Night (Elie Wiesel)


Students may choose to read one of the following three books:
Lament for a Son (Nicholas Wolterstorff)
Man’s Search for Meaning (Viktor Frankl)
Night (Elie Wiesel)

After reading the book and the other readings, write a 2-3 page reflection paper on how can you use insights from these peoples’ experiences to help victims again find meaning in their lives.

The instructor may role play the following scenario or engage a drama student to role play it. The only information to be revealed to the students before the role play is that the victim is a 30-year-old whose spouse has insisted that he/she talk to their faith leader. Students are to play the role of the faith leader or pastoral counselor and may respond intermittently rather than having only one student engaged in the role play.

After the role play, the instructor or drama student will explain to the students how he or she felt as the students asked questions and gave their responses.

Scenario: (This senario is based on an acutal situation. The name of the church has been changed.)
You have been a member of Montview Boulevard Church since moving to this town seven years ago. Members of the congregation helped you with your spiritual development which was meaningful. Three months ago, you decided to help with the teen ministry, especially with the recreational program.

Six weeks ago, as you were walking out of a restaurant, a car squealed around the corner and you saw a gun sticking out of the window. Two shots were fired. The first hit and killed a young man who had been a short distance in front of you. The second hit you in the hip.

Following surgery and rehabilitation, you were told that you will walk with a limp for the rest of your life and you will have to find different sporting activities to accommodate your disability. You feel blessed to have survived, but the last couple of weeks, you have become increasingly angry at God.

You thought you were doing what God wanted you to do when you decided to work with the youth at the church. You really wanted to make a difference in their lives. It is hard to make any sense out of what has happened to you.

You are asking why God didn’t prevent this tragedy, not just for you but especially for the young boy who was killed and his family. You are told that he was a good kid – a good student who didn’t have an enemy in the world. You see his face everywhere, especially in crowds. You continue to have flashbacks of the accident. You are having nightmares and can’t sleep.

You’re not sure you even want to come back to church because you can’t reconcile what has happened with what you hear at worship.

Theodicy: The Justification of God

From the dawn of humankind, when men and women began to have a sense of a transcendent reality as their source and destiny, they have asked, “Who are You? Are You Friend or Foe?” Whenever it has been declared that God is good, a common response is, “Then why the suffering, the injustice, the absurdity?”

In Archibald MacLeish’s satirical play on the Book of Job, the Satan character, Nickles, tauntingly sings, “If God is God, then God is not Good. If God is Good, then God is not God.”i

Nearly every victim of crime asks in some form, “If God is love, why did this happen?” From every cross, the cry goes up. It is important to recognize that their cry is not definitively answered.

In Trauma and Recovery, Judith Herman states:

“The traumatic event challenges an ordinary person to become a theologian, a philosopher, and a jurist. The survivor is called upon to articulate the values and beliefs that she once held and that the trauma destroyed. She stands mute before the emptiness of evil, feeling the insufficiency of any known system of explanation. Survivors of atrocity of every age and every culture come to a point where all questions are reduced to one: Why? The answer is beyond human understanding.

…Then the descent into mourning is at once the most necessary and the most dreaded task of moving toward recovery.”ii

Even though the “answer is beyond human understanding,” faith leaders and pastoral counselors can offer responses that are supportive.

In the God and the Victim chapter, “Contours for Justice: An Ancient Call for Shalom,” Nicholas Wolterstorff writes, “When the Bible talks about justice and injustice, it doesn’t start giving us a litany of the perpetrators. It gives us a litany of the victims, the oppressed wounded ones—the widows, the orphans, and the aliens.”iii

One of the consistent images of God in the Torah and the New Testament (see Exodus 3:7, and Luke 1:52,53) is that God is on the side of the victim. Perhaps this explains why many victims are perplexed that so many faith communities develop prison ministries and prison re-entry programs, but fail to offer victim assistance programs. Offender programs obviously have merit, but in many cases in the New Testament where prison visits are encouraged, the prisoner is a follower who has been falsely imprisoned.

Another supportive response to the “why” question is to point out God’s passion for justice, which is deeply shared by most victims. Victims cannot help but think about those who perpetrated crime against them and most of them feel that justice is warranted.

When no one is arrested and charged with the crime, the victims may feel that further injustice has been propagated. They may have great difficulty with the injustice of someone inflicting harm on an innocent person and “getting away with it.” It is not unusual for victims to be angry at society, at law enforcement (for not doing enough to catch the offender), at government (for lax laws or lack of cooperation between states), or at themselves for not being better protected and prepared against unanticipated crime.

When discussing their victimization with a trusted faith leader or pastoral counselor, many victims verbalize thoughts about revenge to the point that they may want to take the law into their own hands. Faith leaders can acknowledge the victim’s sense of frustration and point to scriptures where the cry for justice is paramount. While accepting revengeful thoughts and feelings, they can also gently guide the victim to develop behavioral plans that will not result in additional pain and suffering.

With greater frequency, victims are turning to faith leaders and pastoral counselors to accompany them through the criminal justice system. If filling this role, faith leaders should be trained and equipped with accurate information about how the legal system works in their community, or have a good referral source for this information such as a victim advocate. The unknown is feared more than the expected. Those who engage in court accompaniment with a victim must know about posting bond to avoid confinement, plea bargains, hung juries, and the potential for a new trial following a conviction, among others. It is important to know how to help victims calm themselves and defuse their anger and anxiety during court breaks or following the court day, as described in the previous unit.

Significant Issues in Ministering to Victims of Crime

  • Avoid Exploitation

Faith communities are knit together by stories of hope, power, and positive outcomes that have evolved from seemingly impossible or dark circumstances. When someone has been victimized by crime, everyone desires to see the experience woven into the fabric of new beginnings. In the midst of devastating circumstances, victims of crime can, indeed, experience hope, encouragement, and support from their faith leader or pastoral counselor and the sacrificial provisions of the members of the faith community.

On the other hand, it is possible that these acts of kindness can place the pressure of unrealistic expectations, both spoken and unspoken, on victims. This pressure may intensify if positive outcomes are attributed to supernatural intervention and the victim is asked to publicly thank God and the faith community. It is important to remember that most victims of serious crimes have been terribly traumatized. From the outside, a victim may appear calm, controlled, well-adjusted, and on the rebound. However, on the inside, the victim may still be facing doubts, uncertainty, fears, and spiritual questions, even in the face of great provision.

The shame the victim may be feeling, the unresolved trauma and spiritual concerns, and the personal sense that, even with overwhelming support and assistance, life may never really return to “normal,” can make them apprehensive to appear before a group or face a newspaper reporter. It can feel very dissonant to be expected to express gratitude for assistance while still experiencing deep feelings of betrayal, pain, injustice, and insecurity.

Not wishing to be unkind, the victim may agree despite reservations. However, a victim’s story and experience are not tools to be used for the gain or benefit of anyone else. Victims who have healed enough to genuinely want to share their stories will initiate the opportunity. Some victims may never choose to tell their stories. For others, it may be a cathartic experience when the time is right. It must be the victim’s choice.

  • Redirect Anger

As noted previously, anger should be viewed as a normal response for victims of crime, even though it may not be comfortable for faith leaders.

Anger is sometimes a secondary emotion. Victims of crime can feel hurt, frustrated, and out of control underneath the anger. Often the anger is directed at those who are trying the hardest to help them. Victims should be allowed to express their anger in appropriate and safe ways that don’t harm themselves or others. Once it has been ventilated, it is then appropriate to begin probing for the feelings beneath the anger that may be more painful to face.

It does no good to tell an angry person that he or she should not be angry. It only makes them angrier. Instead, victims may need help developing constructive methods of venting and expressing anger. Exercise, hobbies, or other physical activities can help release anger without hurting someone else. Anger may resurface from time to time and will need to be dealt with each time it presents itself.

It may be easier to be supportive of a victim’s anger at the offender or the justice system than at God, particularly for the faithful who tend to think they should be able to provide an “answer.”

