We’ve read about scheming politicians, afflicted refugees, innocents killed for the sake of “national security.” We’ve seen protests suppressed, military overkill, and, of course, an utter disregard for the truth supported by the dissemination of “alternative facts.”
I am, of course, talking about the biblical texts we’ve read in church.
For congregations that follow the Lectionary-assigned readings, it’s been a rough few months. Immediately after Christmas, before the baby’s umbilical cord stump had fallen off, we read a charming story we like to call “The Slaughter of the Innocents.” King Herod has heard rumors of a baby king—a rival for his throne. Since Herod can’t find the particular baby in question, he decides to kill all the babies.
So we have a paranoid, narcissistic ruler with poor impulse control. And we have plenty of people who should know better carrying out the cruel and insane orders of this ruler.
Jesus’ parents save him from the slaughter by becoming refugees. In an ironic reversal of a foundational Jewish story, Jesus, Mary, and Joseph escape into Egypt and remain there, in a foreign land, until word comes to them of Herod’s death.
So, we have targeted innocents fleeing a brutal political regime, and, fortunately, no wall at the Egyptian border.
After this cheery episode, we arrive at Epiphany, which gives us the back story to Herod’s death orders. You may know this as the story of the three wise men. There weren’t necessarily three of them, and they were magi, or astrologers, who really weren’t very wise. But still, lots of people know the basic idea: men from the east follow a star to find the Christ child and offer the most inappropriate baby gifts ever. These gift-bearing foreigners show up anachronistically in nativity scene after nativity scene.
The character that doesn’t make the cut for the nativity scenes is King Herod, but he’s a central figure in this story. The magi come to him asking, “Where is the child who was born king of the Jews?” Herod’s advisers cite the prophets, who say the child will be born in Bethlehem. And Herod says to the Magi, “Hey guys, when you find that itty bitty little baby king, swing back by and let me know where he is. I’d love to go worship him.”
So we have a fearful politician desperate to maintain power who is not honest about his intentions.
The men from the East don’t seem wise enough to figure out that the last thing Herod would do is worship a rival king. Perhaps Herod was charming, a convincing liar. Perhaps the magi were the type of people who hear what they want to hear, who filter out disconcerting and inconvenient warning signs. Whatever the reason, they don’t seem to suspect Herod’s ulterior motive in wanting to find the child. (Fortunately for baby Jesus, though maybe not for all the other babies, God comes to the magi in a dream, sending them home by another way.)
So we have people who can’t—or won’t—recognize the true nature of the dishonest political leader.
And that’s all within a couple weeks of Christmas. Fast forward through Lent to Palm Sunday and we meet another insecure ruler. Okay, we don’t actually meet Pilate in the Palm Sunday story, but he’s there. The Bible tells the story of Jesus riding into Jerusalem on a donkey, the crowd waving branches and shouting “Hosanna!” Historians tell us that Pilate, too, would have ridden into Jerusalem—he needed to be there during the week of Passover to make sure the pilgrims didn’t get out of hand. As governor of the region, Pilate would not have been riding into town on a donkey. He would have been on a war horse accompanied by a military entourage.
So, we have a politician desperate to look powerful, eager to be adored by the people—people who, for the most part, despise him. And we have a joyful, peaceful parade that amounts to a protest against the current political establishment. I imagine Pilate insisted that his crowd was bigger than Jesus’ crowd.
As you might know, while things start off pretty well for Jesus on Sunday, by Friday it’s all gone to hell. Judas, a disciple, has agreed to betray him. His best friends keep falling asleep in the garden where Jesus is praying his heart out. And then the mob shows up—a group of men rounded up by the chief priests and elders, carrying clubs and swords. They are there to arrest Jesus. Jesus who, as far as we know, never carried a weapon. Jesus who, as he tells them, had been preaching in broad daylight all week and could easily have been arrested without this stealthy nighttime campaign.
So, we have a group in power using disproportionate violence, committing their violent acts in the dark so the broader public doesn’t know what they are doing.
Jesus’ ensuing trial is a master class in dysfunctional politicking. (Or, I suppose, functional politicking—depending on your perspective.) A conservative faction of a religious group convinces the powers that be to go along with their agenda, threatening dire political consequences if the political leaders refuse their request. The political leaders, Herod and Pilate, pass Jesus back and forth—neither wanting to be responsible for him. And Pilate asks a haunting question at Jesus’ trial: “What is the truth?”
So we have politicians who fail to carry out justice, instead engaging in political maneuvers designed to shift blame away from themselves and appease a wealthy and powerful special interest group.
