“They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them. Woe to you, blind guides…You blind fools!”
Matthew 23:4,16-17 (NRSV)
“Let them alone; they are blind guides of the blind. And if one blind person guides another, both will fall into a pit.”
Matthew 15:14 (NRSV)
“This cornerstone [Jesus] in the building of the cosmic community is a constant reminder that he himself is peace, makes peace and proclaims it as good news… He has the authority to do so, because in his own flesh he has experienced violence, torture, and betrayal…”
Elsa Támez, Mexican liberation theologian, When the Divine Fragrance is Everywhere
Don’t say a word / You speak, and I cave in
You’ll twist the truth again / And drill deep down beneath my skin
You said you’d change / And I believed in you
But you’re still using me / To justify the harm you do
…I say no!
“I Say No” by Carrie Hope Fletcher
Structural oppression is institutional betrayal.
Our inability to see oppressions—such as racism and misogyny—can be caused by betrayal trauma and the resulting betrayal blindness. Our closeness to an individual or institutional source of oppression can prevent us from seeing the betrayal.
And we cannot abolish what we cannot see.
Dr. Jennifer Freyd says betrayal trauma happens “when the people or institutions on which a person depends for survival significantly violate that person’s trust or well-being.”
Imagine a little boy whose dad beats him when he doesn’t please his father. The boy works even harder to make his dad happy, never acknowledging the abuse, because what choice does he have?
Children are dependent on their caregivers. When a caregiver betrays and harms a child, that child might desire to withdraw from the relationship, but pulling away from that provider could actually hurt the child more than the caregiver’s actions. What a horrific dilemma: stay silent and stay in the relationship, risking further damage, or confront and create conflict and risk losing the relationship and all accompanying provision, with potential for extreme further damage.
If a child isn’t safe in a relationship, but isn’t safe to leave it either, that creates an impenetrable cage. The solution many victims of betrayal trauma land on is forgetting. If we can believe we aren’t being betrayed, we think we can stay safe.
Dr.Freyd calls this forgetting “betrayal blindness.” Because of the victim’s unique dependence on a person or organization, betrayal traumas cause more forgetting—more blindness—than other traumas. She says, “Attachment trumps betrayal detection.”
Betrayal blindness is our not seeing the crimes or sins of people we rely on as a way of protecting ourselves—protecting our jobs, ordination, church membership, relationships, acceptance in a social group. If we see the sins and speak of them, we risk losing what we think we need to survive. In these acts of blind self-protection, we leave other vulnerable people at risk of new harms or ongoing injustice over old harms.
Consider the case of Ravi Zacharias, world-famous Christian apologist. Multiple women have shared their testimonies of his sexual abuses. Ravi’s fans flooded the internet and Christian publications in his defense. They chose blindness to his betrayals. Because they belonged to his denomination or had hired him to speak at their churches, had quoted his apologetics or had his books on their shelves, they would not risk any losses of institutional favor or association by believing the women. And his victims suffered from this multilevel betrayal. How can we abolish clergy sexual abuse when we are blind to it?
Consider how this plays out in racial injustice, violence against women, native land rights. If we rely on the ones perpetuating such betrayals, are we choosing to blind ourselves for self-protection? Are they using us to cause more harm? How can we turn from participation in institutional betrayal to leading the way in institutional courage?
God, open my eyes. Show me my blind spots. How am I stumbling around, eyes willfully shut? Or worse, leading others toward a ditch unaware?
God, show me when I have seen allegations about someone I know, someone I respect, and turned away.
We cannot abolish what we cannot see. May the Jesus who suffered betrayal trauma in his flesh and blood open our eyes to the institutional betrayals of systemic oppression.
Becky Castle Miller is an American learning how to be American again after living in the Netherlands for eight years. Mom of five kids and two cats. Fresh graduate of Northern Seminary. Co-author of the discipleship workbook Following King Jesus. Working on a book about Jesus’s emotions and ours. Daily life on Instagram at @bcastlemiller and opinions on Twitter at @bcastlemiller.