Rethinking Sacrifice

If you grew up within ten miles of a church, you probably heard the phrase, “Jesus died for our sins.”  The ten dollar theological word is “substitutionary atonement.”  The gist is that Jesus had to die to appease an old-pissed off-white guy-with-a-beard-god because all of humanity was so wretched. Sometimes I get the wretched humanity part.  People do some pretty awful things to each other.

The pissed off old-guy god is more problematic.  While many people think that the God of the Old Testament is all wrath and condemnation and the God of the New Testament is all love and light, both are off the mark.  First, it is all the same God. There’s only one God.  That’s one of the important things about the Judeo Christian tradition.  Second, the God portrayed in the Old Testament is the God who created all of everything and then loved it to life.  God is in everything and everyone.  All of creation is filled with the holiness of God. Our essential nature is not original sin, but original blessing (see more on original blessing in the book of the same title by Matthew Fox).  We are God’s beloved creatures. There are instances where God gets angry, but usually with pretty good reason.  Humans have done pretty awful stuff to each other.

The God portrayed in the New Testament (through Jesus) got angry and had harsh words for the Romans and the religious leaders who colluded with them.  Jesus spoke words of judgment to those who put extra burdens on the poor and marginalized people because of their social or economic standing in society.  So the God of both testaments is both angry and loving.

The notion that Jesus had to be the atoning sacrifice for our sin perpetuates two central myths that have wrought misery and destruction throughout human history: redemptive violence and redemptive suffering. 

The myth of redemptive violence undergirds the belief that violence saves, that war brings peace and that might makes right.  According to Walter Wink, it is one of the oldest and continuously repeated stories in the world.  There is a good guy and a bad guy. The good guy suffers and the bad guy appears to be winning.  The good guy eventually triumphs and everyone identifies with the good guy. Violence in this view is a means to an end; good finally triumphs over evil.

The myth of redemptive suffering essentially holds forth suffering as a means to an end; namely a means to salvation.  It holds that Jesus had to suffer and die in order to save humanity from its sin.  Just as importantly, this myth purports that suffering makes us holy.

An aside about suffering itself; it may indeed be a consequence of the life of faith. The powers of the world are still deaf to the message of justice and peace that Jesus and every prophet from every age brought to the people.  The kind of suffering talked about in the bible is suffering because of faith and conviction, and it does not make one holy, it means one suffers. It does NOT mean suffering at the hand of another in an abusive relationship or suffering in an abusive family or work environment. It does not mean suffering brought on by unmet medical needs or symptoms, suffering brought on by any kind of privation or suffering in any of the countless ways humans find to bring pain to their sisters and brothers.

There is nothing holy about suffering. 

I do not believe it was God’s will for Jesus to die. I do not believe his death was necessary to appease God in any way.  I do not believe Jesus’ death does anything except expose the unjust and corrupt power systems that have always run the world.

The death of Jesus was and always will be a tragedy.  Jesus was crucified because he dared to speak truth to power.  He dared to stand apart from the dominant culture and speak a prophetic word about God. Jesus’ death was not a means to an end for us or any previous generation. It was an unspeakable act of violence committed by frightened and fearful leaders who sought to silence the voice that exposed their greed.

So, perhaps it is time for us to rethink the whole notion of sacrifice and violence and what they mean.  Perhaps we can see that Jesus’ death and suffering was a tragedy played out at the expense of an innocent man who refused to back down from his deeply held convictions.  Would that our convictions were so deep. 

An Open Letter to Mr. Trump

Dear Mr Trump

Last week in my blog I called you a bloviating buffoon. You can look up the words if you don’t know what they mean.  I am a name caller.  I’m not proud of it, but there it is.  When I was in grade school I called the classmates I didn’t like “poopy heads.”  As an adult I have a far more colorful, if not always appropriate, lexicon at my disposal.  And if the truth be told, that lexicon is most frequently used in relationship to you.  I will spare you the details. I acknowledge, however, that name calling is a juvenile way to address differences and does nothing to further understanding between people who disagree.

In my Lenten discipline this year I have spent some time rooting around in seldom explored recesses of my inner being. Along the way I discovered that I was missing one of the central tenets of my faith, to love all people. Even the ones I don’t like.  So, at this late date in Lent I am making an effort to love you.  To do this I must get connected to God’s love in me. Left on my own, I’m not sure how it would go. Gratefully, we are all conduits for God’s love in the world.  If I am unable to feel love toward you, it is because something is amiss in my relationship with God.

Mr. Trump, you are a beloved child of God.  You are a unique and unrepeatable human being, made in the image of God.  So I am going to delve inside myself and see if I can connect deeply enough with God to feel God-like love toward you.  I cannot continue to call you names and express love toward you at the same time. So, I am signing off on the name calling.

In the Christian faith, however, behavior does not get a free pass.  Without losing sight of you as a beloved child, I will continue to resist most everything you stand for. 

We learned under President Reagan that trickle-down economics does not work. Corporations that receive tax breaks do not pass them on to consumers or to workers.  They line their share holders’ pockets. Tax breaks for the rich, when so many struggle to make ends meet, is nothing short of evil.  In the New Testament Jesus’ most frequent clashes were with the wealthy.  History repeats itself again and again.  We are seeing such a repeat in your performance as president.

Trying to repeal the Affordable Care Act and making health insurance beyond the reach of the working poor helps assure a permanent underclass of workers in our country. We are the only developed nation where the number one cause of bankruptcy is health care.

The minimum wage has not kept pace with inflation and the rising cost of living. This is morally wrong, but it makes money for the company. Those who work full time should be paid a living wage.

Many of your policies are disastrous for our planet. Dumping mining waste into waterways, burning more coal and constructing more coal plants are ecologically unsustainable. You may not personally believe in climate change, but that doesn’t mean the science is wrong.  Your uninformed opinion puts the entire planet at risk.  By surrounding yourself with people who are as uninformed as you are, you insulate yourself from truths that do not suit your purposes.

Your belittling of women, minorities, the differently abled and those of differing religions is morally reprehensible.  I believe that your behavior has pulled the plug on social decency and allowed the worst of human behavior to come to the fore in increased misogyny, hypocrisy, racism and bigotry.  People tend to follow the leader.

I am appalled at the number of children who have been separated by their parents at the Mexico/US border.  Many of them may never be reunited with their parents. As a country of immigrants, the anti-immigrant sentiment you embody empowers people to continue to hate and mistrust people who are different.  The United States is not “full” as you claim.  We have a broken immigration system that you, your administration and the political gridlock of our elected representatives are doing nothing to fix.  Instead, you are spending billions of dollars to build a ridiculous wall when that money would be better spent providing immigration attorneys at the border to help people.   

I sincerely doubt that you will ever see this letter and I further doubt that if you did, it would make any difference. Rather, I have some inner repairing to do so I have clarity about what it means to be a person of faith in this time.  I believe speaking truth to power is one of the most profound needs of our time.  I am taking my place as one who tries to do just that while resisting the temptation to name call. 

With Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann, I believe that the “essential work of justice is figuring out what belongs to whom, and giving it back.”  This does not bode well for the United States. The day of reckoning that you and our broken political system are putting into motion will not be pretty.

It Was the Best of Times, It Was the Worst of Times…

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.…”

Charles Dickens’ historical novel, a Tale of Two Cities, centers on the years leading up to the French Revolution and culminates in the Jacobin Reign of Terror.  These words could just as easily be written about this current time.

Companies are now free to dump mining waste into waterways. Hundreds of Mexican children are still held in detention and may never be reunited with their parents. Mitch McConnell. Our nation has the largest federal debt in history. White Nationalism is on the rise. Betsy DeVos cut all funding to Special Olympics. The occupant. His cronies are crooked and conniving snakes. Trickle-down economics is once again being shown to victimize the poor. Rick Scott, who was at the helm when Columbia Healthcare perpetrated the largest fraud in Medicare history, is now overseeing healthcare reform. Hatred of immigrants is on the rise. Companies are drilling for oil in pristine areas where drilling should never happen. The bloviating buffoon occupant and the evil Senate majority leader continue to lead this country down a path of destruction to our republic.

On the other hand, there is a Pope who encourages us to build bridges instead of walls. A stranger smiled at me and said, “Good morning.”  I smiled at a stranger and said, “Good morning.” Bears are coming out of hibernation. The organization, Pearls, gives stuffed dolls to Alzheimer’s patients for comfort. Luxembourg just made all its public transportation free. “I love Lucy” reruns can still be found on TV. A mother wrote messages of encouragement on pencils and her son distributed them to his classmates. A fat robin red breast landed on the railing of our deck this morning. Adam Schiff presented his convictions about Russian collusion in the election and proved himself to be one politician who has the stones to do what is right. Craig and Danica Shoji retrofitted a trailer with showers to make bathing available to homeless people. Iceland elected an environmentalist as Prime Minister. Addiction rates, deaths and overdoses plummeted in Portugal after decriminalizing all drugs and making it a medical issue instead of a moral one. Norway banned deforestation. Women are speaking their truths in the face of growing sexism. Mary Oliver’s poetry is still fresh and nurturing. The freshmen class of legislators are speaking truth to power and making waves. An April shower watered the daffodils yesterday.   

Life is messy.  What we see depends on where we look. There is plenty to make us pessimistic about the present and the future.  There is plenty to make us joyful in the moment.  There is disillusionment enough to bring tears daily. There is beauty enough to balance the despair. There is darkness a-plenty in every corner of the world.  We all have sacred light within us to shine in this darkness.  The world gradually becomes a better place when the light that is in me greets the light that is in you. 

