If you’re like me, as the deluge of stories of betrayed trust in churches rose ever higher and higher, you had a list in your mind of people who, were they found to be abusive, would be particularly devastating to you. It’s a coping technique, I suppose. It’s the desire to buffer yourself against cynicism and despair by always identifying that one person who is good.
“Would you spare the western church for the sake of fifty good men, Lord?” we wonder. Then we, like Abraham before us, think a bit more and revise our number downward accordingly. Jean Vanier was one of the men on my list. Likely he was on many others as well. And then the news came:
L’Arche founder Jean Vanier, who helped improve conditions for the developmentally disabled in multiple countries over half a century, sexually abused at least six women, a report produced for his French-based charity has found.
According to the report released by L’Arche International Saturday, the women’s descriptions provide evidence enough to show that Vanier engaged in “manipulative sexual relationships” over a period from 1970 to 2005, usually with a “psychological hold” over the alleged victims. Vanier, a respected Catholic figure and Canadian, died last year at age 90.
“The alleged victims felt deprived of their free will and so the sexual activity was coerced or took place under coercive conditions,” the report said. It did not rule out potential other victims.
This was bad enough, but if you read more you learned of how exactly Vanier manipulated his victims:
The report included quotes from women describing how Vanier allegedly reframed sexual acts as an extension of his spiritual direction, with lines such as, “This is not us, this is Mary and Jesus,” and “It is Jesus who loves you through me.”
This is blasphemous. If you told me of any man who used these words to manipulate his victims, I would conclude almost immediately that the man almost certainly did not know God. And yet in this case the man who said these things is… Jean Vanier. The details of the Vanier case must be further established. To this point, we have only one investigation and the full report has not been published as of yet. So we cannot say more about Vanier here. Yet we can say something about shepherding those victimized by Vanier and men like him as well as shepherding those who have found their own faith deeply wounded by these revelations.
What I’ll say here is simply what I have found helpful in my own experience with these matters. Without going into the gory details, suffice to say that my experience of church life has not always been lovely. I have seen egregious sins committed by men entrusted with the care of souls. And I have seen the catastrophic fallout of their abuse. Most importantly for this post, I have been shepherded well by two pastors in particular as I have had to work through my own anger, cynicism, and despair. And so what I share here is mostly what I observe, looking back, of the way these two pastors shepherded me through my own despair.
First Lesson: Friendship is central.
I remember a friend once remarking to me that in the care of souls one often must earn the right to say certain things to another person. A better way of saying this is one must earn the right to be heard when one says certain things to another person. One of the most powerful experiences of my Christian life came the Sunday I was baptized when I heard my pastor pray for me after my baptism. I had known him for a relatively short time. We had only had lunch or coffee a couple of times and then he had heard my testimony during my membership interview. And yet somehow he seemed to know me better than any of the pastors I had known as a child, that I had spent the first 17 years of my life knowing and, I thought, being known by.
Where does that kind of knowing come from, that ability to see another person? Part of it is attentiveness. Mike, the pastor who baptized me, is one of the most observant people I’ve known. He discerns people well and, it seems, fairly quickly and while discerning you he moves toward you, making it abundantly clear that he is for you and is with you. The current pastor of the church he planted came to the church as a non-Christian after being invited by a friend. Mike saw him stepping outside after the service to smoke. So to make him feel more welcome and at home, Mike bought a comfortable bench and an ash tray to sit outside the main doors of the church. He lost some members over it, but it was a gesture that showed this young man that he was seen and that he was loved. That is one of the more vivid examples I can think of, but this kind of attentiveness is something Mike seemed to show to everyone.
Another necessary aspect, it seems to me, is humility. Mike had heard me rant and rave about my former church on many occasions. He knew how angry I was. One week after church, after he had given a sermon on forgiveness and the danger of bitterness, he walked by me after church, elbowed me, and said, “that one was for you, Meador.” It never occurred to me to be offended because I already knew that Mike loved me. And so my first response was to laugh at the brazenness of the comment. Yet even so Mike called that afternoon to apologize. He didn’t need to. But he wanted to. How many pastors would call a random congregant on a Sunday afternoon after giving three sermons that morning in order to apologize for a careless remark? The remark meant relatively little to me; the call to apologize for the remark meant a great deal.
Second Lesson: People can eventually stop being angry and confused if you let them be angry and confused.
We can anchor this principle most easily in the laments of Job and in many of the Psalms. When we give people space to be angry at injustice and evil, we are giving them space both to say something true, God hates injustice too, of course, and to name what it is they are angry at. It’s a means of helping people make sense of their grief. It is also a chance to allow people to fully reckon with the moral weight of living as an image bearer in a world surrounded by other image bearers. This is a heavy thing that, often, does not sufficiently weigh on our minds and hearts. When we are honest about moral failings, we are being true to the design of the world; we are saying, as God says, that this is not the way it is meant to be. Giving people the ability to name that and talk about it is vital.
