It’s unfortunate that it’s taken this long for us as as a society to have a candid conversation about the complexities of responding to interpersonal violence, but here we are. We all know about the reality of atrocities like domestic violence, sexual assault, hate crimes, and the like. But instead of tackling them head-on, we’ve tended to brush them under the rug along with other things that we consider too difficult or too inconvenient to face. Thankfully—finally—with the rise of movements like Me Too, Time’s Up, and others like them, victims are coming out of the shadows, their voices are being broadcast like never before, and every one of us is now forced to listen up and respond.
As tragic as the situation is, this is actually a move in the right direction. Due to stigma, threats, and fear of not being believed, the majority of people suffering from interpersonal violence have had to do so in secret. Their stories haven’t been shared, which only adds to their misery. But no more. These individuals have a right to be heard, which means we have a responsibility to listen.
Stories, after all, have the power to enact change. We’ve known the statistics concerning these issues forever. But statistics don’t change things. People don’t connect with numbers, so they rarely act on them. But stories—they have the power to move people to action. They have the ability to bring people together around a cause and to bring about change. Stories, even tragic ones, have impact.
So even though I’m saddened by the accounts of victims, and by the sheer number of victims who are out there, I’m glad that we’re beginning to make room for these stories. Because we need to hear them if things are ever going to get any better. The first step to solving a problem is looking it squarely in the face and recognizing it for what it is. We’re just starting to do that.
And in doing so, we’ve opened the proverbial can of worms. Denial was easy (at least, for those of us who weren’t suffering firsthand). But actually dealing with the truth—that’s going to require a lot of work from all of us. Because very little about these issues is straightforward, and if we’re going to get to the heart of them and really make a difference, we have to be willing to work through every ugly bit of it.
One aspect that’s been particularly challenging as of late is the question of what to do once a person comes forward claiming to be a victim. How should their story (often understood as an accusation against an alleged perpetrator) be responded to? Now that it’s out in the open, it can’t simply be left there; any decent person knows that. But the question of what should actually be done isn’t so simple for everyone.
This is usually the part in the article where I review the various approaches and the logic behind them, but that feels unnecessary this time. You already know the usual takes, and you probably already have a default one. It would be naive for me to think that anyone is approaching this topic without preconceived notions. So I hope you’ll excuse me for simply moving on to my point.
Out of the chaos of the public debate over these issues the past few years, a simple mantra has arisen as the rallying cry of those working toward change: Believe victims. These two words may seem simple, possibly even an oversimplification to some, but they represent what I believe to be everything we need to know about responding to these situations.
What do you do when a victim comes forward with their story? You believe them. You look them in the eyes and say, “I’m so sorry you’ve had to go through this. I am here for you.” You affirm their experience. You support them in their grief. You believe their story.
This isn’t to say that you immediately go barreling down the door of the accused, throw them in jail, and ruin their lives. There are systems in place for that sort of thing, and you pray to God that they work, knowing that they often do not. But whether they do or not, you stand by the victim. You support them. You let them know that their story is heard and believed. Because that is what they need and deserve.
There is a tendency when these stories come out to immediately shift focus from the victim to the accused. What could this mean for them? How should they be treated? What are their rights? I think these questions usually come from a good place, but ultimately, they miss the point.
Our society is based on a system of retributive justice. If someone does something wrong, they deserve to be punished. To us, that looks like justice. And so when there’s an accusation of wrongdoing, our minds immediately move to punishment. But in that moment, victims aren’t necessarily looking for justice, at least not in the sense we usually think of it. They’re simply seeking acceptance. To be heard. They want someone to believe them, and that is our job.
After all, putting perpetrators behind bars prevents them from creating more victims, but it doesn’t undo the damage that’s already been done. Nothing can do that. There’s a time and a place for the right people to analyze evidence, comb through every detail, and issue verdicts, but that time and place is not immediately after a victim comes forward with a story. In order for a victim to ever have the hope of finding peace, they must first be heard and believed.
I understand that this is easier said than done; it is messy. Will people lie and try to take advantage? Yes, they will. When you do the right thing, there will always be someone trying to play you. But everyone knows that coming forward leads to a great deal of scrutiny, something most sound-minded people wouldn’t endure just for attention. And as Jussie Smollett is now learning, getting away with a lie like that isn’t easy, even in an environment where everyone seems to believe you. The liars are the exception, not the rule. We can’t go back to a policy of disbelief based on a few fringe cases.
Because when we don’t believe victims, we re-victimize them. We become complicit in their victimization. We commit more violence against them, not physically, but emotionally. We make things worse for them. And we create an environment in which they no longer feel safe to come forward, and that won’t solve anything. Better to erroneously believe a few liars, allow the systems in place to uncover the truth, and then adjust than to perpetuate the problem through our cynicism.
Again, I am not saying that a single accusation should land someone in prison. Our systems are actually biased towards defendants to protect people from being punished for something they didn’t do. What I am saying is that when victims come forward, we have no choice but to hear them out, support them, and believe them. Anything less makes us a part of the problem.
We live in a messy world, and horrible things happen here. That’s reality, and it breaks my heart. I hope it does yours, too. But the good news is that we can all do things—small things, each and every day—to make this world a little bit of a better place. I believe it starts with having compassion on those who need it the most, having solidarity with them, and allowing their stories to change us and call us to action. When we do that, we can change the world.
Jesus said that we can show our love for him by loving the “least of these” (Matthew 25.40). Victims of interpersonal violence are among the most marginalized, underserved, mistreated groups we can find in our society today. When we love them well, we love Jesus well. When we stand with them, we stand with Christ. And when we believe them, we help them find the freedom that only the truth can give. May we create a world where the truth is heard, believed, and allowed to set people free.