Continuing to resist and speak words of love in the midst of rising hate and intolerance depends on balance.  Resisting the constant pull of despair depends on feeding the voice that needs to be heard in these days. We cannot wait for the world to be transformed from the top down.  We begin to transform the world when we stop acting out of despair. Appreciating a sunrise, listening to the music we love, seeking out the laughter of children and feeling fabulously small next to the vastness of the ocean can feed our souls when we are sinking into discouragement. Doing whatever feeds our innermost being is crucial to staying in the resistance and not succumbing to exhaustion and despair. 

Love has the last word when love is the last word we speak.  Kindness is the final action when we are finally kind.  Justice is the defining action when we are just in our dealings.  Grace has the final word when grace is what we finally embody.  All of our actions are sacred when we realize that all our actions are sacred.   

“Here is the world.  Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid.”

Frederick Beuchner

Shining a Light on Human Trafficking

The simplest definition of human trafficking is “stealing freedom for profit.”  It is the motto of the Polaris Project, a leading national resource for information and intervention.  Visit their website Polaris Project. The non-profit project is named for Polaris, the star that guided slaves to freedom at an earlier time in US history.

It is clear that slavery is alive, well, and living not only in the United States but around the world.  Various resources cite human trafficking as either the second or third largest criminal enterprise in the world. Due to the difficulty of gathering accurate data, estimates on the number of individuals trafficked per year is somewhere between 25 and 40 million. It is estimated that as many as half of the victims are male, with GBTQ boys being at highest risk. Young girls and boys are also at high risk for sexual slavery.

Not all victims are trafficked from other countries.  Homeless and economically vulnerable children and young adults are also at risk. Individuals can be trafficked in their own home towns and cities.  They are trafficked by friends, family members, romantic partners and even parents.  They are essentially “sold” into indentured servanthood, forced marriage, sexual slavery and untenable employment situations, to name a few.

It is commonly assumed that trafficking means that victims are moved from place to place. It is true in some cases. For example, trafficked sex slaves are often transported to areas where large sporting events are scheduled, such as the Super Bowl and NCAA tournaments. Delta Airline has trained some 60,000 of their employees to spot the signs of sex trafficking. Other transportation services are slowly following suit.  However, many trafficked slaves stay in one place throughout their servitude. 

Most victims are prohibited from leaving their handlers. However, even if they are not forcibly held in their servitude, they may lack the basic physical resources to escape.  Some have been so manipulated they fear for their safety or the safety of their children/family.  Others are so traumatized they are no longer able to realize they are under another’s control.

Sexual exploitation is one form of human trafficking and includes sexual slavery, prostitution and forced marriage, to name a few.  Other forms of human trafficking are found in the hospitality industry, restaurants, cleaning services, construction and factory work.  Legitimate businesses are the front for trafficked individuals, a source of free or cheap labor. For a map of trafficking in the US and the top industries for trafficking click here. Trafficking also includes forced tissue and organ removal, e.g. kidneys.  For women it includes forced harvesting of ova and surrogacy.

Human trafficking is happening in every city in every state in the United States.  It is happening in small towns and suburbs.  There are an estimated 40,000 trafficked human beings in the United States.  In 2017 the Center for Missing and Exploited Children reported that one in seven endangered runaways were likely sex trafficking victims. Human trafficking is an invisible and often silent crime that no one wants to talk about. 

Education, awareness and willingness to get involved by reporting suspected trafficking is a first step to aiding federal and international agencies working to end trafficking. The national hotline for Human Trafficking is 1-888-373-7888.  You can learn more about human trafficking by visiting the Polaris website at Polaris Project. org

Some of the signs of trafficking include, but are not limited to:

  • Appearance of undernourishment
  • For children of school age, sudden prolonged absence
  • Use of scripted responses in social interaction
  • Fear of authority figures
  • Absence of identification or lack of official documents
  • Lack of personal possessions
  • Limited freedom of movement
  • Low or no wages for work
  • Unusually long work hours under oppressive conditions
  • Large debt, especially for foreign victims who were lured by the promise of a better life
  • Living and working at the same place

In the Judeo-Christian tradition the poor and the vulnerable are among those for whom society as a whole is called to be concerned and to act.  There is no shortage of vulnerable populations in our exploitative economy. Our national economy is rigged to benefit the rich and victimize the poor. 

It is said that the humanity of a society is visible in how it treats its most vulnerable members.  While the occupant may say the United States is the greatest country in the world, and in many ways it is, we are getting a failing grade when it comes to the poor and vulnerable. Greed appears to be one of the most pernicious of sins in our culture and in our world.

