Spiritual But Not Religious

I hear it a lot: “I am spiritual but not religious.”  When I was a full time church pastor, these words bugged me.  They don’t so much anymore.  Now that I am retired, I don’t always go to church and I see things from a slightly different perspective.

I am familiar with all the arguments against church participation.  The church is full of hypocrites. Truth be told, few of us are completely consistent in our actions and professed beliefs. The church can be petty. The church often bears witness to people at their worst, especially when there are conflicts. The church can be exclusionary. Often the church is not a place of hospitality for those in need but a place where you have to conform to be accepted. The church is sometimes irrelevant. The more the church stays the same, the more irrelevant it becomes.  As the old saying goes, “the church fiddles with her skirts while Rome burns.” The church and its language are anachronistic at best. It’s hard for many to get excited about worship when most of the music is by people who have been dead for two hundred years, and the dust in the rafters is almost as old as dirt.   

 Still, there are things about the church that I value. For example, learning from people I don’t particularly like isn’t easy. However, the only hope we have of learning to live together in the world as a whole begins with the people who get under our skin. Being with people who are different than we are is a lesson in unity which is not to be confused with uniformity.  I value the sacraments and the reminder that I my life is about more than “me and mine.” In baptism we become part of a wider community. Every time I witness a baptism I commit myself to the child and family to help them grow to maturity in faith and actions. Sitting at the communion table, sharing cubes of bread and thimbles of grape juice is a reminder of the community of people around the world who are joined together by similar beliefs and commitments. In communion we re-member and put together what has been broken apart. We focus on what makes us one and not what makes us separate. The church at its best is a community that calls us beyond the hypocrisy, pettiness and irrelevance to become the beloved community.

Sure, all of this may be just nostalgia and BS on my part.  Let me know what you think about this.  But I think there is more to church than the nonsense of the institution and the pettiness of its people.  At its best the church is a gathered community where people come to be encouraged, challenged, comforted and spurred to growth.  If we “do” church “right” we see that all the great religions of the world lead to the same place. The message is universally about love, care for one another and God’s creation and a world where everyone has enough. Most of the time we don’t do it right, so we build walls of prejudice and misunderstanding instead of bridges of commonality and a shared vision for humanity.

There is a danger in going our separate spiritual ways, because there is little to challenge and ground us in something larger than our own beliefs.  We are set adrift in a complicated world with just our own little rubber raft floating in the small sea of our own understanding.  Church is one answer but there are others.

I believe we need communities of practice where we find the kind of nurture and confrontation that helps us see our blind spots.  I believe we need to be with people who are like us and people who are different from us. Consistency in what we believe and how we live matters. Being spiritual but not religious has its strengths and limits.  The church also has its strengths and limits.  We each have to find what is right for us.  Anyone who seeks a vital faith needs others to keep growing.

Protest, Resist and Pray

I am tired.  I am tired of old white men making decisions about women’s health care when there are no women in the room.  I am tired of politicians trying to control women’s sexual behavior by limiting their access to reproductive choices and birth control. I am tired of old white men trying to govern my uterus. I am tired of a political system that marginalizes women by limiting access to affordable child care. I am tired of old white men protecting their own, hiring their own and lying for each other.  

I am tired of protesting, writing letters, and calling my legislators (who are old white men). I want to hang up my Handmaid’s Tale garb and my clerical collar and take a break from it all.  And I think that is exactly what old white men are hoping; they want us to get tired and go away.  I, for one, refuse to do that. 

I will keep writing my blog as a way of encouraging my sisters.  I will keep donning my Handmaid’s Tale garb or my clerical collar and attending every protest I can.  I will write and call until I am blue in the face.  I will, with countless other women who are also sick and tired of it all, vote on November 6th.  If the old white men want to grab us by the pussy, let’s grab them by the midterms.  Every vote counts. 

Sure, I know what it is like to face sexism.  I am a woman in a historically all-male profession.  I have been told that I was a “good woman minister,” “a good preacher, for a woman.” I have been asked “when I was going to have a baby,” and “why I wasn’t married.” 

What I don’t know is what it is like to be a woman of color and face these same issues.  I do not know what it is like to face all the issues of sexism and the hatred and confusion foisted on a woman who was born in the wrong body.  I do not know what it is like to live into society’s sexism and be sent to conversion camp where they try to “beat the gay away,” simply because someone cannot face the fact that some women love women.

