In this post we struggle with images of violence and abuse that become part and parcel of our religious traditions and ponder to what extent our religious traditions offer us an escape from abuse or are in certain respects purveyors of abuse.
So often we associate abuse within our religious traditions with abusive leaders: pedophiliac priests, a rabbinic voyeur shooting videos of women in a ritual bath. It is a fact, I believe, that religious abuse emerges within the context of power and authority built into our religious institutions. For better or worse, however, I believe that abuse is, to some degree, built into our religious traditions inasmuch as these religious traditions themselves evolve within an institutional hierarchy invested with power and authority that must be protected.
I’m currently involved in teaching an online college course on the Book of Jeremiah. This biblical prophet is presented as a total iconoclast. The introduction to his prophetic writings identifies him as a member of a priestly family from the town of Anathoth, a town to which the priest Abiathar had been exiled by King Solomon due to the Abiathar’s support for Solomon’s rival brother Adonijah. In that regard, Jeremiah is probably something of a disgruntled priest. He excoriates the entire state apparatus—the king, the royal officials, the priests, the prophets—for their failures to maintain a proper covenant relationship with God. In fact, Jeremiah, in many respects, reminds me of some of the somewhat deranged street preachers we often see. Some of these street preachers we find preaching against society outside the gates of the White House. Jeremiah’s venue was the entrance to the Temple in Jerusalem.
Jeremiah cuts a very sad figure. He lived through events leading up to and including the Babylonian invasion of the Kingdom of Judah, and the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple. He is convinced that his people have utterly failed in their covenant obligations to God, and understands that the ensuing onslaught of the Babylonians under King Nebuchadnezzar was simply God’s punishment for that failure. At the same time, this dire vision of the future causes Jeremiah great suffering as he contemplates the forthcoming suffering of his people. He even imagines God as suffering—not only suffering the pain of the people’s rejection of God, but empathically suffering their pain, as well. The Book of Jeremiah is one long lamentation of human and divine pain and suffering.
And, as far as we know, Jeremiah was correct. The people did experience the torture of siege, destruction and exile. The Book of Lamentations, generally ascribed to Jeremiah, speaks to the horror of this event. Lamentations is read each year in the synagogue on the ninth day of the Hebrew Month of Av, the day on which, according to the Bible, the Temple in Jerusalem was torched. Who can but shutter at the description of children begging their mothers for food and drink that the siege has blocked? How does one live with the image of women eating the flesh of their dead children in order to survive?
So from this horrendous image, a theology derives, perhaps originally developed by Jeremiah and his prophetic colleagues, that then becomes deeply embedded within Jewish and Christian theology. This horrendous and tragic military debacle occurred not as the natural unfolding of an historic process through which the more powerful Babylonian army subjected a rebellious Kingdom of Judah to its hegemony. No! This happened as an act of an all-powerful deity punishing a rebellious and sinful people. They worshipped foreign gods and substituted empty ritual for their covenant obligation to establish a just and equitable society. Therefore, they needed to be punished. The Babylonians were simply God’s tool for enacting that punishment. It is this prevalent idea of the notion of sin and punishment that is then picked up by Christianity that sees the crucifixion of Christ as the only antidote to this pervasive human sinfulness, insisting that failure to recognize this salvific act subjects the faithless to the tortures of hell.
I remain convinced that this theology was instrumental in the physical and spiritual survival of the Jewish people following the exile. Yes, they were given permission to return to their homeland in short order by King Cyrus of Persia following his conquest of the Babylonians. Yet, some sense had to be made of what might have been construed as God’s abandonment of the covenant people, or worse, the utter defeat of the God of Israel as symbolized by God’s destroyed Temple. This could not be! The God of Israel could not be defeated, nor would God totally abandon the covenant community. It had to be our fault.
At the same time it pains me to say that I would call this theology abusive, and the image of God that it perpetuates is an image of an abusive God. It strikes me as the divine equivalent of an abusive father who confines his child to a locked closet as punishment for disobedience. Moreover, I’m not completely convinced that these people were all that bad, and certainly not all of them were sinful and rebellious. I am convinced, for instance, that the idolatry charged against the people was more a kind of popular syncretism—an assimilation of various local religious customs into the worshipping community—than a display of sinful rebelliousness. Frankly, I’m not convinced that Jeremiah’s theology is not itself a projection of the power and authority of the religious elites connected with the palace and the Temple in Jerusalem, despite Jeremiah’s indictment of these elites. And as for the lack of equity and social justice, just about everything Jeremiah says in this regard can be charged to our own “exceptional” nation.
So how do we overcome this image of God as abusive father? I think we get there through the concepts of teshuvah, “return,” and selihah, “forgiveness.” But that’s for a separated blog post.
