The Power of Positive Peer Pressure
By Leslie Vernick
I recently read two books describing the mindset of the people and culture in Germany and the United States, just prior to World War II. One was Bonhoeffer, by Eric Metaxas, and the other was In the Garden of Beasts, by Erik Larson.
It was hard to comprehend how an entire culture, including the Christian church, closed their eyes to the evil that was happening, especially to the Jews. Reading both books helped me to see how “sheep like” we are. We become brainwashed by charismatic leaders that convince us that it is better to protect and promote allegiance to the country than to care about what happens to the individuals in that country.
The same process has happened in much of the Christian church. The idea that loyalty to the Church is more important than the safety and protection of the children entrusted to it’s care led to the sexual abuse cover up scandals we read about today.
Victims were sacrificed on the altar of protecting the institution. And those who refused to be silenced were shamed. They were labeled as troublemakers, instigators and accused of slander, gossip and trying to ruin a good person’s reputation.
Today most churches are more alert to the reality of children being exploited. At a minimum they have policies in place are to handle allegations of child sexual abuse. I hope this change is because they are truly repentant rather than because they fear lawsuits with huge financial ramifications.
Sadly I see the same pattern happening with abused spouses. Churches often value protecting the institution of marriage over the safety and sanity of the individuals within that marriage.
When a woman goes to her church leaders for help because her husband is raging out of control, addicted to pornography, lying about everything, or scaring their children with his discipline, the help that’s offered usually revolves around keeping the marriage together, not getting the abusive behavior to stop or getting the women and children healthy and safe.
The mistake churches make in these instances is defining these problems as a marriage problem. Repetitive abuse (of any kind), addictions, chronic deceit or adultery are NOT marriage problems. They cause marriage problems for sure, but at their heart, they are personal sin problems. Individual character issues that must be addressed before the damage of those issues within the marriage can be repaired.
Marriage counseling for serious personal sin issues doesn’t work. Why not? Because the problem isn’t the marriage. The core problem is misdiagnosed. It’s like giving someone with lung cancer an antibiotic because you misdiagnose their nagging cough as bronchitis. Antibiotics are great for bronchitis, but impotent for lung cancer.
It’s easier to tell the wife to stop pushing his buttons so he won’t act that way rather than turn to the abuser and tell him “How you behave is sinful, cruel, and inappropriate no matter what your wife does or says that push your buttons.” We don’t want to confront the abuser or “label” sin as sin. Or if we do, it’s the wife’s sin for not forgiving or not reconciling because we value protecting the marriage rather than the person who is being abused.
By our collective silence we empower the emotional (or political), or sexual bully to continue sinful behaviors. Jesus was never afraid to speak out about injustice, about oppression, and about hypocritical law keeping to those in power. As his church we must speak out too.
There is a good deal of research on the powerful impact of positive peer pressure on a community, workplace environment, school, and even a church.
For example, in the book The Bully, The Bullied and the Bystander, the most influential person in this triad is the bystander. When bystanders speak up for the bullied at school, the bully looses face and power and the bullied feels supported and valued. When the bystander is an influential person such as a star athlete or a popular student, it has an even greater impact on the culture in the school.
However, when the bystander stays silent, the bully is empowered to continue his or her bullying behaviors. When bystanders stay silent in the face of evil, oppression and injustice, it implies acceptance, agreement and alignment with the bully.
A number of women have told me that they have begged someone in their church leadership to speak to their husband about his bullying and controlling behaviors. Rarely has that happened.
What might change if a courageous pastor stood up for victims during Domestic Violence awareness month? What shifts would happen if Christian leaders, when talking about marriage said, “If you are raging, or cheating, or lying or verbally battering your spouse, understand this, it’s sin. It’s not your wife’s fault you act that way, it’s yours. And if you don’t ask God to help you change, you will ruin your marriage.”
Instead of being protected by the church, wives in these kinds of marriages are often pressured into long suffering, silence, forbearing, and endless trying harder to appease her husband so he doesn't behave that way. Why? Because the sanctity of marriage is held to be more important than the safety or sanity of the individual in that marriage.
Dietrich Bonheoffer a young Lutheran pastor during World War II was horrified at the church’s silence at what was happening in the culture. He wrote, “Silence in the face of evil is itself evil. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.”
The foundation of any marriage is safety and trust. Both are destroyed when there are patterns of destructive and abusive behaviors. Until the damage is addressed the relationship remains broken even if there is no legal divorce. I don’t believe that glorifies God.
Please, let’s not repeat the past by valuing the institution of marriage, over the safety and sanity of the people in it.