Exploiting persons’ dreams for a better life is unconscionable. Taking advantage of someone’s abject vulnerability, poverty or lack of social resources is how many innocent victims land in the clenches of ruthless traffickers.

It is easy to feel helpless, like we often do with so many social ills; but change begins with awareness of the crisis of human trafficking. Learn to recognize the signs and symptoms. Support agencies that provide services to the poor and needy. Report suspicions to the authorities. The worst that can happen is that employers may be embarrassed and inconvenienced.  You also might save a life. The trade-off is worth it.

In so many areas of our society the mantra is, “If you see something, say something.”  It works here too.

Striking a Nerve

Last week, in response to my blog on anti-Muslim bigotry, one reader called me a “piece of shit.”  Another reader told me to “crawl back under my rock” and left emoticons of a pile of feces and an angry face. Another reader told me to “shut the fuck up.” And this was before the tragic mass murder of Muslims in prayer at two different mosques in New Zealand.

They prove my point.  Clearly I struck a nerve, and that was my intent.  Their comments illustrate precisely the kind of anti-Muslim sentiment that pervades so much of this country.  We can’t control our trade deficit but we have no problem exporting hatred and intolerance.

The truth is there is religious intolerance and terrorism in every religious tradition. Christianity is no exception. More murder and mayhem have been created through the years because of religions than just about anything else.  In times of social uncertainty and change, religious extremism grows.    

Hatred and intolerance also take root in resistance to change.  In the instance of religious intolerance in the United States there is a deep misunderstanding of our own history. Many are under the mistaken notion that the United States was founded as a Christian country, and all other religions that have come into our midst are less than.  I am not aware that moral superiority is a Christian virtue, but perhaps I was absent that day in seminary. 

A more accurate reading of our history is that this nation was founded, in part, as a refuge for those being religiously persecuted in their country of origin.  They migrated to the New World because there was a promise of religious freedom. Later, a constitutionally guaranteed right to practice the religion of one’s choice was added.

Make no mistake; this country was also founded on the hope of greater economic opportunity for merchants. They extorted goods from Native peoples for a fraction of what the goods were worth and made a profit in Europe. New trade routes went through the new world and created unprecedented wealth for merchants.

Our religious and economic history is not as pure as we would like to believe.

Despite the premise of freedom of religion, every religious tradition that has entered this country since its founding has faced the same kind of religious persecution our founders were fleeing when they came to the New World.  It was illegal to NOT be a church member in the Massachusetts Bay Colony.  People like Roger Williams and Anne Hutchinson were expelled from the Massachusetts Bay Colony for having the audacity to challenge the religious leaders.  Connecticut, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and South Carolina maintained established churches that prohibited the founding of other religious communities.  Jews were prevented from voting and engaging in certain professions. This history has been repeated with the influx of black slaves, Catholics and today with Muslims. 

Our guaranteed religious freedom drips with irony.

A deeper issue is that change generates fear.  It makes us feel out of control.  If things change we may be left behind.  It is a well-known fact that whites and Christians (such as they are) will be the minority in the United States within a few generations.  This will mean changes for those of us who have enjoyed unmitigated privilege, few checks on the use of power, and control of the economy.  Our lack of awareness about our privilege and power does not absolve us of the responsibility for the pain it creates in the lives of others. It just makes us more fearful of inevitable change.

Free market capitalism depends on a permanent underclass of workers who receive substandard wages. No one wants to pay $6.00 a pound for tomatoes so that those picking the tomatoes receive a living wage. There is a pervasive notion that “I was here first and I have all I need, too bad for you.” Our resistance to change is all about what we fear we will lose.  Our resistance to a new vision for our nation as a diverse group of people living in harmony is rooted in our fear and our deep sense of entitlement.

As a result we are increasingly defensive.  We listen to reply, not to understand.  We are ready to criticize others and defend the superiority of our own position. We speak without understanding our own national history or the history of those who are seeking shelter and solace on our shores.

Change is coming; we can listen, seek to understand, learn compassion and reach across differences. Or we can wait for the brick that is going to hit us square in the head if we don’t pay attention to the signs of the times. 

What We Have Forgotten

Religious bigotry, specifically anti-Islam religious bigotry, has been on the rise since the terrorist attacks of 2011. The recent election of the first two Muslim women to the House of Representatives has further kindled American prejudice toward the religion of Islam and its adherents.

From the outset it is important to say that the small group of well-organized, well-heeled terrorists responsible for the attacks on our country is not representative of the Islamic tradition.  As I have said before, these extremists no more represent Islam than the Ku Klux Clan represents Christianity.  It is just that simple.  Read the Koran and get back to me.  If you think the Koran is only about violence, read the Old Testament and get back to me. The Bible is no more or less violent than the Koran. There are religious extremists in every tradition and they do not speak the truth and essence of that tradition.  Get educated.  Until then, don’t contribute to the bigotry and misunderstanding.  Don’t fan the flames of intolerance and ignorance.

Ilhan Omar (Representative from Minnesota’s fifth district) is facing ongoing criticism for her comments about Israel.  It is all but impossible for anyone to say anything even remotely critical about Israel without all kinds of people climbing down their throats.  Her comments were not anti-Semitic, they were critical.  Anti-Semitism is the hatred of Jews.  There is a vast difference between being critical and being anti-Semitic.

In the state of West Virginia a poster appeared in the state house depicting Ilhan Omar superimposed on a picture of the burning Twin Towers.  The caption read, “We have forgotten.” Most Republicans and many Democrats have remained silent. It is reprehensible.  Religious bigotry is alive and well in West Virginia.

Yes, we have forgotten.  We have forgotten:

  • Freedom of religion is a constitutionally guaranteed right.
  • Ilhan Omar was legitimately elected as a representative from the state of Minnesota.
  • Bigotry is a pernicious and divisive reality wherever it raises its ugly head.
  • Our representatives must be held to a higher standard and not fall prey to the lowest fears and prejudices of a minority.
  • It is the responsibility of each and every resident of this country and the leaders who represent them to stand against the rising tide of intolerance or blind loyalty.
  • The religious right is neither religious nor right. They do not follow the tenets of Christianity and there is nothing right about their positions of hatred and bigotry.

It is troubling to see the social media posts that depict these Muslim representatives as some sort of predictor of the failure of our Republic.  Truth be told, we are in far more danger from the occupant and his anti-America rhetoric wrapped up in the flag with a side of apple pie.

We are in far more danger from the fear mongering in which some of our government representatives traffic. It undermines the very fabric of our culture. 

The risk of creating constant win/lose propositions weakens our ability to deal with the complicated nature of our social, political and religious reality.  We are desperately in need of peacemakers and bridge builders who can reach across divergent perspectives and create common ground.

The deep divisions of our nation create a social and political brittleness that will not withstand the ridiculous foreign policy of the occupant. Nor will it withstand his corrupt business dealings which line the pockets of his associates. There are many things that are legal, but are not moral or ethical.

By fanning the flames of intolerance in any arena, not just religious, this nation builds a platform on rotted timber.  It is hard to say what it will look like when our nation collapses under the weight of its own institutional evil, but it will not be pretty.  What is guaranteed is that the poor, those most in need and those in minority religious traditions will pay the greatest price.  What is a surety is that fear and hatred will lead the way as this country tries desperately to remain “white” to the exclusion of all others.

We are a fast declining society.  Threats against our increasingly diverse Representatives in Congress are at the top of a very slippery slope.

The Cutting Edge of Obsolescence

In a devastating vote, The United Methodist Church tightened its ban on LGBTQ clergy and upheld a ban on clergy officiating at same sex weddings.  It has left a deeply divided and deeply wounded church. In a 438-384 vote the “traditional plan” won. Fifty-four people decided the fate of an entire denomination.

The traditional plan is the most restrictive of all the options.  It requires strict adherence to the Book of Discipline, the guiding document in all things United Methodist. It states the “practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.”  First infractions would result in a year suspension without salary and a second infraction would mean surrendering credentials.  Bishops are now required to certify their adherence to the Discipline.  Those who do not comply will no longer receive compensation after 2021.  Annual Conferences that do not comply will be prohibited from using the United Methodist Logo and identifying as United Methodist after 2020.  This plan doesn’t mince words. 

On the heels of the vote, no one was celebrating.  By all accounts, the “winners” were gracious.  It is little consolation.  I wonder if there was some gloating masquerading as piety and prejudice masquerading as religious moralism. One African leader commented that he could go home to the churches and report that the bible hasn’t changed. 

Yes, it’s true the bible hasn’t changed.  It is still the most radical and loving document Christians have to guide their behavior. The bible is the book where the truth of Jesus is most fully recorded.  He never turned anyone away.  He ate with sinners and tax collectors (code language for the worst of the worst).  He touched lepers and healed the woman with the flow of blood.  These were acts of radical restoration to community. Their status as outcasts was ended and they were welcomed back into their own folds. 

The bible hasn’t changed.  It still demands that we read it and read it whole.  We cannot ignore the parts we don’t like and cherry pick verses that happen to support our particular position.  This is something every permutation of Christianity does, and it is not helpful.  The bible, in its entirety is the story of God’s eternal love affair with creation and all things human.  Through all the ups and downs of the stories related between its covers, the unrelenting love and grace of God remains unchanged and unchangeable.    

In the aftermath of the vote there is much talk of schism (a church split) and people taking their exit from the church.  These are people who have been in this fight for a long time and are finally giving up, feeling their church has betrayed them or is betraying the gospel.

