The Sad Case of Ignaz Semmelweiss

Ignaz Philipp Semmelweis was a Hungarian physician now known as an early pioneer of antiseptic procedures. Described as the “savior of mothers”, Semmelweis discovered that the incidence of puerperal fever could be drastically cut by the use of hand disinfection in obstetrical clinics. Puerperal fever was common in mid-19th-century hospitals and often fatal. Semmelweis postulated the theory of washing with chlorinated lime solutions in 1847 while working in Vienna General Hospital’s First Obstetrical Clinic, where doctors’ wards had three times the mortality of midwives’ wards. 

Despite various publications of results where hand-washing reduced mortality to below 1%, Semmelweis’s observations conflicted with the established scientific and medical opinions of the time, and his ideas were rejected by the medical community. Some doctors were offended at the suggestion that they should wash their hands, and Semmelweis could offer no acceptable scientific explanation for his findings. Semmelweis’s practice earned widespread acceptance only years after his death, when Louis Pasteur confirmed the germ theory and Joseph Lister, acting on the French microbiologist’s research, practiced and operated, using hygienic methods, with great success. In 1865, Semmelweis was committed to an asylum, where he died at age 47 after being beaten by the guards, only 14 days after he was committed. (adapted from Wikipedia)

Ignaz Semmelweiss was right, but he couldn’t convince those around him, at the expense of women in the hospitals served by those who rejected his claims. Semmelweiss was eventually definitively proven right, but not before he lost his grip on sanity. Toward the end, it is said that all he could talk about was his theory on washing hands. The rejection of ideas he knew were true set him on a path of increased obsession with this one thing to the detriment of all other areas of his life. The spiral into insanity when you know the truth but can’t convince others of the truth is one I’ve witnessed before, particularly on the issue of abuse. Once someone starts into that spiral, their accusations become increasingly suspect despite their truth. In particular, I had a student who years later as an adult finally made public accusations against her father, a pastor, of long term physical and sexual abuse while growing up. At first, her allegations seemed too wild for me to believe. Her conservative Christian church rejected her when she brought these things to light and continued to embrace her father and encourage his pastoral ministry. However, her cousin and sister privately confirmed to me much later the truth of her allegations and their similar experience in her home, yet neither of them would ever confirm it publicly. Eventually, my student, then an adult, descended into such psychosis and delusion that those around her wrote off everything she said as the ramblings of a crazy woman.

I’ve read much of late encouraging believers not to give into bitterness or anger when their concerns about abuse are dismissed. I have been tempted to give into bitterness and anger personally, and my particular experiences in past churches are not nearly as serious as others have experienced. I draw on the sovereignty of God to comfort me, also reminding myself that it is ultimately His job to purify His Church of abuse within its borders. Yet we can not separate our need to self-regulate to not sin in the midst of injustice with the equally important command to stop injustice. While we must not descend into a bitter rage ourselves, God also commands that we not put stumblingblocks in front of others that contribute to them descending into their own. As much as we should not fornicate, murder, cheat someone out of money, or allow a child to starve to death on our doorstep, we must be committed to ending injustice against abuse victims. Scripture doesn’t give us any wiggle room on this.

Isaiah 1:13-17 Bring no more vain offerings; incense is an abomination to me. New moon and Sabbath and the calling of convocations—I cannot endure iniquity and solemn assembly. Your new moons and your appointed feasts  my soul hates; they have become a burden to me; I am weary of bearing them. When you spread out your hands, I will hide my eyes from you; even though you make many prayers, I will not listen; your hands are full of blood. Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your deeds from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression;bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow’s cause. 

Jeremiah 22:3 Thus says the Lord: Do justice and righteousness, and deliver from the hand of the oppressor him who has been robbed. And do no wrong or violence to the resident alien, the fatherless, and the widow, nor shed innocent blood in this place.

Finally, I want to emphasize one word of wisdom that I haven’t heard much in discussion of allegations by victims of abuse. We often hear Proverbs 18:17, “The one who states his case first seems right, until the other comes and examines him.” But the chapter before teaches us this wisdom.

Even a fool who keeps silent is considered wise; when he closes his lips, he is deemed intelligent. Proverbs 17:28

Proverbs 18:17 really only applies to someone who is willing to be publicly examined. Those who are not willing to be publicly examined can’t claim it for themselves. In that case, silence in the face of accusations should not be assumed to indicate wisdom. 

Finally, a part of ending injustice includes hope for the accused as well as the accuser. A strong gospel hope allows us, even when we are close to someone accused, to walk with them, not in hiding from their mistakes or outright sins, but in exposing their sin and walking in the light as Paul exhorts in Ephesians 5. This is the pastor who walks with the accused abuser into the police precinct and pastors him to be brutally honest about his abuse, accepting the full range of earthly consequences for his sins. This is also the pastor who mishandled abuse situations who then humbly admits his mistakes publicly, repairs what he can with those he wounded, and works to change both his and others’ direction for the future. God calls each and every one of us to the mentality “The Buck Stops Here.” May we all EAT IT when we hit up against injustice toward ourselves or others, believing the gospel frees us from self-justification, defensiveness, and circling the wagons.

