The #MeToo and #ChurchToo movements have underscored the tragedy of sexual harassment and abuse in relationships, in the workplace, and sadly in churches and Christian ministries. Cover-ups and victim-blaming in the church are too common and raise questions both of where is God in this, and where ought his people be. Bill Nelson, in two articles will look at Lamentations and Obadiah, demonstrating God’s care for survivors of abuse and our call to come alongside as allies.
[Content warning: sexual assault]
In early 2018, I studied the Old Testament book of Lamentations. I sought Godâ€™s guidance as I served and advocated for abuse victims, including some revictimized within Christian ministries. I felt honored by survivorsâ€™ trust and frequently hard-pressed knowing how to engage. Our two-part series distills what Iâ€™m learning as I apply Lamentations’ lens to issues of abuse.
Lamentations speaks of the Lord’s concern for everyone who suffers, both sinners and saints, including all wounded through violent aggression and victimized by sexual assault.  Lamentations memorializes their cries in tear-soaked poetry of astonishing beauty and intricacy. Their anguished words became his Word “in the grand auditorium of scripture as a whole.” Lamentations also calls on us to adopt Godâ€™s compassionate response to abuse victims.
In our two-part series, weâ€™ll use characters personified in Lamentations, and one from Obadiah in Part 2, to illustrate the various roles people assume within abuse scenarios. These include abusers, victims, passive bystanders, victim-blamers, victim allies and advocates, and abuse enablers.
Our series also applies examples from the late Ravi Zacharias and his organization, Ravi Zacharias International Ministries (RZIM). Zacharias leveraged his reputation as a world-famous Christian apologist to abuse numerous women, documented in a February 2021 investigative report.
Of Zachariasâ€™ victims, Lori Ann Thompson was one of the few sexually abused victims to speak publicly. Thirty years Thompsonâ€™s senior, Zacharias shocked her by professing his love. She wanted Zacharias to love her like a daughter. Several months later, Thompson broke off their relationship, stating, â€œYou took advantage of a devastated daughter and left her devoured once again. I am so appalled that I allowed myself to enter into this level of deception. […] The investment in [our] relationship makes me weep with despair, feeling desolate, devastated, and disgusted.â€
God’s people felt similarly desolated following Babylon’s sixth-century B.C. siege and assault. Israel suffered massive boundary violations that brought unimaginable suffering. Suddenly everything was irreversibly different.
Lamentations’ opening scene personifies the city of Jerusalem as a disgraced, abandoned and bitterly weeping sexual assault victim. All gaze upon Lady Zion’s nakedness (1:8). Hebrew euphemisms in phrases such as, “The enemy has stretched out his handÂ over her precious things” (1:10a) and “the nations enter her sanctuary” (1:10b; cf. Ezek. 16:35-41) allude to Zion’s personified body being groped and violated. 
Like the symbolic city woman, Jerusalem’s women suffer violent contempt as spoils of war. Pillaged and plundered, they dwell as homeless scavengers under constant threat (Lam. 5:1-11). No cloth barrier protects them from those who do not hear no; rape ravishes their souls (Lam. 5:11).
BYSTANDERS PASS BY
Lady Zion pleads, "Is it nothing to you, all you who pass by?â€ (1:12a). She begs to be seen and heard (1:12a, 18b). But no one listens. Her eyes "overflow with tears" (1:16). But nobody sees her. She acknowledges her sin (1:20b). But none comfort her (five-fold repetition: 1:2b, 9b, 16, 17a, 21a). Lady Zion finally falls faint (1:22c).
Lamentations’ opening scene ends with Lady Zion sitting alone in the dust â€” disgraced, despised, and deserted. All those who passed by ignored her suffering. If we likewise disengage from survivors’ trauma, we can become like Lamentations’ passersby. Such dissociation leaves abuse victims to process their trauma in isolation, often compounding their paralyzing sense of shame and despair.
Unlike the passersby, Lamentationsâ€™ narrator finally does offer help. Initially, though, the narrator served as a cold and distant victim-blamer. In a finger-wagging rant, he called out Lady Zionâ€™s grievous sin (1:8-9b).
Victim-blaming adds exponentially to abuse survivorsâ€™ fear and shame and is often veiled in destructive counseling. Trauma-informed counselors routinely report that this shame-based counseling is at least as traumatizing to survivors as the original offense.
