Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Abuse Thrives in a Culture of Shame and Silence (Advocating for the Vulnerable #9)

Dear friends,

I sit at my computer and I don't know quite what to say.

But this...


Oh, there is more. I'll wing it as I go. My heart overflows with grief and indignation.

I read two things yesterday and today, which, when heaped atop everything else I've read and heard over the past several years, has put me into an increased state of holy disequilibrium.

One, the news of an amended lawsuit against the church organization, Sovereign Grace Ministries, of which I am a former longtime member. I have known about some of the charges for quite some time, and also read the original lawsuit brought by three victims last year. Now a total of eight victims in Maryland and Virginia made allegations of decades long sexual abuse and cover-up within the churches, some on church property and by church staff, and all involving shaming and silencing of the victims by pastors and other church leaders. According to the suit, families were ordered not to call the police, and pastors impeded police investigations while covering for the predators. Many of these cases happened in the church that was pastored at the time by C.J. Mahaney, the president of SGM, and the suit alleges that he and other SGM leaders were aware of the abuse and failed to deal with it appropriately. Apart from the lawsuit, there have been countless other accusations made about mishandling of domestic violence and child "discipline" abuse cases.  (Note on May 14, 2013: the lawsuit has been amended again and is absolutely sickening, with allegations of church leaders repeatedly molesting young children on church property.  You can read the newly amended lawsuit here.  I will warn you, this is GRAPHIC and you will be nauseated and/or triggered.  Most of the lawsuit has been dismissed because of the statute of limitations, but that does not mean the issues goes away.  Some of the perps have already served prison time, and more criminal cases are being investigated.  My most recent post, which contains over 20 links to articles related to the amended lawsuit is Sovereign Grace and Saving Face.) How could this happen?  How could these children, in a few of the cases, go for years without reporting the abuse?  How could parents be duped into not pressing charges for molestation crimes?  Unfortunately, this is not just a problem in SGM, but in a host of other religious organizations. It is the culture of shame and silence -- and women, especially young ones, are the most vulnerable to both sexual abuse and domestic violence.

It goes like this -- and I'm translating it into as plain language as I can without being snarky. In both this lawsuit and my extensive research on abuse of authority (especially gender-based) these are some of the pastoral sentiments I've heard about...
  • "We're all sinners. Yes, he might have hurt you, but think of how you have sinned. You have no right to complain." (I call this phenomena "psychological socialism" and I've written about it here.)
  • "You must have been asking for it. Were you dressing modestly enough, or were you causing him to stumble?"
  • "You are a woman. Women are easily deceived like Eve. Are you sure this really happened or were you fantasizing?"
  • "He said he was sorry. You need to meet with him face to face so he can apologize. Be reconciled with your brother in Christ!"
  • "He has apologized to you!  He's really sincere! Now you can forgive and forget! You must not gossip or slander him by telling anyone else about it. If you tarnish his reputation, he'll never be able to get on with his life, keep a job, continue his ministry, and provide for his wife and children."
  • "Yes, he molested you, but he is still your father. You need to respect and obey your father. See, the verse is right here..."
  • "Yes, he molested your daughter, but he is still your husband. You need to respect and submit to your husband. And make sure you give him sex more often so he won't be tempted by your daughter anymore. And you might want to lock her door at night. And while you're at it, you might want to lose some weight."'
  • "Yes, he pushed you around and hit you in the face and left bruises all over your kids, but he is still your husband. Just go home, pray for him, turn the other cheek, and look for better ways to keep your house cleaner and make your children obey immediately. A happy husband whose wife is loving him this way would never abuse her!"
  • "Counseling?  Sure, come right into my office. Oh, you mean from  professional counselors?  Don't bother. They'll only give you ungodly psychobabble and lead you astray."
  • "Call the police?  No way! Are you crazy? We don't need to bring another believer before the law. This is something the church should handle, not the worldly and godless secular government system. He just needs to see the light and repent. Jesus is enough."
  • "Oh, you don't want to tell anyone that anything has happened at this church! What sort of reputation will that give to our ministry -- and to God? We must protect our gospel witness!"  
  • "And you don't want anyone to know you are damaged goods, do you? You know how important virginity is to godly young men looking for wives!"
  • "You are a woman. A woman is not supposed to teach or have authority over men, but to quietly support and follow them. How dare you usurp my authority and question how I run my church [or this family]?"
  • "Your husband told you to tell a lie? Well, he was just asking you to be on the same page and agree with his perspective as the God-ordained leader of the home. You need to be united with your husband, not be subversive and self-willed. A house divided against itself will surely fall! Just go out there and say what he wants you to say. Then you can make a godly appeal to him privately so he can consider changing his mind. Stand by your man!"

I could keep going.

I really could.

But that is enough of that for now.

What we need now are real men who truly man up and put an end to this tragedy -- not men who will pull rank, make excuses, and cover each other's hindquarters.

And what we need now are strong and wise women who will stand up to this abuse, whether for themselves or for others, and not be passive in the face of injustice. (If you have been abused in any way and not been able to do enough about it for yourself, please don't take this statement as shaming. I know this is hard. But please don't let someone beat you down so much emotionally that you feel like you have to take it. Find a safe place for you and your children. Ask for help from someone who will truly understand and help you take action.) You might like to read my post Women's Voices Rising. 