It is a thorny issue faced by the Presbyterians, Lutherans and Episcopalians before them. Welcoming LGBTQ clergy and members is the most divisive issue in all of Christianity.  As mainline churches across the country are losing members and influence, the issue becomes even more charged.  Conservatives say openness will not attract new worshippers. Progressives say it will. In the midst of it all, more and more Americans are religiously unaffiliated. Many cite the hypocrisy of the church as a turn off to participation.  As churches struggle to attract younger members, a specifically anti LGBTQ stance won’t help. Young Americans who increasingly support LGBTQ rights are unlikely to affiliate with a church that so vehemently rejects this population. 

Mainline churches cannot afford to become any more anachronistic than they already are.  By voting to exclude this population the United Methodist church has placed itself on the cutting edge of obsolescence.  By catering to an aging population and a “traditional” approach to “doing church,” their narrowness and bigotry has become enshrined for all the world to see. 

There is nothing traditional about rejecting an entire population, oppressing those who are already oppressed and turning a blind eye to the injustice of it all. It surely does not stand in the tradition of Jesus.  And isn’t this what the Christian church is supposed to be about? 

Southern Baptist, Roman Catholics, Sexual Abuse and More Cover Up

I wish I could say I am surprised about the revelations of sexual abuse in the Southern Baptist Church (SBC) and Roman Catholic churches, but I am not. I worked in the field of clergy sexual abuse for many years and I had victim/survivors from the Southern Baptist and Roman Catholic churches (including women religious), who had gone to leaders only to be ignored, re-victimized, and blamed, regardless of their age. It is the one interfaith thing denominations share. In both traditions, some clergy continue to serve in positions of authority. In both churches there was failure to alert authorities when the victims were children.

The number of victims is staggering. The stories are horrific.  Some of the abusers were male leaders with male child/teenage victims.  This leaves victims wondering about their sexual identity at a formative time. It is important to say that the offenders who abuse same sex victims are not gay. The bishop’s gathering in Rome last week perpetuated that terrible myth.  It simply is not true. Roman Catholic priests do not offend because they are celibate.  All clergy offend because they choose to misuse the power and authority of their role in a sexual way.

Adult victims are universally judged without an understanding of the compromise of moral agency. For all victim/survivors it is an act of violence to the soul that leaves profound and lasting pain. Some adolescent girls and adult women became pregnant and were told to get abortions. Given the stance on abortion in both the SBC and the Roman Catholic church, this is unspeakable hypocrisy.  Excuse me while I vomit.

Leadership in the SBC is trying to hide behind the polity (organizational structure) of the denomination.  Stating that each church is independent and voluntarily associates with the greater organization, they have distanced themselves from the offending leaders, churches in crisis and victims. Like the families of school shooting victims, they offer “thoughts and prayers”.  It is cowardice of the first order. It is also profound institutional evil.

The Roman Catholic Church talks about education, policies and procedures that will reduce abuse by priests. They talk about institutional change.  At the Pope’s conference of bishops last week the focus was on education. Why do they need a whole week of church poohbahs in one room for a week? I can sum up the lesson needed in two words, “it’s wrong”.  Class dismissed.

One thing I learned working in the field of clergy sexual abuse is that regardless of the denomination, institutions keep the secret, blame the victims and leave the churches with few resources to heal. Meanwhile, abuse continues, victims are left abandoned and the major thing church judicatories learn is how to cover their corporate asses.

The biggest thing leaders can do is stop keeping the secret.  Timely, appropriate and ongoing disclosure shines the light of day on the church’s dirty little secret. Let’s be clear, victims do not come forward for the fame and glamour of it all.  They are blamed, shamed, threatened with death, driven to the brink of suicide, isolated from their faith communities and have their souls shattered in ways that are unimaginable.  In the twenty years of doing clergy sexual abuse work, with over 1500 cases, I had one false allegation. It is a myth that victims make false allegations. Churches should create a universal policy of “one and done”.  One credible allegation of abuse and clerical orders and privilege are revoked, whether or not there is civil or criminal litigation.

 The second thing churches can do is stop blaming victims. Offering victim/survivors the resources they need to heal is crucial. Money for counseling and understanding of the arduousness of the healing journey are good places to begin. Recognizing the healing journey takes YEARS and not abandoning the victim are key aspects of healing. So is respecting what the victims need.  In other words, denominational leaders can be the church.  What a concept.

Here is an excerpt of one survivor’s account of the pain of her abuse.

Stolen Not Lost

Marian Lovelace

“I learned a valuable lesson today about responsibility.

I now know where to leave the shame and blame.

I am beginning to discover the truth.

Many of my precious gifts were stolen, not lost.

You stole my unquestioned belief in my Heavenly Father’s love;

You stole the preciousness of solitude in God’s presence.