In their book, Angry with God, Michele Novotni and Randy Petersen write:

“But when we’re angry at God, does that mean we’re accusing God of doing wrong? Are we saying that God is unjust? Yes and no. We’re saying that we feel God is treating us unfairly. As long as we understand that we could be mistaken about this, we should be able to express our feelings. Those feelings can still be a signal that something is going wrong in our relationship with God, but we’ll never find out what is wrong if we never say how we feel. Perhaps the strongest testimony to the validity of expressing anger toward God is the all-star lineup of people who have done so. The Judeo-Christian tradition is rich with people who argued freely with their Lord. Abraham, Moses, Samuel, David, Elijah, Job, Jeremiah, Peter, and Paul all expressed anger, frustration, disagreement, or disappointment in their relationship with God. In a few cases they were corrected, but generally their honesty seemed to draw them into a closer relationship with God.”iv

  • Acknowledge Despair

Despair is the loss of hope. Anger requires energy and is focused on a target. Despair is the absence of energy. The despairing person sees no point in being angry. Nothing makes any difference; nothing makes any sense; nothing is worthwhile.

It is important to distinguish between despair and depression, although there may be some overlap. The key feature of clinical depression is that the sad, empty feeling persists nearly all the time, nearly every day, for weeks at a time. The depressed person may feel exhausted, but is unable to sleep (some sleep all the time), may be unable to experience pleasure, may feel worthless and guilty, and may have thoughts of ending their lives.v When the faith leader or pastoral counselor suspects that a victim is suffering from depression, a referral to a mental health professional or physician/psychiatrist is warranted.

Despair may not encompass all of one’s life and may focus more on thinking than feeling, although feelings often accompany the thoughts. It is understandable, when one has experienced the absurdity of criminal victimization, to despair about making sense of life. This sense of futility is often expressed in the Bible after a traumatic event such as in Psalm 137 where the Psalmist reflects on the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple. His only hope is that God will take vengeance on the destroyers. Ezekiel 37 reflects the vision of a Valley of Dry Bones, which represents the people of Israel after their deportation to Babylon, and they are “very dry.” It is also expressed in the post crucifixion stories of the disciples hiding behind closed doors, of the two on the road to Emmaus speaking in the past tense of their “Hope that he was the one to redeem Israel.”

Obviously, a sense of hope must be recovered if any healing is to take place. In full acknowledgment of the senselessness of what has happened, the faith leader or pastoral counselor can gently point to the potential for new possibilities. “Even though changed, how might you use what has happened to you to help someone else?” “Who needs you at this time in your life?”

Resurrection is a powerful theme in the Judeo-Christian tradition, whether the focus is on Israel arising from deportation or Christians being raised with Christ to a new life. For the person feeling despair, resurrection is difficult to embrace but it is a powerful springboard to hope.

  • Address Forgiveness with Integrity

At the heart of most religious systems is an emphasis upon forgiveness. Both secular psychologists and theologians recognize that negative and harmful consequences can result from an inability to forgive. On the other hand, the unrealistic expectation that all victims should be able to forgive their offenders can make a victim who is unable to forgive feel even more ashamed and guilty. Given the life alteration that often results from crime, forgiveness touches upon theological concerns where tossing out blithe and easy dictums may cause irreparable spiritual damage.

Forgiveness cannot be an instantaneous decision but must slowly evolve through a course of personal processing. Dr. Dan Allender, in his chapter entitled “’Forgive and Forget’ and Other Myths of Forgiveness” in this unit’s assigned reading from God and the Victim, states:

“Many attempt to put their injuries behind them through a dramatic, climactic, once-and-for-all deliverance from anger. They assume that forgiving involves a sudden, marked change from being filled with bitterness and hatred to feeling untroubled peace. Those who hold this view refer to forgiveness as a finished event (‘It took me years before I forgave my father’) rather than an ongoing work of the Spirit of God.

Some people do experience one climactic moment when a transition from bitterness to forgiveness takes place. The problem comes when they assume that the struggle to forgive is then over and the tumultuous feelings resolved. It is naïve to believe that forgiving another, whether for a single failure or for a lifetime of harm, is ever entirely finished. In truth, the more fully we face the harm we have suffered, the more deeply we must forgive. Forgiving another is an ongoing process, rather than a once-and-for-all event.” (pp. 203)

The potential for forgiveness does not exclude the victim’s desire to see an offender caught, brought to justice, and sentenced to confinement. Some victims may understand forgiveness as their willingness to give the offender over to the criminal justice process and to the providence of God, thus putting to rest their painful torment centered on their personal responsibility to bring the offender to justice. Others find it offensive to consider the word forgiveness if the offender has not repented and changed his or her pattern of behavior.