So that was the first thing I read, actually in many places. The lawsuit story has hit the AP news service, Washington Post, Louisville Courier-Journal (where SGM is now based), and of course the watchdog blogs www.sgmsurvivors.com and www.wartburgwatch.com and www.spiritualsoundingboard.com.  For a more updated list of news articles, see here: Listing of Articles Related to Amended Sovereign Grace Lawsuit

See also:


The second thing I read is a little book I picked up from the clearance cart at Books-a-Million on Sunday night.  It must be a God thing.  I hadn't planned to go there, but I'd left my debit card in a copy machine at Staples next door the day before when we were making copies for a homeless outreach and fortunately some justice-minded person turned it in instead of stealing it. But I digress.  

The book is True Religion: Taking Pieces of Heaven to Places of Hell on Earth by Palmer Chinchen, a pastor, professor and missionary who grew up in Africa.  With all of the reading I've done on global justice in recent years, this book is right up my alley.  I've been in bed with the flu today, so I've managed to chunk through several chapters in between fetching pain reliever and peanut butter sandwiches for an equally sick child.  But I digress again.

Chinchen is making a case for getting out of our comfort zones and easy chairs, and going out into the big world outside the church walls to bring justice and mercy to the hurting and oppressed. He warns about cultures that are ripe for rape and gender-based violence. He speaks of the unspeakable places where children are stolen out of their beds (really, mats on dirt floors) and forced into terrorism or sex slavery. He mourns the children who have to trash pick the dumps to stay alive. He laments the ravages of malaria and other diseases when mosquito nets and clean water can be provided for a pittance if we care. You'd better believe his words have kindled a hotter fire in my bones.

I believe that God has given me a message and a vision for this season of life. Not the swirly spooky kind of vision in a deep gravelly voice and dancing angels.  The fire-in-my-bones kind that is called to speak up and speak out about injustice.  That kind which advocates for the vulnerable. That kind which says, "Stop! No more! You must not mistreat others!"  That kind which pauses to ask, "What can I do to help?"

To be honest, Chinchen has set his sights far beyond the suburban American life I inhabit. He writes about Cuba, Kenya, Malawi, and more far-flung poverty-stricken and/or oppressed countries around the globe. And it is Malawi that catches my eye. Always Malawi.  That has been my own "beyond" place for the past decade. That is where my extra money goes for Bibles and orphans. That is where I send care packages and Chichewa language tracts that I have produced for pastor Headson Makazinga. That is where my heart roams. That is where I have been repeatedly asked to come and but never yet gone. Some day, I say. Some day. Big dreams for a busy home schooling mom of 10. Big dreams are good.

Until then, I try to fan the flames of justice and mercy, right here and right now.

Until then, I speak and write and teach and give.  

Until then, I stand in between.

Until then, no shame and no silence.

For justice and mercy,

Virginia Knowles

Advocating for Vulnerable Series

Friday, January 11, 2013

Wisdom Through the Church?

"His intent was that now, through the church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms, according to his eternal purpose which he accomplished in Christ Jesus our Lord."

I read these verses, Ephesians 3:10-11, in my quiet time the other day. Though I have read this passage so many times in my past 36 years of faith in Jesus, the words still struck me.

You might think that the angelic hosts would be revealing God's truth to the church, and I'm sure they do in some ways. But the emphasis here is on how the church reveals God's wisdom to the angels. Wow. Let that sink in a moment.

Many of you reading this blog (where one of the main topics is abuse of authority in churches) have been wounded by your experiences with local churches and organized religion. Maybe you are cynical about the value of church. Maybe you have even dropped out.  

So to you, like me, these verses come as a surprise, even a shock! But I remind myself of a few things. These are just my observations, not complex theological doctrines.

A village church in Malawi

It shows the wisdom of God that he is able to redeem such flawed human beings and cobble them together into something even more redemptive. Any dumb god could deal with perfect people. Any dumb parent could deal with perfect kids.  It takes a really wise God to know how to deal with us. He puts us together to shape us. And we learn from mistakes, ours and others, as we travel this rough pilgrimage side by side. We need each other. We spur each other on. We teach one another.

Perhaps we might also want to look at our definition of church in three ways? 

  1. We might think of a particular religious organization or congregation and all the damage it has done, but maybe it isn't a real Christian church. Maybe it's a cult that uses the Bible to enslave its members. In contrast, a healthy church equips and empowers its members in the love of Jesus and the power of the Holy Spirit.
  2. The church is not just one congregation or denomination.  It's the whole thing, the universal church (all nations and generations) of which all Christian believers are a part. Not a single group can fully reflect the wisdom of God. Since I became a believer in 1976, I have been a member or regular attender of many kinds of churches: some Reformed and some Arminian, some that practice infant christening and some that do believers baptism, one tiny house church, one huge megachurch and lots of medium size, some exuberant and some mellow, some charismatic and some cessationist. In each church I saw flaws. In each I found a measure of grace and truth. I learned from each. I was stretched in my faith at each. I loved people at each. And yes, I am truly thankful for each one, warts and all (or scars and all, as the case may be). I have to say I am now a bit more fluid in where I can fit in, though I would say that I am generally Reformed, believers-baptism, and charismatic in my beliefs. Moderate doctrinal differences don't throw me too much as long as the leaders and the laity love the Lord, his word, and other people.
  3. Even a local church is not the equivalent to its pastor and other leaders. It is a whole congregation, a potluck with each one bringing something different to feed each other’s souls. (See On the Church: Potluck, Pedestals & Pr'arrows.)

A quick flip through my massive volume of A History of the Christian Church, written by Williston Walker in 1918, shows me that the church through the ages has gone through major change and conflict. And yet we're still here. Jesus is still working through and working in his Bride.

This isn't a complex article. I'm just trying to get us to think and be thankful. I'd love to spur you on to read the entire book of Ephesians, which talks to much about God's wisdom for the church.

You might also like to read something I wrote several years ago about why we still need the church: Why the Church?

Virginia Knowles