We live in a patriarchal society but we are also live in a racist and cisgender society.  What is hard for me is harder for my sisters of color and my non-binary sisters.

I am a white woman of privilege.  I am educated, have access to resources and a role that is respected in society.  I choose to use my privilege for a good greater than my own.     

We need to be in this for the long haul.  We have to stick together and care for each other.  We might take a lesson from migrating geese.  They fly in a “V” formation and take turns in the lead position, breaking the wind for the ones who fly behind them.  As the “V” unfolds each one breaks the wind for the one behind them. The ones with the greatest fatigue are in the back where the wind break is greatest.  They work as a team and care for each other.  They take turns out front according to their energy and strength.   

As one who is also fed by the richness of the Judeo Christian tradition, I also find sustenance in the words of the prophets like Jeremiah who said “Stand at the crossroads and look; ask for the ancient paths, ask where the good way is and walk in it, and you will find rest for your souls.” (Jeremiah 6:16)  Words from Isaiah remind me of the work that is mine to do: “And I heard the voice of the Lord saying, whom shall I send and who will go for us? Then I said, Here I am! Send me.” (Isaiah 6:8)  “Listen to me, you who pursue righteousness and who seek the Lord. Look to the rock from which you were cut and to the quarry from which you were hewn.” (Isaiah 51:1)

These words are not sentimental thoughts from an ancient book of poetry. They are marching orders for people of faith in every age.  They are words of direction and encouragement when it would be easier to hang up the Handmaid’s Tale garb and ditch the clerical collar for a pair of sweatpants and a t-shirt and sit in front of the TV watching reruns.

In the real world problems are not solved in 46 minutes.  They are solved by every woman doing the work that is hers to do.  Together we can change the world for the women in the next generations.  “They that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength. They shall mount up with wings of eagles.  They will run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.” (Isaiah 40:31)   

One is a Tragedy, Thousands are a Statistic: The Invisible Face of Sexual Assault

She is 30 and doesn’t jog alone anymore.  She is a non-verbal 84 year old nursing home resident who screams when “the” aide enters her room. She is 12 and doesn’t want to visit her uncle anymore. She is 32 and doesn’t park in a parking garage. She is 41 and doesn’t take the stairs anymore. He is 17 and terrified of going into the locker room. She is 20 and was drugged at a fraternity party. She is 57 and accepted help from a man when her car broke down.

Sexual assault is no respecter of age, physical appearance, social stature, educational achievement or physical ability.  We may think it will never happen to us, but this is a defense against the epidemic of sexual assault in our society. We may be quick to blame the victim. This too is a defense by which we assure ourselves that it will never happen to us because we don’t engage in risky behavior. This allows us the luxury of not being outraged.  When someone we love is sexually assaulted, we no longer have the option of not being outraged.

Every 98 seconds in the United States someone, usually a man, makes the decision to violate the very essence of another human being in an act of sexual violence.  It is time to start talking about how many men assault instead of how many women are assaulted.  The public narrative about sexual assault needs to change from an emphasis on women who are violated to the men who violate them.

There is a need for ongoing conversation about how sexual violence diminishes both women and men.  Women who are sexually violated are changed forever. They often hide in silence and shame because society blames victims.  Men who are sexually violent are diminished in their masculinity because they confuse power and brutality with strength.   It is time to shift the blame from women to where blame belongs–with men who commit sexual assault.

The way male children are raised needs to change.  From an early age boys need to be taught about consent, respect and shared power. Instead of teaching women to avoid being assaulted, men need to be taught from a young age not to assault women. The structure that has encouraged and protected men who engage in sexual violence needs to be dismantled.  It takes mature men to reach inside to the essence of their humanity and meet women as equals, and to respect their essential humanity.  

There is a need for honest open conversation about rape culture and the ways in which it influences women and men with skewed cultural messages of masculinity and femininity.  Misogynistic language, the use of sexual violence as entertainment and the objectification of women’s bodies create an environment where women’s rights and safety are disregarded. 

