Some things are always hard to talk about, and abuse is one of those. Let’s widen it to include bullying (I don’t know where the line between the two is, and I’m not going to seek to draw it here). To talk of it in contexts of which we are part of is difficult beyond expression. We all know that the silence of the watchers is tantamount to abuse or bullying. If you know of something, but choose to do nothing about it, you side with the one who is abusing power. I speak as one who is part of a church, who is paid to lead a church and has been part of church for most of my life. I am not anti-church, but I do hope I’m realistic. I believe in church. I think church is important, God-given and God-commanded. There is no avoidance of the fact that church is a living being whom Jesus is looking forward to marrying.
So on that basis, let’s be clear. Abuse – sexual, domestic, bullying – happens within churches as much as it happens outside. No, I can’t give you hard statistical evidence, but my own experience of nearly 15 years of pastoral ministry suggests to me that I’m as likely to find these dynamics within church communities as I am to do so outside the church (whatever ‘outside the church’ means).
There are so many ways to begin (with apologies to the author of a wonderful, unrelated, book with that title). I could talk about the equal numbers of cases I have dealt with where the domestic abuser is male or female. I could talk about severe and repeated cases of workplace bullying in churches. I could talk about people forced out of church staff positions because they reported evidence of pedophilia to the police. Of untraceable mobile phones I’ve hidden in an abused husband’s home in case he should become too scared. Of frantically packing up a pregnant woman’s belongings with her helping as best she can whilst simultaneously listening for signs of a returning drunk, aggressive boyfriend. Of perpetrators of abuse seeking to sort themselves out. Of perpetrators of abuse blaming the abused. Of the assistant staff member of a church bullied to within minutes of suicide. Of the church members respected in church for their character and the talks they give who are known in their workplace to be foul-mouthed, ruthless shouters to employees.
I could go on, of course. Despite their familiarity to me personally, each memory sends fresh shock waves through me; I get that horrible feeling in the pit of the stomach with each sentence, each story. Abuse, bullying, harassment, and sexual violence are all painfully present amongst those who call themselves followers of Jesus.
Bringing grace in just makes it more complicated. The problem is, grace should offend me. Grace and welcome should be so readily available to the extent that those to whom it is offered offend me. That’s the trap the older brother falls into: grace should be costly to the giver, the recipient and the spectator.
Don’t seek justice, I’ve been told. Grace covers a multitude of sins, I’ve heard. The language there is telling. Covers over. Does it? Does it really? Is it grace when the perpetrator of the injustice doesn’t even acknowledge she’s done wrong? Is it grace when suicide becomes a serious option which seems logically viable from the inside? Is it grace when the pattern of abuse is repeated by the same person, time after time after time against successively different people without anything been done? I submit that’s not grace; grace has instead becomes a permission giver to abuse, and hence loses the right to be called grace.
I fear we may end up whitewashed tombs, veneers of respectability and cleanliness, rotten and stinking on the inside.
I’ve come to fear silence. Not the silence of the introvert reading in a coffee shop. I fear the silence of the ones who won’t speak. Who won’t name bullying. Who won’t see abuse. Who won’t see the corrosiveness of power in churches for what it is. I’ve seen the seductive dangers of silence in the face of abuse first-hand. It’s not the silence of Jesus on the cross. It’s the silence of Peter by a fireside.
I fear there may be some surprises come judgement day if I do not seek grace and truth with wisdom and passion.
I fear that we do not know how to hold grace and truth together. Which is plainly ridiculous.
As the prophet has said:
We are fools. One alone is Good. One alone is Wise. One alone holds Grace and Truth and does not lose balance.
How I long for The Wedding Day.
Disclaimer: In order to preserve legal anonymity, some aspects of incidents referenced here were changed.
Other posts in this series: