In Deuteronomy 19, God provides cities of refuge for Israelites to flee to when they have killed someone. There is a vital qualification, the killing has to have been unintentional. It cannot be for a wilful, malicious attack.
The Law made a distinction between two types of sin, the first type were high handed sins, those with a deliberate intentionality, there has been brooding, plotting and defiance. Incidentally, the OT sacrificial system was unable to atone for this, only the blood of Christ can do that. The other type was labelled “sins of wandering” or “accidental/unintentional sins” or “sins of neglect.”
This is so important, the theology behind it goes to the heart of what it means to be fallen people living in a fallen world. It recognises that we are not all monsters deliberately going round to try and harm others and yet we constantly do and say things that are hurtful and harmful to each other as well as offensive to God. Those things still need to be dealt with and what is more, we cannot abdicate responsibility for them. I think that part of the reasoning is that whilst we do not plan and prepare for every individual sin, these things happen because of our selfishness and pride.
This is pertinent to our discussion about abuse and abuse cultures. Not every abusive relationship starts out as abusive, not every abuser goes into the relationship intending to abuse. It is also important because we are not just talking about individual abusers but about cultures. As one person has put it
“Rotten apples do grow on trees.”
It is relevant not just to our immediate question of abuse but to other challenges. Why do we end up with churches and communities and institutions that only work for a small elite based on class, education, gender and/or race. Well there will be people who are racist, sexist, classist but often it is about the way a culture or system has developed regardless of malicious intent. Even issues to do with class, gender and race are relevant because when we get those aspects of culture wrong we create power dynamics that are prone to abusive relationships.
But it also helps us to look specifically at how abusive and bullying environments develop. It helps us to challenge situations. It protects us from a twin danger.
On the one hand, we can look solely at the motive or intent of someone. We are angry that a wrong has happened and we assume that the person who committed to the wrong did so wilfully. We demonise them and turn them into a monster. We ostracise and shame them which itself becomes an aspect of abuse and bullying. However, when we discover that they did not intend to do something or that they acted out of good motives, or when they claim that this was the case, we feel that we cannot say or do anymore about the situation. Part of our thinking is that good intentions must lead to good consequences and therefore we feel awkward and confused about the situation. So the challenge is silenced.
On the other-hand, our world culture is incredibly subjective. People get offended when no offense was actually intended or objectively present. Politicians apologise for “if you felt ….” Not for what they have actually done wrong.
Knowing about “sins of wandering” helps us to focus away from the subjective emotions of the accused and accuser and talk about what objectively happened and its impact. It helps us to focus on putting things right.
One final and very important point. I suggested that some people do not set out to abuse. Please note first of all that I refer to some, not all. Sadly there are people who maliciously, wilfully harm others to gain pleasure, satisfaction and power. Secondly, whilst these things may start out without bad motives or intention, I do not believe we can excuse the continuation of sinful behaviour on this basis. There is such a thing as wilful ignorance, we can turn a blind eye, we can harden our hearts. An individual who continues to hurt, manipulate and control is no-longer ignorant, they are alert to the harm they are causing. They choose to be blind and death to it. A church that allows a bullying and abusive culture to go on without seeking change and healing is being wilful. Repentance is needed.
The Old Testament shows us that we have a God who rights wrongs. The New Testament shows that this always and only happens in Christ.