New definitions of masculinity and femininity that are not based in stereotypical gender roles of power and submissiveness are needed.  We are all influenced by rape culture whether we realize it or not, whether we are men or women, regardless of age, social stature, educational level or physical appearance.  To be raised in this time and place means being steeped in invisible norms which are the essence of rape culture.

Our assumptions about the women who are assaulted and the men who assault need to be questioned. We can raise our awareness of how we use language to speak of offenders and victims.

Although faith traditions have done much to inflict damage on survivors of abuse, there are ways faith can encourage healing. Those of us who identify with the Christian faith hold a theology of incarnation.  We believe God is not only among us but also within us.  This means that there is something holy within us all, even those who commit sexual assault.  There is a deep need for healing the image of the divine in both those who are wounded and those who do the wounding.  I’m not suggesting a free pass for offenders; there are plenty of judges who are doing just this.    

The place that is shattered by sexual assault is the place where the divine and the human come together. People of faith can be powerful healing allies when we take the time to learn what we need to learn. We have to show ourselves worthy to receive survivors’ truths.

We all know someone who has been sexually assaulted, whether we are aware of it or not.  If we are not aware, it is only because survivors don’t feel safe enough to tell us.  They fear we will look at them differently. They fear we will judge them and blame them.  They fear we will ask questions they are not ready to answer.  There are many things we say, some without our realizing, that indicate whether or not we are safe persons to receive a disclosure.  Learn what these things are.  Don’t ask the women you love if they have been assaulted.  They will tell you if and when they are ready, and if and when they feel you are a safe person to tell.

Young women and men are listening carefully to what we say about sexual assault, rape and the current conversation.  We are educating our sons and daughters, our children and grandchildren, and our nieces and nephews.  What are we teaching them?

Sexual Assault and Theological Baggage

The women bringing allegations of sexual assault against Judge Kavanaugh are facing predictable responses. We have come to accept that these women, like countless women before them, will be raked over the coals by most social and news media outlets.  They face the same questions all survivors of sexual violence face: how much did you have to drink, what were you wearing, what did you do to encourage him, did you say no?  Women are blamed for being inebriated, dressing “provocatively” and not saying “no” loud enough to make the assault stop. The ways women are blamed for their own victimization are so predictable that we have lost our capacity for outrage. Let’s be clear, no woman asks to be sexually assaulted.

The same questions are not asked of the men who are accused.  Seldom are they asked how much they had to drink. If they were inebriated it is common to use this as an excuse for their behavior. After all, “boys will be boys.” No, rapists will be rapists.  According to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, 27.8% of men completed their first rape at age ten or under.  At one university, 63.3% of men who self-reported acts of rape or attempted rape admitted to multiple acts of violence against women. And this is at just one university. 

 Just this week the Rev. Franklin Graham stated that Judge Kavanaugh’s history of sexual assault is not relevant to his confirmation as a Supreme Court justice.  He also stated that Kavanaugh had “respected” Dr. Blasey Ford by stopping the assault.  According to Dr. Blasey Ford, the assault stopped only when she was able to escape and lock herself in the bathroom. Graham’s misunderstanding completely misses the truth that sexual assault is so much more than actual penetration.  Sexual assault is also about emotional, psychological and spiritual trauma. A “religious leader” is excusing and minimizing sexual violence against women and in so doing misuses the authority of his office and the power of the media to spew his skewed theology. He reinforces what many women report in the aftermath of rape, a feeling of being abandoned by God.  Add to this the overarching images of God as male, and rape survivors are left with significant spiritual trauma. Graham’s uninformed and abusive words only add to the pain.

Women’s reported experience with sexual assault suggests that traditional theologies of suffering, sacrifice, redemption, forgiveness and reconciliation are desperately in need of radical revision. There are few stories of sexual assault in the Bible. The rape of Dinah (Genesis 34:1-31) and the rape of the concubine (Judges 19:22-30) were not treated as a violation of the women. These women were owned by men, so the rape was viewed as a violation of the man’s property rights and the community in which the women lived.  No help for women here. 

For centuries women who were sexually assaulted or raped were told it was their fault. They were told their flagrant expression of sexuality was sinful because it was too tempting for men to resist. Women were blamed for the failure of men who became rapists. When pastors, as authorities who speak for God, blame women for their victimization, it has the unintended consequence of making God a party to their abuse. Such a perspective isolates women and robs them of the healing and spiritual support that can help them heal from sexual violence.  Further, if God is to blame, it assures that the abuser is never brought to accountability or to justice.  Let’s be clear; sexual violence is never God’s will.