You stole the joy of coming together to share Eucharist.

You stole my reverence for the deep meaning of a church family.

You stole my ability to be quiet and hear God’s voice.

You stole my belief in the phrase “God answers prayers”.

You stole the joy I felt in calling myself Christian.

You stole my ability to find comfort in going to confession.

You stole my innocence and twisted my trust in mankind.

You stole my hope for a better tomorrow and instilled doubt.

You stole my love of life and wanting to live.

You stole my belief in the basic goodness of people.

You stole a significant part of my childhood and adolescence.

You stole my desire to become a loving adult woman.

You stole my voice and my actions that screamed a loud NO.

You stole my right to claim my justifiable anger at abuse.

You stole my right to easily risk counsel without suspicion.

You stole the inner peace I experienced entering God’s house.

You stole my many treasures and the blame and guilt is yours.

Someday you will answer to God for your many thefts.

Someday justice will be based on the evilness of your actions.

Today I leave the responsibility at your feet, where it belongs.”*

 

May church leaders and people of faith hear her witness and act with compassion and justice.

*Responding to Clergy Misconduct by Marie Fortune, pp12-13.

Religious Liberty and Civil Rights in Peril

Last week the Supreme Court dealt a stunning blow to religious liberty and the separation of church and state.  In a predictable 5-4 division, they voted to deny a death row inmate access to an Imam prior to his execution in Alabama.  The Alabama prison would only allow a Christian chaplain to offer solace from inside the execution chamber, citing a security risk to let someone into the room who was not an employee of the corrections department. The Inmate, Domenique Ray, declined the Christian chaplain.

Ray’s attorney then challenged the denial of his right to spiritual care. A federal court granted a stay of execution until it was determined whether the prison had violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, which states:

               “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of their grievances.”

The Supreme Court vacated the stay of execution and allowed it to proceed. The court tried to hide behind a technicality, stating that the appeal for spiritual counsel for Mr. Ray was not filed in a timely fashion and was therefore not relevant.  The dissenting Justices, Elena Kagan, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer and Sonia Sotamayor called the decision “profoundly wrong.”

Prison officials cited the special training Christian chaplains (the only chaplains) at the prison receive.  There was nothing to prohibit the Imam from receiving the same training the Christian chaplains received, except he was not given the option. Instead the Imam was only allowed to witness the execution from the viewing room, behind glass.

Anyone concerned about the separation of church and state has reason to be alarmed.  Alabama state law explicitly states that the inmate’s spiritual adviser of choice may be present at an execution. It does not elaborate what “present” means. Priests are allowed to administer the Sacrament of the Sick, formerly known as Last Rights, in the execution chamber.  Since all the chaplains are Christian, there is already a violation of the Establishment Clause in the prison’s failure to provide appropriately trained clergy of all traditions to meet the spiritual needs of their population. In this failure they favor Christianity over all other religious traditions.

A second blow to the separation of church and state was dealt by the occupant in a May 2018 executive order, cloyingly called The Religious Freedom Act. It flew in under the radar.  It establishes a White House Faith and Opportunity initiative in order to provide recommendations on the administration’s policy agenda. Given the occupant’s connection to conservative white evangelicals this does not bode well for anyone.

Beneath the thin veneer of language appearing to support religious liberty is a clear diminishment of the separation between church and state.  It allows churches to advocate for political candidates.  This effectively makes the church a campaign arm of whatever party they support. When church and state are muddled together, the gospel always loses.

The Johnson Amendment, as the 1954 law is often called, is a U.S. tax code rule preventing tax-exempt organizations, such as churches and educational institutions, from endorsing political candidates. Opponents have argued the amendment served to stop black churches from organizing in the civil rights movement. However, endorsing political candidates and advocating/organizing for social justice issues are two different things.  The church has always had a prophetic ministry, pointing out injustice and working to redress it. 

The occupant said, “The Religious Freedom act will help ensure that faith based organizations have equal access to government funding and equal right to exercise their deeply held beliefs.” It’s those last three words that are problematic.  They are often used to justify anti LGBTQ legislation in the name of “religious freedom.”  The case of a Colorado baker refusing to bake a wedding cake for a gay couple was settled by the Supreme Court in a 7-2 vote in favor of the baker.  The court voted that the Colorado Civil Rights Commission violated the baker’s rights under the first Amendment. Colorado’s anti-discrimination law was trumped by a business owner’s religious conviction.  What will happen when healthcare providers refuse to treat LGBTQ persons, Muslims, Buddhists and any other religious community based on “religious conviction”? It is a frightening and slippery slope.

The Religious Freedom Act will open the door to legalized discrimination in the name of religious conviction, inappropriate endorsement of political candidates and a muddling of civil rights.  We have only begun to see the nightmare this will create.  We can expect to see social norms replaced by religious “piety”.  We will see women’s rights rolled back and a possible overturn of Roe v. Wade, or at the very least, the severe limiting of reproductive services especially to poor women.

