by John Steley, psychologist.
Image: The Merchants Chased from the Temple painted by James Tissot
What do people think of when they hear the word ‘Christian’? Some may react with cynicism but for others it may evoke thoughts of a caring attitude, sympathy and a listening ear for those who need it.
I do not disagree that Christians are called to care for those I need. This includes the call to listen when necessary. (Although most of my training took place in secular state universities I was always mindful of the theologian Paul Tillich’s dictum that ‘The first duty of love is to listen.’) But is there more to it than that? I think there is.
The Christian scriptures call us to care, but they also include a demand for justice. In the Old Testament, prophets like Amos were scathing in their denunciation of the injustices of their day. In the New Testament the news of the birth of Christ was first of all given, not to the rulers or the elite, but to a group of shepherds – people at the very bottom of the social heap. (A point that often seems to be missed in sanitised nativity plays.)
So, when I meet a client my first job is to listen. What is this person’s story? Why has he or she come to see me? What do they want me to do? What does he or she really need?
It may be that reflective counselling, psychological insights and a plan to change behaviour may be enough. These things are of benefit to many people. But I must also ask myself, does this person need justice? Has he or she sought justice and had it denied?
The Bible is also clear that while injustice can come from ‘below’, for example the mugger or the thief, it can also come from ‘above’. How many times have we heard complaints from people who have faced indifference, incompetence or outright hostility from those who are paid to address their needs?
In cases such as this my Christian commitment compels me to say that simply listening, offering insights and helping the person to cope are not enough. At best this would be inadequate. At worst it colludes with the abusers.
When a person has suffered abuse he or she must recognise that their anger is normal and good. (As a Christian I believe it is God -given.) They must then decide what to do with it. Expressing anger ‘safely’ by talking, screaming or writing may be helpful to the person concerned but it does little to address the injustice itself. How many people have a lingering sense of justice not having been done years after the event?
What many people need is a plan to use their anger constructively to face the abuser or the abusive system. This may mean joining, or if necessary forming, a group of like-minded people. It may mean developing skills such as approaching politicians, writing press releases and using social media. It may also mean digging in for a long fight.
However long the battle takes, anger used in these ways can help the person concerned. It can also be a benefit to others and to the community as a whole. I sometimes point out to people that some of this nation’s greatest reformers were essentially very angry people. (Think of Florence Nightingale or William Booth.)
So as a Christian psychologist I want to be sensitive and listen as I believe Jesus did. But that same Jesus armed himself with a whip and threw the corrupt money changers out of the Temple. I have not done that myself but I see in that act an important principle – and a challenge.
About the author
John Steley is a psychologist in private practice in London http://johnsteley.co.uk/