Forgiveness is another theological and relational construct that is distorted in ways that do further damage to women.  Women are told to forgive their rapists. They are told to “forgive and forget” as if these words are in the Bible.  In reality these words are from Shakespeare’s King Lear.

Few women receive justice for their sexual violation by men; healing is a lifelong process. If or when forgiveness happens, it is the private process of the survivors. It is not for anyone to judge. Forgiveness cannot be commanded by another. It cannot be used as a litmus test of faith to further punish survivors.     

 Judge Kavanaugh and the women who have accused him deserve an impartial and complete investigation into the allegations.  Unfortunately, with all white men comprising the questioning committee, it is highly unlikely this will happen.  The cycle of blaming the victim will continue.  

However, there is cause for optimism.  The #MeToo movement, education about sexual assault and rape and feminist theologies that reshape traditional models all contribute to shifting the public narrative. Courageous women coming forward chip away at the rock of denial and blame that for too long has held women hostage.  I salute their courage, their tenacity and their willingness to speak. May others be encouraged to speak their truth.

Come to the Quiet: Reclaiming Sabbath

The average American spends about 52 minutes a day without noise.  Fifty two minutes where there is no whir of the printer, kids calling, orders being taken, the background din of a workplace, bosses ordering you around, the radio or the blast of the TV. No noise at all. It is a rare commodity in our culture.

Chances are good that even if there is no noise, your head is filled with things that have to be done, stuff you can’t forget, stuff you wish you could forget, and what’s next on the calendar.  Absence of noise doesn’t necessarily mean quiet.

On top of it all there is just too much to do: working two or three jobs to make ends meet, trying to exercise, not eat McDonald’s or KFC every night for dinner, getting the kids where they need to go, cleaning the house and trying to get to bed before one in the morning.  And then there is the “To Do” list. 

Here’s a news flash; that “To Do” list is never going to be finished so you might as well take a few of those 52 minutes without sound and make them minutes of true quiet. A time to take care of your soul; it’s called Sabbath Time.

Sabbath Time is a break from it all.  Don’t worry, I’m not suggesting you go out and join a church (though that certainly is an option).  Rather I am suggesting that you create at least a few minutes of Sabbath Time every day.  Even ten minutes can change your outlook on life. 

During Sabbath time you can recognize that even though it feels like you carry the weight of the world on your shoulders, not everything in the world is your responsibility. It is a time to ponder something larger than yourself and the enormous burdens you carry every day.

It doesn’t matter how long it’s been since you’ve thought about God, prayed or tried to figure what you believe and what you don’t believe.  God isn’t petty like that, despite some of the crap we learned in Sunday School or Catechism.

A good place to start Sabbath Time is to try just ten minutes. Engage your head and your heart with the words “God is.”

Wherever your pondering takes you is okay.  Any relationship needs to start with what is and not what you think it should be.  For some of us God is an SOB who didn’t answer our prayers when we prayed for someone to get well.  For others, God is a pissed off old white guy just waiting to zap you if you step out of line.  Most of us don’t start with an image of a wholly loving God.  Much of that is thanks to life experience and really bad theology when growing up.  If you never went to any kind of religious instruction after you were confirmed or baptized, your spiritual development may have stopped at about the seventh grade.    

Good news; you can start by claiming a few minutes of Sabbath Time every day to ponder who God is for you and who God might become for you at this moment in your life. 

Sabbath Time is the doorway through which most people pass on their way to a deeper more authentic faith.  It won’t change what is true about your life but it may help you notice things you’ve not noticed in a long time–things that bring a smile to your face.  A sunset, a flower, the pure laughter of a child, the list is endless. 

A spiritual director of mine from years ago gave me homework to “notice what I noticed” and write it down.  It was an exercise in paying attention to the beauty that existed in the world in the midst of the craziness.  

Most of us are hungry for something that makes sense in this troubled and troubling world.  These are scary times and life is complicated.  Sabbath Time won’t fix this, but it will make it bearable.    

