Saturday, December 12, 2009

Menorahs light the night

Elana's father was smuggled out of Germany as an 8-year-old boy. Her grandparents and other paternal ancestors were all annihilated in the Holocaust. Many on her mother's side were slaughtered as well.

Once a week, we walk a loop together around Town Lake. Though Elana is a decade younger, she often seems centuries wiser than me. Maybe it's because she has long pondered the dark side of humanity. Or maybe it's because she carries an ever-present awareness of mortality -- the result of facing down cancer in her 20's. Or maybe it's just in her genes. Whatever the reason, I feel graced by Elana's pragmatic, eyes-wide-open sort of wisdom.

Amidst talk of kids' colds and Texas politics, we also weigh in on weightier matters. Elana was one of the first people to whom I dared mention that I was sexually abused by a Baptist minister as an adolescent girl.

Elana came to a stand-still on the trail. She immediately saw the significance of my small statement and of the fact that I had never previously spoken of it.

Through the pink crepe myrtles of summer and the red sumacs of fall, Elana continued to listen as my story unfolded. While we fended off angry geese, she watched me work at coming to terms with the blasphemous brutality of what a Baptist minister did to me as a kid.

Elana kept on listening. She heard about my efforts at reporting the perpetrator to church and denominational leaders, and about my frustration at their grotesque oblivion.

Finally, she saw me unravel when I learned that, despite all my efforts, the man was still working in children's ministry. That's when Elana started tossing books my way.

She knows my weakness. I'm a bookaholic.

But the kinds of books Elana was tossing made no sense to me. It was all Holocaust literature--essays, poems, and memoirs. I couldn't imagine how any of it could possibly have any bearing on the problem I was encountering.

"Denial," she said. "You need to understand a whole lot more about the dynamics of mass-scale denial."

I kept reading, but I resisted the analogy. I was uncomfortable with any comparison to the Holocaust because it seemed to trivialize the incomprehensible horror of it.

But Elana insisted. "The most important lesson of the Holocaust is about denial in the face of evil," she said. "If people think they're going to wait to see a genocide before they apply the lessons of the Holocaust, then the lessons of the Holocaust are lost."

Evil is a shape-shifter. Recognizing it with the benefit of hindsight is not so hard. The trick is seeing it when it's there in front of you, and finding a way to confront it at the time.

Why do good people do nothing in the face of evil?

That's the question posed by the Holocaust. It is an ancient question that has arisen in countless other contexts.

Incomprehensible evil is done by trusted ministers who use spiritual authority to violate kids' bodies for their own depraved ends.

Baptist leaders clearly have the power and the resources to cooperatively confront this pervasive evil. Yet they collude through silence and denial.

They blind themselves behind a self-made wall built with a perversion of autonomous polity and a faulty forgiveness theology. It is a wall that shields clergy predators and leaves kids in harm's way. No amount of labeling it "religion" will change what that wall really is.

It is moral and spiritual cowardice. It is denial in the face of evil.

As menorahs begin to light the night, I thank God for the goodness of Elana's life and for the courage of a few individuals who saw evil and took action to smuggle a small boy to safety.

And I wonder how many more seasons will pass before Baptist leaders open their eyes to the evil of clergy sex abuse and take action to keep kids safe from horrible harm.
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Reprint of my guest column published in EthicsDaily on December 14, 2006.

8 comments:

Lin said...

Excellent post! The Holocaust is a macrocosm of what deniel enmasse results. One can see the exact same results on a micro level everday all around us.

Those who choose to turn a blind eye from all kinds of mistreatment, evil and deception.

Anonymous said...

After much thought it actually may be best for SNAP to establish some hotline that abused church members can call in every state when it is percieved that the congregants won't believe their story. They can continue their database as well offer audio tapes and recording devices to trap such wolves. If life gives you wolves make wolf traps.

Anonymous said...

If life gives you wolves make wolf traps.

December 13, 2009 1:34 PM

I love that. When folks are looking for a church I always tell them to check out Christa's website first

Christa Brown said...

"...it actually may be best for SNAP to establish some hotline that abused church members can call in every state when it is percieved that the congregants won't believe their story. They can continue their database as well as offer audio tapes and recording devices...."

Nice thought, but it greatly underestimates the extent of the problem. SNAP doesn't begin to have the sort of resources that would be necessary for that sort of involvement in individual cases and/or investigatory services. Southern Baptists should exercise oversight over their own clergy . . . as other major faith groups do. They are, after all, "Baptist" clergy, and not "SNAP" clergy. And they should use Cooperative Program dollars to do it. (Baptist churches use Cooperative Program dollars for all manner of other things, and so why can't they cooperate to provide cooperatively-funded review boards to assess clergy abuse reports and to inform the congregations?) Besides, I've seen instances when there were audio recordings and sworn deposition testimony from the perpetrator admitting to abuse, and congregants still find ways to rationalize and minimize when it's their own pastor. Typically, human beings tend to believe authority figures. Baptists need authority figures within their own faith group -- i.e., a denominational review board -- to provide assessments and to inform them -- i.e., to say things to them like "Whoa! This guy shouldn't be in the pulpit."

The StopBaptistPredators website does not constitute the sort of database of Baptist clergy predators that is needed. It is nothing more than the tiniest tip of the iceberg in that it has only those cases for which there has been media coverage. But it's at least enough to show that Baptist officials were way off the mark when they publicly told people that, among Baptist clergy, there had been "only a couple cases" ... and "several cases" ... and "only 40 in 15 years." They cannot get away with such egregious nonsense ever again.

SNAP does have a toll-free number to provide emotional support for clergy abuse survivors: it's 1-877-SNAP-HEALS.

Michelle said...

I didn't know about 1877 SNAP HEALS. When I was at my worst I called RAINN, it was in the back of one of the Covey books I read for school.

This is a beautiful post. I don't know that denial is the issue with those in charge, but it definitely is with the average church-goer.

I've had issues with comparisons, too. I was speaking with a friend who survived Rwanda, and I kept distancing myself from comparing his pain of seeing his friends murdered and my pain at being raped. He actually went so far as to gently berate me and say that there were definite similarities.

Anonymous said...

"congregants still find ways to rationalize and minimize when it's their own pastor?"

Yea...I can see that....the senior pastor model tends to do this for some reason..I personally don't like the senior pastor model at all and it creates a problem with proper accountability. Jeri Massi is right about that.

Lydia said...

Yea...I can see that....the senior pastor model tends to do this for some reason..I personally don't like the senior pastor model at all and it creates a problem with proper accountability. Jeri Massi is right about that.

December 14, 2009 10:00 AM

"Senior" pastor is not in my bible. And pastor is in there once as a spiritual gift not a career choice.

Anonymous said...

Pastor means to shepherd. "Woe to the sheperd who cares not for his sheep...who starves us amuse us and lulls us to sleep" words by Steve Camp