Friday, December 3, 2010

Menorahs' lights bring thoughts on denial and evil

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 20s. 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.

This is a reprint of my guest column published in EthicsDaily on December 14, 2006. Despite all that I have encountered in Baptistland, I still believe that, ultimately, light will prevail over darkness.


Anonymous said...

With the Catholics, wasn't it lawsuits and publicity that finally became so overwhelming that the church had to finally at least act like they gave a hoot? They were basically forced to pay out money, say they were sorry, etc. I think that is the only thing that would work for any other church. They will continue to stay in denial until absolutely forced to do otherwise.

In other words, it was not the Catholics themselves that rose up and said, "We WILL NOT put up with this anymore!" It was pressure from outside Catholicism?

Jim said...

I believe Lynn is right on target. Likewise, we Baptists, especially Southern Baptists seem powerless within the weird expression of autonomy that now pervades the SBC. Pedophile and abusive preachers have gone to jail, but institution leadership holds the line. They do not respond, positively to pleas and recommendations from within or without the organization. Unless or until senior leadership of the SBC is held "directly responsible, criminally or civilly" for the sexual abuse and exploitation of children within SBC churches, they will continue business as usual. A victim, parents of a victim MUST bring a complaint against the President and Chief Executive Officer, Executive Vice President and General Council, Chairman, Vice-Chairman, and Secretary of the Executive Committee of the Southern Baptist Convention, as accessories to rape or sexual molestation. I believe their culpability can be established, by demonstrating that they have created and/or perpetuated a climate of non-accountability for clergy and church staff members who have been previously charged, or credibly accused of a sexual offence. They have failed to act, even when asked to do so by the Convention in annual session. That careless disregard for the safety and welfare for children in SBC churches is criminal. If those men are threatened with prison terms and requirements to register as sex offenders, "God will lead them," overnight, to create a database, and establish boards and committees to "ride herd" on bad-actor preachers. If that does not work, huge lawsuits could be the next step.

Wendy said...

Christa, thank you for re-posting this article. I am really struggling with the issue of why Baptist leadership and people in the pews do nothing in the face of evil. Ultimately, the destruction they leave in the wake of their silence, inaction, and cover-up is worse than the crimes of the predator. It pours salt in the wounds of the victims and leaves countless more children at risk for sexual abuse. It's true that, each time a predator "gets away with" sexual abuse, they are more emboldened to continue abusing. The bible supports that truth. We've seen over and over how church leadership and church members supported the predator, and how the predator then freely moved to his next victims.

It boggles my mind how people sit in the pews and carry on with church business as usual, when the leadership has done nothing to hold the sexual predator accountable or help the victim to heal. Instead, they go along with the silence and faulty forgiveness theology.

Proverbs 17:15 says, "He who justifies the wicked and he who condemns the righteous are both an abomination to the Lord." To justify sexual abuse (another translation reads "acquits") by shutting down the victim and not making the predator responsible literally disgusts God. It makes Him sick. It makes me sick too.

How can people who say they LOVE the Lord and want to have the heart of God stay silent in the face of this horrible evil?

Christa Brown said...

Wendy said: "Ultimately, the destruction they leave in the wake of their silence, inaction, and cover-up is worse than the crimes of the predator."

I believe this is true, and so do many other Baptist clergy abuse survivors. Many have told me that the hostility and indifference they encountered in trying to report a minister's abuse inflicted as much damage as the abuse itself. It's one thing to try to come to terms with the reality of a pastor who did something truly terribly and who inflicted grievous wounds, but it's another thing altogether to try to come to terms with the reality of a whole vast country -- Baptistland -- a country that is the size of Chile in population -- and in the whole of the country, almost everyone simply turns their back and pretends it doesn't matter; and certainly no one in leadership gives a hoot. THAT is the reality that, to this day, I still cannot quite wrap my head around. And yet I have seen far too often that it is indeed what is real.

Regarding lawsuits and publicity . . . Generally, lawsuits against Baptist churches face more hurdles than lawsuits against the more obviously hierarchical Catholic dioceses. As a practical matter, this often means that a lawyer's front-end cost-benefit analysis may preclude the vigorous pursuit of a Baptist clergy abuse case, and this in turn means that it is often more difficult to get media exposure for Baptist clergy abuse cases. Philip Jenkins, professor of religious studies at Penn State, has observed that the "relative ease of litigation against Catholic dioceses" has been a significant factor in creating the public misperception that clergy sex abuse and cover-ups are primarily a Catholic problem. "Some of the worst cases of persistent serial abuse by clergy have involved Baptist or Pentecostal ministers, rather than Catholic priests," wrote Jenkins. (2003)Eventually, I believe the law will catch up on this... But meanwhile, what we see, tragically, is that Southern Baptist leaders effectively take a "nanny-nanny-boo-boo" approach to moral obligation. It's the approach by which leaders thumb their noses and say, "You can't make me do anything legally, and so I don't have any moral obligation either." And that, of course, is utterly immoral, arrogant, and unconscionable.