Nikes, Knees and Narratives

Congratulations to Nike for being on the right side of history and supporting Colin Kaepernick.  Congratulations to Ford for joining them.  These are examples of powerful cultural and corporate icons using their renown to stand with a man who has been clear about his protest from the beginning. As an aside, people who are burning their Nikes are invited to donate them to Veterans Organizations–the same veterans about whom they claim to be so concerned.  I wonder if people will start burning their trucks.  Stay tuned.

Colin Kaepernick’s taking a knee has nothing to do with veterans, the national anthem or the flag. It is also not the first time sports players have knelt for the anthem. It happened in the 50’s to protest black lynching.  All the players were white.  Kaepernick’s taking a knee has to do with protesting unarmed black men being shot by white police officers.  It is about protesting the systemic racism that maintains black unemployment at a significantly higher rate than that of whites. It is about the rise of white supremacist groups and the lack of outrage by the dominant culture.  It is about the prejudice and assumptions that still live deep inside.   

The Occupant inflamed people by claiming it was disrespectful to the military and the flag.  If you want people to go ballistic, mess with the military, the flag or the national anthem. What is missing is that no one is listening to Kaepernick himself.  It is an example of the arrogance of the dominant culture taking a person or a people’s truth and reshaping it in ways that support the dominant culture.  This is history repeating itself.  We have all been taught the false narratives and believe them to be true.  The voices of the marginalized are missing.      

The dominant culture taught us that the pilgrims and the Indians were the best of friends, when in truth our forbearers committed genocide against many Native Nations, eradicating them completely.  Native Americans are our hosts on their land, but we were never taught that. The narrative of their experience of colonization has been hijacked into some BS story about the first Thanksgiving and how the settlers had to “subdue” the “Indians.”  Native children were separated from their families and their tribes (history repeats itself again) and placed in residential schools where the goal was to “kill the Indian in the child.”

The dominant culture teaches us that racism is a thing of the past. The Civil Rights movement supposedly “fixed it;” meanwhile, a black man was shot in his own home when an off duty police officer entered it by mistake. In another town a white woman called the police because a black man was barbequing in his back yard.  Racism, in some way, is alive and well and living deep in the hearts of most of us. Have you ever locked your car door because you saw a black youth coming toward you while you were stopped at a traffic light?  Racism lives.

The dominant culture hijacked “Black Lives Matter” with “All Lives Matter” and in so doing minimized the disproportionate number of blacks who are killed by whites.  “All Lives Matter” is a way of denying that racism still exists and white privilege is real. Well-meaning people of faith proudly put “All Lives Matter” signs on church lawn. Thinking they were doing the right thing, they did not realize how they participated in the hijacked narrative.

Hijacking the truths of people’s own experience is nothing new. The rhetoric of the dominant culture has long squashed the people and their truths and in so doing has kept them marginalized.

Jesus constantly called out the dominant culture and its exploitation of the poor.  The imperial government of Rome was in collusion with the Temple leaders of the time to extort exorbitant taxes from people who were barely surviving. The rich became richer and the poor became poorer (history repeats itself).

Money, the economy, justice and politics were Jesus’ primary topics.  He talked about them more than anything else.  When people say religion and politics don’t mix I wonder what Bible they are reading. Jesus was all about faith and politics, all about drawing the marginalized into mainstream society through just actions and a just economy.

When I ask myself, “what would Jesus do?” I believe Jesus would take a knee beside Colin Kaepernick with a hand on his shoulder.    

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Forgiveness and the Roman Catholic Church: Too Soon

When Pope Francis stood before a crowd in Ireland, he asked for forgiveness from the faithful.  He readily acknowledged the wrong of it all, the damage done to victims and he is to be commended for this.  However, it’s way too soon to ask for forgiveness.

Forgiveness is relational. It is facilitated by an experience of justice-making and redress for wrongs done. Repentance begins the process. The Greek word for repentance is “metanoia” meaning “to get a new heart,” but it is not enough to repent in private prayer. Authentic repentance is signaled by changed behavior and ceasing to do what caused the pain or injustice.  Such changed behavior is an act of restoration for those who have been wronged. It opens the door for forgiveness to happen.  Forgiveness cannot be commanded or forced. Pope Francis asked for forgiveness but there is an absence of public, visible acts of repentance. It makes forgiveness sound like asking for a free pass. There has been plenty of time to change behavior, to show the fruits of repentance.

