- A hostile workplace.
- A troubled childhood.
- An abusive spouse.
- An unjust system.
- Sexual or racial discrimination.
- Chemical imbalances.
- A manipulative pastor.
- A drug habit.
In this way, rage, vitriol, over-reaction, and even violence or murder can sometimes be justified. To the degree that a defendant can gain the sympathy of a jury, they become less culpable for their actions.
I’ve been involved in several online discussions lately where the “blame defense” is invoked. In other words, someone justifies a certain response or reaction by blaming an incident, environment, person or system. This weekend, crowds took to streets to protest the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the murder of Trayvon Martin. Not all the protests were peaceful. Storefronts were smashed and needed repair afterwards by Foundation Repair Atlanta Ga, also stores looted, fires set, cars stomped, and windows broken, so tell me, if one of those car owners didn’t have an insurance 4 motor trade who was going to repair the damages?. Is this reaction justified? In light of perceived injustice and white privilege, some appear to think so.
But this post is a confession. You see, I have a soft spot for the blame defense.
Yeah, it leaves me quite conflicted. On the one hand, the man who becomes a serial rapist is totally responsible for his actions. But would it change your opinion of this man if you learned that he was raised in a dysfunctional home, repeatedly beaten, sexually molested, and then abandoned? What kinds of emotional scars and twisted sense of self or others would such an environment produce? Is he responsible for his actions? Yes! But to what degree?
Most people have had a less than ideal upbringing. Whether it’s abuse or abandonment, rage or frigidity, legalism or license, none of us were raised in a perfect home. What’s more, we manage to refrain from going psycho. Nevertheless, I’m one of those suckers who believes a difficult, dysfunctional upbringing can cripple us — emotionally, spiritually, socially, sexually — for life. We are damaged goods.
And some of our “damage” results in damaging others.
I pastored a church for eleven years. No amount of education or training could have prepared me for the depths of brokenness I would encounter in others (and eventually, myself). If you preach to pain, it’s said, you’ll always have an audience. The truth is, churches are full of dysfunctional, hurting people, some of whom are a tick away from criminal or psychotic behavior. This is representative of our society in general.
I was raised in an alcoholic home. My father was often AWOL and when he was there, he was cold, critical, angry and occasionally violent. As a child, I remember him staggering through the door, shattering glasses and plates against the walls, before passing out at the kitchen table. He spanked me with a leather belt and always made me pull down my pants for full effect. I was eventually kicked out of the house when I turned eighteen. It took me years to unravel the depths of insecurity and hurt that saddled me and tainted my personality.
Near the end of his life — the last ten years of which he spent sober and repentant — my Dad told me about the abuse he underwent as a kid, something he’d refrained from for fifty-plus years. His real father abandoned the family when my Dad was five or six. Enter the stepfather, a cruel man who beat his stepson and left him, for the most part, orphaned. I spoke to a relative once who told the story of the day she found my Dad locked in a closet, squatting in feces, naked and bruised.
Is it any wonder my Dad became a violent alcoholic? But is his awful upbringing any excuse for his behavior?
There’s no question but that my own history and upbringing informs (perhaps taints is a better word) my perspective. While we can never excuse violent or criminal behavior on the basis of a difficult upbringing, I believe we cannot dismiss or devalue the psychological damage, pain, loss, regret, isolation and utter helplessness that torment some people. Some of it might be provoked by the “system.” Some is perhaps produced by an abusive parent or spouse. Some of it may even be genetically fomented. Either way, the truth is that some sins warrant the “blame defense.”
Jesus seemed to address this when He spoke of children. In fact, He reserved some of His harshest words for those who mishandled “little ones”:
And whoever welcomes a little child like this in my name welcomes me. But if anyone causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a large millstone hung around his neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea.
Woe to the world because of the things that cause people to sin! Such things must come, but woe to the man through whom they come! (Matt. 18:5-7 NIV)
In this verse, the millstone is not reserved for the one who sins, but for the one who “causes one of these little ones” to sin. Does this let the “sinning” child off the hook? I don’t think so. However, it’s not the sin but the forces or people which propel someone toward sin that Jesus is addressing. Somewhere along the way, an abuser, a rapist, a racist, a murderer, was an innocent child, one of these “little ones.” What changed them? What “caused” them to sin? Does it matter? Christ appears to suggest it does.
My father’s alcoholism tore our family apart. His actions shaped my life, crippled my emotions, and reverberate inside me to this day. In many ways, he has caused me to sin. But somewhere behind that facade, underneath his rage, was a “little one” whimpering alone in a dark closet.
People aren’t born to be alcoholics, thieves, abusers, racists, and serial killers. There are processes that get them there.
Yet how much they can use the “blame defense” is another story.