Abuse and the churches’ basically consistent failure up to this day to care for and protect its victims has become a painful black spot on the churches’ credibility. Sometimes when I’m feeling despair about the church, I’ll read the comments section of the latest abuse scandal covered up or mishandled by the church. Over and over there are comments filled with anger and even hatred and rage towards the church. Granted, internet comments may not be the best place to find gracious attitudes on any subject, but the connection between abuse and a perception of hypocrisy in the church seems particularly strong. Many of these comments come from those who have left the church over what has happened to them. One of the most painful truths about the churches’ failure in this area are statistics (and the words of predators) demonstrating that many who wish to hurt others see the church as the easiest place to do so.
For those of us who are involved in the fight to bring consciousness to this pressing issue in the church, where do we turn for hope? We should never whitewash how much a problem the churches’ ignorance about the dynamics of abuse are; we should keep talking about it and lamenting it. But one thing I would also like to see is a regained emphasis on what the church has to offer when it comes to abuse prevention. If the church wakes up to this issue – as it seems to be, in part, slowly and reluctantly – what resources of the Christian tradition are present which would make the church a safe place for the vulnerable? What can Christians offer, and what can the Reformed tradition in particular, contribute to a stronger response to abuse?
One Christian distinctive that came to mind this week as a strength of the church is its strong doctrine of sin. I thought of this when reading Jimmy Hinton’s excellent contribution to Boz Tchividjians abuse awareness blog Rhymes with Religion. In this piece, “Sex Offenders in the Pews: Let’s Not Be Deceived,” Hinton describes acting out for his congregation the sort of moving “repentance” an abuser might display in hopes of regaining his status in the church (and access to victims): “Two minutes into my act, I could tell that most everyone was hooked. I improvised the entire thing. I had no idea what I was going to say or how I would say it but it just seemed to flow, and so did my tears. Several people in the audience were wiping tears from their own eyes, and we were only 3 minutes in. I used multiple layers of deception through words, pacing and leading, body language, and by hijacking and toying with their belief system. After only 5 minutes I was finished and, frankly, shocked at how easy it was.” Hinton then asked the congregation how many of them would welcome this “repentant” man back into full fellowship. Everyone raised their hand, except for their elders. One of them said Hinton sounded exactly like the “repentance” of a pedophile who had worked his way into church leadership.
The article was an (in some ways terrifying) exploration of deception, and the enormous capacity of abusers to deceive others (and to some extent themselves) about their true intentions. It certainly highlighted what makes Christians vulnerable to abusers: our “bleeding hearts” and willingness to immediately believe the best of “repentant” abusers. But I would like to think the depth of human ugliness should come as no surprise to Christians. The Reformed tradition in particular has emphasized one of the most stark expressions of this doctrine: total depravity, or the idea that the fall has distorted every aspect of who we are. Apart from a strong relationship with Christ, people are deceitful and self-destructive to the core. Until quite recently, this idea has been pretty central to the Reformed traditions’ idea of what salvation is all about.
It seems unfortunate to me that an awareness of abuse in the secular world seems to have come about just as the seriousness of sin has fallen out of favor in the church. In nearly any church now, you can find preaching that sends the message that the state of fallen people is simply one of being lost or misguided, and salvation is primarily about regaining our self worth and learning to love ourselves. We’ve somewhat lost touch with the grim reality the Reformed tradition saw so clearly: sin has completely corrupted every aspect of who people are, and this does not change easily or quickly. I’m thinking of the Heidelberg Catechism answer I memorized as a kid: “I am by nature prone to hate God and my neighbor.” Granted, abuse as a primary category for sin was not really part of the mindset of the Reformers or most of church history. But the pervasiveness of sin and the capacity for people to deceive, with tragic consequences, is a strong part of our tradition, one I suggest we reclaim as we work towards a safer church.