In his book, The Sunflower, Simon Wiesenthal tells of his World War II experience of being approached by a nurse while he was on work detail outside his concentration camp. She asked him to go with her back to the Nazi field hospital where she was working. There she takes him to the bedside of a young Nazi soldier who is dying from wounds. He asks Wiesenthal, as a Jew, to forgive him for participating in the burning alive of an entire village of Jews. Wiesenthal listens to the story, pauses and then silently walks

It is central to Judaism that one does not have the right to forgive someone of the harm they have done to another. In terms of human sin, the one directly offended must do the forgiving. In this case, it would have been the families of those who burned. Only when this is accomplished does the penitent have right to ask for God’s forgiveness.

Dr. Allender continues:

“A forgiving heart cancels the debt but does not lend new money until repentance occurs. A forgiving heart opens the door to any who knock. But entry into the home—that is, the heart—does not occur until the muddy shoes and dirty coats have been taken off. The offender must repent if true intimacy and reconciliation are ever to take place. That means that cheap forgiveness—peace at any price—is not true forgiveness.” (pp. 212-213)

  • Reconnection

Judith Herman states in Trauma and Recovery that since the core experiences of psychological trauma are disempowerment and disconnection from others, recovery is based on empowerment and creation of new connections and meaning. (pp. 133).

Anger can be directed constructively. Despair can be replaced with new possibilities. This movement does not negate or deny the reality of the trauma experience, but affirms that there is life beyond the experience.

An example of this is Betty Jane Spencer, who, along with her four sons, was forced to lie on the floor while the boys were shot and killed one after the other, execution-style. Although the murderers thought they had killed her, too, Betty Jane survived. After several years of depression, despair, and anger, she realized that her reaction was destroying her. Her counselor suggested that God could handle all these reactions and that she need not hide them from God. She also recognized that by allowing herself to be destroyed, she was allowing the murderers to win. Turning the negatives to positives, she became a pioneer in the crime victims’ rights movement and was instrumental in changing our nation’s attitude toward victims at the national level. When President Reagan signed the 1984 law establishing the Office for Victims of Crime and provided significant funding to support victims, Betty Jane Spencer was at his side. She used her life, not to avoid her victimization, but to honor it in the most creative way possible. Once she made the turn, she was not an angry, vengeful person but an outstanding example of a person re-directing the negative energy created by her victimization into a positive force for good.

As victims move toward healing and become reconnected with life, relationships and tasks, then love and work become possible again. It is never the same, but new possibilities begin to be recognized.

Following are victim requests that may be helpful to clergy as they seek to companion victims through their pilgrimage toward healing and reconnection.

1. Don’t explain, “Why?” It is more a longing for God to hold me in His arms and give me some comfort than it is a question I want answered.
2. Don’t take away my reality. My pain seems unbearable…yet it feel right that I should be in pain.
3. Stay close. Stay close enough that I can reach out and steady myself when I need to.
4. Remember me…for a long time. Be the person who will allow me to share my feelings about this after others have moved on to other concerns.
5. Don’t be frightened by my anger. Its part of what I’m feeling now and I need to be honest about it.
6. Listen to my doubt. Doubt is not pleasant to be around, so people will want to talk me out of it. But for right now, let me express the questions that are measured by the depth of the loss I feel.
7. Be patient. Progress will not be steady; I’ll slip back when it looks like I’m doing well. I’ll make it, but it will take much longer than most people think.
8. Remind me this isn’t all there is to life. Speak the word “God,” not to dull my pain, but to affirm life. I don’t want God as an aspirin but as a Companion who shares my journey. (Richard P. Lord, Unpublished correspondence).
iMacLeish, A. (1961). J.B. Cambridge, MA: The Riverside Press. (p. 14).
iiHerman, J. (1992). Trauma and Recovery. New York: Basic Books. (pp. 178,188).
iiiWolterstorff, N. (2000). The contours of justice: an ancient call for Shalom. In L.B. Lampman & M. D. Shattuck (Eds.). God and the Victim (p. 112). Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.
ivNovotni, M. & Petersen, R.. (2001). Angry with God. Colorado Springs: Pinon Press. (pp. 27-28).
vAmerican Psychiatric Association. (2000). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders, Fourth Edition, Text Revision. Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Association. (p. 356).
viWiesenthal, S. (1976). The Sunflower. New York: Schocken Books.