Anonymous said...

It just proves the total hypocrisy of leaders in the SBC. They want others to tremble and fear God, while they so obviously have no fear of him at all. It's clear as day to outsiders.

Shouldn't they be terrified that the Bible might actually be the Word of God like they say it is? Doesn't it say woe unto those who abuse the innocent, and that teachers are held to an even higher requirement of righteousness? I'm telling you they demonstrate by their actions that they do not believe what they claim they believe. Just look at what a person does-not what a person preaches. They do not fear God.

They might fear lawyers, but they do not fear God.

Phyllis Gregory said...

I personally believe, as I have said many times before, that the majority of the people who sit in the pews of most SBC churches live in denial. When you live in denial, you don't have to admit there is a problem. And, as long as pastors and church leaders are considered to be near perfect, and church members refuse to believe that these people could do anything wrong, THINGS WILL NEVER CHANGE.

In a hundred years there will be no SB church. Too many people today want a church where the people are real and where people can admit they are hurting and they have problems. I guess that is really why I get more out of and feel more connection to members of a support group than I do members of most churches.

Anonymous said...
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Anonymous said...

Phyllis Gregory,
I agree with what you said. Support groups are kinda like church, but you can actually be yourself. At church you must keep your real self hidden.

With churches you've gotta act like Christians could never do awful things to others (although they sometimes do, just like all humans.) Why? Lots of reasons, but a big part of it is that it could cause you to question the faith. Are the beliefs really true, considering? The whole thing could cast Christianity as untrue or that people obviously don't have all this discernment from the Holy Spirit if they've got church leaders doing awful stuff.

Wendy said...

I'm like Christa. I'm still trying to wrap my mind around this. Church leaders and members turn their backs and pretend it doesn't matter. Why?

I think PART of it can be explained - NOT EXCUSED - by social psychology. Social psychologists use the term "diffusion of responsibility" or "bystander effect" to explain why people often turn a blind eye and do nothing during a crisis. In their research, social psychologists Darley and Lantane found that the more people witnessing an emergency, the lower the percentage that the victim will be rescued.

A classic case of the bystander effect is the attack on Kitty Genovese in 1964. As she walked home from work, she was attacked in front of an apartment complex with at least 38 bystanders looking on. Her attacker raped, beat, and robbed her. He returned to the scene, not once, but TWICE, ultimately killing her. Many bystanders were watching with numerous opportunities to intervene, yet no one did anything. Each bystander assumed that someone else would do something.

In a church setting, there is diffusion of responsibility. They believe someone will step in and do the right thing. When no one does, they defer to church leadership. Since leadership often does nothing but protect the predator and shut down the victim, church members feel they have justification to continue to do nothing. This further protects the predator and shuts down the victim.

Wendy said...

There are numerous other factors involved when people sit in the pews and go about church business as usual. There's more to it than diffusion of responsibility and looking to leadership for the appropriate response. Obviously, people with a conscience know that the victim deserves honesty, protection, and the resources to heal and that the predator should be held accountable. But stepping in when everyone else is doing nothing requires sacrifice - sacrifices that church members should be willing to make. After all, this is what Christianity is supposed to be.

Following are some sacrifices that church members may have to make, in order to stand up for truth, demand accountability, and help the victim:

1. Church jobs (income)
2. Loss of friendships and acquaintances (people they THINK are really their friends)
3. Their church community
4. Their sense of significance and belonging
5. Their faulty forgivness theology and other false beliefs concerning biblical passages about not spreading rumors and gossip
6. Their power
7. Their "standing" in the community at large as a "good churchgoing person"
8. What church leaders and other church members might think of them and what people in their own families and the community at large might think
9. Cultural beliefs about church attendance and involvement

People know that, if they go against church leaders too much, especially in a scandal of this magnitude, they may be forced to leave their church. Unfortunately, when people are in church three or four times per week and all of their friends and their children's friends are there, they have a paying job at the church, or church is one of the few places where their needs for significance and belonging are met, they justify their choice to stay silent and thereby support the predator.

I believe these are a few of the reasons they use to justify their wrongdoing. They stay in the church, support church leaders who have no integrity, shake hands with the predator, and maybe even smile at the victim as long as she's keeping her mouth shut. It's an extremely callous and despicable thing to do, but being merciful and selfless DOES require sacrifice. It requires getting out of your comfort zone.

When abuse occurs in the church and church leaders and church members do nothing, I wonder... what good do they really do? In the face of evil, church members stay for their Sunday School class or the children's ministry or the missions or the preaching or their friendships or their job perhaps... but what does all of that MEAN, when you won't protect an innocent child and future victims? What does any of it MEAN? What good is it then?

Phyllis Gregory said...

Wendy and Lynn,

I so agree with everything you said. Thank you.