But her story is far from unique. Church abuse scandals are so common now that we barely blink an eye when a new one appears. We shake our heads, say how horrible it is, and then go on with our lives until the next one comes along. The church involved finds a way to push it aside and protect the abuser. Real atonement and reconciliation, in which the abuser faces consequences and does more than merely offer empty apologies, rarely occurs. Ultimately the church will place the burden of forgiveness on the victims, saying they have to forgive so that everyone can heal and move on. If a victim seeks justice outside the church it’s written off as revenge seeking and un-Christian. Within the church, abusers rarely face any real consequences and are allowed to continue on as always, often in positions that allow them to continue abusing others. Victims are told that forgiveness is the “Christian thing to do,” and are expected to forgive without any real repentance from their abuser. Ultimately their voices are silenced, their pain pushed under the rug. Over and over again, the church has failed victims of abuse, first by allowing abuse to happen, and then by refusing to give them the justice they deserve or the space they need to heal.
And you have no idea how angry it makes me. What I just described is not Christian. It’s not what Christ taught.
A few weeks ago I was reading the sermon on the mount, in preparation for Sunday, and I was struck by what Jesus says about anger:
Of course, that is not to say we force victims to become friends with their abusers and act like it never happened. That’s not reconciliation, because that would be harmful to the one who was abused. In fact, that’s exactly what many churches try to do, by shaming victims into forgiving. True reconciliation, however, means making sure healing can happen on the victims’ terms, with their well-being put before that of their abuser. It means the church admitting their part in allowing the abuse to happen, and taking steps to ensure it can’t happen again. It means seeking true justice for the victims, in whatever form they choose.
Churches, we have to do better. In my experience, trauma and abuse that happens in the church is often worse than trauma and abuse elsewhere, because church is meant to be a safe place. We walk into churches expecting safety, and when that safety is violated, it cuts deeper than it does anywhere else. It drives people away from the arms of God when we fail to protect people who have been harmed in the church. As a pastor I promise to always work to make my church a safe place, and to advocate for any victims who come forward. I challenge every church to do the same. Christ taught us to care for “the least of these.” That begins in our own buildings, with the most vulnerable among us.
The Presbyterian Peacemaking Program provides a daily lectionary of scriptures based on themes of peace and peacemaking. Over the course of 2019-20 I’ll be basing some of my blogs on one or more of the scriptures from each week’s lectionary. If you would like to follow along in the lectionary with me, here are next week’s scriptures:
Sunday – Deuteronomy 8:1-6
Monday – Job 12:7-10
Tuesday – Proverbs 8:1-21
Wednesday – Psalm 34
Thursday – Luke 10:38-42
Friday – Acts 11:19-26
Saturday – 2 Timothy 2:14-26