They Tie Up Heavy Burdens: When Forgiveness Becomes the Religious Rule of Men

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“But there is all the difference in the world between forgiving and excusing”.   CS Lewis, Essay on Forgiveness 1960

Forgiveness – from almost the first moments of his ministry – was at the heart of what Jesus did and said: the forgiveness that he spoke of and practised was profound: indeed it was so revolutionary, so alarming that disciples, followers and nay-sayers alike wrestled with it, poking and prodding at it with a mixture of horror, suspicion and wonder.  For it was not just the rampant forgiveness of others which so awed those around him: Jesus actively sought – and seeks – the same generosity of forgiveness from those who follow him.

The potency of the forgiveness Jesus gave was not just in what he forgave, but to whom he gave that forgiveness. Jesus certainly forgave the system which crucified him: but it was in the forgiving of the sick, the women, the despised and the rejected that the dangerous power of God’s forgiveness challenged mans rule over others. The paralysed walked, criminals were welcomed in to Gods kingdom, women – used and despised by men – were honoured. 

The religious rules made by men to protect themselves, and which made the mad, the bad, the crippled and  women ‘unsuitable’ for consideration of humanity and compassion, were held up to the light and found wanting. These were rules impossible to live by if you were poor, or sick, or not a man. The rich and joyful forgiveness of God, through Jesus, did not just wipe clean the hearts of those forgiven: it challenged societies attitudes. The gates of the kingdom, once denied to those most in need by the rule of men, were thrown open by God.  

These were rules which cared nothing for justice, mercy and faith and the same righteous anger which had swept the money lenders from the temple rose to greet the makers of men’s rule:

“Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat;  therefore, do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach.  They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them.

But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you lock people out of the kingdom of heaven. For you do not go in yourselves, and when others are going in, you stop them. Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you cross sea and land to make a single convert, and you make the new convert twice as much a child of hell as yourselves…”  Matthew 23: 1-4 & 13-15

Fast forward a couple of thousand years: Christians have apparently embraced forgiveness, seemingly willing to forgive with the same generosity of spirit that Christ called us to. But man’s penchant for the laws and rules that make him comfortable has not been eradicated, and nowhere is this more obvious than in how Christian Churches respond to abuse and rape.  Here we see that the abusers are ‘forgiven’ – or rather excused – and those who are the powerless and the victims are treated as though they have done something for which they should be forgiven, but they are not, and for them there is no love, and not even meagre crumbs of pity from the table.

To be abused is to endure physical, emotional, psychic and spiritual invasion. To recover and find some healing following such trauma can take a lifetime. Those coping with that process should be able to find a lifetime of love and patience from those who claim to be followers of Christ, for Jesus had that to give.  Instead, even if they are believed, victims find instead that their trauma is dismissed, or they are blamed and shamed, despised and ridiculed. The world is already awash with lack of understanding and victim blaming, but there is no safe haven in the body of Christ, for victims are not only met with the same attitude in the church but are then faced with still greater load, for they are told that they must forgive their invaders, their rapists and abusers, in the name of being a ‘proper’ Christian. And if they don’t forgive, then they are guilty – of bitterness, of resentfulness, of lack of faith, of wanting vengeance. Forgiveness has become a rule, a law to be followed, in order to access the gates of the kingdom of Heaven: victims must bow to the rule of man (including their abusers) before they can reach God.

They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them.

Those who say that abusers ‘made a mistake’ are unwilling or unable to confront the reality of the great harm, the terrible sin, that the abusers are guilty of. And whether it is their discomfort or ignorance, or their desire to remain in control, they have twisted forgiveness into a rule which must be obeyed. They desire compliance to their way of life before the call of Christ or the cries of the victims.

It is time to end the warped teaching of forgiveness in its current form, twisted as it has become under the patriarchal church.  We can no longer allow to be used to keep the powerful comfortable and the abusers excused. It is time to reclaim it, be willing to be challenged again by God and dig more deeply than we have ever done before, and find this beautiful and precious wonder that is true forgiveness.

We must acknowledge that abusers are making a choice when they abuse, and that only they are responsible for the choices they make – and we must learn to stop making excuses for them. They can help it, and there is no stress, or worry, or addiction or depression that can excuse their dreadful choices.  We must acknowledge that their victims deserve belief, and love and care for the rest of their lives, and that their safety must be our priority. We must be willing to be uncomfortable, disturbed, and as righteously angry as God about terrible harm and damage that abuse does.  We must desire to hear the screams of anguish and agony and learn that it is not a lack of faith, or a desire to hold on to that which hurts, which causes those tears to fall weeks, or months, or years later. We must learn all this – and yet more.

