Suffer Little Children

suffer the little childre 1

In my last post I discussed abuse within the church with a thesis that all abuse has a spiritual component, thereby inhabiting spiritual abuse as well as the other form it takes.  If we take David Johnson and Jeff Van Vonderen’s definition as espoused in The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse, we define spiritual abuse as; “The mistreatment of a person who is in need of help, support, or greater spiritual empowerment, with the result of weakening, undermining, or decreasing that person’s spiritual empowerment” (p.20). 

Within this premise, I would like to discuss the aspect of child abuse within the church.  I know there has been much in the news in recent years of child sexual abuse within the Catholic church.  I believe it is right for investigations to be made and for justice to be done in those instances.  I believe it is only right that we in the Protestant traditions look to weed out such insidious behavior within our own communities.  I would also like to make clear I am not speaking only of sexual abuse or abuse only committed by official leadership.  We are all the body of Christ; I am speaking to all of us. 

I appreciate the patience in which a reader may be following up to this point and still wondering what abuse of a child, sexual or otherwise, has to do with spiritual abuse.  I appreciate the leniency as I continue to theorize the inescapable component of the spirit in any other form of abuse.

If we take the premise from George MacDonald, most often misattributed to C.S. Lewis (more on that here:  https://checkyourfact.com/2019/09/18/fact-check-cs-lewis-soul-body-quote/ ) that people; “…Ought to be taught that they have bodies; and that their bodies die; while they themselves live on … that we talk as if we possessed souls, instead of being souls.” (Annals of a Quiet Neighborhood, 1867), it can be argued any infraction placed upon the body is also placed upon the spirit. 

The spirit is the essence of who we are as a person and personhood, according to Diane Langberg in Counseling Survivors of Sexual Abuse, is comprised of three components: voice, relationship, and power.  Abuse damages the spirit in that it changes how we view ourselves in light of the created order.  It stifles our voice, it damages our relationships, and it takes away our power.  If all abuse is about power and control and the most powerful being in all the universe does not control us but allows us our will to choose, how can another human impose such a restriction?  Part of the issue with abuse is that it is often followed by denial, psychological pressure, and a reluctance for believing the person abused especially when the abuser is one in a position of power.  All humans have been made in the image of God, each with their own intrinsic value that cannot be altered or diminished, regardless of human’s cultural mirages of hierarchy. 

We may like to close our eyes and pretend the world of abuse does not inhabit our congregations.  The ACEs (Adverse Childhood Experiences) study, more here: https://acestoohigh.com/got-your-ace-score/, has revealed the prevalence of adverse experiences in childhood encompassing abuse is fairly common.  I encourage you to take the quiz for yourself.  There are a series of ten questions each referring to an adverse experience.  If you experienced it prior to your eighteenth birthday, give yourself a point.   

The quiz evaluates experiences in abuse, neglect, and household dysfunction.  When participants reach a score of four or more, the rate of increase in disease and social and emotional issues increases exponentially.  As with most things, this score is not deterministic and does not guarantee the demise of anyone with a high score.  Along with the adverse score, there is a resiliency quiz.  The answers to those questions will allow hope for many who take the quiz.  For more information I urge you to review the website, space does not permit me to go further here. 

In terms of any abuse toward a child, the damage done to the spirit of that child is incalculable whether the ACE score be considered high or not.  Suffice it to say, the rate of abuse experienced by the population at large means there are victims of abuse within the church, whether perpetuated in a religious setting or not.  If churches are for the imperfect, the spiritually sick, the seeking, then we must be informed as to how to encourage and care for those who need our encouragement and our care. 

Matthew 19:14 Jesus said, Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.

18:6 If anyone causes one of these little ones—those who believe in me—to stumble, it would be better for them to have a large millstone hung around their neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea.

In the case of sexual abuse, physical abuse, emotional abuse, psychological abuse, what amount is small enough to be inconsequential?  In the previous verses we see how seriously Jesus views the place of children in his kingdom.  For an adult to posture their power and control to be used in a way that damages the child is unacceptable.  When abuse is known, it must be handled with care and with the gravitas it warrants.  We live in a broken world and the reason the ACE score exists and we need resiliency in the face of adversity is because abuse happens, to excuse it is not the gospel. 

Forgiveness is a part of the healing process, but forced reconciliation is not.  In my discussions regarding the topic of abuse, I am asked more questions about forgiveness and reconciliation than I could have ever anticipated.  The conflation of the two difficult aspects of relationships demands more discussion within our houses of worship.  To force a false equation of the two is further damage in the presence of abuse. 

There is hope for churches who have either experienced instances of abuse within their church organization or want to prevent such a thing from happening.  Organizations like GRACE (Godly Responses to Abuse in the Christian Environment) can help churches look for areas they may be vulnerable.  Through this organization and others like it, churches can work on safeguarding initiatives, education of clergy and other leadership, independent investigations (when legal investigations are not possible), organizational assessments, and offer other resources.   As GRACE’s founder, Boz Tchividjian, says; “Before a church or organization can move forward, it must address the past.”

I would be remiss if I did not make it abundantly clear, mandated reporters of abuse are mandated to report.  The state of Pennsylvania includes pastors and clergy in the list of mandated reporters.  For more on this, please visit, https://www.childwelfare.gov/pubPDFs/clergymandated.pdf.  When allegations of abuse in the church are handed up the chain and not reported, there are multiple infractions.  One is a failing to follow legal proceedings.  When the laws are broken, we must involve the legal system.  We must not choose to disobey the civil laws when it behooves us or helps us to hide a wrongdoing.  Churches who try and deal with instances of abuse in house are not following required law and I would say are not reflecting the heart of God but are rather falling into the trap as old as the garden itself.  We must not make a covering of fig leaves (Genesis 3:7) when only a blood sacrifice will do (Genesis 3:21).  We know the one who provided the sacrifice, the covering that lasts.  We must be humble enough to seek it out, confess our sin, and work toward forgiveness; and if possible, restoration.      

 

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