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The Blame Defense

It’s become rather common for a criminal suspect to blame their offending finger-pointing-1actions on people or forces outside of themselves or their control.

  • 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.

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{ 6 comments… add one }
  • billgncs July 22, 2013, 7:22 AM

    at some point – we have to decide what we will do. To confront or walk away, to strike or unclench the fist.

    I found your story very close — when I was eight my dad broke a belt over me – and afterwards he used to joke that it was too bad, it was his favorite belt. At about 13, we heard over and over that at eighteen we were out of the house. And at eighteen we left, rarely to return.

    How foreign was Christ and unconditional love to my family….
    How sad that only I of my siblings found it.

  • Bob Avey July 22, 2013, 8:28 AM

    I believe we must take responsibility for our own actions. Some very good people have come out of broken homes, and some very bad people have come out of good homes. I think that blaming others is part of what’s wrong with our society.

  • Jill July 22, 2013, 8:29 AM

    I commented on facebook (before reading this post) that horrible life events may not justify someone’s bad behavior, but that they should inspire compassion in others. It’s apparent, now, that that is where you were going with this. And I wonder why we would think God is capable of less compassion. Frankly, I don’t believe he is. This is partly why (in addition to a lack of scriptural support) I can’t believe in the eternal torment doctrine.

  • R. L. Copple July 22, 2013, 11:41 AM

    People tend to confuse “blame” and “contributing factors” in these issues. Contributing factors certainly increase the temptation to sin, sometimes to a very high level. But the responsibility for the choice to give into that temptation always resides in the one who sins.

    That doesn’t mean those who contributed to the increase in temptation are not liable for their own choices and actions in influencing someone else to sin. I think that is the point of the verses you quoted. The more of an authority-innocence dynamic you have, the more true it is.

    Such would be causing a child to sin. If they don’t know right from wrong yet, or trust the authority figure as an adult, the more responsibility the contributing sin takes for the child’s sin. Same with any situation where one person has a large amount of influence over another. Case in point, Paul’s discussion about not causing your brother to stumble with one’s freedom.

    Contributing factors may not take personal responsibility away from the sinner, but understanding and dealing with them is part of the healing. Ignoring them and acting like they don’t contribute to the sin is asking for a continuation of the sin, expanding to more people.

    Those are issues I had to face in relation to my wife’s infidelity. She totally took the blame for what she did (most don’t, but blameshift), but I had to look at the ways I contributed to her decision to cheat by increasing her temptation. To what ever degree I did, I take the blame for doing that. But not forcing her to cheat.

    But I do think the degree of the influence-to-vulnerability ratio plays into it, “blame” can be more shifted to the contributing factors. It is hard, however, to totally apply that to contributing factors that happened in childhood, leading one to sin as an adult. But certainly dealing with those emotional scars is part of the healing process to avoid passing the sins down to the next generation.

  • Teddi Deppner July 22, 2013, 10:25 PM

    Mike, I love how you introduce a subject, yet don’t provide a defining conclusion. I pray I learn from your example.

    This question is good for us each to ponder and wrestle with. It’s so easy to look at actions and judge them as “bad”, without looking at the human being and asking, “How does God see this person? How should *I* see this person?”

    I’m writing a story where someone in the justice business is asked by God to save His lost children. My protagonist thinks this is right up his alley. He’s all about saving the victims of predators.

    And then he finds out the children he saw the vision are the very predators he’s been hunting and executing.

    What a quandary.

  • D.M. Dutcher July 24, 2013, 7:32 PM

    I don’t think this can be a defense. Maybe it’s semantics. I think that it’s more understandable when someone sins due to these factors, and it’s easier to forgive someone who acts because of them as opposed to someone who isn’t dealing with past issues. I think God also understands what has happened to us, and doesn’t demand more than we can fulfill. For many of us, full healing can only happen in heaven, and He isn’t demanding we overcome the past in order to be perfect images of Christ.

    I don’t like the idea that this defends or excuses sin, though. Sin is still sin, and we need to seek transformation in Christ to overcome it. Well, at least try to. I think it would be really easy to justify being angry all the time or hating others based on what has happened, but to God it’s still sin. We may need to turn to Christ more to compensate; to realize that as slaves to our past, we are now freedmen in Christ. It’s not easy to say the least…

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