The Roman Catholic Church has known about the problem of priests molesting children since the 1950’s. It was then that Fr. Gerald Fitzgerald, the founder of the Servants of the Paracletes in New Mexico, recommended that pedophile priests not be returned to parish ministry.

Fr. Fitzgerald’s recommendation went unheeded because the church hierarchy disagreed with his treatment methods.  Since then, multiple dioceses and countries have had their own scandals and lawsuits for damage done by priests. At least 27 countries, including the US, have settled with victim/survivors as a result of litigation.  Of course, the number of cases that come to litigation is miniscule compared to the number of actual abuse cases. 

None of these litigious exposures has brought significant or lasting change in how the Roman Catholic Church deals with sexually abusive and violent priests. The only thing that has happened in these passed decades is that the Roman Catholic Church has spent three billion dollars keeping survivors quiet.  Institutional change is in the realm of the not yet.

Until the Roman Catholic Church takes decisive action to change the monolithic secretive structure of the institution, it is inappropriate to ask for forgiveness.  It is a slap in the face to those who have had no redress for the wounds inflicted upon them by abusive priests and the institutional evil and collusion at every level of the Roman Catholic Church.

Here are a few suggestions for decisive action that would demonstrate that the Roman Catholic Church is truly repentant, and that would open the door for forgiveness from the faithful:

  • Fire and defrock all bishops and hierarchical leaders who have knowingly colluded in shielding abusive priests from accountability.
  • Make clear disclosure to all parishes and institutions where abusive priests served. Stop using euphemisms and say what happened. Call rape, rape.  Call fondling, fondling.
  • Immediately defrock all priests, whether convicted in a court of law or not, who have abused children. Stop hiding behind the statute of limitations.
  • Use outside non-clerical personnel to investigate allegations of abuse. Priests investigating priests is clearly a failed strategy.
  • State decisively that sexually abusive behavior and homosexuality are completely unrelated. Require education about the clinical nature of pedophilia and other paraphilias and silence misinformed critics. They are confusing the issue.
  • Require every diocese to have an advisory group comprised solely of survivors of abuse by priests. Listen carefully to their truths and their suggestions.  They are among the faithful of the church and their witness is important.

When these things are firmly in process, then the faithful can be asked for forgiveness.  Until then there is plenty of other work to do.  This latest disclosure from the diocese of Pennsylvania is another opportunity to do the right thing.  Let’s hope they don’t miss it.

A Word to Those Abused by Priests, You Are Not Forgotten

You have survived the most profound abuse and betrayal.  Your inner strength, tenacity and courage bring you to this day. 

What you have done to survive is not for others to judge.  Perhaps you medicated the pain with drugs or alcohol.  Perhaps you cut yourself to relieve the pain.  Perhaps you experimented sexually to try and understand what happened to you.  None of this is for others to judge.  Please be gentle with yourself.  You did what you needed to do to survive, even if you didn’t fully understand why.  As you heal and grow stronger in broken places you can, if you choose, make different decisions about how to handle the pain. 

Healing and wholeness are possible.  Be faithful to your own process and where it takes you.  Find companions who understand and don’t judge.  There is a community of survivors out there who can support you, who are on their own path to healing. 

Know that what happened to you was not your fault.  You were vulnerable and abusers look for vulnerable children.  It is as simple and horrific as that.  Perhaps there was trouble at home.  Maybe you were different in some way and bullied by others.  There are many things that make children vulnerable.  You came across the path of an abuser who saw your vulnerabilities as an opportunity.  That is not your fault.  You were a child.  You did nothing to ask for the abuse and there was nothing you could do to stop it.  Perhaps you tried; told another adult or your family and they didn’t believe you.  That isn’t your fault either. 

This crisis in the church has nothing to do with homosexuality.  Any religious leader who says this furthers the abuse.  The abuse in the Roman Catholic Church is solely the responsibility of abusive priests and the leaders who colluded to protect them.  The priests who abused did so because they were abusers, not because of their sexual orientation.  Perhaps they were gay.  It is irrelevant. 

Sometimes, however, abuse by priests makes for confused sexual identity in survivors.  Perhaps you thought you were gay, perhaps you are gay. It has nothing to do with the abuse.  You are who you were created to be.  Abuse did not cause or create your sexual orientation.  You can be gay, transgender, cisgender, bisexual or any other sexual identity and still be Christian.  God does not discriminate. 