Yet there is something else we can say too: When we give people the freedom to name and condemn the sins of others, we also create a space for reckoning with our own sins. I remember once sitting at lunch with Mike, in which we yet again talked about my past church experience, and after spending a great deal of time listening, Mike said, “You’re right to be angry. But I hope that some day you’ll also be sad.” That simple comment helped me see the danger to my own soul as I considered the evils I had seen. Anger can quickly give way to pride. But grief implicitly recognizes, again, that this isn’t the way it is supposed to be and that the people I am raging at are also people beloved of God and made to know him. Their estrangement from him, as evidenced by their abusive behavior, is something to condemn. But it is also something to mourn.
Third Principle: Patience is required.
I remember once going to Bart, the other pastor who shepherded me through these struggles, after a long, late-night conversation with a close friend going through similar struggles. I worried that they would leave the faith entirely. I asked him about the conversation and how he would have handled it. I don’t recall all that was said, but I remember him telling me to be hopeful and to be patient. Those two traits are closely related, of course. If you have hope, you can be patient. And by foregrounding the question of hope, we are reminded of something else: Ultimately our hope is not in the fidelity of spiritual leaders. Indeed, if one wants to one can read a great deal in the Bible about why we should not put our hope in spiritual leaders. Our hope, rather, is in the Lord. And, significantly, we worship a Lord who knows the pain of betrayal.
One of the more significant books for me during this time in my life was Greg Boyd’s Letters from a Skeptic. The book is a series of letters between Boyd, a Christian, and his father, a non-Christian. Reading this section on the crucifixion was a pivotal moment in my life:
You may remember that my first year in college I went through a long period of acute doubt over the truth of Christianity. This problem we’ve been discussing, the problem of evil, was at the heart of it. I was torn between two opposing convictions. The world, with all of its beauty, design, intricacy, and personal characteristics, demands that there must be a God. But, I thought at the time, the suffering of the world says that there can’t be a God. It all came to a head for me one cold February night as I was walking back from an astronomy class at the University of Minnesota. Thinking of the grandeur of the stars we had just been looking at, I was saying to myself, ‘there must be a God.’ But thinking of the nightmarish suffering of Auschwitz I was saying to myself ‘there can’t be a God.’ The two thoughts were battling with each other at hyper speed. I was tormented.
Finally, just as I approached my car, I looked up at the sky and cried out with a loud, angry voice, ‘the only God I can believe in is one who knows firsthand what it’s like to be a Jewish child buried alive, and knows what it’s like to be a Jewish mother watching her child be buried!’
And just then it occurred to me (or was it revealed?): that is exactly the kind of God Christianity proclaims. There is no other belief which does this. Only the Gospel dares to proclaim that God enters smack-dab into the middle of the hell we create. Only the Gospel dares to proclaim that God was born in a bloody, crap-filled stable, that he lived a life befriending the prostitutes and lepers no one else would befriend, and that he suffered, firsthand, the hellish depth of all that is nightmarish in human existence. Only the Gospel portrait of God makes sense of the contradictory fact that the world is at once so beautiful and so ugly.
Reading that was a moment of shifting for me. None of it was new to me, of course. I was a child of the church. But hearing it put in those words at that time caused the things I had always known to seem more apparent or tangible. It helped me see that the people closest to God in the stories of sexual abuse by Christian leaders are the victims who are being stretched upon a kind of cross of their own by their assailants. Jacob and Rachael Denhollander made the point well in this striking paper given at ETS a few years ago,
At the cross, God acts for others—to overcome evil, uphold justice, free the enslaved, and restore creation. God himself perfectly identifies with the victim because he himself has willingly subjected himself to injustice. The cross is the ultimate repudiation of the idea that power is to be wielded for the benefit and pleasure of those who possess it. In the cross, victims have the framework and foundation for beginning to properly define and understand concepts which were twisted, subverted and manipulated during their abuse, and begin to heal the damage which was done.
As with the Israelites in the wilderness who looked at the raised serpent, even so I was forced through both direct and indirect means to look at the cross. And that singular moment, that realization of Christ identifying with the victims of evil and injustice, would prove a consistent and compelling picture of the Gospel, a picture that kept me close to Christ even as I wrestled for many years with the many evils entailed in sexual abuse by trusted Christian leaders.
None of these things are easy, obviously. I still struggle with feelings of anger at times. But Mike was right. These days I feel sad more than angry. And turning to Christ on the cross has become more natural. There is no evil we experience in this world that Christ has not in some way been subject to himself. And because of this, we can be patient. Because of this we can hope. Because of this we can attend eagerly to our neighbors, even attend carefully to their pain. It is not easy.
But it is good and holy work to shepherd wounded people through times of fear, despair, and rage. If we approach that calling with Christian humility and a firm reliance on Christ to do all that needs doing and to accomplish some very small portion of it through our attempt at Christian love, then I think that is the best that we can hope to do. “Rejoice evermore. Pray without ceasing. In everything give thanks,” St Paul tells us. “I am not altogether capable of so much,” Hannah Coulter replies, “but those are the right instructions.”