Then we have Matthew’s account of the Resurrection. The men who had been guarding Jesus’ tomb tell the priests and elders what happened: there was an earthquake, and then an angel descended and said that Jesus had been raised. The religious leaders are worried about how the people will react when they hear this story, so they pay the guards to tell a different story: we all fell asleep, and the disciples came and stole the body.
So we have fake news.
I realize that these dark musings may not be in line with what I, as a pastor, am expected to preach in Easter season. I should be proclaiming the Good News. Shouting about new life from the rooftops. Exalting in God’s power to heal and transform. Pointing to God’s promise to bring justice in this world and eternal life in the next. And sure, as a Christian, I think that’s all true and grand.
But these days I’m actually gravitating to the human aspects of the biblical story. I’m somehow glad to know that politicians have always been corrupt, that the poor and otherwise vulnerable have always been oppressed, that violence has always been the go-to solution for those in power, that fake news was not invented by Breitbart. I suppose some might find it depressing to have these ancient stories of corruption and death as companions to the troubling daily news. But I find it oddly comforting.
If humanity can survive the likes of Pilate and the Herods, maybe we can survive our current president. When I consider the biblical story, I realize that, as awful as things are, maybe we are simply dealing with mundane, run-of-the-mill evil, and not a new breed of unconquerable super-evil.
In addition to the “misery loves company” comfort I find in scripture these days, I also find hope. Because the Bible doesn’t just show the long history of evil, but it also shows how people have fought against that evil. People cross borders they aren’t supposed to cross. They disobey orders from corrupt leaders. They join in protest marches, finding joy in communities of resistance. And people keep speaking the truth.
Here’s what amazes me about the Resurrection narrative. (I mean, besides the earthquake and lightning angel and dead guy alive again.) There were two basic stories circulating about the body of an executed Jewish rabbi. The logical stolen body story was being circulated by respectable male guards and the powerful religious establishment. The unbelievable Resurrection story was being circulated by a couple of women—at a time when the testimony of women was not even valid in a court of law. Yet somehow the women’s story is the one I preach every year.
Today, there are two basic stories circulating about the current presidential administration. Let’s call one the “inauguration story”—that America is first; that our military power makes us great; that this president has the biggest crowds. Let’s call the other one the “women’s (march) story”—that America is on open and inclusive country; that our commitment to care for the vulnerable makes us great; that this president is an incompetent sexual predator. (I mean, he’s a competent sexual predator and an incompetent president.)
Two stories. I find comfort in scripture these days because these ancient words suggest that, in the end, the story told by the women is the one that endures.
I read recently about a man who was a faithful member of his church. He was involved with the youth group and hosted summer activities at his farm. And he sexually molested many children and youth.
When the civil authorities finally exposed him as a child predator, the leadership of the church made a plan to discipline and restore him to the community. This man was asked to confess his sins at a members-only meeting of the church. After his confession, the pastor urged everyone to stand “as a sign that you have forgiven him.” And people stood.
Imagine being a teenager, sitting in the pew at your church, looking at the man who has raped you. Then imagine your pastor, your family, your friends, your Sunday School teachers, your choir director . . . imagine everyone who is part of your most important community standing in support of that man.
This is a particular—and very real—situation, but the presence of sexual abuse in the church is not unique, nor is the church’s poor handling of such abuse. Many churches are taking more precautions in an attempt to prevent sexual abuse in the congregation: requiring windows into children’s classrooms, not allowing adults to be alone with children, running background checks on church volunteers who want to work with children and youth.
All of these actions are important. Practical, commonsense measures should be put in place to minimize the abuse that happens within our faith communities. But in addition to implementing protection policies, Christians have a lot of theological work to do as well.
I imagine that the pastor who asked the congregation to forgive the sexual predator was considering Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 18:21–22. Peter asks Jesus how many times he should forgive someone in the church who has sinned against him. Seven times? Jesus tells him, “Not seven times, but seventy-seven times.”
Still, I can’t help but think of Jesus’ words just a few verses earlier: “If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were fastened around your neck and you were drowned in the depth of the sea.”
Yes, the Bible teaches forgiveness. It also proclaims judgment—particularly against those who harm the most vulnerable. When we insist on public forgiveness rituals for sexual predators, we get it wrong on at least two levels.
First, people who are not directly victims of the abuse presume to offer forgiveness on behalf of those who were abused. It is not the pastor’s or the congregation’s place to grant forgiveness for the violations done to the most vulnerable in their midst. It is the sole right of victims to grant or withhold forgiveness for themselves; to set the terms by which forgiveness will—or will not—be extended to perpetrators. When pastors and others in the church who were not directly victimized offer forgiveness to abusers, they take even more power away from victims who likely already feel powerless.