It is okay to be angry.  Righteous rage is a holy thing.  To be angry at an institution and its leaders who spoke of a loving God, and committed horrific abuse against you and so many others is a wholly appropriate response.  Righteous rage will serve you well as you heal.

The abuse was not God’s will. God is always on the side of those who are wounded, abused and broken.  That the institutional church is always on the side of the perpetrator is not to be confused with how God acts and who God is.  God’s presence is not confined by any institution.  God’s grace and love is not mediated by any individual or agency.    

You are a beloved child of God.  There is nothing that has happened to change that.  There is nothing that can happen to change that.  There is nothing you have done to change that. There is nothing you can do to change that.  It is the immutable truth of your birth.  To claim God’s love for you is your birth right.

Whether or not you ever return to church is your choice.  It is not for others to judge.  The way will become clear as you are faithful to your healing process.  Do what is right for you.

My prayer is that you will find people to companion you in the healing journey, to be with you in the hurt and rage and deep grief of it all.  My prayer is that you will come to know in your very bones that you are made in Holy Image, that you are God’s beloved child, that healing and wholeness are possible.

Here are a few resources:  Survivor Network of Those Abused by Priests, (check out their recommended reading page) Bishop Accountability

                                                            Rev. Patricia Liberty, Theirreverentreverend.blog,   

The Pennsylvania Dioceses: Saddened and Sickened But Not Surprised

This week the grand jury in Pennsylvania released a staggering 800 page indictment on the history of clergy sexual abuse in the Roman Catholic Church. Read report here It includes all but two dioceses, which are the subject of other grand jury indictments.

I wish I could say I am surprised, but I am not.  I wish I could say I am not sickened, but I am.  I wish I could say I am not sad, but I am.  This is one of the sickest things I have ever read in my life. I have worked in the field of clergy sexual abuse for over twenty five years and dealt with over one thousand cases of abuse in just about every religious tradition, so I have some traction in the arena of what is sick.  This is beyond the pale.

The women and men of the grand jury are to be commended for their thoroughness, tenacity and courage to speak the truth.  They reviewed over a half million pages of documents tracing the history of clergy sexual abuse in the Roman Catholic Church of Pennsylvania.  They make it clear that there are many other cases that are not documented and many other priests who are not named.  Some of these survivors and abusers are lost to the history of collusion that is the hallmark of the Roman Catholic Church.

Sadly, the Roman Catholic Church is not the only religious institution with a history of collusion. I have worked in every major Protestant denomination, the major Jewish traditions, Buddhist communities, Muslim communities and more.  What religious traditions across the board share is a desire to avoid scandal, blame victims and shield clergy from being held accountable for their behavior. While there is some progress in some areas it is too little too late.  Institutional religion across traditions still has a huge problem and their progress in addressing it is glacial at best.

What differentiates the Roman Catholic Church from other religious communities is that victims in other traditions are often vulnerable adult women and men who seek out their clergy for advice, counsel and spiritual support. While there are children who are abused, the statistics suggest the preponderance of victims are abused as adults.

It confuses people because there is the assumption that two adults are, by definition, consenting.  What is not taken into account is that the pastor/priest/rabbi/imam has a fiduciary responsibility to act in the best interests of the community members who seek them out for assistance.  True consent is contingent on both parties having relatively equal power and resources.  Clergy, by definition, have more power and resources than their congregants or their congregants would not seek them out for help.

Beyond that, there is a sacred duty to shield the vulnerabilities of community members and aid them in the development and growth of their faith.  This is true regardless of the religious tradition.  The role of clergy carries sacred trust.

Sadly, there is another similarity that saddens and sickens me: the collusion of religious institutions regardless of their faith tradition.  It is an embodiment of institutional evil at its most profound level.

The ones who are left with all the pain, confusion, shame and self-blame are the victim/survivors. The damage done to those abused by clergy cannot be overestimated.  The rates of suicide, alcoholism and substance abuse are astronomical.  They often have difficulty with intimate relationships, confusion about sexual identity and deep spiritual wounds, all of which are often suffered in silence.