And then maybe, maybe, we will start to learn what forgiveness truly is.

Between A Rock and a Hard Place 2: The Gendered Language of God – Speaking Into The Silenced Pain

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“Or what woman having ten silver coins, is she loses one of them, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it? When she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors saying, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.’ Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.” Luke 15: 8-10

God as Mother: She is revealed as such throughout both the Old and New Testament – Her Mother’s love is nurturing and guiding and She is tender in her ministrations as She feeds and comforts Her children. But Her love is not quiet or submissive; indeed it is a love that is roused to ferocious anger in defence of her children, and is as powerfully protective as Mother as it is as Father.

God is She and She is mighty, and she has laboured mightily indeed.

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So often, the mark of the abused is silence – silenced imposed, by the abuser; by a society structured to support the abuser, and by the secretive manner in which abuse is perpetrated. Silence is also internalized: when the abuser is the one with the power, the hope of being heard – of being believed – is as fragile as flame in the path of a tornado, and it is easy for the abuser to manipulate that.

Society enables those who abuse, not simply in upholding the patriarchal, colonial, binary structures which controls human beings and denies them autonomy and voice if they do not conform to the norms imposed. There is a powerful undercurrent of arrogance too: we mock cultures and religions that demand of victims that they produce witnesses to their abuse, because we know very well that it is the secret nature of abuse which protects the perpetrators – yet we too quickly dismiss those who speak up, claiming the word of the victim is not evidence enough.

We paint a picture of abusers as cartoon-like monsters, unable (or unwilling) to comprehend that they are ordinary people living otherwise ordinary lives: when these ordinary people are revealed, rationalisations and justifications then abound. Cloak upon cloak is layered over the abuser, silence upon silence is heaped upon the abused. The innocent become the accused, and myth takes the place of truth.

The Church, with its dominant structural patriarchy and language, repeatedly makes the same mistakes: the focus on the abuser and the lazy theologies fall prey to ‘we are all sinners’, giving rise to a culture that blames the victims because the abuser ‘couldn’t control’ themselves; over and over again, the abuse is minimised (or worse, swept under the carpet) as reputations are prioritised before the victims.

Justice, which should roll down like a river, is stoppered at its source, and the communities of those who are already the most vulnerable and marginalized are silenced by the deafness of those who have not ears to listen; their wounds are left untended and their tears left unheeded.

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Make no mistake – the inability of the Church to confront the systemic culture that leads to this debilitating and ever decreasing spiral will not, in and of itself, be solved simply by confronting the reality that God is revealed as Mother as well as Father. Culture and attitudes do not change over night.

But changing the language we use – the language of prayer, the liturgical language that dominates the rhythms of the daily life of the Church – will help to create a space in which both the silenced can speak and be heard, and the reflection and prayer can start to move and evolve thoughts and – by consequence – actions.

The voices of straight white men dominate in the Church – a Church which fails to recognise abuse, fails to stop it, fails to protect the abused – but succeeds in protecting the abuser.  But God is not only a straight white man.

God is the terrified child being abused, whose abuse is photographed for the gratification of others; God is the black transgender woman who was murdered for being black and transgender; God is the woman who shakes when you touch her, because her husband or father beat her all the time; God is that gender fluid, bi-sexual person who asks you to respect their pronouns, and are weary to the bone of the endless mocking they get for being themselves. God is the girl with the ‘troubled’ past who wasn’t believed when she said that ‘nice’ man was abusing her, whose past was measured against that ‘nice’ man and found her wanting.

We need a church where a victim can speak up and the church will say ‘I believe you’. We need a faith to which creates a space that will provide the abused and oppressed with the liberation and redemption promised to them. We need a church that remembers that Christ condemned those who abuse children. We need a church that remembers its calling is not to protect the powerful, but the weak.

We need a revolution.

Our Mother in Heaven

Hallowed be your name…..