Twice, Lady Zion had abruptly interrupted the victim-blaming narrator, pleading with God to “look upon” (1:9c); and “pay attention to” (1:11c) her misery. After her second interruption (1:11c.), the narrator remains silent.
As Lady Zionâ€™s mournful appeals fade into feeble whimpers (1:20), he sees her. Her sad tears soften his stony heart. Having listened to her mournful wails, Lamentationsâ€™ narrator converts from a numbed observer to a passionate advocate, from a harsh critic to an ardent ally. Earnestly, he tries to comfort her (2:13). He spreads the blame around, charging false prophets (misleading visions) (2:14), the passerby (contemptuous mockery) (2:15), and Zion’s enemies (wholesale destruction) (2:16). The narrator implores Lady Zion to cry out to God for deliverance (2:19). He also pleads before the LORD on her behalf (2:20).
Like Lamentations’ narrator, former RZIM staff Carson Weitnauer converted. He sent an apology letter to Brad and Lori Anne Thompson, later posting it on his blog, asking their forgiveness “for my failure to seek the truth, show you proper respect, and advocate for justice.” Weitnauer also publicly called out Zacharias and RZIM for their “catastrophic betrayal.”
Victims often internalize the bombardment of toxic messages they receive from their abusers and their allies. They need help separating truth from lies, safe people to walk with them for an extended time. Survivors benefit from compassionate supporters who will weep and cry out to the Lord with them.
Lady Zion’s mournful pleas summon us towards this costly engagement. Her river of tears beckons us to speak the truth instead of allowing safe passage to lies. God calls us to recognize survivorsâ€™ trauma, brutality, and loss, extend compassion and promote justice. We rightly follow Jesus, the slain, yet standing, Lamb (Rev. 5:6), as we grieve with, intercede for, and advocate on their behalf.
God avenges the vulnerable against evil abusers who say God will not see (Ps. 94). In part 2, â€œIt Takes a Village,â€ weâ€™ll see Godâ€™s dramatic intervention to deliver and vindicate his victimized people.
Meanwhile, to those who suffer abuse, the Lord promises all who keep their eyes and hearts fixed on Him:
When you pass through the waters,
Â Â I will be with you;
and when you pass through the rivers,
Â Â they will not sweep over you.
When you walk through the fire,
Â Â you will not be burned;
Â Â the flames will not set you ablaze (Isa. 43:2)
People you thought were your good friends may walk away from you. Your relatives may disbelieve and abandon you. Your church may not hear you. But Jesus Christ, the Lord will never, ever abandon you. And he promises in Romans 10:11, â€œEveryone who believes in him will not be put to shame.â€
Locating the help you need might seem overwhelming and, at times, frustrating. Wade Mullen, Ph.D., provides several practical suggestions and many helpful links to resources on his website.
Dr. Mullen is a professor, researcher, and advocate working to help those trapped in the confusion and captivity that mark abusive situations. His personal experiences in abusive situations and ongoing research of abuse cases enable him to write with care and expertise.
 Christopher Wright helpfully clarifies, “So we can close the book [Lamentations] with the grim satisfaction that the moral balance of the universe is intact — ‘they got what they deserved,’ But that, surely, is to fail to listen to the agonized voices in the book when they surround their honest acknowledgment of their sin with honest questioning of […] ‘proportionality’ of the suffering inflicted by Babylon.â€ Christopher Wright, The Message of Lamentations, InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove Il, 2015, Wright, pg. 38.
 Wright, pg. 44.
 The Hebrew word for ‘hand’ (1:10a), was also a Hebrew euphemism for the male sexual organ (e.g., Isa. 57:8). The word for ‘enter’ (1:10b) is often used to describe sexual intercourse (e.g., Gen. 29:21).
 Dr. Kathleen O’Connor, Professor Emerita of Old Testament at Columbia Theological Seminary, explains the rhetorical message of Lamentation in its poetic structure and movement in her widely quoted book, Lamentations and the Tears of the World, Orbis Books, Maryknoll, New York, 2002.
About the author:
God has privileged Bill Nelson to represent Him among students and scholars gathered from over 50 nations at Johns Hopkins University over the past 25 years. Bill is an ordained minister through the Evangelical Free Church of America (EFCA), having received his theological and ministry training at Dallas and Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminaries. He and his wife Michele enjoy hiking in the mountains and other activities with friends and family, including their three grown children.