Events such as these two are the canary in the coal mine of our religious freedom and the separation of church and state.  Rachel Laser, president of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, said in a press release that the order was “one more attempt by Trump, cheered by his Evangelical Advisory Board, to redefine religious freedom to mean the freedom to discriminate against those who do not share your religious beliefs.” 

Racism, Agenda and Repentance

The l984 yearbook photo of Governor Northam and the first allegation of sexual assault against Lt. Governor Justin Fairfax were both broken by Big League Politics, a right wing outlet that makes Breitbart look like the New York Times. It is widely viewed as a propaganda arm for the occupant and has little journalistic integrity in the news media community. The Washington Times reports that a “concerned citizen,” upset at Governor Northam for recent comments on abortion, tipped off Big League Politics to the photo.  It begs the question, why now?  What is the political agenda behind this coming forward now?

Virginia limits governors to one term.  Revealing this photo now may cripple the rest of Northam’s governorship and put the recent Democratic leaning tendency of the state at risk.  Virginia voted for Barack Obama in 2008, after backing Republican candidates for the previous ten presidential elections.  Virginia is becoming a swing state, which may explain the timing and motivation of the story. By besmirching Democratic leaders, it may give Republicans an advantage in 2020, even if it is dirty pool. We live in an age where little can be taken at face value and we must always question motives in politics.

Justin Fairfax stands accused by two women of sexual assault.  He may face criminal charges as the investigation unfolds, though he has vehemently denied the charges, stating the sexual encounters were entirely consensual.  It is troubling that a black Democratic leader may face articles of impeachment before an investigation and before any potential charges, while a white Supreme Court Justice, Brett Kavanaugh, was accused during his confirmation hearing and was confirmed anyway.  And let’s not forget the occupant and his alley cat morals. Again, one has to question the role of race and the motivation on the part of the Virginia Legislator anxious to bring articles of impeachment.

The attorney general, Mark Herring admitted to wearing blackface in imitation of rap legend Kurtis Blow at a costume party in 1980, when he was 19.  His behavior is no less reprehensible than Northam’s and he has hinted that he may resign. Meanwhile Northam has, for the most part, stood firm in his refusal to resign even amid mounting calls for him to do so. One has to wonder if the call for his resignation by other political leaders and presidential hopefuls is self-righteousness masquerading as righteous indignation.  After all, racism is an equal opportunity white person’s offense. 

Initially Northam profusely apologized for his behavior and the photo and stated it was not reflective of who he is today.  A day later he denied that it was he in the photo.  Such flip-flopping burns a lot of relational capital. A few days ago, he said he was reading Alex Haley’s Roots and Ta-Nehisi Coates, The Case for Reparations, to try and understand the black experience.  I am less than impressed.

Conversely, Herring came forward with the information of his own accord and has publicly stated that the harm he caused is “his greatest shame.”  Further, he hoped this could be a teachable moment and stated a willingness to engage in a reconciliation process.  This makes me hopeful.

While both of their political futures remain uncertain, the people who are in a position to call it one way or the other are the members of the black community.  Northam and Herring have done nothing to me personally, except offend my sensibilities and remind me that my own racism continues to be a cause for repentance.  The real wounds are the betrayal felt by those who worked hard for their election, trusted their promises and believed what they said.  I imagine it must feel like a bit of a sucker punch.  Still, the community wounded is the best decision maker about their political future.

The mark of true repentance is always changed behavior.  It is never enough to apologize and continue to engage in the same hurtful behavior.  Another sign of repentance is accountability for past behavior and absence of defensiveness when a revelation about the past is made.  Herring has it all over Northam in this regard.  There is a marked lack of defensiveness and openness to dialogue on Herring’s part. Not so much on Northam’s part.  He is still overly concerned with his political future, stating he can do more good if he stays in office.  Again, I am less than impressed. 

People are already talking about forgiveness and reconciliation in this situation. Moving on is the luxury of those not wounded.  At best, it is premature. Forgiveness and reconciliation is not the same thing and they are both a process. True reconciliation does not minimize the wrong done. The individual takes responsibility for his/her behavior and listens to those to whom harm was done.  It is a long process and hopefully results in the restoration of relationship.  At the beginning of the process there is no guarantee of forgiveness or restoration.  One has to trust the process.  One has to enter into the process honestly and openly, with both sides willing to hear what is said.

If a new relationship is to come out of the process, it is built on the ashes of the old relationship.  Both sides acknowledging the wrong and the pain and indicating an ability and willingness to move on, having experienced a sufficient amount of healing and accountability. It’s too early to say, and when the time comes to say, the word doesn’t belong to us.