One of the most striking (and I would add disturbing) symbols an individual sees when walking into a Roman Catholic Church is usually the large cross, often with a very gruesome-looking corpus. This representation of the Crucified Christ, I think, is supposed to be a symbol of hope. I often look at the crucifix and can only see the criminal act of the Roman Empire that dealt out an unjust action of capital punishment, an action of severe abuse. Even today many Americans continue to support capital punishment for crimes, and I am always taken aback by the Catholics that support this action.
For me, the hope is in the resurrection and not so much in the action of abuse as seen in the crucifixion. I realize that the path to the resurrection is through the entire passion of death, the three days of waiting, and the resurrection. Often it is our story, when an individual can die or let go then we can make it through what feels like a death and find new hope or new life. Jesus said to his Apostles before his ascension into heaven, “If I do not go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you.” (John 16:7) The death of Christ results in the gifts and fruits of the Holy Spirit, the Advocate.
I am also sensitive and aware to the ongoing issues of sexual abuse that have arisen over the years within our Catholic Church. I am opposed to call it simply a scandal as it is full-fledged abuse. For me, if there is any scandal it is in the lack of acknowledgment and subsequent protection of the abusers by those in positions of authority. The current structures simply insulate and continue the abusive cycles that need to be corrected. It is this belief that causes me a good deal of stress in reflecting on this topic.
As a spiritual director, I suggest to those who come for direction that they need to go to the place where they are uncomfortable for growth. I will try to do no less. As a Franciscan, I will begin where I am comfortable—the action of a loving creator who became one of us, in short, the incarnation. Our human condition has a sacredness attached simply by the mere act of the divine choosing to enter into our human existence. In the words of Sister Ilia Delio, on page 90 of The Emergent Christ, “Christianity has focused so intently on sin and salvation that it lost sight of Christ as the new creation emerging from within.”
Unfortunately, in our human condition we are also prone to sin. Sin as defined in our catechism (392) is “Sins are deliberate thoughts, words, actions or omissions that turn us away from God and the loving plan for us. Sins are harmful to us personally and they also injure our relationship with others”… that which does us or others harm. The Catholic Church is filled with sin. Abuse of any kind is an act of sin.
As a religious woman I am often asked how I can remain in a church that has committed such acts of abuse and sin. It is a question I have often asked myself and wondered if and how I have also contributed to the systemic abuse I have both witnessed and experienced on occasion. My response is that although individuals within the structure have committed the abuse and although I do see that the structure itself continues to foster an environment that facilitates abuse, I simply don’t see anything else available structurally that offers anything better at this time. I can even say that about my own religious congregation. BUT what I do believe is that the best change I can offer is to help from inside the system, that is, as long as I am not being harmed and I am trying not to harm another. Change has to occur from being within it, and at times being “the thorn in the side.”
When I was young, I experienced an extremely abusive situation. After abuse from a family member, a gun was held to my head by this individual. I remember believing in that moment that I was going to die. I had detached for years from the memory, but with professional help and loving friends, I emerged. With help, I came to remember the entire event. Only now I remember being comforted, held, and surrounded after the experience by whom or what I would now call, a very loving presence. Eventually my fear dissipated, and gratefully, I emerged alive. The individual broke down, and put the gun away.
I return often to that moment, and at times still break down myself. It is both a deep scar and a place of fear. When I have the courage, and the comfort, I can go to that place of woundedness, and allow or encounter the loving presence that helps me walk in healing and to emerge as a new being. I can identify with my Lord as a crucified Christ, but what I most desire and work to experience over and over again in the resurrection is to become renewed, or a new being. The hope offered is in the rising, the beginning again, and God loving me into a new self. This human journey is our journey. We each walk wounded. How we move into resurrection is with the companionship offered to us by a loving God. It is our choice to accept that companionship or to ignore it.
It is the whole experience. And what is often lost is the belief in the NEW HOPE, moving forward, and emerging as a changed being. Often the Church as a whole gets focused on the past, on the crucified Christ, not on what Christ’s death leads one to. The entire process leads to the resurrection and a new way of being. As Ilia say on page 91, “To enter NEW BEING we must be grasped by it. It is an openness to grace or rather being poised for grace.” And “[resurrection] is the first mark of the new reality because the evolutionary world longs for wholeness… The cosmos draws its breath from the hope of [the resurrection].”
I desire to live my life as a woman of hope and place my trust and belief in the resurrection.
Sr. Sharon’s Response to Richard
The image of the abusive Father is pervasive and continues to be implemented within the institutional religion, as is the child who needs to be disciplined. Both of these images embrace the system of control and authority that Richard speaks about within his reflection. These systems keep the masses in line and also ripe for abuse.
Throughout my years, I have often had Spiritual directors send me to the reflection of Jeremiah, and his suffering and trials. The connection to a God of truth and knowledge continues to lead Jeremiah in a direction to speak his understandings. If we grow in and through our experiences, then we can no longer be controlled or kept in line with the legal and rigid edits of any institution. The systems then become more rigid and righteous, just look at some of the mandates coming forth in some of the Catholic Diocese’s and their Bishops.
