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.
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.
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.
“Remember that you were slaves in Egypt…” When God speaks to the people of Israel throughout the Old Testament, He often issues this reminder or some variation thereof. I was somewhere deep into an inductive course studying the Old Testament when I realized that God seemed almost obsessive in His reminders to the Israelites of their former slave status and His deliverance. In fact, God starts to remind His people of these things just forty years after they happened in Moses’ instructions to the people in Deuteronomy. “Why is God so repetitive?” I asked myself. Why are the people prone to forget such an important event in their own history?
Recency bias is a term that I first became aware of as someone who follows sports; it is also commonly used in investing and even politics. Recency bias is simply the act of remembering the most recent occurrences more favorably than historic ones, and giving added weight to the things that happened most recently. The things of our most recent memory displace those that are from years ago. It seems as though God had to continually remind the Israelites of their deliverance from Egypt, because even the ancients suffered from recency bias. There were many acts built into the culture and religious practices of the Jewish people that were designed to remind the people of God’s goodness and faithfulness to His people. For this same reason we as Christians practice communion—as Jesus commanded, “do this in remembrance of me.” We must even be reminded periodically of the foundational aspects of our faith.
As I was preparing to write this, the phrase “a history of forgetting” came into my head. I wasn’t sure where I had heard it before. A quick Google search produced a couple of books titled with this same phrase. This saying is brilliant in it’s contradiction and it’s accuracy. We as humans forget. We even forget things of great significance. Forgetting is built into our history. We forget and often repeat the mistakes of our collective past. We need reminders. It is why we preserve all manner of things to connect us to the past. To answer the oft asked question, “how did we get here?”
2020 and the first half of 2021 have produced much that we would like to forget, and that we likely will soon forget. We, at least in the US, have seemed to turn the corner in many ways on the crisis that has consumed a year and a half. Some have lost much, much more than others. There will be trauma and grief that may not completely subside in their lifetime for those who have lost the most. For some, life will quickly return to some semblance of normalcy and 2020-21 will soon be mostly forgotten. We will move on and our memories will be short.
The narrative of the Old Testament is about a God who is faithful to his forgetful people. In the brightest and darkest days of the history of Israel, God was consistent. He was faithful. He was always with his people. It was why He gave them the tabernacle, and later the temple—reminders of His continuous presence with His people. God has been with us, His people now, throughout our lives, even our 2020-21. Do not forget. Find ways to remember how He delivered you through this difficult time. Take time for remembrance, it is a good thing.