Between a Rock and a Hard Place Pt 1: The Gendered Language of God and Praying to My Divine Parent For A Church That Puts Victims First

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But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong;  God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are,  so that no one might boast in the presence of God. 1 Corinthians 27-29 (NRSV)

If your understanding of the discussion around the gendered language Christians use about God was based only on what you have read recently in the national media, you would be forgiven for thinking that the use of feminised worship and liturgical language was the concern of a few white middle class cis women. And indeed in the UK, WATCH (Women And The Church) who led the successful campaign for women bishops, is driving much of the current  national conversation. I agree with them: I am, however, frustrated with much of the mainstream church discussion** and media coverage. Whilst the Rev Jody Stowell has at least acknowledged that this is also about race, and has written and spoken about the need for more inclusive church for the LGBTIQ community, there is little acknowledgement about how this conversation matters for women who are black, of colour, transgender, bisexual, lesbian, or intersex people – and no acknowledgement at all about what this would mean for victims of abuse, and the intersections of all these.

This conversation of course did not start when Rachel Held Evans was called ‘heretic’ for referring to God as ‘She’, or with the recent discussion at the Westminster Faith Debates. But this conversation matters, because this is not just about sexism and misogyny in the Church. Its also about homophobia, transphobia, and the systemic sexual, physical, emotional and spiritual abuse and victim blaming which so plagues, the world – and the Church.

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The medium is the message.

When we [Christians] speak about our faith, our message of the liberation, transformation, reconciliation, forgiveness and – above all – the eternal and encompassing love of Christ, we too often fail to think about who and what we are when we speak it.  Christians most normally fall to the arrogance of assuming that our faith provides us with a mantle that erases whiteness, maleness, heterosexuality and gender identity, magically giving us the insight to assume that know and understand what, in fact, we do not. Instead we take passages of scripture (all too often without recognising it’s cultural, historical context) and apply it like a sledgehammer against people and situations.

The overt use of masculine, white, language and imagery when speaking of God to people who find themselves excluded, rejected, oppressed, unloved, and silenced by white masculine cultural, political (and yes, religious) dogma’s of society distorts the message: and it is not Christ that people hear, but the white masculinity that abuses and oppresses them.

So often I see cis, white hetrosexual men claiming a mantle of ‘counter cultural’ and I wonder at the cognitive dissonance which allows them to believe this. There is nothing ‘counter cultural’ about people who embody the dominant power structures, and speak its language, albeit wrapped up in scripture, God and Jesus. It makes the very liberation promised in the Gospel a tool through which the oppressor maintains its dominance. The Gospel stops being hope, love, faith and restoration – it stops being a language of repentance and reconciliation. Instead it becomes a rigid and unbending ideology, the cage within which people are imprisoned, rather than the key which sets them free.

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Regardless of denomination, the Church is not very good at dealing with the abuse: it is too quick to excuse the abuser, and does not listen to and believe the abused. Instead of being people who ‘come out from among them’ to be separate and truly ‘counter cultural’ – instead of going against what the world does when it excuses the abuser and does not believe the abused – it acts with the world. It replaces the excuses the world gives to the abuser (‘he was jealous’, ‘he was stressed’, ‘he was depressed’) with ‘we are all sinners’: the words are different, but for the victim the impact is the same – the abuser had no control, no responsibility. It couldn’t be helped. Forgive them – everyone deserves a second chance.

For the victim, this attitude is tantamount to the trauma and damage being brushed aside, swept away as though it were just dirt on the floor that simply requires a decent broom for everything to be made clean again, potentially deepening the wounds the inflicted. Instead of offering the love and justice of Christ – who would not break a bruised reed or snuff out a smouldering wick – the church offers instead exactly the same as the world does. Thoughtless indifference at best – cruel disregard at worst.

It is an approach that fails the abused – and an approach that makes the possibility of genuine, radical and effective ministry to the abuser impossible.

In the moment that the abused comes forward, instead of finding the mother bear who will love them and fight ferociously to protect and care for them, they are met instead with the embodiment of the very cause of their trauma – powerful people, protecting the person who had the power to harm them in the first place. Instead of the mother crying with and for her child, the abused are met instead with disbelief, or even shame.

This is what the world does – it excuses the abused and shames the victim. Language alone is not responsible for that – but language matters when the weakest, the most vulnerable, those ‘made low and despised by the world’ are found amongst us, or come to us.  The abused should not hear from us the language of the world which despises them, but the God – the parent who is Mother as well as Father – who will take care of them and make them safe.  And they should hear that because that is what the Spirit of God is: both (and neither) feminine and masculine, not one predominant over the other but the Divine parent, taking the best possible care of the children that are so loved that it would, and did, sacrifice anything for them

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**In various corners of the internet, a deeper conversation can be found about feminine images for God, and the use of feminised language.  Here are two posts by Sarah Moon over at Patheos Blogs, which I really love.