If you have been accused, do not choose defensiveness. Defensiveness is for people who DON’T UNDERSTAND THE GOSPEL. The gospel completely frees us from a need to circle the wagons and defend ourselves. God circled the wagons 2000 years ago and accepted Christ’s perfect sacrifice in the middle. Then He smashed the wagons. We don’t need them anymore. God has freed you from your need for self-protection.

7 Responses to The Sad Case of Ignaz Semmelweiss

  1. Matt May 25, 2013 at 7:51 pm #

    The process of healing begins when ONE person believes you or speaks out in your defense.

    Kingdom people do that with injustice. And if they are not sure it really happened they seek answers to the claims. They don't tell the victim to be silent and let God handle it.

    That is how you end up with an SGM that goes on for decades.

  2. Sarah B. May 25, 2013 at 7:58 pm #

    I have been mulling the events of the past few days over with a tiny bit of despair.
    I haven't organized my thought enough to blog about it yet.
    My questions: WHY come out with statements in “packs”–three men and three men as though orchestrated. Seemed so disingenuous.
    In the wake of the Penn State Sex Abuse scandal, the statement from the Gospel Coalition was much more heartfelt for the victims. Why not the heart and 20/20 vision? Today I re-read “Love Notices Wet Hair”
    Consider their response to Penn State: The difference is the mom loved her son. She loved her little boy and was moved to outrage by the simple fact of his wet hair. She moved aggressively. She wasn't fulfilling a legal obligation, and she wasn't fulfilling a moral obligation. Obligation wasn't the issue.

    “Love is the issue. The shame engulfing Penn State is about a deficiency of love. The chief responsibility of our life is loving God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength, and loving our neighbors as much as and in the same manner that we love ourselves. “Who is my neighbor?” is the wrong question. According to Jesus, the right question is, “Am I a neighbor?” It's not, “Who must I love?” It's, “Am I one who loves?”
    “To the extent that fact penetrates your heart, it will transform you and make you love better. It will give you not just the affection of love, but the courage of love. A love that moves to protect. That moves into danger. A love that doesn't measure obligation but suffers so the beloved won't. The kind of love that would notice wet hair and respond immediately.

    In order to love like that we need to first mourn over this evil. There has been an urgency for us at Penn State to get past or even deflect this shame. Don't do that. Let the shame into your heart. Grieve. Mourn. If we will accept the glory of Penn State, we must also accept the shame, and this is a shameful moment.

    “Let shame produce softness and repentance in your heart. Perhaps God will give you the grace to see your own failure to love in others' failure to love. As you mourn and confess that failure to him, you can experience his love, become one who notices the wet hair all around you, and move to love others.”

    Instead Albert Mohler, et al seemed to be breathing a collective sigh of relief in the fact that the statute of limitations meant that the case was dismissed. Yes, ,they nodded to the victims in their statements, but it seemed too little to late.

    Men who try to protect a network to the harm of others should not be in ministry. They don't seem to understand that in all cases we need to consider/speak up for/help those who are helpless/poor/widows/victims. These statements felt cold and dutiful instead of loving…even disingenuous when coupled with the fact that they all “broke their silence” hours from each other. Sorry for the novel and if this sounds totally judgmental. I know I don't know all the facts, but I am tired of church leaders who operate in pack mentality to protect their own–as if the victims are somehow less the “church” or in need of protection because they are not on the platform and don't have an audience.

  3. Jesse May 26, 2013 at 3:14 am #

    This comment has been removed by the author.

  4. Sarah May 26, 2013 at 3:16 am #

    Thank you, Wendy, for writing these last couple blog posts. My husband has been following this closely and has kept me informed about the sad and, frankly, outrageous situation. I have struggled with how to think about the situation and how to respond, but your words have put voice to my thoughts. I especially appreciated your commentary on the passages in Proverbs; I feel like it was a bit of an ah-ha moment as I read. I really enjoy your blog.

  5. Wendy May 26, 2013 at 4:48 am #

    Thanks for the feedback. I trust God with His Church. It's hard in the waiting though.

  6. Anonymous May 26, 2013 at 1:38 pm #

    praise to the Lord that-

    that nothing is hidden that will not become evident, nor anything secret that will not be known and come to light. Luke 8:17,also Eph, Matt, Mark

    will not God bring about justice for His elect who cry to Him day and night, and will He delay long over them? Luke 18:7 righteousness and justice are the foundation of Your throne; lovingkindness and truth go before You. Ps89 14

    Do not participate in the unfruitful deeds of darkness, instead even expose them; Eph 5:11

  7. Chimae Goncalves May 30, 2013 at 6:30 am #

    Showee thanks Wendy – again powerfull stuff. I have a situation at work where God is working in my heart to birth a discipleship program that can lead the lost to Jesus but sometimes my heart fails me. There is a specific “bully” who really destroys his people.. He is one of the key targets i was hoping to introduce to Jesus but I get so angry at him when I see how he bullies his staff. I pray for him daily but when I get to work my heart goes rock hard. Really need a heart for the lost and wisdom to deal with those that hurt others without sinning!