I once was attending a mass in New Jersey, and the Priest, right before the distribution of communion stated to all there, “If you do not support the ‘Right to Life’ you are not allowed to receive communion.” Personally, I haven’t met any individual who does NOT support anyone’s right to life, but what was more disturbing was there were flyers then being distributed on the way out of the mass with the names of the politicians who vote “Right to Life.” The mass became a platform for a political agenda. I am an individual who supports LIFE, but how I vote is a choice given to me as an American, and at times as Catholics, there is an effort to be controlled and “told” how to vote from the pulpit, and from some Bishops. I believe I am not alone in this feeling. In short, this action is an abuse of power. This example is a hot topic that causes division and is used for judgement.
The deeper questions, I think, that need to be asked are, “how do you support life with those you encounter?” “How do you reach out to those who are pregnant and without support systems? What do you support with your time and your talents?” These are some questions that help an individual go deeper and evaluate what supporting life is about.
Maybe we can take heed of the words of Jeremiah this day (31:32-4) “…this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord. I will place my law within them and write it upon their hearts; I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No longer will they have need to teach their friends and relatives how to know the Lord. All, from the least to the greatest, shall know me, says the Lord, for I will forgive their evildoing and remember their sin no more.”
I agree with Richard, I too “am not convinced that Jeremiah’s theology is not itself a projection of the power and authority of the religious elites connected with the palace and the Temple in Jerusalem, despite Jeremiah’s indictment of these elites,” But rather, “for the lack of equity and social justice.” Our church can grow and change and has done so over time, if it can hear the prophets of the time, and remember the law of our God is written within our hearts.
“So how do we overcome this image of God as abusive father? Richard says he thinks” we get there through the concepts of teshuvah, “return,” and selihah, “forgiveness.” I agree, through forgiveness and reconciliation, and in this journey we call lent. It ought to lead us, as an individual and a church, to Easter and the resurrection. I continue to hope and pray.
Richard’s Response to Sister Sharon
I am totally with both Sister Ilia Delio, who insists that “Christianity has focused so intently on sin and salvation that it lost sight of Christ as the new creation emerging from within,” and with Sister Sharon, who has insisted to me repeatedly that her Christian vision focuses on incarnation and resurrection. I completely identify with the divine within, which is itself a feature of God’s grace. The Book of Genesis teaches me that God took a lump of earth, breathed into it the breath of life, and the lump of earth became a living being (Genesis 2:7). That means to me that, in a certain respect, I am an incarnation, an embodiment of the divine. It also teaches me that my life force, which is God’s breath, is eternal and contains infinite opportunities for self-realization—resurrection, if you will—despite all of the barriers that stand in the way of that.
The biggest question for me remains the role of suffering, death, bondage, siege, passion, crucifixion in this scheme. Sister Sharon and I addressed this question in our posting about suffering. I wrote that I basically reject the redemptive role of suffering. Yes, I can see where we might be able to justify suffering in light of some subsequent redemption. We might be able to glory in the redemptive birth of the State of Israel following the horrors of the Holocaust, but was the Holocaust itself redemptive? I cannot accept that.
I can identify with Sister Sharon’s insight that suffering humbles us; that it allows us to empathize with the suffering of others. In another two weeks, Jews will begin their Passover seders with the declaration of the ha laḥma: “This is the bread of affliction, which our ancestors ate in the land of Egypt. Let all who are hungry come and eat.” Out affliction allows us to see the affliction of others.
But I still cannot accept that suffering is a necessary condition of redemption, and most importantly, I cannot accept the notion that overcoming sin—“the deliberate thoughts, words, actions or omissions that turn us away from God and the loving plan for us”—must be expiated through punishment or death. That’s what I find abusive in all of this. Did the Israelites have to suffer the torture of bondage in order to become partners in God’s covenant? Did Christ have to suffer and die in order to bring us a vision of the eternal divine within each of us? If sin is what turns us away from God, I would continue to insist that a punishing God is a God that turns away from us. The concept of sin and punishment is the abusive sin of an imagined, doctrinal portrait of God.
My wife and I just celebrated our 38th wedding anniversary. It’s not always easy. We are known to do things to each other that are hurtful, that turn us away from each other. We may be angry, and that anger may last for several hours, or maybe a whole day. But I could never imagine myself thinking to overcome that hurt and that alienation by punishing her, by physically harming her, the way Christ was abused by the Romans; the way the Jewish people were abused by the Babylonians. No, in fact the anger and disappointment always ends with some gift, some act of love, some act of grace. That is God’s gift, God’s love, God’s grace within us and available to us. The vision of a punishing God is a false vision of an abusive God—a God that simply does not exist.