We also get forgiveness wrong because it is too often a simplistic substitute for healthy accountability. The church uses “forgiveness” to ensure silence on the subject so that people in the church don’t have to feel bad or uncomfortable. It is a way to allow the abuser to remain part of the congregation because he’s probably a really nice guy—when he’s not raping children—and he possibly gives substantial money to the church as well. This type of forgiveness is significantly easier than true accountability, and it can seem best for the institution in the short run.
In the long run, however, forced forgiveness is deeply damaging for victims and entire communities. Studies show that most people who sexually abuse children are repeat offenders with multiple victims. No matter how sorry an abuser seems, if he is allowed continued access to children and youth, odds are he will abuse again. And again.
On Sexual Shaming
In 2011, according to reporting by 20/20, New Hampshire pastor Chuck Phelps discovered that a member of his congregation had raped and impregnated a teenager. Pastor Phelps’s response to this discovery was to force the teen to stand in front of the congregation and confess her sins.
Too often in the church world, people are taught that sex is shameful. Sex is only mentioned in terms of sin. The message received, especially by children, is that sex is dirty and yucky (unless you are married and trying to make babies).
Without clear teachings about healthy sexuality, children and youth often view their bodies as potentially dangerous sexual objects. So if they are touched in a sexual way, they can feel confused and deeply ashamed. The people they should be able to turn to in such a situation—their pastor, Sunday School teachers, parents—are likely the people who have taught them this shame.
In some cases, if a young person gets up the courage to report, an adult can help them through their confusion and shame. But too often, when sexual abuse is reported, the situation looks like that reported by 20/20: the victim gets blamed for their sexual sin. Too many churches refuse to do the hard work of exploring issues of consent and power, the work of understanding grooming and manipulation. They fall back on the simple rule: sex between people who are not married to each other is bad; therefore, anyone who engages in sex with someone to whom they are not married is bad—even if the sexual encounter is a result of grooming, coercion, or outright sexual assault.
There are many problems with this simplistic rule for sex. (I commend to you the book Good Christian Sex by Bromleigh McCleneghan.) But in the context of sexual abuse, the primary problem is that the victim is considered just as sinful as the perpetrator. After all, they both “had sex.” And so, in addition to suffering through the abuse itself, victims then face being shamed within their church communities.
Several years ago, a student in my Feminist Theology class shared that her mom had stayed in an abusive relationship for years because their pastor told her she should. That it was God’s will for her to suffer, like Jesus suffered on the cross. That such suffering made her holy.
Sacrifice is a significant aspect of Christian theology, being linked to Jesus’ command to take up our cross and follow him. And the idea that we, at times, must make sacrifices is not a bad—or even an inherently Christian—teaching in its basic content. We sacrifice money for flood victims; time for the local little league team; canned peas for the local food pantry. Maybe we even sacrifice an advancement in our careers for the sake of our family, or the convenience of a car for the sake of the environment. Sacrifice for others can be a good and blessed thing.
But this theological requirement of self-sacrifice is also dangerous, and sometimes lethal, for abuse victims. The call to sacrifice paired with the story of the crucifixion can easily turn into a glorification of suffering. Victims are told that if they want to be Christlike they will submit to their abusers—or at least submit to the will of the church leadership by not reporting abuse to outsiders.
Abuse victims within the church are counseled to sacrifice their pursuit of justice, their own personal comfort and safety, for the sake of the church’s image. The pastors who counsel this may well be concerned with the image of their individual congregation, but the prospect is presented more dramatically to the victim: “If you tell outsiders that someone in the church has abused you, it will make Jesus look bad. You will become a stumbling block that prevents nonbelievers from finding salvation.”
People within the church—and particularly women within the church—are too often told that following in the footsteps of Jesus means letting people crucify them.
Toward a Theology of Accountability and Empowerment
The church cannot prevent every instance of sexual abuse—within or outside of religious institutions. But it can do a better job of empowering victims and holding perpetrators accountable. The stories told in church matter. And the way they are told matters. Victims of sexual abuse can be either further victimized or moved toward healing depending on how the church talks about forgiveness and sex and self-sacrifice.
Jesus’ crucifixion—the central story of the Christian faith—is not a simple story of self-sacrifice. It is a story about how political, economic, and religious leaders tried to silence a voice and a movement that threatened their tightly clutched power and precariously balanced systems. If we believe in the resurrection, it becomes a story about how those powers fail—and about how we can be part of bringing them down.