The late Ed Friedman, rabbi and family therapist, was famous for saying that out of all social organizations, the one most like a family is the church or synagogue. Some days, that’s wonderfully good news. And some days, not so much. There are times when the local fellowship is a loving and supportive family that comes through for its suffering members, offering comfort, restoration, and hope. And there are times when the church acts more like an anxious and dysfunctional family, adding insult to injury.
I recently had a conversation with a young woman who had been taken advantage of in a dating relationship with another Christian. That should be concern enough. But to hear her tell the story, the way her church is addressing the situation may be piling offense on top of offense, pain on pain.
To start with, let’s admit something we probably know but don’t talk much about. It’s this: a lot of guys will manipulate women to get what they want, even Christian guys (I can just hear all the women saying, Well, duh–like that’s news). I remember a brief conversation with a female student who came up to me during a break in the lecture. She spoke in hushed earnestness about a problem she was having with another seminary student she was dating. She was embarrassed, and seemed to be talking in circles around the question she really wanted to ask.
Knowing that we only had a few minutes before class would resume, I said, “Let me help you out here. I think what you’re trying to ask me is, if a guy takes you out to dinner, do you have to sleep with him?” She nodded and visibly relaxed, but wouldn’t meet my eyes. Suspicions confirmed, I proceeded to tell her as clearly as I could that the answer was no, and that if he didn’t respect the boundaries she set for her own body, she shouldn’t believe the drivel about his only wanting to express his love.
I was hoping that she already knew these things, and just needed confirmation. But the fact that she needed to ask in the first place was troubling. And the fact that she was asking about her relationship to someone who was supposed to be her brother in Christ, someone training for the ministry? Doubly so.
Part of me wishes I could say that seminary is a refuge from the world: that students could date their peers without worrying about predatory behavior; that cheating would never be an issue; that racism would be unknown–the list goes on. But the other part of me knows it just isn’t true. It’s not true of seminary, and it’s not true of the church.
Nor should we expect it to be, at least not completely. If we learn anything from the letters of Paul, it’s a view of the church that is both brutally realistic and endlessly hopeful at the same time. What else should we expect from a gathering of justified sinners? Sometimes we get things gloriously right: we think and behave like the sanctified and Spirit-filled people whom God intends us to be. And sometimes we get it wrong. We abuse and mistreat and take advantage of one another.
I’ve come to think that the true character of a congregation is demonstrated best by how we respond when we get it wrong.
An observation: it’s easier for the church to be a supportive family when the crisis has to do with things like death and illness. These arouse our pity, and we reach out in sympathy, sometimes sacrificially so. These are the times when suffering individuals praise God for the wonder of the local church.
But it’s much, much harder to be consistently compassionate when the crisis is one that embarrasses us, as when one member misbehaves toward another. The situation makes us anxious, precisely to the extent that our sense of fellowship hangs on the principle of Christian niceness: we acknowledge sin in principle, but treat it as a purely private matter as we polish our public image. We’re nice Christian people. We just don’t do that kind of thing.
So how do we respond when a young Christian woman says that one of the brothers has crossed the line with her? To their credit, this church dealt with the man directly. But then what? What if she’s still feeling traumatized? Even worse: what if our impatient refusal to listen is what’s keeping the trauma alive?
Here’s a concrete question: if the man seems to have repented, is the next step to insist that she forgive him?
I hope it’s clear from previous posts (e.g. last month’s “Peter’s question”) that I believe that Jesus calls us to radical forgiveness, based on a deep understanding of the correspondingly radical mercy we have already received from God. But how do we go about giving that counsel? Do we assume that forgiveness is simply a one-time thing, such that all we have to do is exercise a bit of willpower in the direction of obedience and everything’s taken care of?
We probably know stories of impossible mercy, where someone who has been unspeakably injured by another is able to forgive that person through the power of the Holy Spirit. Such stories are to be celebrated; they give us a real-world anchor to the hope of resurrection. What we don’t hear as often is that the very same people may forgive today and relive the traumatic emotions all over again tomorrow. Are we willing to help them through the process of forgiveness, or will we insist that once the words have been said, there’s no work left to do?
The reality is that sometimes our own anxiety and embarrassment make it harder for us to be patient. We want the situation to be fixed, now, so that we can go back to making nice. If people show that they’re still struggling with forgiveness, we may listen for a while, but the attitude quickly becomes, “Are you still wrestling with this? What’s the matter with you? Why won’t you just do what I say? Why can’t you just let it go so we can all be done with this?”
The irony is that we shove people into forgiveness in ways that are themselves unforgiving. That’s not only unhelpful, it’s unloving. In that context, a person quickly learns that the church is not a safe place to be. Either they have to put a good face on their suffering, forever after pretending to be someone they’re not, or leave. And we who are left behind may never realize our own part in that tragic scenario.
It’s been said that the Christian church is the only army that shoots its wounded. God help us. Because we never know who will be the next one shot.