That said, survivors of clergy sexual abuse are also some of the most faithful, courageous and tenacious women and men I have ever met.  As they do their healing work they will no longer be stonewalled by religious institutions or blamed for what was never their fault.   Whatever progress religious institutions have made in dealing with this crisis is thanks to survivors who have the courage to speak their truth.

When the Boston clergy sexual abuse crisis was unearthed in 2002 people believed it was the harbinger of grand reform and change in the church.  Sadly, that has not proved to be the case.  Institutional evil and collusion proved, once again, to be stronger and more pervasive.  Whether the crisis in Pennsylvania is a portent of change remains to be seen.  I wish I were more optimistic than I am. 

As long as religious institutions have career “politicians” who are climbing the ecclesiastical ladder, as long as there is a stronger energy for avoiding scandal, as long as there is deep faith crisis that puts everything ahead of justice for those who are injured, as long as institutional identity comes before the identity of being a faith community, nothing will change.  It is one thing institutions across religious traditions have in common with the Roman Catholic Church. 

Chipping away at these monolithic religious structures begins with listening to victims and not blaming them. It is high time religious institutions listened to the witness of those abused at the hands of their leaders.  If churches compensated victims to support their healing, rather than spending billions of dollars on lawyers, the church would be on the right track. It is high time religious leaders stop siding with abusive clergy at the expense of those who come forward to call institutions to accountability.  It is high time survivors received the thanks and gratitude of religious institutions for their willingness to speak truth to power and keep on speaking until someone listens. 

 

To Tell the Old, Old Story

It’s always the same story; pastor engages in inappropriate sexual behavior, women report it to the church, the church doesn’t believe the women, and the women are further traumatized. More women come forward and church leaders think there may be something to it. They hire a lawyer to investigate; the lawyer pronounces there is no problem. The pastor may or may not resign and it is business as usual.  More women come forward and the church realizes they have a problem. The staff and board resign. Problem solved.

Willow Creek Church, the fifth largest megachurch in the United States witnessed the resignation of their pastoral staff and board in the aftermath of allegations against former pastor Bill Hybels (who resigned a few months ago).

It proves what those of us who have worked in this field have known for the last 25 years; churches cannot investigate their own complaints, the women are rarely believed and lawyers are the worst people to conduct an investigation because their job is to keep the church from being sued.

 However, the damage is far more pernicious than a fleeting public scandal. Abuse by pastors inflicts lasting pain and trauma on both the survivors and the congregation.  Betrayal by a trusted religious leader is a betrayal by one who represents God and speaks of love and grace.  But when someone comes forward with an abuse allegation they are the last ones to receive love and grace. They are initially not believed and once they are believed they are blamed equally (if not more) for the “affair” and sent on their way. They are alienated from their communities and left on their own to carry the pain and blame for what is not their fault.

It is important to name the behavior accurately; it is not an affair.  It is a serious misuse of the authority of the pastoral office and a misuse of power in a pastoral relationship.  An affair is what happens between two people of equal power who both choose to enter into a sexual relationship.  A larger than life figure like Bill Hybels has far more power than the women he chased or the women who may have come on to him. It doesn’t matter who came on to whom. The one with the most power, the pastor, is responsible for setting and maintaining an appropriate boundary for the relationship. Any pastor who invites a woman to his hotel room for a drink is heading into ethical quicksand.

The staff and board resigning does not solve the problem, though it helps.  They need a specially trained interim to come and help them heal, teach them a language that accurately names what happened and hire a consultant whose specialty is misconduct and abuse. 

Most importantly, they need a pastoral advocate to set up shop in the church and hear the witness of others who have not yet come forward.  This behavior does not happen in a vacuum.  There are others. There is evidence that Hybels’ behavior goes back more than twenty-five years.

This week Willow Creek Church hosts the Global Leadership Conference. It is a gathering of evangelical leaders looking for ways to revitalize the church and spread the good news of the gospel.  They have an opportunity to address the crisis of leadership in their own community and stand in solidarity with women who have the courage to come forward to speak their truth.  They need to listen to the women. 

However, chances are good they will go about business as usual, minimize the problem, blame the women and miss an important opportunity to demonstrate the healing power of the gospel and restorative justice.      

This is the beginning and not the end of their process.  It’s never too late to do the right thing.  Let’s hope they start now.

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